Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Should house prices still be falling?

I'm not sure.  According to the National Association of Realtors, the median house price in the US is $170,500.  The most recent American Housing Survey data from 2008 shows median rent at $ 808 per month, and the CPI-Rent index is essentially flat since 2008.  This means the cash flow cost of renting is $9696 per year.

If we assume the mortgage interest rate on a 30-year fixed rate mortgage  is 4.5 percent, the cost of home equity is 10 percent, a buyer puts 20 percent down on a house, property taxes are one percent of house value, marginal income tax rates (state and local) are 25 percent, maintanence costs are one percent per year, and amortized closing costs are another one percent per year, the cash cost of owning is $12,162 per year.

But the median rental unit is 1300 square feet and the median owner unit is 1800 square feet, so owning the median owner unit costs about 10 percent less per square foot than renting the median rental unit.  This means house prices could fall and, in some places at least, still leave the owner better off than renters.

Neither renter nor owner markets are national, but I am hard pressed to think of a time when owning on a cash-flow basis looks so reasonable relative to renting. 

Handmade Pretties

I've been getting a ton of emails asking about our Christmas stockings from the Better Homes & Gardens shoot. 

They had the recycled sweater stockings made for us by Lara Newsom of Handmade Pretties and & I can't get over them!!!  (We have our ratty old sentimental ones that we love for Christmas morning but these beauties are hanging on the mantle :)

We also tied some of her felt ornaments on wrapped packages:

And they're hanging in our tree too:

The boys absolutely love the sweater balls she made...

They're under our tree right now and it's fun to see the boys go in and start playing with them.  It looks like presents waiting under the tree!!  Here they are:

{photo by Lara}

I know Lara is totally backed up before Christmas but if you can wait, it's so worth it!!

xoxo, Lauren

If you'd like help creating a home you absolutely love, contact me about our design services.

Generalising geographic data

It often happens that the dataset you have is very detailed and hence very large. Displaying such volume of data in online mapping applications (eg. as KML on Google Map) is out of the question. The only alternative is to reduce the number of vertices to reduce the overall size of the file (ie. generalise the data). There is an excellent free online tool to do just that and surprisingly it works much better than commercial software that costs a fortune. It is called MapShaper.

It accepts spatial data in shapefile format only. It is an online service and you can upload files up to 80MB in size for processing. There are 3 generalisation algorithms to choose from. Activation of generalisation process itself is as simple as moving a slider “left to right” (from 0% reduction to 99%) – the result is visible on the screen instantaneously. Another great feature of the tool is that you can view original file underneath the generalised version to assess the quality of the process but also to pick the right generalisation level for your requirements.

Processed files can be downloaded back in either shp or EPS format (so it’s is also a great tool for straight conversion of files from shp format into EPS format, for use with vector graphics software!). There is simple edit functionality as well so you can add/delete vertices manually, if required. Generalisation process preserves topology so boundaries of adjoining polygons are generalised in an identical fashion – that is, they still “fit” perfectly. All in all, MapShaper is very straightforward to use.

File size still counts when performance of online mapping tool is the objective. For example, it will not be possible to display electoral boundaries as a single, full resolution file in Google Map application. But original 25MB shapefile can be reduced to just a few hundred KB using MapShaper tool, and then even further by converting shp to gzipped KMZ format. Here is an example of a Google Map application that uses both, full resolution data for close-ups and generalised version for whole of the country view: Australian elections map (work in progress!).

Related posts:
Free map service preview
Converting csv data into shapefile
Converting shapefile into KML
Colours for thematic mapping
Free GIS Tools – Google Map
Free Address Validation Tool
Manual geocoder for 70 countries

Big media waking up to opportunities

There are two bits of news from the last few days that are worth a comment. Firstly, Fairfax and its new strategy update turned management restructure. Amongst all the details a few points caught my specific attention. In particular, Fairfax has finally recognised the opportunities in becoming a multi-platform company! I have written about the benefit of such approach over a year ago (actually, the whole strategy is laid out there for taking!). Fairfax CEO stated explicitly that from now on the company will focus on “... Greater sharing of editorial content and collaborating across platforms;…Adapting our news assets on all platforms…”. Furthermore, it will focus, amongst others, on “Strategic external investments, partnerships, JV’s” and “transaction services” for revenue (see my comments on online business model – this is where the real online revenue is!).

The second bit refers to News Ltd and its newest initiative to set up an in-house ad agency for clients. “…News Ltd said that it was creating a new creative division that will help advertisers build their brands, and better engage with existing and new audiences… The division differs to the likes of Seven Group’s SMG Red, PBL’s Powered and Fairfax 360 in that those offerings are sales led, whereas we will be creative ideas led”. This is a sign that they are finally getting that the main game is advertising revenue and not necessarily fees for access to content!

News Ltd and other major media companies should have been in creative advertising and media placement business long time ago. Why sharing the revenue with intermediaries? D'oh! Consider this example: ourpatch.com.au is an Australian site with only a marginal audience of 140K unique browsers a month but it claims to have advertising revenue close to $1 million pa. How this multiple is possible? The answer is simple – the company behind the website is an online advertising agency! It is relatively easy for them to push the clients towards that channel and charge big fees for available ad spots... Now News Ltd will be able to do exactly the same!

Another interesting development is that, similarly to Fairfax, News Ltd executives are starting to recognise the importance of multi-channel approach as well: “…The rapid development of new and emerging digital channels means we have the unprecedented opportunity of being the single point of reference for readers wishing to stay informed and inspired throughout the entire day. To realise this opportunity we must excel at acquiring, retaining and servicing customers through numerous channels…”.

If they only read my blog, they could have got the advice free of charge! Maybe my “strategic business insights” have some merits after all (others seem to make lots of money for recommending the same ideas!). Of course no one will give me any credit for it so, I can only beat my own drum… for now.

