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Jan. 20th, 2011

Odd Lots

  • At our most recent nerd gathering here, four of my friends and I managed to carry our 1997-vintage, 198-pound Sony CRT TV set up our precipitous stairway out to the 4Runner, and a few days later I paid Blue Star recycling $37 to see it to its final rest. Many thanks to the guys--we had been pondering how to get rid of it for the past several years. Friends are most excellent to have, especially for people like me who can't lift 100 pounds anymore.
  • And this means we're shopping for a downstairs TV. I came across a good site focused on plasma TVs, which as a class may be problematic at our current altitude of 6600 feet. Apparently they buzz and run far too hot, though the physics of the phenomenon remain obscure to me.
  • I've found the first (thin) review of the Motorola Xoom. Few details yet, but I will say up front that the cloud-based ebook system doesn't thrill me. Early releases of Honeycomb may not support the XD card slot, but Motorola hints that an OS update will take care of that. That's important here: Given that 16GB MicroSD cards are already down to $35, sideloading my entire ebook library would be a snap, with room left over for lots of music and videos.
  • I also recently found out that the Xoom GUI borrows from the quirky but interesting BumpTop, recently bought by Google and then pulled from general distribution.
  • I may be too old to appreciate the BumpTop 3D metaphor (I always think it looks like working inside a refrigerator box) but some good themes have been created for it, including this steampunk specimen.
  • Xoom has a "barometer." Most commenters, including the LA Times , don't seem to understand that a barometer can measure altitude with more accuracy than GPS. I doubt that the Xoom's barometer will have anything to do with weather reports. (Else there'd be a thermometer and a hygrometer as well.)
  • There's a long-running feud between Samsung and US cell carriers over who pays for Android updates, with the result that many Samsung phones are stuck at Android 2.1 and may never get an update from the vendor. (Applying the update yourself is not for the squeamish.) Yesterday afternoon, of course, Samsung denied it all. As intriguing as the Galaxy Tab looked when I played with it back in November, issues like this may keep me away from Samsung wireless products entirely.
  • Some images speak for themselves. Like this one. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • Oxytocin may be the biochemical basis for tribalism, racism, political parties, and just about everything else that the human species would be better off without. "Cuddle hormone" my ass.
  • Good-bye to seigniorage, not that one person in ten thousand ever knew what it was--or how to spell it.
  • Ahh, well. I may have eaten my last pistachio.

Oct. 17th, 2009

All The Forks That We Need

eternalfork.jpgCarol and I have been married now for 33 years. Back in the summer of 1976 my mother threw us a bridal shower, and among the many gifts we received were two sets of Ecko Eterna Corsair stainless steel flatware, for a total of eight place settings. We still have them. In fact, we have been eating with them for all 33 of those years. (At left is a 33-year-old daily-driver fork. "Eterna" is fersure. ) They're all still in the drawer.

Well, almost all of them. Flatware eventually goes missing, like protons, though with a much shorter half-life. Over the years a couple of spoons and forks have probably followed us to potlucks and never come home. I have no better explanation. When I was a toddler I used to drop flatware down the cold air return, which I know because when I was 14 I helped my father tear out the old sheet-metal octopus that heated our house, and found most of a place setting at the bottom of the big pipe. As an adult I have no such excuse. I only know that we run out of clean forks before we run out of clean tablespoons.

I got irritated enough recently by our fork shortage to look on eBay, where I scored three Ecko Corsair forks for $10--and five spoons for $12. The forks were unused, and when I got them, washed them, and dropped them in the drawer, it struck me that there wasn't much difference in appearance between the brand-new Corsair forks and the forks that have been faithfully stabbing our steaks for 33 years now. We have a full drawer of flatware again, and all the forks that we need. Better still, if we ever need more, we know where to find them.

I had an insight when the forks arrived that Carol and I are not and will probably never again be in the market for new-build stainless steel flatware. Why should we be? Our set works perfectly, and still looks like new. Spare parts are available, cheap. This isn't good news...if you make flatware.

And I also wonder if our auto industry is in trouble at least in part because cars are lasting longer and people are trading them in far less often. I got my first car in 1970 when I started college. It was a bare-bones 1968 Chevelle 300, and even at two years old the door panels were growing significant rust spots. By 1974 the body was mostly rot and the engine disintegrating, and rather than pony up for a valve and ring job, I dumped it and bought a brand-new Honda Civic. The Civic lasted until 1982, when its brake cylinders started going out repeatedly. I had a Datsun pickup for a year and decided I didn't like pickups; I traded it for a 1984 Chrysler minivan, which I owned uneventfully until 1995. That year I traded the old minivan in on the newest version of the same minivan--and we still have it, a little tired but entirely functional. The Toyota 4Runner that we bought in 2001 will flip over 100,000 miles today or tomorrow, and has never given us a lick of trouble. No rust, no wiggles, no funny noises, no problemo nada. I expect to be driving it happily ten years from now.

