Public Transit

Landing in Austin, I immediately went to Uber and Lyft apps to look for a ride to Austin Downtown. Each came back with an estimate of $20 for a ride. I thought, well, it is what it is. In my defense, it is kinda a trained reaction after living for a while in America, where public transportation can be disappointing in some cases. Anyway, I decided to give it a try and ask the Information Desk about buses to Austin downtown. It turned out that buses run every 15 mins, even on Saturdays and most Sundays from and to the airport. The charge? $1.25/person/ride. It took me only 25 mins to reach Austin downtown, not much different from the estimated time of an Uber/Lyft ride. But I saved $19.

Imagine how much money & time we could collectively save from using more public transportation and less personal vehicles. No more scrambling to find a parking slot, no more parking fees in your building, no more car insurance and safer transportation. A well-designed public transportation network will be a great investment of tax payers’ money and a spoon for low-income folks who should not be forced to buy a car for daily commute.

In Omaha, one of two biggest cities in Nebraska, if not the biggest, there are more bus routes from downtown than other parts of the city and on the weekdays. If you live reasonably far out, no matter the direction, from the city center, there is no bus at all. On the weekends, there is only one bus every half an hour or every hour. To popular places such as Social Security Administration or DMV, there is usually one bus every half an hour, even on the weekdays, and it usually involves transiting from another bus. Trust me, it’s hugely frustrating and unnecessarily time-consuming. On top of that, drivers in Omaha are terrible. I don’t know about drivers in other cities, but a busted car front is not an unusual sight there. If you are not an experienced driver, it can be dangerous and daunting. Oh and it is even worse in the winter. My boss told me on Friday, the first day of winter, that she had to turn around and come home after 2 miles because there were a lot of accidents and the roads were too slippery.

P/S: After telling me about the bus, the lady at Austin Airport’s Information Desk promptly gave me a quarter for my bus ride. Talk about first impression from a new city!

 

 

National Park Visits – Stats and Tableau Dashboard

I decided to take on the challenge of making a Tableau dashboard on which data on national park visits can be found. The intention is to show that Tableau has some cool features that allow the communication of complex data in an easy-to-digest way. Others have done a phenomenal job visualizing the data. See here for some inspiration. My dashboard covers a lot more ground, but lacks the aesthetics and creative flair that others possess.

Data can be found here:

A few notes on how to use the dashboard:

  • You can choose which park type to look at. Once you click on a value, the map will change accordingly and so will the table next to it that shows specifically the parks belonging to that category
  • Next the parks’ names, there are values shown as “abc”. Hover your mouse over them to get the specific values for each park
  • You can choose aggregating methods (Sum, Max, Min…)
  • You can choose to look at either Recreational or Non-recreational visitors
  • Of course, there is a slider that allows you to choose specific time frame
  • You may want to use a laptop to look at the dashboard. My experience of using a phone didn’t go very well

https://public.tableau.com/views/NationalPark_0/ParkTypeDB?:embed=y&:display_count=yes&publish=yes 

Enjoy! Hopefully you’ll find it useful

 

Switching Cost

This is a concept that I have found particularly useful in understanding actions and strategies by companies.

The following is the definition of switching costs by Investopedia:

Switching costs are the costs that a consumer incurs as a result of changing brands, suppliers or products. Although most prevalent switching costs are monetary in nature, there are also psychological, effort- and time-based switching costs. A switching cost can manifest itself in the form of significant time and effort necessary to change suppliers, the risk of disrupting normal operations of a business during a transition period, high cancellation fees, and a failure to obtain similar replacement of products or services.

In other words, switching costs represent how much consumers care about your services or products.

In economics, the relationship between a firm’s profit, competition and switching costs is illustrated in the following formula below. To learn more how the formula is formed, you may want to read this.

Φ = t/n2– f

where:

Φ`- the firm’s profit

t – the switching cost

n – the number of firms in the market

f – fixed cost

There are a few lessons to learn from the formula. First of all, the bigger n is, the smaller the profit. In other words, the more competitive a market, the smaller the profit. As a result, companies try to have monopoly or monopolistic competition in the market in which they operate. The goal is to have n as small as possible. That’s why companies such as EVN, Mobifone, Viettel or Petrolimex in Vietnam generate so much profit every year because they practically have a monopolistic competition. On the other hand, industries in which prices determine purchase decisions (hospitality for example) are very competitive and can yield a small margin.