Related Posts:
The real cause of newspaper troubles...
Why iPad will not save newspapers
Fairfax launches 160 sites
Fairfax signs TV content deals

Monday, November 29, 2010

Choline and Fatty Liver

I've been writing about non-alcoholic fatty liver disorder (NAFLD) since the early days of this blog, because it's an alarmingly common disorder (roughly a quarter of Americans affected) that is typically undiagnosed. It often progresses into its more serious cousin non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), an inflammatory condition that causes liver damage and can progress to cancer. In a number of previous posts, I pinpointed excess sugar and seed oil consumption as culprits in NAFLD and NASH (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

Chris Masterjohn recently published two very informative posts on NAFLD/NASH that add a major additional factor to the equation: choline (6, 7). Choline is an essential nutrient that's required for the transport of fat out of the liver (8). NAFLD can be caused, and cured, simply by removing or adding dietary choline, and it appears to be dominant over other dietary factors including fat, sugar and alcohol. Apparently, certain researchers have been aware of this for some time, but it hasn't entered into the mainstream consciousness.

Could that be because the richest dietary sources are liver and eggs*? Choline is also found in smaller amounts in a variety of whole animal and plant foods. Most people don't get the officially recommended amount. From a recent review article (9):
Mean choline intakes for older children, men, women, and pregnant women are far below the adequate intake level established by the [Institute of Medicine]. Given the importance of choline in a wide range of critical functions in the human body, coupled with less-than-optimal intakes among the population, dietary guidance should be developed to encourage the intake of choline-rich foods.
I've dubbed beef liver the Most Nutritious Food in the World, Nature's Multivitamin, and I'll probably invent other titles for it in the future. Add yours to the comments.

Head over to Chris's blog and read about the classic studies he unearthed. And add The Daily Lipid to your RSS reader, because there's more interesting material to come!

The Sweet Truth about Liver and Egg Yolks
Does Choline Deficiency Contribute to Fatty Liver in Humans?

* For the brave: brain is actually the richest source of choline.

Ingrid Ellen, John Tye, and Mark Willis on Covered Bonds replacing GSES

They write:

Covered bonds have three potential advantages over MBSs as a method of mortgage finance.
First, they have the potential to reduce principal-agent problems, because the banks themselves
would hold the loans underlying covered bonds, giving them an interest in originating better
loans. Second, because the mortgage loans would simply remain on bank balance sheets and not
be put into special trusts subject to the incentives of servicers, banks could modify failing loans
far more easily than MBS trusts can. This could reduce foreclosures and maximize loan value.
Third, depending on how they are implemented, covered bonds also hold the possibility of
improving the options available to homebuyers who find themselves underwater. In Denmark,
covered bonds operate according to the “balance principle.” The balance principle requires a
match between each mortgage written and every bond issued. It permits homebuyers two options
for paying off their debt: they may either pay off their mortgage at par, or they may repurchase
their lender’s bonds on the open market, in an amount corresponding to the size of their
mortgage, and return those bonds to the lender. Falling house prices will often depress the
corresponding bond prices (though this may not always happen). When house and bond prices
fall together, homeowners can sometimes refinance their homes at the new, lower house price,
by buying back their bonds at the lower bond prices, and surrendering the bonds to the original
lender. This new option for refinancing could reduce foreclosures in the event of a widespread
decline in housing prices.

There is uncertainty, however, in the extent to which covered bonds would deliver the same level
of liquidity as GSE MBSs, because in a covered bond system, mortgage loans remain on bank
balance sheets. Moreover, it may be difficult for covered bonds to achieve the minimum efficient
scale to compete with government-backed GSE MBSs. As in Denmark, an effective covered
bond market would require standardized bond forms, and a high-volume market that could
demonstrate liquidity to potential buyers. If covered bonds were issued by hundreds of banks
across the country, each with different underwriting standards and bond structures, the extensive
market fragmentation would seriously reduce trading volume and liquidity for any particular
covered bond issue. The Danish covered bond system is effective because the market is highly
structured and homogenized, with only a few participating banks.

Me again: one of the selling points of covered bonds is that they remain on bank balance sheets, and, in Denmark anyway, have no explicit of implicit backing from the government.  But do they really lack such backing?  If the government is willing to inject liquidity into banks (and in Denmark, it is), do the bonds really lack a guarantee?  I am not so sure.

Convex Mirrors

{Mount Vernon Federal reproduction Convex Mirror by the Friedman Brothers  $3200}

I've had my eye out for a Federal-style convex mirror for a while...  Alone, they can be very serious pieces, often thought of as formal & symbolic.  Above, the 13 balls surrounding the mirror represents the 13 original colonies, and of course, the Eagle, chosen by our Founding Fathers, symbolizes the United States of America.  Originals and even good reproductions like the mirror above cost in the thousands.   In the 1940s and 1950s, a bunch of reproductions were made out of plastic and other cheaper materials and then painted gold.  I looooove the one below on liveauctioneers.com with a starting bid around $1200. 

In the photo below, Dorothy Draper used a massive ornate convex mirror for the Greenbrier Hotel:

{Dorothy Draper, the Greenbrier Hotel, photo via tilevera.com)

Below, Markham Roberts used a guilded Regency convex mirror above a fireplace in a new home that he worked hard to "age."  This story came out a few years ago and I really loved it because it showed how to add patina and a sense of history & permanence to a brand new home. 

{Markham Roberts in House Beautiful by Eric Piasecki}

...But as formal as Federal style convex mirrors can come across when used traditionally, they can also read modern & fresh when used unconventionally.  Below, Darryl Carter has a painted black convex mirror in his bedroom. 

{Darryl Carter's bedroom in Elle Decor Magazine}

I love Eddie & Jaithan's small white one below.  It's so unexpected and adds a bit of whimsy to the room:

{Eddie Ross in Lonny, photo via Matters of Style blog}

And how pretty and & glam is this mirror layered over mirrors below?

