Thursday, March 27, 2008

Highest Mileage Cars : 80MPG+!!

You read that correctly - production cars that get 80+ MPG. Yes, EIGHTY MILES PER GALLON. They exist! But, it seems that we (here in the United States) keep having to hear from the major auto makers that "we just can't build cars that get more than 30MPG" and along that line of thinking).

Oh, did I mention these are MAINSTREAM BRAND-NAME automobiles from Volkswagen and Mini too? I so want one of these 80MPG Mini-Coopers... or, heck, I'll even settle for the 80MPG VW Polo!

Combined miles-per-gallon in excess of 70MPG! Oh how I want one!

Even with both of these vehicles being Diesel powered (vs. gasoline), and with Diesel currently being more expensive here in the United States than gas, with those numbers, who cares!? EIGHTY-EIGHT HIGHWAY MPG for the little VW! Wow!

Now, here's the catch: this is for the UK (United Kingdom) / European market. Sorry, you can't get one of these in the United States, for various reasons. First, they supposedly don't meet our emissions standards (though, you can sit on the highway and watch as many emission-EXEMPT semis, tractor-trailor rigs, buses, and other "exempt" vehicles spewing a choking black diesel smoke all the time, and THAT is "ok"?)

I was in the UK in the sumer of 2007, and I had a chance to drive a rental car that was made by a subdivision of GM - and it achieved 45MPG average, in a mid-size vehicle, and while burning gasoline. But yet, I have no chance of getting such a car here in the USA. This really, really miffs me when gas is in excess of $3.00/gallon, and $4.00 or $5.00 per gallon gasoline seems like it is just on the horizon... especially thanks to price-fixing essentially, where refiners have learned that by simply lowering their output, they can hit record per-gallon gas prices -- today's report showed how refinery utilization here was at something like 81% now... or, barely above post-Katrina (hurricane) levels. Supply/Demand curves mean nothing when nobody is willing to actually COMPETE!

We hear all the time how we "need more refineries", yet as consumers actually started using less fuel, and refiners saw margins falling, they simply cut capacity. And, at a mere 81% of capacity, we have a fair amount of "slack" in the system - should anyone decide to actually put it to use. I call this all price manipulation one way or the other. In a truly free market economy, with ample competition, SOMEBODY would sell fuel even at "thin margins" because they would have an opportunity to gain market share. Not here. Not now. There isn't enough competition left. I heard some bonehead on NBR (Nightly Business Report) talk about how if we had a recession, that prices would fall -- well, again that logic depends on supply-demand curves meaning something, and as demonstrated lately, even when demand falls, it just doesn't matter, since refiners simply adjust supply downward to keep prices up.

Fact is, the American consumer has little choice but to pay high prices for gasoline (and yes, I realize it is MUCH lower here than in Europe), while not getting the choice in high-mileage vehicles that Europe has. Auto companies claim they can't make them, or that nobody would buy them, etc. etc.... and, I really don't think oil companies want any downward spiral in consumption to ever have a chance to take hold. I'm also not kidding myself either: most people, even given the choice of a high-mileage tiny vehicle would still rather have the sportier, higher horsepower, fancier, ritzier, trendier, etc. etc. vehicle at their disposal, and would be willing to pay for the fuel it requires.

But, some of us would really really love to have a little commuter-car that gets 80MPG... or even 70MPG... or 60MPG... or 50MPG. And, you give me the option of something as stylish as a Mini-Cooper that gets 80+MPG highway (and 60MPG City), and I am in line IMMEDIATELY to buy one! It'd be a no-brainer from a gas-savings / payback standpoint. But, thanks to our government, various corporate interests, and all sorts of other junk, I will not get that opportunity, and instead will be forced to drive something much less efficient (perhaps that is a good thing, since lately I rarely drive anywhere!). But, I want the CHOICE to purchase a super-high-mileage car here if I want to.

