Monday, December 12, 2011

UPS/USPS "Coopetition"?

I've noticed this three times in the last two weeks: something I've ordered online was shipped from the seller with a UPS shipper number. Then, as the item arrived within the UPS system to my local hub area, it was "transferred" and delivered by USPS, the Postal Service.

I think this is a FANTASTIC idea. I'd like to shake the hand of the person that came up with it.

Think of it: UPS has the worldwide infrastructure to efficiently move large amounts of bulk cargo all over the place. But, their Achilles Hell is the lack of a widespread infrastructure at the end delivery point, especially to homes (which is why they charge more for single-box deliveries to homes versus bulk to commercial locations). By the same token, the Postal Service has the kick-ass infrastructure for delivery of small bulk to individual homes/locations (and, I believe it's mandated by law?) yet their Achilles Hell is the lack of a solid infrastructure for transfer of bulk cargo world/nationwide (and, in fact, is what they're talking about reductions in that to save money).

Is there a more-perfect match?

So I'm guessing someone at UPS decided to leverage that local infrastructure in a brilliant manner, and that was to let USPS' delivery system handle the end point. They'd use their worldwide cargo infrastructure to get it into the area, then hand off USPS. F*****g brilliant.

Now, here's the key question, for both USPS future and for us: is USPS smart enough to adjust their business model to leverage long-haul delivery the OTHER way, by handing off their bulk cargo transfer back to full-private companies like UPS, FedEx, etc? Are they willing to use their competitive advantage for the stuff they do well and let "the other guys" handle the longer stuff, or are they going to continue with a failing business model into oblivion?

I really, really, REALLY hope someone high up at USPS buys something from Amazon, gets a tracking number, and sees what's going as that package heads to his house and is handed to him by a fellow employee...

Brilliant. Clever. Excellent thinking, UPS.

GA

Thursday, September 8, 2011

9/11

Ten years. Seems like forever.

There are literally billions of stories out there about "where were you?"; we each have one. And these stories are important to us, but rarely interesting to others, yet we all feel compelled to share them with others. Here's mine.

I recently watched a NatGeo story about George W. Bush's story and found it compelling; I simply can't imagine having been in his position of responsibility on that day. But he said something that struck me interesting: paraphrased, he said that 'some day 9/11 will be a date on the calendar, like Pearl Harbor, but for us today that lived though it there's our memories of that day'.

On Tuesday September 11, 2001 I was in Albany NY on business as an IT consultant. I was working with a state government agency in downtown Albany, having flown myself there in my Grumman Tiger the prior day. I was supposed to be there all week but for whatever reason - I don't recall the details - there was a problem with the contract when I arrived on Monday; either the statement of work was wrong, or the expectations from my company and/or the customer didn't agree. We had discussions that morning to arrive at an agreement, but by early afternoon I was asked to go home so they could work out the contractual details and I would come back at a later date.

I recall Monday's weather was "going down" that afternoon as a big cold front worked its way across the area eastbound; even though it was only a 1-hour flight, had I flown home that day I would have been fighting some significant weather. I figured that if I stayed overnight the approaching cold front would push through later that night the weather the next day would be gorgeous. Since I'd already had a hotel reserved for the week (the Albany airport Marriott) I decided to stay the night and make an easy 1-hour flight home on Tuesday morning.

As you know, Tuesday September 11th turned out to be an absolutely beautiful day. The weather was one of those crystal-clear, blue-sky, dry New England Fall days. From my second-floor hotel room overlooking the airport it appeared you could see forever. It was going to be an easy, enjoyable flight, and I was really looking forward to it; I'd even planned to take "the scenic route" home through the New York City VFR corridor, then along the south side of Long Island and back north to Connecticut.

As I finished my morning shower and began to collect my belongings to check out of the hotel I had the TV news on; a breaking report came in about a light airplane flying into the World Trade Center, which of course caught my attention. The first thing that came to mind was that an airplane flying along that New York VFR corridor had veered off-course (you're supposed to stay within the banks for the Hudson River). I was shocked; after all, the weather was absolutely crystal clear and you have to fly way way off course to hit that building; maybe a pilot had a heart attack? It's not like it was hard to see those buildings or anything. But then I looked at the video feed on TV and saw the huge scar with the smoke pouring out of it and immediately realized that there was just no way that a light airplane could do that kind of damage; I mean, at worst a light airplane would break a few windows and leave an aluminum-colored splotch. So I knew that was something much bigger, but I did not in any way assume foul play. Did a commercial airliner flying into LaGuardia airport have some kind of mechanical failure...?

Soon after, as I watched, the second airplane struck the other tower - I was engrossed with the TV coverage and saw it happen in real-time - and it was obvious this was intentional. Intentional? Someone intentionally flew two airliners into skyscrapers??? Are you freakin' kidding me??? I knew we were under attack by someone...for some reason. Were there more...?

I wasn't quite sure what to do but I figured the airport would be shut down for at least the day (I had no idea of the scope); I mean, I didn't have any commitments for the day so at worst I'd pay for a hotel room so I could watch the TV and see what was going on. I called down to the hotel lobby and re-extended my room reservations for a couple days then, like so many other people in this country, I sat down in front of the TV and began to digest the information being presented to us, trying to understand what and why.

I watched the events unfold, stunned as to what was happening. I remember feeling a sense of fear and helplessness, that there was a sequence of events already set in place that we could not change. As I scanned the airport and skies outside my hotel window I felt these fight-or-flight instincts -- after all, where was the next one going to hit? -- and yet all we could do was watch...and wait. I wondered where it would lead to, and how we could stop it, knowing we couldn't. And yet events continued to happen, from the Pentagon attack, to the collapse of the twin towers, to the (unfathomable) complete shutting down of the country's airspace (the FAA did an awesome job with that), to (false) reports of bombs going off in DC, to reports of an airliner crash in Pennsylvania (did the terrorists screw up? Did our fighters shoot down another attack...?)

What in the hell was going on here?

