Quotulatiousness

August 21, 2014

Missing the Target, badly

Filed under: Business, Cancon, USA — Tags: — Nicholas Russon @ 08:05

I’d heard lots of good things about the Target chain before they came north to Canada (James Lileks, for example, should be getting a regular cheque from the firm for his regular name-check of the local Target store in his writing). When a new Target store opened in Whitby, Elizabeth and I visited shortly after the doors opened. To say it was disappointing is an understatement. We expected to find a new, clean, fully stocked store with different brands and lower prices. What we found was a new, clean store with exactly the same stuff we’d seen before at pretty much the same prices. In other words, there was literally no reason to come back … and we haven’t been back.

Jason Kirby says that our experience was pretty much what everyone else experienced:

Target Canada is an unmitigated disaster. On that point, everyone, from its customers to investors to the company’s executives, can agree. In reporting its second-quarter results this morning, Target revealed its Canadian operations lost another US$200 million, while same-store sales — a gauge of performance that measures only those locations that have been open for at least a year — fell 11.4 per cent from the same period in 2013.

[...]

In a conference call with Canadian media Wednesday, Target chief financial officer John Mulligan declared: “We bit off way too much, too early. In retrospect, (we would) probably open five to 10 stores last year — refine the operations, refine the supply chain, the technology, get our store teams trained. But again, that’s all hindsight, we are where are right now and we’re focused on moving forward to fix this for our guests.”

[...]

It took Target from early 2011, when it announced the Zellers deal, to March 2013 before it opened its doors and could ring up its first sale. To date, Target has racked up $1.8 billion in losses from its Canadian operations. Here a good breakdown of the losses.

In Wal-Mart’s fiscal 1995 annual report, the retailer said its operating, selling and general and administrative expenses, as a percentage of sales, had risen just 0.2 per cent and 0.3 per cent in each of the previous two years as a result of the Canadian acquisition and launch. By Wal-Mart’s second year in Canada it had already generated an operating profit, having doubled sales per square foot since taking over from Woolco. By year two it boasted a 40 per cent share of the market.

It’s taken three years for Target to admit just how flawed the Canadian expansion has been. An atrocious inventory management system left shelves empty, while Canadians were completely turned off by Target Canada’s decidedly un-Target-like prices on goods.

August 16, 2014

The downfalls of ceremonial guard duties

Filed under: Humour, Military — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:02

Anyone who’s spent time in uniform can probably identify with the victims of gravity, equine misbehaviour, and cussed bad luck in this collection of military pratfalls during ceremonial duties.

H/T to Roger Henry for the link.

August 8, 2014

Revisiting the economic brain-fart that was “Cash for Clunkers”

Filed under: Economics, Government, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:44

If you listen to big government fans, you’ll often hear how much better it is for the economy for the government to spend money — much better than letting the taxpayers spend that money themselves — because the government is able to get a much higher “multiple” for every dollar that it spends. The “Cash for Clunkers” story may support that theory, but only if you reverse the sign: the program may have been more economically helpful to the auto makers and the taxpayers if they’d just piled up a few billion bank notes and set them on fire. The program ran for two months, and the government doled out $3 billion in subsidies to new car buyers (their old cars were destroyed). The new car owners benefitted, although it seems to merely have brought forward intended new car purchases in most cases, and the auto makers seemed to benefit by moving out a lot of unsold inventory.

However, a new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper shows that the program actually ended up costing the auto makers between $2.6 and $4 billion. Coyote Blog quotes the WSJ‘s summary:

The irony is that the goals were to help Detroit through the recession by subsidizing sales and to please the green lobby by putting more fuel-efficient cars on the road. By pulling forward purchases that consumers would make later anyway, the Obama Administration also hoped to add to GDP. Christina Romer, then chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, called Cash for Clunkers “very nearly the best possible countercyclical fiscal policy in an economy suffering from temporarily low aggregate demand.”

The A&M economists had the elegant idea of comparing the buying behavior of Texas drivers who owned cars that barely qualified for cash (those that got 18 miles per gallon of gas or less) and those that barely did not (19 mph). Using state DMV sales records, this counterfactual allowed them to isolate the effects of the Cash for Clunkers incentives and show what would have happened without the program.

The two groups were equally likely to purchase a new vehicle over the nine month period that started with Cash for Clunkers, so the subsidy did not create any extra auto business. But in order to meet the fuel efficiency mandate, consumers who got the subsidy were induced to purchase smaller vehicle models with less horsepower that cost on average $2,500 to $3,000 less than those bought by their ineligible peers. The clunkers bought more Corollas, and everybody else more Chevys.

