Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for August 22nd, 2019

Starbucks, monetary superpower

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It’s interesting when a company has a hidden secret value—like some chain whose profits from its real-estate holdings is less visible than its profits from product sales. JP Koning blogs:

I recently spent some time on Twitter discussing the monetary wonders of Starbucks. In this post I’ll bring a bunch of tweets together into a single blog post.

I don’t go to Starbucks very often, so I only recently learned that the company has succeeded in getting many of its customers to stop using cash and debit/credit cards to buy coffee. Instead, they are using  Starbucks’s own payments option:

Starbucks has around $1.6 billion in stored value card liabilities outstanding. This represents the sum of all physical gift cards held in customer’s wallets as well as the digital value of electronic balances held in the Starbucks Mobile App.* It amounts to ~6% of all of the company’s liabilities.

This is a pretty incredible number. Stored value card liabilities are the money that you, oh loyal Starbucks customer, use to buy coffee. What you might not realize is that these balances  simultaneously function as a loan to Starbucks. Starbucks doesn’t pay any interest on balances held in the Starbucks app or gift cards. You, the loyal customer, are providing the company with free debt.

Starbucks isn’t the only firm to get free lending from its customers. So does PayPal. That’s right, customers who hold PayPal balances are effectively acting as PayPal’s creditors. Customer loans to PayPal currently amount to over $20 billion. Like Starbucks, PayPal doesn’t pay its customers a shred of interest. But Starbucks’s gig is way better than PayPal’s. PayPal is required to store customer’s funds in a segregated account at a bank, or invest them in government bonds (see tweet below). So unfortunately for PayPal, it earns a paltry amount of interest on the funds that customers have lent it.

Starbucks, on the other hand, doesn’t have to keep customer funds in a low yielding segregated account or government bonds. Why is that? PayPal allows people to cash-out of PayPal dollars into regular dollars, so for regulatory purposes it must keep an adequate reserve on hand to facilitate redemptions. But the only way to cash out of Starbucks balances is to buy a coffee–a promise that Starbucks can always keep! And so Starbucks can immediately put its customer loans to work in higher-yielding opportunities like funding its operations and expansion.

In addition to borrowing from its customers, Starbucks also borrows from . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 August 2019 at 7:49 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life

Alzheimer’s Meeting: Lifestyle Factors Are the Best—and Only—Bet Now for Reducing Dementia Risk

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Karen Weintraub reports in Scientific American:

Samuel Gandy became an Alzheimer’s disease researcher in part to help his own family. He watched his mother spiral downward as she lost her memory and then her ability to care for herself.

After that, Gandy, now director of the Center for Cognitive Health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, thought his research might help prevent a similar fate for himself. Now in his 60s and having watched every single promising drug trial for Alzheimer’s fail, he’s had to give up on that idea, too.

Gandy is now focused on helping the next generation of young scientists who work in his lab and others. “Now I just want to contribute to the eventual eradication,” he says. “As long as I feel like I’m moving the ball down the field in the right direction, that’s worthwhile.”

The repeated failures of Alzheimer’s drugs in late-stage, hugely expensive trials, have forced Gandy and other researchers to recalibrate any optimism about finding a cure. With the annual Alzheimer’s Association International Conference currently finishing up in Los Angeles, scientists are still hopeful about the future—but that future now seems a lot further away.

For three decades, most researchers assumed that the cure for Alzheimer’s lay in getting rid of the build-up of a protein called beta-amyloid in the brain. Eliminate that bad actor, and the disease would be vanquished, the thinking went. Then, when that failed, researchers thought they had to get rid of the beta-amyloid earlier—let it spread too far and clog up too much and there was no way the brain could bounce back, researchers assumed.

Yet all the recent trials of early-stage patients proved that idea wrong, too. Amgen, Novartis and the federal government announced at the conference that they were ending their latest anti-amyloid trial, because the drug harmed more patients than it helped. Nearly everyone has now given up on the idea that fighting amyloid will be enough to combat Alzheimer’s on its own once damage has begun.

There are 102 drugs being tested right now in patients, according to the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation. Most are in mid-stage trials, meaning they’ve already been shown to be safe in a small group, but have not gone through the rigorous testing in patients to determine whether they are effective. Maybe one will turn out to make a big difference. Yet few researchers believe in the prospect of a magic bullet. Scientists think that it’s more likely that a combination of approaches will be needed to prevent, treat or cure Alzheimer’s, similar to how a drug cocktail is needed to treat HIV.