{also Eddie Ross!!}

A bit more versatile are plain convex mirrors as seen in the living room below.  The domed mirror itself is beautiful:

{JB Randall Powers in House Beautiful, photo by Luca Trovato}

Smaller ones can be added almost anywhere:

{image via decoroad}

If you look closely at many of them, you'll see the balls or starts inlaid in the frame reminiscent of the 13 original colonies.  Many of them have exactly 13.

{House Beautiful}

{image via Homeandgarden.com}

The convex mirror below lends a cool vibe to the room.  I love it when the mirror is old & spotted.

{Miles Redd in House Beautiful}

...And... -finally-  I found my very own vintage convex mirror when I was shopping at a thrift store in High Point with my friend Maria of Colour Me Happy.  I think it's one of the 40s or 50s reproductions and I might reguild it.  The mirror has been aged to perfection and it's complete with the 13 balls representing the original Colonies.  It was just the thing missing from above my nightstand:

{my bedroom.. photo by Helen Norman}

I'm always on the lookout for them and ebay has some pretty good deals.  That being said, there's nothing like an original & the beauty & history it posesses, so antique stores & sites selling mirrors in the thousands are also worth looking into if you have the budget.

xoxo, Lauren

If you'd like help creating a home you absolutely love, contact me about our design services.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Dirty Magazine

Whilst at the Vintage Skate 'N' Surf Expo I met Scarlett Rickard who publishes a fantastic Dirty Magazine. It's a magazine about... well I'll let Scarlett tell you in her own words:

"The Dirty Magazine is a celebration of old shit and the people who rescue it, collect it, mend it, replicate it, kick it and shout at it, but ultimately love it."

The mag is chock full of old bikes cars and other old tat that is constantly fascinating, so I'd urge you to have a look at their site and maybe even treat yourself to a copy (if that's what tickles your fancy)


On top of all that Scarlett is an incredible illustrator and sign writer. Check out her stuff here:

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A word on investors in online startups

In the previous article in this series I elaborated about an online business model that attempts to classify all online ventures into four distinctive categories - to help in presenting business concepts to potential investors. This is a follow up post to share a few broader thoughts about investors in online businesses. Specific advice on how to sell the idea to potential investors is outside the scope of this article - I will just limit my comments to a few basic observations.

Most ventures need someone to bankroll the idea either to launch it or take it to the next level. The simpler the concept and the greater the potential, the easier it will be to “sell” it to people who will provide the money to fund activities. Personal qualities in “selling the concept” can play very significant role but you still need that clear and simple business model so potential investors can relate to it and say: “what a great idea, it has so much potential, I will put some money into it.” The theory outlined in the previous post can help in achieving that.

Very often startup and operating costs will be significant and revenue may take long time to materialise so, trusting investors with deep pockets will be very important to see the business through the “cash bleeding/burning phase” (hence specific emphasis on capital funding for online startups). They will stick around if there is a perspective of large returns some time in the future. Twitter again is a good example. They only recently negotiated deals with Microsoft and Google to gain some revenue from selling access to Twitter’s real time search capabilities. But the company would not be able to survive and grow without propping up by patient investors.

It appears there are many wealthy individuals and venture capitalist that are willing to take risks with online businesses. Many accept that not all their investments will come off, although there is an expectation that some will make it very big. These people have totally different mindset to other types of investors who need hard figures and clearly defined returns before they give out any money.

The relationship between investors into online ventures and entrepreneurs is really a symbiotic arrangement. Investors get the opportunity to jump on the bandwagon of the "next best thing" while entrepreneurs not only receive the cash to pursue their dreams but also gain access to contacts and valuable advice. As much as investors would like to exercise maximum control and entrepreneurs to retain the biggest share of the venture, it is important to recognise this is after all a two way deal and therefore it has the most chances of success is if both parties are happy with the arrangements. Concessions on both sides are often expected.

There is an aura of “easy money” associated with online business but the competition for that money is significant so, it is another point in case for clear and simple business models to differentiate you from the rest of the pack. As already mentioned, the model outlined in the previous post can aid in that task.

Related articles:
How to pick online winners

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Our Thanksgiving Table

This year we're having Thanksgiving dinner.  It's an "off" year for our family so most of them are travelling and the gathering will be small.  My dad's driving out from Chicago but hasn't left yet so we'll see if he makes it to Virginia in time. 

{Our table set up in the lower level in the family room-combination-office}

My parents divorced when I was two years old, so I'm used to split up holidays and celebrating whenever it's possible even if it's not on the true "day of."  Deciding where we'll spend holidays does tend to get me a little tense because of so many years of back-and-forth between my parents and always feeling like everyone was fighting over me.  Now that I'm married and have in-laws it's even harder because there are more people who love us (haha what a rough life! ;) and want to be with us.  We'll definitely be doing a bit of the celebrating of the holidays on other days this year so we can see everyone and still get to spend some time at home. 

hahah okay, enough of my saga and back to the table...   I started with curtains from Ikea for the oatmeal-colored linen tablecloth.  (I didn't have one long enough so I went with curtains...  By using two panels (unsewed and overlapping) I could spread them wider and longer.)  I layered a beautiful vintage orange quilt over the curtains. 

I still have pumpkins left over from Halloween and added them to the table...

It was hard for me to get a picture of the magnolia wreath I hung at the window because the light was streaming in so strongly, but here's an attempt:

{It's a leftover Christmas wreath from last year that's browned just the right amount for Fall}

I used my Grandma Maestranzi's 'wild clover' china because I knew my dad would love seeing it {in case he makes it here in time ;}

{After so many years of daily use at the lake cottage, there were only 2 pieces left of her china...  I loved it so much and had so many fond memories of using it as a little girl that I went to replacements.com and found a whole set for myself.}

And another pumkin... wondering if there will be any room for food on this table???

