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Saturday, June 6, 2015

Water Distribution : A Climate Change problem that needs to be addressed soon

   Climate change is just that -- a shift of weather patterns. It doesn't actually matter whether patterns change because of human activities or because of changes in solar flares or shifts in the magnetic core of the planet. It is thoroughly documented that the global ocean temperature is rising and photographs indicate an increasing loss of glaciers in polar regions as well as high mountain ranges.

   Humans have survived over the years because they are great at adapting to different living conditions. Humans can adapt to the current climate change if necessary. The problem with the current shift is that (in geologic terms) it seems to be happening so quickly. Effects are being noticed within a single lifetime rather than after generations. One serious problem that is arising is that of water distribution.

   Water distribution is very important for crop growth, animal husbandry, and basic survival. Politicians may hold snowballs for dramatic effect but, for every snowstorm, there is also a new heat wave and drought. It is likely that crops that have required a certain mixture of days of sunshine and amount of water will no longer have the conditions they require in that same region. So, shifts in climate brings along a need to change crop management and decisions as to what to plant.

   Problems of water distribution can be classified into five categories:

  1. Storage. Much of our fresh water is stored in snowpacks and glaciers. During the spring, summer, and fall, they melt and provide new water supplies when rain is not present. As the glaciers of the Himalayas, Sierras, polar regions, and other ranges disappear, they will not be able to continue to provide fresh water supplies. Alternate means of storage are necessary. Huge reservoirs will be needed to take the place of the snowpacks and glaciers.
  2. Rising Sea Levels. The amount of rising sea levels is unknown. If all of the snowpacks melt (including all of Antarctica) then a rise of over 200 feet is possible. This will drastically change our coastlines and many of our most populous cities are near the coastline. People will not just lose their beachfront properties but entire states and islands could vanish beneath the sea. These people will need to be relocated.
  3. Redistribution. There may be as much total precipitation as ever. However, the locations where it comes down (as rain or snow) will change -- weather patterns and local climates will change. As mentioned above, this will require shifts in crop plantings (note that some areas will receive more rain while others receive less) as well as general harvesting and crop planning. Denser areas of human population will also be affected with needs of water transport and storage.
  4. Aquifers. Much water is stored within layers of soil called aquifers. As droughts occur, or human population increases, water is removed from aquifers. This works fine as long as the amount removed is the same as that which filters back into the aquifers. In prolonged drought conditions, the levels of aquifers lower and lower. Wells run dry, deep rooted plants die, and the ability to bring the water levels back up start entering spans of decades. Aquifers are renewable but require management and continued rainfall.
  5. Waste. In many areas of the world, fresh water is in abundance. In other areas, it has always been scarce. These areas will change and waste of water in formerly abundant areas will need to be greatly reduced. Three to five minute showers will be needed. Ground cover that survive with existing moisture will be needed.

   There is time to start planning for these needs and some may not be needed for decades but it is good to start the planning sooner rather than later.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Our Bodies are Houses with many Rooms

   When we think of our bodies, we think of all of the various parts that built up from that original egg and sperm that started the process of dividing, growing, and specializing. From that beginning, we end up with a set of systems which allows us to stand, move, breathe, eat, and do the other functions of everyday living. These systems work together to make it possible for us to live and reproduce.

   But, our bodies are NOT just composed of the cells that were created as part of growing and life. Our bodies provide an environment for many other living organisms -- some hostile but many of great benefit to our everyday lives. For many years, medical researchers have just noted the facts of their existence (and, sometimes, blindly tried to eliminate them) and had no real idea of just how they interact with the rest of our bodily functions. This is now changing and active research is being done. Note that this research is still young in experience and knowledge and many interactions and functions are still unknown.

   An organism can exist anywhere within our body but we will focus on four areas that are of specific interest. These include the interior cell, the skin, the mouth, and the digestive tract. Within the interior cells exists organisms called the mitochondria (one of such is called a mitochondrion). While these "organelles" are an important mechanism to supply energy to the human cell (and, thus, to the human body), they also have many other functions within the body.

   The mitochondrion reproduces independently from the other cells of the human body. It exists only within the egg (and not the sperm) and thus, inheritance of the mitochondria within a body is based on maternal lineage (mother to child). The separation between egg and sperm and its independent reproduction gives it a likelihood of being considered an endosymbiont. In other words, at some point in the past the mitochondria took up residence within human (and other animals) cells and act as cooperative parts of the cell.

