Tuesday, December 26, 2006

VMware Workstation 6.0 now in Beta

VMWare offers some of my absolute favorite software/technology products - all revolving around "virtual machines", which let you make much greater use of your existing computing hardware by being able to run what is in effect multiple-computers on one computer. I make regular use of their free VMware Player software, as well as their VMware workstation software. I've written about VMware software virtualization advantages previously here on my software and technology blog, and, I keep a watch on the upcoming products VMware has in the works, planned, or in Beta.

And, now VMware has announced the Beta release of VMWare Workstation 6.0. This new release brings some long-awaited features I am really looking forward to testing. These include:
  • Multiple Monitor Support! Woohoo! This is a very cool addition, offering the ability to span monitors within a guest operating-system, just like you can do with a normal desktop. I have one development machine I would really like to put this feature to use on.
  • Run Virtual Machines in the Background. This is sorta nice, when you don't want the graphical portion of VMware Workstation always running just to keep a virtual-machine running. Now there will be a little system-tray icon to show what is running instead if you like - quite minimal compared to the full GUI.
  • Enhanced copy/paste between disparate guest operating systems. Now, this is cool for sure, giving you an easy way to copy/paste files between Windows and Linux to name one use. Even drag-n-drop between mixed OS's is now supported!! This should be a huge time-saver in mixed-OS environments. Definitely looking forward to testing it.
  • USB 2.0 high-speed device support (certainly something I will welcome).
  • Increased RAM limits -- more total memory can be used be Workstation, and each guest-OS can be allocated more. Sadly, I will need to purchase more RAM to try this one out, but I have needed a good excuse to do so. :) Maybe a 16GB workstation is in my future. Ah, just the thought of putting all that memory to use..
As with any beta, there are known bugs and issues that are still in a state of flux, but the release sounds like a promising one. Here is a link to the full VMware Workstation 6.0 Beta Release Notes to see more detail on what is new.

In addition recently, VMware has announced how they would be offering their desktop virtualization software on the new Intel-based Apple Macintosh computers. This should be really great news for those that want to go with an Apple OS-X machine, but are worried about having access to Microsoft Windows on occasion -- once VMware's products are out for the Mac, this concern should greatly dissipate, since you should be able to run MS Windows from a Mac machine in a fully self-contained virtual-machine (With the advantage over Apple's "Bootcamp" being how you can run both OSX and Windows simultaneously -- OS-X as the "host" OS, and Windows as the "guest" OS). Heck, run Linux on it too just for kicks!

Friday, December 15, 2006

Adobe Photoshop CS3 Beta is out

For those of you who use Adobe Photoshop and like to keep up with where the product is headed, Adobe has release a public beta of Photoshop CS3. Here is a link to the release notes and new features in Adobe Photoshop CS3. A couple of the items caught me attention, including the "refine edge" capability and the "quick selection" enhancements. I have to believe there are more changes then there are listed in the page, since there are not very many high-level changes listed.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Daystar Technologies NASDAQ:DSTI - To be or not to be?

If you follow, or invest in, Daystar Technologies (NASDAQ:DSTI) stock, you may be wondering about the long-term prospects for this company. Will they make it as a solar-cell player, or will they be unable to secure adequate funding to remain viable and/or competitive?

I have watched Daystar Technologies, Inc. stock for some time now, and have watched it rise from $2-3.00 range back in early 2005, to a peak of nearly $16.00 in mid-2005, through to its current slide to the $4.65 level. A lot of this stock's price chart can be correlated to the over-exuberance about alternative-energy and solar plays that took place during the massive oil price run up which started in 2005, followed by a corresponding realization that these solar companies in startup-mode (like Daystar) may not make a profit for quite some time, let alone even remain viable as a company if they can not obtain adequate financing for the capital-intensive manufacturing ramp-up they require to reach any real economy-of-scale production capacity.

Recently, it seems DSTI has come under quite a bit of selling pressure as the obviousness of the financing situation emerges. Apparently, one of the biggest investors of recent ( Castlerigg Master Investments Ltd., an offshore investment fund that has already provided about $15MM in funding to DayStar), has been backing off a bit when it comes to any future/continued investment into the company. Coupled with the recent departure of DayStar's founder (John Tuttle) and subsequent shuffling at the top of the management structure, there is certainly reason to take pause as an investor.

Now, let's put that aside for a bit and look at what DayStart Technologies has to offer as a company. DSTI is focused on providing low-cost, high-volume solar-electric photovoltaic (PV) cells, using patented technologies that employ a unique combination of Copper Indium Gallium diSelenide (CIGS) technology solar cells placed on flexible specialty metal foils. Their approach promises a few improvements over standard silicon solar-cells in that they will take require much less natural resources to product, not be dependent on high-quality silicon wafers (that are in short supply), and also be lightweight and flexible.

This all sounds great! And, DayStar seems to be have laid out some logical steps to execute their stated three-year mission of establishing themselves with a profitable manufacturing platform, expandable to Gigawatt scale, by 2008. Gigawatt scale! WOW! Assuming they reach that level of solar cell production, that would imply a capacity approximately equal to today’s combined worldwide manufacturing capacity for all PV solar cells! That could sure change the game for Solar Energy as a whole.

So, I look at their stock with both caution and excitement. I see inherent value in their patents and technology. I see potential for the alternative energy market as a whole, though I see our government doing little to promote it and instead wasting 100's of billions of dollars on oil-subsidies (yes, the war costs are oil subsidies in one way or the other -- the cost of protecting the steady flow of oil from the Middle East). When I look at DayStar's funding requirements to stay on plan, and the fact that an investment as tiny as $15MM from Castlerigg can even matter, I just sit shaking my head when I think how that $15MM is not even 1/30,000th of what our government has spent on the Iraq War. But, our government's priorities will likely not change, so DayStar will need to seek funding elsewhere: perhaps Bill Gates or the Google founders will see the light?

Next, as with ANY stock (especially startups), I keep a VERY close eye on management compensation and watch for what I call "self-awarded" excessive stock options and such. I am always concerned that the entire goal for many of these higher profile small startups (certainly not publicly stated) is simply to become a publicly traded stock and gain enough market liquidity whereby internal holders of said stock have a way to essentially "print stock" and convert that stock to cash,... regardless of the long-term impact on the stock price or the ramifications for the average investor that doesn't have the ability to simply "print more stock shares" to reap substantial returns. If all these senior-level managers in the company truly believe in their vision, then they need to forego the immediate "need" for cashing stock holdings out until the company is profitable and the stock is steady and solid enough for ALL investors (meaning, us the average stock holder) to reap rewards for taking risk too. I do not want to be viewed simply as a source for liquidity for insiders to dump their over-generous self-awarded shares onto. (this rant of mine is not about DSTI per se, but my concern that many, many companies, both small and large, are absolutely abusing the average shareholder these days by diluting stock through excessive "self awards").

