Tuesday, December 9, 2008

An Economic Conundrum?

Well, we might be on the brink of a depression, and, then again, we might not. What depresses me is how people are talking about some "New Economics" as if things had really changed in how numbers add up, overnight. This little bit of blather is not here to propose any radical new calisthenics, only "thinking out loud," to try and put my finger on the problem.

Perhaps everyone has that nagging sense that things aren't quite right with the current model. I saw Michael Kinsley (pushing his new book, Creative Capitalism: A Conversation with, etc.) talking about our policy being a paradoxical "spend, then save, then spend" on Charlie Rose the other night. I haven't read the book yet, so I don't have any criticism in my mind, but the economics in this book is, Michael Kinsley will be able to make some scratch when other journalists are out of work, or merely blogging for nothing (ahem...).

I don't think that Economics, in and of itself, can be "re-invented." Simply stated, economics is the flow of goods and services throughout the population/world/universe. We can measure it; we can (and do) make some rules about how goods and services can flow, and who gets what, whether bridges or hospitals or monuments to Great Statesmen are built; but these are not economics - they are politics, and power. The "economic model" that we call Capitalism is, in fact, a set of political rules on how the flow is managed. Who gets what, and when.

Most folks like to call ours a "market economy." What is a market economy? Well, it depends on what channel you are tuned to, but it appears to be one where people are free to make choices about the things they need and want. I can live in a dump and buy a BMW, or live in a mini-palace and walk. Folks (consumers) get "votes" and go out and "vote" for the stuff that they want. People who have what they want (suppliers) get "votes" for the stuff they provide. All this voting stuff is done with money.

Now, what is an example of non-market economics? You have been seeing and complaining about several good examples - war (pick one); the bank/mortgage bailout; the Big 3 automotive bailout. What characterizes these economic decisions is that they are (usually) made by a few people, with a lot of "votes" in the bank. Mostly, these are decided with tax dollars. There are more subtle non-market decisions to be made, like health care, welfare, transportation, parks, libraries, zoning regulations, environment. If Mr. Gates makes a decision to try and beat AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa and to ignore water projects in North Africa, this, too, is a non-market decision. I am not here to argue for or against them as a group, I'm just describing them.

What is actually wrong today? What is hidden, and what is visible? Where, in fact, is the problem? We seem to have enough things, enough food. There are hungry children, according to charities that help them, but we have food enough to give; no breadlines. The shelves are not empty. We are not in Dickens' England. In fact, we have plenty, and at pretty good prices. Most middle-class households might take a good look at their closets & storage bins and decide that they had too much. I definitely could lay back on the clothes buying for a few years, and the holiday accoutrements in FX-ville are crowding out of their alloted space under the stairs. If I got any new toys, I would have to stop playing with the perfectly good ones that I haven't broken. I don't have enough leisure time to own more stuff. My neighbor has rebuilt his kitchen three times over the past 10 years.

In spite of all of this, the little tickets we use to measure the market economy (money) are finding themselves, like salmon, swimming upstream against a powerful current, to get where they need to be. There is something wrong, but we are having a heck of a time figuring out precisely what it is. The government wants us to spend like mad on the one hand, but then we have to save like misers on the other. Like Michael Kinsley hinted, we seem to be being forced to have our cake and eat it, too, and we just can't do the math.

Wordle: Talk of the Town 2009...

Friday, December 5, 2008

Carpooling, 1, 2, 3 ...

Here in FX Land, we have been making the extra effort to be as green as green little men (and women) from Mars can be. We sent the second car off to a far-away city with #2 son, who needed it to support his hip lifestyle at school. I decided to use this as an opportunity to test the waters, so to speak, of carpooling.

Not a full-fledged thing, mind you, but a pretty good one. I carpool with a colleague three days a week. He happens to drive by my house on the way, so it's a bit one sided (remember, my car is far, far away), in that I don't really hold up my end in the driving detail, but all offers of money have been rejected. On the other two days, I drive my wife to work and continue on to my own work, and she walks home, about a mile and a half, when the weather is fine. She is getting up her nerve to walk when the weather is not so fine, but she (a) works a little longer, or shops and (b) calls me to let me know to get out early and come by and get her. We get by.

