Years and Years of Dilbert

Just stumbled on a page from which you can read any Dilbert strip without ads or complicated navigation buttons. You just click forward and back through dates, or edit the URL to get to a target date. For those who want a trip down memory lane or have a LOT of time to kill in cube land.

Why Gyro Cars? An end of year reflection

If you are reading this blog or have visited my gyro-car pages at you probably have some interest in gyro stabilized ground transportation technology, typically vehicles that stay upright through the use of gyroscopes. A classic example is the Gyro-X, seen above as it appeared in a 1967 article in Science and Mechanics, a collaboration between famed automotive designer Alex Tremuls (the Cord, the '33 Duesenberg, and the Tucker) and pioneering gyrodynamist Thomas O. Summers, Jr (holder of more than four dozen gyro-related patents). Yet more classic, and proving that there are very few 'new' ideas, is Schilovski's 1914 Wolsely seen here.
There have also been railway trains designed to run on one rail. But why go this route? The article on the Gyro-X covers many of the reasons, broadly stated as more efficient. You can go faster with less power, further with less fuel. Both wind resistance and rolling resistance of the rubber on the road can be significantly reduced with the inline, two-wheel design.

Another factor cited by Science and Mechanics is the potential to use a gyro as a sort of flywheel, a source of energy. It sounds as though the designers of the Gyro-X were considering using the kinetic energy stored in the 250 pound flywheel to temporarily boost the power available to the vehicle's drive train. Remember, that article was published in America in 1967, here cars were all about performance. But it is only a short step from the power boost idea to an energy-saving idea my father had forty years ago: reclaim energy from braking by transferring it to a flywheel. In fact. buses that used flywheels as their energy source were ince used in Europe.

In WWII my father worked with gyros used on battleships to stabilized the big guns. He knew that they were an efficient way to store energy as well as keep things upright. Once the rotating mass was up to speed it could be kept there with small amounts of incremental energy.

This opens several fruitful avenues of thought relative to the main automotive challenge today: fuel economy. Given the high cost of batteries used in electric vehicles, why not use a flywheel instead, one that could be topped up by braking? For longer distance driving a small diesel motor could top up power in the flywheel. And since you have a flywheel, why not drop two of the wheels and use the flywheel to hold the thing up? Come on car designers and engineers. It is now 40 years since the Gyro-X appeared. Time to update the design, think outside the box and save the world from fossil fuels!

Edwards Enters: An electable choice for struggling families?

John Edwards has entered the race for the Democratic nomination for President in 2008. According to the candidate, the top priorities of his presidency would be "guaranteeing health care for every single American" and "ending the shame of poverty." I have to say, those are priorities that appeal to me.

The lack of universal health care is the leading cause of bankruptcies, homelessness, and lawsuits. And poverty, quite frankly--and I don't mean to be glib--is a downer for those of us who are blessed with both a comfortable lifestyle and a conscience. More importantly, poverty is demeaning and disheartening to those who are poor, not to mention an enormous drag on our economy. America's most valuable resource is Americans, and many Americans who live in poverty are denied the opportunity to contribute to society. By our failure to insist that the constantly rising tide of our national prosperity lift all boats, we squander lives that could be a blessing to us all.

So, I am "on message" with the Edwards message. But can he win? I'm not sure he can win the Democratic nomination. But if he does, then I think he can win the presidency. In other words, Edwards is what Hilary and Barack are not: electable. Now it pains me deeply to say this, particularly in the case of Barack Obama because I would happily campaign and vote "Obama for President." He is so much more qualified to be president than, for example, someone like George W. Bush, it is just not funny. But apart from being a liberal, I am also a realist, and realistically America is not ready for a black president. Don't get me wrong, I AM READY for a black president. But there is a whole chunk of America that is not. If you don't believe me then all I can say is that have you not spent enough time in The South.

It's not just that The South would fail to vote for Barack, The South would vote against Barack, vehemently, two or three times in some counties. You'd see good ole boys at the polls who've never even seen a touchscreen before. And there is a parallel with Hilary. I'd be happy to see her in the White House again, but there are enough people vehemently opposed to that happening, it just ain't going to happen.