My wife, Thea, was at work that morning and I tried to call her (after all, she knew I was supposed to be in a New York State government building in New York's state capitol). Neither regular telephone nor cellphone service was working dependably (systems were overloaded) and all I had was the hotel's Internet connection. My first email to her, at 10:42 AM right after I had fully digested that both towers had fallen (which meant that, in my mind, tens of thousands had just died) was with a simple subject of "Me":

I'm obviously staying out. FAA has canceled all flights in the country.


I don't know if you're watching TV, but you should be. History is in the making, and there are continuing developments. I would encourage you to go home.


This is a well-planned attack perfectly matched for the TV news.

  • Both World Trade Center towers have collapsed to the ground. The loss of life will show to be absolutely incredible.
  • There's been one maybe two planes attacking the Pentagon. It's on fire and a large part has collapsed.
  • There's been a car bomb attack on the State Dept. Damage unknown.
  • There's a fire on the Washington Mall. Reasons and damage unknown.

This attack will show to have far exceeded the damage and loss of life of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Its effect on aviation freedom may be nearly fatal.


We're at war. With whom and what we're going to do about it is the big question.
I also sent an email to my immediate co-workers, as I saw a few were trying to contact me and getting voice mail. I replied to them:

I am safe in a Marriott in Albany, riveted to the TV. Please pass the word on to those concerned.


Given that FAA has stopped all airport departures, and that military jets are taking command of the skies, I'm going to stay put until we get this settled. Obviously, telephone and cellphone circuits are all crammed up, and my service is spotty at best. The high-speed internet access is working great, and I'm checking email consistently.


I'm at the Albany Marriott, room 663. Call me on the landline if required, but only if absolutely necessary. Please keep the phone calls to a minimum, and use email when possible as an alternative. I'd like you to do this for two reasons: one, let's not tie up the communications infrastructure across the country, as there folks out there that really need it especially here in the northeast; two, when you call and leave a voice message, I cannot call into my cellphone system to retrieve it.
It was not too long after this, after watching a couple hours of this coverage and after all the immediate events had happened, that I just started to get really pissed off. Thea sent a reply:

Thanks. Please use this e-mail for now. I got an e-mail from Bob [a friend that works for the FAA] at 8 a.m., minutes before all this shit happened. I forwarded him this message though I bet he's in a tizzy.


People at QU are in shock, trying to find out if friends or family work in the the WTC. They have a counseling center set up in the student center. We have TVs in the PR room here, and I can't stand to watch it. I can barely do my work.


Write back if you can.

I'm sure there will no longer be free access to the Hudson corridor route.
...and those frustrations were beginning to show in my reply to her:

Just relax, it's got us all rattled. This is not the first time this country has been through something like this, and it won't be the last. Humans are resilient, and we will overcome as we always do.


This is a perfect example of how trying to "feel safe" or "good" about something is irrelevant. At least four terrorists got past our airport "security" checks that I always complain about. I've always said these checkpoints did more to make people "feel good" than to be effective. These checkpoints gave us a false sense of security. This false sense made us complacent and resulted in the ability of these terrorists to attack us.


Never before has there been an act of aviation terrorism in this country, certainly not to this degree. Sadly, the American people will not see these failures for what they are, and will attempt to further restrict our freedoms in the Quixotic pursuit of safety. Risk is the price of freedom, and we will continue to give up our freedoms trying to pursue a risk-free society. We can't win that game.


These cowards that have attacked our country are dead, and their organization will most assuredly be rounded up and punished. However they will win: they will have made this country turn on itself and close its doors to freedoms and liberties in that pointless pursuit.


Remember my Benjamin Franklin quote when we got stopped at the DUI checkpoint? "Those that give up their liberty in the pursuit of safety deserve neither liberty nor safety?" You will find this to be very much the case at least in the short term.


Sorry for the rant, but I'm really pissed off.
By that time the events had evened out and nothing else traumatic was happening, and it became obvious that we were now in rescue/recovery mode of potentially thousands of  people. This allowed me to become even more frustrated -- and even more mad.

I began to walk. I left the hotel room and just walked a random direction. I probably walked about  mile, then turned around, walked past the hotel for another mile, then walked back again. I tried to think through what we'd just seen, why something like that would happen, how it could happen. I imagined the terror of the people in back of the airplanes, seeing skyscrapers flying by at window level, wondering if they really understood what was happening, hoping to God they didn't. Mercifully, they could not see out of the front of the airplane so they had no idea when it - whatever "it" was - would happen, just...end of data.

Then I thought about all the people in those buildings, people that saw the airplane coming and not understanding what was happening, and those that just felt the blows and didn't know what was going on. I thought about those later on who were in so much pain and fear that they chose the certain death of leaping from the building versus the nearly-impossible - but not zero - chance of life after fire. How much pain must one be going through to make that choice?

And did anyone actually think the buildings were going to fall? I didn't. I know I would have been one of those guys above the impact level that would have gone up and sat there on the roof waiting for aerial rescue. And I would have died. And what of the rescuers? I can't imagine any of them truly believing deep in their hearts that the structure of the buildings was at risk, but displayed a courage beyond comprehension simply to voluntarily climb that building to lead perfect strangers to safety. And their reward was death.

All of this was beyond my comprehension as I walked. I remain stunned to this day that human beings can be capable of knowingly creating such pain and suffering.

Back at the hotel I stood at the window and thought some more. My window overlooked the approach of the north-south runway of the Albany airport and the airport was eerily silent; whereas the prior evening I had sat there with a beer and my feet up on the window ledge watching commercial traffic flowing in and out, that day the quiet was only disturbed by a rare flight-of-two fighters (A-10 Warthogs and F-16 Falcons, IIRC), probably there to get a fillup. The remainder of the day was spent riveted to the TV and exchanging emails with family, friends, co-workers. Thea was worried trying to get in touch with one of her cousins who was a United Airlines flight attendant (she wasn't on duty). I tried to volunteer my services/airplane for use (no one responded, there just wasn't anything I could do).

All of us felt the need to do something, yet all were frustrated that we couldn't. So we spent the rest of the day watching the TV waiting for good news, getting none, and eventually falling asleep to the tube, while a large part of New York City (and Washington DC) dug through the rubble, looking for survivors...

