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Mutual Funds to Match Your Lifestyle

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Are you looking to invest in a mutual fund? Are you worried that the portfolio of stocks and bonds selected by the fund managers won't accurately reflect your core beliefs? Fear not; if you dig hard enough, you can probably turn up a niche fund that meets both your need for a solid return and your personal ideology (or lack thereof). Take one of these, for example:

The Vice Fund

Perhaps the most well-known niche fund is the Vice Fund, which ignores moral qualms and shoots straight for the seedy core of the stock market. The fund focuses on four sectors: defense/weapons, gambling, tobacco, and booze. As the fund's website proudly boasts in all caps, no other fund concentrates solely on these four sectors. As fund manager Charles Norton told the Financial Times in 2006, "[N]o matter what is happening in the world economy, people will continue to drink, smoke, gamble and nations will need to defend themselves. As a result, in general these companies tend to be steady performers in good times and bad—they are mostly insulated from economic slowdowns." In short, the fund has targeted four areas of the economy where it thinks demand is fairly inelastic whether for reasons of addiction or necessity as a hedge against market downturns. It works, too; for 2006 the fund had returns of over 23%.

So are the portfolio managers gun-toting, chain-smoking drunken gambling junkies? Not quite; the Vice Fund is built on an investment strategy, not a lifestyle choice. In the same interview with the Financial Times, Norton revealed that he's a suburban family man who doesn't smoke and rarely drinks or gambles. We can still hold out hope that he owns a tank or rocket launcher, though.

Ave Maria Mutual Funds

Of course, for every demonic financial instrument like the Vice Fund, there's a counterbalancing angelic fund that traffics in virtue. One example comes from Ave Maria Mutual Funds, which ave-maria.jpgtouts itself as "America's fastest-growing Catholic mutual fund family." "Virtue funds" like these only hold assets in companies that meet certain moral and/or religious criteria in addition to being deemed solid investment opportunities. According to Ave Maria's website, the fund managers first pick stocks and bonds they'd like to hold, and then the potential assets go through "a proprietary moral screening process developed by our distinguished Catholic Advisory Board" that eliminates "companies connected with abortion or pornography, or that offer their employees non-marital partner "˜benefits.'" According to the fund's most recent annual report, its heaviest holdings are in Gentex Corporation, a company that makes personal protective equipment for military and law-enforcement groups, which sounds like something the Vice Fund would be equally interested in.

The Timothy Plan

Ave Maria is certainly not alone, though. The Timothy Plan family of funds has a similar timothyplan.giffocus on Christian ideology, but with decidedly more fundamentalist rhetoric. According to the Timothy Plan's site, it is America's fist pro-life, pro-family, biblically-based mutual fund. It also claims, "If you are concerned with the moral issues (abortion, pornography, anti-family entertainment, non-married lifestyles, alcohol, tobacco and gambling) that are destroying children and families you have come to the right place."

What companies can't make a Timothy Plan fund's portfolio? Good question, and luckily the plan's website has a "Hall of Shame" outlining what godless companies don't make the cut. Usual suspects like Playboy and Anheuser-Busch are frowned upon, but so are many other groups one doesn't normally think of as child-and-family destroyers, including AmEx, Borders, both Coke and Pepsi, Prudential, Starbucks, and drug companies like Bristol-Myers Squibb, Genentech, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, and Pfizer. (No word on whether these pharmaceutical companies are also excluded from the prescription drug coverage on the Timothy Plan's employee health benefit.)

Amana Mutual Funds

Christians aren't the only religious investors with their own funds, though. The Amana Funds make all of their investments amana.jpgbased on sharia, or Islamic law. These principles are in some ways fairly similar to the Christian funds: no companies that make a significant amount of their income from pornography, liquor, and gambling. However, there are some other restrictions unique to the Islamic funds, including an avoidance of pork-processing companies, and since usury, or riba, is forbidden in Islamic law the funds have to avoid investing in interest-gathering financial institutions like banks. Having to avoid interest also effectively cuts the funds off from buying bonds and companies that have too much debt on their books. Moreover, since excessive portfolio turnover could be considered a form of gambling, fund managers don't swap out assets as frequently as other funds. Amana's turnover rates are just around 14%; estimates of normal mutual funds' annual turnover rates run as high as 85%.

Amana also helps its investors prepare for the Hajj, a Muslim's holy pilgrimage to Mecca. Part of the preparations for this journey include getting one's personal finances in order and clearing any debts they might owe, so Amana offers guidance to hopeful pilgrims. While services like these, as well as the underlying ideology, the funds obviously offer a unique opportunity for Muslim investors. However, the fund's strong performance (manager Nicholas Kaiser's picks regularly trounce their less-pious competition) has made it almost as attractive for non-Muslim investors looking for a place to put their money.

Socially Conscious Funds

Not all virtuous funds have religious underpinnings. Some just aim to invest in companies that meet certain social or environmental standards. Such funds generally look for companies that have good track records when it comes to human relations, environmental issues, product safety, corporate governance, and other issues.

Where does one find such companies? You can consult KLD's Domini 400 Social Index, which includes 400 companies that pass muster as socially responsible. (As you'd expect, companies heavily engaged in areas like weapons, gambling, tobacco, and nuclear power don't make the cut.) According to the index's literature, it includes 250 companies from the S&P 500, but since its creation in 1990, the Domini 400 has cumulatively outperformed the S&P 500, which means all those socially responsible companies must be doing something right.

However, the Domini 400 is an index, not a fund that you can invest in. Companies like Calvert pick up that slack, though, by offering funds that only hold companies deemed socially responsible. Calvert touts its trademarked "Double Diligence" research process that first finds attractive opportunities, then scours the companies' track records to decide if they're truly socially responsible enough to make the portfolio.

Ethan Trex grew up idolizing Vince Coleman, and he kind of still does. Ethan co-writes Straight Cash, Homey, the Internet's undisputed top source for pictures of people in Ryan Leaf jerseys.

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technology
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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