Extrapolated nationally, auto revenues may have plunged by more than what the government spent. And any environmental benefits cannot be justified under the federal social cost of carbon estimate of $33 a ton. Prior research from 2009 and 2013 has shown that the program cost between $237 and $288 a carbon ton.

By taking all those used cars off the road and destroying them, the program also created a nasty price spike in the used car market (which hurt the poor almost exclusively). As P.J. O’Rourke said:

… cash for clunkers was just sinful. You’re taking a bunch of perfectly good vehicles, inexpensive vehicles that could be used by people without much in the way of material means, and crushing them. If someone took a valuable resource — something that could really be useful to people — and destroyed it, they’d be in jail if they were private citizens.

Steve Chapman probably put it best back in 2009, “Cash for Clunkers has been a thrilling moment for advocates of expanded government, who say it proves what we can accomplish when our leaders put their minds to it. They are absolutely right. The program proves the federal government is unsurpassed at two things: dispersing money and destroying things.”

July 16, 2014

Rolling Stone is your top source for reliable, informative gun news

Filed under: Media, Technology, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:10

The folks at Rolling Stone are concerned for your safety, so they’ve helpfully put together a primer on the five “most dangerous” guns in America. Because they love you, America:

Rolling Stone dangerous guns 3

Yes, we’re apparently talking about grenade launchers here. I didn’t even know grenade launchers were available to civilians. Awesome!

Rolling Stone dangerous guns 5

Wait, “the explosive that creates the energy to fire the gun occurs in the fixed shell of a shotgun rather than the metallic cartridge of a rifle”. Why would I expect the charge that propels the shot out of a shotgun to be ignited in a rifle cartridge? Is this some sort of magic that allows you to fire a different weapon than the one you’re holding? No wonder Rolling Stone thinks this is such a dangerous weapon!

H/T to Charles C. W. Cooke for the link.

July 11, 2014

Remember the Y2K bug? It just caused draft notices to be sent to thousands of dead men

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:57

This is a story that rightfully should have been published at the beginning of April (except it actually happened):

A year 2000-related bug has caused the US military to send more than 14,000 letters of conscription to men who were all born in the 1800s and died decades ago.

Shocked residents of Pennsylvania began receiving letters ordering their great grandparents to register for the US military draft by pain of “fine and imprisonment.”

“I said, ‘Geez, what the hell is this about?’” Chuck Huey, 73, of Kingston, Pennsylvania told the Associated Press when he received a letter for his late grandfather Bert Huey, born in 1894 and a first world war veteran who died at the age of 100 in 1995.

“It said he was subject to heavy fines and imprisonment if he didn’t sign up for the draft board,” exclaimed Huey. “We were just totally dumbfounded.”

The US Selective Service System, which sent the letters in error, automatically handles the drafting of US citizens and other US residents that are applicable for conscription. The cause of the error was narrowed down to a Y2K-like bug in the Pennsylvania department of transportation (PDT).

A clerk at the PDT failed to select a century during the transfer of 400,000 records to the Selective Service, producing 1990s records for men born a century earlier.

June 23, 2014

Justice Department staff fall for phishing scam simulation

Filed under: Cancon, Government, Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 06:36

This doesn’t speak well of the federal government’s staff security training:

Many of the Justice Department’s finest legal minds are falling prey to a garden-variety Internet scam.

An internal survey shows almost 2,000 staff were conned into clicking on a phoney “phishing” link in their email, raising questions about the security of sensitive information.

The department launched the mock scam in December as a security exercise, sending emails to 5,000 employees to test their ability to recognize cyber fraud.

The emails looked like genuine communications from government or financial institutions, and contained a link to a fake website that was also made to look like the real thing.

What’s even more interesting is that the government bureaucrats fell for this scam at a far higher rate than average Canadian internet users:

The Justice Department’s mock exercise caught 1,850 people clicking on the phoney embedded links, or 37 per cent of everyone who received the emails.

That’s a much higher rate than for the general population, which a federal website says is only about five per cent.

The exercise did not put any confidential information at risk, but the poor results raise red flags about public servants being caught by actual phishing emails.

A spokeswoman says “no privacy breaches have been reported” from any real phishing scams at Justice Canada.

Carole Saindon also said that two more waves of mock emails in February and April show improved results, with clicking rates falling by half.

So in an earlier test, our public servants were clicking on phishing links well over 50% of the time? Yikes.

June 18, 2014

This is why computer security folks look so frustrated

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:41

It’s not that the “security” part of the job is so wearing … it’s that people are morons:

Security white hats, despair: users will run dodgy executables if they are paid as little as one cent.

Even more would allow their computers to become infected by botnet software nasties if the price was increased to five or 10 cents. Offer a whole dollar and you’ll secure a herd of willing internet slaves.