The world was completely changed when we woke up that following morning, Wednesday the 12th. The country was still in stasis, with probably all of us still watching TV, hoping for even the tiniest of good news. The FAA gave no indication that they were going to open up the airspace any time soon; a group of my co-workers were stuck in the Atlanta airport trying to get home to the northeast. I knew I needed to get home as well so I checked out of the hotel and went to the Albany airport; my plan was to simply sit in the airport (in front of the TV) and wait for the airspace to open up again. As I wrote to my manager:

My goal [today] is to try and get home. The FAA is not releasing information as to when they'll allow civilian traffic, and they are sticking to their "noon at the earliest" mantra. So, I'm going to check out from the Marriott this morning and go to the FBO [Fixed Base Operator] and wait.


If they allow air traffic this afternoon, I will fly home and be available at the home office. If, however, it appears there will be another day's delay, I plan to call Hertz and rent a one-way car to drive home. If, at worst, the skies neither open up nor are there car rentals available, then I will try to get back into the Marriott for another day. I should be available by cellphone all day, except when I'm in the air.


I understand you're still in Atlanta? I don't know what to recommend, short of renting a car and driving home. The ride from there to the northeast is a real nice relaxing drive, but you may have to drive all the way up to Newburgh or even the Mass Pike to get around New York if the Tappan Zee is closed (I don't know if it is.)


Regardless, our inconvenience is far overshadowed by the events unfolding.

By noon the airspace had still not opened up so rented a car and drove back to CT. I dropped off the rental car at the Bridgeport CT airport (where my airplane was based, and where my personal car was parked) and drove home. As did you, I spent the next few days trying to get back to "normal" as best I could. We tried to go about our daily business while we watched the news for more information, all trying to make sense of what happened. We all slowly went back to the real world, and I worked on preparing for my next work engagements.

The FAA opened up the airspace system to civilian traffic on Thursday, but with significant restrictions. All air traffic had to fly under IFR ("Instrument Flight Rules"), with a flight plan, with transponder squawk, and maintain constant contact with ATC (you'd no doubt get a visit from an F-16 if you had radio troubles). There were temporary "no fly zones" around New York and DC (the latter, later to be made permanent) and of course the VFR corridor through New York, which went right by "Ground Zero" was closed. No VFR ("Visual Flight Rules") traffic was allowed. I waited until the weekend for things to settle in, and on Sunday the 16th a friend and I took a quick IFR flight to the Albany airport to retrieve my airplane. Here's what I wrote when I got home:

A quick note about Dave Feinstein's and my flight today. Dave gave me a ride in his two-seater to Albany to pick up my Tiger, stranded there Tuesday as the result of a poorly-timed business trip.


It was certainly an absolutely gorgeous day to fly, as Dave put it "a shame to be flying IFR on a day like this." We departed eastbound out of BDR then were vectored northbound to join the Victor airway. I think we both did it at the same time, turned and looked westbound. It was a beautiful clear day, one of those ones where you can see the City immediately after clearing the tree line, with the skyline being only 40 miles away. There was a slight haze in the sky, but we could easily catch it.


I didn't say anything at first, as I was initially puzzled. Despite the fact that you'd have to be living under a rock to not know what happened this week, New York City looked odd. Before Tuesday I could have picked out that skyline from a 40-mile lineup any time; this time I wasn't sure what I was looking at. I glanced a bit to the left and the right looking for the usual landmarks, finally realizing that this was it, this was New York City. Dave said it first: you really notice the absence of the twin towers.


There was no visible smoke, no fire. There was nothing from 40 miles away to give up the horror this country experienced or the anger we all must feel every time we think about it. There was only...a city. "What city was it" required local knowledge of geography and a compass rather than a quick glance. The most prominent and easily recognizable remaining landmark in the skyline from 40 miles away is, fittingly, the Empire State Building, re-crowned with the jewel status it once held, back in a time before I was probably in kindergarten.


As for the IFR flight, it was a non-event, no trouble getting clearance, and no noticeable tracking by our Boys in Blue. Had you emerged from that proverbial rock today and filed IFR you would have noticed nothing untoward, other than your airport being eerily quiet. The radio chatter and traffic level was not unlike a typical IMC ["Instrument Meterological Conditions", i.e., cloudy/rainy weather] day, and to me appeared to be very much like an IFR flight with a blue up/green down windscreen instead of all white. Of course, getting cleared to land straight-in to Albany from 10 miles out was kinda weird, but whatever...


I'll not allow the current environment to keep me from using the Tiger as I need to, as it seems to be working fine for the IFR-capable crowd. However, I will certainly prioritize my trips (no more $100 hamburgers and an hour of pattern work for a short while.)


Keep in touch, and pay your AOPA dues...
It was more than a week before light airplanes were again allowed to fly VFR. Yet even the Hudson River VFR corridor re-opened once all the major rescue work was complete (much to my amazement).

And that was my week. Life, as expected, went on, the remainder of us wondering what, how, why. Thea and I even flew ourselves later in the month to Ohio and Indianapolis to visit friends and for the United States Formula One race (which was threatened to be cancelled, but wasn't). The US airspace - and the VFR corridor - was eventually re-opened back to normal (though there's a big chunk of "do not fly" airspace over DC.)

Coda: I happened to be in NYC on another consulting engagement that following March when they switch on the "Tribute in Light". I wasn't aware of it in advance, but coincidentally had ventured over to Ground Zero to be nosy. I found and browsed the area by a Roman Catholic church where the cards, letter, flowers, and "Missing' posters were, and the whole thing really unnerved me. We all have our different ways to grieve; mine is to "never forget" but try. We'll see. History tells us what our country - and the rest of the world - did in the intervening decade to "address" the events of that day.

Ten years later we still wonder, but as has been said, "Time heals all wounds". I think "heal" is an inappropriate word in this case, but as President Bush said, some day it'll just be a date on the calendar.

And I think that's a good thing.

