Summer Cleaning

It’s been a while since I’ve posted on here – currently in the process of cleaning up the site and updating the look and feel. I’ve made the decision not to delete any old content despite how awkward it may appear now. It’s a bit crazy to realize that this site has been online, in one form or the other, for over nine years.

Please let me know if the changes break any functionality. In the meantime, here are some Lorenz attractor renders I completed when I got my new computer. Plenty more points than the old renders… gotta use that horsepower for something.



Save Face With Facebank

facebank-package

Japan’s consumer goods lived up to their surreal billing during a recent stay at Narita Airport in Japan on my way to IAC 2009. A collaboration between Japanese designer Takada and Bandai’s Banpresto division, the Facebank combines limited practicality with pure awesomeness.

The eyes are optical sensors which start the chewing motion as soon as your hand goes near (and as soon as you turn out the lights in the room as I also found out). Standing about 10cm tall, it takes 4 AAA batteries and retails for about ¥2000.

New Host!

pair

gmilburn.ca is now on Pair Networks… bear with me as I move everything over.

Things might look a little weird (ie missing thumbnails) for a little while, but don’t worry, I’m working on it Edit: Thumbnails should be taken care of now…

If you posted a comment in the last 12 hours or so it may have been lost – my apologies. There also appear to be a few comments out of order, but I’m working on it.

If you see any horrible errors that I should probably know about, please leave a comment!

When Advertisers Get Lazy

Internet advertising is a strange beast. Some of the most popular ads play directly off our insecurities – that we’re fat, that we’re lonely, or that our penis is far too small. The immediate emotional response to what basically amounts to a controlled insult online can gall you into the all important “click” of the ad.

While this emotional manipulation is effective, it doesn’t give you the ability to completely half ass your campaign and still expect no one to call you on it. I saw this ad online recently.

Please note if you have AdBlock or similar software installed, it may block the image as it has “ad” in the filename. Check your settings.

Seems rather benign, not unlike thousands of other ads you see every day. It’s not particularly well done, but if it didn’t make money it wouldn’t be out there. But there’s something else – I saw it, did a bit of a double take, and then looked again. The 35 pounds figure seems to be off, but more importantly, the body types of the two don’t quite seem to match up.

Wait a second, what’s that on the right side of the slimmer girl? There’s a hint of yellow on the edge of the frame. Let’s cut out the pictures of the two girls, and then flip them around and put them beside each other.

Well damn. Turns out that you just took a picture of two sisters, one slim, the other not so much, flipped it around, and then tried to pass it off as a weight loss ad. Sorry about the grey line in the middle, it’s because of the black borders around the ad cut out a little bit of the image. Next time, perhaps a bit more Photoshop work?

Waterloo Engineering Welcoming Committee

I graduated Waterloo Engineering in 2007. I now work at the Canadian Space Agency on my Master’s degree. Some new co-op students have arrived, and among them is Steve, a fellow Waterloo student in second year Mechatronics. He had a great little story for me.

First, some context. The University of Waterloo (UW) is known as an engineering school, and tends to have an abundance of male students as a result. In contrast, Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU) is known as an arts school, and tends to have an abudance of attractive women as a result. The two schools are quite close together, perhaps a five minute walk from campus to campus.

It’s September, and that means that a fresh new crop of students has arrived on both campuses, more than likely with parents in tow. I can only imagine the face of a nervous father, dropping his little princess off where she’ll live away from home for the first time, only to see this massive banner on an overpass above the biggest highway leading to both UW and WLU…

Poor bastards. I hope your daughter didn’t blush.

Great Signs of Europe

Last year I traveled around Europe in search of the greatest signs known to humanity. Here’s the cream of the crop.

Bubble Bobble

For all those with short attention spans, here’s the definite winner.

I have no idea what the hell a tile featuring Bub from Bubble Bobble is doing on the other side of the Seine from the Louvre in Paris, France. If you know why, or have seen it recently (this is from the summer of 2007), let me know. Here’s where you can find it.

It was about 8 or 10 feet up, and about a foot square. It wasn’t printed to look like tiles, it was actual tiles (possibly just glued, or it’s dark grout). I like to think that this made up for showing up to see the Louvre and finding out that it’s closed every Tuesday for maintenance.

Look But Don’t Touch

This is one of those things that you shouldn’t really need to say, but apparently it happened often enough that a sign was required.

This is from the Orange Bar in Ios, Greece. Don’t let the sign fool you, it’s an incredibly laid back place with some of the best shots I’ve ever tried in my life. I recommend the Cadbury Creme Egg – it’s an alcoholic spectacle of trademark infringement.

