Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Mass Extinctions


Mass extinctions of many species have happened before.   Five times, actually.   At the end of Permian era, 299 to 251 million years ago before the continents were formed, mass extinction led to  95% of all species being wiped out. In this situation it was naturally caused by extreme climate fluctuations.  You can get a little more detail here. The process of extinction took millions of years;  nothing happened overnight.

Species naturally come and go.  Some scientists have postulated that we are in a period of accelerated extinctions.  In the past mammals became extinct at a rate of less than two species per million years.   But in the past 500 years, 80 mammals out of 5570 species of mammals have gone extinct.  And that's a conservative estimate.   The fact that it can be attributed to humans and that it has happened so quickly is especially disconcerting.    Professor Anthony Barnosky, writing in the Huffington Post, tries to present a hopeful outlook.  Perhaps because, if we decide it's hopeless, no efforts will be made.  But it is critical.

Climate change, destruction of tropical rain forests, the market for trinkets made out of ivory and aphrodisiacs made out of rhinoceros horn are matters we may feel we have little or no control over and that other people are responsible.

One of Professor Barnosky's suggestions is to simply get out and enjoy nature; you'll come to value it.     For further reading, his book, Dodging Extinction is out this month.   As a review states, "Read this book and you will demand change."


Saturday, October 25, 2014

Reviews Bite Back


Reviews can be problematic.   They can have long lasting consequences whether they are  negative or positive.   More than one author has admitted to paying a service ($5 seems to be the going rate) to have thousands of cubicle dwellers half a world away  post a glowing review on Amazon.   It usually had the desired effect.  Sales expanded exponentially.

Then there's the reverse situation:   A negative, one star review, even by someone who hasn't purchased the book or admits in the review to never finishing it, can bring book sales to a screeching halt from which they never recover, not even months later.

Many people don't leave reviews, positive or negative. Just too much effort.  There's no reward and most people post their reviews under a pen name.   A comment takes time to draft;  you can't just say "I loved it!"   A certain number of words is required.    I post regular reviews on Tripadvisor.  Since I use the service it somehow seems my duty to provide my best version of a fair and balanced opinion.  I have read suggestions that reviews, especially when it is the only review that the writer has ever written, should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt.   Could be a competitor or their employee.

Is everyone fair?  Trolls inhabit the internet and some form clubs or groups that lurch from topic to topic, apparently taking pleasure in swamping a book, restaurant, or hotel with reviews that have no basis in reality or their actual experience but provides the trolls with an amazing sense of power and group fellowship.   I've heard that some people demand a 'comp', a free meal or similar, in exchange for not  posting a negative review.

In response, more than one restaurant  has decided to bring out the heavy hitters.  A blogger here was fined because Google searches placed her negative review too high in the listings.   That plus the number of blog readers she possessed were to her detriment.   In another case,   lawyers were employed to track down the reviewer and threaten litigation if the review wasn't retracted.   A wedding venue had a term in the contract that the security deposit would be retained if one of the guests posted a negative review.

If you're wondering where will it end, this article  only provides more questions.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Travel light


Airlines seem to have a constant need for revenue.   Perhaps it's tied to the price of jet fuel.   Raising fares is a last resort, it seems, as customers have shown a reluctance to pay more and various search engines, like Kayak, facilitate finding an airfare by price alone.   Some countries have passed legislation requiring airlines to state the full, all-inclusive price of an airfare including taxes and surcharges.   This seems a positive move; previously the final price could be almost double the listed price.

But then there are the optional charges which are not required to be listed in the fare price.  Because they are optional and presumably avoidable, they are seen as fair game in the attempt to extract more revenue from travellers.  In a way it is similar to the included fixtures in some homes for rent or purchase in other countries.   North Americans might expect that appliances like a stove and refrigerator should be de rigeur but that just isn't the case.   So it is that food, especially on domestic flights, is not provided, headphones for listening to the on-board entertainment must be purchased, and, more recently, checked luggage attracts an additional charge.