GA

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Cleaning Out Old Bookmarks

If you've been around on the "Interwebz" as long as I have (from the beginning...hell, I was on CompuServ in the early 80's) then you no doubt have a large collection of bookmarked pages that you've been carrying forward over the years. You probably saved them from prior computers, and you definitely kept them as you upgraded to later versions of Internet Explorer. And, if you switched to Firefox like I did, probably the first thing you did after installing it was accept the "yes" when it asked you if you wanted to transfer over those bookmarks. And those bookmarks are probably all organized in separate folders under separate topics, all ready for you just "in case" you ever needed them again.

But have you ever really needed them again? Go back and take a look at some of those bookmarks; do you even remember them? I'd wager a good quarter of them may not even be valid any more (do a search in there for GeoCities...) and when it comes right down to it, when you're looking for something on the Inerwebz I'm betting that instead of looking for old bookmarks the first thing you actually do is Google (or Bing, or wherever) the topic.

So - just maybe - it's time to make the break from those old saved bookmarks and "clean out the attic" of stuff you'll not ever use.

First and foremost, at least clean out the bookmarks that are no longer valid. There are plenty of free tools (search add-ins for Firefox) for you to download that will go through your bookmarks and give you a list of ones that just don't work any more. You can take that list and Google each one to see if it got moved to another domain, and/or maybe you can just post that link into the Internet Wayback Machine to get a neat sense of nostalgia. but once you've let that wave of nostalgia go past...delete that bookmark. Let it go, it's doing you no value. It's dead, Jim; let it go...

Second, you can simply browse through your lists and delete the ones that you bookmarked "just in case" but no longer need. That "How to make a Christmas Wreath with leftover rifle parts" may have been useful at the time, but not so any more, is it? (I made that up, but I'm willing to bank a beer that the site exists...) Just delete it.

Third,  just look at the title of a link; does it make sense? Does it still sound interesting to you? If not, don't even select it, delete it. Do you even remember what it was about? No? Then just delete it.

Finally, avoid saving all those bookmarks in separate folders at all. Many/most of the ones I feel the need to save are temporary, things I want to use short-term. So, what I do is save them all on the main drop-down, so that the list becomes long and those old bookmarks eventually become annoying; at some point I no longer need them and off they go...

Yes, bookmarks take up almost no space on your computer, and yes, they don't affect performance. But what they do do is clutter up your life by actually crowding out the useful info; wheat from the chaff, and all that. Some links you just can't seem to let go, others just don't matter. Try deleting a bunch; once I cleaned out mine I think I actually felt a small sense of accomplishment... - GA

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Nürburgring Trip - Part One

Did reading Nürburgring just make you shiver? Yep, me too! I spent several days at this racetrack and thought you might find my musings interesting, maybe interesting enough so you make that jump, too (while you still can; more later). And you want to, trust me. If you’ve ever thought or even just fantasized about driving the Nürburgring,this story is for you...

http://goaheadtakethewheel.com/nurburgring/

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Is It time for a Significant Fuel Tax...?

In January 2009, Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson gave a speech that, among other things, supported the idea of a carbon tax.  Has Rex suddenly "gotten religion" on this whole Anthropomorphic Global Warming? Hardly. Rex is a businessman, and he sees the train's headlights coming at him through the tunnel; he's just figured out that this is the lesser of the inevitable evils.

President Obama, at a town hall meeting, said that "...[gas prices are] going to still fluctuate until we can start making these broader changes [toward renewable energy], and that's going to take a couple of years to have serious effect...If you're complaining about the price of gas and you're only getting 8 miles a gallon, you know, you might want to think about a trade-in."


I also remember a Thomas Friedman op-ed piece some time in late ‘08, where good ole Tom was promoting the idea of a gasoline tax, something to keep the price of fuel at or above a specific price (can't find that article now; if you know where it is please post a link). Anyway, Tom was his consistent "we know better than you do" (and his typical flip-flopping between bad and terrible logic didn’t improve) but I recall he had a few good points in there, despite the incorrect-predictions-ness.

What does Rex, Obama and Tom know that we don't? Nothing.


In early 2009 I took a trip to Germany (and another one just this past month). As I wrote in my drivel on that trip, the types of cars that they drive "over there" are significantly different from ours here in the States. Their vehicles are usually diesel, in general significantly smaller, and are well-suited to a more-urban, more-local type of driving. On the other hand, it was common to see many of those small cars on the Autobahn, safely doing speeds of 80-90 mph. I liked a lot of those cars, and lamented that we could not get them here in the USA, presumably because the manufacturers think we don't want them. And, they’re probably right; the reason we probably don't want them is because we don't need them: gasoline is still relatively inexpensive here, whereas in Germany it’s almost twice ours at ~$8 per gallon. And why is that? It's not because oil and/or gasoline is more expensive there; we all buy the same stuff. It's more expensive because of the taxes tacked on by the various European governments

A couple of other things I noticed: there were many electricity-generating windmills in Germany. All over the place. I'm not talking small ones, either; I'm talking windmills with each blade the size of a tractor-trailer. And I'm talking "flocks" of a few dozen windmills each, with these "flocks" being seen every 10km or so. I don't think you can drive down the wide-open Autobahn on a clear day and not see windmills somewhere on the horizon (if not right over your head at a rest stop). The other noticeable thing is the number of homes with solar panels on them: if there was open southerly sky, the house had a PV or hot-water panel on it (in full disclosure, some of you may be aware, I installed a PV system on my house two January ago). All the money for this stuff had to come from somewhere, and I'll bet a dollar to a donut it came from the people, via subsidies from the German government (half of the money for my own PV system came via subsidies from the Feds and the State of Connecticut...)

Finally, let's consider what happened three summers ago, in 2008. For various reason (speculation, geopolitics, whatever), the price of oil shot up to nearly $150 per bbl, and retail gasoline shot up to well over $4/gallon. Americans did something (somewhat) surprising: we cut back on our use of gasoline. Yes, Americans actually did think about their personal use of the automobile, gave consideration to the type of vehicles they were driving and/or buying and how they were using them, and actually made thoughtful choices to improve their own positions in the whole cycle of petroleum usage. For the first time in a looooong, time, we actually used LESS fuel than we had in the same period the year before. We began to notice a reduction in the number of larger vehicles on the road and car dealers immediately noticed a change in the mix of the types of vehicles people were buying. The auto manufacturers that were prepared (smaller imports) won; those that relied on sales of large vehicles (hello, Detroit!) lost.

