Monday, June 30, 2014

AND STILL SOME MORE RAMBLINGS: Or little rants about life these days that I could say again and again

ARE web reviewers legit? Sometimes it's pretty clear exactly who writes fake positive reviews on the Web: friends or relatives of the author or the shop or restaurant owner, or sometimes the author or shop owner himself. The goal of fake positive reviews is to increase sales, and the reviewers are the ones who benefit, or want their friends to benefit... A fascinating new academic study sheds light on the fake negative review, finding not only that the source is totally unexpected but also that the problem is much bigger than a few malicious operators. According to a study done by Eric Anderson of Northwestern University and Duncan Simester of the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management, customers do it — in fact, devoted customers write those “reviews.” Registered customers wrote over 325,000 reviews in the study period. But for 16,000 of those reviews, there is no evidence that the customer bought the item. I know it can be confusing, right? The internet or web culture are simply confused and confusing, to say the least.

EVER wondered why you suddenly have spam emails about dating or food recipes? Or whatever? It's because you are single and you are a foodie. You are being watched online or whatever you're clicking and typing on your smartphone, that's why... In fact, even retailers are watching your social media persona... Or even your inbox? For example, Nordstrom wanted to learn more about its customers — how many came through the doors, how many were repeat visitors — the kind of information that e-commerce sites like Amazon have in spades. So last fall the company started testing new technology that allowed it to track customers’ movements by following the Wi-Fi signals from their smartphones. Nordstrom’s “experiment” is part of a movement by retailers to gather data about in-store shoppers’ behavior and moods, using video surveillance and signals from their cellphones and apps to learn information as varied as their sex, how many minutes they spend in the candy aisle and how long they look at merchandise before buying it. All sorts of retailers — including national chains, like Family Dollar, Cabela’s and Mothercare, a British company, and specialty stores like Benetton and Warby Parker — are testing these technologies and using them to decide on matters like changing store layouts and offering customized coupons...

HOOK-UP culture, who's taking the lead? Some experts say, now it's ladies' choice... Hanna Rosin, in her book, “The End of Men,” writes that hooking up is a functional strategy for today’s hard-charging and ambitious young women, allowing them to have enjoyable sex lives while focusing most of their energy on academic and professional goals. Although others, like Susan Patton, the Princeton alumna and mother who in March wrote a letter to The Daily Princetonian urging female undergraduates not to squander the chance to hunt for a husband on campus, say that de-emphasizing relationships in college works against women. “For most of you, the cornerstone of your future and happiness will be inextricably linked to the man you marry, and you will never again have this concentration of men who are worthy of you,” advised Ms. Patton, who has two sons, one a Princeton graduate and the other a current student. In many places, Ms. Patton was derided for wanting to return to the days of the “Mrs. degree,” though a few female writers, noting how hard it can be for women to find mates in their 30s, suggested that she might have a point. Majority of my current friends and Facebook readers are females, so what do you think?

DO clinical trials to cure cancers work? Every spring, some 30,000 oncologists, medical researchers and marketers gather in an American city to showcase the latest advances in cancer treatment. At the last annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, much of the buzz surrounded a study that was anything but a breakthrough. Mark R. Gilbert, a professor of neuro-oncology at the University of Texas in Houston, presented the results of a clinical trial testing the drug Avastin in patients newly diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive brain cancer. In other studies of patients with recurrent brain cancers, tumors shrank and the disease seemed to stall for several months when patients were given the drug, an antibody that targets the blood supply of these fast-growing masses of cancer cells. But to the surprise of many, Dr. Gilbert’s study found no difference in survival between those who were given Avastin and those who were given a placebo. Bottomline, there's no certainty in recent assessments, but doctors get to learn during the process and then incorporate that knowledge into the ongoing trial. But when will they finally found a cure? Mr Gilbert's definition of a successful clinical trial? “At the end of the day,” he says, “regardless of the result, you’ve learned something.”

A PLAN by a group of 17 major North American retailers, including Wal-Mart, Gap, Target and Macy’s, commits $42 million for worker safety in Bangladesh following recent fatal mishaps in local factories. These sweatshops deliver job quotas from said US companies. The money commitment shall cover inspections and an anonymous hot line for workers to report concerns about factory conditions, and more than $100 million in loans and other financing to help Bangladeshi factory owners correct safety problems. However, some labor rights groups—including the Worker Rights Consortium, the Clean Clothes Campaign and United Students Against Sweatshops, criticized the American plan. They maintained that it would cost as much as $3 billion to bring Bangladesh’s garment factories up to an acceptable safety standard. “Wal-Mart, Gap and the corporations that have chosen to join them, are unwilling to commit to a program under which they actually have to keep the promises they make to workers and accept financial responsibility for ensuring that their factories are made safe,” the groups said in a statement. Makes sense?

