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Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Because the Petrol Alarmists Were, You Know, Wrong

This is good news (actually, a continuation of good news):

The Energy Department said crude inventories rose 2.7 million barrels for the week ended Oct. 28 to total 319.1 million. That’s 12% above the year-ago level. Motor gasoline stocks were up 1 million barrels at 196.9 million barrels. Distillate supplies fell less than expected, down 200,000 barrels at 120.9 million. December crude was down 15 cents at $59.70 a barrel. December unleaded gas was down 1.36 cents at $1.59 a gallon. December heating oil lost 1.25 cents to $1.7925 a gallon.

Oil prices peaked on worst case scenario speculation at a bit before the big hurricanes rolled through, but that combination of higher prices and lower seasonal demand did exactly what rational heads expected: lowered demand and usage. The prices are fluttering down now, even though distillate inventories continue to show declines (albeit smaller and smaller declines that will probably turn to increases toward the end of the year).

The steep rise in oil prices was (ahem) fuelled by speculators and alarmists, not by actual scary conditions. The usage trend followed a typical line through the summer and into the fall, and, although that usage was greater than in the past, it wasn’t the terrifying increase that some people forecast. Unfortunately, that spike and the continuing high oil prices finally caught up with us in higher costs rippling through our economy.

But if I were to speculate, I would guess that the worst of the economic news is over and, barring an exceptionally poor Christmas sales season, the trends should be positive through much of the economy (tech’s wild oscillations and the auto industry’s woes notwithstanding). The one thing that does make me a touch nervous is that when the alarmists are given so much airtime by the media, the public perception is already biased toward the negative. Predictably, consumer confidence has been sagging.

With so many retailers relying on healthy holiday season spending, the economy benefits from a positive consumer outlook--in fact, a bad holiday season can send ripples through the economy in the same way that high oil prices can. Low confidence means low spending means low revenues means poor quarterlies means lowered consumer confidence when big stocks under perform--entire segments of the marketplace can take a hit because the consumer view doesn’t quite match the economic reality.

I remain cautiously optimistic because of the lowered oil and gas prices. If prices continue to flutter down, the shakiness that people feel when filling up their extra large SUV will subside, too. That doesn’t mean that typical Americans will return to their big truck loving ways--while those trucks will probably always be part of our landscape, the preference for smaller, more efficient cars is a permanent one. We’ll still guzzle gas, but we’ll guzzle at a slightly slower rate.

The stock market is also primed to either make or break consumer confidence. Watching the market has been painful lately (when it hasn’t been exhilarating). But lower energy prices (including heating oil) along with economic data that hasn’t been as bad as some people feared during this last bit of the hurricane season might mean that the market is ready to make a steady, if moderate, climb. The market isn’t always a great indicator of economic health, but it is a good precursor to consumer confidence--especially since so many Americans now own stocks in one form or another.

Anyway, good new is good news, and lowered energy prices could go a long way in helping steady our economy.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Adventures in Bad Decision Making (Updated)

I saw her at a restaurant in Clearwater Beach. She walked in with her boyfriend—a little guy with a sparse beard and a big attitude—all tight, low slung pants, padded bra, and bleached blond hair. She couldn’t have been more than 21 or 22.

While the duo was surveying the layout of their tables, a waiter helping them arrange the seats, she turned away from my table and I saw the result of what had to have been a monument to her bad decision-making. Across her back, in giant letters and a rainbow of colors, she had “PASSION” tattooed just above her butt. I tried to suppress a giggle, but a guffaw and an “ohmygod” slipped past my lips.

Now, far be if from me to be overly critical of someone else’s tattoos. I have two Chinese symbols inked on my body that I have to trust by faith don’t stand for “This Guy is Such a Jerk” or “Gay Prostitute for Hire.” That’s a big leap when you stop to think about it.

She, on the other hand, leapt knowingly into a tattoo that might as well have said, “Hi, I’m a Porn Star,” or, ”Lap Dance Just Twenty Bucks.” And, honestly, looking at her and her boyfriend, the idea that she might have taken that career path did cross my mind. Even if she were a stripper, though, you’d have to think that somewhere in her brain she might have found herself wondering just how long that job choice might last—you don’t see too many strippers in their mid-thirties—and the ones that last longer than that don’t usually dance in the more reputable joints.

Stripper chic might look good at 21, but it fades in attraction more quickly than some people seem to imagine.

Like I said: bad decision-making.

Update: Just click through. Trust me.

Video iPod

I just watched Queens of the Stone Age’s video for “No One Knows” (brilliant freakin’ song) on a coworkers brand spankin’ new video iPod and have some thoughts.

First: If they sold it at a premium, no one would want it. Not because it doesn’t work well, but because it isn’t that compelling of a feature. At least, it isn’t until more content is easily available for the little sucker.

Second: The screen and picture quality are great. On a long flight, I would love to have one of these little guys tucked away to make the time go by quicker.

Third: My coworker has ripped full movies from DVDs and has them stored on the new iPod. Not good movies (David Duchovny’s lamentable House of D, for instance), but he has full freakin’ movies on the thing. He plans to keep an entire library of movies available for when he goes to his family’s cabin up in the mountains instead of lugging DVDs back and forth. I’m loving this thing.

Fourth: I can’t verify this because he didn’t bring in the TV cable, but he says that while the quality isn’t quite up to DVD standards, the video quality is actually pretty good. I had worried about the low resolution (lower by a bit than standard TV resolution), but he says that it isn’t that noticeable.

Now, back to point one: Although it wouldn’t be compelling now, I have to think that Apple has a small, outside chance of making a mini video player something that everyone will want to have. The question is how easy will it be to come up with content for the customers to fill up those giant hard drives?

I thought that my Nano lust couldn’t be topped, but this brand new, black, video capable iPod with 60 gigs of storage in a tiny little box just pushed me over the edge. If Santa really loved me, he’d bring me one of these for Christmas.

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