Sunday, August 27, 2006

How much do you spend on Gasoline? Mileage matters big-time!

How much have you, and do you plan to, spend on gasoline? The answer may shock the hell out of you!

I was driving along the other day, and when I saw that my little 1997 car had just rolled past the 135,000 mile mark, I thought about how much it would cost at today's prices to pay for all the gasoline used to drive that far. Well, the calculation is rather simple. Just take the total miles (M) divided by the average MPG (Miles Per Gallon) times the Price per Gallon (P). So, in the case of my car, that is:

135000 / 25 * $3.00 = $16,200!!!! HOLY #$%#$ that is a lot of money (and, that is POST-TAX money, meaning I'd have to earn nearly $25,000 W2 earnings to pay for it!). OUCH! I didn't spend that much on both of my older cars combined!

The only good news for me was that I purchased the car four years ago with 108,000 miles already on it. Whew! But, that still means I would have spend about $3240.00 on gas (at $3/gallon) myself. That is still a bit traumatizing. And here I hesitate to buy an XBox 360 since it'll set me back $500 bucks. heh.

So, I start working out the difference in cost if my car's gas mileage was better or worse than its current average. This car gets a solid 30MPG highway, and nearly that in the city if I am very careful with acceleration and minimizing stops/starts (by leaving ample room between cars, planning ahead if I see lights changing already, and so on). But, the wintertime makes the mileage drop to near 20MPG sometimes (4 cylinder cars seem plagued by this cold-weather effect). Assuming $3/gallon gasoline is the norm, that same 135,000 miles on the car would cost:
  • 10 cents / mile at 30MPG, or $13,500 (a savings of $2700 over 25MPG)
  • 15 cents / mile at 20MPG, or $20,250 (or, $4050 MORE -- eek!)
  • 5 cents /mile at 60MPG (ah yes, dreaming of that super-hybrid mileage!), or $6,750 for a huge savings of $9450.00 ... which, if I was going to put that kind of mileage on a car myself, I'd sure have to consider after reviewing the numbers.
Fact is, we are all so used to just "filling up" the car periodically that we forget how much this gasoline is costing us over time. If any of you have read some of my investment advice columns, you will know I always think of expenses in terms of what it costs in real pre-tax terms (i.e., so you can know how much of your gross-wages / salary is consumed for any particular expense). I'll assume 33% wage taxes (Fed, Local, State, FICA, Medicare burden) for my examples (which means you will need to make $1.50 gross for every $1.00 net / cash you take home)

Keeping that in mind, here's a quick table of just the yearly gasoline expenditures you will make (just gas; no consideration for car maintainence, tires, other consumables) that every year at various miles-driven-per-year, and various MPG, given the current $3/gallon gas:

  • 20 MPG CARS:
  • 5,000 miles at 20MPG: $750.00 cash (i.e., $1125.00 in gross earnings / wages)
  • 10,000 miles at 20MPG: $1500.00 cash (i.e., $2250.00 in gross earnings / wages)
  • 15,000 miles at 20MPG: $2250.00 cash (i.e., $3375.00 in gross earnings / wages)
  • 20,000 miles at 20MPG: $3000.00 cash (i.e., $4500.00 in gross earnings / wages)
  • 25,000 miles at 20MPG: $3750.00 cash (i.e., $5625.00 in gross earnings / wages)
  • 25 MPG CARS:
  • 5,000 miles at 25MPG: $600.00 cash (i.e., $900.00 in gross earnings / wages)
  • 10,000 miles at 25MPG: $1200.00 cash (i.e., $1800.00 in gross earnings / wages)
  • 15,000 miles at 25MPG: $1800.00 cash (i.e., $2700.00 in gross earnings / wages)
  • 20,000 miles at 25MPG: $2400.00 cash (i.e., $3600.00 in gross earnings / wages)
  • 25,000 miles at 25MPG: $3000.00 cash (i.e., $4500.00 in gross earnings / wages)
  • 30 MPG CARS:
  • 5,000 miles at 30MPG: $500.00 cash (i.e., $750.00 in gross earnings / wages)
  • 10,000 miles at 30MPG: $1000.00 cash (i.e., $1500.00 in gross earnings / wages)
  • 15,000 miles at 30MPG: $1500.00 cash (i.e., $2250.00 in gross earnings / wages)
  • 20,000 miles at 30MPG: $2000.00 cash (i.e., $3000.00 in gross earnings / wages)
  • 25,000 miles at 30MPG: $2500.00 cash (i.e., $3750.00 in gross earnings / wages)
  • 50 MPG CARS (feel lucky if you have one):
  • 5,000 miles at 50MPG: $300.00 cash (i.e., $450.00 in gross earnings / wages)
  • 10,000 miles at 50MPG: $600.00 cash (i.e., $900.00 in gross earnings / wages)
  • 15,000 miles at 50MPG: $900.00 cash (i.e., $1350.00 in gross earnings / wages)
  • 20,000 miles at 50MPG: $1200.00 cash (i.e., $1800.00 in gross earnings / wages)
  • 25,000 miles at 50MPG: $1500.00 cash (i.e., $2250.00 in gross earnings / wages)