So, DayStar executives, if you want to absolutely convince me that your company is a great investment, prove it by not selling your stock until you have achieved your stated goals for 2008, and have executed a plan that produces profits. You have the technology from what I can figure, and you have a team with skills in the Solar sector. Time to make some friends with a few wealthy individuals that can kick in $10 million or so apiece to keep your plan on track though! It's really not that much given how many ultra-rich entrepreneurs and individuals there are out there; you may want to focus on the more "liberal" or "green" ones, like StarBucks Howard Schultz, the Google guys, and so on.

I'll be watching DSTI, and who knows, if their stock's market capitalization goes much lower, I may start making a few calls myself and seeing if I can line up the cash to buy out the company and make sure the DayStar Technologies vision becomes reality. :)

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Barclays Bank - Nice Gain over past few months.

If you happened to read my blog back on August 17th, 2006, about currency hedging with ADRs where I featured Barclays Bank as one of the ADRs to consider, perhaps you picked up some shares. If so, you should be quite pleased with your returns since then!

At the time, Barclays (NYSE: BCS) was trading under $50/share, and thanks to a weak dollar since then, and the new rumors/talk that Bank of America is looking to buy Barclays in what will be a massive merger transaction, the ADR share price of BCS has closed at USD $58.25. You may have just made 20% over the past few months, or more depending when you invested in Barclays.

The one thing I am not sure of now, is whether holding BCS during this speculation time is still the best way to go. With a cost-basis of around $45 on this latest cycle, I am looking at a 30% return in a relatively short period of time. Certainly this met, and even exceeded, my short-term objectives for playing currency-movements. The stock could rise further on speculation of increased bid-price during a takeover or whatever, but some of the excitement could also dissipate. I guess it is time to flip a coin. The original ownership reason (hedging against the US Dollar falling versus the British Pound) is still somewhat legitimate, though with the Pound pushing a 15-year high, I do not know how much more wind is in the sails of that price-movement-force.

Keep ADRs in mind in your investing portfolio, and look for solid stocks that can benefit from currency swings in addition to their fundamental strengths, and you will likely be in a decent position long term regardless.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

New e-ink cell-phone coming soon.

E-ink is a type of display that, if you are not aware of already, you will be in the future. It is awesome for the simple fact that it takes so little power to operate it, especially on devices where the information being displayed is not changing often - like cell-phones, and e-book-readers.

Motorola has a lovely example of using e-ink technology in a great way: a new strip-down cell phone that boasts operating times of 7.5hours of call-time on a single charge (and darn near two weeks while "on" in standby mode)! Wow! That makes my current phone seem like a piece of crap to say the least.

Check out this article on the new Motorola Cell-Phone with E-Ink technology. It is debuting in India, and is supposed to end up in the USA in the not too distant future (I sure hope!).

This caught my attention too:
Helping to keep the price low will be the unit’s embedded Linux OS, which won’t be burdened with playing back video and shooting digital images. Sources quote Motorola officials as saying they believe the F3, once it makes its way to the US, could sell for as little as $50 even without carrier subsidies.
Excellent! On all accounts. Use that open-source technology (Linux), and keep the phone basic and affordable. I just hope when it gets to the US market that Motorola does not feel compelled to embellish the thing with a camera, and such. The good news is that the E-Ink display does not really lend itself to pictures anyhow, since it is a low-refresh-rate black/white technology (and, thus no streaming video either FOR SURE). I am looking forward to this one!

Monday, November 27, 2006

Converting my website to ASP.Net 2.0

I have put off converting my company website to DotNet for a long time. I never saw the pressing "need" to do so, and thus my website remained Classic-Microsoft-ASP (VBScript) since about 1998. But, times change, and I finally had some "extra" time (over the Thanksgiving holiday) to dedicate to making the conversion happen. And, since the hosting company I had decided to completely RUIN my SPAM-filtration when they changed mail-server packages (I went from getting ZERO SPAM to being inundated with it!), I decided to move hosts and move to a host where I already used ASP DotNet 2.0 for my new Gluten-Free Baking /Recipes Books site.

When I started the book sales site in DotNet 2.0, it was my first hands on experience with the latest features of the DotNet framework for ASP. I avoided DotNet 1.0 and 1.1 COMPLETELY since, imho, it left a LOT to be desired. ASP.NET 2.0 finally addressed a few of my concerns with the earlier frameworks, with the inclusion of "master pages" and other really nice features. These master-pages allow for a version of visual-inheritance of sorts, and is a HUGE step up from before. This is one of the features that convinced me to migrate my site.

So, I have it done, and only need to re-point the DNS entries to the new hosting company. Needless to say, my existing hosting firm has yet to reply to my "notice of non-renewal" I gave them -- in which I specifically told them to acknowledge receipt of! All the more reason I am leaving ActiveHost - they have been terrible with communications, and this is just one more occurrence. I have one more company hosted on their machines, but not for long... that too will be migrated soon. And, in all this effort, my ASP DotNet 2.0 skills (using C# = "C Sharp") have been improving considerably. I still much prefer working with Borland Delphi, but the development of C# was overseen by an ex-Borland guy that was a primary architect of Delphi from what I understand -- so, there are enough similarities to make the transition somewhat tolerable for me.

For anyone else that is sitting on "ancient" classic ASP web sites just waiting for a reason to upgrade, take a look at the DotNet 2.0 ASP Framework and features. They definitely represent an improvement over ASP Classic (a big improvement), and now that most hosting companies are supporting the framework, it should not be too tough to migrate.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Free Microsoft Office Accounting Express 2007 - Don't bother!

Microsoft just released a new free product called Microsoft Office Accounting Express 2007. The feature list looked interesting, so I downloaded it, installed it, and gave it a quick try. Basically, all it did was piss me off. And, this blog entry discusses a few reasons why.

I started by installing the product into a VMWare Virtual Machine (for good reasons: I hate how MS products tend to pollute my systems, take over the place with "required" additional software and components that eat up 100's of megabytes, and so forth). So, I install into an environment where I can easily get rid of the entire experience if I desire.

The first annoyance: everywhere I turned in this "free" product, I encountered a need for a non-free Microsoft product. I wanted to try the Email feature - to send an invoice. Nope, can not do that without MS Word installed! WTF?!? I want to send Email, not write a letter. And, since I am in a clean virtual machine, no MS Word is available. So much for testing all sorts of things in here. The promised PayPal interface features rely on using Microsoft Word Templates for PayPal Emails. Lovely (not!).