The petroleum market responded to this reduction in demand with a commensurate lowering in price. Unfortunately, speculation had so over-driven the prices of these commodities that the (unsurprising) crash was intense: by January 2009 the prices for oil and gasoline were roughly 1/3 the prices they were only ~6 months prior; hell we had retail gasoline back to $1.65 per gallon! As a result, basic macro-economics won again and we started to change our ways back to pre-2008, dusting off the SUVs and quickly forgetting the Summer of 2008.

In a March 2011 Fortune article, "Where's the Demand For Electric Cars?" the author agrees with this observation, saying, "Up until now, this has been the cycle: high gas prices bring talk of fuel efficiency and alternative energy-fueled vehicles -- talk that dies down the minute gas prices drop. Detroit then returns to making the sorts of gas-guzzling vehicles it's been churning out for decades." "This time though," he writes, "carmakers say things are different. They're not just offering underpowered econoboxes for sale. For the first time ever, a slew of hybrid and electric vehicles are at the ready."

Want to know how to be sure that something will be the same again? Just listen for someone to say, "hey, this time it's different." Yee-ah. When price of oil drops again (and it will, we've got a lot of this stuff right now, and finding more and more) what do you think Americans are going to do? Yup, we'll go right back again to the old habits. We gotta change.

Am I suddenly, after a couple trips to Europe and a couple of recent market price swings, implying we should become a member of the EU? Hardly. I am, however, looking at what we learned over the last few years, adding to that the idea that the socioeconomic attitudes from the current White House Administration are waaaay different than the attitudes before, and recognizing that if we want to enjoy the things we currently enjoy, then we better get off our duffs and find a way to compromise. Contrary to the current President's thoughts, government isn’t the "only" way to do it, but proper application of government "nudging" of market forces (yes, we’ll call it social engineering) can certainly direct us towards a better way.

Let’s face some realities:
  • Oil may not be "available" forever, but I believe there’s a s**tpot full of it out there if we're willing to go for it. But we will never run completely out of oil, ever. There will always be at least one barrel of oil sitting in the basement of some Ferrari owner's house, waiting for him to use his chemistry set to refine it for a track day. But that one barrel of oil would probably be worth billions, so he won’t use it. Therefore, the limiting factor long-term will not be availability, it will be price.
  • As long as the price of oil is depressed, no oil company is going to risk capital on new exploration. I don't believe "peak oil" is here, I believe the limiting factor there is how much we as consumers are willing to pay for it, and that price then decides whether someone wants to go after it or not.
  • As the supply of oil and gas decreases due to lack of exploration, price will increase, and energy substitutes become more attractive. As demand decreases, the price will drop, and the economic viability of going to the ends of the Earth to drill for oil will wane.
  • "AGM" ain't going away: it's a religion. Despite the East Anglia “-gates”, saying "they'll get over this whole Global Warming thing" is like the Romans saying "they'll get over this whole Christianity thing." Didn't work for them, won't work for us. So, no matter how much data you toss at the masses, we gotta decide how we're going to deal with it. Best for us to decide than let someone else do it.
  • We kicked that economy-destroying Kyoto Protocol can down the street (let's disregard the fact that it ain't working in Europe, either), but it’s not gone. And then there’s the whole Cap-n-Trade thing, and the EPA has pretty much been given carte-blanche control of our entire petroleum-based economy with the power to limit CO2 as a pollutant. It’s a given that we will be forced by various resulting regulations to reduce carbon output.
So, it's coming, folks, let's get ready for it. What can we do about it?

A lot of reasonable people (myself included) believe that society's full costs of the use of petroleum (e.g., environmental costs, carbon dioxide, AGM, geopolitics) are not fully expressed by its price; economists call that a "negative externality". As such, since the cost of this externality is not covered by the price then it's actually under-priced and we will, as a result, over-consume. If accept this premise, then the only way to cover this externality is with a higher price through taxation, and the use that tax revenue to pay for those costs. Coupled to the idea that we really do want, long-term at least, to reduce demand and encourage development of substitute technologies, the answer seems clear: we need to increase the retail price of fuels.

Now, don't get me wrong: I'm as laissez-faire/free market as they come. I believe that the real reason the price of oil is low is because there’s plenty of it out there, Peak Oil Cassandras notwithstanding. But, as described above, I believe the price is not really reflecting the whole cost of the product to society (as recently illustrated in the Gulf). So the “answer” is for us as society to increase the price to the individuals that use the product and then distribute that money toward the costs; the most common way to do that is through taxes.

However, the biggest problem I have with a tax idea is that it requires money to go to a government; in the case of this study we're talking Washington, DC. Does anyone -- left or right -- believe that any taxation revenue from a significant fuel tax will be used to alleviate these external costs, or to subsidize development of fuel alternatives, or for projects even remotely related to the use of petroleum? Or do you think that money will go down a General Revenue hole to be used for whatever Congress decides? I’d suggest at least the last couple of years have proven that this money will be diverted to the latest "issue of the day", pork, and generally increased overall government spending. If you think otherwise, well, please pull your head out of...uuumm, the sand...

Alternatively, the current administration has decided that either CAFE increases and/or a massive carbon-trading program is the way to go. “Fale”. First, CAFE will do nothing to affect the millions of gas-sucking cars and trucks already on the road, and could very well increase their attractiveness to the driving public; second, the carbon chits scheme will end up being yet another massive government program rife with corruption and back door deals. In the end not much will change except our pocketbooks.