{I'll remove some of the larger items once we sit down but I love a pretty table for guests to see.}

We might even have a fire in the wood burning stove...

...So have a very happy Thanksgiving!!  We all have so much to be thankful for.  In the least cheesiest way possible, I want to thank you for reading.  This blog has become such a big part of my life & I really appreciate your time & support. 

Oh?  And the food??  ummm... yeah, we'll see what happens with that.  We're attempting our first turkey tomorrow!! 

xoxo, Lauren

ps- I also have my 10-year high school  reunion Saturday night--- so excited to see everyone!!!

If you'd like help creating a home you absolutely love, contact me about our design services.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Converting shapefile into KML

In the inaugural post in the Free GIS Tools series I presented Google Map API as a very powerful online GIS alternative. Google Map has the capacity to display spatial data in various formats but probably the most attractive option is its native support for KML/KMZ. It takes only one line of code to display complex spatial information on a Google Map – as long as it is in that format. True, not all KLM features are supported in Google Map but you can still create great maps using a single KML file. Try aus-emaps.com free map service to test how well Google Map handles KMZ files: Victorian bushfires aftermath, current earthquakes.

KML/KMZ is the only spatial data format directly supported by free Google Map and Google Earth desktop application. However, a lot of free spatial data is distributed in another very popular GIS format: shapefile (shp). In order to display that data in Google Map or Google Earth, it has to be converted to KML/KMZ format.

There are many tools available for download, or that are bundled with commercial software to do that conversion, but I found only one that really work for me. And the best thing is that it is totally free! It took quite an effort to find so, by sharing this information I hope to save you many hours of fruitless trawling through the Internet. Here are the details.

ESRI Shapefile to KML Converter by reimers.dk

Simple but effective desktop tool (it works!) available for free download. Just point to the shp file you want to convert, select attributes to include in description field and press a button to run conversion. The only limitation is that you don't have a choice in selecting colours.

Here is an example of generated output: World Borders in KMZ (1.14MB kmz file draped on Google Map).

To reduce the size of KML file for distribution or deployment just gzip it. It is easy done using Google Earth “save as” function. That is, open your KML file in Google Earth and when you save it, it will be automatically converted to a compressed gzipped format with kmz extension.

For custom conversions from shp polygons to KMZ format, such as splitting a large file with many polygons into smaller files with individual polygons only (eg. to convert a single 60MB shp file with postcodes into 2,500 individual KMZ files), or grouping of polygons into custom areas (eg. to create sales or franchise territories by amalgamation of postcodes), or converting shp polygons into a thematic map layer (eg. by assigning colours to polygons based on specific attributes, like for example electorates by political party holding the seat), you will need more advanced tools. I can help you with those conversions for a small fee. Here is a sample of a thematic KMZ file using a selection of Sydney suburbs. I also have various polygon based data in KMZ format for immediate delivery (eg. postcode boundaries, as used in aus-emaps.com postcode finder service). Don’t hesitate to ask!

Use case example: Create outlines of polygons and show in an embedded map on a website (using collection of free tools and services available from aus-emaps.com)

1. Define vertex coordinates of custom polygon area using simple geocoder tool from aus-emaps.com (select “Point” option and click on the map, reposition markers as required, copy to Notepad).

2. Convert a list of points in csv format to shp file format using instructions provided in a recent post titled “Converting csv files into shapefile”.

3. Convert shp file into KML using tools introduced in this post.

4. Convert KML file into KMZ format using Google Earth (open KML file and “Save As”…) [optional step]

5. Upload KML/KMZ file to your server and reference its URL address in an aus-emaps.com free map service.

6. Embed the map in you web page using HTML’s iframe element.

The process is a bit convoluted, I admit. You could take a shortcut by pasting latitude and longitude coordinates directly into KML “shell” but you will need the right template for this in the first place. Using Google Map’s MyMap drawing and embedding functionality is a simpler option but you will not be able to create complex polygons (eg multi-part and/or doughnut type).

I am currently working on a public tool to generate custom polygons from administrative boundaries in a few simple steps. Coming up in 2011! But I will also have to put some though into creating a dedicated KMZ generation tool so you can do it all from a single web page... added to the list of “Things to do!”.

Related posts:
Free map service preview
Converting csv data into shapefile
Colours for thematic mapping
Free GIS Tools – Google Map
Free Address Validation Tool
Manual geocoder for 70 countries

I made curtains!

Anyone who knows me, knows that I do a lot myself but that I'm not really that into doing it.  I'm after results and don't savor the process.  I'm not a perfectionist and I get sloppy when I do projects.  Watching Dave stencil our living room wall when I was pregnant was torture.   However, I do like an-hour-or-less-long projects and I got one in this weekend:  cafe curtains for our laundry room.

They were so quick & easy and I luckily had 2 yards of fabric lying around that I'd purchased on a whim a little bit back when Seleta did a post on Lewis & Sheron.  (I'd used the fabric for the recent photo shoot at our house as a throw blanket and figured I could use it later.)  It ended up being perfect for the windows!!  ( I love it when stuff like that happens!)  I wanted a natural vintage-grandma feeling...  a teensy bit kitschy and almost as if they'd always been there.  I attempt potting in there and also keep my gardening tools in there so the fern fabric from Lewis & Sheron was perfect.   

When I finish up the rest of the laundry room I'll post "afters" but here's a quick "before" to give you an idea of the state it's been in...

{We haven't been able to really walk in there...}

{before we moved in}

Wish me luck!!

xoxo, Lauren

If you'd like help creating a home you absolutely love, contact me about our design services.

Skate ‘n’ Surf at the Rhythm Riot

New Zealand Surf Wagons c1960s
A3 Indian Ink on Bristol Board

1951 Ford Woodie Surf Wagon
Acrylic on Skateboard


Roller Derby deck with metal wheels!