If your car averages under 20MPG, do the math sitting down! If greater than 50MPG, depending on the mileage you put on your car per year, you may well be saving enough to compensate for the premium you paid (if a hybrid), or feel the small / subcompact car you have is well worth the lack of luxury.

You should clearly see that even what appears to be a small difference in average miles per gallon (MPG) can make a large difference on your yearly gas expenditures, and on the drain it places on your income. Likewise, you can see how simply reducing the miles driven per year can make a huge difference as well! Miles per year is the variable you have the most (easy) control over. Next, by opting for a more fuel efficient vehicle you can control (at a cost) the MPG part of the equation. And though the last part of the equation (gas price per gallon) seems completely out of your control, by reducing overall demand for petro, the price will fall -- but, only if it is done by the masses.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

War on the Middle Class? Lou Dobbs tells only part of the story.

For all you Lou Dobbs fans, I want to discuss his ongoing series about the "War on the Middle Class". Let me start by stating that I find Lou Dobbs to be quite intelligent, eloquent, and well informed on many topics. His efforts to maintain a focus on border security are admirable. And, his Exporting America dialog is thought provoking and something we all need to give more consideration to.

But, I really think Lou Dobbs needs to expand the breadth of his investigation with regard to this purported war on the middle class he so often speaks of. For brevity, I will refer to the "war on the middle class" as just "war-mc" throughout. Tonight's war-mc segment discussed how the housing downturn was yet another thing responsible for putting the squeeze on America's middle-class, citing various statistics about how:
  • 40% of mortgages now are zero-down or other "exotic" types
  • inventories of homes on the market are rising
  • 1/2 a trillion in ARMs will adjust this year
  • 700 billion in ARMs will adjust next year
  • people are facing huge increases in mortgage payments at the same time they are being squeezed by energy costs
  • (and, a common theme not necessarily mentioned today is how wages have stagnated)
All of these items may very well be fact. But, how is this representative of a war-mc? I am likely to upset quite a few persons that would like to have everyone believe that their woes are all due to this supposed war on the middle class, but I must put forth another side to be considered -- I believe that a significant part of this war-mc is a self-inflicted war.

Why self-inflicted? Because so many of the issues Lou Dobbs talks about result from our own actions ("our" being the middle class generally). Though I can not fully develop my reasoning in a single blog article (it would take a book), here are some of my reasons for calling this war-mc "self inflicted":
  • Mortgages. It is this simple: only you are responsible for taking on more debt that you can service, for believing that interest rates would never rise again, and to think that house prices were taking an endless upward climb that would always allow you to increase your home value and equity with little or zero effort.
  • Mortgages/housing: from what I see, the "middle class" is the driving force behind the housing bubble. It's the middle class that banks and lending institutions have targeted with excessively easy of access to debt. Not a day goes by without another offer for a credit-card, home-equity loan, or the likes for most of the middle class. And, the middle class bought into it all hook, line, and sinker, taking out as large of loan as possible, pushing their finances to the edge, and acquiring the biggest and most extravagant house they could possibly "afford" (afford being a term that has lost all meaning these days - it now simply means how much a bank will let them borrow... little to do with truly afford). The belief that home prices would constantly climb has made many feel they could do no wrong with such a move. Well, this all worked as long as the Federal Reserve made money so cheap (to borrow) that the house of cards kept going higher.
  • Housing add-ons: the large houses (and loans) are usually just the tip of the iceberg. With those homes come all sorts of products and services. The larger the house, the larger your costs - be it lawn service, landscaping, watering, heating, cooling, or simply the property taxes on that thing! Yes, one excess begets others. And, per the rules of supply and demand, the larger draw on energy resources to heat and cool those extra square-feet raises energy costs for everyone; many of the resources used (in larger amounts) to build and maintain a larger home are petroleum based too (roofing, vinyl siding, and much more), all increasing demand for limited resources.
  • Automobiles: you have to get to that fancy house in the suburbs, and you certainly do not want to rely on public transportation (which, is of course harder to even find out in the burbs). Instead, you have to have a veritable fleet of cars to go along with that house. These cars can not be too old, or they dare not fit your image (or match your house). Instead of driving 10 year old affordable vehicles, the norm is more like 4 years or newer. Those cars bring along a host of bills: insurance, fuel, tires and consumables. Note to all: all the extra demand for fuel raises fuel prices further.
  • Credit-Card Debt: I think everyone knows the story on this -- simply put, it is out of control.
Whether you want to admit it or not, many of the costs that are "waging war" on the middle-class are a matter of choice. That is what people like to forget, ignore, or make excuses in order to evade. It is your choice to purchase a 4000 square foot home, a Hummer, a Harley and all your other toys and niceties. And, even if you are nowhere near that level of expense, but still stretched to the edge, there are still likely to be many choices that you have made that led to you feeling like there is a war-mc.

