Thursday, December 27, 2007

2008 Financial Meltdown Imminent?

As 2007 comes to a close, I can't help wondering what 2008 has in store for us all from an economic standpoint. Should I make a 2008 economy prediction now? Sure, why not,... the "experts" seem to make plenty of forecasts, prognostications, best-guesses, predictions, or whatever else you may want to call them, so I will release my 2008 Financial Meltdown Prediction now.

The way I see it, the only thing that could prevent a mass collapse of our existing financial system at this point is (as nearly always is the case) a large-scale intervention by the Federal Reserve / Government to create yet another "bubble" in yet another sector of the economy with hopes of a newly inflating bubble saving us from one that is currently popping (i.e., the housing bubble). You wait, and watch, and you will see I am right. It is going to take something large (hopefully not a massive war) to seriously change my forecast.

Some things that point to an imminent and impending financial / economic collapse:
  • In general, the house of cards (debt-masked artificial "growth" and GDP) known as our "economy" is finally nearing a tipping point. Remove consumer-debt-financed "growth" and government deficit-spending from the equation, and I posit that there is ZERO true economic growth (negative in fact; as it has been for years, though heavily disguised).
  • The fact that basically nothing is made here anymore is partly to blame for things. All our money is flowing outward, and at a record pace.
  • Year-over-year real-estate numbers. These are down about 7% nationwide, which results in over $1-Trillion in lost "equity" / paper-value of all homes in the USA. This was a historical record correction, and, I think we are only at the cusp of what is to come.
  • Credit-card late-payments are up FIFTY PERCENT yr-over-yr. People are right on the edge of total collapse. Complete delinquencies are also soaring - accounts that have no hope of ever being paid back.
  • Large companies are showing signs of desperation, borrowing massive amounts of cash from (and losing equity to) foreign investors (like Citigroup's $7.5BillionMiddle-East Abu-Dabi bailout deal, Merrill Lynch's $6.2BB bailout by a Singapore-owned state investment firm, Morgan Stanley selling a 9.9% stake to the Chinese government for emergency financing / bail-out... the list goes on!
  • Rising unemployment, which, mark my words, is going to really take off in early 2008. I would bet a substantial sum that massive, widespread corporate layoffs are going to emerge early in 2008 just after the holidays. This seems to be the only way companies can ever come up with to "increase profitability", since management can not otherwise figure out how to differentiate their business from a competitor's and gain market share or improve products and services to increase profits. And, if there is work that still needs done, don't worry -- they'll just use foreign labor and outsource even more than already.
  • Our "volatile food and energy" inflation is out of control, primarily due to competition for food sources from energy concerns (i.e., ethanol production). It's bad enough energy prices are hitting people's wallets, but it takes pure insanity for a country to compete with its food resources to make fuel (regardless of how much farmers may currently be enjoying this windfall). Don't think it is just corn that is going up. Wheat is up 50%+ in the past year, as are many commodities. And, this has hit grocery bills hard, further pinching the consumer.
What has lead to this?
Housing was a bubble created to bail us out of the technology stocks speculation / bubble before it. People seemed to overwhelmingly believe that, once again, a certain sector of the economy could turn in "growth" indicators month after month, year after year, that were so completely out of line with overall long-term GDP growth that it should have been obvious there was a speculative bubble in motion again. But, even the "experts" (which there seems to be no shortage of), continually preached how this was "different" and sustainable, and so on, spewing forth (abused) statistics to back their opinion of why housing was such a great investment.

Contrary to all the analysis and observations by mainstream "economists", I think there is a very simple method for detecting such over-speculation, hype, "froth" (a Greenspan term), lunacy (my term), and so on when it comes to sectors of the economy / market being on fire. Do you want to know how to detect a bubble, and do so in time to avoid getting caught in a downturn like the one we are currently seeing with housing?

Spotting Bubbles Early...
One way I suggest to get advance insight into the formation, expansion, and impending collapse of "bubbles" is to look at Google-Ads (and other online ad mechanisms) to spot market "hot spots". What am I talking about? Well, any time there is the lure of easy money through speculation, and likely areas of exploitation (and even fraud), like some of the business practices that were driving the housing bubble, you will see over enthusiasm and willingness for individuals and companies to pay a very high per-click price for keyword-specific online advertising.

When I heard from a friend a couple years ago who claimed he was making (his cut) as much as $5, $10, or even $20 per CLICK on website ads for mortgage refinancing, home sales, etc., I knew the market was ready to implode! Those rates would imply that people were spending perhaps as much as $50/click to show an ad on websites! The only reason anyone would be willing to spend such amounts on a gamble that the person clicking would then perhaps actually buy their service / product, is if there was some extremely lucrative opportunity to exploit a short-term bubble and cash-in on the craze that was sweeping the country (adjustable rate loans, no-money-down mortgages, and so on). Their was so much profit potential to be had be selling these "financial vehicles" that people were willing to essentially gamble with Google Ads and the like just to get people to their websites.

I had some money in Nuveen Real Estate Income Fund (Public, AMEX:JRS) ETF at the time, and as soon as I started looking into these insane per-click prices, and read all about the rate of supposed per-day house-price increases in places like Orange County, CA (yep, per day -- I read articles about houses going up faster than what a person could make working in a day), I knew it was time to get out. And, I did. I sold before that particular real estate stock fund peaked, but also before it fell nearly 50% to it's current price. I am quite glad I ditched out in time!

What about Economists and their Forecasts?
This leads me to why I consider most economists useless, since as a group, they are nearly always led down the same path as the rest of the population and are nothing more than reactionary. Sure, a select few saw the bubble for what it was, but somehow market analysts, economists, forecasters, and the like as a whole didn't see the bubble for what it was (or, if they did, they were not the ones getting any air-time on TV). They are reactionary in general, and rarely seem to spot useful trends in time.

This continues now. Today I saw this Dow Jones Reuters report, and excerpt which I quote here:
Total applications for U.S. jobless benefits unexpectedly rose by 1,000 last week, while the number of longer-term unemployed rose to its highest in more than two years, the government said on Thursday.
What immediately gets me is the single word: UNEXPECTEDLY. These economists are out of touch. Who, in their right mind, would not expect unemployment to rise when the housing market is imploding, corporate credit-issues abound, the consumer is tapped-out as a whole, and so on?

Given this level of mainstream economists' ability (to forecast), I don't have much confidence in their ability to see how bad things truly are right now. Or, do they all see it and are just not allowed to say it in the public forum? Sure, there are a few small signs of hope within the economy, but I don't think they outweigh the multitude of issues facing our financial system right now.

Presidential Election 2008
Answer this question: why does anyone want to be President in 2008, and inherit this economic catastrophe-waiting-to-happen? Surely whoever is elected will have to deal with a general economic downturn in 2008, a continued weak housing market (if not downright terrible one), a banking system in distress, and more. I go back to my general line of thinking, which is, there must be some really lucrative and long-lasting benefits to being President for someone to want that position badly enough to spend millions to get it. Reminds me of the insane per-click price for advertisements I mentioned earlier.

People definitely expect to get back a LOT more than they put in, whether those people are the candidates or the people (and companies) backing them. How does this fit into my blog today? Well, I ultimately blame this type of behavior for the looming economic crisis we're facing now. Short-term profit motivation is outweighing common-sense, and the consequences of the quick-money mentality are going to catch up to us all.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Business Gift Tax Deduction - $25 per person

Don't miss the chance to write off business gifts...
The 2007 business gift deduction is something many business owners will accidentally overlook this time of year. You still have a few days left, and you can give a (small, $25.00 maximum value) tax-deductible yearly business gift to your client contacts and any employees.

I am not an accountant, and can't give legal or tax law advice, but it seems the law for business gifts and taxes is all about making sure you are giving a gift with the intention of receiving some value in return. It makes sense that you would give gifts to clients or prospects in hopes of landing more business in the future, and the IRS will gladly take their cut of any future profits that directly or indirectly arise from this act of kindness you show your business contacts. Likewise, gifts to your employees are deductible (to that $25 limit) since it is assumed your employees will return that much "value" to you for this expression of gratitude for work well done.

Gifts to Contractors, Gifts to Suppliers, etc...
I have not been able to find specific tax law wording regarding contractors you have on staff -- and perhaps other people that help you with your business (e.g., your accountant, lawyer, and perhaps others you feel would return additional business "value" after building a more friendly working arrangement), but it seems logical that you could.

