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Another nice Cabinet pick

There are rumors that President-elect Obama will pick Dr. Steven Chu, an experimental physicist, head of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics, to be his Secretary of Energy.  An actual scientist in charge of energy policy.  Wow.

(note, in theory our current Energy Secretary, Samuel Bodman, is a scientist, since he has a Sc.D. and was an assistant professor at one point, but he hasn't worked in that capacity since the 1970s, working instead in the finance industry).

No bailout for Red Ink Rick

The Senate today decided to punt on giving the Big 2.8 (Chrysler is still 20% German owned, by Daimler) American automakers a bailout.  They are correct to do so in the current environment.  Here are some reasons why:

  • MYTH: The big 2.8 automakers are all the same.
  • REALITY: Ford is in far better shape than GM and Chrysler.  Their incompetent CEO, Bill Ford, was intelligent enough to realize that he was incompetent 2 years ago, and found a capable turnaround artist in Alan Mulally, a VP from Boeing and responsible for the projects that turned Boeing around in the 1990s (esp. the 777) after their defense contracts went away.  Mulally was intelligent enough to make sure the company had enough headroom by putting everything at the company up as collateral for a large series of loans in order to turn the company around.  Thus they have enough cash to last another year or more.  GM was not so prepared and thus is in dire straits, perhaps declaring bankruptcy as soon as the end of the year.  No one knows what Chrysler's cash position is, since they are a private company.

  • MYTH: The current economic crisis is to blame for the dire straits that GM is in.
  • REALITY: GM has been constantly losing money for several years.  This crisis is merely the straw that breaks the camel's back.  Ford has been going back and forth on losing and making money, mostly from the strength of its foreign operations.  No one knows again about Chrysler, but mismanagement when it was a part of Daimler led to a series of shoddy, unreliable products that no one wanted to buy.

  • MYTH: The UAW is strangling the Big 2.8.
  • REALITY: One of the best, most efficient auto plants in North America is the NUMMI plant in Fremont, CA, which has been run by Toyota since 1984 and makes Toyota Corollas, Tacomas, and Pontiac Vibes.  It is a UAW plant, yet Toyota is able to make it consistently profitable despite being located in one of the most expensive areas in the US, the San Francisco Bay Area, and despite making a very affordable and fuel-efficient entry-level car.  The UAW also accepted major cuts in pay and retiree benefis just last year, so that new workers at Big 2.8 UAW plants will actually make less in pay+benefits compared to non-union workers at "foreign" plants located in the US.

  • MYTH: Executives at auto companies are held accountable.
  • REALITY: "Red Ink" Rick Wagoner, the CEO of GM, has been responsible for $60 billion in losses over his 9 year tenure as CEO, and has watched GM's market-share tumble by more than a third, from 29% of the US market to just 19%.  Annually he makes more than the top 10 executives at Toyota combined.  Asked if he would consider stepping down in order to get government bailout money to save GM, he said no, because GM must have the best executive team possible, which he apparently thinks includes him.  And yet GM's Board of Directors has done nothing to replace him, and in fact "restored" his salary just this year (which he had voluntarily cut for 2 years), giving him effectively a 50% pay raise.  Can you imagine being so insulated at your job?

  • MYTH: Detroit products are all shoddy.
  • REALITY: Ford has been working these past several years to incrementally improve their products.  Consumer Reports finds this year that Ford's reliability has gotten to be as good as top-tier Japanese automakers.  GM is more hit and miss, with some outstanding products, and some very poor offerings.  Chrysler, unfortunately, fared very badly under Daimler, and is consistently near the bottom of the pack in terms of quality and reliability, which is reflected in their poor sales.
For once in my life, I agree with Gov. Mitt Romney, who writes in the New York Times that Detroit needs to go without the bailout in order to have the impetus and ability to restructure itself.  Brands need to be slashed, dealers need to be cut without crippling lawsuits, and management needs to be fired.  Only after that drastic restructuring, perhaps through Chapter 11 bankruptcy, should the government intervene, perhaps to back new car warranties to give buyers assurance, or perhaps to give loans to new management teams.

Disclaimer: I own Ford stock (not very much).  I believe Ford will survive without bankruptcy, GM will go into Chapter 11 in order to shed brands and dealers, and Chrysler will go into liquidation, or be sold off in pieces.  But that is just my personal opinion.