If a firm cannot make n smaller, another way to increase profit is to increase t. In other words, make consumers care more about you. In business language, create differentiation from your competition. Here are a few examples:

  • Amazon raised the subscription fees of Prime from $79 to $119 a year over the years. They have successfully made consumers love the service with fast delivery, discounts or so they claimed, convenience, more digital content, especially original content by Amazon Studio. Consumers find it very difficult to find a replacement or to leave because for some consumers, Prime plays quite a role in their life. It is not easy to find a proper replacement for Prime services. It would take a lot of time. In addition, it is not possible to access Prime original content without a subscription.
  • Netflix increased subscription fees late 2017. Not only do consumers get hooked with their streaming quality, sleek interface and a wide collection of content, but consumers care more about Netflix because of its original content (movies, documentaries, etc…) that they could not get anywhere else
  • After a short period of market penetration with high incentives for drivers and discounts for riders, Grab steadily cuts incentives and increases the prices, even before the acquisition of Uber (lowering n). When consumers find it hard to find a replacement for Grab or live without it, Grab has all the conditions needed to raise the price and increase profits
  • In freemium models, consumers are allowed to use the service for a period of time before opting to pay for the premium. After the trial period, consumers care more about the services and are willing to pay more for continued access to them. If you are a hardcore music fan who uses Spotify all the time, would you pay for continued access now that the company decides to charge a fee every month? We would be more willing to pay to enjoy the established convenience and avoid the hurdle of building playlists again on another platform

At its peak as the King of social media, Facebook was where we interacted with our friends and family. Would you have paid a few dollars a year to use it if Facebook had added the fee? We would be more willing to pay to remain in contact with our friends and family and to avoid losing data, videos, statuses and pictures.

  • Companies create customer loyalty programs to make consumers stick around longer and care more about the companies’ offerings. We tend to favor a particular brand over its competitors if we have some loyalty points in account, don’t we? We care more about gaining points and are willing to pay a bit extra to get closer to the next level. Examples can be airlines, hotels/resorts, clothing lines…
  • Brands, especially luxury & high-end brands, spend a massive amount of money on advertising to tell engaging stories and make consumers “relate” more to the brands and care more about them. How much would you pay for Starbucks coffee without the brand compared to an equally good coffee from a mom-and-pop store? How much would you be willing to pay more for luxury sports shoes such as Jordan or Nike without the branding compared to an equally functional non-branded pair of shoes from a factory?
  • Another example is when you are at public places such as airports, zoos or cinemas, just to name a few examples. Goods at those places are charged more and consumers are willing to pay because it would be a hassle to bring alternatives or impossible to do so (airports). Though shops have to pay the management of those places to be present there, image if the prices go up by $0.5 or $1 (about 22,000 VND), would you still buy the goods?

In summary, I think switching costs are a useful simple economics concept to look at business strategies and actions. Whether you enjoy analyzing business or investing, I think it is a good starting question to ask whether a business activity makes it harder for consumers to switch to alternatives. Of course, there may be a lot of other factors involved and it’s always good to have things in hindsight. Nonetheless, this is still a helpful tool to have in mind.

It likely won’t fill you up

I was born and grew up in a family that could, at best, be described as a middle-income one in Vietnam. None of my family members went to university because of the wars and the economic difficulty that ensued. For a time, there was nothing I wanted more than going abroad at all cost without wrecking my family’s finance. Luck pitied me and gave me a chance to go to Finland. I landed in the Nordic country in February 2010. Whatever the joy of walking in a foreign land soon was extinguished by the cold at the peak winter in Finland. Or so I thought. Weeks passed by and I realized it wasn’t as much fun as I thought. It didn’t fill me up.

When I was ignorant and young around the teenage age, I set a goal of becoming a marketing manager for a company by the time I was 30 years old. I couldn’t remember what triggered the dream, but it was what I set out to do for a while. 3 years after I came back to Vietnam from abroad, I did it by merit and myself. The problem is what I felt after I did it. I remember vividly the first night after work as the Marketing Manager for a real estate corporation in Vietnam. I didn’t feel as much as I thought I would. I just felt tired and a bit empty. I didn’t feel ecstatic as I thought I would. It didn’t fill me up.

It took me quite a while after that to realize that whatever physical or materialistic goals I ever had never filled me up. The title, the money and what could be bought with it never filled me up. The best I felt was to learn new things every day either by reading, listening to videos online or talking to folks, and to spend time with the people who genuinely loved me and I genuinely loved back.