Two research pursuits seem to hold the most promise—though both might need to be used in combination with each other, perhaps along with anti-amyloid approaches. The first is addressing a protein called tau. Tau causes tangles of material in the brain that clog it up, compounding the problems of beta amyloid. Getting rid of tau is looking more and more promising as part of a cocktail of approaches, says Kenneth Kosik, a professor of neuroscience, and co-director of the Neuroscience Research Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The second area focuses on inflammation. There’s some indication that an immune reaction—perhaps from something as seemingly benign as the microbes that cause cold sores or gum disease—could be a spark that launches a series of events that ultimately lead to an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 August 2019 at 5:57 pm

How Amazon and Silicon Valley Seduced the Pentagon

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James Bandler, Anjali Tsui, and Doris Burke report in ProPublica:

On Aug. 8, 2017, Roma Laster, a Pentagon employee responsible for policing conflicts of interest, emailed an urgent warning to the chief of staff of then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Several department employees had arranged for Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, to be sworn into an influential Pentagon advisory board despite the fact that, in the year since he’d been nominated, Bezos had never completed a required background check to obtain a security clearance.

Mattis was about to fly to the West Coast, where he would personally swear Bezos in at Amazon’s headquarters before moving on to meetings with executives from Google and Apple. Soon phone calls and emails began bouncing around the Pentagon. Security clearances are no trivial matter to defense officials; they exist to ensure that people with access to sensitive information aren’t, say, vulnerable to blackmail and don’t have conflicts of interest. Laster also contended that it was a “noteworthy exception” for Mattis to perform the ceremony. Secretaries of defense, she wrote, don’t hold swearing-in events.

Laster’s alarms triggered fear among Pentagon brass that Mattis would be seen as doing a special favor for Bezos, which could put him in hot water with President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly proclaimed his antipathy to Bezos, mainly because of his ownership of The Washington Post. The swearing-in was canceled only hours before it was scheduled to occur. (This episode, never previously reported, is based on interviews with six people familiar with the matter. An Amazon spokesperson said the company was told that Bezos did not need a security clearance and that the company provided all requested information.)

Despite the cancellation, Bezos met with Mattis that day. They talked about leadership and military history, then moved on to Amazon’s sales pitch on why the Defense Department should make a radical shift in its computing. Amazon wanted the department to abandon its hodgepodge of 2,215 data centers, located in various Pentagon facilities and run using different systems by an array of different companies, and let Amazon replace that with cloud service: computing power provided over the internet, all of it running on Amazon’s servers.

That vision is now well on its way to becoming a reality. The Pentagon is preparing to award a $10 billion, 10-year contract to move its information technology systems to the cloud. Amazon’s cloud unit, Amazon Web Services, or AWS, is the biggest provider of cloud services in the country and also the company’s profit engine: It accounted for 58.7% of Amazon’s operating income last year. AWS has been the favorite to emerge with the Pentagon contract.

Known as JEDI, for Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, the project has been the subject of accusations of favoritism. Two spurned bidders have launched unsuccessful bid protests and one of them, Oracle, filed and lost a lawsuit. Meanwhile, there’s an ongoing investigation by the Pentagon’s inspector general.

The DOD defends JEDI. The agency’s decision-makers have “always placed the interests of the warfighter first and have acted without bias, prejudice, or self-interest,” DOD spokesperson Elissa Smith said in a statement. “The same cannot be said of all parties to the debate over JEDI.”

What’s happened at the Pentagon extends past the JEDI contract. It’s a story of how some of America’s biggest tech companies used a little-known advisory board, some aggressive advocacy by a few billionaires and some unofficial lobbying to open a backdoor into the Pentagon. And so, no matter who wins the JEDI contract, one winner is already clear: Silicon Valley. The question is no longer whether a technology giant will emerge with the $10 billion prize, but rather which technology giant (or giants) will.

There are certainly benefits. The Pentagon’s technological infrastructure does indeed need to be modernized. But there may also be costs. Silicon Valley has pushed for the Pentagon to adopt its technology and its move-fast-and-break-things ethos. The result, according to interviews with more than three dozen current and former DOD officials and tech executives, has been internal clashes and a tortured process that has combined the hype of tech with the ethical morass of the Washington industry-government revolving door.

Laster did her best to enforce the rules. She would challenge the Pentagon’s cozy relationship not only with Bezos, but with Google’s Eric Schmidt, the chairman of the defense board that Bezos sought to join. The ultimate resolution? Laster was shunted aside. She was removed from the innovation board in November 2017 (but remains at the Defense Department). “Roma was removed because she insisted on them following the rules,” said a former DOD official knowledgeable about her situation.

Laster filed a grievance, which was denied. “I’ve been betrayed by an organization I joined when I was 17 years old,” said Laster, who is 54. “This is an organization built on loyalty, dedication and patriotism. Unfortunately, it is kind of one-way.”

