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I’m with Lido

Lee A. Iacocca's recent book, Where Have All the Leaders Gone?, has received a good amount of press this past week, all centered around one specific passage:
Am I the only guy in this country who's fed up with what's happening? Where the hell is our outrage? We should be screaming bloody murder. We've got a gang of clueless bozos steering our ship of state right over a cliff, we've got corporate gangsters stealing us blind, and we can't even clean up after a hurricane much less build a hybrid car. But instead of getting mad, everyone sits around and nods their heads when the politicians say, "Stay the course." Stay the course? You've got to be kidding. This is America, not the damned Titanic. I'll give you a sound bite: Throw the bums out! You might think I'm getting senile, that I've gone off my rocker, and maybe I have. But someone has to speak up. I hardly recognize this country anymore. The President of the United States is given a free pass to ignore the Constitution, tap our phones, and lead us to war on a pack of lies. Congress responds to record deficits by passing a huge tax cut for the wealthy (thanks, but I don't need it). The most famous business leaders are not the innovators but the guys in handcuffs. While we're fiddling in Iraq, the Middle East is burning and nobody seems to know what to do. And the press is waving pom-poms instead of asking hard questions. That's not the promise of America my parents and yours traveled across the ocean for. I've had enough. How about you? I'll go a step further. You can't call yourself a patriot if you're not outraged. This is a fight I'm ready and willing to have.
Makes me want to read the book. Though, of course, all the blogs I've read covering said passage have just left it at that. They might make some sort of comment about Iacocca's personality, or what he said about the current crop of domestic auto executives, but they don't really go in and dissect what he said. (I'll disclaim right here that I, like the zillion other blogs that have commented on the book so far, have not actually yet read the book, so if the passage - and my comments hereforth - were taken out of context, Mr. Iacocca, I apologize.) To start with, there is a sense of outrage among Americans. Perhaps more of a sense of outrage now than I've ever seen in my lifetime. It's there if you look for it - on the Internet, on college campuses, in demonstrations across the globe, in Keith Olbermann's words, in Jon Stewart's words. Many of us are not happy at all about the course of the nation. Where you're not seeing the outrage is in your daily newspaper, on your nightly mainstream news program, in comfortable suburban homes. I'm glad Mr. Iacocca, once and former business leader himself, has taken a stand against the modern business and corporate climate. If there's anything more sinister than the incompetence of the Bush administration, it's the measures that corporations have taken to ensure and enhance their profit margins. Take, for instance, the bankruptcy law revisions implemented within the last few years. Probably the most severe of those revisions now forces people who declare bankruptcy to continue repaying their debts rather than wipe the debts clean off the board. Granted, some people abused this in the past, racking up debt and then eliminating it via bankruptcy with no reprisal. But for the people for whom bankruptcy was designed - those facing serious hardships who simply need a break - these revisions make their situations worse, not better. In fact, I've yet to see any single benefit to the consumer - the people - and all the benefit to the corporation. What sense does it make to enact laws that give more power to the corporation than to the people? I know what you're thinking: The credit card companies and their Congressmen are in league. That may be the case, but I have no proof of that (blame a complicit media more concerned about Anna Nicole's babydaddy), and besides, shouldn't those Congressmen be on the side of the people they were elected to represent? Another example. The same bankruptcy revisions (or laws passed at about the same time) permitted credit card companies to increase their minimum payment calculations. If credit card debt - and debt in general - was not one of the major problems plaguing this country today, forcing Americans to carry the lowest amount of savings ever, then I'd say fine, such a measure will help Americans clean up their debt. But the end result is an increase in debt as Americans struggle to meet these higher minimum payments and turn to additional means to borrow money. Another example. Most, if not all, states now have mandatory car insurance. Of course, car insurance is a good idea (except when insurance companies cancel your policy after they're actually forced to pay out a claim - but that's another column) and you really don't want some uninsured jerk hitting your car and sticking you with the bill. But in reality, uninsured jerks will remain uninsured jerks. Or underinsured jerks. Making insurance mandatory will not make life any easier for you when one of those uninsured jerks whacks your car - it'll just provide more incentive for him to hit and run. What it will do is create a larger marketplace for insurance companies. Ever wonder why GM and Ford can't seem to muster the ad dollars for many time slots and programs that Geico and Progressive can? Even beyond those examples, businesses and branding have invaded our lives so much over recent years that we've become complacent to the attack. Do me a favor. Look up from your computer screen and without leaving the room count how many brand names you can see. When you next go shopping, examine the size of the brand name on the plastic bag they give you to tote your purchase around the mall. Did Best Buy or American Eagle pay you for the right to advertise on your belongings? No, you paid them and most people gladly pay them. One of the things I despise about modern hip-hop music - even more so than all the negatives being mentioned in the Imus scandal - is the glorification of brands. Are you paying to hear Fiddy rap about shooting gangstas and slappin' his hos, or are you paying for an hour-long Cadillac, Bentley and Rolls-Royce commercial? And to bring it all back to Mr. Iacocca, there is no outrage. Hell, one of the most stinging critiques that Mike Judge delivers in Idiocracy is that of the rampant branding and corporacracy - their clothes are plastered with brand names, a Cabinet member is paid to mention a certain brand in his everyday conversation and everybody has been brainwashed by advertising to believe that a sports drink is superior in every way to water. But most reviews attribute this to the idiocy of that civilization rather than the aggressive marketing practices of those corporations. So, Mr. Iacocca, what should we do about this? Just express our outrage on blogs and on message boards, get a bunch of people who already agree with us to agree yet again with us? The Internet is a great enabler of outrage. In fact, it's one of those things that only the Internet can really excel at. We can't all write books and enjoy the same sort of publicity as the man who introduced the Mustang to the world. We can vote. We can hold our elected representatives accountable. We can cast off the branding that we've allowed to work its way into our lives. We can buy local. We can buy independent. And we can make the same suggestions time after time and watch as people express their outrage, then take the easy way out and ignore all those suggestions. I really hope that Mr. Iacocca expresses some sort of solution in his book and does his best to implement that solution, because I'm sure as heck out of good ideas. UPDATE: Okay, I thought about it. There's at least one thing we all can do. Stop watching television. Seriously, how much TV do you think Mr. Iacocca watches? How much do you think Kurt Vonnegut watched? How much does Stephen Hawking watch? They have better things to do with their time, as do we all. The reason we haven't built a successful hybrid car, as Mr. Iacocca asked, is because that one engineer who has the talent to spearhead such a project and push it through is right now at home watching Dr. Who or CSI. The reason Wal-Mart reigned for so long atop Fortune 500's list isn't necessarily because of their low prices, it's because some whistling dancing smiley face on TV is goading them into shopping there. The reason you take your family to Olive Garden isn't necessarily because the food is good, it's because you saw the ad on TV right before it was time to make a decision about dinner for that evening. So I'll suggest now to not buy that new HDTV set you've got your eye on and when 2009 (or whenever the deadline is) rolls around and all television stations have to switch over to HDTV (do I smell another squeeze-the-consumer plannned obsolescence scheme behind this?), let your TV set go blank. Go outside. Lose some weight. Build that hybrid car. Write a book. Do all the things you can't do while staring at a TV set.