   On the surface of the skin (even the very "cleanest" of skin), exists a wonderland of tiny animals, bacteria, and other living creatures. The exact interplay between these creatures and their environment (the skin) is still to be fully understood but it is recognized that they do play a part in keeping the body from being invaded by unwelcome visitors. Of course, within this dermal ecosystem is the possibility of undesirable inhabitants -- such as fungus that creates "athlete's foot".

   There is a large difference between the mitochondria living peacefully within the cell and the exposed environment of the skin -- a large, direct, interaction with the exterior world. Showers, baths, perfume, makeup, dirt, and so forth will affect the living environment on the skin. How does it affect it? We don't really know but two people (let's say they are identical twins to make this simpler) who have different exterior living environments, diets, and exterior habits will have different sets of creatures (or, at least, different proportions) on the skin -- which is likely to affect some aspect of health and protection from exterior invasion.

   Our mouths harbor a large collection of bacteria and other living matter. This environment can be altered by both external and internal processes. Cleaning teeth and gums can reduce the amount of bacteria and their by-products. Blood sugar levels (especially relevant to those with diabetes) can alter the number and type of bacteria living in the mouth. (Note that brushing, diet, gum health, and blood sugar levels can all change the smell of your breath.) Many oral bacteria have potentially bad effects -- but controllable -- and, presently, few beneficial effects are known.

   The area of symbiosis of greatest present interest is the world of the digestive tract. Although it has long been known that interior bacteria can be directly involved with digestion -- for example, termites have special bacteria that allow them to digest cellulose (wood fiber) -- it was not known that the same was true with humans and other animals. It turns out that the composition of the neighborhoods of our digestive system can affect hormones, immune system, metabolism, allergies, blood sugar levels (not just insulin and sugar), mood, and other matters.

   Just how, and what, makes a difference is still unknown but the knowledge that it makes a difference is truly exciting -- in reality the addition of an entirely new bodily system. This infant study, of course, gives rise to much speculation and marketing of things believed to make a difference -- such as probiotics which are supposed to enhance positive groups of bacteria within the digestive system. Little is known for certain but it is an additional, important, area to understand for better health and activity.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Regulations create level playing fields for businesses

   It seems to be fairly "normal" for businesses to complain about, and fight, every new regulation that is proposed or enacted. This isn't unreasonable as it will be true that a new regulation will require different procedures (and probably additional paperwork). However, that is not the same as saying that regulations are bad for businesses -- but it can be a difficult balancing act within the global economy.

   Regulations are a way to tell businesses what practices are acceptable to the society in which they function. They fall into three general categories (actually, almost anything can be broken up into however many categories as are desired -- I am choosing three). These categories are economics, labor, and environment. There is also a fourth category which involves product regulations -- for the product quality and safety of the consumer but that does not directly apply to this blog.

   Economic regulations involve the way the products of a company become part of the general economy. This will involve taxes. Generally, businesses want to pay fewer taxes and the general population wants them to pay more taxes. It will also involve tariffs -- both import and export. Tariffs are special taxes that are involved with the movement of products and money across country borders. This is a part of the balancing act.

   Let us say that Country A, as part of the standards for their society, requires all businesses to ensure that any water used by the business to be cleaned to drinking standards before being released back to the environment. This requirement (or regulation) adds 5% to the cost of doing business in Country A. Country B does NOT have such a requirement and, thus, businesses can produce the same product for 5% less. This puts businesses in Country A at a price disadvantage. A tariff on products imported from country B gives the businesses a more equal competitive situation. (Note that the tariff does not help the environment in country B.)

   Regulations may also be in the category of labor use. Minimum wage laws (or "living wage" laws whenever they start being enacted) say that people cannot officially be employed without a certain level of pay. Restrictions on number of hours worked per day, or week, directly affect the number of people employed. "Child Labor laws" restrict the age of workers and the number of hours per day that they can work at what ages. Mandatory sick days allowed (paid or unpaid) create a situation where workers are not compelled to work even when sick (this also benefits the general population when the food industry is involved). Vacation days, holidays, and other types of paid, or unpaid, absences help the overall health of the people who work for a business.