HAS the US government really fulfilled its promises to American Indians (or Native Americans)? The proud nation of Sioux Indians who live in South Dakota — like many of the 566 federally recognized tribes — have a treaty with the United States, the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which promised that their health care, education and housing needs would be provided for by the federal government. Yet, according to recent studies and findings by former Senator Byron L. Dorgan, who chaired the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, American Indian children are the country’s most at-risk population. Too many live in third-world conditions. Reports Dorgan: “Tribal leaders, parents and some inspiring children I’ve met make valiant efforts every day to overcome unemployment, endemic poverty, historical trauma and a lack of housing, educational opportunity and health care.” These leaders and communities are once again being mistreated by a failed American policy, adds Dorgan, this time going under the ugly name “sequestration.” This budget maneuvering requires across-the-board spending cuts to the most important programs along with the least important. American Indian kids living in poverty are paying a very high price for this misguided abandonment of Congressional decision-making.

WHEN people speak wistfully of the past, they typically become more optimistic and inspired about the future. I agree... “Nostalgia makes us a bit more human,” says a group of psychologists at University of Southampton. They consider the first great nostalgist to be Odysseus, an itinerant who used memories of his family and home to get through hard times, but the shrinks emphasize that nostalgia is not the same as homesickness. It’s not just for those away from home, and it’s not a sickness, despite its historical reputation. However, nostalgia does have its painful side — it’s a bittersweet emotion — but the net effect is to make life seem more meaningful and death less frightening. Nostalgia is common around the world, including in children as young as 7 (who look back fondly on birthdays and vacations). I guess, I do reminisce a lot about my childhood and memories of home...

ARE you an expectant mom? Stockpiling diapers and choosing car seats—or are you struggling with bigger purchases? Heard of birthing tub as epidural anesthesia? According to a NY Times research, cost of maternity care these days range from $4,000 to $45,000. An ultrasound for $935, and a $256 bill to a radiologist to read the scan? Plenty of other pregnant women are getting sticker shock in the United States, where charges for delivery have about tripled since 1996, according to an analysis done by Truven Health Analytics. Childbirth in the United States is uniquely expensive, and maternity and newborn care constitute the single biggest category of hospital payouts for most commercial insurers and state Medicaid programs. The cumulative costs of approximately four million annual births is well over $50 billion. And though maternity care costs far less in other developed countries than it does in the United States, studies show that their citizens do not have less access to care or to high-tech care during pregnancy than Americans. But then, do we really need those “high-tech care”?

RECENT studies suggest that Americans are buying fewer cars, driving less and getting fewer licenses as each year goes by. Okay. Has America passed peak driving? The United States, with its broad expanses and suburban ideals, had long been one of the world’s prime car cultures. America’s love affair with its vehicles seems to be cooling? When adjusted for population growth, the number of miles driven in the United States peaked in 2005 and dropped steadily thereafter, according to an analysis by Doug Short of Advisor Perspectives, an investment research company.  As of April 2013, the number of miles driven per person was nearly 9 percent below the peak and equal to where the country was in January 1995. Part of the explanation certainly lies in the recession, because cash-strapped Americans could not afford new cars, and the unemployed weren’t going to work anyway. But by many measures the decrease in driving preceded the downturn and appears to be persisting now that recovery is under way. The next few years will be telling. So let's wait and see... Meantime, I need to score a bag of sugar at a store a mile away.

HAVE you heard of the term “stealth wear”? Cool? It’s a catchy description for clothing and accessories designed to protect the wearer from detection and surveillance. Really? Seriously? Then there's flying surveillance cameras, also known as drones... Then, have you also heard of advances in facial-recognition technology? Wearable devices like Google Glass—which can be used to take photographs and videos and upload them to the Internet within seconds. Adam Harvey, an artist and design professor at the School of Visual Arts and an early creator of stealth wear, acknowledges that countersurveillance clothing sounds like something out of a William Gibson novel. “The science-fiction part has become a reality,” he said, “and there’s a growing need for products that offer privacy.” Ah! When will all this paranoia going to end? All this bizarre consumerism from our fear of forced disclosure. Thing is, what are we really hiding?