Sidewalk Surfboard
T Bucket Pickup
Ford Model A Pickup

I've just come back from the amazing Rhythm Riot Weekender (more info here) in Camber where I took part in their first ever Vintage Skate and Surf Expo.

As you can see from the photographs there were some great old school skateboards and vehicles. Part of the show involved each artist customising a skateboard. I daubed mine with the rear end of a 1951 Ford Woodie.

One of the events sponsors was the VHRA (Vintage Hot Rod Association) a British based association promoting pre 1949 Hot Rods. I would highly recommend going to their website as they have an amazing contingent of hot rods on their register.

Thanks to Robin and Neil for putting together such a great show!

Untangling social network phenomenon

"Social networking" phenomenon is driving astronomical growth of many online companies, from the leaders of the pack like Facebook, to numerous peddlers of “make quick money online” self-help guides. The bigger the network/ mailing list, the larger the company value and profits. But what is really behind this phenomenon? I am leaning towards a conclusion that it has nothing to do with “social” but rather with our limitation to deal with information overload

Let’s look at this objectively. The capacity for individuals to participate in various social exchange networks was available from the early days of the Internet: forums, discussion boards, chat services and the like. However, the limitation was that these were mostly thematic based networks. With rapid growth of themed content on the Internet it all became very fragmented and difficult to follow…What Facebook, Twitter and the like brought to the mix was the capacity to participate/ follow many themes from a single portal! So, rather than helping user engage in “social networks” what those companies are really doing is assisting in information exchange! As simple as that. Just think about it. A person “following” a company on Facebook or Twitter has nothing to do with “social interaction” with that company – it’s not about “belonging” or “association” / “being part of a social group”. It’s all about access to specific information of interest to that individual (humour or other forms of entertainment, news, events, specials, etc.)!

Same applies to relationships between individuals – sociologists claim normal individuals are not capable of true social relationship with more than 150 counterparts at a time. Yet social network sites are full of people with thousands of contacts… Again, it is all about information and trusted channels of access to information, not about social interaction! The fact that individuals can participate in discussions and exchange messages is a part of the deal - some take advantage of it, others do not. True, the focus on “friends” helped Facebook to grow those personal networks at a rapid rate to propel the company to number 1 network facilitator but I will argue the key driving force was “the need to know” and not “the need to belong” (opening up the network to others and not only college students was the best and most logical decision to make since it is not about who you are but rather what you need to know!).

The information overload is what in my opinion is driving the popularity of the thing labelled as “social networking”. People want to know what is happening in their immediate environment, places of interest, topics of interest AND people they associate with (friends, colleagues, celebrities, etc.). At the same time people want to participate in some of those forums personally. Not enough time to read/see/do everything so the only way to keep up is to revert to “skimming over main headings” and to “following” limited number of information themes (on demand, user initiated).

What is helping in managing communication complexity associated with information overload is wide acceptance of abbreviated message format. It could be argued that the format was first introduced by Google Search - we all are so used to it: title and a short description of content. Just compare the main content pages of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or Google Search … they all follow the same “short message format”!

I believe “social network” is a bit of misnomer as it implies only personal interactions of a casual nature. It is more than that! And the implications of this view on the state of affairs are far reaching. Let me just share a few observations. Firstly, for publishers and participants in networked information exchange it highlights the importance of catchy titling with informative but short secondary tag line to draw attention of “skimmers” (the principle is nothing new and has been applied in print advertising for ages…). Short form content sharing and aggregation will only grow in popularity. This is a great opportunity for content aggregators and gadget makers and another warning for those considering locking their content exclusively behind pay walls (although can also be seen as a great opportunity if enough of short content is left in the public arena!).

Secondly, it implies that the importance of Google and other search engines (and hence SEO for marketing) will be diminishing as “search” is starting to loose ground to “personal recommendations”. A new information referral model is emerging on the Internet where “opinion leaders” (ie. those with large personal networks) are starting to play more significant role in directing online traffic. The bad news for online advertisers and marketers is that it is a very fragmented channel of communication. It also means that the concentration of online advertising power will be shifting to network facilitators, such as Facebook, and away from search focused sites. Some food for thought…

Monday, November 22, 2010

The wardrobe I want

So a month or two ago, a new (to me) catalogue arrived at my house.  Gorsuch.  I fell in love.  Like really fell in love...  I didn't want everything... Just a few things...  all of which had commas in their price tags, so none of them will be coming home to me.   BUT, this little blog is my place to dream and so dream I will...  I wish for:

{I'd wear this at least once a week.. probably more.}

I'm definitely a believer in buying quality over quantity and wearing what I love over & over -which is why I'm often wearing the same things in pics! ;)-     I still have clothes from high school and I've learned the hard way to buy only what I love.  (I still make an impluse Target purchase every now & then and regret it...  I've also made some of my favorite purchases there too but it's easy for me to get sidetracked by their low prices and buy stuff I don't love.)  I consider things I really love and feel like "me" worthwhile purchases, but unfortunately these Gorsuch items are all still out of my price range. 

And below, I want this whole outfit....  Aviators are my friends.  sweaterdress?  scarf? belt?  A-mazing.  Suede coat?  meeeeeeeow:

And I want to wear it in the wilderness and pitch a tent like her.

This blouse has the most beautiful detailing....

{Uhhhh.. love the sleeves!!!!}

{Really????? Come to me!!}

And finally....  I just loooooooooooove this coat and have been thinking about it since I first saw it.  Look at its bell sleeves.  So pretty....

I'll take the faux fur 3-digit version of this please ;)

...So...  none of these are coming home with me, but has anyone seen anything similar? 

Thanks so much to everyone for the sweet comments & emails about the BHG spread!!  It really makes my day and I feel so supported by my blog friends. Thank you :)

xoxo, Lauren
If you'd like help creating a home you absolutely love, contact me about our design services.