Draw the curve here. Cars that used to implode after 5 years are now lasting for fifteen or more. Is it any wonder that we don't need as many cars as we used to? A great many of our economic problems today may stem from simple overcapacity: factories cranking out stuff like it's1968, simply because that's what they've always done and the spreadsheeters require it. (Publishing certainly has that problem, though for different reasons.) We are the victims of our own success, in that there is less work than there are workers, because we're making better forks...and much better cars. We may not need a Big Three for making cars. A Big Two may be sufficient. (I'll leave the eenie meenie mynie moe part to someone else, thanks.) And if that's the case, we have to be extremely careful about protectionist economics, because the export market is all that's left, once Americans have all the forks that they need.

Oct. 20th, 2008

Odd Lots

  • Sorry to be gone so long here; I haven't felt well for some days and did not do my usual daily quota of follow-your-nose Web exploration. Part of it is the politics; I seem to be hitting the I-Can't-Stand-It-Anymore level about three weeks earlier than I did in 2004. The rest seems to be the result of eating too many MSG-laden barbecue potato chips.
  • Or maybe it's all the purely amateur reporting on the current financial crisis, declaring that it's either the end of the world or already well past it. Michael Covington (who would probably win any contest for World's Sanest Man) has some perspective on both the financial crisis and the stock market's recent fall. Read them, and heed the advice printed on the front cover of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
  • I learned yesterday that Herb S. Brier W9EGQ was a paraplegic and could not walk. Like John T. Frye, he lived in Indiana (Gary) and was almost entirely self-taught in electronics. Bob Ballantine W8SU wrote up a short bio on Brier, and if you ever followed his Novice columns in the 50s and 60s, do read it. The closeness of the two men's call signs (W9EGQ and W9EGV) is probably a coincidence; as best we can tell the two men did not know one another.
  • If you build radios, particularly tube or crystal sets, The Radio Board is worth a look. The sheer amount of cumulative tube-hacking expertise there is mind-boggling.
  • The local newspapers have been breathlessly reporting rampant theft of campaign signs from both sides of the spectrum, and now that several perps have been caught, it turns out that they were...junior high kids! Wow! (Like I couldn't have told you that.) The little snots are not being charged with anything; after all, theft is political speech. Solution: Force them to give their allowances for the next year to the parties whose signs they stole, and wear a T-Shirt printed with that party's canididate's portrait.
  • Pete Albrecht sent me a link to a PDF railroad map of Illinois, containing all currently active routes.
  • And while I'm at it, let me point you to Pete's photos of Stephan's Quintet, a group of five close-set galaxies (two are actually foreground objects) that are one of the meanest challenges for backyard galaxy collectors—especially if your backyard is in Costa Mesa. The group is fascinating, and this article about them is worth reading.
  • From David Stafford comes an article about what it's like to be a professional term paper writer.
  • Once again, The Economist proves itself to be one of the few intelligent print mags remaining by explaining why even peer-reviewed scientific journals are not as trustworthy as we would like. (The Atlantic is on my S-list again for running too much politics; maybe I'll resubscribe in December.)
  • Here's a robot that carries your houseplants to a spot in the livingroom where there's more sunlight. It's unclear what happens when the robot tries to share the sunbeam with the dog. I guess it depends on the dog; QBit would tear it to shreds; Aero would lift his leg on it. Suum quique.

May. 13th, 2008

Odd Lots

  • Sorry for the recent quietude here; the weekend was a whirlwind, and it took all of yesterday just to catch my breath.
  • Scott Kurtz' PvP webcomic celebrated its first ten years by showing us that Brent Sienna actually has eyes. Wow.
  • Allan Heim sent me a pointer to a nice article on the Fermi Paradox that expresses a position I have been drifting toward for most of my life: That we are probably alone in the universe, perhaps not only as intelligent, tool-building beings but also as living things, period. The author makes a case that being alone in the universe would be very good news, but not for the reason you might think. Read it.
  • Borland is apparently selling their CodeGear division (which develops and supports Delphi) to Embarcadero Technologies, a database tools company. This was not unexpected, and to be honest with you, I can't tell if it's a good idea or not. One of Delphi's most serious problems is that it got so good after five or six years that most people stopped upgrading; I'm amazed at how many people are still using Delphi 6. The cost of the product was also an issue—there is no ~$100 starter edition—and the Turbo Delphi Explorer experiment demonstrated how important the ability to install components was. An amazing number of people wrote to me to say that they downloaded the free product, installed it, fooled with it for a week or so, and then went back to Delphi 6.
  • From Mike Sergent comes a pointer to a NYT piece indicating that most people do not have the training to discern the level of subtlety in wine flavor that they claim to, and that a lot of it may exist mostly in our heads anyway. This is not news (to me, at least) but it's nice to see it going mainstream.
  • Michael Covington posted a fascinating graph of changes in home prices from Q4 2006 to Q4 2007, suggesting that the "housing bubble" has not been evenly distributed. The coasts have suffered, as have most major cities and trendy places like Colorado's Front Range, but flyover places like Nebraska and Wyoming have posted solid increases in that time. In addition to that, sharp differences by state suggest that state-level housing and banking policies have more to do with housing cost changes than most people are willing to admit.
  • Also from Michael is a graph demonstrating that the US economy is not as much of a disaster as Big Media has been hammering on. (I won't invite all the usual hate mail by explaining in detail why this is, as it's pretty obvious if you think about it.)
  • The other day I found myself thinking something remarkable (for me): I would rather buy a Mac and run my essential Windows apps in a Parallels window (or in a compatibility box like Crossover) than move to Vista.