We all have the worst example of all to follow when it comes to living beyond our means: our own government. They spend money far beyond what they have, and appear to have little to no concern about the long-term ramifications of ballooning debt and related obligations. The Federal Reserve, during the last recession, saw that the fastest way to make the economy look wonderful and robust was to enable the middle-class to take on excessive amounts of debt (just like our government) at low interest rates and allow a housing bubble to take shape -- and pull us out of a recession. Once could argue that it was a cure, but I believe a significant amount of this emergence from recession was simply a postponement of the inevitable adjustment that must occur when the realization that debt funding by overseas investors must eventually hit a ceiling. Until we ourselves save and control spending, we will be at the mercy of others.

I was raised in an environment where money was tight, and things had to be very strictly budgeted for. Debt was something to be avoided, as it makes you work to service it, and it introduces excess and avoidable fear when times are rough. Debt has its place in our economy for certain -- without it, growth would stagnate. But, debt abuse and easy debt has crept in and taken over for anything that I would consider sane and safe levels - for individuals, business, and government.

For those of you not already mired in excessive debt, please, think twice (and many more times) prior to entering into further debt. A simple solution is to live beneath your means (especially beneath the level of debt your income will allow you to get in today's age of easy loans). You do not have to do it forever; but, do it long enough to acquire solid savings skills and debt-avoidance skills. Then, you will not have to be part of those that interpret every negative bit of economic news (like the housing downturn) as a "war against the middle class"; instead you will see it for what it is (primarily), a war against those who chose to put themselves in the line of fire.

As a close, I must acknowledge the fact that there are a significant number of expenses that could be considered part of a war-mc. These expenses will nearly always exhibit some commonality in that: they are difficult to avoid; are for services/products you can not live without (and I do not mean your cell-phone); there are few supplier options (leading to easy and widespread price-fixing opportunity); their average rate of annual increases will far outpace inflation as a whole. Some examples include: health care and prescription drugs, food, other insurances, fees (e.g., banking fees), and taxes (or other government fees). I did not mention energy simply for the fact that we consumers control demand (though we do not exercise that control very well) for the most part.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Currency Hedging with American Depository Receipts (ADRs)

For those of you who have already read my May, 2006 posting about Investing in ADR (American Depository Receipt) Stocks, you may have been able to make impressive investment returns, for two reasons. If you watched both the currency-rates and the stock prices during this time and jumped in when the stock market had a mini correction that bottomed out early-mid June:
  • the stock markets, both here and abroad, performed rather well since that bottom;
  • the United States Dollar (USD) tanked against the British Pound (GBP) and other currencies worldwide during that same period.
The overall stock market move is a bit irrelevant to the ADR thing, but the second ROI reason is all about currency fluctuations and how they affect your ADR share-price returns.