Macbook Air - all style, no substance

Apple has always been about style, but the substance was always there behind the scenes.  This really is not the case anymore.  I was unimpressed with the iPhone last summer primarily because they locked it out of third party developers, leading to most of its users "jailbreaking" it in order to get the functionality that should have been built in.  I will stick with my Blackberry Pearl and its loads of third party apps, thanks.  But at least the hardware was neat.  I am even less impressed with this new Macbook Air because functionality has been so curtailed in order to meet Steve Jobs' obsession with thinness.
  • No ethernet port (you have to use a USB ethernet adapter)
  • No Firewire (again, use USB, which does not work with camcorders)
  • DVD drive is external and optional (and again uses USB)
  • Only audio out, no audio in (once again, use a USB adapter...)
  • But there is only 1 USB port (so you can choose to have either ethernet or the DVD drive or audio in or an external hard drive or carry around a powered USB hub, hardly a fitting companion to this laptop)
  • The battery is integrated (meaning non-removable).  My Macbook Pro's battery has lasted only about 18 months before it stopped holding a charge, but at least I can replace it myself.  I don't want a laptop that I have to send off to Apple simply to replace the battery.  It is one thing to do this with an iPod, but another with a laptop with all your files and programs on it.
  • The memory is fixed at 2 GB.  No expansion possible.  Even the regular Macbook is expandable to 4 GB.
And despite all of this it still weighs 3 lbs.  Here's its competition on the PC side:
  1. Sony TZ series.  With lightweight (removable) battery, SSD, and carbon fiber construction it only weighs 2.26 lbs (including webcam).  With a long-life battery and hard drive it weighs about 2.7 lbs.  And it has a built-in DVD writer and a lot more ports than the Air.  It has a considerably slower processor and smaller screen, but since these machines are not used for heavy number crunching, this is not a big deal, especially since it is still a Core 2 Duo.  My dad has one of these (with conventional hard drive) and it is very nice, and even with Vista it is quite fast.  With the carbon fiber and all it costs more, but it is competitive with the high-end Macbook Air with the SSD.
  2. Lenovo ThinkPad X61s.  2.7 lbs with the (removable) slimline battery.  A lot more ports than the Air.  12" instead of 13" screen, but similarly configured to the Air it costs $400 less and has a 1.8 GHz CPU instead of 1.6.  It does not have a webcam.  My sister just got one of these, and supposedly it is also quite nice.
Either of the PC laptops is just as high of quality as Macs.  And to create the Air took them more than 2 years after they killed the 12" Powerbook G4?  I am unimpressed. I was expecting them to be more innovative than the PC designers, but they seem to have missed.  If I were unconcerned about the OS, the Thinkpad would be a much better lightweight replacement for my Macbook Pro than the Air is.  Where are the lightweight high-end Linux laptops?

Accent

What American accent do you have? (Best version so far)

Neutral

You're not Northern, Southern, or Western, you're just plain -American-. Your national identity is more important than your local identity, because you don't really have a local identity. You might be from the region in that map, which is defined by this kind of accent, but you could easily not be. Or maybe you just moved around a lot growing up.

Personality Test Results

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Brought to you by YouThink.com quizzes and personality tests.

One laptop per child

redqueenofevil and I bought a XO laptop through the One Laptop Per Child's Give1Get1 program.  One Laptop Per Child's goals are to provide custom-designed, very rugged and simple laptops to children in developing world countries.  Contrary to what many believe, the goal of the program is not to teach computer skills, but to teach much more basic skills: reading, writing, math, etc.  The XO laptop is a learning tool akin to a pencil and a textbook, but with that advantage that it is better and more cost effective than both, since it is expandable.  It also creates a unique mesh network between XO laptops which allows collaboration and communication between children and their teachers.

The XO laptop is very well designed for children.  Here is David Pogue's review of the machine.  The video is very funny.

The Give1Get1 program allows people in the US and Canada to buy 2 laptops, of which they receive one , and the other one is sent to a child in a developing country.  This costs $400, $200 of which is tax-deductible as a charitable donation.  T-mobile has also donated 1 free year of Hotspot access for donators, which by itself is worth $350.

This is a great program started by geeks to change the world for the better, and I wish them very well.

Book meme

These are the top 106 books most often marked as "unread" by LibraryThing's users (as of today). As usual, bold what you have read,italicise that you started but couldn't finish, and strike through what you couldn't stand. Add an asterisk* to those you've read more thanonce. Underline those on your to-read list.

List of booksCollapse )

New monitor

Buying a new monitor is more complex than it should be.  You would think that all you really need to know is how much money you want to spend and what size you want to get, and whether you want to spend more to get a brand-name, but there are a lot more considerations than that.

I ended up getting a 20" Acer AL2051W monitor.  If you want to read about why, follow the cut.  See a pic of my monitors.

Shopping for a LCDCollapse )

In the few hours I have had the screen, I've noticed that colors are more saturated and brighter on the Dell 2005FPW with its IPS panel, but dark areas in photos pop out better on the Acer with its higher-contrast VA panel.  The Acer is the monitor you would use for watching The Matrix, with its abundance of dark scenes, but the Dell is what you would use to watch R.O.D. or other bright, colorful animes.  On the whole, I am pretty happy with the Acer, especially since it cost less than half what I paid for the Dell two years ago.