As a longstanding  carry-on traveller I have researched various ideas and methods that could be used to avoid checking your suitcase.   Some are amusing, some border on ridiculous and some seem downright clever.    Families can box up and send their vacation clothing to their tropical destination via UPS or some other carrier.   If you are staying at the same resort for one or two weeks or more this can save you money.   Four or five family members, each checking a suitcase would amount to $250.  ($25 each way x 5).   It seems it is cheaper to ship a box or boxes back and forth as long as you don't need to travel beyond your shipping destination.

Then there's the suggestion of travelling with a carry-on bag (probably packed with your underwear) and upon arrival heading immediately to the nearest thrift store or charity shop.   For considerably less than the check luggage fee you and your children can purchase enough clothing to last a couple of weeks.   This reminds me of the character in Lee Child's book, whose title name escapes me, who bought a set of clothing, wore them for several days and then discarded them.  His busy life, tracking down notorious criminals, did not allow for time at the laundromat.

Tim Ferriss' blog (of 4 hour Work Week fame) which you can look at here   is pleased to provide a unique idea for avoiding ever checking luggage again:  Leave caches of clothing and even food at hotels you frequent. Seems to me it might require a large tip.

What about wearing all your clothes?    Check out this website, Jaktogo, for tips on how to wear all your clothes on your body when you fly.   Better hope the air-conditioning is working.  A more conservative version of this involves reversible clothing.   I suppose even the pants that zip off to become shorts and jackets that have sleeves that zip off to reveal a vest, reduce the amount of clothing required.

Will the day come when we pay our airfare by our body weight?  

Saturday, October 18, 2014


Alas, too soon they're gone
Those delicate pink blossoms
Close my eyes and dream

Brave, even foolish
Those pink harbingers of Spring
Trembling before harsh winds

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Interpreting value

Part II

How do we decide what an item is worth?   A quick easy answer would be that it is worth the price on the tag.   But prices change in response to . . . what?   Consumer demand, or lack of it?   Cheaper methods of production, volume discounts?  Perceived worth is certainly factor.

I recently came across a post from the writer of a 47 page or 16,900 word book of short stories on the Community posting section of Amazon's kindle boards.  She wrote that:

My book has been up on Amazon sites for two weeks now and I have not made a single sale! When and how do the sales happen? Will customers come?

Helpful suggestions were not slow in coming:

Change the cover;  it doesn't look eye-catching.   Change the price to $0.99--that's all people will pay.   

But  at that cover price, the author will receive $.0.35 in royalty.  Is that sufficient?   I paid $0.40 for a large carrot at the vegetable market a few days ago.  A red pepper was double that price.   Why?  If the author sells 30 copies she will be closing in on one hour's work at minimum wage.   Will that be adequate compensation?

Suggestions are made by others that effort be expended to ensure grammar and spelling are impeccable.   That apparently increases value, but to what?  Books are not unique, of course, in having flexible prices.   In my youth I worked briefly for a ladies clothing store.  Clothing was marked up 100% or more, for example, from $50. to $100.   That allowed room for discounting but still allowed a profit.    Would that work with books?

Perceived scarcity increases desirability, and thereby price.   E-books are in unlimited supply generally and the total number of books, e-book or otherwise, has greatly increased in the past few years.   

It's enough to make one long for the non-consumer era.   But then we'd have to figure out values by barter.  The medieval monks who lived here built their own homes from the island's stones and caught their own food.   They didn't have much but everything was priceless.


Saturday, October 11, 2014



I had a quick glance at this post about falling milk prices in the U.K.   The factoid that gave me pause was that farmers are only paid twenty-five pence (about forty cents) for a litre of milk.   It seems to me I paid close to $3.00 for the last litre I bought at the local supermarket, although not in the U.K.  There is a problem when the producer of the product, the one whose labour--okay, give some credit to the cow--makes the product possible, receives such a small percentage of the price the consumer pays.   After all, the cows must be fed, preferably healthy and sufficient food, and then there are vet bills and housing expenses.  I realize that the supermarkets have their own expenses and then there are the trucks that transport the milk from the farm but even without knowing the particulars, I'm left with the impression that the farmer is being cheated.