A couple of London Stock Exchange stocks that have ADRs here in the USA that I regularly follow are Barclays PLC and HSBC Bank (which I used as an example in the 5/13/06 article). Let's say you timed things very well and got into each at roughly their bottom in mid-June, and examine what your returns would be and why:
  • Barclays (ADR ticker: BCS) - on the London Exchange, it was trading at 586 Pence at its low, and closed today at 653.5 Pence. Return on the London market: 11.52% . . . Impressive, but, the BCS ADR during the same time hit a $43.23 bottom, and a $49.64 close today, or a whopping 14.83% return, which is quite nice, especially considering we are talking about large blue-chip type banks that roll off a healthy 3-4% dividend! Your ADR returned an extra 3.3% on your investment during the same period! The difference in returns reflects the tanking USD during this period.
  • HSBC (ADR ticker: HBC) - on the London Exchange, it was trading at 913 Pence at its low, and closed today at 951.5 Pence. Return on the London market: 4.22% ... and, the HSBC ADR during the same time hit a $84.34 bottom, and a $90.35 close today, or a 7.126% return, which is darn solid too for such a short timeframe. Your ADR returned an extra 2.9% on your investment during the same period! That extra return reflects the substantial drop in the purchasing power of the USD during this period.
Now, you may be asking why both stocks did not return the same 3.3% "extra" due to currency swings: simple, one stock hit its low on a different (later) date than the other, and the currency exchange rates had already changed some.

So, keeping these examples in mind, there can be opportunity to hedge against the falling dollar by purchasing American Depository Receipts (ADR) stocks. This is not as direct as simply playing the currency market on a ForEx trading platform or such, but it is probably less likely to cause you to lose all your money doing risky currency-swing trades. Do some research, and consider the options that are available. There are ADRs for UK stocks as well as German, Japanese, Israeli, and many other firms.

Keep in mind, as I pointed out in my prior article, you can play this swing both directions. If the US Dollar strengthens greatly while you hold an ADR, you can just as quickly see the multiplier working against you. If you want more information, read that first posting of mine. If you still need more, let me know and I will try to dive deeping into investing in foreign stocks in this manner, especially in order to hedge against any devaluation in the US currency.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Adobe Indesign CS2 Review - Spectacular!

I have been putting the Adobe Indesign CS2 product to the test lately, in a rather heavy way. I have been using it to create a 240-page, multi-chapter, commercial recipe book with full-color photography throughout, a comprehensive index, and all of the types of things you would expect in any book you would buy at Borders/Barnes/Amazon/etc.

I was completely new to Adobe Indesign when I began; in fact I have absolutely no background in desktop publishing per se, but was willing to invest the time and effort to learn. I started by reading the Wiley book entitled "Adobe InDesign CS2 Bible" (896 pages, and quite comprehensive - a good book). And, as I went through the book knowing that my ultimate goal was to use InDesign to produce a commercial book, I placed Post-Its throughout, noting the chapters/pages of interest that I would likely need to focus on when I started into using InDesign. This proved very useful! I find myself being able to quickly jump to a particular topic via my quick-indexes.

So, I followed the advice within the book, placing a lot of effort on setup. This was an invaluable step - saving tons of time down the road. I set all the global preferences/settings, and then focused on creating my master pages and spreads, along with the Styles I would be using throughout my book (I brainstormed ahead of time, and created styles for everything I knew I would require; styles for: Chapter Titles, Book Title, Recipe Names, Directions-text, and a whole slew of other paragraph/chapter styles.) I chose a few color-swatches to create for things I knew I would use color to accentuate as well.

When it finally came time to really start putting the power of Indesign CS2 to work, wow was I impressed at what this software can do! When it comes to laying out a magazine or book (or anything simpler), this desktop publishing software seems to have thought of nearly everything, and makes what looks difficult seem quite easy to implement.

To sum up my impressions of the product, I'd have to rate it a solid 9.0/10.0 rating.

Some of the features I really got into:
  • Master pages/spreads - oh my god are these things handy and hugely productive!
  • Flowing of text between frames, and around graphics objects, and so on.
  • Graphics: I love how the "size" of the graphic is disconnected from the *visible-size* of the graphic. Meaning, where I have recipe pictures that have been taken with a particular aspect ratio that is different from the size box I want to display them in, I define the size of the box that will show the image, and the true image sorta slides around "underneath" that box to where it is optimal for me. There are all sorts of neat ways to size images as well, but it is the ability to control what part of that image "shows" (i.e., prints) that really rocks!
  • Styles - and I am not talking about styles like MS Word - these are mega mega powerful. You can control basically anything related to text formatting. Some of this will be a bit of typography specific, but things like kerning, leading, skew, baseline shifting (oh - and baseline alignment just rocks for multi-column / multi-page professional look!), vertical/horizontal scaling, tracking,... the list goes on.
  • Indexing - I read things recommending an add-in product, but I am very much pleased with the included Indexing capabilities and TOC abilities. Very powerful, very flexible - though, the indexing operations require you to manually decide what all to place in the index, it is still quite useful and powerful.
  • Styles - specific to fractions: yes, for creating a recipe book that really looks professional, you need to be able to make a custom "one-third" that does not look like this "1/3", but a true fraction that matches other fractions included in a character set. I custom created all of the oddball fractions that were used for baking that are not in a normal character set, and they look completely like the real thing.
  • Objects - yes, objects! For an object-oriented-programmer type like me, hearing that InDesign supported objects, which implement basically visual inheritance, was enough to get my attention. And, it works quite well. When you create your styles, you can create child-styles based on another style. A bit rough to quickly explain, but well worth looking into.
  • And much more! I hope to write a more comprehensive review of Adobe Indesign CS2 capabilities and power in the future and post on my company website. For now, this will give you a good intro I hope.