Next, I want to export some information... hmmm... guess what the "export" supports. Yep, it is Export to Excel, and if you click the export button without Excel installed, forget it - you are presented with a messagebox reminding you how Excel is required.

And, you are presented with multiple reasons to upgrade to the "professional" version or whatever (yep, that is the non-free one). Sure, upgrade... then you can probably be forced to buy even more supporting Microsoft Applications.

Next, errors. I choose to "send books to accountant". It failed with some ridiculous messagebox of HTML errors when the MS Live signin didn't work. Wow, that's a great way to handle the fact I do not have an account setup in the application.

Next, the software is slow. The initial company setup thing is ridiculously slow when it starts creating the initial company entries in the database (or whatever the disk-drive is churning away on for a minute or so). Reports are also slow. Heck, with only one order entered, it still takes 10 seconds to generate a single line report summarizing my one order. Lame.

There is a bunch of visual (and useless) FLUFF. It is now well thought out. It is certainly less-than-intuitive in many areas. I setup a couple products for sale, and there is a field for weight - with no associated unit of measure, and you can only enter numbers. So, if you sell something measured in pounds, and another in ounces, there is no differentiation. Then again, I do not even see where the weight is shown ever again on a report (like, e.g., shipping weight totals - where you may charge based on how heavy your packaging is). You can add fields to various forms, but it seems they can only be of TEXT type, even though the instructions say you can choose what type of field they are (yeah, one choice). You can then add your custom field to the normal view, but even that is a pain - no simple drag-drop to position the fields... it's buttons labeled "move up, move down", etc... and many clicks later, you may get the layout you want. Sad.

Continuing with how lame the layout is... finding invoices after I created them was almost impossible. The ONLY place you can get to them (from what I can tell) is to go to the "customers overview" page (with visual buttons in groups called "start a task", "more tasks", and "find")... only with a button in that Find group can you get to Invoices. Not from the upper menu-bar as I would expect. Once again, WTF is someone thinking? This layout is horrible. IF I can get to something via this graphical/flufff screens, I damn well should be able to get to the same functionality through the menu-bar and/or hot-keys. And, this is for an application where a good quarter of the menu items seem to be nothing more than links to external applications (you guess it: things like Word, Excel, Outlook, Word Templates, etc).

Speaking of invoices, though you can modify what shows on the invoice, you can not add your custom fields created for the items you are selling; thus, adding weights to the invoice is impossible from what I can tell.

Well, at least they priced it at the point of equilibrium with its true worth: nothing / free. OK, perhaps that is a bit harsh... for free it can help quite a few people setup accounting in a hurry. But, I have to believe there are some nearly-free accounting applications out there that make this one look bad. Some of the reports are nice, but once again, for more reports, you are pushed to "upgrade to view more reports". I guess I should have expected no different.

And, what is with this need to call every product XYZ-next-years-date-here? It's 2006 Microsoft! It seems everyone thinks that somehow the promise of getting an apparent "future" year's product early is a compelling reason to purchase. (sidenote: this applies to software big time, as well as automobiles, and much more!) And, I am also sure it is done so the product in question does not appear outdated as soon (for anyone unfamiliar with the real release date). This is just ridiculous marketing crap.

Bottom Line: "FREE" software doesn't mean good software, and it certainly does not mean the software is a good solution for your business. Check it out if you are OK with all the Microsoft-dependencies, or if you just do not want to spend money on your business accounting systems. There IS some "value" in here depending how you want to use the app -- just not the value I am looking for in such an app. I am going to check out some other alternatives, perhaps even writing my own if it makes sense for my needs.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Novell and Microsoft "partner" on Linux? Yep!

For those of you who do not know that the SUSE "brand" of Linux is owned by Novell, well now you do. And Novell of course is also most known for its nearly non-existent (by market share) NetWare operating-system product. Novell, who has always been in fierce competition with Microsoft, is now teaming up with MS to ensure cross-compatibility between SUSE Linux and Microsoft Windows.

In addition, the OpenOffice project (an open-source competitor to Microsoft Office) is also primarily maintained by Novell, as is Evolution (the open source alternative to MS Outlook). This latest "partnership" agreement has MS and Novell playing nice on the Office-Suite software front too, with the deal supposedly ensuring cross-compatibility between MS Office (including Microsoft Office 2007) and OpenOffice (via Open XML and OpenDocument formats).

It'll be interesting to see how this goes. If history serves as a guide, Microsoft will somehow come out with the better part of the deal and further solidify their dominance in the marketplace. But, who knows, perhaps this will help Linux finally become an acceptable alternative to Microsoft Windows.

Additionally, the two agree not to sue each over other software patents, which is great news in itself. Read the full article here.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Encryped Hard-Drives are coming soon

Encrypted hard-drives from Seagate are on the way. A news release discussed their latest disk drive technology, and the implications of hardware-level encrypting. On the plus side, it would mean that a stolen hard-drive would be essentially useless. On the down side (depending how you use your PC), it would enable DRM (Digital Rights Management) to (potentially) control what you are able to write to your disk drive.

This encryption direction for hard-drives is part of the Trusted Platform Module (TPM) initiative to better secure data on computers and help protect against viruses and malware that write unauthorized code to a hard-drive. In theory, this new hardware-level authentication, in conjunction with a PC and an operating system that supports something called a TCG stack (authentication related stuff), only properly authenticated transactions will be able to write to the hard drive.

I personally do not care about the DRM implications, since I do not use my computers for storing any music or video. And, the only pictures I store on my computers are the ones I take personally. But, I know others will have a concern about all this new potential to limit what can be stored on the hard-drive.

My main concern is, that although this hardware-level encryption and protection sounds great, I just wonder how long it will be until a new level of sophistication is reached in the next generation of computer virus, thus enabling that virus to circumvent this new technology. Seems like whatever countermeasures are created to thwart viruses and malware, there is always yet another exploit just around the corner. This hardware may make such an advanced virus unlikely, or at least unlikely to emerge anytime soon, but I for one will not be at all surprised when the encryption/protection is cracked and exploited. I hope I am wrong, because it would just be wonderful to know I can safely use my computer without the worry of viruses in downloaded emails/documents/etc. Time will tell if this new technology is all, or part, of the answer.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Windows XP SP3 - Delayed until 2008!

If you were hoping for a third Service Pack for Windows XP, you are going to have to wait quite a bit longer. Microsoft officially altered their "roadmap" for Windows XP SP3 to now be released in the first half of 2008 (wow, that is specific - not!). And, if you are a betting person, I personally think your money would best be placed on betting this Service Pack never even happens!