Oct. 20th, 2007

The Mystery Crash

20 years ago yesterday, the stock market had its worst day (from a percentage standpoint) in US history. The weirdest thing of all is that nobody really knows what caused it. Sure, everybody's got a theory (and everybody has something else, too) but I have yet to read a theory that rings true to me. Certainly, the market feeds on itself to some degree, and there was a significant speculative bubble forming in the 6-8 months prior to the crash. I think it was crowd chaos, and I'm content to stop there. Blaming it on a storm in the UK is intriguing but inherently unverifiable. The fact that nothing really bad happened afterward, and the market regained all of its value by 1989, suggests the useful hiss of speculative madness vanishing into the autumn air.

It's odd to think back to the people at work going into carefully reasoned panic, talking about selling their stock and dumping their mutual funds and so on. (I wonder how many actually did. Few, I hope.) I remember thinking that:

  1. It's way too late for that now;
  2. Real wealth isn't easy to destroy, and the US economy is pretty damned real; and
  3. Stock market crashes are effects, not causes.

I still think I was right on all three counts. I do remember thinking in the following months that people who bought at that point would probably do well within five years. I was certainly right about that; in fact, there was an article in yesterday morning's Wall Street Journal speaking of a couple of people who made a huge amount of money buying at the end of 1987 and holding until the runup of the 90s.

My point here is that stock market crashes are not all that important if government does not use them as excuses to do stupid and destructive things. Against that is set the seemingly indestructable conventional wisdom that stock market crashes cause depressions. I was taught in a 200-level American history class in 1972 that the crash of 1929 caused the Great Depression. It did not, as I learned by reading more and better accounts of the times, by genuine historians who weren't the egomaniacal third-shelf lefty poseurs with which De Paul University filled its liberal arts faculty in the 70s. Global economic nationalism, which had been growing around the world since the 1890s, caused the Depression, and in the US it was the law with the funny name, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, that did the real damage. Smoot-Hawley was the single most evil piece of legislation ever set loose upon the American people, but it was just the American slice of a longstanding political culture that had been in the process of destroying Europe for almost fifty years, and damned near finished the job between 1939 and 1945. (Money supply issues, which are also government forces and related to nationalism, contributed strongly as well.)

The big lessons of Octobers 1929 and 1987 are this: First, securities markets reflect economic realities, and not vise versa. Second, protectionism is deadly. (One reason I liked Bill Clinton is that he was a free-trader, in defiance of much or most of his own party.) In 1929 the government did stupid things, and destroyed the economy. In 1987 the government did basically nothing, and the economy continued unhindered. Economic freedom is the foundation upon which all other freedoms are built. Lose that, and almost nothing else matters.

The markets celebrated 1987 by plunging, and thus giving us all a discount. Buy and hold, and enjoy the October weather. It's beautiful all the way around.

Oct. 23rd, 2006

Why Executive Salaries Can Explode

I've begun to see a great many head-scratching articles about the explosion of executive compensation in the last eight or ten years, especially at very large corporations, while general staff compensation has stagnated or dropped. The puzzle is why people are puzzled; it seems pretty damned obvious to me. Three forces are at work here:

  • We have gone from a general labor shortage in the developed world to a general labor surplus. Demand for labor peaked right after WWII, and now supply has caught up with demand. This may not be cyclical but structural, in that the demand for labor post WWII was a one-time consequence of industrialization leading population, at least in those places where industrialization was happening. Because labor markets are truly markets, compensation for workers outside the executive suite is dominated by the effect of this labor surplus.
  • People at the top of large corporations in effect set their own salaries, because corporate boards, which set executive compensation, are composed almost entirely of other highly-paid executives or retired executives. They look at executive compensation questions and see their own interests in their answers. Nor do the numbers I see indicate that higher executive pay yields higher financial performance of the corporation as a whole. The market doesn't work here.
  • Although CEO compensation numbers seem high to the rest of us, compared to the overall revenues of massive corporations, a few or even many millions of dollars is small change. Paying the CEO fifteen mil a year won't crash the company, and dropping CEO pay to, say, one or two million a year wouldn't help the company, if revenues are in the billions. On the flipside, when you have tens of thousands of employees, giving them all a significant raise could cost a hundred million dollars or more, which would affect overall corporate viability.

None of this makes it right; it just explains how it's possible. And that said, the curves are not moving in the right direction: Revenues generated by continuing productivity gains are flowing toward the top in an ever more concentrated fashion, probably because, with markets controlling labor costs, it's easy for them to do so.

I don't know what the answer is. I like game theory solutions to problems like this, and one suggestion might be to set corporate tax rates by algorithm, where the lowest tax rates apply when total compensation dollars spent are most broadly distributed across all employees. I doubt that that's politically possible, but it's an interesting notion, and might encourage closer monitoring of executive compensation by shareholders.

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