The only significant complaints I had about InDesign CS2 (that prevented a 10/10 rating, and lead to the 9/10 instead) were:
  • Inability to quickly copy complex table-styles (embedded styles within table) to other table objects; though, "Smart Styles" from WoodWing gets the job done with a $200-250 add-in (I just wish CS2 had this built in!)
  • For some reason, the Version-Cue software that is closely coupled with InDesign (for version-control) stops responding when I want to save another version - until I reboot!
  • Annoyance #1: when I first start InDesign, I can scroll through pages in my document simply by using my Wheel-Mouse, but then it stops working until I shutdown InDesign and restart. Also, the scroll-bar in the "Pages" tool-sidebar just stops scrolling through pages - sometimes until I restart the application, other times it starts working again at a later time for no apparent reason.
Aside from those (somewhat minor) complaints, the Adobe Indesign CS2 software is simply spectacular. I find myself thinking: wow, if I only had something like this 20 years ago, I could have been cranking out some darned good looking reports, sales and marketing material, books, etc. etc.

Turbo Delphi

For those of you who recall the early days of Borland and the "Turbo" product lines, like Turbo Pascal, word has it that Borland's development-tools company spin-off is going to release new versions of various products, including "Turbo Delphi" with this reinvigorated branding.

A friend of mine wrote a nice blog entry about Turbo Delphi, which include this link to the site where Turbo Delphi and the other new Turbo products are presented. Looks like there will be some wait until the downloadable FREE versions are available, but this is great news regardless as many will welcome the ability to use Delphi, and other languages, for free.

I will write a more comprehensive article, perhaps even a full review of the Turbo Delphi product, once the download is available and further site content is developed. In the meantime, I just wait with anticipation.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Xbox 360 Game Software Development - make your own games!

Microsoft just announced that they will finally make available to the general public its Xbox 360 game development platform called XNA Game Studio Express. The development platform requires you to have a Windows XP computer, and pay an annual $99 fee for the permission to build, test, and share your home-grown XBox 360 games. They are promising access to other useful development resources as well.

This is something I called for back with the original Xbox, and as a Microsoft Certified Partner I even called my Microsoft contacts to see about getting a development kit for the original Xbox - to no avail. When MS originally released the game platform, you had to go through all sorts of ridiculous steps just to be considered as a possible Xbox game developer, regardless of your software development capabilities. This basically kept just the large game studios in the fold, and left any would-be game developers out of the action. The supposed reasons used at the time were that Microsoft wanted to control the quality of all games for the Xbox, approve the content and game/story flow, and be involved (of course) in the marketing efforts and release-timelines. I remember watching videos of them working closely with the Halo crew and the Crimson Skies crew throughout development -- talking all about how this ensured great games. Well, that may have been the case for like the first 10 games or so, then it seemed that MS (under pressure to crank up the number of games available for the Xbox) let this approval process and scrutiny of games for the Xbox platform just go down the tubes -- as I began to see 10s, 100s... of "new" games coming out for the thing; most of which were pure junk (rebranded from other platforms; games with zero innovation; sequel after sequel that required very little thought for many; etc). Well, in the end, it seems that MS is admitting they do not really control the quality of the games being sold, and as such we can all have our chance at creating one if we desire.

Part of me wonders if this new strategy is more about gaining users than developers, under the guise of giving the average software developer a chance to create the next great Xbox 360 game. It surely couldn't be about the $99 annual fee could it? That would seem hardly worth the bother. Though current specs call for an XP Desktop to perform the software development on, I also wonder how long it will be until you are required to use Windows Vista for this task.