The demoralising findings come from a study lead by Nicolas Christin, research professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s CyLab which baited users with a benign Windows executable sold to users under the guise of contributing to a (fictitious) study.

It was downloaded 1,714 times and 965 users actually ran the code. The application ran a timer simulating an hour’s computational tasks after which a token for payment would be generated.

The researchers collected information on user machines discovering that many of the predominantly US and Indian user machines were already infected with malware despite having security systems installed, and were happy to click past Windows’ User Access Control warning prompts.

The presence of malware actually increased on machines running the latest patches and infosec tools in what was described as an indication of users’ false sense of security.

May 31, 2014

“The smoke from this plant causes a brief state of euphoria, immediately followed by permanent insanity”

Filed under: Government, Health, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:29

Paula Bolyard says that this collection of TV public service announcements from the 1970s may go a long way to explain why as parents they obsessively over-protect their kids (the Millenial generation). I loved this one:

In an effort to communicate a hip-sounding anti-drug message that teens could relate to, this PSA probably achieved the opposite of its intended effect. It made drugs seem fun and cool and glamorized drug use more than demonizing it.

Here are some gems from this hilarious PSA:

    I know what you’re thinking. What is marijuana? What makes it so dangerous? Where can I get some marijuana? Well, brother, I’m not going to nickle and dime you. I’m not like ‘the man’ all you kids are rebelling against. I’m hip. I know what young people are dealing with these days.

Yes, he actually said “nickle and dime you.”

    Rolled in Zig Zags or puffed from 7th period wood shop projects, the smoke from this plant causes a brief state of euphoria, immediately followed by permanent insanity. Users are prone to unpredictable behavior including junk food binges, joy rides, and a sudden urge to wear sunglasses at night.

At long last I now know why my brother was so interested in wood shop in junior high.

    Long term use of marijuana can lead to a psychological dependency. Soon you’ll be taking all sorts of measures to get your fix. People will start calling you names like ‘pothead’ or ‘Smokie McBongwater.’ Losing all motivation, it’s likely that you will drop out of school take a sudden liking to sitar music and maybe even get felt up by a cop or two.

This explains basically everything about the 70s.

    Is marijuana really where it’s at? Is it really as righteous as you think? There is more to life than grass. There are fulfilling careers and grrrr000vy beach parties. The closer you look the more seeds you find in your stash. Follow your hopes and dreams. Be someone. Do yourself and your country a favor. Don’t let this happen to you.

Raise your hand if you’re convinced.

May 28, 2014

England’s sorry World Cup history

Filed under: Britain, Soccer — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:02

Published on 27 May 2014

James Richardson updates the story of England, through the occasional ups and regular downs of the English national side, from the first international ever played in 1872 (a 0-0 thriller with Scotland) to the present day, via glory in 1966 and failure, well, pretty much all the rest of the time

Yep, the World Cup is coming up soon. Here are the opening fixtures for each of the groups:

World Cup 2014 groupings

Note the joyful placement of England (#11 in the world rankings) with Uruguay (#6) and Italy (#9). Much angst to be enjoyed as the round-robin plays out… Of course, if England is looking to an uphill struggle to get out of the group stage, imagine how Costa Rica is feeling (currently #34 in the world rankings). And Canadians can’t poke too much fun … we rank #110 at the moment.

May 21, 2014

New French trains built slightly too wide – €50 million spent so far to modify stations

Filed under: Cancon, Europe, Railways — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:35

SNCF (the French national passenger railway company) was very proud of the new fleet of passenger trains they’d ordered from manufacturers Alstom and Canada’s Bombardier … until it became clear that SNCF had been given the wrong dimensions to fit in many of the older French passenger stations:

It is a minor miscalculation, but one that will cost the French taxpayer a fortune.

France’s national rail operator SNCF — which runs its prestigious TGV fast trains — has sparked hilarity, anger and ridicule after building a new generation of regional trains that are too wide for 1,300 stations, meaning platforms will have to be “shaved” to stop them getting stuck.

The appalling blunder, which the French transport minister on Wednesday dubbed “comically tragic”, has already reportedly cost the state-controlled SNCF some €50 million (£40.5 million), sparking uproar at a time of austerity.

It was revealed by Wednesday’s Canard Enchaîné, the satirical weekly, whose cartoon showed a line of commuters on a busy platform being told: “The Paris-Brest train is entering the station. Please pull in your stomachs.”

The mistake was made as part of a €15 billion makeover of France’s Regional Express Trains, or TER, shared between Alstom, the French trainmaker and Bombardier, its Canadian rival.

[...]

