Wednesday, July 30, 2008

"The Jetpack: From Comics to a Liftoff in the Yard"

From The New York Times
Published: July 29, 2008

OSHKOSH, Wis. — To rise off the ground wearing a jetpack is to feel the force of dreams. Very, very noisy dreams.

On Tuesday, an inventor from New Zealand unveiled what he calls “the world’s first practical jetpack” at the EAA AirVenture, the gigantic annual air show here. The inventor, Glenn Martin, 48, who has spent 27 years developing the devices, said he hoped to begin selling them next year for $100,000 apiece.

“There is nothing that even comes close to the dream that the jetpack allows you to achieve,” said Robert J. Thompson, the director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. He called it “about the coolest desire left to mankind.”

For Mr. Martin, the jetpack is the culmination of a dream that began as a 5-year-old in Dunedin, New Zealand. For those who still remember childhood dreams of flying and comic-book visions of the 21st century, the jetpack suggests the possible fulfillment of the yearning for those long-promised gifts of technology.

Buck Rogers and James Bond used jetpacks, and since the 1960s, several real jetpack designs have been built from metal, plastic and propellant. None has flown more than a minute. Mr. Martin’s machines can run for 30 minutes.

At first sight, parked in the back of the U-Haul van Mr. Martin used to cart it to the air show, it did not look like the classic jetpacks of science fiction. It stands about five feet tall and its rotors are encased in two large ducts that look a bit like cupcakes. It rests on three legs. Mr. Martin has somehow made the future look both sleek and nerdy.

“If someone says, ‘I’m not going to buy a jetpack until it’s the size of my high school backpack and has a turbine engine in it,’ that’s fine,” he said. “ But they’re not going to be flying a jetpack in their lifetime.”

It is also not, to put it bluntly, a jet. “If you’re very pedantic,” Mr. Martin acknowledged, a gasoline-powered piston engine runs the large rotors. Jet Skis, he pointed out, are not jets, and the atmospheric jet stream is not created by engines. “This thing flies on a jet of air,” he said. Or, more simply, it flies.

On a couple of test runs in the yard of a home here belonging to a friend of Mr. Martin, the jetpack jumped off the ground as if impatient to get moving, scattering a cloud of dirt and grass clippings.

With the startling power of its twin rotors and its 200-horsepower engine behind my shoulder blades screaming like an army of leaf blowers, it felt almost as if I were doing the lifting myself, with muscles I did not know I had. It felt like living in the future — and, even better, the future we imagined back when it was something to be hoped for rather than feared.

Pressing the left-hand stick forward caused the device to pitch forward slightly, and the jetpack began advancing, a few feet above the lawn. Mr. Martin and a colleague steadied it by grasping hand rails and trotting alongside, like parents teaching a child to ride a bicycle without training wheels.

Then, coming around a curve, Mr. Martin jogged to the right to avoid some equipment on the ground, bringing the jetpack too close to an overhanging tree. The limb was sucked into the rotors with a brief but sickening sound, like a blender trying to make a margarita with twigs. Luckily, he had spare parts and access to a workshop to replace a chipped rotor.

Mr. Martin started trying to make his jetpack dreams come true in college. While he was studying biochemistry, he was also working on painstaking calculations of thrust in the library and researching the Wright brothers’ methodical approach to technology development. He later had jobs in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, but much of the money went to the work going on in his garage. He built a network of enthusiasts who helped him develop his ideas.

In June 1997, seven weeks after the birth of his second child, Mr. Martin figured his prototype was now powerful enough to lift its first flier, so long as that person weighed less than 130 pounds. So he turned to his wife. “I said, ‘Hey, Vanessa, what are you doing tonight?’ ”

Mrs. Martin agreed to be her husband’s levitating guinea pig. Mr. Martin yoked the unit to a pole in the garage so it would lift her without moving around, put a kind of brake at the top of the pole in case the engine was stronger than he thought, and strapped her in.

She admits now that, deep down, she was not sure she would take off. At the same time, she was “very scared” of the device she calls “the beast.”

The engine fired up, sounding angry, she said, and the air started blasting around her. “There’s a moment when it will just bite,” she said, and seem to grab the air and go. “That was it,” she said. “I was totally addicted.”

She said she felt, in a way, that she had conquered it — “the taming of it, that’s so exciting.” It was, she said, “probably the best experience of my life.”

To prove that anyone could learn to use a later prototype, Mr. Martin also enlisted his son Harrison, then 15, as a test pilot. Too young to drive, he learned to fly. The family’s need for secrecy until the project could be patented and properly announced meant that Harrison could not tell his friends about it.

“I can’t think of a better secret,” he said, but added that it was not a hard one to keep. “Basically, for my whole life I’ve had a jetpack in the garage,” said Harrison, now 16, with a shrug, “so it’s just one of those things you don’t talk about.”

With a working engine and video in hand, Mr. Martin was able to start raising enough money to quit his day job and devote himself to jetpack development full time. Before long he had venture capital financing and a PowerPoint presentation.

The current iteration of the product, the 11th, weighs about 250 pounds and provides 600 pounds of thrust. It includes safety features like a so-called ballistic parachute with a small explosive charge for rapid deployment in case of an emergency, like those used in some small airplanes.

The pedestal that forms the main support for the device has a shock absorber like a pogo stick to soften landings. The weight of the engines and body of the flier sits lower than the rotors to create a pendulum effect that discourages the contraption from tipping upside down and creating what might be called the lawn dart effect.

“People come up and go, ‘Is it safe?’ ” Mr. Martin said. “Safety is a relative thing. We think we have done a lot to make this by far the safest jetpack ever built.” But, he acknowledged, “It’s not a high bar.”

He added, “I’ve got to get my head around the fact that at some point, somebody is going to have a very bad experience.”

So far, he said, he and his team of developers have not taken the device higher than six feet. “We set that very deliberately,” he said, to ensure that they fully understand controlling the invention before taking it to more dangerous altitudes. “If you can fly it at 3 feet, you can fly it at 3,000,” he said.

Only 12 people have flown the jetpack, and no one has gained more than three hours of experience in the air. Mr. Martin plans to take it up to 500 feet within six months. This time, he said with a smile, he will be the first.

Mr. Martin said he had no idea how his invention might ultimately be used, but he is not a man of small hopes. He repeated the story of Benjamin Franklin, on first seeing a hot-air balloon, being asked, “What good is it?” He answered, “What good is a newborn baby?”

At the demonstration on Tuesday, a large crowd formed and watched as Harrison took the device a few feet off the ground, barely visible over the heads of the spectators.

"That's a little anticlimactic," said Bob Oliver, a retired airline pilot from Alamo, Calif. But Joseph Tevaarwerk, who helped develop the craft's engine, noted that the world's first airplane flight was only about 12 seconds long. And he added "would you have wanted to be there when the Wright brothers launched?"

Climate change

I spent some time over a weekend skimming Climate Change and the Global Harvest as part of my ongoing reading project on climate change.

I call it skimming because I have neither the time nor the inclination to delve too deeply into the subject; I read enough technical papers and reports in the course of my day job. Just the broad brushstrokes on climate change will do, I don’t need to understand all the nuances.

So why am I reading climate change research in my spare time? Sounds dull. I could be doing more fun things like shopping, trying out new restaurants, or bar-hopping and club-crawling.

Because climate change and sustainability will be the two greatest challenges facing the human race in this century, and like it or not, everyone on this planet is going to be affected to some extent (probably negatively). Some more than others.

Knowing and understanding more about climate change will allow one to make better, more informed decisions, or to guard against its harsher effects. One of the more unfortunate ironies about climate change is that the countries most responsible for it are the rich industrialized nations, while the ones likely to suffer disproportionately more from climate change are the poorer ones who are least responsible. More strikingly, there has been more research and research funding to study the effects and impacts of climate change on rich industrialized nations than on poor countries, poor countries who ironically most need that research.

Singapore happens to fall into Southeast Asia, a region likely to suffer disproportionately from climate change. And yet we know so little about the possible impacts of climate change on our island. For example, doesn’t anyone worry about rising sea levels on this little island of ours? You should, if you’re paying through the nose for an apartment and like many Singaporeans, you’re asset-rich and cash-poor. The last thing you need is a collapse of property prices just when you’re ready to retire.

And mark my words, a country won’t need to experience the deleterious physical effects of climate change to actually suffer from climate change. All that’s needed is a change in perceptions of risk. If a place is deemed at risk from climate change, and there will be a reckoning of such risk in business decisions in the future, foreign direct investment will dry up, property prices will plummet, and the domestic currency will falter.

Our government has commissioned a study on the impact of climate change here in Singapore, but I think I will still do a little reading of my own. Like any government commissioned study, sometimes political considerations and agendas cloud the picture of what is truly being presented. Spin is always something I can do without.

It is a mistake to ignore or dismiss climate change. It is also a mistake to think that nothing can be done about it and that we’re all doomed. Nonetheless, judging by how poorly the world has responded to climate change so far, how global sustainability conflicts with global consumption, and how affluence and consumerism is rising in China and India, I’m veering towards being pessimistic. And that is precisely why I am reading more to find out what are the important things I need to know.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Running routes: Southern Ridges

I wrote a previous post on my initial impressions on running the Southern Ridges.
This is the formal write-up on the running route.

The route starts at the end of Science Park Drive, just beside the Rutherford at Science Park I.

Take the path down to the rear of Normanton Park estate, and enter Kent Ridge Park near the pond.

Run straight in the park, and take the first turn on the left. Follow the path at it slopes up. Eventually, you will arrive at a signpost. Take the steps up to the look-out point.

The steps do not take you directly up to the look-out point, but instead onto Vigilante Drive. Turn left on Vigilante Drive, and run westwards. You should be able to see the Pasir Panjang wharves on your right.

Take the left fork when you meet a junction while running on Vigilante Drive. Follow the path as it slopes downwards. You will reach a path into the woods.

Take the path into the woods until you see a signpost pointing the way to the canopy walk. Here, you have a choice. You can either run straight ahead, taking the steps down to Hortpark. Or you can take a detour onto the canopy walk.

Assuming you take the canopy walk, you should see the nurseries of Hortpark, and the winding path you will eventually take later.

