Thursday, October 30, 2014

Easy Strawberry Yogurt Drink

As an alternative to paying $3.17 for a quart of El Mexicano Drinkable Yogurt...

32 oz container of Strawberry Yogurt (Wal Mart brand - $2.47)
1 1/2 cups milk ($0.33)
1 tbsp sugar ($0.04)

Mix thoroughly. You can drop the sugar if you do not need it to be as sweet as El Mexicano.

You save 33 cents over the bottle of El Mexicano, but you actually save more since you end up with 44 oz of drink. So you actually save $1.51 over the same amount.

TIP: Mix in a blender on the highest speed for 1 minute to get rid of all the strawberry chunks so it's easy to sip through a straw.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Oil Price as a Weapon: The Game is Afoot

The current drop in oil prices is due to increased production from Saudi Arabia. What does this mean? It means that Saudi Arabia has not peaked in oil production, but that is all that it means. It does not mean that we are not facing depletion, nor does it mean that the oil market can handle low prices over the long term and remain stable. Remember that the North American shale oil boom, as well as other unconventional projects worldwide, need a specific level of price support to remain economically worthwhile.
Additionally, producing nations that depend on oil exports for national wealth and well-being (much of the Middle East, and Russia) have their own specific price support needs. These levels vary depending on the economic makeup of the country in question. It is fairly settled that below a specific price point, and oil-export dependent nation will begin to face significant socioeconomic and even political challenges.
So in the face of the higher prices required by new unconventional sources and the higher prices required by such nations, why is Saudi Arabia allowing oil to sink to $75/barrel? More to the point, Saudi Arabia's production is intentionally driving down the price of oil. It is a form of suicide.
I agree with others that this is a political favor to the US. Yes, the US economy benefits from lower oil prices. However, the bigger and more important benefit (at least to the current administration) to place economic pressure on Russia and Putin. The US has supported Saudi Arabia for a long time and this is just returning the favor. This is a cunning geopolitical move designed to destabilize Russia. AND - our administration is willing to put domestic oil shale production under the gun to do it!
The last thing we need is for our economy to get used to lower oil prices just to have them snap back up once the US has completed its dirty deed, allowing our economy to grow then shoving it back into recession. Also, lower oil prices will have a destabilizing effect on nations OTHER than Russia. We are playing with fire, here.

Turnover, and how HR is a corporate tool.

Think companies care about turnover? Think again.
Turnover, as a corporate strategy, has both its costs and its benefits. Benefits you say? Yes, benefits! If you are prepared for a high turnover rate, you can get away with treating your employees how you want. More to the point, though, employers commonly see employees as widgets to be replaced if they quit or "malfunction." They can get away with this because of extended high unemployment. You see, the official government unemployment rate was redefined in 1994 (from U5 to U3). So despite the official (U3) 5.7% number that suggests near full employment, the classic measure (U5) stands at 7.1%. Even during the recession of the early 2000s, U5 never rose above 7.2%. So by the true classic economic measurement, we are a fair ways off from full employment.
It's not just continued high unemployment that has contributed to the "widgetization" of employees, but the "commoditization" of labor. For all but the executives and the most creative professions, employers are taking a "Hamburger Helper" approach to labor: engineer the division of labor within the organization to provide each employee with a static set of tasks and the routine training and reference tools to complete them, and then just add warm bodies! Enforce compliance within this prearranged set of affairs with draconian attendance policies and quick punishment for not staying strictly within the established policy and procedure.
The result is that there are enough acceptably qualified warm bodies that need a job that the job will always be filled. Experience and skill are devalued in favor of compliance, so a new employee that can follow the rules is just as good as a 10-year veteran, actually better since he has not developed an opinion and can be paid less. In this paradigm, who cares about turnover? Just treat employees well enough so they don't walk out the door their first year and you're set.
Even technical jobs can be commoditized. Consider the hapless level one technical support rep who reads from a script and always has at least three pat answers to your problem. That's just the start. Sony Corporation of America eventually disbanded all US-based high-level technical support operations for its VAIO line of computers because they felt they had developed a knowledge base sufficient for Philippine outsourcers to handle all support needs.
As the classic paradigm of unending capitalist growth increasing collides with a world with shrinking cheap energy sources, companies are just going to get more cunning and brutal in their quest for profitability and maximizing shareholder value. As the end of cheap oil restricts growth, companies will find their profits not so much through innovation, but through financial games like reducing costs and stock buybacks.
So when I hear HR professionals on LinkedIn talk about "talent" and "retention," the disconnect is striking to me. The game has changed. Outside of headhunters for executive, creative, and programming professionals, HR is really all about paperwork and job postings and compliance. It just is. The worth of an HR department is the worth of the company's workforce, and companies are valuing their workforce less and less. I dare say that most HR these days is no more vibrant and innovative than Accounts Payable.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Prosperity and Global Warming