If you buy seven shots, they give you a free t-shirt. If you fall asleep in the goat fields on the way home, it helps to cut the cold.

Really?

Variations on the following two signs (remember to aim and/or sit down) could be found everywhere.



I really don’t get this. I managed to iron out any kinks in this technique when I was in kindergarten. Is there some sort of Freudian passive-aggressiveness going on in European bathrooms, or do I just not want to know? Location: mainly France, Italy, and Greece.

Managing to Offend Everyone

I’m not entirely sure what the business plan of this winery is, but using the face of the most notorious dictator of the 20th century is not really regarded as a great marketing ploy.

Apparently they’re part of a winemaker’s “historic collection”. So historic the bottles were seized by a prosecutor last year.

We found them in Manarola, Cinque Terre. There’s a beautiful hike you can go on, and it’s rather surreal to wander in to town hot and thirsty, look out for a cold drink, and then have Hitler staring you down. Suffice to say, we went for the gelato from another vendor instead.

Double Take

Semi-nude European cosmetics ads like the following are a dime a dozen.

We almost didn’t give this one a second look, but it’s a bit different…

Yep, those are two men with a few more wandering around in the background.

It’s an advertisement for check-your-love-life.ch in the train station of Geneva, Switzerland. The website is rather surreal if you only speak English, and I’m sure it’s still rather strange if you’re a native speaker as well.

Dangerous Curves

One of the things about signs is that you know that they either reflect something that someone was really worried about and may not have happened yet, or something terrible happened so they put a sign up.

Either way, it’s a one way ticket to hell for laughing about this. It’s in Versailles, France, specifically the Petit Parc. And no, I didn’t see this in action.

There you have it, the greatest signs of Europe. If you have any more, or can tell me if any of them are still there (especially the Bubble Bobble one), leave a comment.

Oil Strikes and Gasoline Boycotts

Note to readers: This article contains discussion about the relationship between supply, demand, and price. Check out my other article A cap on the price of gasoline is a bad idea – and the Nintendo Wii can tell us why for a review of the basics if you like.

With the rising cost of gasoline, many motorists are looking for relief. Recent price increase do not seem to correlate with any real visible changes around them – and frustration results. This frustration has turned into attempts at action for many, hoping for any way to reduce the amount of money spent on fuel.

There are many proposed solutions to the issue, however they tend to fall short. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

Strike!

This is a popular one that comes around at the start of every driving season. The premise is that drivers stick together, and for (a day/3 days/a week) decide to say “screw you!” to the oil companies and not fill up at all. This will cause billions of dollars of losses, and force the oil companies to drop prices overnight.

Let’s address the first point, that this will cause the oil companies to lose billions. For simplicity, let’s assume there are two ways this could turn out:

  1. Everyone stays home during the strike, buys zero gas, and then resumes normal activities afterwards. (a “strong” strike)
  2. No one buys gas during the strike, but still goes about normal activities and has to buy gas later. (a “weak” strike)

We can agree that the premise of this strike is to reduce demand – which will cause the oil companies to respond. Let’s see how demand is affected by each of these scenarios.


In the first scenario, it’s like a few days of gas buying dropped off the earth. If we look at a graph of daily (blue bars) and average daily (red line) consumption, we can see that at the end of the gas strike, things are looking pretty good. Average demand has gone down! The companies have to respond!


Well, hold on a second. Time marches on, after all. Let’s take a look at this a few days later. Well damn, it looks like average demand is marching right back up again, since we really haven’t changed our habits for the long run, just for a few days. So demand is the same as it was before!


Now lets look at the second scenario a few days after the strike. Like before, at the end of the strike things look pretty good. But it gets even worse than before. Since we didn’t stay home and just kept driving, now we really, really need to fill up our tanks. So daily demand shoots through the roof as we play catch up, and our long term average demand spikes up (the exact opposite of what we wanted!) and then settles down to where it was before. Again, no change in the long run.

Well, you’re missing the point Geoff, some would say. The “weak” strike definitely wouldn’t work, but the “strong” strike still took out a few billion dollars for a few days, didn’t it?

Well yes, of course it did. Unfortunately, this is spread out over many companies – you’re a rounding error. If this loss continued for months and years, companies would start to feel the pain – but at this point, you’re no more aggravating than a large supply contract that was settled a few days later than expected. These companies are very good at not being bullied. Oil is a very cyclical industry, those companies than cannot weather a storm quickly fail.

Boycott!

Well fine! That won’t work, but let’s change our strategy. Instead of a gas strike, let’s pick a specific company (say Shell), and simply not purchase gasoline from them. Shell will watch it’s profits sink while the other companies make tons of money, say “screw this!” and reduce gas prices so they don’t go under.

