Monday, March 19, 2018

Pre-Need Cremation Services Call Me

An automated attendant called me trying to sell me pre-need cremation/burial services. Once a live operator came on, she asked me "May I have your last name?" and I replied "You can have it if you get married to me!" and was promptly hung up on.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Toys R Us Is Closing Its Doors

National toy retailer, Toys R Us, sought court approval yesterday to liquidate its remaining 735 stores, thus signaling the end for a chain known to generations of children and parents for its sprawling stores, Geoffrey the giraffe mascot, and its catchy "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" jingle. As Toys R Us implodes over the next few weeks, you'll hear a lot of talk about how Amazon and Wal-Mart caused the death of yet another brick-and-mortar retail operation. And, while Amazon and Wal-Mart certainly contributed to the downfall of Toys R Us, they weren't what struck the fatal blow.

In 1978, Toys R Us went from a privately held company to a publicly traded one. This, of course, meant that anyone could buy shares of Toys R Us on the stock market. In 2005, shares of Toys R Us were purchased by three companies, Bain Capital (connected to Mitt Romney. Get your "Mormans Destroyed Toys R Us" headlines out now), KKR and Vornado in a leveraged buyout. These companies joined together to get a $6.6 billion loan to buy Toys R Us and $5.8 billion in debt from the purchase went right onto the balance sheet of Toys R Us. This was right before Wal-Mart and Amazon started to eat Toys R Us' lunch. Plus, the trend of tablets and game consoles overshadowing toy sales didn't help either. This meant that Toys R Us had less profit with which to service its massive debt and less money to invest into improving its stores. And, for me, that's where Toys R Us massively failed. Going into a Toys R Us over the last several years was like walking into a Mad Max movie. Whenever I went in there, I expected to find post-apocalyptic gangs setting up rival camps in various different sections of the store. You'd find The Vuvalini in the Lego section and The Buzzards in the clearance aisle.

That's not to say that there isn't still a glimmer of hope that Toys R Us can survive this. The stores will remain open for the next 60 days and a buyer could still possibly be found. If that happens, and there's enough money involved to act on some initiatives to improve the stores and make them more inviting to customers, then Toys R Us may just come out of this alive. It's possible, but I don't think it's probable. It's much more likely that we'll have to relegate Toys R Us to the shelf of childhood memories like we've had to do with many other formally popular retail stores over the last few years.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

About Those Amelia Earhart Bones...

There has been quite the stir in the scientific community lately, thanks to a group of scientists boldly claiming that the mystery of the disappearance of Amelia Earhart has been solved. But, has it, really? It certainly sounds intriguing, and it makes for great headlines. We get the same stories about Jack the Ripper's identity finally being revealed or the Zodiac Killer's, or DB Cooper's every few months. I'd swear that the press just keeps these sort of stories around as filler material to use on slow news days.

In case you're not familiar with the latest wrinkle in this Amelia Earhart case, here's what's going on: Skeletal human remains were found on the remote island of Nikumaroro (aka Gardner) in the South Pacific around 1940. At the time, measurements of the bones were made by D. W. Hoodless who concluded that the bones belonged to a man with a height of about six feet. Recently, Richard Jantz, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Director Emeritus of UT’s Forensic Anthropology Center, took another look at those measurements. Using several modern quantitative techniques, including Fordisc, a computer program for estimating sex, ancestry, and stature from skeletal measurements Jantz concluded that Hoodless had incorrectly determined the sex of the remains. Jantz also compared the bone lengths with Earhart’s presumed lengths using data from old photographs of her. Jantz concluded that the bones have more similarity to Earhart than to 99 percent of individuals in a large reference sample. Based on this, Jantz declared "until definitive evidence is presented that the remains are not those of Amelia Earhart, the most convincing argument is that they are hers".

Sounds pretty conclusive, right? Wrong. There are a lot of other things to consider here:

  • Jantz was working from an analysis made by Hoodless rather than doing his own analysis of the bones, which wasn't possible because the bones have been missing for quite some time. Even if we assume that Hoodless' measurements were accurate, context is still important. How old are the bones? What does a DNA analysis say? What condition are the bones in? Under what circumstances were they found? How do any objects found near the bones compare to them? These are important questions that cannot be answered because the bones have gone missing. 

  • The island had been of interest to the British since the 1800s and had been inhabited for quite some time prior to the discovery of the bones. Also, the SS Norwich City was shipwrecked on the island in 1929. Given these facts, it's hard to say exactly who those bones might belong to. 

  • If Earhart crash landed on the island and lived long enough to die there, then where is the wreckage of the plane? And why didn't any of the inhabitants of the island notice her? 

  • Nikumaroro was searched a day after Earhart's disappearance and a week afterward. No signs of her were found there. 

  • Nikumaroro is 1200km off of Earhart's route and in the opposite direction of her last known location. It stretches the bounds of credibility to think that she would have ended up there somehow. 

  • The statement "until definitive evidence is presented that the remains are not those of Amelia Earhart, the most convincing argument is that they are hers" is troubling. It's bad science to believe that your conclusion should be considered true until it is proven false.

  • Jantz's study was funded by TIGHAR, a search group who have been vocal proponents of the Earhart on Nikumaroro theory. This implies bias. In other words, the study was not conducted with an open mind to any conclusion. Rather, it was looking to prove a theory on behalf of the expounder of said theory.

So, given the list above, I'd say that the study, while compelling, is far from conclusive. And, unless the bones are somehow found, I don't think that this mystery will ever be solved.

Monday, March 12, 2018

State Farm Eliminates 900 IT Positions

   When I was a Computer Information Systems student in college back in the mid-90s, my COBOL professor used to tell my class that, if we were good little programmers, worked hard, and documented our code well, then we could hope to get a job at State Farm doing Y2K conversions on their mainframe system. The prospect of expanding a 2 digit year field into a 4 digit year field didn't appeal to me, so I went into web programming. Well, that, and the State Farm recruiter took issue with my attitude. Something about me saying "If you judge my programming ability based upon how I shook your hand, then you're not someone I'd care to work for".

   Anyway, now comes news that State Farm is cutting nearly 900 IT positions in their Bloomington headquarters. About 300 of those positions will be moving out of Illinois and into other hubs around the country. Some of the affected employees, depending on their skill set, will have the opportunity to transfer to one of the other hubs. The announcement comes on the heels of a reported pre-tax operating loss of $1.7 Billion for 2017, largely due to significant catastrophe losses from hurricanes, wildfires and storms.

   I still have a few friends from college who work at State Farm, so I made a few calls over the last few days in order to get a feel for what's going on over there. The general consensus seems to be that this mess is the result of an over-staffed, under-worked IT department that has been subjected to the unnecessary duplication of processes and a refusal to listen to ideas for efficiency. Hundreds of contract workers were hired over the years to help keep up with the bloated processes, and now, the chickens have come to roost. There is optimism, though. I'm told that the claims department went through similar circumstances a few years back and now they seem to have their act together.

   Let's just hope that the IT department finally got all their Y2K conversions done.