OK, the first thing about carpooling is dependence. The myriad of details of my friend's life that affect his commute - getting the kids to school, getting his wife where she needs to be, the tires and oil and brakes, the visiting relatives, the illnesses all become an addition to life. There is some waiting. There are some hurry-home early issues. Neither of us has to do this. I don't think we are making any kind of a statement (all are sinners here), but we are getting something done. Sometimes I get to working at home, and he is waiting out there in the drive. Once, I had my cell on silent, and was purty well absorbed by my work, and he had to ring the bell and then wait while I took care of chores that I had neglected (like getting dressed, shaving) before we could leave. Believe me, a well-planned morning at the office can get shot all to heck in short order.

The second thing about carpooling is, for lack of a better word, community. You end up talking to this person about all manner of things (I am interested in the dynamics of three-person carpooling, or four; purely as a social experiment). We actually have known each other for a long time, so we can put up with a lot, but I imagine some rules might be in order if we are going to get out there on Commuter-Connections-dot-com or whatever is working in your neighborhood and carpool with total strangers. The economy, the media, the election, raising kids, birth, death, sex and religion, this kind of stuff just comes up. We haven't had any days of strained silence, but it was close once or twice. This stuff is not unlike an online dating service. The mind boggles with the potential weirdness, but the fact that I think it might be weird is a sign of the times; a bad upbringing, so to speak. Umpty-years ago, folks were placed in close proximity to one another for extended periods of time and were able to be civilized about it, all the time!

Anyway, the saga is not over yet. The car, lent out only for a semester, became a buffer between a car with good brakes and a car with not-so-good brakes, and the insurance folks tell me they won't fix it. Now, this is an opportunity to make a statement isn't it?

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Do we have them on the run?

OK, does anyone want to hazard a guess as to why the price of fuel has been going down? Gas is now under $2 per gallon in some places, from a high above $3.60. OK, Americans, let us assume that the natural factors of us driving less is pushing the price down. If this is the case, now is NOT the time to let off and retern to "normal."

Now is the time to try and take it a notch further. Are you planning your daily trips carefully, cutting out one or two per week? Have you managed to carpool to work one day per week?

I suppose the average car mileage is about 12,000 per year in America. If you start watching the ol' odometer, and aim at 900 miles per month instead of 1000, you can begin to add up the difference.

If everybody aimed at one day per week of carpool, not specifically to save money, but to "save some gas for later," it will put even more pressure on the oil supply chain, as stockpiles grow and leftover inventories build. The suppliers are eager to buy oil when they know it can be sold, but oil is an amazingly expensive thing to keep around if you can't sell it, and frugal driving can help to push it down even further.

Now that you are saving some cash for Christmas, now is no time to blow it all on a road trip to the relatives. Look into train and bus travel on the eastern seabord and in other regions - they are supposed to use less fuel per person-mile. Who knows? Without driving, you might have a holiday that feels more like a holiday..

Sunday, September 7, 2008

There is Media and then, there is Media...

Someone invited me into some business networking thing, and someone else invited me into some kind of social networking wannabe, and some ol' collaboration group/mailing list popped up that would not allow me to see whatever critical info (I forget what it was) someone else needed me to have unless I signed up. All of these insisted I have a Yahoo! account.

Under the onslaught of 'requirements,' and caving in to Peer Pressure, I got a Yahoo! account. Occasionally, I have to log in, in order to deal with these...(ahem)...yahoos.

Yahoo! are just scrumming along, trying to play with the Big Kids. Who, of course, are Google and Microsoft. I have accounts at all of them. Microsoft for business reasons, Google because I use them, and Yahoo because I have friends and aquaintances who, like addicts, just can't bring themselves to drop it.

Google and Microsoft are discreet, non-invasive in their advertising. Google only talks to Microsoft, and Microsoft talks only to God (reference Boston Brahmin - in the sense that they seem to only advertise themselves).

Of course, the Google search engine is generally relevant to current action on the page - advert headers pop up with the supplier's ID and a contextual reason why I might want to click.

With Yahoo, the SPAM filters in the mail are irrelevant. OK, they seem to draw the line at Viagra and Meds, but "Loans! Credit Rating! Diet! Singles! Lots Of Singles! Click Here To Win BIG! Horny Singles in your ZipCode!" with flashing banner graphics, large-busted girls dripping with e-Hormones.

If my Yahoo searches were all 'naked adolescent females,' 'sure-fire way to win the lottery,' 'need to get out of debt,' or similar things, I could understand it. But they are not. These guys can't measure what I actually want/do/am talking about/searching for, and they can't give me relevant advertising. Weren't they the first? They don't seem to get the Internet medium yet.