When you exit the canopy walk from its western exit, Reflections at Bukit Chandu should be directly in front of you. Turn right, and you will notice a sign pointing the way to Hortpark. Do NOT turn left as that will take you to Pepys Road and you will leave the Southern Ridges.

Follow the way down to the winding path you saw just now. Along the way, there's a good example of a tree overtaken by a strangler fig.

Keep going until you reach Hortpark proper.

Your goal is to reach the western exit of Hortpark, and you can do so anyway you wish. Run either on the main road past the exhibits in Hortpark, or run on the edge of Hortpark along Canterbury Road and the big old black-and-white bungalows.

Once you exit Hortpark, you will reach Alexandra Bridge.

Get onto the bridge. From here, the way is straightforward along the metal walkway, so I won’t supply instructions. A few things to note:

A durian tree near Alexandra Bridge is a favorite sight among visitors. It’s surprising how many people haven’t seen a real durian tree before.

What looks like an amazing apartment building is visible at one point along the walkway. I wonder how the view is like from the penthouses at the apex of the arch.

The earth trail wends its way beneath the walkway. It is possible to run along the earth trail, although probably not very easy to do so. The trail is steep, and not especially well maintained, and you will probably be gawked at from above. Nobody takes the earth trail though, so you will have lots of space.

Following the metal walkway will bring you to the shoulder of Mount Faber, where you can follow signs pointing the way along Telok Blangah Green to Henderson Waves. Henderson Waves is possibly the most popular place among Singaporeans. Some people have their picnics here.

After Henderson Waves, you will reach Mount Faber Loop. Follow the road upwards, towards the summit of Mount Faber. Eventually, you will reach a small café, and you will see the hordes of tourists that have been bused up to Faber Point for the views.

Take a look at the views from Faber Point and see if you’d like to check it out yourself.

Continue along Mount Faber loop westwards past the Jewel Box and the cable car station.

You will soon reach the Marang Trail. Take the Marang Trail and exit near Harbourfront MRT Station.


The total distance is approximately 9 km.

The route is not easy; rolling hills probably describes it best. You will spend a lot of time climbing up and down slopes.

The steep sections are climbing up to Vigilante Drive from Kent Ridge Park, the earth trail as it goes up to the shoulder of Mount Faber, Mount Faber Loop up to Faber Point, and the Marang Trail if you are ascending Mount Faber from Harbourfront MRT station. The Marang Trail is the real killer: it’s essentially one long staircase truncated at a few points.

Lots of people walk the Southern Ridges between Alexandra Arch and Henderson Waves during the day. Plan your run at quieter times early in the morning if you’re going to use this route. As a consideration to pedestrians, I can’t really say I would recommend this route to runners as it is just too crowded with people, especially on weekends.

Points of road entry and exit along the Southern Ridges are at Science Park I, Vigilante Drive, Alexandra Road, Preston Road, Telok Blangah Green, Mount Faber Loop and Marang Road.

There is one entry point I have not been able to confirm: it’s a staircase at one point along Mount Faber Loop between Faber Point and Henderson Waves. I’ve never taken it, but I believe that it leads to Telok Blangah Way.

Friday, July 25, 2008

"Another Meeting? Say It Isn't So"

From The New York Times
Another Meeting? Say It Isn’t So
Published: July 20, 2008

Q. You’re expected to attend many meetings at your company, and most of them are a big waste of time. The same people hog the floor with pointless, redundant comments, while others say nothing. The discussion inevitably goes off topic, and you start to feel trapped. It’s excruciating. Can anything be done?
Chris Reed

A. Yes, if the meeting leaders make a commitment to set ground rules and take an active role in guiding the discussion. But before a meeting is even scheduled, it’s important to know whether it should be held at all.

In general, companies probably hold about twice as many meetings as are necessary, said John E. Tropman, a professor of nonprofit management at the University of Michigan who has done research on meetings. Less is better than more, because of “the ineptitude of this social form,” he said.

Too often, managers hold meetings in the vague, wishful hope that something will happen; they may even use them as a way to avoid work, he said. A result is a meeting that yields no decisions — which, in turn, leads to yet another useless meeting.

Q. How can a manager tell if a meeting is necessary?

A. Hold a meeting “when you have a task that requires group effort,” said Steve Kaye, president of One Great Meeting in Placentia, Calif. Make sure you can write out specific goals or outcomes for your meeting — for example, “Find ways to reduce the budget by 5 percent,” he said.

Q. Once you’ve decided that a meeting is necessary, how can you make sure it is successful?

Two main ingredients are needed, Mr. Kaye said. First, the leader needs to cultivate “a safe environment, so that people feel creative and candid enough to express useful ideas.” Second, there must be methodical progress that leads to results.

Set an agenda with time limits (for example, 2:10 to 2:15 ) for each item, and make sure to follow it, Professor Tropman said.

He developed a concept known as the “agenda bell,” a curve that reflects the idea that energy is lower at the beginning of the meeting, rises at the center and declines at the end. The best meetings, he has found, tend to have announcements at the beginning, followed by action items that lead to decisions.

But even though decisions are the goal, they can disrupt group cohesion because they tend to produce winners and losers. That’s why the end of the meeting should be spent brainstorming for the future, as a way to repair any rifts that have developed in the group, he said.

Q. One or two blatherers always end up monopolizing the discussion at meetings, and running everything off the rails. How do you get them to stop?

A. Monopolizers need to be reined in because they rarely have the self-awareness to stop talking themselves, said Glenn Parker, a team-building consultant in Skillman, N.J., and co-author of “Meeting Excellence.”

It’s O.K. to interrupt a monopolizer, Mr. Parker said. But be polite about it, perhaps by validating what the person has said. You might say something like this: “I think you’re making a good point. Let’s see how the rest of the team feels about that.”

Then turn away from the talker, preferably to another part of the room, and ask someone else his or her opinion on the topic.

Similarly, he said, if a monopolizer or anyone else goes off on a tangent, you can say something like: “I may be wrong here, but I thought we were supposed to be dealing with customer complaints. If you all agree, let’s get back to the agenda.”

Q. Then there are people who never say anything. Why don’t they participate?

“The tendency of people to withhold work-relevant information is probably greater than you think,” said Amy C. Edmondson, Novartis professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School.

People stay silent to avoid conflict and to protect their careers, she said. They fear the consequences if someone with more power — like a manager leading a meeting — hates their ideas. Nonparticipants overestimate the risk and underestimate the reward of expressing themselves, she said.

Q. What can a person do to make sure everyone participates?

The meeting leader must communicate a sense of “psychological safety,” Professor Edmondson said. At the same time, there are ways to lower the psychological cost of speaking up and to raise the cost of silence.

Asking questions can be a way to accomplish that — and it is not done often enough, she said. Research has shown that in corporate meetings, “a very low number of utterances are questions — people are mostly telling and not asking.”

Doing something as simple as turning to a nonparticipant and saying, “What’s on your mind?” can help redress the communication imbalance, she said.

Q. How can you tell if a meeting has been effective?

A. For one thing, it ends on time or even early, Mr. Parker said. (Anything longer than an hour tends to test human endurance.)

More important, “a problem gets solved, a decision gets made, a plan gets developed, a query gets answered,” he said. And people leave the meeting thinking, “We made good use of our time.”

"Scientists Find Trigger for Northern Lights"

From The New York Times
Scientists Find Trigger for Northern Lights
Published: July 25, 2008

Scientists say they have discovered what makes the northern lights dance.

Researchers working on a NASA mission to understand the interplay of magnetic fields and charged particles blown outward from the Sun have identified the trigger for the colorful electrical storms in the polar regions. They hope this is a step in developing reliable forecasts of geomagnetic storms that can disrupt satellites in orbit and power grids on the ground.

The findings appeared in an article published Thursday on the Web site of the journal Science.

Scientists have long known that the dancing auroras of color known as the northern and southern lights are generated by charged particles flying from the Sun and interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field, which is then pulled into a windsock shape by the solar wind.

Turbulent storms on the Sun generate extremely bright auroral displays, but even in quieter times, smaller events known as substorms still generate the lights.

“They happen every three or four hours,” said Vassilis Angelopoulos, a professor of earth and space sciences at University of California, Los Angeles, and principal investigator of a NASA mission called Themis, short for Time, History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms. “The Earth’s environment stores energy. Then all of a sudden it releases it.”

Each substorm generates a current of about one million to two million amps over one to two hours, or a total energy equivalent to a magnitude-5 or magnitude-6 earthquake, Dr. Angelopoulos said.

Scientists knew two events that occur in the tail of the magnetic field during substorms, but did not know which event acted as the trigger for the auroras.

Over the past 30 years, some scientists have believed that a disruption in the current of charged particles — similar to the blowing of an electric fuse, the scientists said — about one-sixth of the distance from the Earth to the Moon’s orbit was responsible. Others believed it was a snapping of magnetic field lines farther out, about one-third of the distance to the Moon.

To answer the question, the Themis mission launched five identical satellites, each about the size of a washing machine, to measure the electric and magnetic fields as well as the particles passing by at different locations around Earth. Coupled with ground observations, scientists were able to deduce the order of events in a substorm in February.

The snapping of magnetic fields occurred first, followed by a burst of auroras. Surprisingly, the disruption in the charged particle current occurred after the aurora. Proponents of that hypothesis had thought that the magnetic snapping caused the change in electric current and that, in turn, led to the auroras.

“This defies our old paradigms,” Dr. Angelopoulos said.

Next, Dr. Angelopoulos said, scientists will try to figure out exactly why the magnetic field lines snap. With a better understanding of substorms, scientists would like to understand what happens during the larger storms. They hope to have better prediction methods working by the time the next peak of solar storms arrives between 2010 and 2012.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Why are engineers such poor writers/speakers/communicators?

I had my performance appraisal meeting with my boss about a week ago.

He complimented me on the quality of my report writing, saying "it's a real pleasure to be able to read someone who can express his ideas clearly", or something to that effect.

I thanked him and said half-jokingly that "(poor writing by engineers) is a stereotype that I labor everyday to overcome".

Can someone please tell me why engineers are in general, such poor writers, speakers and communicators?

