Friday Five: September 2018
Topics Covered: Pupu Platter, Nine Point Nine Percenters, Biometric Identity, State of Weight, NYC Elevators
The Friday Five is a monthly email newsletter curating and discussing five of the most interesting topics, stories and general musings found in my Encyclopedia Britannica collection and other sources.
Click here to receive the Friday Five in your inbox.
1. Pupu Platter
A) Amazon just announced the newest industry it plans to disrupt: Christmas trees. Starting in November, Amazon will sell and ship fresh, full-size Douglas Fir and Norfolk Island Pines Christmas trees. Most trees will qualify for free Amazon Prime shipping. Only 1% of the 27 million real Christmas trees purchased in 2017 were purchased online.
B) Fortnite is the most popular video game ever. Since being released a year ago, Fortnite has grossed over $1 Billion from its 125 million active players (and that is before it was recently released for Android, which should quickly boost the numbers of players). The game is so popular that it is responsible for 5% of the divorces in the UK this year.
C) FEMA recently tested a Wireless Emergency Alerts system that allows the president to send text messages directly to all (or a subset) of mobile phones in the US. The system is designed to communicate with the masses in the event of natural disasters or terrorist attacks. Users have no ability to opt out. FEMA was clear to point out the system is not designed for the president’s personal use. GREATEST DISASTER COMMUNICATION TOOL EVER CREATED!
D) Only half of the world’s population engages in romantic kissing. Researchers do not know why some cultures kiss romantically and others do not, but there are some patterns. For example, societies with distinct social classes are usually kissers. The theory is that kissing evolved with the growth of leisure time because kissing is delayed eroticism, meaning there is a less of a rush to “get down to business.” As another example, most hunter-gatherer communities do not engage in romantic kissing, further suggesting that romantic kissing emerged in recent human history. The one exception is the hunter-gatherer tribes in the Arctic (e.g. Eskimos), probably because romantic kissing, which can be done fully clothed, is a better alternative than freezing their cojones off.
E) Facebook is omnipresent in our lives. On August 3rd, Facebook went down for 45 minutes, which provided a natural study on Facebook’s impact in our lives. In those 45 minutes, overall web traffic went up 2.3% globally. There was an 8% increase in search traffic, an 11% increase in direct traffic to web pages, and a 22% increase in other apps being opened. Based on this data, there was apparently no increase in the amount of time people spent outside.
2. The Nine-Point-Nine Percent
The phrase “we are the 99%” became part of the cultural zeitgeist back in 2011 during the Occupy Wallstreet movement. The premise is that one percent of people hold more economic wealth than the other 99%.
In reality, it is the top 0.1% who have been the big winners in the past half a century. In the US, the 160,000 households that make up the 0.1% hold 22% of America’s wealth, up from 10% in the mid-80s (an increase of 12 percentage points). Meanwhile, the wealth of the bottom 90% of Americans has decreased from 35% to 23% (a decrease of 12 percentage points) during the same time period. This means that the gains of the top 0.1% came solely at the expense of the bottom 90% while the “middle” 9.9% remained flat, holding 55% of the nation’s wealth.
So, who makes up the 9.9%? According to author Matthew Stewart, “we’re a well-behaved, flannel-suited crowd of lawyers, doctors, dentists, mid-level investment bankers, M.B.A.s with opaque job titles, and assorted other professionals — the kind of people you might invite to dinner. In fact, we’re so self-effacing, we deny our own existence. We keep insisting that we’re “middle class.” It takes a net worth of $1.2M to crack the 9.9% ($2.4M to reach the median of the group) and the group is 87% white.
It is no secret that race and economic wellbeing are inextricably linked in this county, but the numbers are staggering. The Institute for Policy Studies calculated that the median black family has a net wealth of $1,700 and the median Latino family has $2,000, compared with $116,800 for the median white family.
A statistic called the Intergenerational Earnings Elasticity (IGE) shows that America is not quite the land of opportunity we believe it to be. IGE measures how much of a child’s deviation from average income can be accounted for by the parents’ income. An IGE of zero means there is no correlation between a child’s income and their parents’ income while an IGE of one means a child is destined to end up in the exact same income bracket as his or her parents. In America, the IGE is 0.5, the highest of any developing country. In other words, the game is half over as soon as you draw your first breath.