Either way, once I get myself one of the Xbox 360's (perhaps early 2007), I will likely buy the development kit. I started in computer programming by writing video games when I was 13 years old. At the time, I was cranking out Z80 Assembler in attempts to make a program run fast enough to mimic Space Invaders or similar on the beautiful high resolution (not) black and white screen of a Radio Shack TRS-80. Leap forward 25 years and I can have some seriously impressive 3D color-graphics power at my fingertips, and joysticks that do not require me to build my own interface boards to the external bus on the back of the machine.

Having been out of the video game writing thing for so long, a lot has changed -- but, when I read about Microsoft opening up the Xbox 360 game software development (finally), I started to feel that urge to see if I still had it in me to create my own game(s)!

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Increasing prices to remain competitive?

According to the dictionary, competition (in business) is referred to as "Rivalry between two or more businesses striving for the same customer or market." Now, common sense dictates that this rivalry for the customer would be by offering a better service / product, or the same service / product for less money.

Well, you and I understand this, but do the companies that are competing for us consumers understand it? What got me started on this blog were a couple of rate increases from our cable TV company over the prior year or two; in particular, the small plain white piece of paper with a list of old and new prices, plus a quick explanation of why ". . . in order to remain competitive, we are raising our rates . . ." Gee, excuse me??! Did I hear right? You are raising prices in order to remain competitive?

Only marketing "experts" could try to put such a spin on increasing the price of a commodity such as cable TV and feel OK about telling us how it is all about remaining competitive. I guess that sounds better than all of the more likely real reasons for an increase, such as:
  • We know you have limited choice in who provides this service to you, so we do not have to be competitive at all, since there is barely anything left that could truly be called competition; (most likely imho)
  • We have aging infrastructure that needs updated or you may leave for a competitor - and, we have not planned accordingly and now need funds to pay for it; (at least this may have been somewhat honest);
  • Our debt burden is now your problem -- sorry, but we grew too quickly using debt to make us look like a fast growing, high flying company that is best for everyone, at least long enough to push others out of the market; (common place)
  • Our top directors have taken advantage of the company through excessive pay, stock options, and the likes, and well, you get to pay for their mistakes and greed; (in this case, their is truth to this scenario, since the company we have is Adelphia, and we all know about how the founding family got in a bit of a legal jam for fraud).
  • We do not care about being competitive on the price offered to you, our customer, but we do know we want our stock price, P/E ratio, and the likes to be competitive and need to increase cash flow to do so (oh, and some bonuses will certainly have to be paid to top management as soon as this plan works).
Regardless of the real reason for price increases, please keep in mind, you do not raise prices in order to remain competitive - you do so because you can, because a competitor has recently raised the price on a similar service, or perhaps your raw material and labor costs have increased. But, do not consider the consumer ignorant enough to accept a price increase as a means of competition! Then again, maybe I need to increase my prices to remain competitive? Hmmm... sounding a bit better now. heh.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Is Gasoline stil to Cheap?

I am sure this will perhaps upset a few persons, but I find it necessary to discuss why, per some observations of mine, it seems that Gasoline may still be too Cheap. Cheap, you say? How can anyone call $3.00/gallon cheap? You must be rich! You must be insane! Gas can not possibly be called cheap, or can it?

Well, if it is so expensive, then why does everyone around me still want to burn through it at a record pace and waste it on some of the most ridiculous things? Keep in mind: price is directly related to the supply/demand equation. Price rises as a) demand increase, or b) supply decreases. One side of this equation is easier for the average person to control (and, no, it is not supply -- unless you have a new oil well in your back yard you can tap as needed). Demand is what we, the consumers, have some control over. Though, it seems, we all can find as many excuses as necessary to explain why we don't exercise any control over our consumption.

Granted, most of our gasoline (or diesel / petroleum products) consumption in this country goes to our fleet of personal and business (including government) vehicles. But, there are quite a few things that still burn through a gallon or two here and there that can be greatly reduced. Reduction may break some unwritten social paradigms of present along the way, since you certainly must mow your lawn every 4 days whether it needs it or not, lest you display a few out of place blades for the whole neighborhood to see. Yes, it is things like that which make me question whether gas prices are high enough. (before you read too much into this thought, trust me, I too hate the price to fill up my gas tank in even my 10-year old tiny little Mitsubishi Eclipse, which gets decent mileage).