I am most of the way through "Waking the Frog" by Tom Rand. In it, he argues for strong, immediate, and concerted action to limit greenhouse gas levels with the goal of limiting global warming. His discussion of economics and carbon pricing is intriguing and he makes his case well.
I tend to agree with him that cap-and-trade would be an ideal solution to control carbon dioxide emissions. It is a market-based solution that requires relatively little government intervention. What most people who oppose cap-and-trade don't know is that it has already worked spectacularly in the case of sulfur dioxide, the cause of acid rain. In the 20 years since the start of the SO2 cap-and-trade system, SO2 levels have plummeted to next to nothing. Another place cap-and-trade is working is in Europe, where it was begun in 2005.
You don't have to be an expert on the climate science to understand that mitigating the risk of global warming by controlling CO2 emissions is a good insurance policy. It's an uncertain risk with a horrific downside, so we ought to extra careful to hedge against it. An apt analogy would be that of the cold war. One could have made the argument that the US and the USSR would never use their nuclear weapons because of ABM, or mutually assured destruction. That did not stop anybody from being concerned about the prospect of nuclear war, nor should it have. It did not stop the push to stop nuclear proliferation and international treaties continued to be signed for arms control and reduction. Why? Because as illustrated in movies like "Threads" or "The Day After," the potential downside of maintaining the status quo was too horrific to ignore.
So it is with global warming. However, getting global warming under control is a little different than stepping back from a nuclear arms race. It is different because it hits people in the pocketbook. When you price carbon into the market, prices rise. This more than anything is one of the major problems people have with cap-and-trade. The reaction to any government initiative that will raise prices has only intensified since the Great Recession. Yes America is in recovery and the unemployment rate has gone down, but housing and groceries have gone up and the low unemployment rate hides the vast number of low wage jobs and the hordes who have dropped out of the workforce entirely. There are core fundamental weaknesses in our economy that have led many economic commentators to conclude that the "recovery" is only due to continued Fed intervention.
So the ethical argument that NOT pricing carbon is like dumping trash where you like instead of paying for proper disposal doesn't mean much when people struggle to pay for life's necessities. As a matter of fact, I've known a number of people who have had to move because of economic pressure and actually dump their unwanted stuff on the side of the road because they had neither the time nor the money to deal with it. The environment takes second place to personal needs. Perhaps this is why cap-and-trade could pass in countries with a strong safety net but fail in the US. If I remember correctly, the years leading up to the Great Recession in the US were characterized by increasing public awareness and concern for environmental issues. But then everyone lost their shirts.
Enter Peak Oil. The US peaked in March of 1971 when the Railroad Commission of Texas lifted production caps for the last time. Incidentally (and I believe consequently), real wages in the US have been on a long-term downtrend since right around that time. The volatility of oil prices since then is a consequence of our needing to source oil internationally.
Consider also that for most of history, mankind has never been able to combine the accumulation of wealth with systemic care for the environment. The fact that we have had the resources to turn around and pay attention to environmental issues at all is due to the massive amount of wealth and technology that has been made possible by oil: an incredibly dense, powerful, high EROEI fuel, until now.
EROEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested, also EROI) translates directly into economic growth, profits, and general standard of living. We are already challenged on all three fronts in the US; reducing the EROEI of fossil fuels through cap-and-trade is a hard sell. We could have done it in the 1990s. Now... I am not so sure. We have waited a bit too long as our combined EROEI continues to drop.
Back to the book, Tom Rand advocates for three baseline electric sources: next-gen nuclear, coal with carbon capture and sequestration, and geothermal. Geothermal is a poor choice from an EROEI standpoint, and nuclear is off the table after Fukushima. It's no wonder the market prefers to power on with coal with CCS.
As a matter of fact, moving to more coal with CCS generation will bring unexpected benefits to global warming. As our CCS technologies get better and cheaper, we can use CCS to sink CO2 in the atmosphere and bring down CO2 concentrations.
Our population will not stand for any more across-the-board reduction in EROEI. Although the average person does not know the term, they know the effect: a reduced standard of living. Since the Great Recession, there is no more tolerance for this. (Europe's cap-and-trade started before the Great Recession.) Geothermal has low EROEI and nuclear is off the table. Oil's EROEI continues to fall. The best solution in this case is exactly what the market has been doing: electrify everything and increase electric generation from coal with CCS. Obama has been able to implement the kind of EPA regulation to push CCS in the right direction with his so-call "War on Coal."
Although I still support cap-and-trade, this is going to have to wait until people have something to give again.

I just had to add these quotes from this article:

"The transition to renewable energy can’t be achieved without massive fossil fuel expenditure and carbon emissions along the way. 'What we forget,' says Miller, 'is that the process of bringing renewable energy to mass scale requires huge fossil fuel inputs for extraction, manufacturing, and transport.'

"My friendly Cassandras have a point: The ecological and economic breakdown is already under way for most of the planet. For the economically secure in the wealthier nations, we can periodically wake up to the breakdown, but still ignore its systemic nature.  But if you’re a Bangladeshi farmer, you’re already trying to survive climate change and you’ve possibly become a climate refugee. If you’re a farmer in the Central Valley of California, you are wondering if your unprecedented drought is part of a 'new normal' with weather."

"The radical insistence on limits to growth seems the choice of privileged people who volunteer for a simpler lifestyle and then inflict it on others with far fewer choices."