Why should you care that all the bees are dying?

Recently it has come to my attention that all of the nations bees are seriously threatened. Iaren't bees cute? know, it's hard to believe that it would be a big deal, and in fact, no one has really made a big stink about it yet. But it's important. Why, you might ask? Well, even if you didn't ask, you should probably read on since this topic definitely affects everyone, even if you don't like honey or bees. Most people know that bees are responsible for honey and bee stings but what you may not know is that they are a much more important member of the agricultural community. Bees, especially honey bees, are responsible for the pollination of flowers (you might be saying duh, here but follow me on this one, please), and said pollination causes plants to actually bear fruits as the method of their reproduction. And said fruits are important for not only human nutrition, but also for that of most of the animals we raise as pets and most of the animals that we eat. This topic came to my attention from my grandfather, an almost retired farmer. He brought it up to my mother in this manner. Grandpa: "Hey, The Fidge (that's me, btw) is a biologist, right?" Mom: "you know she is" G: "Well, can she tell me why the lady down the road's bees are almost all dead?" M: "Really? They are almost all dead? Why?" G: " Well, if we knew, we wouldn't be asking The Fidge, would we? Of her 20 hives, only two of them are still alive. All of the other hives are dead. And the other guy down the road, he had 125 hives and now only maybe twenty of them are still alive. They asked me if I knew what was happening, and I said I would ask the Fidge." So, this has become a job for me. Although I am just using the internet to research it, I do plan on calling a visit on these beekeepers to talk to them about their practices, but in the meantime I will fill you in on what the vast spaces of the interweb have to say about this little bee apocalypse. First of all, officials are calling this epidemic Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD for short. (I just would like to point out that everything needs an acronym.) This used to be called Fall Dwindle Disease (FDD) but it was changed b/c it was noticed that this is not due to seasonality, nor can it be ruled to just being a disease. Actually, most experts are baffled to what exactly CCD is. Basically, they can't narrow it down to what is really killing all the bees. For example, according to the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences news release on the topic: "Preliminary work has identified several likely factors that could be causing or contributing to CCD," says Dennis van Engelsdorp, acting state apiarist with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. "Among them are mites and associated diseases, some unknown pathogenic disease and pesticide contamination or poisoning." That helps narrow it down, doesn't it? So, basically we can't really rule out anything at this point. We don't know what is killing the bees, and we can't decide what it could be, either. Most of the information I am using in my research comes from the Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium Web site. In the hives that were researched by MAAREC there was evidence of vampire mites, a small parasite that lives off the "blood" of adult bees, viral infection, stress due to constant relocation of hives for crop pollination, intestinal amoebas, fungal infection, stunted learning and development due to industry chemicals (pesticides, fungicides, herbicides), and on and on. You get the point. We have not been able to narrow CCD down to any particular thing, which makes it incredibly difficult to treat the problem. The drastic amount of bees found dead over such a short period of time is what is so scary about the whole thing. A small bee apocalypse, the few surviving bees are all very young adults from what most beekeepers can see. I mean, as I pointed out, the two local cases above have lost an incredible amount of bees from their original numbers, and this is the case all around the country. The rate at which these bees are dying is alarming, especially since we cannot narrow the cause of their mortality down to anything specific. According to Jean-Louis Santini of AFP, "Bee numbers on parts of the east coast and in Texas have fallen by more than 70 percent, while California has seen colonies drop by 30 to 60 percent. It is normal for hives to see populations fall by some 20 percent during the winter, but the sharp loss of bees is causing concern, especially as domestic US bee colonies have been steadily decreasing since 1980." Well, either way, I have not really helped to narrow it down, but I hope you have learned something. Maybe this summer when food is really expensive you will know why, since most of the food we eat comes from the pollination efforts of bees, with only a few crops such as corn and wheat being wind pollinated. And just so you know, this is not something just limited to specific areas. This is affecting not only the US, but parts of Europe as well. This is a big deal, and no one seems to know anything about it. I figured I would end this article with a quote from Albert Einstein. "If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man," This may seem a little extremist, but it does bring the point home.