Note: there are some nice electric vehicle options on the horizon, though I really doubt they'll ever materialize either, and if/when they do, I GUARANTEE electric rates will soar - and, most electricity will be from COAL or oil or natural-gas burning anyhow, thanks to lobbying efforts by those industries. If solar and wind-power generated electricity can be used to "fuel" these future electric vehicles, I'm all for it. Otherwise, forget it.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Wind and Solar Tax Credits

Here we are in 2008, with Democrats in control of Congress (theoretically), and yet I don't see any real push for serious Wind and Solar Tax Credits for individuals. This really upsets me, especially since I would love to get some assistance with installing a small wind-turbine or some rooftop solar photovoltaic panels to offset energy consumption (especially foreign-sourced petrochemical-based energy!)

The United States is supposed to be such a World power, and a leader in so many areas, but we trail many countries considerably when it comes to anything that would promote green energy initiatives that would help ween consumers from utility companies. On the opposite end of the scale are countries in Europe that are making serious attempts to become energy independent (much through renewable energy - and I don't mean that losing proposition known as ethanol).

I just finished reading about how Scotland is nearly tripling their annual incentive program funding for wind/solar credits. Here's a couple quoted paragraphs that will give you a feel for what the Scottish people can look forward to (which I can only hope we eventually evolve our tax-code to include here in the USA):
Finance Secretary John Swinney today announced the Scottish Government will make available £13.5 million a year for the next three years to help householders, small businesses and local communities generate their own clean energy.
Mr Swinney said: "We recently announced our intention to introduce a statutory target to reduce Scottish emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, as part of our proposals for Scotland's first Climate Change Bill. Everyone has a part to play and the Scottish Government is providing strong leadership by tripling funding support to encourage householders, businesses and community projects to generate their own renewable energy."
80 per cent reduction by 2050! Now that is a serious target for reducing one's emissions. And, I can only imagine how this will not only improve their economy (by reducing impact of high and volatile foreign-sourced energy, as well as creating jobs to source, install, and maintain alternative energy systems on a distributed scale), but also how it will improve their National security (again, the distributed nature of power-generation vs. the USA "GRID" model makes a huge amount of sense with regards to redundancy and less-likelihood of major disruptions to our power - disruptions that can cause huge economic issues too).

OK, Washington... wake up and get with the program! Start including individuals in some serious wind and solar tax-credit programs here in the United States so we too, as both individuals and as a Country, can realize the economic improvements and National Security improvements that a decentralized electricity-generation model offers. I am ready and willing to install solar cells and/or wind generator(s) at my house, but I find the current pricing extreme (even when considering current electric and oil prices, the return on investment - ROI - period is quite long and a tax credit would sure be nice... heck, we give enough tax-credits to big oil companies and coal-fired electric plant owners... just start redirecting that to something that will deliver a true long-term payback!!).

Sunday, March 16, 2008

New Economy : Skilled Labor Wage Inversion Imminent

I have been giving a lot of thought to where Wages are headed in this "New Economy" of global competition and such. My conclusion: wages for those generally considered "skilled labor" are going to fall, and wages for what has been historically considered "unskilled labor" are going to rise (certainly substantially relative to that skilled labor).

I call this my geographically-bound-wages-theory in a global economy, and the subsequent education-vs-wages "inversion" I see coming. Fact is, if your job CAN be outsourced to a cheaper, lower wage country, it WILL be, and there is nothing you can do to stop it. The only jobs that can not be outsourced to cheap-labor markets are those that require a physical presence right here in the United States.

What does that leave here in the United States not subject to outsourcing? Not much! If you do any work that does not require at least half of your time being spent physically "on location" here, forget it. So, if you happen to fall into nearly any job considered "White Collar", get ready for a rude awakening as you job is shipped overseas. Thanks to high-speed communications (aka, the Internet and telecommunications), any "desk job" type work is instantly subject to relocation abroad. This includes:
  • Information Technology jobs
  • Accounting jobs, including tax preparation
  • Lawyers - unless you are one of the RARE lawyers actually chairing a case in a courtroom
  • Most management positions - trust me, hiring and firing decisions can be made from abroad based purely on underling performance statistics
  • Psychologists
  • Architects
  • Engineers
  • Artists
  • Advertising and marketing
  • Fundraisers
  • Call-Centers and Customer Service
I'm not just making this list up... I have seen news about nearly every type of white-collar position moving overseas, little by little, and the pressure for that movement will only continue as Congress bends to the will of Corporate America.