Worst case is you would have to fight for your right (with the IRS) to attempt to minimize costs for your business, over a maximum of $10.00 lost in tax revenue off the $25.00 gift you gave to a supplier in hopes they would perhaps not charge you when you call them with a simple question, etc.

If you save on expenses, your business profit increases, and you pay more tax, right? So, if an act of kindness saved you even a percent or two when negotiating the best-price with your supplier for paper or office supplies or contracted services, it wouldn't take much at all to offset that tiny little gift-expense in terms of taxable profit / income later.

Once again, I am not tax expert, or accountant, but it seems like you could defend this position (logically at least - - god knows logic rarely plays into tax law though). Consult your accountant for details.

This insane, eternal, low, $25.00 limit!
The dark side of this gift tax deduction for businesses is how lame the limit is! Although it is nice that you can write-off some small items that may garner a bit of extra favor with clients and employees, I still find it reprehensible that the IRS has not raised the $25.00 limit in decades! Sure, they want to avoid rampant fraud and abuse and not lose revenue if they can avoid it, but come on guys, how about a $50.00 limit by now (though, I think $100 limit would make more sense, especially if they go back to not increasing with inflation for another decade or more).

I always try to get some little things for clients and employees every year, since it is a write-off. But, TWENTY-FIVE BUCKS!!? This has not changed in DECADES! Talk about a hidden tax increase! (since, no inflation adjustment factors are in place).

You can't buy anything TOO NICE for twenty-five dollars! So, tell your employees, "here you go -- great job!... sorry, I could only get your something simple and cheap. But thank god for those cheap Chinese imports, since it is the only way I could keep up with inflation!" LOL

At the same time, we recently cut capital-gains rates in half for even billionaires, and GWB whines on TV about how the "death tax" (formerly, pre-propaganda times known as an "Estate Tax") needs permanently removed and the capital gains tax cut needs to be permanent. It says something about our tax-law and who benefits from the larger and highly publicized changes to it, when the IRS worries about $7.00 or so tax revenue per gift, that would grow to perhaps $15/gift lost if they doubled the write-off to $50.00 maximum gift deduction, while at the same time we extend the biggest tax cuts in history to the top income brackets.

So, given the priorities of our Congress and Leaders, chances are nearly certain that the 2008 business gift tax deduction and 2009 business gift tax deduction, etc., will remain subject to the same paltry $25.00 limit. But, take what scraps they give you... you never know when they'll decide to take away this little deduction to balance another handout to a more preferred cause.

Note: if you want to read more detailed insight into this topic of giving tax-deductible business gifts, Microsoft Small Business had this article online about giving a business gift and getting a write-off, that goes into much more of the specifics behind the tax-law.
Also, consider a year-end company party...
If you have food expenses for a company party or for office snacks or meals, those expenses could be fully deductible (instead of the normal 50% deductibility for standard meal and entertainment expenses). So, if you want to buy some "good will" near the end of the year, buy lunch for the office staff and/or have snacks available or throw a nice party. It's a no-brainer for raising workforce morale while you get the full benefit of a tax write-off.

Likewise, you may want to take the opportunity to promote your products and services to the public. If your company is providing food to the public for free as part of a promotional campaign, those costs could also be fully deductible / expensed (100% vs. M&E 50% rule)

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Google KNOL - Accurate Knowledge Source Coming Soon?

I just came across this announcement on the Official Google Blog: Encouraging people to contribute knowledge. Their latest project, called "knol" currently, is quite an ambitious effort Google has planned, and seems to be yet another avenue through which Google will continue to leverage content created by others in order to expand their ever-powerful Google AdWords / AdSense program (i.e., the primary money-making machine for Google corporate).

One excerpt from that Google Blog (by ) that I have to quote, and discuss further, is the following:
There are millions of people who possess useful knowledge that they would love to share, and there are billions of people who can benefit from it. We believe that many do not share that knowledge today simply because it is not easy enough to do that.
I agree with the Google VP's first sentence, as I am one of those millions willing to share all sorts of knowledge about things like software and programming, finance and investment, and even gluten-free baking. I have authored a commercial Gluten-Free Dessert Recipes book, and I share all sorts of Gluten-Free Diet and Baking advice on one of my blogs too -- all as part of that knowledge sharing Google envisions. In fact, I use their rather recently acquired Blogger/Blogspot service to host the latter content - and, I don't mind creating content that they can leverage, since they host my content for free.

I completely disagree with the second quoted sentence. I, and many others, do share our knowledge freely. It is very simple to share our knowledge. Ease of sharing knowledge is not the problem! Ease of getting true "knowledge" to be found (via search engines) is the problem.

What frustrates people like myself is how Google's own page-ranking system will repeatedly give higher precedence in their search results to "knowledge" that is anything but -- quite often presenting myself and others with search results that lead to what are best described as "Internet SPAM pages" (pages full of junk content, keyword-propagation search-result-manipulation crap, or plagiarized content / trademarks / copyrights / etc further used to attract "hits" from search engines for the sole purpose of,... you guessed it,... generating revenue for the site owner through Google Ads). You know it exists. We all know it exists. There really needs to be some better way to distinguish between junk and real, valuable content.

Google claims to have algorithms in place for preventing search index-SPAM from occurring, but many companies advertise services for raising the Google pagerank of websites for anyone that is willing to pay. Fact is, the index-spammers are able to succeed on many occasions. Most do it by linking from many different sites (owned by the same person or company) to a target site using a search-term they wish to target for increase.

Let me clue you in on how to stop this practice Google
(or seriously slow it down) - and I won't even sue you for patent-infringement or anything: use the Internic WhoIs Database to cross-reference the owner / contact info for web-sites, and determine whether linking patterns are nothing more than intra-owner site-links (by people / firms owning hundreds or thousands of domains for the sole purpose of doing this link-promotion stuff)! This should eliminate much of the Internet index-SPAM, by de-prioritizing this type of content.

Next, consider implementing a way to expose what I will call "coerced anchor-text links", which I regularly see on the web. What I mean by this is try to stop the technique where a site owner will offer purported "exposure" or "search presence benefit" to you or such, but only in exchange for you posting a reciprocal link to their site using the exact <a> tag / anchor-text they specify. It is rather widely known that this practice bumps items in your Google search-results. The problem here is how to determine which links are "coerced" and which ones are made because content is worth linking to.

I wouldn't mind seeing a linking-relevance voting system managed through Google. Knol may be a longterm answer to this, at least in part. But, what about content not in "knol"? Once again, the problem is preventing abuse. You don't want index-spammers just finding another new way to "vote" their way to the top of search results with their anything-but-knowledge content, and you don't want them to get their by voting (negatively) against real content (likewise, you don't want competitors voting your content down either). I need to think about this more, but I'm pretty sure there is a simple answer, though it may require access to "private" data -- meaning, to prevent fraudulent votes, steps should be taken to ensure one-person/one-vote-per-link and then run algorithms against those links to be sure they aren't just a new version of index-SPAM created by a network of people.

Will "knol" be impervious to this type of search index-SPAM abuse? Perhaps, but only if it doesn't compete with those that are currently using Google ads as a significant source of revenue with all their internet-junk-content sites (if it competes, junk-content-producers will find a new way to manipulate the system I fear). I don't know what will stop people from emulating the same type of link-propagation technique with Knol, simply by voting their own content up, up, up. When Google makes statements like this:
If an author chooses to include ads, Google will provide the author with substantial revenue share from the proceeds of those ads.
...that is bound to also attract all sorts of lame content just so someone can generate cash from the ads.

I just don't know if "knol" is the answer. Fact is, connecting web-users with knowledge is doable, and can be done without "knol" as a product, using some of the techniques I hypothesized previously to reduce irrelevant (or "junk") content from being returned in search results. But, this is unlikely. Why? Because I think Google has too much of a vested interest in all this current Internet search-engine SPAM that people are forced to navigate through (in hopes of finding real knowledge) only to click one of the Google Adwords / Adsense Ads once they get there. Google may argue that, indirectly, this gets you to the knowledge and content you want, but I'm sorry, that is one seriously weak argument I hope they would never try to defend.

We (the users of the Internet who search for real knowledge) want to get right to what is most relevant, and do so without clicking through a bunch of sponsored ads. I can't help wondering if the new "knol" system Google proposes will improve access to valuable knowledge, or diminish access to knowledge by marginalizing otherwise valuable content just because the authors of some content do not partake in knol, or are unable to partake in knol. Time will tell. All I can do is hope for improvement, because I (like many others) are sick of search-results that are meaningless much of the time.