Why Not Put a Wind Turbine on Your Roof?

Wind turbines are cool. The might not be able to replace all the coal power plants in the world, but they're a great example of how old concepts and new technology can be put together like peanut butter and jelly to become a delicious source of power. Mag Wind MW1100They're also a great example of the sort of positive environmentalism that sees efficiency and economic growth as two sides of the same coin. I would go so far as to say that most of the various groups opposing wind farms around the country are really lame. But what if I wanted to join in on the blade-spinning fun, instead of just blathering on and on about it on the Internet? There's a cool-looking rooftop vertical-axis wind turbine (VAWT) from a company called Mag-Wind that looked really promising when I first saw it late last year. It's compact, doesn't require a tall mast, and it's designed specifically for roofs. Unfortunately, it might not be on the up-and-up. Paul Gipe at Wind-Works.org ran some numbers and he doesn't think the power output they are claiming is possible. There's also some talk of a fake Mag-Wind dealer (not actually authorized by the company) taking a whole bunch of people's money in North Dakota. More interesting discussion can be found at Treehugger. This is unfortunate because I had dreamed up a plan to put one of these guys on top of my roof any then buy a plug-in hybrid like the Chevy Volt. Charging a battery at night is already cheaper than buying gas according to Prius conversions. I'm just the kind of geek who goes out and spends money on sort of thing. Now it is possible that the calculations are off, because no one seems to have been able to make any independent measurements yet. Maybe the assumptions are wrong - for example, when they say 1100 kWh/month in a 13 mph average wind, maybe they are talking about the wind measured in a clear area away from buildings, like you see on the weather report. Because of the "roof effect" the wind actually hitting the turbine would be more than 13 mph. Also, this isn't a completely fictional company, their representatives and distributors have contacted bloggers and other writers here and there. So I guess I'll hold out a little hope and keep an eye out for something to materialize from these guys. In the mean time, anyone have a recommendation for a roof-mounted wind turbine that definitely exists? Maybe the WindCube (man that is cheesy-sounding bad name)? Oh, and here's some footage of various wind turbines in action in Taiwan. Not too exciting, but it shows that some people have working VAWTs up and running. [youtube]n0_lmtfwUYg[/youtube]

Pay More for DRM-Free Music at iTunes

Earlier we wrote about why people will pay for free music. Apple's Steve Jobs wrote that he would happily remove all the DRM locks from iTunes if the record companies would let him. Now one company is. EMI and Apple reached a deal to allow totally restriction-free songs for sale. The kicker is that the songs will cost 30 cents more that the locked-down DRM versions. At ZDNet, they think the success of this move rests on three factors: will this bring in more customers, will the new customers stop file trading, and is the extra $0.30 per track worth it to the record companies? I think the first question is a good one but the last two miss the point completely. The problem here is the way the issue is framed: the record companies have long been more concerned with stopping file trading and suing "pirates" than actually making money. File trading is here to stay. The nature of the Internet makes it a technological inevitability. You cannot sue a whole technology out of existence. Whether or not EMI (or any of the other major companies) allows DRM-free tracks to be sold, the minute one person buys a CD the whole entire system of locks and encryption and watermarks and whatever else has been completely broken. So what do you do? You figure out why people are using Napster or whatever to download songs, and then you compete with it by offering a better value. No one was even willing to try selling song downloads until Jobs convinced them to, and iTunes has been able to sell billions of tracks. I'm not sure the higher price is such a good idea. I agree that DRM reduces the value of the song downloads. But you have to look at the bigger picture: iTunes is still competing against free mp3s on peer to peer networks. I think Apple picked the $.99 price point for logical psychological reasons - it's much easier to justify spending the money if it's not even a dollar. In any event, this is a good move and I think both iTunes and EMI will see real benefits from this.