So what to do? One idea is to place a minimum price on the cost of fuel, with a 100% tax placed on marginal revenue for each gallon sold below that minimum price. For the sake of argument, let's set a minimum price on gasoline at $4/gallon at the retail level; retailers would never sell gasoline below $4 because all marginal revenue below $4 would be paid to Da Gubmint (i.e., if you sell your fuel for $3.75/gal then you would owe DC $0.25 on each gallon you sell). There may be some competitive pressures to sell gasoline at as a "loss leader" to encourage other purchases, but for the most part gasoline will sell for $4 minimum, "encouraging" people to change their habits to become more fuel efficient long-term. We could even index this floor to inflation annually.

The advantage to this idea is that all consumers - especially those with older, dirtier, less-efficient vehicles - would be faced with a minimum price of fuel, thus encouraging them to reduce their consumption and eventually make lower-consumption alternatives (e.g., hybrid, electric, etc) a lot more attractive. And that would send a demand signal to auto manufacturers to provide more-fuel efficient vehicles. Further, no additional money would go to any government to be mis-allocated; the marginal revenue would go to the retailer, his wholesaler, and eventually back to the oil companies, who would be encouraged to search for more oil to increase supply to increase that fat profit margin.

But, this doesn't cover all those external costs, does it? Unfortunately, the only entity with the power to collect and pay for those external costs is a government. Yet we really cannot trust a government to, long-term, use those additional funds for their expressed purpose. The government, however, still has the power to "social engineer" the situation via increased taxes on the oil companies or - even better - force them to “invest” that marginal revenue in certain “in-kind” alternative energy projects such as solar, windmills, and toward "rebates" for specific types of car purchases; we could "incentivize" that behavior by letting them write off those "investments" 100% against profit. And, structured correctly, it may eventually be profitable for oil companies to invest even more money in renewables, giving them increased diversification, and a clear direction in the future as we wean ourselves of oil.

So with this oddball idea we:
  • Address demand through higher prices, thus encouraging reduced use, which would;
  • Give incentive to auto manufacturers to provide more fuel-efficient automobiles (without massive subsidies), and;
  • Address increased supply through increased revenues to the oil companies, encouraging additional exploration to cover us while we;
  • Address further development of alternatives via subsidies to the oil companies, and;
  • Gradually further increase the price of oil products as the alternatives become more available at lowering prices, with the goal of:
  • Gradually moving toward alternate energy sources for transportation.
Most importantly, as we reduce the use of petroleum products as a transportation fuel through increased retail price, the costs of the myriad of products manufactured from petroleum would not be affected (and may even drop, given the increased margins from gasoline refinery sales). The oil we're no longer using for transportation can now be used for these products.

The whole macro-economics of the thing would be an interesting study.

Yeah, it's an oddball idea, and I ain’t got no steenkin’ details worked. But I am sure of one thing: if we’re going to tackle this issue long-term it must come from the demand side: we must find ways to encourage people to use less gasoline. The easiest way to do that is price. Doing so will have numerous positive results and can go a long way towards stopping other, more onerous possibilities from seeing the light of day…And, we gotta do something, or it will be done for us, and I'm certain we won’t like what “they” figure out...

GA

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Yeah, Money Can't Buy Happiness, But...

...it can certainly make life a lot less stressful and enjoyable. But how much of it is really required?

I got to thinking about this, given all the class-warfare-hand-wringing lately about the "rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer." Life's not only about money; after all, do you really think really rich people are "happier" than the rest of us? I don't think so. I believe the major difference in one's "happiness quotient" says more about one's ability to meet their basic needs. The problem - and the solution for those of us not "filthy rich" - is to avoid ratcheting up one's definition of "basic".

Boyle's Law says that a gas will expand to fill its container. And while our finances are certainly not subject to this physical law, we certainly act like they are. How many times after getting a new job, a fat raise, and/or a nice bonus have we gone out and splurged, bought a new car, a new house, or even a very expensive bottle of wine? Just like that expanding gas, we tend to expand our lives to fill the available financial container (and, recently, we've seen numerous cases of over-expansion well beyond that restriction...) Did all these people suddenly become happy as a result of spending that newly-available marginal income on something new? I doubt it, certainly not long-term, no more so that the number of lives that have been ultimately destroyed by winning the lottery. If "money buys happiness" then all these folks should have ended up pretty damn happy...but that's rarely the case.

But what money can buy is lowering the stress of dealing with "the basics". Everyone starts with a minimum-sized container, consisting of good health, nutritional food, clean water, adequate shelter, clothing, etc. That minimal container is the same for any human, changing only to address local environmental conditions. Money can - and does - buy those things (witness many poor countries that cannot, or do not, ensure their citizens meet those basics). Yes, in that case money would buy that level of "happiness."

But, there are basic human needs that cannot be truly purchased that lead to happiness. We are social animals and need interaction among ourselves; we need family and friends for support, other people to interact with. We also desire mental challenges and a spiritual desire to feel like we're part of this society. While money can buy proxies for these - or something that appears to be these - money truly cannot purchase them. Each of these becomes part of that basic container size.

But after that, does having a larger container - more money - buy us "happiness"? It certainly buys leisure - after all, once we over-produced what we needed we were able to stop chasing our food on the Serengti every day. Money certainly buys "security", what I would define as that buffer zone over and above the basics - hey, maybe have enough food so that we can skip hunting today. But the more and more buffer I create for myself, am I necessarily "happier"? Up to a certain point we'd like to increase that buffer, but there's diminishing returns. More likely than not, as with the new raise or winning the lottery, we simply increase the size of our personal containers and try to expand to fill it, in the Sysiphian quest for "happiness". Had we taken than new bounty and applied it to our existing container, and using the rest as a buffer, I have no doubt we'd have been a lot happier...

I suspect that the key to "happiniess" is less about how "rich" we are, and more about how we manage the size of our own containers. Trying to "keep up with the Jones" is a quick trip to failure, as that means we're not recognizing our financial limitations and staying within them. My wife and I are extremely fortunate in that we're both healthy, both well employed, have friends and family, and have financial appetites that are within our capabilities. Are we "filthy" rich? Hardly. But, I think we're happy! There are times when I try to expand our container a bit (especially through my hobbies) but I consider myself disciplined enough to note when I'm tickling the edge and then back off.