   Environmental regulations are basically a matter of how businesses are allowed to affect the environment. Usually a person thinks of manufacturing companies for this. However, the requirement that a business have, and maintain, a parking garage would also be an example of an environmental regulation as it reduces the amount of land that cannot be used for vegetation. Another non-manufacturing law might be a requirement to turn off 70% of the lighting during non-working hours.

   Of course, environmental regulations apply more directly to manufacturing businesses. It is similar to teaching a child to "clean up their own mess". A business would, naturally, prefer other people to take care of their messes. Note that not having environmental regulations does NOT decrease the cost to clean up -- it moves it from the business to the general public. In fact, it probably costs less for the mess to be cleaned up at the site of creation of the mess than after it has dispersed and damaged other parts of the environment.

   It would be completely possible for a business to do everything well on their own initiative. They can treat their people well, be good to the environment, and be a good neighbor within their communities. There are many small businesses that strive hard to do such and other, larger, businesses that recognize that there are inherent benefits (lower turnover of staff, better public image, etc.) to do such. However, businesses that do NOT behave well can have financial advantages over their competitors -- and this does not help society as a whole.

   Regulations provide a framework that is acceptable to the local society that allows businesses to compete without having uneven costs of providing services.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Living Wages are not only affordable -- they help businesses

    It is often said by spokespeople for businesses that "we cannot afford to pay our workers living wages". However, there seems to be no difficulty in paying for increased costs for materials, or energy, or advertising, or increased costs of real estate, or any other such item. As I discussed in my blog about "supersizing", there are a number of things that go into the cost of an item versus its price.

    The composition, or gathering of different parts, of the cost of an item will vary depending on the item. Some things are "labor intensive" which means that labor costs are a higher percentage of the cost. Others are based on scarcity -- or an aspect of "we have what you want -- who is willing, and able, to pay the most for it". In general, for many items, the amount of labor cost within the total cost for things that are actively made by people is a minority of the cost -- call it 30%. For stores that have high "turnover" (things sold quickly and new, replacement, items put on the shelves for sale again), labor costs are much less (such as for mass merchandizing stores) -- perhaps 10%.

    For our discussion, let's just say that labor costs are 25% of the cost of the item.  Doubling the labor costs would NOT double the base cost of the item to sell. It just adds an extra 25% -- so the base cost is now 125% of the former price. Let's say that the retail price (price charged to a general customer) was twice that of the base cost -- or an extra 100%. This means that the price is 112.5% of the original price (100% original cost + 100% original profit + 25% extra labor costs gives 225% which is "normalized" (brought down to a comparison against 100%) to 112.5%.

    Now it is possible (even likely) that the merchant might want to keep their percentage profit rather than the actual amount. So, in the above comparison, the merchant got the same amount of profit as base cost. If we increase the base cost by 25%, the total amount doubled ends up at 125% of the original price (100% of original cost + 25% extra labor costs is equal to 125%; doubled gives us 250% and normalized brings it back to 125%).

    We can see that even doubling the labor costs does not add a huge percentage to either the base cost or a retail price without penalizing the retailer. It can be argued that a 25% increase is still something that people are not willing to pay. After all, people do comparison shopping and retailers have sales, and price cuts (temporary or permanent). If Item X is sold at one store for $1.25 and the very same item X is sold at another store is sold for $1 then many people will choose to buy for $1. What would make people able, or willing, to pay more for products?

    The first reason is that the above analysis is a simplification. Labor costs are NOT the same as wages. Although the blog on "supersizing" uses labor costs as a lump sum, labor costs are actually a combination of wages, benefits, the cost to find someone to work at the job, training, and other matters. Thus, doubling wages does not double labor costs. In reality, it will reduce "turnover" within the workplace and reduce the amount needed to find people to do the job and the training. So, a doubling of wages may actually only cause an increase of 20% overall (these numbers are all examples but probably in a reasonable range) so the product would only cost $1.20.

    The second reason is what do people do when they make more money? Well, hopefully they will save some more. But almost everyone would also spend more. The products may cost a bit more but the business is also creating more customers and a percentage will buy from their store.

    A third reason is that it creates a positive image. I am sure you can think of a company who does not treat their employees well and relies on charities and the benefits paid by taxpayers to subsidize the wages of their employees. Similarly, we can also think of companies who pay their people more than what is "required" and are known for treating their employees fairly and well. Because of these three reasons (and other reasons) these "good neighbor" companies often make a better profit than the ones who sponge off of the taxpayers to increase the owners' wealth.