My speculations led me to comparisons with the music and film industry.   I've read in the past of some artists who despite earning millions from their music seemed poorly compensated.   Didn't Paul McCartney end up on a farm in Scotland for several years with little to show from his Beatle years?   Somehow others benefitted from his talent.   In the author autobiography of the James Herriott veterinarian series, also produced on television, James Alfred Wight relates that he was regularly approached for donations to animal causes but the reality was that it took years before his royalties amounted to much.   He disclosed that about 80% of his royalties was taken as tax payment and remember that the typical royalty payments to authors are only between 8% and 15% of the cover price.    He was one of the few authors who maintained British residency due to this;  most moved to Jersey or Guernsey or a similar more sympathetic tax regime.


Some apple farmers in the past have chopped down their trees in protest at the small share of the final consumer price their toil received when they sold their products.   This problem has led to marketing boards that guarantee a price and thereby give some security to the farmer.   But not everyone is pleased at this either.  Shoppers cross borders to obtain cheaper products and change their eating habits.   Is an apple a day still happening when apples cost a dollar each?   There's no easy solution.

More on this topic next time.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Why Agatha?


Agatha Christie is the third best selling writer of all time, only exceeded by the Bible and Shakespeare.   Her novels have been made into movies and television programs and her Poirot Mysteries have been excellently interpreted by the actor, David Suchet.   I watched a program, The Mystery of Agatha Christie, narrated and featuring Suchet, wherein he attempts to trace how she became a writer and where her ideas came from.    As a writer and a reader of Agatha Christie I was interested in this.

Suchet was given access to her childhood home, interviewed her grandson and studied photographs, diaries and documents never before seen outside the family.    Agatha herself attributed her desire and success at writing to growing up in a happy family.    Her family was well-to-do and money doesn't appear to have been a problem.   Agatha worked as a pharmacy assistant in a hospital during World War I and thereby gained a knowledge of pharmaceuticals, including poisonous ones.   It seems in about half her novels, death was by poisoning.  I've always thought that it helps to write about a locale or topic you have some passing familiarity with.

There are many small details and other worthwhile information so watch the forty-five minute program if you are at all an Agatha Christie reader or a mystery writer.  There's no saying, though, that her method can be duplicated and even Ms. Christie's venture into romance novels under the pen name Mary Westmacott did not receive the same critical or public favour.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Are we becoming like goldfish?


The title of this post comes from an article by McLean Greaves in Zoomer Magazine's September issue entitled 10 Reasons Why Almost Every Internet Article is a List.   A point permeating the reasons is the decreased ability  of readers to stay focussed today, according to Greaves.  He goes as far as to say that the human attention span is less than that of a goldfish.

I remember someone telling me once that we shouldn't feel sorry for the pet goldfish, stuck in a small bowl with basically nothing happening all day, save the daily drop from the sky of edible products, hopefully tasty.  The goldfish brain is so small that by the time it completes the circuit around the bowl, its minuscule brain has already completely forgotten what it saw the last time around.   In effect, it is delighted anew with the sights and decor each time.  I don't know if some legitimate scientific experiment was conducted that led to this finding or whether it was the creation of a guilty goldfish owner attempting to assuage his conscience over a tiny bowl. 

Humans have a much greater capacity for memory and attention but suffer from a surfeit of choices. We barely begin to engross ourselves in a lengthy article or novel before a certain restlessness  or sense of time pressure inexorably draws our focus away.  Is the next thing more worthwhile of our attention?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Everything evolves


It is interesting to watch the  evolution of the English language.   I shouldn't be ethnocentric;  I'm sure all languages evolve.  But who is the person who comes up with the new word?   In France, I believe, they (the government) wants to preserve the integrity of the French language.   So the almost universal computer is called l'ordinateur.   Similar words are invented for other new technology.   Marathon was a small town in Greece before it was a long distance endurance race with an official distance 42.195 kilometres or 26 miles and 385 yards.  It is usually run as a road race as opposed to multiple times around a track.

Athens was fighting the Persian Empire prior to the time of Alexander the Great in one of the endless stream of conflicts from that era.  They sent a most capable runner on a long journey to Sparta to ask for help as a battle was anticipated.   Exerting himself beyond human capabilities the man gasped out the request, which was refused, and then dropped dead (whether from exhaustion, shock or disappointment is not known).   The location of the ensuing battle (which Athens managed to win even without the Spartan reinforcements) was called Marathon.

Maybe we should have remembered instead the name of the unfortunate long distance runner who made the ultimate sacrifice.