I've often thought about what I would do if I were to hit the lottery (assuming I played). I've given the same types of thoughts to career choices, wondering about how my quality of life would change were I to have a job with a significantly higher salary. In both cases it's tempting to think about buying a new car, or moving to a bigger house, or moving entirely to a location with better weather and fewer taxes. But in the end, while my container is not particularly huge, it's still pretty good; good enough for me, anyway.

GA



Inspired by NPR Planet Money podcast, "Money Buys Happiness".

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

On the movie "Senna"...

Go see it.

Whether you're a fan or not, you'll enjoy it (and if you're not a fan now, you will be). I walked out of that movie speechless with a big lump in my throat; all I could say to those that went with me was, "I need a beer". Hair up on the neck during the Brazil GP win, heart pounding when they splashed "Imola 1994" on the screen, head in hands when "it" happened.

Go see it.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

DVD Collections

Remember the "video store"? You should, it's not been that long since you had two or three just around the corner. The VHS revolution started out as a simple time-shifting device along with replacing your 16mm camera for family stuff, then companies figured out you'd love stopping by on the way home from work to grab a VHS movie for watching that night. Didn't take too long for DVDs to supplant VHS tapes; probably the only reason you have a VHS player in your house right now is to transfer family stuff from VHS to DVD.

Well, paradigms are a shiftin' again.

Home "media centers" (or whatever the current marketing term is) are quickly replacing DVDs; I put together a system using a Western Digital Live Plus that combines access to a hard drive and to NetFlix. To get rid of all those DVDs on the shelf in the family room I "ripped" all the DVDs to that hard drive and now watch them through the WDTV device (I keep the physical DVDs as backups.) So now, "watching a DVD" consists of changing to that device and watching on TV right off the hard drive. My "DVD collection" has become a (regularly backed-up) hard drive, with the jacket info being some source on the Internet (like IMDB.com).

And then there's NetFlix. They're not there yet, but what happens when pretty much anything you want is available on-demand, real-time from NetFlix? For $8 (or whatever) per month you can rely on Netflix to provide to you the movie data that you're now keeping on VHS tapes, DVDs, and hard drives. As long as you have access to the Internet, your "DVD collection" is nothing more than a service fee to Netflix.Why buy when you can rent...?

And that's not even getting into watching regular TV shows off the Internet, such as via Hulu. Could the now-ubiquitous TiVo/DVR heading the way of the dinosaur?

Oh, you'll still want to have a place to save all your home movies, but eventually you won't burn them to VHS or DVD any more; your hard-drive-based media center will cover you there (and the data has a much longer shelf life on that physical media versus magnetic tape or laser DVD.) But don't be surprised if someone isn't already thinking of a way for you to store your home movies on the Internet somewhere, backed up safely and off-site, letting you access them on-demand via your TV (and you can share with family across the country, too!) If no one has thought of that yet, I claim the idea!!! Please pay me royalties...? Wait a sec...that's called YouTube! Though their 10-minute-max and file size limits pretty much preclude them from being a true 'home movie media center' and more like a 'Twitter for home video'. And, yup, the WDTV I have can also show YouTube videos on the TV (as well as many other Internet media sources)...

The times, they are a'changin'.

Greg

Saturday, February 19, 2011

On The Nürburgring

So, of the Nürburgring; or more accurately for this discussion, the Nordschleife ("Northern Loop"). Those of you that know it, need no further info; that of you that don't, well...it's hard to describe. You can "google" it to get the basic info, which really comes down to "...it's an old race track in Germany, very long, many turns (most blind) and it winds through the Eifel mountains. It was built in the 1920's as a testing and race facility to showcase German engineering, and is itself a feat of civil engineering. It is such a difficult track to learn and drive well - and in the end, so unsafe by today's standards - that even Formula One chose to stop racing there after 1976. World-famous F1 driver Jackie Stewart dubbed it "The Green Hell"."

But that's all facts and figures. Why would a race track in nowhere Germany deserve such fascination within the automotive world? Why are not other tracks as heralded a the 'Ring? Well, certainly the length is outstanding; where most race tracks are about two to three miles long, the Nordschleife is just over 14 miles; the all-time lap record for the Nordschleife is just over 6 minutes, and that was a professional driver in a full-up big-time serious Porsche protoype race car back in '83 when there were fewer rules restrictions (cars of the same vintage were lapping the 1.5-mile Lime Rock Park in ~45 seconds). Most high-performance street cars today will lap the track in around 8 minutes. Think about 8 minute lap times next time you're watching racing on TV...

Of course, another attraction is the configuration: it's an absolute joy to drive. Think of your favorite country road, someplace you really like to drive, and imagine it with clear road, no opposing traffic around that blind bend, and no speed limits. It's heaven for the driving enthusiast.

But probably the main attraction of the Nordschleife, the main reason the enthusiast's eyes widen when he or she hears of "The Nürburgring" is...you can drive it. As in I can show up in my street car and drive it, you can drive it. When it's not being used for racing or testing, anybody can drive up to the Nordschleife, pay a lap fee (typically around $25) and drive a lap of the Nürburgring! The track is publicly owned, and when it's open for public access it's run under the same rules and regulations as the autobahn. No speed limits, passing on left only, drive at your own risk. And, if you were to break down and/or wreck, all the same autobahn rules apply, such as how to handle it and if you're covered by insurance! In fact, ADAC (roughly equivalent to our AAA here in the USA) is on-site to assist motorists with any problems!

Try that at Indianapolis Motor Speedway!

Oh, you bet there's plenty of accidents at the 'Ring; go to YouTube and you'll find a lot of in-car video, both good and bad (though I have to wonder about the dolts that proudly upload their "fales"...) It's still a dangerous place and not for the faint of heart. The performance mix of traffic on the 'Ring is impressive, from Porsches and Ferraris, to crotch rockets and even scooters, all the way to Fiats, Golfs, and even tour buses! You can even hire a "Ring Taxi" where professional drivers will pack you and your friends into a BMW M5 and give you the thrill ride of your life...and if you feel up to it, you can rent full-up race cars for your laps.