To continue with my observations of wasteful, and what I believe are avoidable, consumption habits, here is just a sampling of what I see going on, and what I think should be done to curve usage:
  • The whole lawn-mowing thing: OK, so I have all these neighbors that are obsessed with the out-of-place blade of grass or dandelion poking through for others to see. And yes, they will mow their lawns, even in the middle of August when the grass barely grows, at least once a week if not twice - whether it needs it or not. And, if one neighbor does, then god knows that persons neighbor will, just to be sure that their grass is not the one that stands out as "unkept". When did this "need" for perfectly manicured lawns start? (well, in the 1800's when they invented reel-mowers probably). I suggest we reevaluate this "need", and start saving gas (unless you want to put one of those old unpowered reel-mowers to use; which by the way I did all Spring... great exercise and weight loss plan, but that is another store). The other thing to consider is alternatives to grass that look just as nice -- we have creeping-thyme that is now covering an entire side of our yard; it never grows above a certain height, requires no fertilizer or pesticides, crowds out other weeds, and flowers for over a month this time of year with a nice lavender hue to our yard, and attracts tons of honeybees (and it smells great too, plus you can eat it if you want).
  • Lawn care part two: OK, so if persistent lawn mowing was not enough of a waste, when did we as a human race decide that we just "must" weed-whack our yards and edge every darn inch of the place. Then came the whole leaf-blower scene, since we dare not have a blade of that perfectly-cut grass show up on our sidewalk. The smell of two-cycle oil burning without emission-controls should be enough for any of us to not want it done, but that is obviously not enough. So, how about we save a few gallons of petrol and stop doing it -- at least reduce it to once every three or four weeks instead of every time! Now, the lawn-care guys certainly won't like any of my suggestions - as they keep pushing all this as added services we just have to have. And, the Home Depots and Lowes of the world certainly do not want you to stop spending money on all those outdoor power tools and consumables (like trimmer-string) either -- I doubt they need worry, nothing will change.
  • Now, let me offend (by targeting) a new group of persons -- the recreational vehicle crowd. No, I don't mean RV's per se (though they burn plenty of fuel); I'm talking about the dirt bikes, 4-wheelers, jet skis, and so on that just need to be piloted all over yards or lakes. A couple doors down, the teenager just has to ride his (excessively noisy) dirt bike an hour a week. Why? Because it is fun I guess, and because riding a mountain-bike in your yard is just no where near as cool or exciting.
  • Finally, I would take time to suggest that we do something to improve our public-transportation utilization, carpool more, and combine trips by planning ahead, but I am rather sure those things have been discussed much, and sadly have met with little following (sure, some do try, but most find any way possible to not change their habits).
I keep asking at what price will the insanity of burning gasoline for such idle tasks come to an end? When will you reduce your mowing frequency, cut back on your weed-whacking, or stop blowing leaves and debris (ever heard of a rake?)? Will it be $10/gallon? Or, more? When will the gas-powered toys be replaced by those old-fashioned ones we used to use... what were they called again? Bikes? Roller Blades? Our legs? :)

On the upside, I must absolutely applause the one man I see riding his bicycle to work every day of the year, regardless of weather, up and down our street -- wow, now that is dedication! And, I know I do my share of wasting gasoline and can do better at finding ways to reduce energy consumption. I do not want to see my money flowing to overseas oil fields; I'd much rather see it going to pay for a new windmill / wind-power farm, solar facility, or tide-power source. Not only would petroleum consumption drop, but air quality should improve as emissions drop along with the burning of fossil fuels. But, who wants clean air anyhow - we only breath that stuff? heh.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Web Browsers and Inconsistent HTML Formatting

Why, oh why, after a decade or more of having web browsers do we have to deal with the issue of Inconsistent HTML Formatting between browsers? Perhaps thing have improved some over the years, but it still amazes me how much time must be wasted just trying to tune specific aspects of web design to fit even a couple major browsers (FireFox, and Internet Explorer - IE).

I have been working on my new book-sales website the past week, only to be reminded how much I absolutely hate working with HTML and CSS; not because the underlying technologies are bad (in fact, CSS is quite powerful), but because I must spend so much time making sure that what I create for a web page that renders nicely in one browser actually renders well in the other. Sometimes it goes one step further: there seems to be no way to get either of the major browsers to render (exactly) what I create in Macromedia Dreamweaver.

My particular "fun" dealing with HTML/CSS rendering issues this week is the positioning and width of a table element in my web design. Specifically, no matter what I do to the CSS and/or HTML code, IE renders my main table one-pixel left of where it should be, and Firefox renders it two pixels too wide, making the table extend too far to the right. Both browsers seem unable to calculate the table-width and/or position properly if I have any row or column elements that make use of padding and/or borders using CSS. So, I give up. A pixel or two for now is close enough!