It's been bandied around so frequently that it isn't even funny anymore.

I remember a talk I attended way back (ok, not that way back) during my undergraduate days at Hopkins. It was a talk by a biomedical engineering professor on applying to med/grad school, and naturally, the biomedical engineers (of which I was one) were out in full force.

The talk turned to personal statements, and the professor said that most engineers were "hopeless" at writing. And the audience agreed, if the chuckles were anything to go by.

I didn't really believe it then, as I considered myself to have pretty good writing skills. This was corroborated by just about everyone who had read my writing (professors, TAs, my grad student supervisor in the lab).

The mistake I made was in believing that I was the norm. Then I started working after returning to Singapore.

My god. Seriously. My god.

I had thought that poor writing would be marked by inappropriate sentence structure, weak vocabulary, or lack of coherence. Instead, I found myself battling with bad grammar: verb-noun disagreement, inconsistency in tenses, punctuation errors and the perennial problem of bad spelling (inexcusable in this day and age of spellcheck).

I found poor quality writing to be pervasive. Everyone I work with has a university degree, but I wonder how is it that after 16 years of education, only a vanishingly small minority of graduates can speak and write well.

Of course, it doesn't help that as engineers, some of the ideas and material that we work with are so complex  that poor quality technical writing doesn't help ease understanding of the material at all. Quite the opposite, it's actually painful for me to wade through someone else's writing. I find myself itching to correct every other sentence.

Sometimes I wonder whether it's a failing of the educational system. Other times, I wonder whether I'm confusing cause and effect. Perhaps it's not that engineers are poor communicators; it's that the people who are good at science and math but poor at language skills who choose the engineering profession. [You could make a similar converse argument for lawyers.]

In any case, I'm a firm believer that communication skills, particularly technical communication skills (writing, speaking, presenting) are highly trainable skills that can be cultivated like any other skill. [They also happen to be important for any career, and for life in general.]

That thought gives me hope. I just wish that every engineer out there thinks the same way and actually puts in the effort to learn to articulate their ideas better.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Fiscal Drag and the $8000 ceiling

Fiscal drag is one of those things that you never read about except in economics textbooks.

It refers to one of the pernicious effects of inflation. As the nominal income of a person increases due to wage demands that stem from inflation, a larger proportion of that person’s income goes into the next higher tax bracket, and is taxed at a higher marginal rate of tax. Hence, the real income of a person takes two hits: the first hit from nominal wage increases not keeping pace with inflation, and a second hit from a higher tax burden resulting from fiscal drag.

I am sensing the (minor) effects of fiscal drag as I keep careful records of my own income. The effect is minor because, well, engineers really are one of the least well-paid professionals around.

Fiscal drag is one symptom of a wider malaise that can be termed institutional sluggishness. Basically, this refers to the phenomenon whereby legislation is written in nominal rather than inflation-adjusted terms. Fines for instance, do not get adjusted upwards in line with inflation, although I don’t think anyone is complaining about that.

What people have been complaining about recently is the $8000 monthly salary ceiling for buying a new flat directly from HDB and for households to be eligible for a HDB loan. Now that is one example of institutional sluggishness par excellence.

[Normally, I wouldn’t care enough to write about this as I am single and currently have no plans to marry. But talk among my friends and colleagues about the $8000 ceiling and recent musings on inflation piqued my interest enough to want to post something on this.]

You could make a case that real income actually has risen in recent years due to the economic boom, so the $8000 ceiling should still stand to reserve public funds for the less well-off. But we are now entering an inflationary phase and wage increases (at least among professionals) are reflecting that. I have seen my own nominal wage increment this past year higher than in previous years, but I’m astute enough to realize that in real terms, my wages have actually diminished.

So, given that nominal wages have increased but real wages have fallen, why hasn’t the $8000 salary ceiling been revised upward, especially since so many young couples are hurting from high property prices?

The government could revise this figure rapidly if it wanted to. Indeed, when there is legislative need, the government has shown that it can move at lightning speed, compared to the glacial pace of other governments worldwide. So why hasn’t it this time round?

I don’t think the government is ignorant of this issue. The most probable explanation for not revising the $8000 ceiling upwards is that the income ceiling applies to a relatively small group of people (albeit a more educated and vocal group) and the government doesn't view the income ceiling as a major problem. And as mentioned above, a working couple that makes >$8000 per month is hardly destitute. The new "subsidised" flats and cheap HDB loan are arguably a privilege and not a birthright. After all, singles and permanent residents are not entitled to these perks.

But this explanation isn't very interesting [otherwise I wouldn't be blogging on the topic]. I have an alternative hypothesis, although I caution that this is more a thought experiment on my part rather than a concrete assertion.

My hypothesis is that while this problem has been brought about by the current inflationary environment, the government has consciously chosen not to revise the $8000 salary ceiling precisely because it is fighting inflation.

Inflation is composed of demand-pull and cost-push inflation. A bad analogy for this would be good and bad cholesterol. It would be more accurate however, to say that demand-pull inflation, while still bad, is generally symptomatic of buoyant economic conditions, and so is usually perceived in a better light than cost-push inflation. Cost-push inflation is just plain ugly.

Not revising the $8000 ceiling upwards while so many young couples are crying out for it has the salutary effect of curbing demand for real estate, and hence cooling the formerly red-hot property market. As mentioned in a previous post, property prices are a component of the Consumer Price Index. The net result is a lowering in the housing component of the CPI due to a fall in demand-pull inflation within the real estate sector.

The government, like most governments, can do very little to curb cost-push inflation, although you are unlikely to read about that in the mainstream media [taking credit, even for chance events, always gets published; admitting powerlessness over problems, never]. Beyond allowing our domestic currency to appreciate (up to the point when exports really start to hurt) and urging Singaporeans to conserve, our government's hands are tied.

So, while it can’t do much about cost-push inflation, it can reduce demand-pull inflation as mentioned above, at least in the property sector. Taken together, this has the effect of moderating the rise in headline inflation (the CPI). This is helpful as it reduces inflation expectations among the populace.

It’s not clear whether revising the $8000 salary ceiling or not is the ‘right’ thing to do. I won’t venture to make a value judgment on this.

I do empathize with young couples though. Assuming my thought experiment is correct, it is never easy to receive the short end of the stick in the government’s interest of ‘the big picture’. On the plus side, the government is increasing the supply of HDB flats, so hopefully that should make property more affordable.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

"A Locally Grown Diet With Fuss but No Muss"

From The New York Times
Published: July 22, 2008

Eating locally raised food is a growing trend. But who has time to get to the farmer’s market, let alone plant a garden?

That is where Trevor Paque comes in. For a fee, Mr. Paque, who lives in San Francisco, will build an organic garden in your backyard, weed it weekly and even harvest the bounty, gently placing a box of vegetables on the back porch when he leaves.

Call them the lazy locavores — city dwellers who insist on eating food grown close to home but have no inclination to get their hands dirty. Mr. Paque is typical of a new breed of business owner serving their needs.

Even couples planning a wedding at the Plaza Hotel in New York City can jump on the local food train. For as little as $72 a person, they can offer guests a “100-mile menu” of food from the caterer’s farm and neighboring fields in upstate New York.

“The highest form of luxury is now growing it yourself or paying other people to grow it for you,” said Corby Kummer, the food columnist and book author. “This has become fashion.”

Locally grown food, even fully cooked meals, can be delivered to your door. A share in a cow raised in a nearby field can be brought to you, ready for the freezer — a phenomenon dubbed cow pooling. There is pork pooling as well. At Sugar Mountain Farm in Vermont, the demand for a half or whole rare-breed pig is so great that people will not be seeing pork until the late fall.

Although a completely local diet is out of reach for even the most dedicated, the shift toward it is being driven by the increasingly popular view that fast food is the enemy and that local food tastes better. Depending on the season, local produce can cost an additional $1 a pound or more. But long-distance food, with its attendant petroleum consumption and cheap wages, is harming the planet and does nothing to help build communities, locavores believe.

As a result of interest in local food and rising grocery bills, backyard gardens have been enjoying a renaissance across the country, but what might be called the remote-control backyard garden — no planting, no weeding, no dirt under the fingernails — is a twist. “They want to have a garden, they don’t want to garden,” said the cookbook author Deborah Madison, who lives in Santa Fe, N.M.

Her neighbor Chase Ault, a business consultant, recently had a vegetable garden installed with a customized set of plants and a regular service agreement. “I am working 24-7 these days, but I wanted to have something growing in front of me,” Ms. Ault said.

Like organic food, which corporate manufacturers embraced in the 1990s, before it, local food is quickly moving into the mainstream. Last year, the New Oxford American Dictionary picked locavore as its word of the year. A National Restaurant Association survey this year of more than 1,200 chefs, many of whom work for chain restaurants or large food companies, found locally grown produce to be the second-hottest American food trend, just behind bite-size desserts.

For a growing number of diners, a food’s provenance is more important than its brand name, said Michelle Barry, who studies American eating patterns for the Hartman Group, a research firm in Bellevue, Wash. As a result, grocery stores are looking to repackage products like milk and cheese to play up any local angle.

That will be a boon to people who find that shortcuts are necessary if they wish to eat locally. “If you live on East 80th 14 floors up and all you have is a potted plant, it’s tough,” said Lynne Rossetto Kasper, the host of the radio show “The Splendid Table,” who recruited 15 listeners for a study on the subject. Researchers will record their struggles to make 80 percent of their meals from organic or local sources. Spices are the only exemption.

Lazy locavores would never go to such extremes. Rather, they might simply sign up with the FruitGuys. The company, which has offices in San Francisco and Philadelphia, will deliver boxes of local, sustainably raised or organic fruit right to the cubicle.

In the mood for a meal that reeks of community but does not necessitate a communal activity? Three Stone Hearth in Berkeley, Calif., which describes itself as a community supported kitchen, offers its customers the opportunity to make friends while making food from local, sustainable farms, but the worker-owned company also offers online shopping for people who do not have the time to pick up orders or participate in educational activities.

Customers 20 miles away in the affluent community of Mill Valley, for example, can pay $15 to have jars filled with Andalusian stew, made with pasture-raised pork, delivered to their door. The jars, of course, are returnable.