Other criticism, from Amazon’s rivals and the press, has centered on the actions of several DOD workers who had previously worked directly or indirectly for Amazon and have since returned to the private sector. The most important of those employees, Sally Donnelly — a former outside strategist for Amazon who had become one of Mattis’ top aides — helped give Amazon officials access to Mattis in intimate settings, an opportunity that most defense contractors don’t enjoy. Donnelly organized a private dinner, never reported before, for Mattis, Bezos, herself and Amazon’s top government-sales executive at a Washington restaurant, DBGB, on Jan. 17, 2018. The dinner occurred just as the DOD was finalizing draft bid specifications for JEDI. (Asked about the dinner and several others like it, the DOD’s Smith said: “One of the department’s priorities is to reform the way DOD does business. As part of this reform, leaders are expected to engage with industry — in a full and open manner within legal boundaries — to find ways to reform our business practices and build a more lethal force.” A spokesperson for AWS said the dinner “had nothing to do with the JEDI procurement, and those implying otherwise either are misinformed or disappointed competitors trying to distract with innuendo vs competing fairly with their technical capabilities.”)

Such meetings aren’t illegal, but they undermine public trust in defense contracting, said Charles Tiefer, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and one of the nation’s leading experts on government-contracting law. “This is a particularly serious example of the revolving door among Pentagon officials and defense contractors, which has been problematic in recent years and is getting worse under the Trump administration,” he said.

In July, Trump expressed concerns about the process and whether it was skewed in Amazon’s favor. Early this month, his new defense secretary, Mark Esper, announced a fresh review, which will delay the selection of a winner. The judge in the JEDI-related case ruled in favor of the government but nonetheless summed up the process as containing conflict-of-interest allegations that were “certainly sufficient to raise eyebrows” and a “constant gravitational pull on agency employees by technology behemoths.”

The board that Bezos almost joined — called the Defense Innovation Board — was launched in 2016 by Ashton Carter, the last defense secretary in the Obama administration. Carter worried that the Pentagon’s information technology was falling behind. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 August 2019 at 3:50 pm

A healthful high-antioxidant drink: Pink Juice with Green Foam

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And, it turns out, erythritol is even good for you:

Written by LeisureGuy

22 August 2019 at 3:10 pm

Interesting phytate fact

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I’m rereading How Not to Die, and I thought this passage was interesting:

Subsequent research has suggested that dietary prevention of cancer may involve something other than just fiber. For instance, colorectal cancer rates are higher in Denmark than in Finland,34 yet Danes consume slightly more dietary fiber than Finns.35 What other protective compounds might explain the low cancer rates among plant-based populations? Well, fiber isn’t the only thing found in whole plant foods that’s missing from processed and animal-based foods.

The answer might lie in natural compounds called phytates, which are found in the seeds of plants—in other words, in all whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. Phytates have been shown to detoxify excess iron in the body, which otherwise can generate a particularly harmful kind of free radical called hydroxyl radicals. 36 The standard American diet may therefore be a double whammy when it comes to colorectal cancer: Meat contains the type of iron (heme) particularly associated with colorectal cancer37, but lacks, as do refined plant foods, the phytates to extinguish these iron-forged free radicals.
>For many years, phytates were maligned as inhibitors of mineral absorption, which is why you might have heard advice to roast, sprout, or soak your nuts to get rid of the phytates. In theory, this would allow you to absorb more minerals, such as calcium. This belief stemmed from a series of laboratory experiments on puppies from 1949 that suggested that phytates had a bone-softening, anticalcifying effect,38 as well as from subsequent studies with similar findings on rats.39 But more recently, in light of actual human data, phtates’ image has undergone a complete makeover.40 Those who eat more high-phytate foods actually tend to have a greater bone mineral density,41 less bone loss, and fewer hip fractures.42 Phytates appear to protect bone in a manner similar to that of antiosteroporosis drugs like Fosamax,43 but without the risk of osteonecrosis (bone rot) of the jaw, a rare, potentially disffiguring side-effect associated with that class of drugs.44

Phytates may also help protect against colorectal cancer….

The numbers in the text identify footnotes that specify the studies on whose findings the statements are based.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 August 2019 at 1:45 pm

Avocado to start the day

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Green is the theme of the shave: the soap, not shown, is a pale green as well, and a very nice lather it made, thanks in part to Phoenix Artisan’s Green Ray shaving brush. My Rockwell 6S with the R3 baseplate did a very nice job, and a small dab of Saint Charles Shave’s Avocado Oil After Shave Balm finished the shave on a very nice note.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 August 2019 at 8:25 am

Posted in Shaving

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