By the way, when knol does hit production, count me in: I will gladly be an author for gluten-free advice, software development expertise (especially SQL-Server) and more. Why not? I already blog about. I would also go one step further with knol and really format my content as though it was part of an encylopedia or such (I tend to ramble a bit too much on my blog for what I would hope to consider "knol"-ready content).

WIKI / Mind-Mapping: Overcoming Information Overload

Do you feel buried in information? If so, trust me, you are not alone!

If you are like me, you are probably hoping for, and/or looking for, a way to overcome information overload in your daily life - as it seems the pace at which new data piles up just constantly increases. There has to be a better way, and a technology / software solution, that can be employed to efficiently organize masses of information: personal tidbits, work and business information, miscellaneous facts and notes, multiple documents in varied formats (e.g., Word, PowerPoint, OpenOffice, Acrobat PDFs, Excel Spreadsheets), important hyperlinks / URLs, other file-locations (i.e., essentially FTP site or local file-system hyperlinks), images and so much more.

For years, I have been dealing with this growing problem of information management by trying to employ technology to stay one step ahead of things. I have used a wide array of information storage and retrieval tools and techniques to assist in my pursuit of life-simplification and data-management efficiency, with varied results. Each knowledge management approach has had its pros and cons, and most have worked for a while, but eventually implode under the increasing complexities of growing interdependencies, references, and relationships.

I am once again at an inflection point in my information and idea management undertakings. Though my current system of managing my thoughts, files, and information has worked for a few years, it is starting to collapse under its own weight again. So, I have been vigorously researching the latest and greatest alternatives that exist to help me in my desire to once again gain control of all my data and information.

This time around, I am looking into software and technology that was in a rather nascent form the last time I was "in the market" for such things. In particular, I am looking towards an information management solution that may be best described as:

  1. a "personal WIKI" (or, perhaps workgroup WIKI or corporate WIKI -- a WIKI I can run in-house on my own server or desktop computer). I have played with a few now, and know what works for me well, and what does not. There are some nice open-source personal WIKI software options available now thank goodness, and they have really come a long way in functionality and ease of use over the past few years. I tried a few locally-installed WIKI software products with success during my search.
  2. "personal mind-mapping software" (or, "brainstorming software", thought-mapping software, neural net software. This type of visual information management software was cumbersome (at best) just a few years ago. I am delighted to report that I have found a few modern mind-mappers that have some serious potential. Most implement a very similar paradigm for mind-maps, but at least one, called Personal Brain, implements a completely different neural-network or information-web type approach (not the best description, but trust me, it is different) to visual data-management.
  3. A combination of the two - using a mind-mapping system as a WIKI-overlay or add-on to better manage the complex relationships between information, files, and links. Thankfully, most modern mind-map software supports linking external (or attached) files / URLs into the diagram, so I can easily use one for linking to a WIKI or file-system.
  4. The end result needs to support multiple hierarchical navigation-trees / views of the underlying repository documents and data. This is sometimes referred to as faceted classification or faceted browsing (or faceted [data] browser). I find that accessing data from multiple "angles", or entry points, or ways of thinking is essential for quick retrieval. This also leads to...
  5. Easily Searchable Repository - regardless of what I end up implementing, I need to be able to search notes, documents and other attachments, and the like, quickly and easily. More so, I will go beyond considering a "search" to just be a text-based operation - I want to be able to quickly search / scan visually through navigation diagrams and cues I setup, so I can not only see specific search-results, but also how other information is related to those results.
Let me begin by posting some definitions that may be helpful in understanding these technologies I propose to use for managing and overcoming information overload...

WIKI, as defined by Wikipedia:

A wiki is a kind of computer software that allows users to create, edit, and link web pages easily. Wikis are often used to create collaborative websites and to power community websites. They are being installed by businesses to provide affordable and effective Intranets and for Knowledge Management.

Mind-Mapping, as defined on Wikipedia:

A mind map is a diagram used to represent words, ideas, tasks or other items linked to and arranged radially around a central key word or idea. It is used to generate, visualize, structure and classify ideas, and as an aid in study, organization, problem solving, decision making, and writing.

It is an image-centered diagram that represents semantic or other connections between portions of information. By presenting these connections in a radial, non-linear graphical manner, it encourages a brainstorming approach to any given organizational task, eliminating the hurdle of initially establishing an intrinsically appropriate or relevant conceptual framework to work within.

A mind map is similar to a semantic network or cognitive map but there are no formal restrictions on the kinds of links used.

The elements are arranged intuitively according to the importance of the concepts and they are organized into groupings, branches, or areas. The uniform graphic formulation of the semantic structure of information on the method of gathering knowledge, may aid recall of existing memories.

My Chosen Information-Overload "Cure" Technology
Stay tuned. I have made significant progress over the past couple weeks with installing a multitude of demo software, trial software, and open-source full-version solutions. This has taken a lot of time and effort, as there are plenty of nuances to learn about how each piece of technology and software approaches the problem / objective of best information management solution.

I have currently looked at well over 30 WIKI solutions and 10 mind-mapping solutions. From that, I have boiled down the "potential winners" list to just 2 or 3 WIKI products and 2 brainstorming products.

I will soon be posting a list of these "finalists" along with a more detailed discussion about each one, their features, pros and cons, and why I chose what I did in the end. Then, once I select my absolute ultimate knowledge management system, I plan to post detailed directions on how to install and setup the software, and how to best use the technology / software to conquer information overload.

In the case of some open-source software solutions, the installation and setup can be challenging to technology newbies, so if I go that route, it'll take time to provide really clear steps. Ideally, I'd create a personal-WIKI virtual machine appliance (using VMWare tools to create an easily distributed pre-configured WIKI / Mind-Mapping VMware appliance), but that will only work if I use an open-source operating system and only software that will run on OSS too (which, would eliminate any Windows-only solutions of course). I do not plan to only look at open-source mind-mapping or WIKI solutions - I want to consider products based on their functionality more than anything, though with WIKIs, open-source is pretty much a given (there are tons of good ones for free now!).

Once I post further blogs about mind-mapping and knowledge management solutions, I'll amend this one with links to them for easy access.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Find an XBOX 360 65nm "Falcon" System

I have been looking for one of the newest revision Microsoft XBOX 360 systems for a while, now that I heard Microsoft finally updated the components (well, at least the GPU - Graphics Processing Unit) in a new 65nm technology chip in the XBOX360 Falcon Chipset release. The CPU is also supposed to be getting an update to this smaller 65nm chip later in 2008, but the wait is over for me now, since I put off purchasing this game system for a couple years now and the new GPU makes enough of a difference with heat and power-consumption to alleviate any fears of the XBOX 360 system overheating or producing the notorious red-ring of death.

I have been waiting for quite some time for these new "Falcon" 360 machines with the 65nm technology primarily because I wanted to make sure the machine would be reliable and stable, but moreover it uses less power (and, produces less heat of course - which heat, of course, is certainly one of the larger risk factors for electronics-failures). In some other detailed XBOX 360 reviews, I have seen people report that after testing with some device called a "Kill-a-Watt", they are seeing power consumption reduced by nearly 1/3 compared to the original XBOX 360 "Zephyr" based 90nm GPU machines. That's not bad. Certainly, it could be better if they'd expedite the move to ultra-modern 45nm chips (like Intel's latest CPU line), but I don't see that happening anytime soon.

Although reports of the newest revision 65nm XBOX systems have been circulating since something like August, availability had been spotty and the ways to "detect" which units were truly the new Falcon chipset version were haphazard and hit-and-miss at best. There were techniques like looking for two little coils vs. three, and copper-heat-dissipation tubing and different heat-sinks, but recently, what appears to be a nearly foolproof way to find an XBOX 360 Falcon is simply looking for the 175W power-supply information on the box-label.

Basically, the power-supply wattage numbers reflect the fact that the newer 65nm XBOX 360 Falcon chipsets require less power. The older consoles will show 203W instead of the new 175W value on the label that shows the Lot Number, Team, and UPC-symbol. Look for the value in the lower-left corner of the label, just left of the taller product UPC symbol, and you should see a line that reads "~100 - 127Vac, 4.7A, 47-63Hz, 175W". That 175W is the 175 Watt power supply indicator. People everywhere are reporting that this is a sure indicator that you have a new Falcon-based XBOX360 console.

