A year has passed since the Matthewpedia staff has written anything of substance on this dust-collecting blog. They’ve been on strike and are just now getting everything sorted out with labor agreements and demands for Evian and personalized M&M’s.

Incidentally, I have not joined in their lazy revelry. When Mrs. Matthewpedia and I learned last fall that we would be parents, our productivity, conversely, shot through the roof. After the picky grad-student staffers vacated the place for a hardwood studio above a nondescript coffeeshop in Portland during strike negotiations, we setup HQ for our new startup, Matthewpediatrics.

Our boy was born on May 31, 2009, and he’s perfect. No, literally. (Sorry, but did you know that Big Ben started keeping time on that day 150 years earlier?)

So, we’ve been busy. All the media attention, the product sponsorships, and the perpetual Oprah invites (enough with the tear-jerk voicemails, please, baby Matthewpedia cries enough for us) have really filled up the Matthewpediatrics infant care schedule. That’s my excuse.

However, a year without the constant day-to-day rhythm of the blogroll has done wonders for my creative juices. Get ready for a re-invigorated Matthewpedia, focused on things we’re asked the most. (Well, without the no-compromise skinny-jeans staffers, the things I get asked the most.) That and other surprises are heading your way. As soon as the hipsters return from the Apple store. I promise.

As you can see, we’ve already changed the blog’s background from the electronic equivalent of tweed to this cleaner look. (“That’s cool, I guess,” says the prodigal staff.) We are officially in the 21st century.

(Full disclosure: Certain parts of this post have been fabricated; the staffers would never drink Evian, that cash-cow tapwater of an evil mega-corporation. Please. They drink this.)

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Camera Recommendations

More than a dozen friends have asked me for digital camera recommendations this month. I’ve been giving camera advice for years, and I haven’t driven away any friends yet with my advice.

Well, I have a confession to make. I get all my camera info from one guy – Ken Rockwell. Ken is a photographer first and a blogger second. He doesn’t inhabit the dark corners of Web forums full of people who micro-measure and scrutinize photo gear down to 16 decimal places. No, Ken actually gets out and uses the stuff, and he can keep you from being duped by photo marketing tricks. He gets it – and he’s boiled down all his buying advice to one page. Get Ken’s camera recommendations here.

You’re welcome.

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Fear and Irony

Gas Update
Gas stations all around the southeast are running on empty.  Although the Matthewpedia staff can find gas easily, not everyone has the same luck on their first try. Fortunately, most cities haven’t equaled Nashville’s fear factor. Complete shortages appear to be few and far between.

Irony #1
Ike – the name of the hurricane that has caused the recent fuel shortages and reduced driving – was also the nickname of Dwight Eisenhower: the U.S. President who masterminded our interstate highway system.

Irony #2
Does anyone remember that clever AIG commercial from the 2004 Olympics in Athens? (You know, years before the Feds bailed them out?) The ad parodied judges at the summer games announcing scores like 6.0, 6.5, and 7.0 after a performance.  When it came AIG’s turn to announce a score, we instead heard the amount of AIG’s assets (in dollars) in that fake Greek accent. Say it with me now: “Seven hundred billion.”

You can’t make this stuff up.
10 frequent-flyer miles to the first person who can find any trace of that ad on the Internet.  Leave proof in the comments.

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Wake me up when September ends

It’s a green day for oil companies.  Gustav came, Hanna went, but Ike brought the spike.  In other news, crude oil dropped to $95 a barrel.  Wait.  What?!

(Disclaimer: This post is in no way attempting to marginalize the loss that many Americans feel after the devastation from Ike or any other storm. We can all help our neighbors here or here.)

The blowhard behemoth that ripped through the Caribbean, cut across Key West, and shattered the Texas shore was the perfect storm.  Ike managed to blow gasoline prices through the roof despite oil prices that haven’t been as low since January (when gas was below $3).  Ike was the third-time charm for oil companies, and, like any good hurricane, the hot air is blowing fast.

But these high gas prices aren’t the doing of oil companies.  They’re actually our fault.

Set the stage
If you came within 500 feet of a gasoline station last Friday afternoon, you probably saw what looked like a re-enactment of the 1970s energy crisis.  I did.  Idling cars for quarter-miles lined up like technicolor ribbons outside of gas stations and spilled onto interstate exits.  That morning before the hype, gas was selling for $3.59 a gallon.  En route to dinner that night, my wife and I saw prices near $3.89.  On the way back, it had climbed to $4.09 – and people were still waiting in their cars.

Oddly enough, CNN reported earlier that day that U.S. oil drilling operations were not in danger from Hurricane Ike – a major factor in previous hurricane-induced gasoline spikes.  In 2005, for instance, Katrina knocked out 25% of U.S. oil production, and $3/gallon gas ensued.

This wasn’t the case for Ike.  Instead, 25% of the gulf’s oil refineries were on temporary shutdown during the storm.  Whereas oil drillers extract crude oil from the earth, refineries process that oil to make gasoline for your car, and then pump it through massive pipes to distribution centers all over the United States.  Our pumps could run dry!

This was the trigger!  Scarcity!  How many times have you heard the phrase “gas shortage” in the last week?

Real numbers
Let’s do some math.  Let’s follow Friday’s newscasts and say that 25% of U.S. oil refinery capacity was shut down thanks to Ike, and let’s be generous and say it was shut down for two weeks.  (Today it was reported that only 19% was affected, but I digress.)  The loss equals 1/104 of a year’s supply, or less than 1%. That means that half-a-week’s-worth of gasoline will go missing during the next two weeks.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average American driver uses 500 gallons of gas a year while driving an average of 12,000 miles.  A half a week, then, equals 4.8 gallons and about 115 miles.  According to the reports, you need to conserve 2.4 gallons this week and next before everything normalizes.  2.4 gallons?  That’s it?  You can save that by hypermiling alone.