At first this seems reasonable. The only problem arises when you ask yourself what the real change in supply and demand is. Supply hasn’t changed, the companies aren’t doing a damn thing. Demand hasn’t changed, we’ve just switched gas stations. Hrm, how is this going to work? But regardless, we aren’t buying from Shell! They’ll have to reduce prices, then the other companies will follow! Right?

Well, not quite. Let’s take a simplified look at the “flow” of gasoline between companies. The “futures market” (like a stock market that trades gasoline contracts instead of companies) prices gasoline, and matches sellers to companies that need gas. These companies then sell gas to you.

So let’s take away one of those arrows. Assume a perfect boycott, and not a soul purchases gas from Shell. Everyone is now buying from other stations, but there’s only one problem. Overall demand is the same, but our new “per station” demand is higher.

The immediate reaction to this higher per station demand is higher prices. “Wait!” you say, in the long run demand hasn’t changed! Gas prices should stay the same at worst! Well, you’re right – in the long run. In the short run prices spike up as gasoline stations experience temporary shortages. Now, these stations need to get more gas from somewhere to sell to all the new customers they have. It’s obviously available, it just needs to get to the station – but where from?

The answer is of course to buy it from Shell. Our only hope at this point is that Shell will panic, see that it has this excess gas, and dump it on the market at a reduced rate. Let’s assume that Shell does exactly that. Huzzah! We finally did it! Reduced gas prices!

Well, unfortunately for you, Shell is not run by idiots. They know that overall supply and demand hasn’t changed, just that no one buys from Shell anymore (assuming our perfect boycott is still going strong). So, prices end up stabilizing back at the old market rate (since there’s the same amount of people buying gas, and the same amount of gas available, we’ve just changed companies), and Shell ends up selling gasoline to the other companies (assuming best case of no excess transportation costs).

So assuming the best case scenario, we get a price spike, followed by a price dip, followed by the same damn price as before. Since we haven’t changed overall supply or overall demand, the overall price will not change.

Lessons

The current energy situation is a deeply complex mess. Proposing simple easy solutions that require little effort makes everyone feel better – but does nothing. If internet petitions and email forwards worked on their own, world hunger would have already been abolished.

To those proposing a gas strike – I propose to you a different solution, the public transit swarm. Get everyone you know to give up a car for a workweek and take public transit. Get enough people so that it’s a huge goddamn mess, subway stations are tied up, buses are jammed, and the situation is so bizarre that the media is forced to pay attention. Shout as loud as you can that the reason we drive so much is because the alternatives frankly suck. Have you tried walking to get your groceries in a suburb? Does the bus stop anywhere near your workplace? Does it bother to show up on time?

We need real alternative solutions that will reduce our overall demand on gas. Bringing attention and social acceptance to faster, cleaner, and more efficient public transit systems is a great start.

To those proposing a boycott of a specific company – I propose to you a different solution. Boycott car manufacturers who insist on producing cars with poor gas mileage. Buy an efficient car, or don’t buy one at all. A more efficient fleet of cars on the road reduces demand, and Ford can’t simply sell excess cars to Toyota that magically become greener – so a boycott of lazy companies who are more focused on bells and whistles rather than green technology is more effective.

I don’t mean to insult anyone proposing these solutions – but simply to make you think them through. Your motivation is admirable. Let’s work together to create cost effective sensible approaches to energy policy.

A cap on the price of gasoline is a bad idea…

And the Nintendo Wii can tell us why.

First, let’s back up a bit and describe how the market for gasoline works. Gasoline is a commodity (gasoline from Shell is effectively the same as gasoline from Exxon), and everyone knows the price (due to those giant signs on the side of the road). This means that we can model the gasoline market using basic economics and we should be able to draw some reasonable conclusions. Ready?

Supply and Demand Curves

Supply Curve

Let’s talk about supply and demand. We all know that the “law of supply and demand” somehow determines prices apparently – but what exactly is happening? Well, let’s start with a “demand curve”.

This describes how much consumers would want (demand) for a certain price. A typical gasoline demand curve can be seen on the right – if the price is really high (Point A), we’ll only use a car for essential trips (low demand). If the price goes down (Point B), we’ll use more and more until we’re driving everywhere. Sound reasonable?

Demand Curve

Now let’s look at supply curves. These curves describe the behaviour of the other side – the guys that produce gasoline. If the price of gasoline is really low (Point C), you’ll only sell it if you can cover your costs (generally). As the price of gasoline increases (Point D), more and more supply is available. This is a result of higher prices allowing higher cost methods to be effective. If a new extraction method costs 50 bucks a barrel, you better be able to sell it for more than 50 bucks or else there’s no point. An example supply curve is on the left.