How to pick online winners

You may have heard a story of how eBay started – a guy just wanted to help his fiancĂ© to sell candy dispensers so he invented online auction service, and “the rest is history”, as the saying goes. Well, that was only a fabricated PR story but media is full of tales about other startups that make it all sound so easy - “they just did it”.

I was intrigued why some businesses operating in online arena had “so easy” while others struggled to get any momentum. Of course, it had to do with the calibre of individuals involved to a certain degree but I reached a conclusion that it also depended on the business concept. In this series of articles I will present a model of various types of online businesses as well as outline implications for their money making potential. This theory may help in assessing whether the concept is “worth pursuing” in the first place.

The thoughts presented in this article were sparked when I recently read about an Australian online business that started from ground zero just 2 years ago, claims to have 30,000 unique visitors a month and 85% of the market niche it operates in, estimated annual revenue of $2 million and still some good potential for the future. Of course it also has a number of high profile investors as directors, introduced by an influential Chairman of the board. Why this one had so easy? What was so attractive about this business in the first place? Read on to find out...

My analysis led me to the conclusion that the business mentioned above had “so easy” because it met two important criteria:

  • it had simple, attractive and proven revenue model (ie. attracting visitors with free cost comparison service - relating to a commodity that many households need - and earning revenue in the form of referral commissions if those visitors end up purchasing that commodity from a list of suppliers), and
  • the model was easy to understand by investors, hence they were eagerly willing to fund this start-up.

In more generic terms, in order to succeed, a startup venture needs a clear vision as to what it is going to provide and where the revenue will be coming from. That is, it needs a clearly defined product and clearly defined revenue stream that can be attractively packaged for potential investors.

I devised a simple model that attempts to describe in simple terms different modus operandi of businesses in the online arena. I am putting forward a proposition that they all can essentially fit into one of four generic types, derived by cross-classification of two categories of revenue sources (online advertising and sale of products/services) with two categories of product offerings (content for consumption and online transactions):

Definitions of categories:

Sources of revenue:
# Online advertising – all forms, including paid features and editorials;
# Sale of service/product – includes tangible products but also subscription services, and the like (eg. referrals to products sold via affiliate programs);

Product offering, defined in terms of primary purpose for visiting the site:
# Content for consumption – that is, information for consumption in a passive way (browsing, reading, watching, etc.) or goods/services to be acquired and used online and off-line; includes online search services; or
# Online Transactions – specific functionality enabling interaction between parties (eg. emailing, twitting, contacting friends, calling, buying, listing, publishing, etc.);

In order to illustrate the concept with greater clarity I will attempt to describe those four business types with more details. In particular:

The first, most basic category of online businesses includes websites that contain mostly passive content (ie. things to look at, read, search for, eventually to comment on) and that derive majority of revenue from selling advertising space. Examples of such businesses include blogs, media portals or search focused sites directing users to specific content somewhere on the web.

Loyal users and streams of visitors from search engines are the lifeblood of majority of such businesses and their profitability depends on the costs of acquiring new users and generating the content, as well as on the ability to sell advertising space at a premium. Some do very well in this space – Google with its flagship search engine is one such an example – although, with somehow limited future growth potential. But it is rather difficult for newcomers to break through the cloud and gain quickly significant user base since the most attractive niches are well covered. It is predominantly a slow growth proposition unless big money can be thrown at advertising and generating publicity to bring in the crowds (introduction of Bing online search service is a point in case). Specific examples of businesses in this category include: Google Search, Yahoo7 portal or portals of online newspapers.

The second category includes online businesses that, although containing mostly passive content, nevertheless are able to derive majority of revenue from sales of that content or related goods and services. Examples include paid subscription or pay-for-access services, predominantly with financial or other highly specialised information, or online retailers such as Amazon online bookstore, or websites of airlines selling tickets and holidays directly to the public (that is, traditional retailers extending their operations into an online environment). And of course numerous sites of self-made-gurus selling “how to make money online” advice...

The key focus of these businesses is on generating sellable, often unique content, packaging it in various formats and with different access options, and finding enough clients willing to pay for that content to cover the costs and a bit more. These businesses resemble more traditional “brick and mortar” type of operations as they need “real people with real needs” as well as salesmanship to secure the sale. Promotions through affiliate programs is a very powerful concept often deployed by these companies, followed by social marketing and more traditional brand building PR and advertising campaigns.

The third category are companies that supply basic “transaction services” such a free forums, listings, email, internet telephony, chat or similar, allowing interactive exchanges between groups of users or those creating free “market places”. Facebook, Twitter and similar social media sites are good examples here. They can rely on display advertising as the source of revenue but their key asset it seems are thousands and often millions of visitors that are utilising their services (there is anticipation that “one day” that wast user base will be willing to pay for something “yet to be invented” and that is enough to keep investors happy and often to subsidise the operations for long time). Some of the businesses in this category are already trying to capitalise on their user base by offering premium services – which means, they are aiming to move to the next and the most lucrative category.

And this fourth category comprises of online businesses which were able to devise paid “transaction services”. Examples include all exchange/ marketplace type of services, eg. online auctions as well as paid classified listings websites, app store model, or price comparison sites that derive revenue from commissions on "special deals" exclusive to their customers (Groupon, or health insurance and credit card comparison sites are good examples). In these arrangements at lease one party to the transaction pays a premium (eg. as is the case with all successful classified sites) but very often these operators are able to charge both sides (eg. as in case of wotif.com hotel booking services or some auction sites). This is the most attractive online business model as it can deliver significant revenue stream even with relatively small, in web terms, customer base. It could be argued that the majority (by volume, probably not value) of most successful online businesses are in this category.