“It’s a very savvy crowd that understands how all the pieces of sustainable farming and nutrition fit together,” said Larry Wisch, one of five worker-owners at Three Stone Hearth. “But they don’t want the headaches of getting here.”

Or you could just have your private chef handle all your local food needs. At their Hamptons summer house, John and Lorna Brett Howard want to eat almost exclusively local, which means that in place of one trip to the grocery store, their chef, Michael Welch, makes several trips to farm stands and the fishmonger.

“What I’m seeing with my clients is not the trendiness or the politics,” Mr. Welch said. “They are looking only at taste.”

Mrs. Howard said she ate local vegetables growing up in northern Michigan and Chicago. But her husband, a private equity fund manager, ate a lot of expensive imported food with little thought about where it came from. But all that has changed.

“It’s like the first time you start drinking good red wine and you realize what you were drinking was so bad you can’t go back to it,” Mrs. Howard said. “It’s that same way with vegetables.”

The author Barbara Kingsolver, whose book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” was a best seller last year, did not have the lazy locavore in mind when she wrote about the implications of making her family spend a year eating local. But she celebrates the trend.

“As a person of rural origin who has lived much of my life in rural places,” she said, “I can’t tell you how joyful it makes me to hear that it’s trendy for people in Manhattan to own a part of a cow.”

"If You Have a Problem, Ask Everyone"

From the New York Times
Published: July 22, 2008

John Davis, a chemist in Bloomington, Ill., knows about concrete. For example, he knows that if you keep concrete vibrating it won’t set up before you can use it. It will still pour like a liquid.

Now he has applied that knowledge to a seemingly unrelated problem thousands of miles away. He figured out that devices that keep concrete vibrating can be adapted to keep oil in Alaskan storage tanks from freezing. The Oil Spill Recovery Institute of Cordova, Alaska, paid him $20,000 for his idea.

The chemist and the institute came together through InnoCentive, a company that links organizations (seekers) with problems (challenges) to people all over the world (solvers) who win cash prizes for resolving them. The company gets a posting fee and, if the problem is solved, a “finders fee” equal to about 40 percent of the prize.

The process, according to John Seely Brown, a theorist of information technology and former director of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, reflects “a huge shift in popular culture, from consuming to participating” enabled by the interactivity so characteristic of the Internet. It is sometimes called open-source science, taking the name from open-source software in which the source code, or original programming, is made public to encourage others to work on improving it.

The approach is catching on. Today, would-be innovators can sign up online to compete for prizes for feats as diverse as landing on the Moon ( and inventing artificial meat (

This year, researchers at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the University of Washington began recruiting computer gamers to an online competition, named Foldit, aimed at unraveling one of the knottiest problems of biology — how proteins fold (

And in a report last year, a panel appointed by the National Research Council recommended that the National Science Foundation, the major government financing agency for physical science research, offer prizes of $200,000 to $2 million “in diverse areas” as a first step in a major program “to encourage more complex innovations” addressing economic, social and other challenges. (The report is available at

Senator John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, has proposed that the government offer $300 million to whoever invents a battery compact enough, powerful enough and cheap enough to replace fossil fuels.

Offering prizes for scientific achievements is hardly new. “It has been around for centuries,” said Karim R. Lakhani, a professor at Harvard Business School who has studied InnoCentive. One early example was the work of John Harrison, the 18th-century clockmaker who, in response to a prize offered by the British Parliament, solved the problem of determining longitude at sea by inventing a clock that would keep good time even in heavy weather.

But, Dr. Lakhani said, “most laboratories, most R & D endeavors still work on the premise ‘we can accumulate and make sense of all the knowledge that is relevant.’ The open-source models and a model like InnoCentive show that other approaches can help.”

Dwayne Spradlin, president and chief executive of InnoCentive, said in an interview that the company had solved 250 challenges, for prizes typically in the $10,000 to $25,000 range. According to the Web site (, the achievements include a compound for skin tanning, a method of preventing snack chip breakage and a mini-extruder in brick-making.

“Odds are one or more products in your home has been innovated in our network,” Mr. Spradlin said. “Procter & Gamble has products that were innovated on the InnoCentive network.”

InnoCentive began in 2000 as e.Lilly, an in-house innovation “incubator” at the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, Mr. Spradlin said, with the company posting problems that its employees had been unable to solve. From the beginning the results were good, he said. “Most of our companies tell us they have a one-third or better solve rate on their problems and that is more cost-effective than anything they could have done internally.”

The company says solvers come from 175 countries. More than a third have doctorates, Mr. Spradlin said, and while motivated by money, they also have a desire to solve “problems that matter.”

The company, with offices in Waltham, Mass., has a staff of scientists who work with seekers and solvers, reviewing challenges to make sure they are clear and detailed, and guiding would-be solvers who may have a solution.

That specificity is crucial to InnoCentive’s operation, people who have studied the company say. “If you say, ‘find me a cure for cancer’ it may not work,” Dr. Lakhani said. But if problems can be “decomposed” into what he called modular questions, like “find me a biomarker for this condition, these questions may be more tractable.”

The idea that solutions can come from anywhere, and from people with seemingly unrelated work, is another key. Dr. Lakhani said his study of InnoCentive found that “the further the problem was from the solver’s expertise, the more likely they were to solve it,” often by applying specialized knowledge or instruments developed for another purpose.

For example, he said, the brain might be thought of as a biological system, but “certain brain problems may not be solvable by taking a biological approach. You may want to cast it as an electrical engineering approach. An electrical engineer will come in and say, ‘Oh, here’s the answer for you.’ They have not thought of themselves as being neuroscientists but now they can approach the problem from the point of view of electrical engineering.”

The oil-flow problem was solved by an outsider, said Scott Pegau, its research program manager. If it could easily have been solved “by people within the industry, it would have been,” he said. Instead, Mr. Davis approached it with knowledge he picked up at a friend’s concrete business.

One critical element is encouraging organizations to take novel innovation approaches in the first place. That was the task that drew the Rockefeller Foundation to the company, said Maria Blair, an associate vice president there.

Ms. Blair said the foundation was nearing the end of an 18-month pilot program after which the success of the partnership would be assessed. Anecdotal evidence so far suggests the arrangement can be useful, she said, citing as an example a challenge to devise a reliable, durable solar-powered light source that could function as a flashlight and as general room illumination.

“The solver ended up being a scientist from New Zealand,” she said, and his light is now being made in China.

“What we want to do,” she added, “is connect the nonprofits to the platform, to InnoCentive.”

The nonprofits get a break on InnoCentive fees, Mr. Spradlin said, and Ms. Blair said the foundation could subsidize access to innovation platforms. But she said many nonprofit organizations had difficulty dealing with intellectual property rights and related issues.

InnoCentive deals with these issues, in part, by requiring winning solvers to transfer intellectual property rights to the seekers, whose identities are secret, before they can claim an award.

Dr. Lakhani said some companies worried that by posting information about their problems they risk giving valuable information to competitors. Another fear, he said, is that a solver will devise a useful solution, but refuse to turn it over for the prize or even patent it to keep it out of the hands of the organization that originally sought it.

“We have not observed yet any of these kinds of games,” Dr. Lakhani said.

By contrast, the Foldit contest is a volunteer effort. It began as Rosetta@home, a project using down-time of computers throughout the world to do the laborious calculations needed to determine the shapes of proteins, strings of amino acid crucial to the cells of every living thing. The way these molecules work depends on how the strings fold, but calculating the folding is, as the Foldit researchers put it, “one of the pre-eminent challenges of biology.”

In Foldit, players will compete online to design proteins, and researchers will test designs to see if they are good candidates for use in drugs. The researchers who worked to design it say results will also be interesting because people’s intuition for protein folding does not seem necessarily to be tied to formal training or laboratory experience.

“Our ultimate goal is to have ordinary people play the game and eventually be candidates for winning the Nobel Prize,” said Zoran Popovic, a computer scientist and engineer at the University of Washington.

Mr. Spradlin’s goal for InnoCentive is at least as ambitious. By 2011, he hopes InnoCentive participants will have answered at least 10,000 challenges.

When companies and organizations have a problem, Mr. Spradlin said, “I want us to be the first place they go.”

Monday, July 21, 2008

Lorna Tan, July 20, 2008

Lorna Tan is a financial correspondent with the Straits Times, and the quality of her articles is generally good (a rare compliment from me for anything related to the rag).

She had two articles in the Sunday paper this past weekend.

Taking the right dose of health insurance was a good article on some general pointers when buying health insurance. I’m already aware of all of these pointers, but I think it’s still useful to summarize these for less knowledgeable readers of this blog:

1. Always buy private health insurance even if your employer provides excellent cover. The reason is that you will not work for the same employer your entire life, and the employer-provided cover will not persist when you change jobs or retire (the ‘portability issue’).

2. Always buy health insurance early on in your working life even if you are in perfect health. This is to avoid the problem of exclusionary clauses should you be diagnosed with a serious illness before cover has commenced (the pre-existing condition issue’). This is also linked to reason #1. I know of people who literally cannot quit their current jobs because they were diagnosed with a serious illness while not being covered with private insurance. Now, only their employment cover protects them; no private insurer will cover their pre-existing condition.

3. Always buy the insurance cover at or above the level that you think you will use. The simple reason is that downgrading coverage is a snap, while upgrading coverage later on may require underwriting.

4. Consider the optional add-on riders for your plain vanilla Health and Surgical (H&S) insurance. The most useful are the riders that remove the deductible and/or co-insurance portions of the claim amount (10% or 20% of a very big bill is still a very big bill). Also useful are the riders that remove category sub-limits on claims.

[As someone who trained as a biomedical engineer, I can assure you that many implants, particularly orthopedic implants, cost way more than the few thousand dollars that typically mark the limit on the ‘consumables’ category].

Somewhat less useful are the riders that cover outpatient treatment (such as physiotherapy and the like) and cash benefit riders/policies that pay a cash benefit for each day spent in the hospital.