It seems more than obvious to me, that with Microsoft's pending release of Windows Vista, and the existing expiration of support of for Windows XP SP1, that they have but one objective: push you to the new operating system (Vista), or make your life hell otherwise. That hell currently comes in the form of a god awful number of post-SP2 updates to Windows XP that you have to apply to any new installation of Windows XP (even if you have a WinXP w/ SP2 install disk, you have TONS of updates to apply after install). If you are very technically savvy, you can always make what they call a "slipstream" install CD of your own that contains all the updates, and have those installed at the same time as Windows, but even that is a royal PITA and with all the constant security updates emerging for Windows and IE and such, you'd spend half your life building these custom CDs.

Something needs to change. Microsoft, though incredibly profitable, seems to be doing everything in its power to annoy its current product users. Along with this Windows XP SP3 announcement, they also pushed off the Windows Server 2003 SP2 until a similar date. Once again, I figure they want you to commit to their next OS instead. Perhaps not enough users get annoyed by this type of thing, since, as I mentioned, MS is very profitable - which means they sure are selling a lot of product. OR, is that profitability due to the fact you can hardly find a PC sold without the OS (either with a blank hard-drive, or with a FREE O.S. like Linux preinstalled).

I have tried to buy PCs from a few manufacturers with Linux on, or without Windows on, and guess what -- sure, you can buy one, but you still have to pay for Windows thanks to the licensing terms the vendors (read: Dell, Gateway, etc. etc.) have with MS. Hmmm... that seems just a bit monopolistic of MS! That is what really needs to change to move the market to Linux or some other free/open solution. (Or, perhaps Apple will be the beneficiary?)

At this time, I have absolutely no intention of upgrading to Windows Vista when it comes out. And, I do not really care how outdated my XP SP2 becomes either (aside from blatant and severe security holes that may emerge). I can do most of my day to day work on Linux if need be, and Linux is catching up fast. New builds of Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Suse, Kanotix, and the like are constantly arriving (and, guess what - they have regular distribution-release cycles, so you know when the next version is coming), and their update/patch mechanisms are much better implemented.

When I need to use Windows, I will do so in a Virtual Machine (using VMWare) - not only will it make it easy to keep XP SP2 around for a while, but it will isolate it from security issues, etc (if my VM gets "infected" or anything, I'll just restore from a backup DVD image of the VM). Oh, I forgot to mention, MS also changed the licensing terms for Vista that prevent all but the Professional (i.e., "Business") version from running in a Virtual Machine from what I heard too! (even more reasons to avoid).

Every time Microsoft does things like delay service packs, ram new versions of software down our throats, tighten license terms, and so forth, the more I focus on how to use alternative OSs and software. Keep up the great work Microsoft! :)

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Chevrolet's new, and completely lame, advertising strategy

I have written other blog entries about lame advertising campaigns and the like before, but Chevrolet has just inspired me again with its latest, absolutely lame, ad campaign.

If you have not seen the ad that inspires this discussion, basically it is a series of images showing bits and pieces of American history with a few Chevy products mixed into the bunch. Images of Rosa Parks on a bus, Richard Nixon doing his famous peace-sign wave, Vietnam clips, hurricane Katrina devastation, 9/11 imagery, and a whole boat load of other similar big-event things are in here. And, every so often there will be a picture of something like an old Chevy pickup truck that is meant to look like it is from the 1970's, and so forth.

Well, if I was to even for a minute consider investing in GM stock, this commercial alone would quickly change my mind. And, if I was to consider buying a GM car, this commercial would do absolutely nothing to influence me towards a purchase.

I am so sick of these artsy/statement commercials that do everything possible to avoid presenting the product for sale. And, I am sure GM spent millions on this crap. One (advertising exec) professional that Fox News spoke to today tried to describe these commercials as a push to be more "real"; part of a greater "real" push going on in all commercials. Real?? Real to whom? Real to the advertising firm that made it, but pure crap to any consumer that just wants to see what Chevy has to offer thse days.

Who knows, maybe subconsciously those images of Rosa Parks or Richard Nixon will make someone just run out and buy a Chevy that otherwise wouldn't -- because, Chevy quite obviously had some part in all these events shown in there commercial? Whenever I see ads like this (lame ones -- and there are many), I can't help thinking what the ad firm was compensated to produce such a thing. Seems to me that anyone could have put together a series of images like this, and then inserted clips of any product they wanted to (in this case, a product that was around for 40 years or more) throughout the ad, and poof, you have a new commercial. I think Chevy'd be better off putting the money into developing something like the "Fast and the Furious 4 -- Chevy Rules" or something, where the entire movie uses only Chevy cars.

Well, the proof will be in the Chevrolet sales, and I can't wait to see how those go for GM over the next 12 months (I know I will not be buying the stock, especially based on hopes for ads like this to be effective).

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Windmill Zoning in Residential Areas - I plan to try!

My father recently ran across a new windmill designed for residential wind-power applications that sure sounds like it has potential. It is called the Skystream 3.7, and is one of the first I have seen that employs low-wind-speed generation capabilities, and a reasonable size and form-factor, uses modern blades, and is also of a reasonable cost -- a typical install is supposed to run around $9,000 USD currently.

I really like how the unit is sold as a complete "system" that includes all the hookup to your residential power supply from the electric company, and has all that crossover electronics and such included. This makes for pretty much a one-stop-shopping experience from the looks of things. The windmill is rated at 1.8KW, and is designed to offset 40-60% of the average home's power utilization requirements. Not bad. Heck, give me two of them and it'd be even better.

I hope Skystream doesn't mind my copying a bit of their promotional information, since the following is a direct copy/paste from their page showing the basic specs.
  • Product Brochure: Skystream 3.7 brochure (PDF)
  • Rated Capacity: 1.8 KW
  • Rotor: 12 feet / 3.72 meters; 50–325 RPM
  • Alternator: Gearless, permanent magnet brushless
  • Voltage Output: 240 VAC (Optional 208 VAC)
  • Estimated Energy Production: 400 KWh per month at
  • 12 MPH (5.4 m/s)
  • Weight: 154 pounds
  • Tower: Towers from 35-110 feet are available; height is
  • dependent by site
  • Technical Specifications: Skystream 3.7 Spec Sheet (PDF)
  • Warranty: Five year limited
  • Availability: October 2006
Now, my main concern is how to get this thing through my local zoning regulations, since I live in a residential "R1-A" region, and after giving the local codified ordinances handbook a perusing, I have found no regulations that address windmills in particular. There are provisions in the local zoning code for things like TV antennas, satellite dishes, building height, and so forth, but no mention of windmills. So, chances are, I am going to have to set precedence by trying to gain a variance for my windmill. If I can really get a unit like this installed and operation for $9,000 or so, and if I can get it through zoning, I plan to install one. I think it'd set a great example of what this country needs to do in order to free itself from the strangle-hold the oil cartel (OPEC) has on us now. Wish me luck!