EARLY in June, at a middle school in Mooresville NC, President Obama set a goal of high-speed Internet in nearly every public school in America in five years. It was a bold and needed pronouncement — except that in 1996 President Clinton said virtually the same thing, calling for libraries and classrooms to be “hooked up to the Information Superhighway by the year 2000.” Well, many people reading this are probably hooked up pretty conveniently on a smartphone, tablet or computer. Yet they might not know that half of Americans don’t own a smartphone, one-third lack a broadband connection and one-fifth don’t use the Web at all... That is a fact. Meantime, virtually all of America’s schools are connected to the Internet today. The question, however, is quality... Children who go to school in poor neighborhoods are connected to the Web at speeds so slow as to render most educational Web sites unusable. Luis A. Ubiñas, president of the Ford Foundation, says that despite huge money his organization gave out to nonprofits to expedite projects for the same purpose, nothing much has been done. “Like any effort to develop our national infrastructure, success demands more than the dedication of the nonprofit sector alone,” he adds. Or maybe we have become more and more dependent on the machine, knowing it will foster more progress and development than simply improving on a technological infrastructure that was already in place before?

NOTICE this. Whether it is a photo of a college prom queen in green thong underwear or a cat napping on top of a Labrador—it doesn't really matter. Or what about a slew of whiny drama about a constantly famished heart or a sweet row of delectable gluten-free culinary delights? These will elicit dozens of likes for sure, and some may even post very encouraging comments and funny retorts. That feedback loop of generally positive reinforcement is the most addictive element of social media. This keeps us coming back... Zeynep Tufekci, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, says the vast amplification of the potential audience a single person can reach has raised the stakes for all online activity. She parallels this to graffiti, “it's performative.” Part of our increasing looseness with what we post on the Web has to do with the realization that one raunchy photo is just a single data point among hundreds. But Coye Cheshire, a professor of information sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies how we interact online, thinks there might be something more complex at play. In his research, he has highlighted the power of social approval. Interesting, isn't it? I just hope that this is all virtual—and one day, we'd take the initiative to come out of this box and at least say hello over latte or beer...

THE baby market is essentially a commodity market... In this business, the challenge is persuading parents that a product has a unique feature worthy of a price premium. A glance at the shelves indicates just how narrowly baby-product companies have divided parents into subgroups. Some will pay extra for conveniences like a light, easy-to-fold stroller; others want aesthetic luxuries, like leather trim. Many respond to fear (is my child safer in Baby Trend’s Inertia car seat for $179.99 or with Safety 1st’s Air Protect+ system, which costs $189.99?) Viviana Zelizer, a Princeton sociologist, infers in “Pricing the Priceless Child,” that parents' response to the baby commodity market comes along with “an increasingly sentimentalized view of children.” For the first time in human history, having a child in the United States is a net financial cost for a parent. This, of course, has been a huge boon to child-product manufacturers. Companies profit from people's sentiment with extraneous features. The whole process is prone to produce absurdities like the $4,495 Roddler custom stroller... Well, why not spend more time with your kids instead—in the woods, beside a river, or at home? Your child needs your warmth, up front and close—is all.

ARE you old enough (like me) but who isn't that senile and absent-minded to remember simpler things at work—like when you were talking, whether in person or on the phone, was the main way to communicate? Then suddenly, in the 1990s, when e-mails came, things were never the same. Besides delivering a serious blow to the sellers of those pieces of paper, e-mail made communicating with people incredibly and delightfully — easy. Really? An article in The Ergonomics says, electronic communication tools can demand constant switching, which contributes to a feeling of “discontinuity” in the workplace. On the other hand, people sometimes deliberately introduce interruptions into their day as a way to reduce boredom and to socialize, the article said. We’re only beginning to understand the workplace impact of new communication tools. The use of such technology in the office is “less rational than we would like to think,” said Steve Whittaker a professor at the Univ of California, Santa Cruz. Or is it what Alvin Toffler defined as Future Shock? “Too much change in too short a period of time.”

THIS is what we already know: China's combination of strength and aggressiveness, plus the economic stagnation in Europe and America is making the West increasingly bothered. While China is not taking over the world militarily, it seems to be steadily taking it over commercially. Of late, Chinese companies and investors have sought to buy two Western companies, Smithfield Foods, the American pork producer, and Club Med, the French resort company. Europeans and Americans tend to fret over Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, its territorial disputes with Japan, and cyberattacks on Western firms, but all of this is much less important than a phenomenon that is less visible but more disturbing: the aggressive worldwide push of Chinese state capitalism. By buying companies, exploiting natural resources, building infrastructure and giving loans all over the world, China is pursuing a soft but unstoppable form of economic domination. Beijing’s essentially unlimited financial resources allow the country to be a game-changing force in both the developed and developing world, one that threatens to obliterate the competitive edge of the West, kill jobs in Europe and America and blunt criticism of human rights abuses in China... But do we have to whine and heap blames on China, instead of working things out our way? You see, Spain, France and Britain marched to global mercantilism many generations ago, with a sword and cross afront their ships and forced the “savages” and “indios” to submit... The Chinese did not. They sold us shit and we bought them, while we allowed the 1 percent capitalist to hook up with them, while we are so busy finding ways to disengage us from the collective, community or comradeship due to obsession with privacy and techno-madnesses...