But, after all these years, why can there not be ONE common HTML/CSS rendering engine out there? It should be a totally commoditized product that makes zero money -- not the rendering engine itself at least. I can see where product differentiation in the actual surrounding "web browser" application makes sense, but not for the rendering engine. If it were not for the headstrong nature of for-profit corporations, I do think it quite possible that everyone could use the same rendering engine. There is a W3C org that sets the HTML/CSS standards. Why can't they also be the maintainer of the HTML/CSS rendering engine that renders according to its standards? Since the FireFox rendering engine is open-source, that would be a great place to start -- take that engine and call it the "standard". But, still, there would have to be the likes of MS and others that would just have to have their own engine, thus taking us back to what we have now -- web design issues that should not even exist and only exist due to inconsistent "interpretation" of the W3C HTML/CSS standards. And, there will (forever perhaps) be countless wasted hours trying to overcome these inconsistencies. With the Billions spend in wasted productivity hand-tuning web-designs, we could all have the ultimate in perfection for a standard HTML/CSS engine by now. But, since this is likely to never happen, it is also why I totally expect, and have predicted for a long time, that this HTML/CSS method of web-design will go by the way of the dinosaur.

Ultimately, every time I do web-design work, it leads me back to the fact that I love being able to create native Win32 executables where I control nearly every aspect of the GUI down to the exact placement of each pixel if needed. Or, on the web side of things, this is where Macromedia Flash really shines -- what you create in Flash is what you get regardless of the browser since you rely only on Flash's rendering engine to get the output right. On that point: is everyone in agreement that Flash is "ubiquitous" yet and Flash-Only sites (if not bloated to the max) are, or can be, a good thing?

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Putting ASP.NET 2.0 to the test on new websites

Although I have friends, and consultants working for me, that have quite a bit of experience with Microsoft's ASP.NET and now the newer 2.0 flavor, I personally have had very little experience using it first hand -- until now.

When the first incarnation of "DotNet" arrived on the scene, along with ASP.Net, VB.Net, and C#, I read all sorts of MSDN magazine articles, purchased and read multiple books about ASP.Net, and so on. Then, I started playing around with it and found out first-hand how much I could not stand certain aspects of developing ASP.Net web-pages (I had only used "classic" ASP and a bit of PHP/Python for dynamic web-sites prior to this). ASP Classic has its issues, and provides a rather basic environment for a brute-force code-development approach to dynamic web pages -- nothing very sophisticated, and surely not very Object-Oriented.

Although DotNet promised all sorts of advantages over ASP Classic, all I found were layers of complexity offering little to me (compared to classic ASP) - especially when I was used to the true OOP (object oriented programming) power of Borland Delphi for developing GUIs (graphical user interfaces), and in particular the concept of "visual inheritance". THAT is one seriously powerful capability that I make regular use of when developing GUIs. Well, ASP Classic has nothing like that (sure, you can use "include files", but that is nowhere close to the power I expect and demand). So, next was ASP.Net and a few new (per Microsoft's idea of new) concepts like code-behind pages (allows better separation of GUI/logic) and the likes. But, still not much for true visual inheritance throughout your dynamic web-page design.

Well, finally, ASP.Net 2.0 showed up and offered some compelling paradigm changes to the way dynamic web-pages are created, and extended, using a much more OOP type approach. Now there is the concept of "master pages" -- ABOUT TIME! These things appear to finally offer me what I want, or at least a good enough foundation for what I want, in order to accomplish a decent amount of re-use throughout my web-pages.

Now, since I finally have a NEED to do some large-scale web-site buildouts of my own, I have decided to dive headlong into this DotNet 2.0 world and use a few of the latest features (basically skipping the original DotNet 1.0 release completely; and I am thankful I did not waste time learning workarounds only to unlearn them in 2.0 version). I am currently working on master pages for my new book site, and am separating the code (business/data-retrieval logic) from the presentation layer much better than ever before. I plan to give asynchronous pages a go, and will code all functionality in C# 2.0. From my early work, things look promising and DotNet 2.0 may finally provide enough functionality to win me over and give me a compelling reason to upgrade and migrate my legacy ASP Classic code. I will report more details of the migration, as well as source-code and tips learned, etc. on my company web-site (under free software) when I get a chance. But for now, back to work -- much to do!