Yahoo! is the "free" supermarket tabloid of the internet. They made some compromises early, and they can't seem to get out of the shallow end of the gene pool. They would like to have some class, but they live in one of those Rust Belt neighborhoods where 5th generation Europeans still don't speak English, and complain about the Hispanics. They allowed their advertisers to dictate to them, and they cannot TAKE BACK control of their business. Yahoo! advertisers, wearing cheap suits and cheap cologne, want big flashing graphics, secret pop-up windows and ads that pop up when an unsuspecting rube mouses-over on his way to the "dismiss this dismal window" button.

It could be worse, I bet. I could be using Verizon services, or be an AOL "member," both of which provide you with an already-compromised browser just to use the services that you actually pay for. Now, in my economic model, I pay for access that does not have advertising, so this is pretty alien to my thinking. Go figure.

Hey - anything for a buck, you gotta pay the bills, if we don't do it, someone else will, it's a free country.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Creeping Economics

Congratulations, Americans! The best bit of news today was the notice that Americans drove 1.4 billion miles less in April 2008 than in April 2007. See the CNN Article.

The sad news is that we actually drove HOW MANY MILES!? Let me do the hidden math for you...the news article says this is a one-point-eight percent (1.8%) drop. Going back to Algebra 1, this means that - oh, forget algebra, just say 2% = approx. 1.5 billion, so 100%= 75 billion miles. At a generous 30mpg, that comes out to ... 2.5 billion gallons of gas, at 30 days, that's 2.5 billion miles per day. Roughly 382 round-trips to the Sun (where it all came from) per month, just from little ol' us. (Take that, NASA!)

Back to the subject of Creeping Economics ...

I went back over a lot of my science fiction library recently, and I noticed that the one real bit of fiction that seems to hold throughout is the concept of limitless energy. Spaceships that move light-years in minutes or days, floating cities, flying cars, instant food-o-matics, whatever. Even the sword-and-goblet fantasies tend to ignore energy, calling upon vast supernatural sources that tear mountains asunder. Kung-fu masters who fly and dance in the very bamboo. The "hard" science fiction community needs to shed itself of one more fiction if they are going to give us all a realistic glimpse of the future. What is kind of interesting about the increased cost of energy is the fact that you don't really have to look 'forward' in order to get some idea of where the renewable-energy thing is going. You only have to look backward, and only about 100 years, when only the very rich had motor cars, most farming was done with horses, and all breweries served the eight square miles around them. More than less, that is what the future holds. Are you ready? At 2.5 billion gallons a month, it will happen in your lifetime. My, we do live in interesting times...

It's going to take a few months-to-years for it to percolate through the entire economy (national and global), but now is as good as any time for starting to count calories. And by that, I mean the calories of energy required to create products, and to move them to market. Let this guide your investment, too.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

A Nation of Mad Scientists

"I'm not a Mad Scientist, I'm an Angry Scientist!" (Young Frankenstein, I think) According to the Wikipedia article on "Mad Scientist," these guys "often work with fictional technology..." Hence the title here.

Just this week, I got a data call from a friend who needed a geek to tell him what was up with Brown's Gas, burning water and stuff to make a 10 Mpg pickup truck do 22 Mpg. OK, I looked it up, I reviewed it. There was even some heavyweight research done on it. But, in the end, it reminded me of "the secret carburetor," the "gas-enhancing packet," and X-Ray Vision glasses that every red-blooded pre-teen prayed would let him see his homeroom angel naked.

Wake up!!! For heaven's sake, people, why does it always come down to another episode of The Rain Maker? Only now, some clown in a plaid jacket comes to town and claims his secret invention will eliminate your reliance on the $4-a-gallon pump. Now, everyone is believing in perpetual motion machines and water-powered cars, every sort of nonsense that we were supposed to have outgrown oh, back in 1945???

So much for the Founding Fathers' dream of universal education making a strong Republic. It would seem that fact, scientific fact, may be conveniently ignored in the vain hope that the fuel we so wantonly wasted over the past 50 years may be returned to us (at 25 cents a gallon while you are at it, please, God?).

Wishing you can have unlimited sources of energy will not make it so. While Volkswagen may indeed have created a 70Mpg bio-diesel roller skate, your Ford 450 Megaton Pickup is not going to get 35 mpg without driving it off of the proverbial cliff.

There are certain laws of physics that dominate this game. Way back when the only conveyances were horses and sailboats, the "laws of physics" were discovered by homo sapiens and various simple experiments have proven them out year after year in high schools and even elementary schools throughout the nation. In much the same way as 2 + 2 is always equal to 4 (even for very large values of 2), the energy you can get from a system is always equal to or less than what you put in.