3. Biometric Identity
We all know that tech companies collect troves of data on us, but now banks are getting into the action too. Banks have started to create a biometric identity profile for their customers as a means of detecting fraud. Banks employ software that record and collect more than 2,000 different interactive gestures every time a user logs into the banking app or website. On phones, gestures include the angle at which people hold their devices, the fingers they use to swipe and tap, the pressure they apply, how quickly they scroll, etc. The software then builds a biometric profile for each user account. Every time someone logs in to that account, the gestures are compared to the profile of that account.
It takes time to build an accurate biometric identity for each person because people’s behavior isn’t constant. People interact with their phone differently at work vs home or when they are tired, drunk, distracted or in a hurry. The biometric software is so robust that it even tests for how people react to small “inconsistencies.” For example, the software (via the bank’s website or app) will create “gentle nudges” such as speeding up the scroll wheel or making the cursor disappear for a fraction of a second, because each person’s response to those inconsistencies is so individually specific that it is hard for a fraudulent user to fake. Of course, there are huge privacy concerns here: this typically isn’t a program that users have the option to opt-out of, there are no laws in the US governing the use and collection of this data, and most banks use third party companies to store this data.
4. The State of Weight
Since 1980, the obesity rate has doubled in 73 countries and increased in 113 others. In that same time frame, no nation has reduced its obesity rate. The CDC says nearly 80 percent of adults and about one-third of children in the US now meet the clinical definition of overweight or obese. Being fat not only causes physical problems, but mental ones as well. In the words of Jim Gaffigan, “do you ever walk past a mirror and it ruins your whole day?”
Forty-five percent of adults say they are preoccupied with their weight — an 11 point rise since 1990 — and nearly half of three to six year old girls say they worry about being fat. There are a lot problems with our societal paradigm on weight such as promoting thin as sexy (not too long ago, being fat was a sign of prosperity and sexiness) or viewing weight and health as synonymous (one third of people classified as obese are metabolically healthy). However, one of the biggest problems with our views as a society on weight is that we focus on diets (diets make money) as opposed to healthy lifestyles. Since 1959, research has shown that 95 to 98 percent of attempts to lose weight fail and that two-thirds of dieters gain back more than they lost.
In an effort to promote healthier lifestyles (and promote its bottom line), John Hancock, the oldest life insurer in the US, recently announced it will stop selling traditional life insurance policies and only sell “interactive policies” that track and reward exercise in the form of lower premiums. Based on pilot studies, John Hancock says interactive policy holders live 13 to 21 years longer than the rest of the insured population. People living longer means more premiums, less claims, and more profits.
In other fat-related news, a new study shows that marinating meat in beer before putting it on the grill can reduce the presence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which lead to colon cancer. Just don’t record those extra beer calories in your John Hancock app.
5. NYC Elevators
Most times when I frantically press the “close door” button on the elevator to try to avoid riding with another person, it feels like the doors don’t close any faster. Turns out that is because they don’t. The world is full of placebo buttons — useless buttons designed to have a psychological effect on the presser by giving them the illusion of control. In New York City, only 100 of the 1,000 crosswalk buttons actually work. Meanwhile, on an elevator, despite the ubiquity of the “close door” button, the riders legally are not allowed to make the doors close faster because the Americans with Disabilities Act requires that the doors remain open for a certain amount of time to allow people with mobility issues to enter or exit safely.
The first elevator was built in New York City 1857, eight years before Lincoln was shot. Fast forward 161 years and elevators are a remarkably safe mode of transportation. Every year in the US, there are 30 elevator and escalator deaths compared to 1900 deaths from people falling down stairs. In New York City, there are 76,000 elevators capable of carrying 18% of the city’s population at any given time. On an average day in New York City, people ride in an elevator 4 million times. Surprisingly, there are roughly twice as many miles of elevator shafts in the city as there are miles of subway tracks.
Twenty-two percent of the buildings in New York City are exactly six stories high (the Empire State Building has 102 stories), which is by far the most popular building size. There is a law, established in 1968, requiring elevators in buildings more than five stories, but builders keep building only six story buildings. This is because buildings more than six stories require a water tower and pump to provide suitable water pressure to tenants on the higher floors. So, six stories is a sweet spot — high enough to need an elevator (boosting value of the building), but low enough not to require a water tower (reducing cost).