I am glad that at the age of 28, I realized that. I wouldn’t want at the age of 60, being an old man realizing that for years I have been chasing something that doesn’t make me happy. And at 80, there is not much I could do anymore. What a waste of life, isn’t it?

I know personally a few people who genuinely feel good with earning money and what it brings. I don’t think it inherently is bad or wrong. It is just not what makes me happy. If you are reading and feel the same, there is no shame in feeling it. It’s normal in my opinion.

What happens in our life doesn’t care about our feelings. Why not being positive?

Common access to information today allows us to be aware of what is happening in the world. The news mostly tends to report dramatic and negative events. It is because I think as human-beings, we are more drawn into negative occurrences than positive ones. Unfortunately, the more negativity is reported and consumed, the more likely we are to be pessimistic about the world, our values and future.

Watching the American politics closely reveals quite a lot about our less desirable side as human-beings. I said it because I am living here in the US and I am from Vietnam, but it can happen anywhere in the world. We individually just don’t have all the time to read all the news. Surrounded by all the negativity on the media, it’s easy to fall into pessimism and cynicism. Personally, I have heard in real life and read online so many times people voice their much less optimistic view about the future, their belief that the more we advance, the worse we are as a whole.

Such pessimism is justified to some extent. With a few strokes, somebody can destroy a city or country with nuclear weapons. With a few clicks, some hackers can take away all livelihood earned and saved over the years from hard-working folks. Climate change is hitting us hard with so many catastrophes not only here in the US, but also around the world. For good measure, there are a lot going on in the society for which there doesn’t seem to be a good way out.

But the world we live in is great as well. A student from Vietnam can call his parents every week, talk to them and see their faces (that student right here) instead of weeks or months of sending letters.

We have access to wisdom and knowledge at our finger tips. In the past, we might not even know some resources existed, let alone studying them. In our modern world, we can learn anything. Resources aren’t rare. The will to learn is.

A lot of diseases which would have been fatal some decades ago are now cured. Living conditions in developing countries have been dramatically improved by the generosity and kindness of hundreds of people. I deeply appreciate all the countries that help Vietnam and other developing nations

Whatever happens in life will happen whether we are pessimistic or optimistic. Why not taking the more positive side? We need as much help as possible in difficult situations. We have all been there and will continue to be. Why not using a free and powerful resource at our disposal?

It does require practice to get comfortable with optimism, especially in dire situations. And it won’t guarantee a desirable income. But speaking from a personal experience as an immigrant student working here two part-time jobs, maxing out academic terms every semester and not knowing the future under this administration, I can say positive thinking does help me a lot.

When was the last time “you deserve it” meant anything?

When a disappointing and hurting situation occurs, we tend to tell others or ourselves: let it go, you deserve better. It is as if we were better than what we missed, what we craved for but couldn’t get. It is as if we were fortunate to be left behind or miss out.

That dumbfounds me.

“Deserving” never truly means anything. When was the last time it actually meant anything? “Deserving” teams in sports lost out all the time. Good people were stuck in a crossfire or dead because they were unfortunately at the wrong place at the wrong time. Did they deserve to live? Yes, but did they?

Did a lot of qualified people with proven track record and personalities deserve a high position in an organization? Yes, but they had to leave it for others because of corruption and other reasons than qualifications.

Did one person deserve a better boy/girlfriend? Maybe, maybe not, but who is to judge that?

Every success requires a certain level of luck. Unfortunately, there is no book or no one who can tell how much luck is given to someone at a certain time. It just happens. Hence, what would justify “you deserve it”?

To hypnotize ourselves in thinking that we are better than what we actually are doesn’t help anything. If we lost something/someone, it just means we lost that something or that someone. No more, no less. It doesn’t mean whatever we long for doesn’t deserve us or we don’t deserve it. There is absolutely no need to psycho-analyze it.

Being delusional about our worth strips us of a chance to evaluate our shortcomings. Hurt and disappointed by not getting what we think we deserve, we won’t grow. Automatically, the mind keeps going back to beautiful memory in the past so that we can feel good in a moment or wandering to the future that doesn’t exist.

Being aware of such shortcomings is great, but beating ourselves down for the past isn’t healthy or helpful because…well, we cannot change anything.

Shit happens. If we get something, it is often a combination of luck and our effort. No biggie. Nothing extraordinary. If we don’t, well, we just don’t, do we?