I admit, there are no clear cut boundaries between the categories and some may argue that this or that online business would fit in one or the other category. A good example is Yahoo portal that I use exclusively as a transaction service (ie. for private email) but which also has significant passive content (ie.Yahoo7 media portal) and therefore could be classified primarily under category one. Nevertheless, it is quite useful model for choosing between business opportunities with greatest potential, as well as in deciding on strategic direction for existing online businesses. And of course, it can be invaluable in helping to explain “the potential” of the proposed online business concept to prospective investors!

In case of the business I referred to at the beginning of this article, the simplicity of the idea was its key strength. It belongs to the most attractive online business category hence its creator did not have much trouble in convincing investors that it can deliver in a big way.

A clear definition of what the business model is and where the revenue will be coming from are the two primary considerations an online startup has to address. Those who understand how important it is will be in a better position to find willing investors and quicker capitalise on their ideas, even before the first dollar is earned. True, it is easier said than done, especially when you are embarking on ventures that no-one has tried before, but relating your offering to a basic model presented in this article can work in your favour.

In the follow up to this article I will elaborate on the “content” vs “transaction” aspect of online product offering, in the context of costs associated with acquiring/ creating that product offering.

Related articles:
Use examples of Online Business Model
A word on investors in online startups
Economics of free stuff
The golden rule of online business - traffic, traffic and traffic
Law of “exponentialism” of online advertising revenue and online business value

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Glucose Tolerance in Non-industrial Cultures


Glucose is the predominant blood sugar and one of the body's two main fuel sources (the other is fatty acids). Glucose, in one form or another, is also the main form of digestible dietary carbohydrate in nearly all human diets. Starch is made of long chains of glucose molecules, which are rapidly liberated and absorbed during digestion. Sucrose, or table sugar, is made of one glucose and one fructose molecule, which are separated before absorption.

Blood glucose is essential for life, but it can also be damaging if there is too much of it. Therefore, the body tries to keep it within a relatively tight range. Normal fasting glucose is roughly between 70 and 90 mg/dL*, but in the same individual it's usually within about 5 mg/dL on any given day. Sustained glucose above 160 mg/dL or so causes damage to multiple organ systems. Some people would put that number closer to 140 mg/dL.

The amount of glucose contained in a potato far exceeds the amount contained in the blood, so if all that glucose were to enter the blood at once, it would lead to a highly damaging blood glucose level. Fortunately, the body has a hormone designed to keep this from happening: insulin. Insulin tells cells to internalize glucose from the blood, and suppresses glucose release by the liver. It's released by the pancreas in response to eating carbohydrate, and protein to a lesser extent. The amount of insulin released is proportional to the amount of carbohydrate ingested, so that glucose entering the blood is cleared before it can accumulate.

Insulin doesn't clear all the glucose as it enters the bloodstream, however. Some of it does accumulate, leading to a spike in blood glucose. This usually doesn't exceed 130 mg/dL in a truly healthy person, and even if it approaches that level it's only briefly. However, diabetics have reduced insulin signaling, and eating a typical meal can cause their glucose to exceed 300 mg/dL due to reduced insulin action and/or insulin secretion. In affluent nations, this is typically due to type II diabetes, which begins as insulin resistance, a condition in which insulin is actually higher than normal but cells fail to respond to it.  The next step is the failure of insulin-secreting beta cells, which is what generally precipitates actual diabetes.

The precursor to diabetes is called glucose intolerance, or pre-diabetes. In someone with glucose intolerance, blood glucose after a typical meal will exceed that of a healthy person, but will not reach the diabetic range (a common definition of diabetes is 200 mg/dL or higher, 2 hours after ingesting 75g of glucose). Glucose tolerance refers to a person's ability to control blood glucose when challenged with dietary glucose, and can be used in some contexts as a useful predictor of diabetes risk and general metabolic health. Doctors use the oral glucose tolerance test (OGTT), which involves drinking 60-100g glucose and measuring blood glucose after one or two hours, to determine glucose tolerance.

Why do we care about glucose tolerance in non-industrial cultures?

One of the problems with modern medical research is that so many people in our culture are metabolically sick that it can be difficult to know if what we consider "normal" is really normal or healthy in the broader sense. Non-industrial cultures allow us to examine what the human metabolism is like in the absence of metabolic disease. I admit this rests on certain assumptions, particularly that these people aren't sick themselves. I don't think all non-industrial cultures are necessarily healthy, but I'm going to stick with those that research has shown have an exceptionally low prevalence of diabetes (by Western standards) and other "diseases of civilization" for the purposes of this post.

Here's the question I really want to answer in this post: do healthy non-industrial cultures with a very high carbohydrate intake have an excellent glucose tolerance, such that their blood glucose doesn't rise to a high level, or are they simply resistant to the damaging effects of high blood glucose?

The data

I'm going to start with an extreme example. In the 1960s, when it was fashionable to study non-industrial cultures, researchers investigated the diet and health of a culture in Tukisenta, in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. The eat practically nothing but sweet potatoes, and their typical daily fare is 94.6 percent carbohydrate. Whether or not you believe that exact number, their diet was clearly extraordinarily high in carbohydrate. They administered 100g OGTTs and measured blood glucose at one hour, which is a very stringent OGTT. They compared the results to those obtained in the 1965 Tecumseh study (US) obtained by the same method. Here's what they found (1):
Compared to Americans, in Tukisenta they had an extraordinary glucose tolerance at all ages. At one hour, their blood glucose was scarcely above normal fasting values, and glucose tolerance only decreased modestly with age. In contrast, in Americans over 50 years old, the average one-hour value was around 180 mg/dL!

Now let's take a look at the African Bantu in the Lobaye region of the Central African Republic. The Bantu are a large ethnic group who primarily subsist on a diverse array of starchy foods including grains, beans, plantains and root crops. One hour after a 100g OGTT, their blood glucose was 113 mg/dL, compared to 139 mg/dL in American controls (2). Those numbers are comparable to what investigators found in Tukisenta, and indicate an excellent glucose tolerance in the Bantu.