Earlier, the team-number and lot-number (and manufacture date) were being used as a best-guess way to get one of the latest systems, but it wasn't foolproof. But now, with this 175W power-supply indicator, it seemed simple enough, so I went looking. I just found a "TEAM: FDOU" AND "LOT NO: 0743 (LOT 473)" XBOX 360 PRO Console Bundle (had Forza 2 and Ulimate Alliance games - which I could care less about, included), with the new 175W power numbers on the label, at a local WalMart of all places (here in Ohio). I checked the machine out for the Falcon "guts" with a flashlight too (at home), and sure enough, it looks like everyone said it would. Mine shows a manufacture date of late October 2007 also.

So, I fired this unit up right away with Halo 3 (my only immediate "must have" game purchase), which I must say is also quite nice. Even with Halo 3's intense graphics and action scenes to stress the CPU and GPU, the system runs nice and cool and pretty quiet (a BIT louder than the old standard XBOX, but not bad at all). I like the new Wireless controllers - I guess I could have gotten them for the old box, but never wanted to pay for them. Now I just have to wait for some other good-looking games (like Call of Duty 4, Mass Effect, etc) to come down in price.

Sadly, the only downside to this purchase, was that although I jokingly blogged about whether I could make enough money with the Google-Ads shown on my blog to ever pay for the 360 machine, I did have to lay out my own money, lest I would have waited another year or more or the ads to ever pay for it - and I just wasn't patient enough for that! :) Also, the console was not offered at an on sale price or anything (no surprise given the demand), and had I waited til after the holidays, maybe that would have changed. Oh well. Time to play some Halo3 and enjoy this awesome game machine that I did manage to wait two years for!

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

New Gmail Features : Color-Coded Labels and More

I love Google's Gmail application! Though this is certainly not news to anyone who has read any of my prior software and technology reviews here, it is noteworthy that Gmail has further extended the functionality of their awesome free Email application.

They just added color-coded labels to the Gmail interface. For anyone new to Gmail, labels are the mail-organization strategy employed by Google's Email program (as compared to folders or directories). Though they take a bit of getting used to perhaps, labels have a clear advantage over the old "folders" concept -- you can apply multiple labels to any given Email, whereas with the folder/directory approach, you could only place your Email into a single folder (or, category). How often have you went searching for an old email in one folder, only to find it in another? Well, with labels, you can apply as many organizational / retrieval keywords to an Email as you deem necessary, and quickly filter / search to return only those Emails tagged with your label keyword(s).

I borrowed the following pictures from Gmail's updated Help system, which shows how super simple to use this new coloring-feature is:

Colored labels

Better organize your email with new colored labels. Just click the color swatch next to each label to assign a color.

Thank you Gmail developers!

This is a huge improvement to the Gmail Labels feature! I liked labels, but have been longing for a quick visual cue mechanism like this. Now I have both the power of being able to apply multiple labels to my emails for quick searching and retrieval, plus the ability to quickly spot certain flagged items in my Email quickly just on sight alone (like, I have a "TO-DO" label, and a "Blog Topics" label - both of which are reminders that I have followup actions to perform regarding the Emails in question - and now I can quickly visually detect outstanding items in a hurry, without performing label-searches all the time). Quite nice, and a big time-saver and organizational improvement for me. Side thought: perhaps Google will also add a text-highlighter to Blogger now too (in addition to text-color), as I couldn't quite demonstrate the look of my new Gmail labels without it.

I still have some outstanding wants and desires for Gmail (Google Gmail Developers - I hope you are reading this and thinking about these suggestions for innovative Gmail improvements):
  1. Please, be innovative and leading-edge again, and implement what I would call "Email Subject Renaming (or re-labeling)". This to me is something all Email packages should allow for, but I have yet to see a single one that does it. Basically, I'm sick of managing emails with no subjects (or incorrect, irrelevant, or misleading subjects), when people send me Emails without giving them a Subject (or contextually relevant subject) value. Just let me assign a meaningful subject label to the Email(s) and override whatever is currently shown. The original value could still be stored somewhere if needed I'm sure, but fact is, it is the subject-value I want to assign that is what matters most. What does a subject of "(no subject)" really tell anyone?! Come on, please, let me have a way to quickly edit those and put a useful subject text value there.
  2. Give me a way to quickly split an email-thread into more than one thread. This is especially important to me, and goes along with item#1. How often have you started an email conversation about one thing, only to have it fracture and splinter into two, three, or more topics that are all now stuck within the same original email thread? I have found, repeatedly, that people find it so much easier to just click "Reply" without ever updating the Subject Topic value, and the next thing you know, you have emails about what's on TV tonight mixed in with a conversation about world politics. What a mess. There is certainly a way to improve this.
  3. Give me a place to store my "common Email templates" (perhaps you'd call them "form mail" or "form Emails"). This is not to be confused with "Drafts", which move from draft-status to "Sent". I want re-usable Templates! Once again, I have not seen ANY Email programs do this - so Gmail, listen up, be innovative, and wow people further! Create a folder called "Templates" where I can store common email Text. The ideas is simple: I, like many others I presume, must send similar common replies to people on a regular basis. When people ask my a question about the status of my upcoming Gluten-Free Biscotti book, the response is the same (and, only gets updated infrequently). So, I want to have a Template called "Biscotti Book Status" that I open (which also has Subject set to same), and simply send to someone. If I am replying to someone, I want a "Reply using Template" option, which should be rather obvious what I'm after. And, color-coded regions within my template (to prompt me for any recipient-specific changes I should make) would be nice, and I can do that just by highlighting in the Gmail editor already. Also, I want templates with attachments to be available, so if I reply with a PDF file or such, it's all setup and ready to go. Although I have focused on Replies, I surely want to send templatized /standard emails to recipients (not SPAM, but valid emails - like when I request that my blog be included in a list of articles or such).

Gmail is already much better than Hotmail / Microsoft "Live" Mail, or whatever the name-of-the-week for that product is (no comparison in my book - read my blog about Gmail vs. Hotmail / Windows Live Mail for some further input on this). Still, Google can make Gmail even better by implementing my suggestions above - I wish I could access the source-code for GMail and make such modifications myself. Gmail source-code would not quite be enough though, as I'd have to be able to install my programming / software changes on their servers, and I don't think they would let me do that :)

Monday, December 03, 2007

NetBeans 6.0 IDE Release Today - Open-Source, Cross-Platform Java, C++, Ruby / Rails Development Tool

It is an exciting day for Java programmers, as the latest version a popular robust Cross-Platform Open-Source IDE (Integrated Development Environment) called NetBeans has been released - via NetBeans 6.0 Final Download Link. Did I mention that it is FREE!

This programming environment runs on Windows, Linux, Mac OS-X, and Solaris, and has features that support not just Java software development, but also C/C++, Ruby (including JRuby, Ruby on Rails) Development Tool. It is a very full-featured development platform with all sorts of advanced functionality like refactoring and code-completion and much more.

I'm personally looking forward to using it for it's NetBeans Java/Swing GUI Builder (formerly Project Matisse) functionality, which should help me build some robust Java GUI applications quickly. I also plan to work on my own NetBeans Plugin technology to further extend the platform and help others quickly develop better, more reusable, applications (regardless of language) by porting my Developer StemCells Studio features to the platform, which should enable updateable code-template features (template technology is nothing new in IDEs, but templates that are update-aware - i.e., persistent templates; templates that can be updated; modifiable code template; etc - are something missing from IDEs, and I already have developed the technology to fill in the missing pieces). I plan to open-source this effort too, for anyone interested.

Now, back to the new NetBeans 6.0, and how to get started with this wonderful product. You may want to go to the NetBeans Documentation, Training & Support page and check out the various tutorials and such. Or, maybe you just want to download NetBeans 6.0, install it, and play with it. Perhaps you will enjoy reading the NetBeans 6.0 Release Notes to find out what is new and improved, or what has changed since NetBeans 5.5.

Well, enough said - take a look at the product via those links. Programming and software development fun await! And, I'm now off to have some fun with NetBeans.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Blogging to Pay for an XBOX 360 with Google Adsense

I couldn't help wondering what the revenue potential of Google Adsense ads hosting really is - and I mean, earnings potential for me, not for Google (god knows Google is making boatloads of cash lately; you need look no further than their financial statements). So, the question is - can I (or anyone else) make enough "extra" income from people visiting my blogs and clicking on these Google Ads to pay for an Xbox 360 console within a year?