5. Other health-related policies may also be considered. Critical illness coverage is one example, although some skeptics point out that the list of 30 (or some arbitrary number) of dread diseases is too short to cover the full spectrum of human suffering, far better to get comprehensive and heavy H&S coverage. Another important type of health insurance is long-term/continuing care insurance, best exemplified by Eldershield, although frankly, I think Eldershield the policy sucks. Not many insurers provide this kind of insurance, so far I have only seen Great Eastern provide this product, but then again, I haven’t shopped around all that much.

Lorna Tan’s other article was on inflation-linked investments, As prices rise, so can your returns.

As an explanatory article, the article was passable. As advice, well, you probably want to read up more on your own before committing to any investment.

I too have been hunting for investments that will offer a high likelihood of a positive real rate of return.

I haven’t found any that I’m really comfortable with yet. That should tell you something about the current market environment now.

My main beef with inflation-linked investments is that in general, most governments around the world are pre-disposed towards fudging the CPI numbers to make them look artificially low. “Core inflation” in the USA is a joke, and even the food and energy numbers have been fudged before stripping them out.

Why would governments want to deliberately fudge the CPI numbers to make inflation seem lower than it really it? Because it works directly on managing inflation expectations, and it also makes social security payments (normally indexed to inflation) and other payments (such as on oh, say, inflation indexed bonds) paid out by the government cheaper.

Needless to say, if the CPI systematically underestimates inflation, inflation-linked instruments will also fail to keep pace with the true rate of inflation.

The other reason why I am wary of inflation-linked investments is that countries with high inflation also tend to suffer from currency depreciation. Given the strong SGD now, the real return in SGD from such investments may still turn out to be negative. And even if the funds that manage these investments hedge their currency risks, you can bet that that will result in lower returns as well as higher management fees.

Other investments to consider using to beat inflation:

1. Real estate is normally a good inflation hedge, but is generally a bad idea now, given the deflationary climate in real estate.

2. Commodities. Uh, can you say bubble?

3. Precious metals. I am actually bullish on precious metals right now, but I suspect that precious metals are benefiting less from inflation fears than from the current credit crisis. You could make a case that precious metals are in a bubble right now, but unless and until the credit crisis is really over (it’ll take a year or two, at least), precious metals will probably remain at elevated levels, and will spike each time a major financial institution implodes.

4. Stocks of companies that have pricing power and hence can pass on price increases to their customers.

Investment #4 is probably the best inflation hedge over the longer term. But in the short term, the volatility will be extreme. Unless you can afford to hold onto the stocks for several years, and stomach largish paper losses at least part of the time, you might want to stay out of stocks until things settle down a little.

Short of Sleep at a Formative Age

This post is on the Sleepy Kids article posted in the July 20, 2008 edition of the Sunday Times.

The text of the article is unimportant. The data is interesting though:

Out of 200 primary school kids polled:

64% are getting fewer than 9 hours of sleep each night
24.5% are getting 9 hours
12.5% are getting 10 or more hours

(The recommended number of hours for a child between the ages of six to twelve is 10 to 11 hours, as told by the pediatrician interviewed for this article.)

Out of 940 secondary school students polled:

80% are getting fewer than 8 hours of sleep
2.6% are getting the recommended 9 hour

(The recommended number of hours is 9 hours for teens.)

So it appears that most kids and teens these days are chronically short of sleep, which isn’t a surprise given their hectic schedules and the hypercompetitive environment that they are growing up in today.

The ironic thing is, I don’t think most parents are aware that they are hurting their kids’ potential (and hence chances to ‘succeed’) with these killer schedules. It’s been shown that lasting brain damage can be a consequence of sleep apnea or sleep deprivation. It’s probably worse in kids, given that brain tissue in the growth and developmental phase is highly plastic.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Book Bundles: The Black Swan, Art of the Long View

The Black Swan (4-stars) has been a business bestseller for the past year, particularly in light of the author’s options trader background and the recent subprime mortgage crisis and continuing credit crunch crisis.

The book’s central idea is that the most consequential events that have shaped recent history and will continue to do so in the future belong to the black swan variety: they are low probability, unknown unknowns (in Rumsfeld-speak) that cannot be anticipated, and that have a disproportionately large impact.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb uses his book as a platform to discuss among other things: epistemology, the limitations of the Gaussian distribution and the law of large numbers, and the cognitive fallacies and biases present in humans (which I felt would have been better dealt with from a behavioral psychology viewpoint; see books by Gerd Gigerenzer, Gary Klein and Daniel Kahneman).

At first blush, Art of the Long View (3-stars) would seem to be antithetical to Taleb’s ideas. It is a standard business school textbook (anathema to the non-suit wearing Taleb who nonetheless has a Wharton MBA) and was written by Peter Schwartz, one of the pioneers of Shell’s scenario planning methods. One of the central ideas of Black Swan is that forecasting is doomed to failure, and this would seem to conflict with Art of the Long View.

However, as explained by Peter Schwartz, scenario planning is not about forecasting events, but of imagining scenarios and opening the mind to possibilities. My interpretation of this is that by broadening one’s perspectives through scenario planning, one develops a keener sense of what is possible. At the very least, one develops a healthy respect for the uncertainties inherent in trying to plan for the future. Being cognizant of black swan effects does not preclude efforts in contingency planning that may yet turn out to be useful. Art of the Long View is useful in that respect as it helps to ameliorate the ‘surprise’ factor of a black swan.

Ratings System

2-stars: Casual reading only, or interesting but not easily readable, or important but narrow interest material.

3-stars: Interesting, readable and ideas of some importance.

4-stars: Interesting, highly readable, and ideas of considerable importance.

5-stars: Interesting, highly readable, important material of high relevance to most people.

Friday, July 18, 2008

"As Price of Corn Rises, Catfish Farms Dry Up"

From the New York Times
As Price of Corn Rises, Catfish Farms Dry Up
Published: July 18, 2008

LELAND, Miss. — Catfish farmers across the South, unable to cope with the soaring cost of corn and soybean feed, are draining their ponds.

“It’s a dead business,” said John Dillard, who pioneered the commercial farming of catfish in the late 1960s. Last year Dillard & Company raised 11 million fish. Next year it will raise none. People can eat imported fish, Mr. Dillard said, just as they use imported oil.

As for his 55 employees? “Those jobs are gone.”

Corn and soybeans have nearly tripled in price in the last two years, for many reasons: harvest shortfalls, increasing demand by the Asian middle class, government mandates for corn to produce ethanol and, most recently, the flooding in the Midwest.

This is creating a bonanza for corn and soybean farmers but is wreaking havoc on consumers, who are seeing price spikes in the grocery store and in restaurants. Hog and chicken producers as well as cattle ranchers, all of whom depend on grain for feed, are being severely squeezed.

Perhaps nowhere has the rise in crop prices caused more convulsions than in the Mississippi Delta, the hub of the nation’s catfish industry. This is a hard-luck, poverty-plagued region, and raising catfish in artificial ponds was one of the few mainstays.

Then the economics went awry. Feed is now more than half the total cost of raising catfish, compared with a third of the cost of beef and pork production, according to a Mississippi State analysis. That makes catfish more vulnerable. But if the commodities continue to rocket up — and some analysts believe they will — other industries will fall victim as well.

Keith King, the president of Dillard & Company, calculates that for every dollar the company spends raising its fish, it gets back only 75 cents when they go to market.

“What’s happening to this industry is sad, but being sentimental won’t pay the light bill,” Mr. King said.

Dillard and other growers take their fish, still squirming, to Consolidated Catfish Producers in the hamlet of Isola, where workers run the machinery that slices them into filets. With fewer fish coming in, Consolidated Catfish is resorting to layoffs.

One hundred employees were let go in the last month, and an additional 200 will be cut soon. President Dick Stevens predicts that by the end of the year the company will have jobs for only 450, about half the number at its peak. That might not be enough to keep the plant open.

“The industry is going to implode,” Mr. Stevens said. He blamed the government’s ethanol mandates for making fuel compete with food for the harvest of the nation’s farmland. “Politicians were in a rush to do something, and it became a terrible snowball.”

Across the highway, one of the local feed mills, Producers Feed Company, has already shut down. The ripple effects have begun: between the grain mill and the fish plant was Peter Bo’s Restaurant, locally celebrated for, naturally, its catfish. Hanging on the door is a “for rent” sign.

Some catfish producers recently switched to a feed based on gluten, a cheaper derivative of corn, to reduce their costs. But corn gluten transportation and prices were particularly hard hit by the Midwest floods.

“As sick as we were over what happened to the Iowa farmers, we were also sick over what was going to happen to us,” Mr. Stevens said.

It is a feeling echoed by others who depend on corn and soybeans.

In the spring, hog farmers thought they were past the worst. Export sales to China were strong. Corn appeared to level off. Some farmers sought an edge by reformulating pigs’ diets and reducing the weight at which they sent the animals to the packer.

“And then corn goes up another buck, and you’re back where you were,” said Dave Uttecht, a producer in Alpena, S.D., who raises 70,000 pigs a year.

“I’m a farmer. I’m used to peaks and valleys.” Mr. Uttecht said. “But this is like falling into the Grand Canyon.”

Smaller herds will eventually put a floor under hog prices, and there is already some liquidation going on. But in the short term, sending more hogs to market will increase the supply of pork and push prices down further. Every farmer is hoping his colleagues will liquidate first.

“We’re all waiting for someone else to blink,” Mr. Uttecht said.

Hog farmers at least have the advantage that bacon and pork chops are solidly rooted in American cuisine, and if you want either there is no replacement.

In this and many other ways, catfish farmers are not so lucky.

Catfish started out as a local delicacy, widely celebrated in the lore of the Deep South. Mark Twain saluted it in “Life on the Mississippi.” A character in Eudora Welty’s story “The Wide Net” says after stuffing himself, “There ain’t a thing better.”

Mr. Dillard, whose operation at its peak was one of the country’s five biggest catfish companies, came to the delta 50 years ago to farm cotton. He put in some catfish ponds a decade later almost on a whim. “I liked the way they tasted,” he said. “Fried.”

Other farmers had the same idea. At first the ponds were put on soil too dry for cotton. When they proved a better crop, they took over cotton ground, too. For a long time, everyone made money.