Market Price

Supply and Demand Equilibrium
So we have a supply curve, and a demand curve – so what? Well, now we know what the price of gas is! How exactly? Well, let’s put the supply curve and the demand curve overtop of each other. We can see this on the right – any ideas of what the price of gas is?

If you guessed where the two curves cross, good work! Where the two curves cross gives us:

  1. the price of gas
  2. the amount of gas sold

It’s the single point where consumers demand the exact same amount that producers want to provide. If the price was lower, consumers would want too much and producers wouldn’t produce enough (scarcity). If it was higher, consumers wouldn’t want as much gas and producers would produce too much (surplus).

Now we know how to determine market price. Now ask yourself – what happens if someone (perhaps the government creates a law) says “Nope! That price is wrong! Change it!”.

Price Ceilings

There are a few different terms for this, but we’ll limit ourselves to an enforced maximum price – called a price ceiling. There are two different ways a price ceiling can be implemented.

The first is rather boring – called a nonbinding price ceiling. For example, if gas was currently selling at 3$ and a law was made saying the maximum price is 4$, what do you think would happen? Well, not much is right. It would really only come into effect if prices continued to rise.

So what’s the other type? It’s called a binding price ceiling. Suppose gas was currently selling at 3$ and a law was made saying the maximum price is 2$ – clearly something is going to happen. From our previous discussion about supply and demand curves we know two things happen when price decreases:

  1. consumers can afford more, so demand goes up
  2. producers make less money, so supply goes down

Wait a second… that doesn’t seem to make sense. We have more demand, and less supply? That seems to mean that prices would go up. But they can’t because the law says they can’t. So what happens?

Excess Demand

Excess Supply
Well, not much can happen. It’s the law after all. Prices will stay at the price ceiling, but look at the graph on the right. The quantity demanded by consumers used to be the same as that provided by producers – but now consumers want far more and consumers provide far less. This difference is called “excess demand”.

So what happens if you have excess demand in a market? Well, let’s ask the Nintendo Wii.

Nintendo Wii

Wii Equilibrium
First off, the situation with the Nintendo Wii isn’t purely a result of a price ceiling. It’s very similar however (limited production capacity combined with a price ceiling). Let’s create the supply curve for Nintendo Wiis. Assume we sell at a constant price (suggested retail price), and the factory can produce up to a certain number of units – but no more.

Now let’s put a consumer demand curve over that (right) – we can see that the curves cross and an equilibrium price is produced. Consumer demand at equilibrium is less than the factory capacity, the suggested retail price is appropriate and everything works out wonderfully.

Wii Excess Demand
Now suppose that your executives completely underestimated consumer demand, and are now so far behind that they cannot possibly build a factory in time to satisfy this demand. The demand curve shifts to the right significantly (for a given price there is now much more demand). The Nintendo Wii factory can only produce so much however, and we can see excess demand in the graph on the left. Now we have a problem – if you’re going to make something cheap, there better be a lot of it!

Why you don’t want the gasoline market to act like the Wii market

Both situations involve excess demand. And the problems that occur are effectively identical. For instance:

  • If you’re first in line, you’re golden! No problems, you get your (Wii/gasoline) for a cheap price. Unfortunately, if you’re at the end of the line, no (Wii/gasoline) for you! The market chooses based not on willingness to pay, but on willingness to screw around and hunt for a scarce item.
  • People try to play the system. If they’re at the front of the line, people will buy (a Wii/gasoline), and then try to sell it for a higher price to those at the end of the line.
  • The excess demand still hasn’t gone away. Everyone still wants (a Wii/gasoline). Now it’s just a huge pain to find.

For instance, you could be working a 9-5 job, which requires gas to drive to. You don’t have time to figure out what stations have gas – so you end up buying gas on the black market at a ridiculous price from a seedy guy who spends his entire day wandering around finding gas stations that actually have gas. Not exactly a shining example of capitalism.

So what has the Nintendo Wii taught us in regards to gasoline pricing?

Lessons

Price caps on markets like gasoline don’t solve a damn thing. They sound like a good idea at the start – but the very act of regulation changes the way the market works, and causes an unintended result, shortages. These shortages then tend to reward speculation instead of real investment and progress.

In short, gasoline is expensive because we can’t live without it, and continue to pay whatever price is demanded. Real solutions for transportation and infrastructure aren’t as simple as saying “gas should be cheap, always!”.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” -George Santayana