Let's call it the German equivalent of DisneyLand for the gearhead. Sans Mickey.

You've may have actually heard of the Nürburgring in auto commercials; it's becoming standard practice for automakers such as Corvette, Porsche, Nissan, and many others to take their performance cars and set lap times at the 'Ring and use that info in marketing. And, because of the diversity of roadway, bends, and straights, many automakers are using the 'Ring to tune their cars' handling and suspension (Cadillac did exactly that with their CTS-V. In my mind, guys like that "get it", they understand the driving enthusiast.)

So, the whole point of my trip is to drive the 'Ring; it's not a tour of Germany, it's a tour of one track in one location. The tour group I'm going with is arriving in Frankfurt on Monday March 21 and driving to Stuttgart to visit the Porsche museum. After an overnight in Stuttgart we're driving to Nürburg for an evening at-track driver's meeting and follow-the-leader sessions behind instructors (it's not an easy track to learn or read). The next three days are open track days at the 'Ring, where we can do whatever we want from the track's 8:00 AM opening 'til it closes around dinnertime.

The following Saturday will be an "off" day but not boring: we are guests of some fellow racers in the VLN racing series (comparable to our Rolex GT) for their Saturday test day;  they'll be driving the "Whole Course", the Grand Prix Circuit plus the Nordschleif, laps of something like 17.5 miles. Then Sunday is yet another treat, when "Ring Lappers" (that's the public) get access to the "Whole Course" as well!

And, of course, we have evening activities planned for each night...Flying back home to Reality on Monday. But I think that's enough. For this year, at least.

Four days of driving the Nürburgring...painful, I know. ;) Yeah, I'm looking forward to it. Just a little bit.

Greg

Aren't blogs jumping the shark...?

So, I'm taking a trip to the Nürburgring late March. For those that don't recognize this name, "The Ring" is a race track in Germany, northwest of Frankfurt; mention this name to an automotive enthusiast and their eyes are sure to widen. To an enthusiast, it's automotive mecca...but more on The 'Ring later...

I created this blog on the suggestion of my wife, Thea. Since she won't be accompanying with me on this trip (I'm going with some racer buddies) she thought it might be interesting for me to create a blog about his trip, to keep track of thoughts and experiences. And, I suspect, since she kinda wanted to go with me, with a blog she could be there vicariously (and it doesn't hurt to keep track of me, either ;)...) She also probably remembers that during our last trip to Germany and the 'Ring (January '99) I was consistently on my laptop writing down thoughts and observations (like the one time we were at a museum cafe and I wrote for an hour while she sat there bored...)

After I created this blog, I found myself staring at an empty page, wondering what to write (hell, it took me 15 minutes to choose an available blog name, and I'm not particularly pleased with the choice I ended up with...) And I got to thinking: why a blog? What is it that I could possibly write on the Internet that would be of any value or interest to someone else? It's not like I have any particularly clever insights into life (I don't), or that I'm particularly entertaining (I'm not...well, maybe not sober, anyway).

And then there's the whole concepts of "weblogs"; in this age of short-sentence, abbreviated-words texting, Twitter, and Facebook "statii" (and its resultant thoughtless tossing around of mental diarrhea) aren't blogs long, boring, and stale? Are they still useful? How many members of today's ADHD-infected society ever get through something that has more than 140 characters (a problem I'm seeing when I write detailed emails and documents at work...) Being "apparently" insightful and clever using <140 characters is easy, especially if it has a half-life of 32 seconds (I don't expect to see any Great American Novels written on Twitter...) but something longer? When was the last time most of us have even read a whole book?

(I'm as guilty as anyone on this...my primary reading over the last 10 years has been mostly magazines. I've been trying to cut back on the mags and get to that nice stack of books next to the bed, lots of very interesting stuff...)

I've been a long-time fan of blogs of people who I find interesting. One of my early followings (late 90's onward) was my friend Steve Williams, now living in California. Steve is a fellow flyer and Grumman owner, and he's always had interesting and clever insights into aviation and information technology. Steve's clever insights have, in many ways, changed the way I think and look at things (such as my "Minimalist's Panel" on the flying pages of gatm.com).

Another interesting blog is "The Angry Economist"; I'm a closet fan of macro-economics. Russ Nelson comes across as one of those curmudgeonly "You kids get off my lawn!" kinda guys, but as with Steve, while I may not particularly agree with his conclusions I certainly appreciate the insights and cleverness on how he got there. He's one of those "hey, I never thought of it like that" kinda guys.

Another one I read regularly is James Lilek's "the Bleat". Like with Steve and Russ above, I find James provides different ways of thought and clever insights. Plus, he's a big fan of 20th-century Americana that I really enjoy reading.

The point of all this is that each of these blogs have something to offer. So that makes me wonder, what do I have to offer? Am I arrogant enough to believe that I have something to offer, or am I simply overthinking this? And, worst of all, how much motivation will I have to keep this going? I'd be willing to bet a beer that 99.999% of "blogs" started on the web are rarely maintained; hell, in looking for a blog name most of the ones I tried were nothing more than pages created with one post! Fortunately, with this post I've beaten that record... ;)

Of course, if no ones reads a blog on the Internet, does it still make a sound...?

In the end I decided that blogs still do have value, fitting into a niche between Twitter and "real" (magazine?) articles (but no where close to the info in a book), offering a bit more detail and insight than a Facebook status, but less so than something more-organized and detailed. And, of course, it's a very (little-d) democratic medium, without censorship (within societal and legal boundaries), and no requirement for editorial approval, allowing someone to make their thoughts known, regardless of the value of those thoughts. We here in the USA have the right to free speech, without a right to be heard, and I think that a free blog on the currently-uncensored Internet is likely the near-perfect medium for that.

This blog is here for me and for Thea, someplace where I can put in some thoughts in any easy interface, something I can use for own reference later. Effectively, it's my online "notepad" (don't be surprised if you see me posting a list of stuff I have to buy at Harbor Freight).

You may agree with me, you may (likely) disagree. But if in the end you also find it entertaining and informative, then so much the better...

Greg

Thursday, February 17, 2011