HAVE you heard about a “gamified city tour”? It is an iPhone app called Stray Boots, which sells $2-to-$12 tours of more than a dozen cities including New Orleans, Philadelphia and Miami. Introduced last year, the apps (or game) began testing in 2009 using only text messages. Since then, it has sold more than 85,000 tours, roughly doubling sales each year, said its chief executive, Avi Millman. (Stray Boots is also available in Britain, where it’s known as UK: The Game.) Stray Boots is the new way to sell travel tours... This app is merely one product in a wave of new travel programs and promotions that are using game theory to win over customers, particularly those under 30. Today online tour operators like Expedia are incorporating avatars and trivia contests into the browsing and booking process. Tourism offices in Pennsylvania and Illinois are proffering exclusive Foursquare badges to those who check in at sites in their states. Museums are using portable multimedia players to make walking through their collections feel a bit like being in a multiplayer video game. And the America’s State Parks Foundation is rolling out a new app by ParksbyNature Network called the Pocket Ranger — available in 40 states by the end of the year — that enables users to earn points and win prizes by signing up for GeoChallenges, outdoor quests that require players to use the app’s GPS feature to navigate to sites like dams, trails and reservoirs. gods earn by gaming, profit by visiting. Tell me, isn't that e-cool, or what?

WHEN global economic downturn hit, Europe and Japan reeled bigtime on the pavement. Meantime, while Europe continues to cling on to austerity measures to rescue its sagging economy like a stubborn cat, Japan has been squeezing out of the hole in the past few years. Japan posted an unexpectedly robust growth rate of 3.5 percent under the bold new stimulus measures forwarded by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Called, the three-arrowed approach, Abe's strategy involves a strongly expansionary monetary policy, increased fiscal spending and structural changes to improve competitiveness. Analysts say these are precisely the apt meds many have urged European leaders to take. Says Stephan Schulmeister, an economist with the Austrian Institute of Economic Research: “The elites in Europe don’t learn. Instead of saying, ‘Something goes wrong, we have to reconsider or find a different navigation map, change course,’ instead what happens is more of the same.” Schulmeister adds that Angela Merkel, German chancellor and President of the European Council, “is not willing to learn from the Japanese experience.”

THE United States has the world’s best basketball players, fighter jets, lakeside camps, and dreadlocked ladies. But hardly anyone would ever boast that the US has the world’s best retirement system. Fifty-eight percent of American workers are not even in a pension or 401(k) plan. The Social Security system faces the threat of a huge shortfall. One-third of America’s retirees get at least 90 percent of their retirement income from Social Security, with annual benefits averaging a modest $15,000 for an individual. In Australia, there is nearly universal participation among workers in a 401(k)-type retirement plan. In the Netherlands, pension laws require that workers’ 401(k)-like plans be converted into lifetime annuities to ensure they do not spend down all their savings before they turn 70. In Britain, the government has pressed retirement fund managers to keep administrative fees on many plans to less than half the average in the US. A recent report by the Australian Center for Financial Services, gives the US a C rating on retirement systems, worse than the A received by Denmark and the B-plus given to the Netherlands and Australia.

FOR six decades, Americans have tended to drive more every year. But in the middle of the last decade, the number of miles driven — both over all and per capita — began to drop, notes a report by U.S. Pirg, a nonprofit advocacy organization. People tend to drive less during recessions, since fewer people are working (and commuting), and most are looking for ways to save money. But Phineas Baxandall, a senior analyst for U.S. Pirg, said the changes preceded the recent recession and appeared to be part of a structural shift that is largely rooted in changing demographics, especially the rise of so-called millennials — today’s teenagers and twentysomethings. Younger people are less likely to drive — or even to have driver’s licenses — than past generations for whom driving was a birthright and the open road a symbol of freedom. Research by the Transportation Research Institute at the University of Michigan suggests that online life might have something to do with the change: “A higher proportion of Internet users was associated with a lower licensure rate. This finding is consistent with the hypothesis that access to virtual contact reduces the need for actual contact among young people.”

THE Attorney General of New York has recently announced that he plans to sue Bank of America and Wells Fargo for failure to adhere to the terms of a $26 billion settlement that was supposed to provide relief to homeowners and end foreclosure abuses. The lawsuits are another sign that more than a year after the mortgage settlement between five big banks and state and federal officials banks are still mishandling foreclosures in ways to benefit themselves while harming borrowers. Eric Schneiderman, the atty general, is right to object, but the sad truth is that a concerted government effort to hold banks accountable has never materialized. Am I being pessimistic or just realistic?