Very few "skilled worker" or "white collar" jobs will remain physically here in the United States. Sure, some health workers will remain, like surgeons that require immediate on-site access to the patient, but even that is under threat as remote surgery is enabled (this tech already exists!) Nursing: yeah, it seems that would stay here, but don't count on it. I guarantee some enterprising persons or companies will find a way to outsource most longer-term care situations to cheaper geographies eventually, even if if means moving the patient, invalid, elderly, whatever, to foreign shores or South of the border. You wait. It'll happen.

So, what will remain (and remain a decent paying profession)? Essentially, the "blue collar" jobs that require a worker to physically be here (and I do NOT mean manufacturing - since, as we all know, that is going, going, gone!).

Don't believe me? I read recently that in 2005, the average College grad made $51,206/yr (i.e., just under $25/hr.). Now, have you checked the bill from your mechanic lately and compared the hourly rate to what you make? I have seen hourly mechanic rates of $75/hour charged at automotive dealers for service, and I know plenty of people with College degrees that make no where near this amount. And, even if you were to take out over 50% for "shop charges" and "overhead" and so forth, I still know many College-degreed individuals that don't make even close to the remaining figure. The list of people I am comparing to includes quite a few PhD's that just constantly seem to find themselves "overqualified" for positions. I know people that mow lawns for a living or plow snow for a living that make a better hourly rate than people with Masters and PhD level educations. Is this wrong? Not necessarily,... it's just a sign of the times, as jobs that require the work be done HERE have some current demand imbalance that allows them to charge great rates.

How did this happen? We were always told to graduate...go on to College... get advanced degrees... etc. Well, the whole time our government is constantly in the media talking about how we need a better educational system, more people with advanced degrees, and so on... they are (helping Corporate America with) shipping all the jobs that require such degrees to overseas locations.

What is the incentive for ANYONE to get an advanced degree, unless they have some "in" with someone in government or will be one of the few remaining at the top (of the management hierarchy) exploiting those below by stripping the value of their College educations from them daily when they force their US labor force to compete with much cheaper foreign labor? In fact, why even get a College degree? Wages for College-grads are stagnating, to no surprise, for the reasons I'm discussing.

We even offer "retraining" programs for workers... why? Fact is, if retraining of displaced manufacturing workers was successful, we'd have more than enough skilled labor to fill all those Technology jobs our leaders are now pushing for foreigners to fill (there is a current push to yet again raise the 2008 cap on foreign IT workers via H-1B Visas).

Again, trust me, regardless of the talk coming out of the government with regards to advanced education and retraining workers, the only real government push that is going on is to help large multinational companies expedite the transition from a domestic (and "expensive") workforce to a foreign-sourced labor pool (mainly not residing here, as such local people are "expensive" relative to nearly the entire rest of the world's labor pool. Even H1's will become too expensive, unless they quickly erode the average pay-rate here considerably, but, more likely, they are just a transitional step towards overseas outsourcing quite frequently, which is why they are so desired now).

So, if this wage pressure on the middle-class wasn't enough, and you (the College grad or potential College grad) start thinking you should perhaps take up a profession in plumbing, construction and remodeling, housekeeping, lawn care, automotive repair, or any of a multitude of decent jobs that seem like they'll be "safe" from this globalization push, guess what? Next, you'll face the fact that even those good local jobs that require local talent are under attack by our government, as they push for open borders and allow a flood of (mostly illegal) immigration further put pressure on the labor market in an effort to suppress wage-growth and fill the Corporate coffers.

I can't help thinking how dismal the future for the American worker looks if we don't, as a Country, start doing something to stem the flow of decent paying middle-class jobs out of here. I'm not advocating outright protectionism, but we really need to start making companies that outsource their workers and/or their pollution/environmental-damage, pay some type of tax to level the playing field for the US workers and the companies here that truly care about the long-term health of this country.

One massive problem with the whole overseas outsourcing thing is how the average small business can not achieve the economies of scale to outsource like their larger competitors. This all but ensures that few startups will ever be able to compete long-term against those firms that can - in fact, they'll be lucky to gain a foothold at all, since most any product or service (unique, patented, or not) can be copied (illegally in many cases) and brought in to the US within months of going on the market.

