Monday, October 7, 2013

Monday Morning: Why We Avoid The Robotic Checkout At The Supermarket

Active rigs: 183

RBN Energy: update on the CBR unloading terminals on the west coast; another must read post. Part 2 in the series.

The Wall Street Journal

I agree 100% -- "US shutdown creates investment opening. As they sift through the Washington mess, some money managers think it could be a blessing. Any stock sell-off, they say, would be a buying opportunity."

Heard on the street: a known unknown for oil prices.
Among other inconveniences, Washington's shutdown could make it harder to keep track of what is going on in a place just over 1,000 miles away from it: Cushing, OK.
Cushing, where several major pipelines meet, is where oil futures are settled physically.
So stock levels there are watched closely. The Energy Information Administration releases those figures once a week, but the shutdown could soon prevent it from doing so, leaving the market in the dark.
Here's betting, though, that Cushing's tanks are going to empty out some in coming weeks. All else equal, that is bullish for benchmark West Texas Intermediate oil prices.
Regular readers know what we are talking about.  Remember the numbers: 5/35.

Some years ago, the big automakers and car dealers gave a resounding "no" to on-line (web) sales. Now, Government Motors opens doors to web sales.


This has been an interesting phenomenon to watch. I love technology but I avoid do-it-yourself checkout counters at the grocery story. I could list the reasons, but The Wall Street Journal has done it for me. Fascinating article:
Computers seem to be replacing humans across many industries, and we're all getting very nervous.
But if you want some reason for optimism, visit your local supermarket. See that self-checkout machine? It doesn't hold a candle to the humans—and its deficiencies neatly illustrate the limits of computers' abilities to mimic human skills.
The human supermarket checker is superior to the self-checkout machine in almost every way. The human is faster. The human has a more pleasing, less buggy interface. The human doesn't expect me to remember or look up codes for produce, she bags my groceries, and unlike the machine, she isn't on hair-trigger alert for any sign that I might be trying to steal toilet paper. Best of all, the human does all the work while I'm allowed to stand there and stupidly stare at my phone, which is my natural state of being.
There is only one problem with human checkers: They're in short supply. At my neighborhood big-box suburban supermarket, the lines for human checkers are often three or four deep, while the self-checkout queue is usually sparse. Customers who are new to self-checkout might take their short lines to mean that the machines are more efficient than the humans, but that would be a gross misunderstanding.

My wife is eagerly awaiting to go to "Gravity." The first opening on our busy, busy schedule is Wednesday. "Gravity" soars to number 1 over the weekend. Science-fiction thriller "Gravity" set an October box-office record and showed that audiences still will choose 3-D screenings for movies they believe are worth the higher price. My wife doesn't like 3-D, saying its distracting, so we will go to the regular screening, I suppose. It costs seniors $6.00 at one of the nicest theaters in the US. What's not to like.

I still don't have television (or internet at home) so I didn't see the President's Cup, but I see "Tiger Woods clinches the Cup for the Americans." Good for him. I'm a fair weather fan of Tiger.


So, now the front page. Yup, we've moved on to the debt ceiling crisis. The government shutdown will simply fade away. Bringing back the military civilians essentially leaves the national monuments and national parks closed as the only tangible evidence of a government shutdown. Everyone will get back pay, meaning furloughed workers are on paid vacation. What's not to like. [However, buried on page 6: Nearly a week into the shutdown, signs of economic damage are mostly limited to stalled contracts and lost tourism revenue. But the risk of a long closure is raising concerns among economists and executives. The numbers don't add up: 90% of the government is still working -- probably more when one considers what is on auto-pilot -- and folks are worried about the shutdown's effect on GPD. Perhaps a few government contracts and lots of government contractors are at risk, but that's not particularly unusual.]

According the WSJ, "The federal government acknowledged for the first time it needed to fix design and software problems that have kept customers from applying online for health-care coverage." SecTreasury Lew was asked a simple question over the weekend about the on-line exchanges but he was unable to answer. The question was: how many Americans have signed up for ObamaCare? SecTreasury Lew was unable to answer. It was originally reported that one -- yes, one, that is not a typo -- person was able to sign up but that turned out to be bogus. My hunch: the on-line exchanges will be the number one targeted site for hackers. The Chinese will be responsible but George Bush will get the blame.

What is being overlooked in this trainwreck: a) even if folks can get to the second page of the on-line health exchange, they will be shocked by the prices; and, b) if one is "too poor," they are not eligible for ObamaCare. Say what? My hunch: very few folks eligible for the steepest discounts will actually sign up unless they have significant medical bills that need to be paid. The math doesn't work out otherwise. The co-pays and deductibles will exceed the monthly premiums in most cases even for healthy young adults.

By the way: the government has defined, for the first time, the age one becomes an adult: 26. Up to age 26 one can remain on one's parents' health insurance policy. Twenty-six. That's the US official age for an adult. Sort of like the new official US work week: 30 hours. And the official size for a business: 50 employees. That third data point is a stretch, but threes are necessary.


Who made money off the financial crisis some years ago? Warren Buffett's crisis-lending haul has reached $10 billion. Warren Buffett tossed lifelines to a handful of blue-chip companies during the financial crisis. Five years later the payoff on those deals is becoming clear: $10 billion and counting. I was upset when Warren bought BNSF -- that was my best investment ever -- but the exchange (BNI for BRK-B) has worked out better than expected. The best deal: I'm not paying taxes on BNI dividends each year which were getting pretty excessive. The taxes, not the dividends.


This is awesome: Washington, DC, skateaboarders may be the real winners. The monuments are "closed" with barrycades but few guards for all the squares and parking lots -- from The WSJ, "The government shutdown has given skateboarders in Washington new life, as plazas empty and enforcement chills."


Meanwhile, soldiers are racing to get tattoos before Army brass tighten rules that are now the least restrictive in the armed forces. The new set of regulations, now under final review, would ban tattoos below the knee or elbow.


And then this bizarre story to finish The WSJ today:
Argentine President Cristina Kirchner's surprise decision to take a month's rest for health reasons sparked political uncertainty in the South American country, as her absence will sideline her from politics just weeks before her ruling Victory Front coalition faces a key test in midterm Congressional elections.
During a routine cardiovascular examination Saturday, Mrs. Kirchner was diagnosed with a chronic subdural hematoma—the gradual buildup of blood between the outermost layers of tissue that envelope the brain. Mrs. Kirchner's hematoma was discovered after she suffered a head injury Aug. 12, a government spokesman said.
She has pretty much destroyed the country anyway, so her absence won't make much difference, I suppose:
In recent weeks, Mrs. Kirchner has pledged to continue policies that emphasize the redistribution of the country's wealth through taxation and spending on social programs. Those same policies have fueled one of the highest rates of inflation in the Americas, which private sector forecasters peg at between 20% and 25%.


  1. Per Argentina-About 12 years ago there was a great editorial in the WSJ comparing Argentina and the US in the year 1900. In most factors, they were on par with us as a developed nation-and nobody really could have predicted which nation might end up richer over the long haul. It was absolutely fascinating and I wish I had saved it. I save a few great things from the WSJ-but this did not make the cut.
    The abslotely best thing from the WSJ over time and ine you would find fascinating was an article in about 2007 related to the commodities boom and how these old colonial archives in Europe were suddenly busy with people digging into old mineral surveys for old colonies in Africa.

    1. Very interesting. For some reason I missed that -- the comparison between Argentina and the US back in 1990 -- I was overseas then; I had been overseas since 1983 and would be overseas until 1996, so I didn't keep up with what was going on in the states to much extent.