Yet, once again, in a manner similar to what occurred in the gas crisis of 1972, magic additives and pills abound. Engines that run on compressed air, engines that run on water, cars that run on gravity. Like drowning swimmers, we grasp every pointless bit of flotsam around us in hopes that it will somehow float both itself and us.

True energy efficiency comes from not wasting energy. I'm no Kung Fu master, but isn't this what the old guy says to "Writtow Gwasshoppah" every time The True Knowledge is being imparted to the young pip on the Path of Enlightenment? Apparently, we treat this knowledge as a fiction only for books and movies. We don't really buy it, do we?

Way back in 1962, Arthur C. Clarke postulated that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." It seems there is an opposite (contrapositive?) effect at work here. Dave Lebling states that "Any sufficiently arcane magic is indistinguishable from technology." Strangely enough, this seems to be the more oft-repeated version. This must be why these scams never seem to go away.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Join the Neo-Amish Movement

No disrespect at all intended. The idea "Neo-Amish" came to me when I was thinking about what our ultimate goal(s) must be if we are to work towards a sufficient "renewable energy technology" in the future. I fully understand that there is a critical spiritual element of Amish & Mennonite faiths. "Neo-Amish" is intended only to refer to the essential "green" aspect of the lifestyle which (according to the Wikipedia entry) has been a direct result of their avoidance of "worldly" things.

On the surface, it appears that Amish morality shuns extensive use of energy as a form of vanity. If this is so, our Western energy-consuming lifestyle could really use an overhaul. If we called it "sin," we would all find ourselves contemplating suicide as the best way to reduce the burden on the planet. I cannot make a move without acknowledging overuse of energy! Our predicament reminds me of Nikos Kazantzakis' St. Francis. In the story, St. Francis "saves" an entire village of people, who all renounce the world and wish to follow a contemplative life. However, there is no one to do any of the daily tasks that make the village go, so he has to tell everyone a new angle on salvation. As I recall, they all get mad at him and drive him out of town.

We cannot let this wall of habit keep us from making some changes as soon as possible, and at least trying some more things.

We have so many conveniences (not the least of which is the computer I am typing on and the one you are reading from) which are "convenient" at a fairly significant energy cost. A few weeks ago, I was reading an article about computer time donations to "Folding@home," a major grid supercomputing effort, that talked about having ~1 million PS3s donating 8 hours per day at about 220 watts. Something like 1.6 billion watt-hours per day are required to make inroads against protein-folding related diseases! Perhaps, for my daily work, I can use the One-Laptop Per Child unit, which runs at a LOT lower energy cost, and is hand-cranked. I think that organization has a new, valid market for the OLPC that should not be overlooked.

As I look at every aspect of my own lifestyle, I realize what a long way I have to go. I need to put up a clothesline, begin to wash dishes by hand in lukewarm water, do a MAJOR planning effort into how & when we use the family autos, make sure all lights in the house are LED or fluorescent, cook less, bathe less, turn more things off, walk more, turn up the thermostat in summer (and turn it down in the winter), watch less TV/video DVD, break out the old Monopoly and jigsaw puzzles, learn how to play cards with real cards again, the list goes ON and On and on.

I bet the Amish don't play cards. But, they drive horse & buggy for local transport and usually don't use phones (the heart clutches in fear at the thought). We are not going to get 300 million Americans back to a farm/subsistence lifestyle. We can turn off a few million streetlights, go to a four-day work week, and try to get to know our neighbors better.

Some technology ought to save energy. I think cell phones are essential, and the internet must be cheaper than driving, is it not? I gotta re-think those 1.6 BILLION watt-hours per day on a single project, though, don't I?

Friday, March 14, 2008

Of Sense and Responsibility

I recently received a well-intentioned-but-completely-misguided approach to the current gasoline "crisis." Quoting a powerful but unnamed "executive from Coca-Cola," this email virus ("send this to 30 people!") seemed to say two things; first, that WE, the masses, could not stop buying gas; and second, that this whole thing could be solved, not by a boycott, but by a boycott of ExxonMobile filling stations, who, faced with losing money, would force the rest of the world to reduce the price of fuel.

"Not this time, Virginia; there is no Santa Claus." we have to do this ourselves, by Not Buying Gas.

Lookit, Kid, by imagining Exxon/Mobile as the boogey man, you are just pushing your peas around on the plate; you still have to eat them. The ONLY way to reduce the price is to reduce the demand.