FENG SHUI: From China to America and back to China. Yup, the Chinese once again are believers of feng shui, an ancient mystical belief once banned by the Communist Party... Recently, four top officials at Zoumajie province's land resources bureau that were beleaguered by all sorts of problems—like land grabs, jilted mistresses plotting revenge and provincial graft—believe that there could only be one explanation for the miasma of misfortune they believed was threatening them: the pair of ferocious stone lions that guarded the state-owned China Tobacco building across the street from their offices. An official confided that the secret weapon they used was feng shui, the ancient practice of arranging objects and designing architecture to improve one’s health, prosperity and luck... When the feng shui was outlawed by Mao Zedong decades ago, it gained ground in the West, especially in the United States, where it became a lucrative business commodity (just like yoga, tai chi, et al). And since China has long embraced Western-styled capitalism, it's no wonder that “feng shui” has gotten back into the mainstream psyche again. Whatever works, works. The end justifies the means, I guess...

THERE was a time in my life (where I came from) when a mere awkward stare at a woman (by a man) provokes a fight. You don't mess with a woman, per se... But these days—it's more a case of, uhh, don't mess with a woman's, well—iPhone... One April afternoon, on a busy corner of Main Street in Flushing, Queens, a teenager snatched the phone out of a lady's hand and kept running. Fact: Devices like hers were stolen 16,000 times last year in New York City. But that time, it's no ordinary happening. The victim flagged a police officer, who put a call over the radio with a description of the young man wearing a yellow hooded sweatshirt. Another officer pulled out his own iPhone, and together with the victim, logged into the Find My iPhone feature, which should work if the thief had not turned the victim’s phone off. He had not. A telltale dot appeared on the screen of the officer’s phone. The victim’s phone was nearby, at 126th Street and Roosevelt Avenue. Next, was a chase worthy of a chase sequence from a crime-thriller.

DO we really want to be privy with your kids' stuff these days? Today, parents are just one click away from their 14-year olds' shenanigans: buddied up on Facebook, logging on to Tumblr, peering over cryptic text messages and trying to get a glimpse of Snapchat images before they dissolve into the ether. Freely see them guzzle beer, flirt with a girl who squeezes her bosom in every “selfie” she posts on Instagram, and describe a fellow ninth grader in language saltier than any you ever used at that age. Maybe you are a parent who never even heard your kid swear. Yet you had no idea where they went after they slammed the door behind you... According to a study of 802 parents of teenagers by the Pew Internet Project, 59 percent of parents of teenagers on social-networking sites have talked to their child because they were concerned about something posted to their profile or account, and 42 percent have searched for their child’s name online to see what info is out there. Tough! That is why parenting is always an individual matter. But talking to them remains the key—just don't do it via texting or Facebook posts.

A GROUP of investors from Mountain View, California, partners of Y Combinator, an organization that can be likened to a sleep-away camp for start-up companies, are doing what could be the trend in future “buy out” economics. These energetic bunch of wizards check out cool ideas from entrepreneurs desperately wanting “start up” capital, sink their own money in exchange for, of course, stake in the company. Among more prominent start-ups that graduated from Y.C.’s class were the social-news site Reddit, the web-site builder Infogami, file-sharing service Dropbox, and online market for vacation rentals Airbnb... I am seeing a future where all companies in the world are owned by maybe only five huge corporations—splintered via “small” investors ready to sink moolah into your brainstorm for a considerable percentage of your profit... then buy you out later. Like a morbid futuristic movie. Or the future is happening now.

LISTEN up, environmentalists who believe newsprints have to be dissed in favor of electronic devices: Americans replace their cellphones every 22 months, junking some 150 million old phones in 2010 alone. Ever wondered what happens to all these old phones? In far-flung, mostly impoverished places like Agbogbloshie, Ghana; Delhi, India; and Guiyu, China, children pile e-waste into giant mountains and burn it so they can extract the metals — copper wires, gold and silver threads — inside, which they sell to recycling merchants for only a few dollars. In India, young boys smash computer batteries with mallets to recover cadmium, toxic flecks of which cover their hands and feet as they work. Women spend their days bent over baths of hot lead, “cooking” circuit boards so they can remove slivers of gold inside. Greenpeace, the Basel Action Network and others have posted YouTube videos of young children inhaling the smoke that rises from burned phone casings as they identify and separate different kinds of plastics for recyclers.