Aware that France’s provincial stations — some of them ancient — came in various shapes and sizes, SNCF had asked the regional rail operator, Réseau ferré de France, or RFF, which is in charge of all French tracks, to work out the right measurements for the new trains.

Upon their advice that station widths varied by around 10cm in all, SNCF concluded the new trains could be 20 cm wider than their predecessors.

However, in an oversight that would cost it dear, the operator forgot to factor in some 1,300 stations built more than 50 years ago that are far narrower than today’s norms. “SNCF’s wise engineers forgot to verify the reality in the field,” wrote Le Canard.

May 3, 2014

I am not a number!

Filed under: Business, Cancon, Humour — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:58

We had a call from Rogers (our ISP/cable provider) last night to discuss our current internet plan (we’ve been bumping up against our data cap lately, even though we increased it from 60GB to 80GB only a few months ago). I pointed out that my son’s internet bill while he was away at university came to about the same as our bill with Rogers, but that his data cap was 250GB. I asked if Rogers could come close to offering me that in Brooklin, since Cogeco is clearly able to turn a profit while offering folks in Peterborough a much higher data cap.

Rogers couldn’t quite match the offer, but for a slightly higher monthly bill we’ll now have a 270GB cap and higher (nominal) upload/download speeds. After this, I got an email that showed I’m not just a number to Rogers … I’m {$/process_data/xmlData/CRCFormatRequest/CustomerInfo/FullName$} instead:

Rogers internet service quote glitch

May 2, 2014

Australian Financial Review says the “World is Fukt”

Filed under: Humour, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:09

In my mundane jobs, occasionally filler text is accidentally included in an otherwise ready-to-publish piece of work. Much more rarely, someone on staff uses placeholder headings that are never meant to go beyond their small circle of fellow scribes (sometimes funny, often scatological, risky-but-stress-relieving kind of things). When I was working for [defunct international telecom equipment manufacturer], a fellow writer included the instruction “If you find an error in this document, please dial 1-800-EAT-SHIT” on a cover page. The divisional VP was not amused when that hit his desk.

This is bad when it escapes to the internal audience outside the working group, but it’s much worse when it somehow goes out to the general public:

Australian Financial Review - World is Fukt

The financial newspaper which accidentally published a front-page headline reading “World is Fukt” apologised today to its readers for the error-ridden edition.

The respected Australian Financial Review, in a message from editor-in-chief Michael Stutchbury, said the mistake was due to a production and printing error.

“The Australian Financial Review apologises to Western Australian readers for the obviously unacceptable state of the newspaper’s front page on Thursday,” he said in an apology in Monday’s newspaper.

The accidental front page quickly found fans on Twitter, who approved of the headline which read in full: “Arms buildup – Buys planes, World is Fukt”.

They also enjoyed the fact that the headline for a story about a major budget speech by Treasurer Joe Hockey was empty of meaning, reading “Three lines to come here”.

H/T to my best source in Oz, Roger Henry.

April 28, 2014

Megan McArdle on The Up Side of Down

Filed under: Business, Economics, Media, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

I posted a shorter interview yesterday, and this is a longer presentation Megan McArdle did back in February at Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C.:

Published on 15 Feb 2014

Failure, however devastating, is not the end. In fact, as McArdle, a journalist and blogger who has charted the fall and rise of a variety of ventures shows, failure can be just the teacher you need to push you forward to greater success. For those of you who missed her talk at Sixth and, maybe failing to come is the insight you need.

April 27, 2014

Reason.tv – Megan McArdle: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success

Filed under: Business, Economics, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:28

Published on 25 Apr 2014

“There’s nothing as dangerous as perfect safety,” says Megan McArdle, author of the new book, The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success.

Failure is inevitable, says McArdle, who’s also a Bloomberg View columnist. But how we handle our own failures and whether we learn from them go a long way in shaping individuals, institutions, and entire societies.

Drawing on personal anecdotes, current events, literature, and cutting-edge research, McArdle dissects our beliefs, myths, and cognitive biases about failure.

April 20, 2014

QotD: Musical tastes

Filed under: Humour, Media, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:46

It was my business for a long time to tell people that approached the bandstand that their favorite song was of absolutely no interest to everyone else in the room, and we weren’t going to play it. It’s a delicate thing to tell people that the song that contains both the name of their illegitimate children and their pit bulls, and whose album cover is featured on both a tattoo on their chest and painted on the side of their van, isn’t very entertaining. Such information upsets people, like going to the monkey house at the zoo and throwing your poo at the apes. Those monkeys stop in their tracks and stare at you, I’m telling you.

Don’t ask me how I know that.

Sippican Cottage, “Well, I Put The Quarter Right In That Can, But All They Played Was Disco, Man”, Sippican Cottage, 2013-05-06

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