    The last reason leads into a future blog (maybe the next one). And that is -- it isn't always a matter of "nice people finish last". The above three reasons come into play to help people who do the good, proper, thing benefit financially. Regulations also help -- because the companies who care about people (and environment, and health, and ...) are not penalized because they operate "on a level playing field". That is, if everyone is required to do something good then no company is at a financial disadvantage for doing what is good. Everyone has the same requirements.

    Can you think of other benefits to a company for paying living wages?

Saturday, February 21, 2015

A Living Wage : it's not that difficult to figure out

    It used to be that discussion was about the "minimum" wage. That was always a difficult discussion because it is totally subjective. If a person is starving and you agree to give them a sandwich and a glass of water if they work for you for eight hours then it is a minimum wage (anything less and they would die and be unable to do the work). Then there is the official "minimum" wage -- which is completely fictitious. People are paid less than the minimum wage all the time -- sometimes legally and sometimes not but it definitely is not the least amount of money people are paid.

    However, when we come to the concept of the "living" wage, it is really easy. One thing to recognize up front is that there is not a single living wage. A living wage will depend upon the expectations within a society. It will depend upon the general cost of living in the area. It will depend on individual circumstances -- do you have children or others dependent upon you, do you have additional needs that others do not have (blind, deaf, mobility impaired, ...), and so forth.

    So, there is not a single living wage for all people. But it is easy to determine. Add up the costs of everything it is needed to live over a year and divide that by the number of hours that are considered reasonable in your society. Let's put together a case example for an "average" city in the U.S.

    There are a number of categories that MOST people would agree on. There are also a number of other categories that people would not agree on (is a phone required? is recreation required? is television required? is air conditioning really needed? is a personal car required? is it necessary to be fashionable? ...) Minimum requirements will include such as:

  • Shelter
  • Utilities (water, heat, sewage, power)
  • Food
  • Clothing
  • Health-related Costs (incl. toothbrushes, toilet paper, clothes washing, etc.)

    There's a certain range within each category that is required. Sometimes you might find a great deal on an apartment (or live with your parents). Sometimes you can find used clothing that is acceptable. Specific numbers can definitely be argued about and I won't say that you're incorrect. However, here are some (not the only) realistic numbers.

  • Shelter -- a studio apartment; $900/month -- $10,800/year
  • Utilities -- basics for a small apartment; $100/month -- $1200/year
  • Food -- for one person, no fast food, no eating out; $8/day, $250/month -- $3000/year
  • Clothing -- 3 pairs of pants, 2 underwear, 4 shirts, 5 pairs of socks, 1 pair of shoes, 1 coat -- $200/year
  • Health-related Costs -- [# taken for an Affordable Cost policy for an unemployed single person] -- $340/month plus $40/month for medications/co-pays;  approx. $4500/year.

   This totals $19,760 for a year. For simplicity, round it up to $20,000. If we assume that working a 40-hour week for 50 weeks/year is reasonable then that is 2,000 hours. So, a "living wage" for a person with no special needs is $10/hour NET. I emphasize NET because this is what they have to have in order to pay for it all. If they have to pay country/local taxes or union dues or anything then that is added to the NET requirements.

    So, we have determined a "living" wage. Even assuming that you agree with the above estimates the numbers can be moved around. If you qualify for food stamps, you might reduce your needs for food. If you can get subsidized housing, you might pay $500/month. But the foundation needs stay the same. Note also that there are no costs for childcare listed -- this is for a single person with no additional needs.

    But society cannot afford to pay such!!! This is the statement that is echoed by businesses and wealthy politicians. It the next blog (hopefully -- I get distracted ) I will discuss the realities of paying living wages.

    Meanwhile, what things do you consider needed to live? Do you currently live on less? How do make it happen?

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Interconnectivity of Things : work

    A popular topic nowadays is the Internet of Things (IoT). This talks about tangible devices that are interconnected via the Internet. I might discuss that someday. However, IoT is really a subset of the interconnectivity of Things (InOT). And that interconnectivity applies at many levels. Today, in continuation of my recent blogs on economics, I thought I would talk about how work/jobs interconnect.

    One way to examine this is to put forth a possible change to the economy -- a shift from private transportation to public transportation (to save space later, let's call this "the Shift"). How would this affect the economy and how would it affect jobs and work?