In South America, different investigators studied a group of native Americans in central Brazil that subsist primarily on cassava (a starchy root crop) and freshwater fish. Average blood glucose one hour after a 100g OGTT was 94 mg/dl, and only 2 out of 106 people tested had a reading over 160 mg/dL (both were older women) (Western Diseases: Their Emergence and Prevention, p. 149). Again, that indicates a phenomenal glucose tolerance by Western standards.

I have to conclude that high-carbohydrate non-industrial cultures probably don't experience damaging high blood glucose levels, because their glucose tolerance is up to the task of shuttling a huge amount of glucose out of the bloodstream before that happens.

Not so fast...

Now let's turn our attention to another study that may throw a wrench in the gears. A while back, I found a paper containing OGTT data for the !Kung San (also called the Bushmen), a hunter-gatherer group living in the Kalahari desert of Africa. I reported in an earlier post that they had a good glucose tolerance. When I revisited the paper recently, I realized I had misread it and in fact, their glucose tolerance was actually pretty poor.

Investigators administered a 50g OGTT, half what the other studies used. At one hour, the San had blood glucose readings of 169 mg/dL, compared to 142 mg/dL in Caucasian controls (3)! I suspect a 100g OGTT would have put them close to the diabetic range.

Wait a minute, these guys are hunter-gatherers living the ancestral lifestyle; aren't they supposed to be super healthy?? First of all, like many hunter-gatherer groups the San are very small people: the men in this study were only 46 kg (101 lbs).  The smaller you are, the more a given amount of carbohydrate will raise your blood glucose.  Also, while I was mulling this over, I recalled a discussion where non-diabetic people were discussing their 'diabetic' OGTT values while on a low-carbohydrate diet. Apparently, carbohydrate refeeding for a few days generally reverses this and allows a normal OGTT in most people. It turns out this effect has been known for the better part of a century.

So what were the San eating? The study was conducted in October of 1970. The San diet changes seasonally, however their main staple food is the mongongo nut, which is mostly fat and which is available year-round (according to The !Kung San: Men, Women and Work in a Foraging Society). Their carbohydrate intake is generally low by Western standards, and at times of the year it is very low. This varies by the availability of other foods, but they generally don't seem to relish the fibrous starchy root crops that are available in the area, as they mostly eat them when other food is scarce. Jean-Louis Tu has posted a nice analysis of the San diet on BeyondVeg (4). Here's a photo of a San man collecting mongongo nuts from The !Kung San: Men, Women and Work in a Foraging Society:

What did the authors of the OGTT study have to say about their diet? Acknowledging that prior carbohydrate intake may have played a role in the OGTT results of the San, they made the following remark:
a retrospective dietary history (M. J. Konner, personal communication, 1971) indicated that the [San], in fact, consumed fairly large amounts of carbohydrate-rich vegetable food during the week before testing.
However, the dietary history was not provided, nor has it been published, so we have no way to assess the statement's accuracy or what was meant by "fairly large amounts of carbohydrate-rich vegetable food." Given the fact that the San diet typically ranges from moderately low to very low in carbohydrate, I suspect they were not getting much carbohydrate as a percentage of calories. Looking at the nutritional value of the starchy root foods they typically eat in appendix D of The !Kung San: Men, Women and Work in a Foraging Society, they are fibrous and most contain a low concentration of starch compared to a potato for example. The investigators may have been misled by the volume of these foods eaten, not realizing that they are not as rich in carbohydrate as the starchy root crops they are more familiar with.

You can draw your own conclusions, but I think the high OGTT result of the San probably reflect a low habitual carbohydrate intake, and not pre-diabetes. I have a very hard time believing that this culture wasn't able to handle the moderate amount of carbohydrate in their diet effectively, as observers have never described diabetic complications among them.

Putting it all together

This brings me to my hypothesis. I think a healthy human body is extraordinarily flexible in its ability to adapt to a very broad range of carbohydrate intakes, and adjusts glucose tolerance accordingly to maintain carbohydrate handling in a healthy range. In the context of a healthy diet and lifestyle (from birth), I suspect that nearly anyone can adjust to a very high carbohydrate intake without getting dangerous blood glucose spikes. A low carbohydrate intake leads to impaired glucose handling and better fat handling, as one would expect. This can show up as impaired glucose tolerance or even 'diabetes' on an OGTT, but that does not necessarily reflect a pathological state in my opinion.

Every person is different based on lifestyle, diet, personal history and genetics. Not everyone in affluent nations has a good glucose tolerance, and some people will never be able to handle starch effectively under any circumstances. The best way to know how your body reacts to carbohydrate is to test your own post-meal blood glucose using a glucose meter. They are inexpensive and work well. For the most informative result, eat a relatively consistent amount of carbohydrate for a week to allow your body to adapt, then take a glucose measurement 1 and 2 hours after a meal. If you don't eat much carbohydrate, eating a potato might make you think you're diabetic, whereas after a week of adaptation you may find that a large potato does not spike your blood glucose beyond the healthy range.

Exercise is a powerful tool for combating glucose intolerance, as it increases the muscles' demand for glucose, causing them to transport it out of the blood greedily after a meal. Any exercise that depletes muscle glycogen should be effective.

* Assuming a typical carbohydrate intake. Chris Kresser recently argued, based on several studies, that true normal fasting glucose for a person eating a typical amount of carbohydrate is below 83 mg/dL. Low-carbohydrate eating may raise this number, but that doesn't necessarily indicate a pathological change. High-carbohydrate cultures such as the Kitavans, Aymara and New Guineans tend to have fasting values in the low 60s to low 70s. I suspect that a very high carbohydrate intake generally lowers fasting glucose in healthy people. That seems to be the case so far for Chris Voigt, on his diet of 20 potatoes a day. Stay tuned for an interview with Mr. Voigt in early December.