The toothless and useless UN

I recently wrote a blog entry about how I see China as the player of utmost importance in this whole North Korea (NK) nuclear standoff. And, as I wrote in that prior blog, I expected China to do what is in their best interest regardless of the outcome of any UN Security Council resolutions.

Well, I sit here watching the news this morning and listening to pretty much the exact thing I prognosticated: sanctions will be imposed on NK, including inspecting vessels going in and out of the country (supposedly for weapons technology or nuclear related stuff), but China says it will not inspect any of the trade going in and out of NK by land (i.e., through China). Of course, China is NKs biggest supporter and trading partner, and regardless of what the UN says they are "united" in resolving, the fact of the matter is that China's disregard for the resolution to inspect inbound and outbound shipments for NK says a world about where they really stand -- anything but "united" with the rest of the council. As always, with any country in the UN, personal interests always come before doing what is right.

Oddly enough, the next country that could be an issue with enforcing any sanctions against NK is South Korea. A fair amount of cash-flow into the North comes from the South. Southern commercial interests in Northern real-estate development (like, mountain resort communities) propel cash-flow northward. And, the whole time, people living in Seoul seem to think that NK may actually target them with a nuke given the chance. Talk about a strange double-vision thing when viewing the North from the South!

The fact is, unless truly united (and consistent) action is taken against the NK, this latest round of resolutions and sanctions will end up exactly where all the prior actions have: in the useless and toothless resolutions graveyard. NK will continue its nuclear arms progress and its threats against the world, and politicians will blame their predecessors for the situation that arises.

Monday, October 09, 2006

North Korea Nuclear Threat : China the beneficiary?

I have been contemplating the whole North Korea nuclear threat for years. I am especially interested in how this threat may fundamentally alter the world power-scheme among major nations, particularly with regards to China.

Now that North Korea has apparently followed through on its threat to test a nuclear weapon, the inevitable "world response" will emerge. Having completely lost all faith in the UN's ability to accomplish anything, I am convinced any such response is a complete waste of time. So many "warnings" and "urgings" and so forth have been issued to North Korea (who, as expected, simply ignores these discussions) and Iran (who also snubs such communications) in regards to their nuclear ambitions; isn't it obvious to the rest of the world that talk isn't going to accomplish anything? Countries like this have learned how easy it is to just ignore the "international community", since they have figured out this community is all talk and no action.

Much of this all-talk, no-action persona of the UN has to do with the fact that, even though the organization's name implies unity, there is anything but singularity of conviction or action among this group, especially the UN Security council. The Security Council members do everything in their power to push their own agenda (the USA included in this) instead of unite in a cause -- and, the world at large has learned how this works and takes full advantage of it. It's almost always predictable how the members will vote: if the USA wants to pursue a particular direction, you can be assured that the Soviet Union and China will oppose it; and, the reverse is true if China wants something we do not; the UK usually buddies with the USA and vice-versa; and then there is France - the "swing vote" in many situations; etc.

In this particular situation, China has incredible leverage for reasons of geographical proximity to the aggressor (North Korea), and its status as a nuclear super-power. And, simply put: nothing is getting done with regards to NK unless China wants it done. Although China is our largest trading partner, and a supposed ally, it can not be forgotten that China is a Communist country acting to protect its own interests throughout the region. China has been escalating their own military buildup, their manufacturing capabilities (much of it with the assistance our consumer feeding-frenzy on Chinese goods), and their deals with commodity sources (like Iran and Venezuela) - perhaps the NK crisis can be used as an excuse for some of this now?

China seems poised to gain additional world power and influence from this NK situation. Since, as the way I see it, only China can tip the balance against NK, they have positioned themselves to now become a larger player on the world political stage. Having the power to defuse a potential nuclear crisis surely increases their relevance. I will not be at all surprised to see China realize this and exploit the situation to maximize their power throughout the world and world organizations (like the impotent UN). But, would we or any other UN member country do any differently? -- perhaps/probably not.

As certain as the UN's inability to unite is the global quest to gain or retain power. Many nations of the world promise to ignore all sense of reason or regard for humanity's best interest in pursuit of power and relevance. And, today's power-tool of choice is the nuclear weapon -- you get one, and you suddenly have percieved power; consequences be damned (as humanity ultimately will be).

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Gluten Free Website technicalities driving me nuts!

For those awaiting updated posts on my gluten free blog, I hope you have patience. I have gotten so wrapped up in getting the recipe-postings section on my book site done that I have not put much time aside for anything else. And, as with nearly all programming "fun" (from experience), there is always some technical challenge to get past.

I have been hit with some of the most annoying "bugs" (or "features" as the software makers would probably label them) this week, particularly in getting my Recipe data into SQL-Server 2005 from a custom Win32 GUI using ADO Dataset Command Text values to pass my recipe-HTML from the GUI to the SQL Server. The sticking point was hit when my existing recipe-text (which I had in HTML already) contained a bunch of embedded quotation marks -- double quotes (vs. single quotes) were especially problematic. It is not the first time I have had to save such data to SQL-Server, but for some reason the normal methods for properly pre-processing those quotes was not working. I ended up using *single* quotes in my HTML around style names, etc., even though I do not think the W3C would see that as meeting their standards. IE/Firefox still accepts the end-result, but I am still miffed that I can not get the double-quotes to save to the database properly.

More annoying is how the command-text I am sending from the GUI to the DB will execute just fine if I copy/paste the command-text-string (containing the double-quotes,etc) into SQL's Query Analyzer window and execute it directly (without the GUI getting involved in the matter, and no ADO layer in between). That tells me there is something more going on here.

Well, I may revisit this one if issues persist. For now, the single-quote workaround is in place, and I am sticking with it.

Next challenge: Dealing with shortcomings of SQL 2005's IDE! Argghh. And, DTS (which is now SSIS or such), is frustrating me when I try to copy objects to my web-host from a local DB. The tool is copying table structures/data over, but omitting all referential integrity, keys, indexes, etc., and being new to SSIS I have yet to discover an option to enable that (why it wouldn't be obvious, I do not know -- hopefully there IS just an option to switch as I want!).

Monday, October 02, 2006

More ASP.Net (DotNet) 2.0 Discussion

A while ago, I wrote a blog entry about how I am putting ASP.Net 2.0 (using C#) to the test on my new gluten free recipes website. I have been making use of some of the new ASP DotNet 2.0 features, like Master-Pages, quite a bit for this site.