MORE Americans now die of suicide than in car accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2010 there were 33,687 deaths from motor vehicle crashes and 38,364 suicides. Suicide has typically been viewed as a problem of teenagers and the elderly. But recent studies say that suicide rate among middle-aged people have risen sharply in the past decade, prompting concern that a generation of baby boomers who have faced years of economic worry and easy access to prescription painkillers may be particularly vulnerable to self-inflicted harm. “There may be something about that group (baby boomers), and how they think about life issues and their life choices that may make a difference,” says C.D.C.’s deputy director, Ileana Arias. The rise in suicides may also stem from the economic downturn over the past decade. Historically, suicide rates rise during times of financial stress and economic setbacks. “The increase does coincide with a decrease in financial standing for a lot of families over the same time period,” Dr. Arias said. Another factor may be the widespread availability of opioid drugs like OxyContin and oxycodone, which can be particularly deadly in large doses.

THIS time nearly half of Americans agree with the president. According to a Times/CBS News poll, about one-third (or 1 in 10) of the citizenry—as with Mr Obama—said economy will be hurt by spending cuts. President Obama and Republicans in Congress could not agree on a budget plan. In a recent news conference, Obama said that his administration’s disaster warnings about the economic effects of the automatic spending cuts were not overblown: “It’s slowed our growth, it’s resulting in people being thrown out of work, and it’s hurting folks all across the country.” Cutting down government spending or turning to austerity measures—as employed by most European economies—meant another massive spike on unemployment and social unrest, among other reasons. This, however, would barely rattle the already rich—and getting richer—1 percent.

PAYDAY loans—the short-term, high-cost credit that can mire borrowers in debt. Some banks offer the loans tied to checking accounts, with the understanding that the lender can automatically withdraw the loan amount, plus the origination fee, when it is due. Now, federal regulators are cracking down on them, but instead of taking aim at the big fish, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation are gunning at storefront payday lenders. Bigger players like Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank are left unscathed. What else is new? The regulators are expected to impose more stringent requirements on the loans. Before making a loan, for example, banks will have to assess a consumer’s ability to repay the money. Of course, they can—but squeezing their guts more... Wells Fargo charges $1.50 for every $20 borrowed. Add other fees on ATM withdrawals etcetera etcetera...

ALL these sports gadgets, life's gizmos that we are so fond of spending hard-earned money on... Like goggles. Example: Oakley, the eyewear company, makes a $600 ski goggle that comes with a warning in the package: Do not operate product while skiing. But of course, the digital goggles are meant for skiing and snowboarding... However, safety advocates say the concept of high-tech displays for goggles — and for other sports eyewear — is information overload run amok, particularly when people are using them at high speeds. Surely, Oakley, based in Foothill Ranch, Calif., argue such warnings. Meantime, Google is expected to introduce soon its computerized glasses, called Google Glass, which will perform many of the same functions as smartphones. Jeez...

A LOT of young people these days are like Pearl Brady: a stable job with good benefits, holds two degrees, a bachelor’s and a master’s. But despite her best efforts, she has no savings, and worries that it will be years before she manages to start putting away money for a house, children and eventually retirement. “I’m in that extremely nervous category,” Ms. Brady, 28, a Brooklynite who works for a union, told New York Times. “I know how much money I’m going to be making for the near term. I hope in my 30s and 40s to be able to save, but I have no idea how. It’s scary.” A new study from the Urban Institute finds that Ms. Brady and her peers up to roughly age 40 have accrued less wealth than their parents did at the same age, even as the average wealth of Americans has doubled over the last quarter-century. Inequality? Let's look at life, per se. More millionaires, yes. Yet there a lot more food-to-mouth wage earners.

WASHINGTON officials recently said that they had opened an investigation into a Web site, called “Exposed: The Secret Files,” that posted the home addresses, Social Security numbers and other personal information for more than a dozen celebrities and politicians, including Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Michelle Obama and Jay-Z. The site, which included the Internet suffix “.su,” an indication that it was originally from the Soviet Union, is linked to a Twitter account that included postings in Russian. At the bottom of the Web page was a list of the people whom the hackers claimed to have compromised, including Chief Charlie Beck of the Los Angeles Police Department, Beyoncé, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., former Vice President Al Gore and Kim Kardashian. Blatant, isn't it? I believe weapons of destruction can be stopped, but how do we snuff out “internet terrorism?”

MIDWAY-Sunset oil field near Fellows in California has been producing crude for more than a century since Socal's oil boom. Midway-Sunset is tapping crude directly from what is called the Monterey Shale, which could represent the future of California’s oil industry — and a potential arena for conflict between drillers and the state’s powerful environmental interests. Comprising two-thirds of the US’ total estimated shale oil reserves and covering 1,750 square miles from Southern to Central California, the Monterey Shale could turn California into the nation’s top oil-producing state and yield the kind of riches that far smaller shale oil deposits have showered on North Dakota and Texas. Good news? Lesser dependence on OPEC oil? That is not the question that I'd like to answer... Do we really need more oil?