This isn't competition. Either is "dumping", and it's rampant -- I often see products from China at stores where the retail price is less than the cost of the raw materials (not even counting labor). This is all part of the systematic destruction of the American Dream and middle class. Something has to change. And, I am looking forward to anyone (with any power) to stand up and slow this bleeding of American jobs, though I have little hope anyone will be able to take on the entrenched establishment in Washington and actually "win". So, you best start figuring out how YOU are going to ensure some sort of unique value proposition in your own job situation, lest you be next on the "sorry, your job has been outsourced" list.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

eBayDesktop Adobe Air Review

Adobe AIR - Rich Internet (cross platform) Applications?
Perhaps you are not yet familiar with the new Adobe AIR technology (if you are... skip forward to the Ebay/Adobe-Air section), so I'll try to give you a quick explanation of what it is, and how eBay is using (or is trying to use) this software for an enhanced interface to its auction site. Basically the concept behind Adobe AIR is to allow for a "richer" Internet experience for applications, much like you see with Adobe / Macromedia Flash type graphics, but with more real functionality that you'd expect from true software "applications" (as compared to just web sites).

First of all, Adobe is not the only player in the RIA (Rich Internet Application) domain, as their are many competing technologies that can deliver robust applications that happen to use the Internet - this includes Java, JavaScript (and AJAX type stuff), and even traditional Windows 32 executables (yes, you can EASILY write a Windows application that interacts with remote databases over the web, etc - I've been doing it for 10 years or more now).

The end goal of all these techniques is to provide users with the functionality they have come to expect from desktop applications (whether that means Microsoft Windows based apps, or Apple OS-X apps, or Linux Gnome / KDE - or GTK / QT respectively - apps). Fact is, these are all just nifty graphical layers and widgets that allow for a rich user experiences, and they all be used to interact over the Internet, though the "holy grail" of cross-platform identical experience is an elusive one (and will exclude Windows executables by default, and will generally exclude other technologies for one reason or another too - though, Java can certainly deliver an almost identical experience for the same application interface on multiple platforms).

Ebay and Adobe AIR
Well, either way... on to the eBay (attempt at a) user-interface that is implemented with the Adobe AIR product. Bottom line: IT SUCKS! OK, it has *potential*, but it is so darn buggy I quit using it within 20 minutes, uinstalled the Adobe AIR runtime, and went back to eBay's standard web-browser interface, which works MUCH more consistently. I couldn't find any way to search completed items at all with the AIR-based product either - and that annoyed me. But, functionality aside,...

First of all, the eBay user interface is strange, with drop-down menus that overlap with areas of the GUI, and remain there until you close them manually. That's bad enough, but I kept experiencing random menu-opens when I did nothing to prompt them. Then, buttons just stopped working... the software application (eBayDesktop.air) got into a state where I could not go "back" to the equivalent of my "My eBay" page / home page. Search buttons quit responding... and finally, the application eventually just plain hung and required Windows Task-Manager to KILL IT! (even that took repeated attempts). And, keep in mind, I was only using this thing for a few minutes.

Next, the UI (User Interface) just seemed sluggish and slow. I'm running rather modern hardware, and it just seemed dogged out. When I write custom Windows32 executables that interact over TCP/IP (via the Internet) to remote databases, etc, many users would never guess it's a "web based" application they are using, since it looks and performs identical to their normal Windows desktop applications. That certainly can not be said of this eBay Desktop implemented with AIR. Sure, the UI is "pretty" at first glance, but also pretty confusing. Non-standard look/feel everywhere. I think the graphics-artists tried a bit too hard at smoothing every corner on the screen -- equal attention should have been paid to smoothing out bugs!

What concerns me about the Adobe AIR technology is not its goal or merits -- it has potential -- but rather, I am worried that if one of their premier launch technology show-off applications (i.e., eBay Desktop) is this buggy, how is any smaller player ever going to create an AIR application that works and works consistently? I can't stake my business on a user interface that just hangs, or has inconsistent event-responses, and worse yet, requires the user to manually kill the process to exit the application (and restart in HOPES it was just a temporary problem).