Each of us has to start by reducing their own demand. This is like a good exercise program. Go ahead and start small, and then work from there. It requires imagination. Not the "save the world now" kind, but the everyday kind, the little ideas that used to make their way into "Hints from Heloise" in the paper. How many ways can we think of? Chances are that Nobody can figure out huge reductions right away, but, if we are all thinking about conservation, every little bit saved will help. Here are some that I have heard of;

1) MEASURE how much fuel you are/have been using. POST the numbers on the kitchen wall, where you can see them, each week.
2) Attempt to Reduce that by 20%
a. Plan shopping, only go twice a week
b. Work at home 1 day (and don’t drive anywhere)
c. “Carpool” with neighbors to shopping
d. Attempt to carpool or use mass transit one day per week
e. Aggressively measure your fuel bills and keep the results where you can see them every day.
3) House/Office temp: 65 winter, 75 summer
4) Buy on internet, delivered by Postal Service (at home: unlike UPS/FedEx, they drive the route daily, regardless)
5) Find non-travel ways to amuse ourselves
a. Bridge clubs, book clubs, garden clubs
b. Get to know your neighbors & try to 'carpool' to events
c. Think back to those old community organizations and traditions that were probably hold-overs from when transportation was scarce.

Communities need to try to become community-oriented again. In our attempts to become more diverse, embracing all traditions and cultures, the places in which we live have become equally strange to all. Everybody drives away to meet friends and to Do Stuff. Cheap transportation means we don't actually have to live with the neighbors. That requires effort.

Monday, March 3, 2008

You have to respect them

There is a lot of information Out There. So much, that the business of searching and sorting it has given rise to Google (our host) and many rivals. So, I suppose it should come as no surprise to me that I am somewhere around the 65 millionth downloader of the VLC Media Player.

As there is only one of me, and I spend a lot of time in the conventional Open Source arena, looking at business solutions. I am trying to get folks interested in more mundane scabbed-edge technology, and beg to be excused for not being up on streaming audio and video and everything related to it. When urged to get the VLC (http://www.videolan.org) by my son-at-college, I went right out and did so. In the media arena, this thing is the slicer-dicer-food processor of the video/audio world, offering us formats and data that will take weeks just to learn to spell the acronyms. But, enough shameless promotion. As an Open Source Zealot, I also tried to get an idea of who they are and what they are about.

The core team are French developers. Unlike a lot of French Open Source folks, they have an English language website; I have yet to find anything in French. I found an Impress presentation that they gave at FOSDEM several years ago that gave a great overview of the product and what VLC are about. Near the end of the presentation, while they were outlining where they wanted the product to go and what they were thinking (and asking for Laborers in the Harvest), there was a single bullet:

World Domination

Hey, you have to respect this. A lofty goal, as their product is not autoloaded with the operating system, and folks have to look for it. Respect them, we should. As the 65 millionth-or-so user of their product, I don't think I have any other choice.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Rushing to Join the Crowd

Rushing to join the crowd, I too have a blog. We'll see if it turns out to be anything, or if it becomes yet another stain of bit-rot on the digital landscape.

I used to be young and sentimental. I even wrote poetry. My friends all toughened me up by making fun of me, and I must have gotten the message. I stopped writing poetry first, and then I slowly stopped writing anything that did not directly affect my income. No personal letters (just Reach Out and Touch Someone), no diaries,I learned to write simply and directly, with simple, easy-to-read words. Faux-German. Rather than use a 5-syllable word, just link a lot of simple words together with hyphens (I tried without hyphens, and it looked like German!).

The digital age and the internet came upon us recently, and we have collectively been growing along with it, I suppose. We have all of these ways to communicate, but we find that we have not got a lot to say. I get 4 or 5 times forwarded emails with some joke or sentimental message, like a greeting card (Happy divorce-anniversary to the nicest loser I ever met...) that says it all and requires only the X to mark the spot where we used to sign our names.

However, maybe something has changed (other than the fact that we have all grown older). I seem to be getting more letters & emails from people trying to explain themselves. People who I thought all left for another planet seem to be popping out of the woodwork, explaining stuff and having feelings that they have to express in emails and blogs... I am not sure I am ready for them all to return from whence they came. My youth was not tragic, but, once they toughened me up, it was easy to leave behind, like the poetry. Recently, a friend of mine who had gone on a long sabbatical from Life came up with a blog to explain the past, and, in the process of reading his, I got the invite to start my own.

Poetry looks out of place in a blog. I won't do that just yet.