SINCE Roomba, the iRobot, has been doing my daily floor vacuuming job lately—no complaints here, so far. But then, wait... Robots actually want our job, not just the housework. According to professors at Cambridge University, robots also want our life and our little dog, too. But then, such android anxiety has a long history. John Maynard Keynes wrote about “technological unemployment” during the Great Depression. In the Industrial Revolution, disgruntled laborers smashed automated looms and threshing machines that “stole” their jobs. In the 15th century, scribes protested the printing press, with a futile zeal rivaled perhaps only by that of modern journalists. Well, I also lost writing jobs due to the internet's instant “blog journalism.” In hindsight, historical fears of technological change look foolish, given that automation has increased living standards and rendered our workweeks both safer and shorter. In 1900, when nearly half the American labor force was employed in backbreaking agriculture, the typical worker logged 2,300 hours a year, according to Joel Mokyr, an economic historian at Northwestern University. Today that number is 1,800. By year 2062, we’ll be working only two hours a week... Good? Bad. Imagine Roomba doing all the housekeeping work in a motel chain? More unemployment. In fact, I am very wary that Georgia and Chloe—the lovable babedawgs under my care—might be so enamored with Roomba that they'd eventually ignore me when asking for food (1 click, here comes Roomba with a bowl of Purina!) Then, I will just be a lifeless, useless human being in the batcave...

ONCE the monster is unleashed, there's no way that it can be stopped. Or is there really a way? I am talking about the internet and the loss of human privacy (willingness in disguise?) Yet, over the years, the United States and Europe have taken different approaches toward protecting people’s personal information. Here, Congress has enacted a patchwork quilt of privacy laws that separately limit the use of Americans’ medical records, credit reports, video rental records and so on. Meantime, the European Union has instituted more of a blanket regulatory system; it has a common directive that gives its citizens certain fundamental rights — like the right to obtain copies of records held about them by companies and institutions — that Americans now lack. “Yes, we share the basic idea of privacy,” says Peter Hustinx, Europe’s data protection supervisor. “But there is a huge deficit on the US side.” With a dizzying array of new e-baubles flooding the market, expect more ways to reveal or invade privacies.

WHO are most hit by the hard times? Young graduates are in debt, out of work and on their parents’ couches. People in their 30s and 40s can’t afford to buy homes or have children. Retirees are earning near-zero interest on their savings. The most hit, according to Sentier Research, a data analysis company, are Americans in their 50s and early 60s. The elderly do not yet have access to Medicare and Social Security — have lost the most earnings power of any age group, with their household incomes 10 percent below what they made when the recovery began three years ago. Their retirement savings and home values fell sharply at the worst possible time: just before they needed to cash out. They are supporting both aged parents and unemployed young-adult children, earning them the inauspicious nickname “Generation Squeeze.”

REVIEWS on Amazon—or in the internet—are becoming attack weapons, intended to sink new books as soon as they are published, or “character assassinate” people without them even knowing it. This a tragic reality that we have to deal with, I guess... Everybody is a shrink, expert, holier-than-thou references when it comes to what is racist, sexist, politically-correct, gender-sensitive or plain appropriate... On the subject of books: In the biggest, most overt and most successful of these campaigns, a group of Michael Jackson fans, months ago, used Facebook and Twitter to solicit negative reviews of a new biography of the singer. They bombarded Amazon with dozens of one-star takedowns, succeeded in getting several favorable notices erased and even took credit for Amazon’s briefly removing the book from sale. “Books used to die by being ignored, but now they can be killed — and perhaps unjustly killed,” said Trevor Pinch, a Cornell sociologist who has studied Amazon reviews. “In theory, a very good book could be killed by a group of people for malicious reasons.” Imagine what would have happened if Anais Nin or Oscar Wilde are so alive and writing actively these days? And then some blogger “reviews” their stuff...

IF you are in psychotherapy, there’s a good chance your therapist knows more about your inner thoughts and secret desires than anyone else. Hence, he/she's better be the person to match you up with your soulmate lovey-dovey, you reckon? Chuck eHarmony and and other sites that rely on impersonal algorithms, and chuck your BBF's super-zealous analysis that, anyways—simply mirrors his/her angst. An NY Times article by Richard A. Friedman, himself a shrink, goes: “Psychotherapy, especially insight-oriented therapy, is designed to conjure intense feelings — on the part of the patient and therapist. Much of what patients feel toward their therapists, the so-called transference, are unconscious feelings that are redirected from important early figures in their lives — parents, family members and teachers. Your therapist mirrors this phenomenon with his own countertransference.” Go get a psychotherapist, pronto!