What has lead me to consider this? Well, speaking of Google Ads, perhaps you have seen the same context-sensitive ads here on Blogger that I have -- where ads come up with the ad-content being text like "Earn $3000 per month by blogging", and so forth. Yeah, right! I don't have a clue what clicking those ads leads to, or what whoever pays to place such ads online has as their own, real, method of making money is (once you were to follow the link), but I can rather certainly guarantee you that what you find isn't going to be the secret that will have you generating anything beyond a small fraction of that monthly figure just by writing blogs. I just don't think it is humanly possible.

From my experience, there just aren't many people clicking the ads, or finding the content within the ads useful and pertinent enough to click - at least not on a "micro scale" as is observable here on my blog. Certainly, for Google as a whole, there are a LOT of ads being clicked somewhere (and, paid for by advertisers of course - which is what Google relies on as their sole revenue generation model). That is the power of having many, many websites hosting their Google Adsense advertisements -- multiplying a small amount of revenue by millions and millions of web sites leads to spectacular daily income totals for Google. So, what does Adsense offer for personal money-making potential on the content I create by blogging regularly?

I have a decent feel for how many people view my blogs in a given day, and it is what I consider a fairly high number (across all my web properties, it is in the thousands of unique daily visitors). And, I have a rather substantial amount of content online - hundreds of blog entries, hundreds of web pages with access to free source code (for programmers), free recipes (for gluten-free people), and other useful content that draws readers in.

With all those readers, and all that content I have online, typical ad-revenue is a trickle - with most days producing much less than a dollar, especially on days where I have not written or posted any new content online. This makes the thought of blogging to pay for a new XBOX 360 nothing more than a dream, or at a best case, a dream that would take well over a year to fulfill. And, it would cost me so much more in time (creating useful content) than I could ever get in advertising dollar returns. So, if the XBOX is out of the question, $3,000/month is definitely NOT going to happen - what a surprise! (not!)

The good news for me is that I never started writing blog entries with the intention of making money from advertising (Google Ads or anything else). I started all my web content-creation as an expressive outlet for my thoughts, ideas, and advice / opinions rants. I don't see how anyone could, or would want to, try to create content just for the sake of generating ad revenue from click-throughs - the returns on time invested would be terrible!

By the way, can somebody explain to me how some of those Google Ads work where certain ads just go to pages full of more Google ads?! What is up with that? My first problem with it is how I consider it to be nothing more than a massive pile of Internet-Index-SPAM essentially, but even more so, what is the business model behind it? Do people and companies buy advertising for some keywords at like a penny-per-click with hopes that if someone clicks it and goes to their own advertising "meta sites", that the person will then continue clicking on those ads, which presumably have been filtered to include much higher per-click payback for the meta-site owner, thus resulting in a substantial net-profit? If not something like that, I just don't get it.

Well, bottom line is this: I have a long way to go to making enough from Google click-through Advertisements on my web sites before I can ever buy an XBOX 360 from the proceeds :( Oh well, given time, and much more content creation on my part, perhaps that will change... but, I'm certainly not kidding myself thinking I can blog my way to riches. lol. Instead, I will continue to blog because Ilike to, and if ever I create enough content to have millions of readers daily, that'd just be a nice bonus.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Holiday Toys and Gifts Made in the USA

With all the Chinese-made toy and product recalls, due to lead and other safety hazards, you may be looking for some products for your children, relatives, or friends that are actually SAFE. Although there is no way to ever be 100% sure of product safety, I think one good way to increase your chances of getting a safe toy or gift is to purchase one that is actually made in the USA.

You probably already know this is easier said than done these days, as many products (especially toys, clothing, electronics, etc.) are rarely made in the United States. But, there are exceptions. After poking around looking for "safe gifts" for Christmas, I located the following US-made products that you may find as interesting as I found them to be:
  • Uncle Goose Toys - USA makers of the highest quality American Made Alphabet Blocks (from sustainable Michigan basswood). These get high marks and meet all U.S. and European safety standards, and feature child-safe inks.
  • Channel Craft - Authentic American Toys, Games & Puzzles maker. They carry a variety of classic games and the like, all made in the USA.
  • Maple Landmark Woodcraft - their toys include their NameTrains Wooden Railway system, a nice selection of high-quality wooden jigsaw puzzles, building blocks, toddler toys, trucks and trains, and many more US made toys. Check them out.
  • Now comes a personal favorite: Zome products. This company has a rather unique product line that includes USA-made building / construction kits and products that I think could be fun for both children and adults. They have Color-coded and shape-coded construction kits for building all sorts of unique things. And, their prices are quite reasonable, since they sell parts by the pound too! I would have loved having some of these when I was a kid, and would have built some awesome 3D geometric structures given enough parts to do so. They definitely appeal to my science, geometry, and architecture curiosity.
  • Vermont Teddy Bear - that says it all perhaps. This company offers the definitive high-end high-quality custom teddy bear. They are made in the U.S.A., but what I don't know is whether every single component they use in the production of the teddy bears is of US origin. You could perhaps search their website more or contact them to find out. Either way, it's probably a much safer bet than their Chinese counterparts.
Hope that helps you find some safe Christmas gifts this year. And, at the same time, you can help out the United States manufacturing industry and perhaps create some jobs here (or, at least keep some of the last remaining US manufacturing jobs here).

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Eclipse 3.3 for Rich Client Platform Applications

I discarded Java/SWT (Standard Widget Toolkit) as an application development language option a few years back (like, somewhere around 1999-2001). I remember trying to build even a simple application in Java, using Borland's JBuilder 3 product, and discovering how bad the overall development experience in Java was - slow, buggy, under-powered, lacking features, and just generally painful. This went for both the JBuilder 3 IDE (which ran at a snail's pace back then), as well as the resulting Java "application" (presuming one could ever be created, beyond the simplest of applications that actually worked).

At the time, I was comparing Java to the powerful and robust Win32 applications I built using the exceptional Borland Delphi development products (now owned by CodeGear) - there was no comparison. Native Windows applications built using Delphi were robust, stable, fast, and relied on a mature object-oriented framework (the VCL - Visual Component Library). Java - well, to summarize, it sucked. Now, I am once again looking at cross-platform development options, and as such, I am reconsidering Java (as well as Python, C++, and perhaps even Ruby - though I think the latter is just a fad til proven otherwise long-term).

Well, things have improved considerably for Java-based software development from what I can tell. I think the main driver of this change is Eclipse. It seems that much of the work on the Java classes has to do with the Eclipse framework's own requirements, and the Eclipse Community has some major players behind it - like IBM, Borland/Codegear, and other major technology vendors, researchers, and independent developers.

After digging into the latest version Eclipse 3.3, and the latest enhancements to the Java SWT, I am seriously reconsidering it as a development platform (with "it" being the combination: Eclipse + Java). I also will use Eclipse as my Python development platform of choice, but I am going to focus on the Java development tool portion of things mainly here.

One of the first things I think any good software development tool, framework, and environment need in order to succeed is a good set of "getting started" code samples to help developers quickly hit the ground running and productive. Eclipse now provides a nice set of code snippets for Java / SWT that will certainly help anyone get started with Eclipse/Java/SWT development. The source-code samples are all rather straight forward, and that concise and well-categorized (by type of functionality) library of code chunks should be enough to get a developer going, as many common-tasks are clearly coded.

Next, did you realize that Eclipse has turned into not just a platform for IDE's (Integrated Development Environments - for software programming / coding), but also into an application-development-framework? They are pushing it as an application-platform totally, and you can customize any programs built with it to where nobody even knows it is Eclipse underneath. Per their (Eclipse Foundation's) own description:

"The Eclipse for RCP/Plug-in Developers contains what you need to build Eclipse applications, including plug-ins for the development environment and Eclipse Rich Client Platform (RCP) applications. Designed specifically for the task, this is the best tool available for building Eclipse plug-ins and applications (it is also considered by many to be the best Java development tool available)."

Now, I MAY be speaking prematurely, since I have yet to build any RCP Applications with it, but, I downloaded Eclipse RCP/plug-in development version from here with high hopes of doing so:

I THINK it can help me do exactly what I want with my existing Developer StemCells Studio (tm) program — an updateable language-neutral template-based software programming tool:

1) give me a cross-platform reach. I am currently limited to Windows development since the tool is a Windows-32 native executable now.

