Monday, February 14, 2011

Why the change in Facebook's news feed?

Although I only have a few hundred followers or 'likes' between my personal and business pages on Facebook. I had resolved to work harder on them, because I recognized great potential value there. Now, Facebook has removed most of that value, and I believe it was deliberate.

Until recently, when you made a post to your Facebook page (business or personal) it would show up on all your friends news feeds, unless they went to the extra effort of blocking you. The significance of this for a business owner is huge. If you have a business page with several thousand followers or 'likes', you could reach the same size audience as a good sized direct mail campaign, at no charge. The fine folks at Facebook must have realized this and decided they needed to put a stop to it immediately.

Now, your news feed on Facebook will only show updates from people with whom you've had some interaction recently (a post on their wall, message or something). You can change the setting so that you'll see all of the posts on your personal page, but there's no fixing the business page, and most people will likely go on using the default setting, having little interest in or knowledge of the omni-setting.

I guess Facebook believes they'll sell more ads if they severely limit their users' ability to communicate for free. Maybe they're right, but I doubt it. My own use of Facebook, as a form of business communication, will likely drop off instead of increasing, as it has now lost much of its potential value. Well, there's still Twitter, and Facebook has now created an opening for an ambitious potential competitor. I really can't argue about the price, but I don't believe the gatekeeper mentality will serve Facebook or its users well in the long run.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Case for Democracy

The situation in Egypt has put U.S. policy around the world under the microscope once again. People are rallying in the streets, demanding freedom and democracy. Surely, the land of the free and the home of the brave must support that. But wait, the current autocratic leader has been a good friend to the U.S. for thirty years. In return we helped them build a very formidable military machine. The waters are quite muddy.

Some argue that we should tread lightly. If true democracy comes to Egypt, we may wind up with a regime similar to that in Iran or Gaza. The problem with those comparisons is that Iran is far from a true democracy and the thugs in Gaza still rule largely through intimidation.

Free democracy is about more than one citizen; one vote. Freedom of assembly, speech, freedom of the press and rule of law are all absolute requirements. These are the freedoms that guarantee that even if good ideas are put down today and bad ideas are implemented, the good will be back and the bad will fall by the wayside. The power of the people to communicate, observe, evaluate and speak out is what keeps a society moving forward.

We should not be concerned about who might come to power in a free and fair election in countries like Egypt. We should concern ourselves with whether or not their next election and the one after that, and the one after that will also be free and fair and whether the people will be able to interact and speak freely in between.

The United States is at its best when it is a beacon of freedom and hope, not simply an instrument of preserving order. It should always be our position that governments, including their militaries, are servants of the people and that church and state be separate. We may not be able to dictate these things, but we can voice and promote them at every opportunity. The separation of church and state is not ant-religion, it’s anti-autocracy. After all, if someone who claims to speak for God or Allah, is in charge, what’s the check on his or her power? The rule of law must apply equally to all citizens of all religions or no religion. It is not the role of government to determine God’s or Allah’s will, but to protect the rights of individuals on Earth.

We need not be hostile toward countries or populations that don’t exhibit our values, but neither need we be shy or apologetic about what our values and beliefs are. As for me, I don’t believe that the people of the Middle East or Northern Africa or anywhere else are genetically pre-disposed to autocracy and/or theocracy. It may take them generations to work it out, but if we help them keep free, open, honest conversation going, they will work it out. In the tug-o-war between freedom and order, order has been vastly over-rated I think. I hope that U.S. foreign policy starts trending more American in the future.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Why isn't oil soaring on MIddle East unrest?

Before things blew up in Egypt, pundits and market mavens were predicting $100/barrel, even $200/barrel oil coming very soon. Two weeks into the uprising in the country that controls the Suez Canal, oil has barely budged and is currently at around $90. What's the deal?

Well, perception and emotion can be very powerful, but reality usually wins, especially in a market that's as "just in time" as the petrol market. It's much cheaper to leave oil in the ground than it is to store it, long term, in tanks above ground. For that reason, there's not a lot of "extra" petrol sitting around, so when you get a spike in demand, you can get a rapid spike in price as immediately available supplies dry up. By the same token, if demand drops even a bit, you can find yourself with a lot of excess inventory and nowhere to put it. Prices can drop just as fast as supply is unloaded on the cheap.

There is a threat of supply cut off, but it hasn't yet materialized. In addition, the historic cold snap in the U.S. has caused thousands of flight cancellations, school cancellations, business closings and has kept a lot of people who would otherwise be traveling, hunkered down at the house. The increase in energy being used for heat is not offsetting the huge amounts of petrol that are not being used for transportation.

If the situation in Egypt simmers down without anyone disrupting operations at the Canal (and there doesn't seem to be any party that would benefit from such a move), expect to see oil drop 5-10% in a hurry. If the canal is shut down, a huge spike up, and in the meantime a very gradual downward trend as what is actually happening slightly beats out what might happen.