In 2005, according to the Agriculture Department, catfish farming was a $462 million industry, far exceeding any other American farm-raised fish. The industry employed more than 10,000 people at its peak, almost all in Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Arkansas.

Times were too good, perhaps. In retrospect, the name probably should have been changed. Chilean sea bass would not have eclipsed the catfish if it were still known as the Patagonian toothfish, nor would orange roughy have become so esteemed as the slimehead.

“We didn’t focus on the market or on the product,” said Mr. Stevens, the processing factory president. “We’re the first culprits here.”

The industry’s decline accelerated when producers from Vietnam and China flooded the domestic market, putting a ceiling on prices.

Efforts by American producers to portray the imports as unclean and potentially unsafe did not work. The campaign did, however, achieve a measure of vindication last summer when the Food and Drug Administration announced broader import controls on Chinese seafood, including catfish, saying tests had shown the fish were contaminated with antimicrobial agents.

Rising feed prices were the final straw for Dillard & Company, which decided to close last January. Eighty of its 10- to 20-acre pools are empty already. An additional 170 will follow as soon as their fish are big enough to sell.

“It’s easy. You just pull the plug,” Mr. King said, surveying a pool that was nearly dry. Nearby, half a dozen men were running their nets through a pond, then hoisting the last of its catfish onto a truck.

“I’ve been doing this for 23 years,” said one of the workers, Craig Morgan. “I don’t know what I’ll do now. And there are a bunch of me’s out there.”

It is unclear what can replace catfish as easily as catfish replaced cotton. Attempts to make a tourist industry out of the fact that the delta was the birthplace of the blues are still embryonic.

“If we don’t do something, there will be nothing but tumbleweed here,” Jimmy Donahoo, a former catfish farmer, said. He, like others in the industry, thinks the producers should be supported by government subsidies, just like other farmers.

At Dillard & Company, they are not waiting for help.

“You focus your resources where you can maximize your profits,” Mr. King said. All the empty ponds will be planted with soybeans and corn, those two commodities for which there seems boundless appetite.


Note: This post bears the investment label for my own reference as it has implications on my investments.

"IBM Studies Cocoa, Eye for $6 Billion 'Secret Sauce'"

From Bloomberg
Published July 17 2008
IBM Studies Cocoa, Eye for $6 Billion `Secret Sauce' (Update2)
By Melita Marie Garza

July 17 (Bloomberg) -- International Business Machines Corp. credits its No. 2 spot on the Dow Jones Industrial Average this year to more than 3,000 workers like Michael C. Pitman.

He's not an Internet wizard or a supercomputer designer. He spends his time studying how the light receptor works in the human eye.

One of the last corporations to still emphasize basic research, IBM attributes part of the stock's 17 percent gain this year to expanding the development budget when competitors like Bell Labs fell behind. IBM spent $6.2 billion in 2007, 30 percent more than it did in 2002, on projects with little discernable impact on the company's day-to-day work. Instead, its scientists are tracing migratory patterns of humans and studying the DNA of cocoa trees.

``Research is IBM's secret sauce, the special house dressing that allows all the divisions to stay competitive,'' said Richard Doherty, research director at Seaford, New York-based technology analyst Envisioneering Group Inc.

Chief Executive Officer Sam Palmisano is following in the tracks of Lou Gerstner, who overhauled research strategy while he ran IBM from 1993 to 2002. Now scientists, not just sales staff, meet with customers. IBM, the biggest computer-services company, today has more than 75 development centers worldwide.

IBM today may report a 10 percent increase in second-quarter profit, the fourth period in five when the Armonk, New York-based company's earnings grew at least that fast, according to the average estimates in a Bloomberg survey of analysts.

Xerox, Bell

IBM's research budget, which includes the science projects and development of new products like server computers, grew by $1.4 billion from 2002 to 2007. In 2007, for the 15th straight year, IBM won the most U.S. patents of any company, 3,148. R&D totaled 6.2 percent of sales in 2007.

Xerox Corp., whose Palo Alto Research Center in California developed the graphical user interface, spent $912 million on research last year -- about the same as it did in 2002, according to its annual reports. That's 5.3 percent of sales.

Hewlett-Packard Co., the world's largest personal-computer maker and No. 10 on the patent list, said in March it would fund fewer projects. It spent $3.6 billion on research in 2007, a little more than in 2002, or about 3.5 percent of sales.

The former Bell Telephone Laboratories, which developed the transistor, were absorbed into Alcatel-Lucent SA in 2006. Research spending for the two companies combined was $4.3 billion in 2007, a 6.5 percent decrease from 2002, or 17 percent of sales as orders slipped.


``Their heyday seems to be over,'' Jonathan Eunice, an analyst with Nashua, New Hampshire-based researcher Illuminata Inc., said of Bell and Xerox PARC. ``What IBM did was it figured out how to get value out of the R&D process.''

IBM, which trails only Wal-Mart Stores Inc. in Dow members this year, rose 58 cents to $126.52 at 4 p.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading. The Dow average has declined 14 percent in 2008.

At Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York, one of IBM's eight major labs, Ted van Kessel and Bob Sandstrom stood in the sunshine on a June day. Like children burning leaves with a magnifying glass, they focused 230 watts of sunlight through a lens onto a solar cell 1 centimeter square.

The cell converted the energy into 70 watts of usable electricity, about five times what a cell that size typically generates. The trick lies in cooling the tiny square as it absorbs enough heat to melt stainless steel.

Solar Market

IBM doesn't plan to make or sell solar panels. It intends to license the technology to a solar-power company or form a partnership with a utility. Sales of solar cells totaled $20.3 billion last year and could triple in the next decade, according to Clean Edge Inc., a Portland, Oregon-based research firm.

Last year, IBM got about 10 percent of profit -- almost $1 billion -- from licensing its technology.

Elsewhere at the lab, Pitman, an expert in biomolecular dynamics, and Ajay Royyuru, senior manager for IBM's computational biology program, led a three-dimensional tour through the light detector of the human eye.

On three 48-square-foot screens, Pitman projected a blue, green, red and white model of rhodopsin, the membrane protein responsible for dim-light vision. Pitman and a team of scientists created the simulation using IBM's Blue Gene supercomputer.

Working with the National Institutes of Health and university researchers, IBM showed for the first time that a significant amount of water resides in the protein structure during light detection in the eye. Understanding the make-up of the protein is critical to drug development in a market worth tens of billions of dollars.

`Drug Discovery'

``As we develop faster and faster supercomputers, it's not always clear how to use them most effectively, and this is one example of how use them to advance drug discovery,'' said Pitman, who has worked at IBM for 12 years.

Blue Gene, the world's second-fastest computer, is also helping IBM study the genetic code of cocoa trees. The project, announced in June, is part of a $10 million, five-year investment by candy maker Mars Inc. to save the world's chocolate supply. The maker of M&M candies and Snickers bars seeks to identify the plants best able to withstand blights.

IBM teamed with the National Geographic Society on a five- year, $40 million project to collect at least 100,000 DNA samples from indigenous groups to trace the roots of the human family tree.

``Our investments in research enable IBM to see and develop the right technologies,'' said Mark Dean, vice president of systems in IBM Research.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious

I'm currently reading Gerd Gigerenzer's Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious.

I haven't finished it, but this book deserves to be read slowly and carefully. Even before finishing it, I can tell it's a real winner. If you are a Homo saipiens, and you have a functioning brain, you need to read this book.


Ratings System

2-stars: Casual reading only, or interesting but not easily readable, or important but narrow interest material.

3-stars: Interesting, readable and ideas of some importance.

4-stars: Interesting, highly readable, and ideas of considerable importance.

5-stars: Interesting, highly readable, important material of high relevance to most people.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

"It's not the people you know. It's where you are"

This is an old article: archival material from my own files. My comments, written two years ago, follow. The comments were originally written for my own reference, so the style will deviate slightly from the rest of this blog.

From the New York Times
It’s not the people that you know. It’s where you are.
Published: October 22, 2006

FIBER networks cross the world. Data bits move at light speed. The globe has been flattened, and national boundaries obliterated. Yet in Silicon Valley, the one place that is responsible more than any other for creating the network technology that supposedly renders geography irrelevant, physical distance is very much on the minds of the investors who provide venture capital.

Meet the “20-minute rule” that guides fateful decisions in Silicon Valley. Craig Johnson, managing director of Concept2Company Ventures, a venture capital firm in Palo Alto, Calif., who has 30 years of experience in early-stage financings, said he knew many venture capitalists who adhered to this doctrine: if a start-up company seeking venture capital is not within a 20-minute drive of the venture firm’s offices, it will not be funded.

Mr. Johnson explained that close proximity permits the investor to provide in-person guidance; initially, that may entail many meetings each week before investor and entrepreneur come to know each other well enough to rely mostly on the phone for updates. Those initial interactions are fateful. “Starting a company is like launching a rocket,” Mr. Johnson said. “If you’re a tenth of a degree off at launch, you may be 1,000 miles off downrange.”

Capital and attention are lavished on entrepreneurs in the Valley as in no other place. Ten years ago, when Dow Jones VentureOne began a quarterly survey of where venture investments landed, one-third of all deals in the country went to the San Francisco Bay Area. Since then, the same share of deals has gone to the same place, almost without variation. Most recently, in the first six months of this year, Silicon Valley still pulled in 32 percent; the region with the second-largest total, New England, was far behind, at 10 percent.

The latest wave of innovation, embodied in Web 2.0 companies, is centered in Silicon Valley. Joshua Grove, a research analyst at VentureOne, said that 43 percent of Web 2.0 deals this year were in the Bay Area, the formal category for the Valley. These included three of the four largest financings: the $25 million that went to Facebook, $14.5 million to Zimbra and $12 million to Six Apart.

How well is the Valley doing in incubating this newest crop of start-ups? Ask the investors at YouTube, who are celebrating Google’s $1.65 billion deal for a company that was all of 19 months old. Or look at Google’s own record of growth: building a market capitalization of $141 billion in only eight years.

YouTube and Google share the same source of venture financing: Sequoia Capital, situated among the venture capital firms clustered in a handful of blocks in office parks along Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park, near the Stanford campus. Google’s other source of venture capital, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, is nearby, too.