2) provide a "host" into which my code processor/plug-ins can be installed, and then make my StemCells(tm) technology available to any developer, using ANY language hosted inside Eclipse. It seems the Eclipse infrastructure will make many things EASY (or easier), if I can figure out how to use them to my advantage. Like, did you know they have a neat little "diff" control that makes it easy to show visual side-by-side compare (of two files or text-sources)? That's cool. Basically, any feature in Eclipse can be used in your apps.

Since C++, Python, Java, JavaScript, PHP, Ruby, and so many other languages can be worked with inside Eclipse through various open-source (and commercial) editor plug-ins, Eclipse provide the "common ground" that I am looking for in a programming tool. I wish Delphi was also supported as well as Microsoft DotNet like C# and (maybe Mono has something supporting that, though any C# plugins I found seem rather old and lacking active development - I need to look further)... then, I'd have ALL the languages I want access to for my StemCells to "target". (note: Codegear now offers JBuilder 2007 built on Eclipse, which makes me wonder if eventually Delphi will become Delphi on Eclipse too).

There are a lot of neat "plugins" also available at Eclipse Plugin Central, like this Jigloo SWT/Swing GUI Builder that seems interesting and gets high marks from users. I plan to try this one out, as well as the PyDev Eclipse Plugin (Python Development assistant), and a few others. I'll play with those things to see how far the platform can be pushed, though my main interest right now is being able to use Eclipse as a Java development platform.

I just felt like sharing some excitement about modern Java software development, using Eclipse... now, here's hoping it lasts :)

Continue to read this Software Development and Technology Blog for computer programming articles (including useful free / OSS source-code and algorithms), software development insights, and technology Techniques, How-To's, Fixes, Reviews, and News — focused on Dart Language, SQL Server, Delphi, Nvidia CUDA, VMware, TypeScript, SVG, other technology tips and how-to's, plus my varied political and economic opinions.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Gluten-Free Black-Friday and Cyber-Monday Sale

It used to be that "Black Friday" was the day of the year when most retailers would finally go into the "black" (i.e., turn profitable) as sales soared as the Christmas holiday season kicked off with the shopping frenzy that occurs on the Friday immediately following Thanksgiving. Now, with the importance of online (Internet) shopping, there is also the concept of "Cyber Monday", where upon returning to work after the Thanksgiving break, most workers will (abuse / use) their employers' Internet connections (and time) to place online orders and set records for "e-sales" (online sales).

To coincide with these two phenomena, many retailers run very specific super-discount sales on highly sought after items. This makes a lot of sense when you need a "hot item" (like an Xbox 360 or Nintento Wii or Playstation 3) to draw people into stores - in hopes that once they buy a discounted game machine, and continue shopping for other (higher margin) items throughout your store. Basically, many retailers will put out a popular item at or near cost (in some cases below cost), just to make sure you get into their store to spend more money.

Now, where does this leave the little guy that sells only a single item or a few items? Well, I really don't know, but I'm about to find out as I attempt to partake in Black Friday and Cyber Mondy with my own "super-sale", where I will offer the lowest price ever on my Gluten-Free Desserts Book, but only for a brief period of time during these key shopping days. I will start by testing the concept out with my Gluten-Free Black Friday Sale, and then if that is a hit (or, perhaps even if not), I may also offer a Gluten-Free Cyber Monday Sale with the same deal -- on each date(s), the discount will show automatically when people click the "Order this Selection" button on my web-site's purchase page.

Much like other retailers, I'll be selling at a price that is definitely going to put a crunch on margins, but I'm going to hold out hope that people on a gluten-free diet (or those who know others on a GF diet) will take the opportunity to perhaps purchase multiple copies of my gluten-free recipes book (for this one-time, best price chance) to give as gifts to others with Celiac Disease that they know, and so forth. Only one prior to this have I even come close to the price I plan to offer - and that was at an in-person Celiac Conference event in Long Island, New York, where I offered a steep discount to make up for the fact I had no provisions for accepting credit-cards at the event (luckily, I can now accept all major payment types online!)

Here's my (rather uncreative) advertisement for the 2007 Christmas holiday gluten-free recipe book sale:

Here's hoping any additional sales volume makes this all worth the bother :)

I'll post a summary of my findings here later, under a "Finance and Investing" label/group, to share my experience. I'm doubtful I can compete with the giant retailers like Walmart and BestBuy, but what the heck, at least I will have tried.


OK, the 2007 peak Christmas shopping days are behind me now. Here is what I saw for Gluten-Free Recipes book sales at my Gluten-Free Desserts Book website. "Cyber Monday" ran about 50% higher volume than "Black Friday", and both were decent volume, though nothing like the electronics-retailers are experiencing this year :)

We moved more books in two days than a typical two-week period. But, we still have a lot to do to increase our sales volume. I meant to advertise (with Google ads) this year, but never got around to it. Oh well. Maybe next year. lol.

Also, I plan to perhaps do one more pre-holiday promotion yet - taking the advice of another online retailer I know, and offering free priority-shipping or such when closer to Christmas, since people get concerned about receiving their gifts in time for the big event. I need to work out details yet, but that's the general thought right now.

So there you have it - Black Friday and Cyber Monday do exist, and from my experience, the online sales really are higher on Cyber Monday (with the same sale price offered on both dates - so level playing field for my "experiment").

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

2008 Nissan Altima Coupe Review - Nice Car!

I stopped by a nearby Nissan dealer recently and checked out the gorgeously styled new 2008 Nissan Altima Coupe as I was researching cars and the wheel-size and tire-size options available on various new automobiles these days (I did that for my recent environmental blog about how wasteful large wheels and tires are).

One thing that surprised me about the Altima Coupe (with the 4 cylinder engine) was how it offered decent gas mileage (23 city / 32 highway with manual transmission, and 31 highway with automatic transmission) and out of all the cars I looked at it used the least expensive OEM 16-inch tires ($71/each at TireRack) of the various cars I checked out. This surprised me, especially considering the car I looked at was rather "loaded" with an incredibly comfortable full leather interior, moonroof, and all sorts of creature-comforts. So many other automobile brands would have forced me to 17-inch (or perhaps even 18") wheels and tires just to be in a car with so many other high-end options.

I wish the price-tag for the entire car was a bit more in-line with its tire prices though, since the loaded 4-cylinder 2008 Altima Coupe I sat in was sticker-priced at nearly $27,000 (ouch!). It would take a lot of miles and tire-price-savings to make up for that price tag. Perhaps I'm just out of touch, since I expect to be able to find a nice car for under $20,000, which seems a bit of a stretch these days. I have found some that I consider decent in that range, but this 2008 Altima Coupe was certainly in a bit of a different league than the sub-20K cars I noticed. Nissan did a great job with the styling (in my opinion), both inside and out, and I guess this will allow them to command a premium price for this automobile.

At this time, my review is limited to the car's interior and exterior styling, its gas mileage specifications, and its wheel and tire size options (and other options, which are numerous and include that awesomely over-the-top comfortable form-fitting leather seats option), since I didn't bother to drive the car yet -- I don't think I can justify the price tag, though I'm rather sure I'd enjoy the car if I could. I may end up going back (on a non-rainy day, as it was this time) for a test drive just to see first hand if the 2008 Nissan Altima's road-test delivers what the styling and specifications suggest it would.

And, note to Nissan (and any other car companies interested enough to care): the only reason I even looked at the 08 Altima Coupe (4 cylinder - not the 6 cylinder) was because it had a mileage rating above 30 mpg (miles per gallon), which is my current bottom-threshold for consideration in any new automobile. And, it had reasonably-sized and reasonably-priced tires (a major consumable) that also carry with them a nice wear-rating!

Coming soon: Car Cost-of-Ownership Analysis
Car cost is one thing, but cost of ownership is another. I'll be exploring, in more detail, how expensive some consumables like tires can be in the overall cost-of-ownership equation soon. But, to give you a quick sample...

If you read yesterday's environmental blog posting I did (about tire size and wear), you'd have seen how the OEM tires on the decked out 2008 Honda Accord Coupe (18 inch low-profile sporty things) cost over $250 per tire, or well in excess of $1,000 per tire change, and were only expected to get perhaps 20,000 miles per set. Do the math: the tires alone are costing that loaded 2008 Accord Coupe owner over 5 cents per mile! By comparison, if the car manages 30 miles per gallon highway, and gas is $3.00/gallon, the gas is costing 10 cents per mile. So, those "top of the line" 18" tires can easily add a full 50 percent to the cost of driving a mile! That's some serious cost to consider.