There are quite a few other ASP DotNet 2.0 features I plan to try out yet. The following is a list of some of the most significant new features of ASP.Net 2.0:
  • Codebehind 2.0 - with new Partial-Classes support
  • New Dynamic Compilation Model
  • Precompiling and Deploying Without Source
  • Master Pages - other pages can inherit from (I love this feature!)
  • Data Source Controls - even easier Data binding
  • Data Controls - especially the GridView control
  • Other New Controls - more than 40 new ones
  • Membership Service - an easy-to-use API for creating and managing user accounts on secure sites, as well as storage for those accounts
  • Login Controls - easier forms authentication
  • Role Management - simplifies the task of authorizing access to resources based on roles
  • Profiles - ready-built solution to the problem of persistently storing personalization settings and other per-user data items
  • Data-Driven Site Navigation - use an XM SiteMap file along with the new SiteMapDataSource bound to a Menu or TreeView control
  • URL Mapping - when your site structure changes, you can map old links to new with a urlMappings section in the section of your web.config file
  • SQL Cache Dependencies
  • Validation Groups - Validation controls can now be grouped
  • Cross-Page Postbacks
  • Client Callback Manager (XML-HTTP) - pages can call back to the server without fully posting back
  • Asynchronous Pages - for greater scalability among other things
  • Encrypted Configuration Sections - long needed in web.config! Especially for connection strings.
Here's a link to an MSDN article on ASP.Net 2.0 that offers a much more detailed review of the above features if you want to learn more.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Demand Credit-Freeze Rights!

Are you aware that 22 states in this "United" States of America have laws that offer a much greater level of protection from credit identity-theft scams for their citizens than the other 28 states do? Yes, if you happen to be lucky enough to live in California or one of the other 21 states with consumer-friendly legislation that allows you to "freeze" your credit files at the major credit-authorization/scoring firms (TransUnion, Experian, Equifax), you have an extra layer of protection against the rampant identity-theft scams than persons in other States.

But, perhaps not for long! Congressman Steve LaTourette (R-OH), is trying his darndest at a Federal level not to offer this extra protection to all of us, but instead to remove that extra layer of protection certain States offer. He has introduced legislation that, if enacted, would reverse the efforts of over 22 State Attorney Generals who have sided with consumers in the battle against the massive problem of identity theft.

In congressman LaTourette’s bill, consumers would only be allowed to freeze access to their credit information if they had filed a police report indicating they had already become an identity theft victim. That's right, he wants to make a Federal law that says only after being victimized could you freeze access to your credit, and not before. Why lock your door -- let someone steal everything and then lock it It sounds insane because it is insane!
And what the heck are the banks getting out of your deal anyhow? Is obviously-fake / stolen-credit business still "OK" to banks, just so they can show extra "business" on their bottom lines or what? I can't understand this one bit -- it SEEMS so insane that banks would want this law either (perhaps someone can explain this to me).

Anyone with even half a brain can see the obvious ignorance and insanity of such lock-the-door-after-theft-occurs logic. Oh, but wait, we forgot the powerful lobby group of the American Banker’s Association - the most vocal supporter of LaTourette’s bill! Ignore what every average citizen wants... just do what the lobby (read: money) wants. This kind of thing is a sick abuse of power, and nothing short of the typical audacity of our elected leaders that supposedly work for "us, the people", but seem to constantly ignore the overwhelming voice of the populace in favor of the voice of power and money exhibited by lobbyists in our nation's capital. This blatant disregard of our rights to information security and protection must be dealt with. Voice your opinion, and if/when the opportunity arises, vote this turncoat out of office! (hopefully the next elected "representative of the people" will actually listen to the people!).

You know what Mr. LaTourette: if your bill becomes law, and I am not able to freeze my credit information when I otherwise would, and someone takes advantage of your open-credit-door policy for crooks, I and everyone else affected by your obvious disregard of our privacy wishes may just ban together and sue you for neglecting your fiduciary responsibility to uphold the will of the people. Something needs to change: start listening to the people at large, and not just the lobbyists. Only an idiot could argue that your approach to "privacy" is at all effective in identity and credit-theft protections.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Identifying mega-consumers by their garbage volume

I am pretty much the "anti-consumer"; the type of person most companies should not even try wasting time selling to or advertising to. I generally do not find myself wanting very many things, no matter how much advertisers push them on TV or elsewhere (in fact, that usually just makes me want them less). And, I really try to minimize my use of anything that is a "consumable", since by nature it implies repeatedly purchasing the same items over and over (ah yes, the holy-grail for any company is the "consumable"). And, what I noticed is that this lack of purchasing is readily apparent in my curbside waste (or lack thereof).

When I look up and down our street on trash day, or notice trash out in other areas I drive through, I am absolutely astonished by the sheer volume of trash people produce. (on a side note, which I will later blog about, I am even more upset by how little is recycled!). The only way people can produce the amount of waste I witness is by being mega-consumers in my opinion. And, there is a pattern of regularity to the waste-stream I witness around me.

I dare not mention which neighbors produce what level of trash weekly (though it is darn tempting), but I find it amazing how our 3-person household consistently puts out a single bag of trash per week, and yet multiple 2-person households near us will have 2 large garbage cans plus a half-dozen garbage bags out every darn week. And, worse yet, there are a few within a block or two where it is nearly always a dozen or more swollen bags of trash! Wow! What do they do to fill those things!?

I am convinced that there is a direct correlation between people's average weekly trash volume and their overall consumption level (i.e., the more the consumption, the closer they are to the "mega-consumer" level). Aside from being a certain indicator of waste produced (which just magically disappears every week with little concern as to where it ultimately ends up), it just has to tie to the consumption of so many throw-away type products.

The final step in the implications trail, from my viewpoint, is that this trash volume must also serve as a rather reasonable indication of outbound cash-flow (the constant sucking-sound of money being spent on products). No wonder the savings rate is zero (or negative) in this country -- much of the money earned is quite literally ending up in the garbage.

That's my initial take on this. I could rant for a while on this blog about the financial and economic and environmental aspects of all this, but I will save the for a future blog entry.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Bank Terms that Exploit Consumers

I just finished going through a term-deposit account setup process with a bank, whose name will go unmentioned, where I could not believe the "agreement" that I had to accept in order to deposit funds with this bank. A term-deposit account is basically a CD, whereby you agree to lend the bank your money for a particular term (e.g., 12 months) and in return they agree to give you back your funds at the end of that term, along with an agreed amount of interest for having borrowed your money for that period.