Soy

There has been much news recently about reports that soy is actually bad for you. Most of those reports stem for problems with soy's protein digestibility, which apparently are rendered moot in tofu, tempeh, soy milk, and other slightly processed products, and from studies done on animals, which fed the animals incredibly large amounts of soy from birth and focused on creatures such as rats, who have very different nutritional requirements from humans.  Rats would also not do well on human breast milk (with 5% protein vs. 45% protein in rat milk). This is the equivalent of concluding that chocolate is a deadly poison for humans by testing its affects on cats. The anti-soy articles also talked about how Asians really don't eat much soy, as if all of Asia were one monolithic entity with 2.5 billion people. Breaking it down into smaller groups, the people with the highest lifespans on the planet, the Okinawans, eat quite a lot of soy (12% of their diets for the elders), and studies done on them reason that their soy intake is a big reason for their good health. 

Here's a well reasoned retort to the soy naysaysers from John Robbins, who wrote Diet for a New America and The Food Revolution (and who has no relationship with the soy industry).

Ultimately, eat things in moderation.  Too many meat-eaters switch to getting all their protein from soy when they become vegetarian or vegan.  Anything in excess is bad from you, whether it's spinach, blueberries, or soy (all "Superfoods").  Get your protein from lentils, beans, dairy (if lacto), eggs (if ovo), and other sources as well as soy.  

And if you are a meat eater who is going to switch to being vegetarian, do so slowly, as one of my friends did back in college.  Every few months he would make another day of the week be meat-free.  This allows both your body and mind time to adapt.

Jury Duty and EA Games

(Crossposted from 360 by request from redqueenofevil)

Rants on two completely unrelated topics:

Jury duty.  I have been summoned.  Unfortunately, they sent the summons to my old address and not my current one (where I've been for almost 2 years!), where it bounced back to them.  They managed to find my current address (from the post office, rather than, say, something obvious like the DMV records or my tax forms or...) and re-sent the same exact summons to me.  The problem is that this process must have taken several months, because I got the form today and the start date on my jury duty was ... Oct. 31.  You would think that they would have bothered to fix the start date before resending it.  They managed to enclose a letter dated Nov. 18 saying that it had bounced and all.  So I go through the automated registration process with their 800 number and it tells me that I am registering late and that I need to pick a new start date but it won't work if its past the date I was originally scheduled for (why bother letting me try then?).  I attempted to do so twice and it told me that both dates that I picked are invalid and then told me to call the local court number during the hours listed and just hung up on me.  The local court number listed?  Same as the automated 800 number.  The hours listed?  Weekdays 10-12 PM and 2-4 PM (what, do govt. employees only work 4 hours a day?  With a 2 hour lunch?).

They also claim that their process for choosing jurors is random.  Yet both Jill and I have received a jury summons within a week of each other (hers went to the correct address,  go figure) and have never received one before this.  This is either a huge coincidence or their random number generator has some serious issues.

EA Games.  The rant is shorter.  Their new Need for Speed: Most Wanted racing game for PC doesn't support widescreen monitors.  Despite such monitors being very common these days.  Despite their Need for Speed Underground (1) game supporting such monitors over two years ago.  Despite Neverwinter Nights and many other games supporting such monitors in 2002!  Also despite the fact that their Xbox360 version of the same game supports widescreen monitors (HDTVs).  Some enterprising folks had written a patch for Need for Speed Underground 2 last year to get it to support widescreen monitors, and that patch works fine on the demo of Most Wanted, but not on the full game because the game executable is encrypted for copy protection purposes.  So the only way to fix this is to wait until some hacker (illegally, thanks to the DMCA) breaks the copy protection and gets the patch to work (probably trivial, since it was with the demo).  Way to go EA, you just lost a sale, at least until that oh-so-horrible hacker fixes your game for you.

Broadcast flag victory!

We (well, really the Electronic Frontier Foundation, of which redqueenofevil and I are members) have won the fight against the FCC's broadcast flag.  See more information here at BoingBoing.

Why is this important when we don't even watch TV?  This ruling allows the unfettered creation of new and innovative technologies without the approval of the MPAA/TV studios.  Some of the most innovative things in the past few years (such as TiVo, MythTV, etc.) would not have been possible if those companies or groups had to get approval from the TV industry.  Perhaps more importantly, it gives a clear sign that the government cannot be in the business of arbitrarily protecting business models.  It would be as if they had banned automobiles in the early 20th century to protect the horse and carriage industry (who did attempt to get autos banned), or banning lightbulbs because they put lamplighters and lighting oil companies out of their jobs (yet another group that did complain).   Fundamentally this is very un-American.  It's a planned economy.  Very communist.

Being that I am a technologist and I make my living by creating new technologies, having any cartel of companies have veto power over what I can and cannot create is very repugnant.  This is why most programmers (who make their living off Intellectual Property) are nonetheless horrified by the RIAA's, MPAA's, and software industry's attempts to "defend" their copyrights and software patents by banning technologies.