Contrast that per-mile tire-cost to the cost for the standard 16" tires on this loaded 2008 Altima Coupe I just talked about - which were running under $300/set. Instead of budgeting 5-cents per mile for tires, you can save a ton and budget as low as a penny per mile for tires (since the smaller 16-inch tires also carried upwards of a 50% greater tread wear rating). Saving 4 cents per mile may not sounds like much, but if you drive 100,000 miles, that is $4,000 real dollars to be considered. And, when you need new tires, perhaps you won't have to go in debt to afford them.

On a related cost-of-ownership topic, you may need that extra 4 cents/mile to cover the rising gas prices! At 25 MPG, that 4 cents per mile savings covers another dollar-per-gallon gas price increase (i.e., you'll be better prepared for that four dollar per gallon gasoline that seems inevitable).

Monday, November 12, 2007

Environmental Impact of Larger-Diameter Car Tires

A recent trend I see that makes me even more conscious of our race to destroy the planet is this push towards large diameter car wheels and tires. Did you know that, counter-intuitively, a larger-diameter tire that has more surface area to wear down, actually nearly always wears more quickly than a smaller diameter tire?

Just go to a car dealer and ask them how many miles to expect out of those bigger and fancier 18" tires, and then ask the same question as applied to the same model car but with smaller (less "premium" / "sporty") tires. Or, go to a place like Tire Rack dotcom (which I highly recommend for great deals on tires), and just check out the wear ratings on the various size tires. I can pretty much guarantee the smaller tire is going to last longer. And, to top it off, the smaller tires are cheaper (conversely, the larger tires that are going to wear faster are more expensive)

So, not only do the larger tires wear faster, but the also cost more - talk about a double whammy to the pocket book! I recently saw a new 2008 Honda Accord Coupe in its "top of the line" configuration, which sported snazzy 18" low-profile sporty 235/45VR18 tires. I asked how many miles to expect out of a set -- "about 20,000" I was told. Eeek! Only 20K miles! Wow, what happened to the days where a Honda Accord was a family car that sported 15" tires capable of 50,000 miles between changes? And, these new 18-inch Michelin Pilot HX MXM4's are going to set you back at least $255 each (that's the discount Tire Rack Price too)! (read: over $1,000 just for a set of new tires that you may be putting on your car once ever year or two with "normal"-mileage driving habits).

Sure, like anyone with a sense for visual appeal, I can appreciate how fantastic these large wheels and tires look on something as sharp as the new 2008 Honda Accord Coupe, but what I can't understand is who wants to spend this much money on their tires regularly. And, I have yet to get to the environmental-impact side of the equation. Honda sells this car as something like a near-zero-emissions vehicle. Well, perhaps so (with regards to what comes out of the tailpipe), but what about all that (quickly) spent rubber that ends up polluting the environment? Oh, and "rubber" tires require a lot of OIL in their production. But, what's a little more oil consumption these days as oil reaches a record $100/barrel?

By the way, I don't want to seem like I'm picking on just Honda here. Fact is, after this little Honda experience, I went shopping around to see what all the various new cars sported for tires these days. Over and over, regardless of automobile brand, I was confronted with "base" models that had at least 16" tires on them, and quite often larger (even a little Scion Tc has 17" wheels by default now!). When asked why all the wheel options (which, never include downsizing, but nearly always include upsizing) are the way they are, some dealers say it is "customer demand", but others indicated that they believe tire manufactures have essentially worked deals with the car companies to push these larger, quicker-wearing, more expensive tires (gee, I wonder why!?).

If you are under 25 years old, perhaps you are not even aware of the day of 13" diameter rims on the small economy cars like the Ford Escort, and how these tires would last "forever" (certainly by modern terms). I'm not saying we need 13" tires on all cars or anything, but we really need to look at the impact that decisions like selecting the biggest wheels and tires possible for our automobiles can have on the envirionment. If you want some light reading on the matter, check out this 2004 USGS article on Tire Wear as a source of Zinc (pollution) to the Environment - it has all sorts of other neat tire-wear and pollution data in it too.

We can't just talk about making the environment cleaner, we need to have our actions reflect the essence of this talk. Car companies are advertising all over the place about going "green" and all, and I really think automobile manufacturers need to consider the tire side of the green equation too.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Lead-Free Christmas : Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Wii

With all the news about Chinese-made toys containing lead and other toxic chemicals, I can't help thinking that the beneficiary of this widespread problem will be the major video game makers this year - Microsoft with the XBOX 360, Nintendo with the Wii, and Sony with the Playstation 3. I have no idea if the game consoles, controllers and other accessories, and the CDROMs for these game units are perfectly chemically-free, but it seems a bit more likely that they will be lead-free than anything that is covered with Chinese paint these days.

I'm looking at this from two angles as well:
  1. what can people "safely" purchase for their families this Christmas season, and
  2. how will such purchasing decisions affect stock prices?
It is only my personal opinion, but I am assuming that companies like Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) will show some direct benefit as people move towards the XBOX 360, as well as towards computers in general as a gift option (since Microsoft makes the operating systems that appear on nearly all consumer-oriented PCs). There are plenty of PC-Based games out there for all ages. Next, there is Nintendo (OTC:NTDOY), which is a nearly pure video-game play, but must be purchased as an ADR (American Depository Reserve) stock since it's native trading location is the Nikei / Tokyo stock exchange. Likewise, Sony Corporation (NYSE:SNE) is an ADR, and will likely show very little video-game-sales effect since the PlayStation doesn't make up a very large part of their total revenue.

Another angle to consider is the game retailers in general. "Traditional" game stores like Toys R Us or whatever are bound to have a challenging time with all this Chinese lead paint recall news, and I think that electronics retailers like Best Buy and Circuit City may end up reaping a large (sales) benefit from this situation, but will their stock reflect it? Prior history would seem to indicate otherwise, at least for the short-term following the big post-Thanksgiving holiday shopping weekend. In fact, when I looked at the charts, it seemed as though quite regularly the "pattern" would be over-optimistic investors would cause the stock to hit a short term "peak" price the day before Thanksgiving, and then nearly without fail, in the coming week the stock would fall (as, presumably, over exuberance was tamed repeatedly with less than stellar sales reports from retailers during Black Friday). But, that aside, perhaps someone like (NYSE:BBY) could still show long-term benefit.

All I know is that right now, from where I sit, I see all the "cool" products being electronic ones and anything that is "safe" from a lead-free perspective. I'm not in tune with what anyone buys for young people though (under teenage years especially); perhaps clothes this year... got me. But, for teens on up, I'm thinking electronics (and video games in particular) will be quite a hit this year.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Comparison: Windows Live Hotmail vs. Gmail

I have free hosted email accounts with both Microsoft Hotmail (now "Windows Live Hotmail") as well as Google's Gmail. Ages ago, prior to Gmail's existence, I used Hotmail nearly daily, and since Gmail arrived on the scene, it's my daily full-time Email system of choice.

After Hotmail was "upgraded" to Windows Live Hotmail, I gave it another look, and if possible, Microsoft made Hotmail worse with this "upgrade". The Windows Live Hotmail interface is nearly unusable and completely intolerable to me. It is so SLOW, I don't know how anyone can deal with it - just checking a checkbox in the Inbox carries with it a significant delay while the screen refreshes, and the overall interface doesn't even work properly in non-Microsoft browsers (i.e., Firefox - where the splitter-control in the Inbox view is completely non-functioning).

Bottom line: Windows Live Hotmail has only one thing going for it - it is FREE - but, free doesn't make it good enough to compete with Gmail even in the least.

Functionality Comparison
Where to begin? These software products, both web-based email programs, are so completely different, with Gmail being fast, responsive, full-featured, and well designed from a usability standpoint, and Windows Live Hotmail being at nearly the complete opposite end of the spectrum.

Interface Speed and Usability:
As I already hinted above, there is no comparison: Google's Gmail wins this hands-down. Regardless of which browser I use with each product (yes, I have tried both Firefox and IE with each), there is still no comparison. Gmail's user interface is fast and responsive and logical, Hotmail's is the complete opposite and is slow, inefficient, and pure drudgery to use.

OK Hotmail staff, explain to me why you feel the need to show a default image in your checkbox column of something other than a checkbox? (envelope images, closed ones, open ones, ones with arrows, etc.) This is insane. It further slows the event-code on the rows and makes the UI controls exhibit anywhere near "standard" behaviour. Many times I just want to select a few messages to delete, but it takes forever, since your code has to refresh so much junk on the page, and the onclick routines are tyring to update the message-preview window below at the same time, and so much more. It is unusable. Just dragging the "splitter" (between inbox items list and the preview pane below) is slowwwwww. I'm using a FAST machine by the way, so what the heck is going on?