How Can a Hummer Be Better for the Environment than a Prius?

Earlier one of our writers stumbled on a report that claimed gas-guzzling Hummers were better for the environment than hybrids like the Toyota Prius. This is one of those great stories that everyone loves - where the conventional wisdom is wrong, and we can all have a good laugh knocking someone or something off it's high horse. This story has been passed furiously around the Internet for a week or so, by email and blog, featured on Digg and Slashdot. It's a good anecdote about unintended consequences and a little boost to Hummer owners who are sometimes criticized for their very conspicuous consumption. It's also pretty much a load of crap. But how can that be? The writer did a bunch of research, and came up with numbers and formulas. Lots of people saw it and voted with a thumbs-up in Reddit or StumbleUpon. Welcome, dear readers, to the world of white papers and press releases. Let's say you had a conclusion you wanted to support, or clients you wanted to flatter. You do a bunch of research, finding information that backs your conclusions. Now what to do with it? You can try presenting it at a conference or submitting it to an academic journal, but then you run a risk. The risk is that peer review will knock it down. The scientific method has a key difference from the method mentioned above - instead of creating a conclusion then finding evidence, you create a hypothesis, gather all the evidence, then form your conclusion. Take this pesky detail and add a dash of scrutiny by experts in the field and you have a pretty good recipe for coming up with useful theories and knowledge. The recipe just won't make the muffins come out exactly the way you want them every time. So what do you do with this research? Put it in a white paper and/or type up and good press release. The term "white paper" used to refer to government policy documents, but now it's often used to mean a report by a company or individual in an industry intended to inform and persuade customers and partners. There's absolutely nothing wrong with this, so long as everyone knows that the purpose of the document is often to persuade or sell something, not to impartially report on all the facts. IT workers have become very familiar with the uses of white papers since we are constantly bombarded with them. They are notoriously available to prove nearly any point you want to make. Is Oracle the fastest database system? You can probably find 20 white papers that say so authoritatively and conclusively. Is Oracle bloated and inefficient? Look, there's 20 papers that say so authoritatively and conclusively. They aren't all worthless, because each one might give you some good factual information. It's up to you to find and use what you need without drinking the Kool-Aide. The use of email by lots of people outside the IT realm and recently the hug number of non-IT bloggers has given press releases and white papers some new possibilities. They can be spread around the world in record time and quoted by a 1,000 blog posts as if they were primary sources. Notice that this report on the Prius and Hummer is 450+ pages. How many people, do you think, read all 450 pages? There are a number of problems with this report that make the conclusion that Hummers are green and Priuses are baby- seal-clubbing smog machines hard to swallow. For one thing, it assumes that a Prius will only last 109,000 miles, which is lower than some parts of the warranty in California and similar states, while extending the life of a Hummer H1 to 379,000 miles. Plenty of Priuses have already passed 200,000 miles, often working in taxi fleets. It also mentions the use of Nickel in the batteries and the damage Nickel mining did to Sudbury, Ontario. The batteries are warrantied to 100,000 miles Nickel is recyclable. Sudbury has done a great deal to mitigate past environmental damage and is no longer a wasteland. As the TrueDelta blog points out, the cost of ownership numbers are amazingly high for all the vehicles in the report. If Priuses cost this much to build and operate, we have to assume that Toyota is taking a huge loss on every one sold, and in fact the entire auto industry is grievously undercharging us. There are a number of other problems with the report, but others have already done a pretty good job outlining them. Probably the biggest problem is that the source data is not available for review, since it is considered valuable intellectual property by CNW research. So what's the answer to the question posed in the title? How can a Hummer be better for the environment than a Prius? By using whatever methodology you want, using whatever data you want, and closing your research up from peer review, that's how. And what's the lesson for today? It's certainly not "don't believe everything that you read," because that is glib and cynical without being precise enough to be useful. Here are some thoughts that might be a bit more practical:
  • White papers and press releases are fine, but keep in mind they are often intended persuade you or sell you something.
  • Starting with a conclusion makes research easier, but doesn't validate your conclusion.
  • Digg, email forwards, and 1,000 blogs do not count as peer review.