Rather simple concept. But, it seems the bank has lost site of who is important in this deal. The term deposit agreement, which I found utterly detestable, has a passage in it that simply states that in the event the bank goes under, that you (i.e., the depositor, the true creditor of the bank) take the absolute last-seat when it comes to making any claims against the assets of the bank. So, who comes first? Well, that would be others who have much larger interests in the bank than the lowly individual who was nice enough to deposit month with the bank. This group of entities that is more privileged to your money than you yourself are included: other creditors of the bank (i.e., other banks, corporate-bond holders, and so on). Gotta love it!

So, if the bank goes under because some high level managers get their fingers too deep into the corporate honey pot through excess expenses like a private plane too many, over compensation gone crazy, acquisitions that go awry, and many other issues, you the depositor are just screwed since you don't have the influence necessary (as an individual depositor) to demand that you have equal rights to any assets that remain in the event a bank goes under. Instead, other banks that should very well have professionals on staff to evaluate credit issues and the likes prior to even loaning money to your bank will have more rights to your money than you do. And, do not forget those guaranteed golden-parachutes for high ranking company officers that would certainly still be OK'd by any bankruptcy judge, giving the group that led the bank into default more right to your money than you also.

To me, this is just one of many many examples of how corporations and large influential entities like wall street investment houses and banks in general have engineered contracts to best protect their money. So what if the individual term-depositor loses their money? This just seems so utterly backwards to me. And, it could change, but it would take organized protest from all depositors to accomplish -- but, where would anyone deposit money while they protest?? Aha! There is the problem. Since, all banks implement the same basic rules, you can not protest one by moving elsewhere since it is the same everywhere.

In the mean time, I guess we lowly customers of the bank are just to hope they do not go under for any reason.

And, I picked on just banks today. There are many more cases of this type of insane consumer agreement that you must "agree" to in order to use a given service, when companies know you have no option or power to negotiate any of the terms of the agreement due to the fact that wherever you go, the rules are going to be roughly the same.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Why don't PCs have built in battery backup?

I poked around the web looking for a PC (not a notebook) case or power supply that comes with its own "built in UPS" or "built in batter backup" of sorts. I own various UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) devices, and I find myself looking at them thinking - why?

Yes, I know the obvious reasons why you should use an UPS (in case power goes out, or a surge or brownout occurs), but the "why" that I asked myself was why don't the PCs include a *small* battery unit internally to at least handle a few minutes of uptime and protect against surges/brownouts without the need for an external device sitting there taking up floor space. It seems to me it would be much more efficient if a rechargeable batter was placed inline with the PC's power-supply (on the outgoing, DC side of things) where if AC power was dropped, it would provide the necessary 12V and 5v (or whatever other low voltage requirements) power to the computer. In addition, a built-in unit like that could easily interact with the motherboard and "inform" the computer (and/or OS) that A/C power was compromised.

With today's Lithium-Ion batteries (like notebooks use) the battery unit could be quite small and easily power the computer for a while. Or, even less expensive lead-acid batteries (like UPS's mainly use) could be incorporated.

I'd also go as far as to say that PC manufacturers could then get together with external component makers (like Flat-Panel LCD makers), to work on a "standard" for low-voltage external device connection that could also make short-term use of the PC's proposed internal battery. Have you ever noticed all those AC-to-DC adapters for your LCDs, some external hard-drives and CD/DVD-ROMS, etc? Seems ridiculous to me. I know that USB allows for some very low-current connections, but there is probably a good case to be made for higher-powered external devices to have a way to plug into my (theoretical) PC with built-in-backup-power.

The main thing would be to just have enough time for the system to perform an orderly shutdown if needed. I think there have been manufacturers of the PC power supply that I envision, though I could not find such a thing on the web.

Just thinking as I write my technology blog entries again, and hoping for improvements in the PC/computer world.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Tons of Linux and Open Source Software News!

This is shaping up to be a very busy week in the world of Linux and Open Source Software!

Here are some of the significant software updates and upgrades with recent announcements:
  • Subversion - upgraded to version 1.4. Adds some significant optimization improvements and other enhancements.
  • KDE (K Destop Environment) for Linux - The first development snapshot of KDE 4, codenamed Krash, has been released and packages are available for Kubuntu Edgy already. This version of KDE is supposed to implement their "Plasma" GUI and widgets / tools, which are to demonstrate some wonderful graphics capabilities under Linux, and much more.
  • a major new version of GParted LiveCD was released last week. The most exciting thing is how the live-CD is now based on GParted 0.3 (disk partitioner) that just added full support for moving partitions! This FREE partitioning utility makes it possible to move all supported file systems (even NTFS) around as you wish on your disks, even to the beginning of a hard drive. How cool is that?!
  • Debian GNU/Linux 4.0, codename "etch" is really coming along. Some of the things that I have been waiting for a long time from Linux are now to be included in the base distribution. Like, a pre-configured scroll wheel on a USB mouse, instant recognition of external USB drives and mounting thereof, and more. I think these things will put Linux distros based on Debian at a level most average home users could handle. And, it is FREE.
  • OpenSuse 10.2 is soon moving out of Alpha. This is a distribution I really like for my desktop use, especially because of how easy it connects to my Windows Domain network, and works wonderfully with my ATI and NVidia graphics cards.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Gluten Free Blog - dedicated celiac blog created

Since I had so many topics going on this main blog of mine (everything from finance to technology to investing, to Celiac / Wheat-Free / Gluten-Free stuff) I created another blog where I will put (most) of the Gluten Free Blog items.

Here's a direct link to my new Gluten Free Blog for anyone looking for the most up to date news and discussion about topics of concern to the GF / Celiac Disease (Sprue) / Gluten Intolerant / and Wheat Allergic crowd.

I will try to place those gluten-free blog items I consider to be "crossover items" here in my primary blog, like when I discuss stock plays like Whole Foods because of their embrace of the whole Gluten Free foods thing in their stores. (I do like Whole Foods stock for a variety of reasons, GF foods just being one. They also have a great corporate culture and unique management compensation structure that should make for a company that is not abusing stock options and executive compensation - more to come on this).

I was reading recently how the gluten free market has grown from something like $200 million to $700 million just in the past 5 years, and it is expected to keep up something like a 25+% annual compound growth rate for quite a while as GF / celiac awareness rises. Thus, Celiac / GF discussions are bound to enter into both my financial / investing discussion as well as my gluten free blog articles.

Well, either way, I am still committed to my gluten free blog for celiacs; I have just tried to organize my various blog items in a way that make more sense for all my readers. Hope it works out best for everyone. Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

VMware for Apple Intel Mac OS-X coming!