Why so many of these firms, which form the world’s most concentrated source of capital for new ventures, originally collected in that particular spot, rather than, say, outside the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or the California Institute of Technology, is not important; what is important is that this is where they happen to be today.

Sequoia makes its preference for the 20-minute rule almost explicit, telling applicants whose companies are at the “seed stage” (receiving less than $1 million) or “early stage” ($1 million to $10 million) that “it is helpful if the company is close to our offices” because they “require very frequent contact.”

Kleiner Perkins has only one office, the one in Menlo Park. Sequoia has reached out to entrepreneurs more considerately, providing five offices. But only one of the five, the one in Menlo Park, is in the United States. The others are in China (two), India and Israel.

If you have a brilliant idea for the New New Thing and want Sequoia to provide its funds and blessing — using the same golden touch provided not long ago to Google’s founders — you would be much better off in Beijing, where Sequoia has an office, than in Boston, where it does not.

It’s convenient for venture capitalists to have entrepreneurs close by, but the reverse is true, too, said Allen Morgan, a managing director of the Mayfield Fund, which manages $2.3 billion in venture capital and is also on Sand Hill Road. Mr. Morgan made the case by pointing out that a prospective entrepreneur would, on average, need to have three to eight meetings with a venture fund before he or she was successful, but would have to go through a similar process with 5 to 10 firms before finding the one that approved the funding request.

Even if the process goes smoothly and requires only 15 meetings — the fewest possible, given the lowest range of possibilities — and even if most of those meetings are set up in advance, the time consumed in getting to Sand Hill Road, even using local highways, can be significant. The problem is that much worse when, as often happens, a meeting is called with just an hour or two of notice. “If you live in Santa Clara, it’s doable,” Mr. Morgan said. “If you live in Dubuque, it’s not.”

Entrepreneurs who live in Silicon Valley also find the technical talent they need faster than they can in any other place; they pay more for that talent, but speed is the sine qua non for success. Seth J. Sternberg, the chief executive of Meebo, an instant-messaging company in Palo Alto that is backed by Sequoia, described Silicon Valley with the fervent appreciation of a recent transplant from New York, where he had suffered three separate bad experiences with start-ups, none of which had attracted venture funding.

The ecosystem in Silicon Valley, Mr. Sternberg said, includes “incredible techies, who live here because this is the epicenter, where they can find the most interesting projects to work on.” The ecosystem also includes real estate agents, accountants, head hunters and lawyers who understand an entrepreneur’s situation — that is, emptied bank accounts and maxed-out credit cards.

“In New York, it would be extremely difficult to find a law firm willing to defer the first $20,000 of your legal fees,” Mr. Sternberg said. “Here, we got that. It’s a pretty standard thing in Silicon Valley.”

On the East Coast, a business plan contest at the Harvard Business School in 2004 prompted one M.B.A. graduate, Arijit Sengupta, to found BeyondCore, a software company, in his apartment in Boston. Mr. Sengupta, who earlier had earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science and economics at Stanford, was determined to develop a finished product and to acquire customers by the oldest method of all: bootstrapping, or starting a business without outside capital.

He did end up needing Silicon Valley for something else: technical talent that would be willing to accept equity in place of any salary. Six weeks ago, he moved to Silicon Valley to recruit more people like his chief technical officer, who has been working full time since Jan. 1 for equity only.

“Elsewhere, if people in a large organization think you have potential, they offer you a job, trying to save you from the uncertainties of a start-up,” said Mr. Sengupta, who himself has worked at Oracle, Microsoft and General Motors. “In Silicon Valley, they say, ‘Can I join you?’ ”

Mr. Sengupta now has six “employees” working for BeyondCore without salaries. Only in Silicon Valley, he said, do “people have confidence that if you act on great ideas, the money will come.”

Predictions of the Valley’s demise have become a perennial, said Mr. Morgan, the Mayfield venture capitalist. “Every five years, Time or Newsweek runs a story: ‘Silicon Valley is Dead,’ ” he said. “But Silicon Valley is bigger and more vibrant and better at creating companies than it has ever been.”

Silicon Valley is not “bigger” in a literal sense. In fact, it remains geographically contained by the Santa Cruz Mountains on one side and San Francisco Bay on the other. The physical features of the place help explain the Valley’s vitality.

MR. JOHNSON, the venture capitalist in Palo Alto, noted that the greater Los Angeles area also has a pool of talented engineers (working at aerospace companies like Lockheed, Northrop and Hughes) and great universities (notably Caltech and U.C.L.A.) and plenty of money to invest. “But in Los Angeles,” he said, “people are scattered across a wide area; everything is more spread out.”

It’s harder for entrepreneurs to meet with one another and with investors, he added. And that means connections take longer, deals move slowly, fewer companies are formed. “Like a gas, entrepreneurship is hotter when compressed.” he said.

Why, one might ask, must relationships be built only by physical presence? Why, if the phone does not serve well, cannot the newest generation of videoconferencing gear — which provides stunning video to accompany sound — save the various participants from the vexations of getting together in person?

Mr. Morgan of Mayfield scoffed at the suggestion of virtual meetings as a feasible medium of establishing trust in business. He said that if the matter were important — and human beings were involved — he believed that there would never, ever be a replacement for face-to-face meetings.

Randall Stross is an author based in Silicon Valley and a professor of business at San Jose State University.

The development of a vast creative-enterprise generating hub requires more than just talent, money and hardware.

The “soft infrastructure” is perhaps even more important, and much of this cannot be planned or seeded top-down.

What is “soft infrastructure”? Experienced, deep-pocketed, risk-taking venture capitalists with real entrepreneurial experience (read: not government employed functionaries). Extraordinary talent, both technical and non-technical, that has enormous amounts of energy and is of an equally risk-taking nature (willing to work for equity instead of cash; willing to work for high-risk but high interest and potential return projects). Supporting professionals and businesses (lawyers’, accountants’, realtors’ offices; head-hunting firms) that are geared to service the unique demands of the start-up.

Informal and formal networks: venture capitalists taking cross-stakes in firms and making inter-company introductions, entrepreneurs who have worked together before on previous projects (Youtube and the Paypal cliques). No substitute for personal relationships. Existing technology companies for talent, enterprise, customers, business associates etc. Universities for technology, ideas and people.

A critical mass is required for the network to have value (the critical mass must be attained for scale to be achieved). The density of the soft infrastructure must be high for success to occur; “like a gas, entrepreneurship is hotter when compressed”. A positive feedback cycle, a virtuous cycle is created. Success begets success; a Google spawns many other Web 2.0 companies, a law firm retained by Google since its early days inspires other legal firms to take risks on start-ups, a realtor that took a chance on a start-up becomes a prime broker of office space in the Valley, a head-hunting firm that found the techies required for a successful business has other techies lining up with their resumes.

An instructive parallel with ebay occurred to me. An auction site becomes exponentially more valuable when more users create accounts and actively participate in it. This in turn attracts more auctioneers because the top website in user traffic gets users the best prices for their goods. However, ebay is most popular in the USA, and less so in other countries, such as Singapore (Yahoo auctions is arguably more popular).

Thus, it may well be that there will ever only be one Silicon Valley in the USA, but other Silicon Valleys can be founded in other countries.

“Why so many of these firms, which form the world’s most concentrated source of capital for new ventures, originally collected in that particular spot, rather than, say, outside the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or the California Institute of Technology, is not important; what is important is that this is where they happen to be today.” Because there will never be another “Silicon Valley”.

The confluence of factors that is required to produce a Silicon Valley is a low-probability event, and it may perhaps even be random(!), a true
black swan. That alone puts doubt on any country or state’s attempt to engineer a hub for creative-enterprise generation. There are necessary conditions that can be fostered to create an environment conducive to such a hub, but these conditions may not be sufficient in themselves to “manufacture” such a hub. Ingredient X has yet to be identified, and it could as I have stated before, be something completely random and unexpected.

Monday, July 14, 2008

"Warning: Habits may be good for you"

From the New York Times
Warning: Habits May Be Good for You
Published: July 13, 2008

A FEW years ago, a self-described “militant liberal” named Val Curtis decided that it was time to save millions of children from death and disease. So Dr. Curtis, an anthropologist then living in the African nation of Burkina Faso, contacted some of the largest multinational corporations and asked them, in effect, to teach her how to manipulate consumer habits worldwide.

Dr. Curtis, now the director of the Hygiene Center at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, had spent years trying to persuade people in the developing world to wash their hands habitually with soap. Diseases and disorders caused by dirty hands — like diarrhea — kill a child somewhere in the world about every 15 seconds, and about half those deaths could be prevented with the regular use of soap, studies indicate.

But getting people into a soap habit, it turns out, is surprisingly hard.

To overcome this hurdle, Dr. Curtis called on three top consumer goods companies to find out how to sell hand-washing the same way they sell Speed Stick deodorant and Pringles potato chips.

She knew that over the past decade, many companies had perfected the art of creating automatic behaviors — habits — among consumers. These habits have helped companies earn billions of dollars when customers eat snacks, apply lotions and wipe counters almost without thinking, often in response to a carefully designed set of daily cues.

“There are fundamental public health problems, like hand washing with soap, that remain killers only because we can’t figure out how to change people’s habits,” Dr. Curtis said. “We wanted to learn from private industry how to create new behaviors that happen automatically.”

The companies that Dr. Curtis turned to — Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and Unilever — had invested hundreds of millions of dollars finding the subtle cues in consumers’ lives that corporations could use to introduce new routines.

If you look hard enough, you’ll find that many of the products we use every day — chewing gums, skin moisturizers, disinfecting wipes, air fresheners, water purifiers, health snacks, antiperspirants, colognes, teeth whiteners, fabric softeners, vitamins — are results of manufactured habits. A century ago, few people regularly brushed their teeth multiple times a day. Today, because of canny advertising and public health campaigns, many Americans habitually give their pearly whites a cavity-preventing scrub twice a day, often with Colgate, Crest or one of the other brands advertising that no morning is complete without a minty-fresh mouth.