    The first thing that can be done is to list the things that are associated with private transportation.

  1. Roads
  2. Parking Lots (including driveways and garages)
  3. Gasoline (assume have not migrated to electric cars)
  4. Consumable parts (tires, windshield fluid, batteries, etc.)
  5. Car distribution (including sales and transport)
  6. Car manufacturing
  7. Car repair
  8. Car maintenance (including washing, upgrades, and so forth)
  9. Car disposal

    I am certain that this is not an exhaustive list and, as we will see, each item can be broken down into many sub-items. The Shift is also not a truly radical shift as most things associated with private transportation also exist associated with public transportation. Thus, it is a shift for reduction rather than elimination and creation.

    Let's look at the first item on the list -- roads. First thing is that roads occupy space -- lots and lots of space. The Shift would not eliminate the need for roads but probably no roads would need to be more than 2 lanes (one each direction). In fact, many low usage roads could probably be a single lane with pull-over areas (similar to low-traffic roads in Europe). As a conservative estimate, let's say that, with the Shift, we could reclaim 80% of the land currently used for roads. (Skipping to item two, we can also probably reclaim 95% of the space needed for driveways and garages.) It also reduces the size needed for bridges and tunnels. What can this space be used for? Parks, farmland, recreation, pasture -- whatever space is presently used for.

    One website indicates about 18,000 square miles (about 0.6% of the land area) are used for roads in the US. That site argues that that isn't very much but I would note that there are 9 states in the US that are each less than 18,000 square miles and it would be the same square miles as Rhode Island, Delaware, Connecticut, and New Jersey combined. The Shift would reclaim about 15,000 square miles or a little more than the size of Maryland.

    Space was the first part of the first item. Roads also includes heavy construction equipment, labor (about 140,000 workers in the U.S.), concrete and asphalt manufacture and transportation, bridge and tunnel design, and so forth. Let's say that there are 200,000 jobs associated with roads and the Shift would eliminate the need for 50,000 of them. This means that 150,000 people in the US would need to find different jobs.

    And this is just the very first item associated with the Shift. Every item above involves jobs, land use, energy use, and so forth. As a conservative guess, the Shift would cause the need for a million people to find new jobs.

    So, yes -- many reasonable people would like to see the Shift, but resistance to the Shift is not just an automatic resistance to change. It is also based on the economic turmoil to families and economic infrastructure.

    Once upon a time, I suggested a tool that would make analysis of such changes as listed above much easier. In my next blog, I will go into more detail of the design of such.

    In the meantime, what effects do you see would come out of the Shift and would it be worth it?

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The media is what lies between you and the information

    The dictionary tells us that the root origins of the word media is the plural of medium and is from the latin word for middle. The plural word media has been taken over to indicate a particular type of medium -- associated with mass media (television, radio, printed or texted material). Thus, within this context, there may be a plural of the plural -- medias.

    No matter how you pull the word apart, it still indicates something that is between. Roots of the concept are really part of what is now called social media. This might be surprising to people who have grown up in the Internet era but not at all surprising to people who grew up in a small town. In medieval times, there was often an official person -- the town crier -- whose job it was to stand on a corner or before a building and call out information considered to be important by the person who paid the town crier. This was often a method of the government to tell people something. More important, both in medieval times as well as small towns, was the town gossip who was an individual through whom information passed from people and groups all over. I am certain that, even in cave dwelling times, there was always a particular person who found out information and passed it along.

    The primary difference between mass media and social media is that mass media is more of a one-to-many spread of information while social media is a many-to-many. One source of information is taken by an individual (or group of individuals) and passed along to a large number of people and that is mass media. Or many people provide information which is collected by one (or more) person that is passed along to as many people as who will listen. In today's world that collection point can be human or electronic.

    All of these are good methods of collecting and distributing information -- but they do not guarantee that it will be GOOD, or valid, information. We see this currently in discussions about existing events. We are often divided -- and very firmly divided -- because the information sources (and associated media) are very different and the people either do not have the time, energy, or desire to research the information themselves to determine.

    So, people decide who they trust and rely on that information. If the media are trustworthy, it works well. If not, they are the sources of the lies and rumors that damage, and sometimes cripple, people and societies.

    The moral of the story is -- make sure you can trust the sources of your information and verify for yourself when you can.

    What media types do you rely on for information and why do you trust them?