The sky is falling!
Unfortunately, that’s not what happens with (perceived) scarcity.  Everyone around the water cooler at work is thinking the same thing: “I need to top off my car’s gas tank.”  This is terrible.

Topping off your car’s gas tank (when it’s not empty) is adding artificial demand.  When enough people do this at the same time, artificial scarcity occurs, and prices skyrocket.  Individual gas stations estimate future demand from previous demand, and overloading their patch of earth doesn’t help.

By the way, please leave me a comment if you have failed to find gasoline for your car since Ike.  (Trying at gas stations without electricity doesn’t count.)

Half-empty or half-full?
Think about it like this: If gas tanks all over the country range between empty and full, we can only assume that the average car’s gas tank is half-full.  Comparing everything from Honda Civics to Chevrolet Suburbans, I estimate that the average gas tank holds 16-18 gallons.  By conservative calculations, we can say that half of the average gas tank is 8 gallons.  In comparison, the same U.S. EIA stats say that each driver uses, on average, 9.6 gallons a week.

On average, each driver that lined up for the combustion parade last Friday bought almost a week’s worth of gas in advance.  And, if Ike’s effect is anything like that of Katrina and Rita, then these same drivers will continue to top off again and again – creating more artificial demand.  The worst part is that when we do this, we’re buying more gas than normal at a time when prices are higher!  Whoops!

So, why was everyone lined up for gasoline that – hey, wait a minute!  It’s now $4.19?  Gas was $3.59 a gallon last week!

Scarcity, or perceived scarcity, is a powerful thing.  It created a fear that we won’t have enough.  The good news is that prices should decline significantly once the talking heads on TV start reporting that refinery production is back to normal.  In the meantime, our irrational fears are adding to the profit line of oil companies.  Let’s hear it for $3/gallon gas in time for the world series.

What do you think?
Leave it as a comment, and don’t forget to tell us the price for a gallon of good ol’ 87 octane in your neck of the woods.

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Viva la Vida

This will be short. If you haven’t heard Coldplay’s new Viva la Vida track from the upcoming record of the same name, get ready. This anthem is brilliantly written and beautiful. Mega-hits sell tickets and albums. Art can inspire. This might do both.

And, talk about getting something stuck in your head! I think the next atmospheric rhythm of where-the-streets-have-no-name proportion is here.

What do you think?

Update: Viva la Vida was selected for the latest iTunes ad.

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It’s Memorial Day weekend.  What are you doing?

“I’m traveling to visit family.”

“I’m off to the beach.”

“I’m not doing anything and saving gas!”

If door number three was your response to family, friends or co-workers at any time in the past 24 hours, then you’re probably having a staycation this weekend.  You are also the inspiration for several predictable polls conjured up by bored writers at news organizations – probably the type who are ready for vacations, but may be taking a staycation instead.

Why staycate? One good reason is the involuntary twitching that you experience every time you see the logo of your local gas station. Don’t worry – you’re not alone.  This article claims that Memorial Day weekend travel is lessening for the first time since 2002. I digress.

Other folks use the term to describe an actual vacation in their home city, visiting places they wouldn’t normally have time for because of their regular responsibilities – a practice that has already been exalted and criticized, believe it or not.

I think we should coin the term as a response for people who return from their vacations totally exhausted: “I need a vacation from my vacation!” they jest.  Avoid the urge to make a snide comment and simply say, “Why not try a staycation next time?”

So, what are you doing this weekend – vacating or staycating?

Update – What do they call it in England – stayiday? asks a friend.  Qualiday, I guess.

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Thesis: My beautiful wife is also smart

On April 30, my wife defended her master’s thesis in English literature at Wake Forest University.

For my part, I showed up unannounced holding this sign with a friend (thanks Congressman).  The English department administrators made me tape it to a wall in the defense room. I’m told it helped calm down nerves.

I won’t attempt to write her thesis’ title here or explain what it means (partially because I don’t have an entirely good grasp of it, but mostly because I don’t think I could spell all the words).

The thesis committee, however, adroitly handled the work.  And they loved it.  Hundreds of hours of toil had paid off, and she was passed unconditionally.  The committee members then signed the D-Fence sign!

My wife was thrilled, and a well-deserved sense of accomplishment began to set in.  She told me about the feedback from her professors and I was amazed.  “That’s your message!” I said after she retold some of the compliments she’d received. We joked that I couldn’t keep my PR-practitioner side under wraps even during such a momentous occasion.

So… I couldn’t resist. (Disclaimer: these quotes are as accurate as I remember.  This is not a press release.)

1. From a tenured professor known for not giving compliments: “This is the best thesis I’ve read on any committee.” I believe he’s been a professor for eight years.

2. From the committee: “This is publishable, no changes.”  This is kind of a big deal.

3. From a reader: “Halfway through reading, I forgot it was a student’s thesis, and I felt like I was reading a colleague’s work.  I learned something from reading it, and I wanted to interact with the research.” Translation: better than advertised.

4. From the committee chair: “This is Ph.D.-level writing.” I’m almost tempted to shout “boo-yah,” but it feels somehow inappropriate.

Em, I’m so proud of you.  I hope this didn’t embarrass you too much.  You deserve every compliment.

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