A few decades ago, many people didn’t drink water outside of a meal. Then beverage companies started bottling the production of far-off springs, and now office workers unthinkingly sip bottled water all day long. Chewing gum, once bought primarily by adolescent boys, is now featured in commercials as a breath freshener and teeth cleanser for use after a meal. Skin moisturizers — which are effective even if applied at high noon — are advertised as part of morning beauty rituals, slipped in between hair brushing and putting on makeup.

“OUR products succeed when they become part of daily or weekly patterns,” said Carol Berning, a consumer psychologist who recently retired from Procter & Gamble, the company that sold $76 billion of Tide, Crest and other products last year. “Creating positive habits is a huge part of improving our consumers’ lives, and it’s essential to making new products commercially viable.”

Through experiments and observation, social scientists like Dr. Berning have learned that there is power in tying certain behaviors to habitual cues through relentless advertising.

As this new science of habit has emerged, controversies have erupted when the tactics have been used to sell questionable beauty creams or unhealthy foods. But for activists like Dr. Curtis, this emerging research offers a type of salvation.

For years, many public health campaigns that aimed at changing habits have been failures. Earlier this decade, two researchers affiliated with Vanderbilt University examined more than 100 studies on the effectiveness of antidrug campaigns and found that, in some cases, viewers’ levels of drug abuse actually increased when commercials were shown, perhaps in part because the ads reminded them about that bag of weed in the sock drawer.

A few years later, another group examined the effectiveness of advertising condom use to prevent AIDS. In some cases, rates of unprotected sex actually went up — which some researchers suspected was because the commercials made people more frisky than cautious.

To teach hand washing, about seven years ago Dr. Curtis persuaded Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and Unilever to join an initiative called the Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing With Soap. The group’s goal was to double the hand-washing rate in Ghana, a West African nation where almost every home contains a soap bar but only 4 percent of adults regularly lather up after using the toilet.

Over the last several years, such partnerships between corporations and those trying to save the world have become commonplace. Companies like Microsoft, Pfizer and General Electric have worked with nonprofit groups on health, technology and energy programs.

Not everyone is comfortable with the arrangements. Some critics complain that public health professionals are becoming too cozy with companies ultimately focused on their bottom lines. Others worry that these advertising techniques may be manipulative.

But what Dr. Curtis learned in Ghana suggests that saving the world may be as easy as hawking chewing gum, or, to use a more contemporary example, as simple as training Americans to spray perfumed water on couches that are already clean.

FEBREZE — the perfumed water used on couches — is one of the most successful examples of a habit-creation campaign, and, in a sense, the playbook for how Ghana learned to wash its hands.

Procter & Gamble introduced Febreze in 1996 as a way to remove odors from smelly clothes. Consumer surveys had shown that people were leaving their jackets and blouses outside after an evening in a smoke-filled bar. P.& G., which at the time already sold products that cleaned one out of every two laundry loads washed in American homes, decided to spend millions to create a spray to remove offensive smells.

The company ran advertisements of a woman complaining about a blazer that smelled like cigarette smoke. Other ads focused on smelly pets, sweaty teenagers and stinky minivan interiors.

But Febreze flopped. In fact, early sales were so disappointing that the company considered canceling the entire project.

One of the biggest problems, P.& G.’s researchers discovered, was that bad smells simply didn’t happen often enough in consumers’ lives. Interviews showed that consumers liked Febreze when they used it, but that many customers simply forgot that it was in the house.

At about the same time, the company’s staff psychologists were beginning to extend their understanding of how habits are formed.

“For most of our history, we’ve sold newer and better products for habits that already existed,” said Dr. Berning, the P.& G. psychologist. “But about a decade ago, we realized we needed to create new products. So we began thinking about how to create habits for products that had never existed before.”

Academics were also beginning to focus on habit formation. Researchers like Wendy Wood at Duke University and Brian Wansink at Cornell were examining how often smokers quit while vacationing and how much people eat when their plates are deceptively large or small.

Those and other studies revealed that as much as 45 percent of what we do every day is habitual — that is, performed almost without thinking in the same location or at the same time each day, usually because of subtle cues.

For example, the urge to check e-mail or to grab a cookie is likely a habit with a specific prompt. Researchers found that most cues fall into four broad categories: a specific location or time of day, a certain series of actions, particular moods, or the company of specific people. The e-mail urge, for instance, probably occurs after you’ve finished reading a document or completed a certain kind of task. The cookie grab probably occurs when you’re walking out of the cafeteria, or feeling sluggish or blue.

Our capacity to develop such habits is an invaluable evolutionary advantage. But when they run amok, things can become tricky.

Consider a series of experiments Dr. Wansink performed with a bowl of tomato soup that was secretly connected to a tube that pumped more and more liquid into the bowl. Diners ended up eating almost twice as much soup as usual, though they didn’t report feeling any fuller after the meal.

Dr. Wood studied exercise habits among students who transferred from one college to another. When locations remained stable — the new school had an outdoor track just like the old school, for example — students continued running regularly. But if the tracks were too different, the exercise tapered off, on average. In another experiment, conducted by researchers studying smokers, those wanting to quit were more than twice as successful if they started kicking the habit while on vacation, when surrounded by unfamiliar people and places.

“Habits are formed when the memory associates specific actions with specific places or moods,” said Dr. Wood, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke. “If you regularly eat chips while sitting on the couch, after a while, seeing the couch will automatically prompt you to reach for the Doritos. These associations are sometimes so strong that you have to replace the couch with a wooden chair for a diet to succeed.”

The researchers at P.& G. realized that these types of findings had enormous implications for selling Febreze. Because bad smells occurred too infrequently for a Febreze habit to form, marketers started looking for more regular cues on which they could capitalize.

The perfect cue, they eventually realized, was the act of cleaning a room, something studies showed their target audience did almost daily. P.& G. produced commercials showing women spraying Febreze on a perfectly made bed and spritzing freshly laundered clothing. The product’s imagery was revamped to incorporate open windows and gusts of fresh wind — an airing that is part of the physical and emotional cleaning ritual.

“We learned from consumer interviews that there was an opportunity to cue the clean smell of Febreze to a clean room,” Dr. Berning said. “We positioned it as the finishing touch to a mundane chore. It’s the icing that shows you did a good job.”

In a sense, a product originally intended for use on piles of smelly, dirty clothes was eclipsed by its exact opposite — a product used when women confronted a clean and tidy living room. And the more women sprayed, the more automatic the behavior became.

Today, Febreze is one of P.& G.’s greatest successes. Customers habitually spray tidied living rooms, clean kitchens, loads of fresh laundry and, according to one of the most recent commercials, spotless minivans. In the most recent fiscal year, consumers in North America alone spent $650 million buying Febreze, according to the company.

Dozens of other companies have also redesigned advertising campaigns around habitual cues. Beer commercials, once filled with busty women in ill-fitting tops, are now more likely to feature groups of buddies, because research shows that groups of friends are one of the strongest habit cues. Candy bar companies, through commercials, have tied their products to low-energy cues, transforming what was once a dessert into a pick-me-up for cubicle dwellers.

For Dr. Curtis and the Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing With Soap, such tactics offered enormous promise in a country like Ghana.

That nation offered a conundrum: Almost half of its people were accustomed to washing their hands with water after using the restroom or before eating. And local markets were filled with cheap, colorful soap bars. But only about 4 percent of Ghanaians used soap as part of their post-restroom hand-washing regime, studies showed.

“We could talk about germs until we were blue in the face, and it didn’t change behaviors,” Dr. Curtis said. So she and her colleagues asked Unilever for advice in designing survey techniques that ultimately studied hundreds of mothers and their children.

They discovered that previous health campaigns had failed because mothers often didn’t see symptoms like diarrhea as abnormal, but instead viewed them as a normal aspect of childhood.

However, the studies also revealed an interesting paradox: Ghanaians used soap when they felt that their hands were dirty — after cooking with grease, for example, or after traveling into the city. This hand-washing habit, studies showed, was prompted by feelings of disgust. And surveys also showed that parents felt deep concerns about exposing their children to anything disgusting.

So the trick, Dr. Curtis and her colleagues realized, was to create a habit wherein people felt a sense of disgust that was cued by the toilet. That queasiness, in turn, could become a cue for soap.

A sense of bathroom disgust may seem natural, but in many places toilets are a symbol of cleanliness because they replaced pit latrines. So Dr. Curtis’s group had to create commercials that taught viewers to feel a habitual sense of unseemliness surrounding toilet use.

Their solution was ads showing mothers and children walking out of bathrooms with a glowing purple pigment on their hands that contaminated everything they touched.

The commercials, which began running in 2003, didn’t really sell soap use. Rather, they sold disgust. Soap was almost an afterthought — in one 55-second television commercial, actual soapy hand washing was shown only for 4 seconds. But the message was clear: The toilet cues worries of contamination, and that disgust, in turn, cues soap.

“This was radically different from most public health campaigns,” said Beth Scott, an infectious-disease specialist who worked with Dr. Curtis on the Ghana campaign. “There was no mention of sickness. It just mentions the yuck factor. We learned how to do that from the marketing companies.”

The ads had their intended effect. By last year, Ghanaians surveyed by members of Dr. Curtis’s team reported a 13 percent increase in the use of soap after the toilet. Another measure showed even greater impact: reported soap use before eating went up 41 percent.

And while those statistics haven’t silenced critics who say habit-forming advertisements are worrisome, they have convinced people who run other public health initiatives that the Ghana experiment is on the right track.

Today, public health campaigns elsewhere for condom use and to fight drug abuse and obesity are being revamped to employ habit-formation characteristics, according to people involved in those efforts. One of the largest American antismoking campaigns, in fact, is explicitly focused on habits, with commercials and Web sites intended to teach smokers how to identify what cues them to reach for a cigarette.

“For a long time, the public health community was distrustful of industry, because many felt these companies were trying to sell products that made people’s lives less healthy, by encouraging them to smoke, or to eat unhealthy foods, or by selling expensive products people didn’t really need,” Dr. Curtis said. “But those tactics also allow us to save lives. If we want to really help the world, we need every tool we can get.”


The article mentions research by Brian Wansink. His book is great (3-stars). Read it if you have problems with overeating, your weight, or if you're interested in cognition like I am.