This type of experience persists throughout the entire offerings from each - Gmail tends to just "get it right" and do so in a fast and efficient and usable manner, whereas Hotmail tends to somehow overdesign their interface and generally make for a dismal user experience.

SPAM Filtering:
The default SPAM filtration in Google's Gmail is wonderful! Whatever Gmail is using for their SPAM-Detection logic is superb to say the least. In a given year, I can't recall a single piece of SPAM making it through to my inbox. As for "false positives" (i.e., valid email being considered SPAM), I have had only 3 or 4 emails per year fall into that category, and that is almost always a condition that occurs just once with any given sender, and typically the first time a new sender ever communicates with me where they just happened to use keywords in their email that looked suspect or something. By comparison, Hotmail's default SPAM filter is no where near as accurate... considering I use Hotmail much less than Gmail, it is rather ridiculous that I get at least one SPAM messages a day on average in Hotmail. Speaking of SPAM, one of the regular pseudo-spammers is Microsoft themselves, always sending messages from the "Windows Live Team" announcing something, whether important or not.

Related: In Hotmail, by default, if you get an email with a URL / link to an external web page and you click that link, a popup will show stating that "Attachments, pictures, and links in the message have been blocked for your safety. would you like to unblock the content of the message?". OK, this sounds like a nice security feature, but if my email had been properly filtered to begin with, chances are that the link in my email is one that I really want to view and this popup is nothing more than another clunky and annoying aspect of this interface.

Grouping of Email Conversation Threads:
No comparison! Gmail does it, Hotmail does not. The Inbox in Hotmail gets cluttered so quickly with conversation responses that it is overwhelming to manage it. Every new inbound Email is a line item in the inbox, which coupled with an incredibly slow user-interface, multiplies the absolute torture of using the Hotmail product. By contrast, Gmail presents your email Inbox lines as conversational-thread summaries, thus keeping all the back and forth communication on a single topic together in the inbox-view, whether there is a single exchange or 100 exchanges on a topic - this keeps the Inbox MUCH more manageable to say the least! Gmail gets mega-points for this well planned and well-implemented feature.

What I wish they (all email products - Gmail included) would allow for yet, would be the option to "split" a thread if I desired, and allow me to rename the subject-line (essentially, I want to be able to label a subject-line with something meaningful or more accurate if needed - especially when someone sends me an email about something important, and either leaves the subject-line blank or labels it "HI" or some such thing). If Gmail did this, their product would be nearly perfect in my opinion. Anyone at Google listening? Just abstract the subject-line property a bit, and allow for a user-defined override "label" if desired.

I'd like to continue with the detailed comparison of these products, but the fact is, as I sit here writing this, and using both email platforms as I type (to remember what the differences are), I just get so frustrated with the Hotmail product that I don't even want to deal with it anymore. I don't need to see a bunch of MSN Today crap on a "home page" for my email,... I don't need any of this user-interface frustration with the Microsoft product either. I'm sticking with Gmail, and just enjoying the fact it is so vastly superior. Enough said. Try both out, and see what you think.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

IBM Lotus Sympony for Windows - the brand returns

Do any of you remember the original Lotus Symphony software package, circa 1984? It was originally released in back then as an integrated software application for DOS, which so many of the younger persons today are not even aware of. Now recently, IBM has revived the Symphony name for a new office suite (currently in Beta 2 stage) that is to be released free of charge.

If you want to get the free Windows Office software package, it is available here at the IBM Lotus Symphony web site, and it includes a word processor (IBM Lotus Symphony Documents), a presentation tool (IBM Lotus Symphony Presentations), and a spreadsheet program (IBM Lotus Symphony Spreadsheets). From the looks of it, the IBM Office software is quite similar to the OpenOffice suite (OpenOffice.Org), but lacks a database tool and vector-based drawing tool like OpenOffice offers.

What I find even more interesting is how IBM supposedly joined the community, just a week before announcing the early public release of this re-emerging Symphony branded office application. IBM will be contributing code to the OpenOffice project, but also taking code from it to use in its own office suite. What I don't understand is why IBM just couldn't focus entirely on making OpenOffice a better product instead of releasing yet another office suite that will no doubt end up being just a marginal player on the desktop, aside from their need to promote their own brand recognition, if even for free. I guess I can just hope that whatever IBM does decide to contribute back to the OpenOffice project is something useful and technology that will help OO better compete with Microsoft Office. From my experience, OO is pretty decent, but it has a long way to go to catch up to MS Office 2007, and I'm sure this new IBM Symphony application will fall into that same status without some serious investment on IBM's part.

Bottom line: if you are looking for a free desktop office productivity suite, perhaps the new IBM Symphony Office will be an option for you. Can't hurt to consider it.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

National Do-Not-Call Registry and permanent registration

For any of you who have signed up for the National Do-Not-Call Registry, especially those of you who signed up a few years ago already, you will be pleased to know that the FTC has pledged to not drop any numbers from the Do Not Call database pending final congressional lawmaker decisions about whether to simply make the don't call list "permanent" once you sign up.

This all sounds great, but my paranoid side has to wonder if this will ultimately turn out to be an orchestrated effort (pushed behind the scenes by telemarketing interests) to subvert the intentions of the do not call list through a tightly choreographed appearance of an attempt to make the list permanent, while the real objective is to have all of the names on that list that are reaching maturity (i.e., the existing 5-year limit) hold off on renewing their desire to remain unbothered by telemarketers as Congress "works on the issue", ultimately to have Congress not extend the 5-year period to permanence, and worse yet, do so with little notice and little press, effectively having all of us that are currently on the list "fall off" temporarily and subject ourselves to the harassment and calls we so want to avoid.

The real solution, and the obvious solution, to this do not call list is to make ALL phone numbers be automatically on the do-not-call list, and have it be an OPT-IN option to inform marketers that you actually want to receive calls from them (versus the current, and unbelievably lame, opt-out process that is nothing short of an obvious appeasement of telemarketing lobbying interests -- certainly not a consumer interest)! Of course, since the logical answer is to have all phone numbers be on a do not call list by default, that is one thing Congress will never require. So what if 76% of Americans have signed up to keep their numbers off the marketers' lists? (and, I presume most of the remaining 24% would do the same, but just don't take time or are not aware of how simple it is to do).

Let me start with a real-world example of how messed up the current do-not-call registration process-flow is, and what backs my presumption that Congress will, "after careful consideration" and so forth, not make the Do Not Call list a "permanent" thing. Recently my mother-in-law started receiving harassing calls in the middle of the night from some whacko that just happened to choose her number to call. Her existing number was on the do-no-call list, and she rarely received calls aside from the "exempted" stuff like "surveys" and political-campaign messages (gee, who would have guessed lawmakers would exclude themselves from being censored). After these harassing calls persisted for a few days, my mother in law decided to just have the phone company change her number.

Gee, guess what happens after changing your phone number? You are no longer on the do not call list, since it is an OPT-OUT (of being harassed by telemarketers) program vs. opt-in, and instantly you start getting bombarded with marketing calls, even if you go online and instantly register your new phone number with the FTC as not to be called, while the marketers have a sort of grace period to abuse you for a month or so. In my mother-in-law's situation, she went from rarely getting any calls, to literally turning off her ringer after a day because so many marketers were calling her. The phone companies obviously have financially-rewarding agreements with telemarketing firms to sell any information about new phone numbers ASAP so you can be abused and harassed "legally" for as long as possible. This is pure bull@#$! Especially if you were already on the do not call list, and are forced into changing your phone number for any of a variety of reasons.

It would be really nice if Congress would wake up and do our (the people's) bidding and implement some logical consumer-protection laws, but it isn't going to happen as long as lobbyists can hand them more cash and incentives than we, the public, do. It's not good enough to get our votes, they need constant monetary incentive up there on Capitol Hill in order to hear us it seems. So, don't be surprised when the "permanent registration" being considered in Congress somehow doesn't come to be (though, I sure hope it does!), and you suddenly start getting marketing calls during a period where marketers will exploit a giant hole created by Congress where your registrations lapses as an "unfortunate and unexpected side effect" of lawmakers efforts - since they'll postpone making a final decision until after many of us early signup persons pass our initial 5-years of peace we signed up for. I hope I'm wrong, but you can almost predict this sort of thing from lawmakers.