I have a feeling the Adobe AIR technology is going to require some additional baking, and even more, the software developers that are to build applications with this technology are going to require some serious, real-world application code samples, best-practice code blocks / templates / quick-starts, etc., if they are ever going to make this work on a large scale. If history serves as an example, it will take a fairly long time for good, solid techniques to become common place. Sure, books will be available touting "best practices" and such soon, but no matter how many "advanced" or "expert" monikers are plastered all over those books, they ultimately tend to be just reprints of the (free) online help-manuals with a bit of fluff tossed around them.

RARELY does anyone (instruction book authors) dive into creating serious business applications -- they nearly always focus on fluff, games, child-like applications (especially when we're talking about something related to Flash here). So, Adobe (and eBay), if you want this technology to go anywhere, you best get to work on polishing your applications, and then releasing the source-code for how a "real" (business) application works, and some great building-blocks/templates for doing so. Perhaps then I'll consider this a real "rich internet application" technology. For now, I'd rather develop a custom Windows application using Borland Delphi (i.e., CodeGear Delphi) that can run on 90+% of the computers out there, and deliver stellar performance and a rich user-interface, whether for Internet applications or otherwise.

Advertising Simulations / Dramatizations

Am I the only one that thinks all these television advertisements featuring simulations and dramatizations (instead of REALITY) are a bit messed up? It really just tells me that the products being marketed do no really do what the maker claims.

Here's a prime example: teeth whitening strips. We've all seen the ads where some cute model puts these strips on their teeth and miraculously 7 days later their teeth could glow in the dark (with an *Asterisk beside the picture showing the "results" saying "simulated" or "dramatized", etc.). Or, how about laundry detergent where, after an hour, a very dirty garment comes out sparkling clean (once again, with a footnote stating how the results were simulated). Why?

This instantly turns me off, and will keep me from EVER buying the maker's product. Fact is, when you have these very short-term (anything a month or less) cause-effect type sales pitches, then if your product REALLY does what it claims, it would not be very much trouble to actually have your models show REAL before/after pictures (be it teeth whitening, laundry detergent, facial creams promising wrinkle removal, etc. etc.).

If ANY of these products really did what they claimed, wouldn't you (the manufacturer) absolutely want to show "proof" of that? Yes, of course you would. Which is exactly why I am convinced all these products (that can't replace their "simulations" with real time-lapse) are pure junk and a waste of money. If there is a teeth-whitening strip out there that works, I dare a manufacturer to recruit a series of people from the public, have them use their product for a week, and show real before/after pictures (without touchup, without OTHER laser-whitening, etc. being used). I'd take that as proof, and try the product. But, I can nearly guarantee I'll NEVER see such an ad.

I am so sick of marketing bull*#$@ in this country! Marketers and advertisers have become so bad that they can essentially run an advertisement saying "this product is absolutely free", and then subtext (in VERY small print) that, in fact, the product actually will cost you some very real money. It's insane. Why would anyone believe anything like this? It seems to work, but I think it all despicable. If you make a product, then you best be straight about what that product is, how much it costs, and how effective it is. No more of this subtexting, fake (oh, I mean "simulated" or "dramatized") visual proof, and other weasel-like ways of dodging the truth!

I can't help thinking that things will never change though, because people continually purchase products based on false promises and simulated results. Even after they purchase a product marketed under these conditions and are disappointed, they continue to still hope the next dramatized product outcome will be what they too experience. Until people demand something more forthright from companies, this will persist. So, here I sit watching the TV every day completely and utterly annoyed by 90+% of all advertisements (since, at least that percentage are pure junk!).

And, before I forget,... on a related topic: how about those ridiculous trademarked phrases in ads? One that recently just about made me scream was the Dannon Activia yogurt ad that has a "Clinically Proven" sign up in a corner of the screen, which if you look closely, you will see a little "TM" beside it. How in the heck do you get away with trademarking the phrase "clinically proven" for god sakes? I have a feeling if *I* wanted to do so, I'd be denied, but if I have a large enough budget, some good lawyers, and perhaps a lobbyist or two, such a thing would be easy these days. It's all just insane!