CHINA may not be manufacturing pencil holders and back scratchers anymore. The next boom in China, according to the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based research group, are college graduates... China's youths have highly specific ambition: to work some day for a Chinese automaker and provide the cultural insights and English fluency the company needs to supply the next generation of fuel-efficient taxis that New York City plans to choose in 2021. China is making a $250 billion-a-year investment in what economists call human capital. Just as the United States helped build a white-collar middle class in the late 1940s and early 1950s by using the G.I. Bill to help educate millions of World War II veterans, the Chinese government is using large subsidies to educate tens of millions of young people as they move from farms to cities. Good for China's vaunted working class economy? Let's wait and see.

THE “problem” of food in America—or such perceive problem—freaks me out. Nobody gets hungry in this Western part of the universe... In the UK as much as 30 percent of vegetable crops are not harvested due to their failure to meet retailers' exacting standards on physical appearance, it says, while up to half of the food that is bought in Europe and the US is thrown away by consumers. As much as half of all the food produced in the world – equivalent to 2billion tons – ends up as waste every year, engineers warned in a recent report. The UK's Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) blames the "staggering" new figures in its analysis on unnecessarily strict sell-by dates, buy-one-get-one free and consumer demand for cosmetically perfect food, along with "poor engineering and agricultural practices,” inadequate infrastructure and poor storage facilities... I remember the days when whatever that was served on dinner table had to be eaten—no complaints, no excuses, no qualms whatsoever—and no speck of rice grain left on my plate...

LONG come coming... Once thought to be exclusively biologically-based, psychiatric research now looks to social and cultural factors to explain and find treatments for schizophrenia. The side effects of antipsychotics are not very pleasant. While they damp down the horrifying hallucinations that can make someone’s life a misery, it is not as if the drugs restore most people to the way they were before they fell sick. How many more gruesome crimes—perpetrated by mental psychosis—are going to pummel society's fiber for us to realize that it's not just medications that bog down each time a person goes deadly... To signal how much psychiatry had changed since its tweedy psychoanalytic days, the National Institute of Mental Health designated the 1990s as the “decade of the brain.” Psychoanalysis and even psychotherapy were said to be on their way out.

A COUPLE of evolutionary psychologists recently published a book about human sexual behavior in prehistory called “Sex at Dawn.” Evolutionary psychologists who study mating behavior often begin with a hypothesis about how modern humans mate: say, that men think about sex more than women do. Then they gather evidence — from studies and statistics — to support that assumption. Finally, and here’s where the leap occurs, they construct an evolutionary theory to explain why men think about sex more than women. Blahblahblah.. Men do talk and brag and—and anchor their macho fixation—via a flood of sex talk. Problem is, when it is already happening, one shot—blam!--the talk fizzles out to limped surrender. This, while the woman is just warming up...

WE already see so many young college graduates toiling on wait staff and blue collar jobs, just barely earning enough to pay rent, put gasoline on their cars and attend to student loan debt... And the woes aren't about to ease up. There's a growing body of evidence suggesting that today’s young adults are also drowning in credit-card debt — and that many of them will take this debt to their graves. More than three-quarters of renters between the ages of 18 and 24 spend more than they earn every month, according to a survey of 1,000 renters (of all ages) by This is the case even though 17 percent of respondents in that age bracket say they’re willing to live with roommates to save money. More than 20 percent overspent their income by more than $100. That’s every single month. And since they haven’t built up their credit histories yet, it’s a safe bet that these young adults are paying relatively high interest rates on the resulting credit card debt.

SIMPLE is an online banking start-up company based in Portland, Ore., that offers its customers free checking accounts and data-rich analysis of their transactions and spending habits. Co-founder  Josh Reich, a software engineer from Australia, started the outfit, with Shamir Karkal, after Josh decided enough is enough with banks that charge overdraft fees and who endure painful customer service calls to fight them. Reich is confident that Simple’s minimalist approach — it promises not to charge any fees for any services — will draw fans and customers. The company, which began signing up customers late last year in a deliberately slow fashion, now has 20,000 and has processed transactions worth more than $200 million. I hoping the Big Guys don't take a liking with Simple and buy it out...

ARE the Chinese transforming into a white collar nation—sliding away from its vaunted working class might? Guangzhou, a city of 15 million, is the hub of a manufacturing region where factories make everything from T-shirts and shoes to auto parts, tablet computers and solar panels. These days, however, many factories are desperate for workers, despite offering double-digit annual pay increases and improved benefits. Still, these don't suffice... Factory jobs don't offer much future. Millions of recent college graduates in China want higher salaries. Hence, an imbalance ensues. Jobs go begging in factories while many educated young workers are unemployed. A recent national survey of urban residents showed that among people in their early 20s, those with a college degree were four times as likely to be unemployed as those with only an elementary school education. With factories crumbling, this could be the downfall of China... 

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