VMware for Apple OSX has been announced! This is great news for anyone that has an Intel-based Apple Mac machine that wants to run Apple OS-X as their host operating system and still have the ability to run other operating system like Microsoft Windows, Linux, Netware, Solaris, and any other supported OS's.

I have been contemplating the Mac OS-X platform for sometime, but I need Windows for some of my software development activities (Borland Delphi in particular, and MS SQL Server enterprise manager). This opens a new world of possibility to me. I have had the ability to run Windows under Linux already (using VMware Workstation and/or Player products), but the Apple system prospects were not so clear. I didn't want an Apple just to "play" with it, though I'd consider it much more with the ability to run VMware on it.

So, the product announcement says that beta versions will be out later this year. I'll keep an eye on it, and see what OS-X 10.5 has to offer as well. The only detractor left is the whole pricing of Apple boxes (a premium over commoditized PCs to say the least).

What I still did not notice (perhaps I am just not seeing it anywhere) is the ability to do the reverse -- run OS-X virtual machine on my PC! Now, THAT would entice me into buying a copy of OS-X 10.5 as soon as it was available - just for kicks.

Ford Motors CEO replacement - good or not?

From the world of finance and investing: Ford Motor companies has chosen Alan Mulally to replace Bill Ford Jr. as CEO of the ailing automaker. Mulally is a former senior executive from Boeing Co. (Boeing being the large airplane manufacturer).

Well, that all sounds just wonderful -- at least to all the "analysts" at major banks and brokerage houses, who were instantly jumping on the bandwagon and upping their ratings on Ford stock (typically from "sell" to "hold"). They all expect some sort of miracle perhaps. I personally do not see the fit with Mulally. Sure, he has seen similar competitive issues, been through similar restructuring efforts, and all sorts of mumbo jumbo; but, then again who at this level of senior management wouldn't have?? And, this guy has been with Boeing for 37 years. I would hope he has seen some significant challenges and worked through them.

My primary reason for questioning this move is simply that I see marketing airplanes to an very limited audience (airlines, military) where there are but a handful of models to be sold and where there are as few as 100's of airplanes sold per year for the industry, is a completely different ball game than marketing a commoditized retail product like an automobile. And, how about styling? Colors? Amenities? Sure, airplanes have some variation in amenities, but it is not the person sitting in the seats that goes to Boeing and says "I want a TV and a place to plug my laptop in" - it is the airlines. What I am getting at is that automobile marketing, especially successful marketing, is entirely a function of getting the consumer to buy into your product. There is an entirely new set of criteria at play that gets a consumer excited about your cars then there is about an airline or the military wanting to buy a few multi-million-dollar planes.

So, I am doubtful of the depth of synergies that Mulally will bring to the table at Ford. From the few quotes I have seen, I just see yet another senior manager spouting the usual buzz phrases and things like "they have a great management team" and so forth. If the management team is so great, why is Ford on the edge of bankruptcy? A CNBC interview had him also saying his aim is to build "a portfolio of automobiles that is world class and customers really want to have," which to me just sounds like a darned obvious thing any CEO of an auto company should want to do.

In the end, I would have been more excited to hear that Bill Ford Jr. chose someone from a successful consumer goods company who had shown they could take market share from their competition with goods that were innovative, well designed, and beautifully styled. And, someone that really could show return on investment for marketing campaign dollars would have been wonderful too - since I question the efficacy and value of nearly all marketing and advertising campaigns (especially all these lame automotive commercials on TV that will show you 29 seconds of nothing to do with the car, and one second of the car itself, in a 30-second spot)... I'm only sure the marketing firms are great at marketing one thing: themselves, since how else would auto companies buy into this approach!

Show me the great cars you have (Mr. Mulally)! That is what it is going to come down to (oh, that and overcoming the prevailing opinion that your products and company have gone down the toilet, so why should anyone even consider buying from you when your firm and products are in such lousy shape?) Show me that you have more than a "great management team" or whatever -- I am the consumer, I do not care about your management team, I care about your vehicles, their prices, their gas mileage, features, styling, etc. And, until you make the consumers happy and meet their needs better than your competition, Wall Street is not going to get much out of you either. Good luck.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Windows Vista versions and pricing announced

For any of you that are eagerly awaiting Microsoft's next generation operating system, and follow-on to Windows XP, Microsoft Vista Release Candidate 1 (RC1) is out, and Microsoft just announced pricing for the myriad of versions:

All those versions to keep track of! And, I thought it was complicated explaining the difference between the "home" and "professional" (oh, and "media center") versions of Windows XP to people. Now I am going to have to study a textbook of features and differences to understand what all these versions offer people! Arghhh!

I think Microsoft is moving down the wrong direction with all these versions. Confusion is certain to set in, and they may well dilute the Vista brand in general. One of my businesses is a technology consulting and software firm, and I am already dreading all the calls from clients wanting me to explain what all these Vista differences are, and worse yet, figuring out whether their machines will be able to run the various versions, and so on.

This may well be a good time to look at Apple OS-X 10.5!
I need to do some playing around with the Vista Beta first I guess, but I personally see no compelling reason to upgrade from Windows XP at the moment. And, I am quite happy with Suse Linux 10.1 for many of my daily activities. I have a feeling others are going to be hard-pressed to upgrade as well.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Super capacity Blu-ray DVD - 200GB!

WOW! 200GB on a single DVD!
I just read the release news about the 200GB Blu-Ray DVD here.

TDK is the company that has purportedly pulled this off, demonstrating the scalability of the Blu-ray DVD format. Sure sounds like it has potential. They claim we could see some of these high-capacity discs in the next few months (I am not holding my breath, since they will likely cost a ton even if they do make it out in this timeframe - not to mention the burner costs).

Either way, 200GB on a single DVD is one awesome feat, considering I am still using single-layer 4.7GB DVD's for backing up files in a hurry. That used to sound like a large amount of storage to me, until I started backing up my absolutely massive PDFs from my upcoming recipe book (with all the high-resolution color photos, the PDF is 3.5GB for a 240 page book!) Oh, I could sure use that new TDK device :)

It quite seriously could offer an awesome backup solution compared to the option of Tape devices like Ultrium, LTO, Super AIT, Super DLT, and other high-capacity formats. I would love to get a 300GB SDLT or AIT, etc., but the drives are a few thousand apiece, and the tapes can easily run $80-100 each. So, if this new Blu-ray hits the streets at a price point that is competitive, I may give it a go. Time will tell.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 24, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Currency Hedging with American Depository Receipts (ADRs)

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Adobe Indesign CS2 Review - Spectacular!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turbo Delphi

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Xbox 360 Game Software Development - make your own games!

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

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

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

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

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