The problem for the Democrats, and the reason that Edwards might not be their candidate in 2008, is that they tend to run candidates who should be elected, not candidates who can be elected. I can sympathize with this. After all, it should not matter that a candidate is black, but are you going to give Republicans the White House just to prove that point?

Don't get me wrong, I'm looking forward to Barack's campaign, and Hilary's too. But of the three, Edwards is the most electable. And he sure seems to have his heart in the right place.

War Averted? If only Ford had broken rank

Oh great. now we find out what Gerald Ford thought about Dubya's neocon foreign policy and going to war in Iraq:
“I just don’t think we should go hellfire damnation around the globe freeing people, unless it is directly related to our own national security.”
Maybe if he had said that publicly back in early 2003 we wouldn't have gone to war in Iraq. Ford oversaw the end of the last failed US foreign war, he could have prevented the next. There is an interesting perspective on this from a Ford biographer, but I have yet to see a good reason cited for former presidents not criticizing current presidents. As I recall, Reagan criticized Clinton's policies, in speeches and editorials, while Clinton was in office, lobbying against some of them, like cutting funding for star wars.

Government Messing With Science: A to Z Guide to Political Interference

And I quote:
In recent years, scientists who work for and advise the federal government have seen their work manipulated, suppressed, distorted, while agencies have systematically limited public and policy maker access to critical scientific information. To document this abuse, the Union of Concerned Scientists has created the A to Z Guide to Political Interference in Science.
As a taxpayer and a father whose daughter's biology teacher intentionally skipped the chapters on evolution in her high school science textbook, I urge you to check out this illuminating guide.

Technology and Risk Displacement: Not just a theory

Okay, so this entry is going to be 'big picture' and I don't mean plasma TVs. Basically, it's just some thoughts about technology in a broad sense, beyond just chips and bits, but starting with something specific, a story in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about toxic chemicals in our homes and in our, well, in us. And if you want a direct connection to the digital world, our computers are one source of these chemicals.

Like a lot of people, I feel strongly about technology. It would be true to say I 'love' technology, at least for a certain definition of 'love.' I'm not talking about the wide-eyed way I sometimes look at my Treo 650 while contemplating the awesome fact that this small and almost perfectly formed object can take dictation, place and receive phone calls, fetch and send email, and, even as it plays one of my 521 most favorite songs, zoom in on satellite imagery of just about anyone's house, anywhere on the planet [courtesy of Google Earth, some restrictions may apply]. That's not love, that's infatuation.

The love relates to the hugely positive changes technology has enabled during my lifetime (early 1950s to circa Now). That includes everything from indoor plumbing to air bags, polio vaccine to organ transplants, jet planes to this here Internet, that sometimes takes the bits and bytes I write out into space and back to earth, in seconds. You get the picture (and my picture, in the upper right-hand corner, viewable from web browsers in just about every country on the planet).

However, I would never advocate unconditional love for technology. My father was an engineer and so I got an up-close education in applied technology from an early age. I remember him pondering the challenge of stopping a jumbo jet after it had landed (he worked for Dunlop, which built the brakes and tires for the 747, which do most of the stopping--he had designed thrust reversers not long after jet engines were deployed in civilian aviation, but they don't do as much to stop planes as you might think). We often pored over blueprints on the kitchen table and I would spend time in his workshop where he 'tinkered' with all manner of tools and materials.

I particularly remember him working with asbestos, which has highly prized engineering properties. Apart from simple insulation, it was used in brake pads and in the handling of molten metals for castings. It was used extensively in ships and my father served as an engineer in the Royal Navy during WWII. He died of respiratory cancer not long after his fiftieth birthday.

Long before I became involved with computers I had formed several thoughts about technology. I decided technology itself was neutral, the classic case in point being nuclear technology, which enables hugely destructive bombs and power generation without fossil fuels. Growing up during the Cold War, the threat of nuclear annihilation was a daily worry, to me at least, particularly after my mother took me on a 'Ban the Bomb' march when I was eight. But England in the 1950s was a very smoggy place, with terrible air quality in most big cities. A lot of air pollution has been avoided by the generation of 'clean' fuel through nuclear reaction. Yet each benefit has an offset. Disposing of spent nuclear fuel is no small problem. And each downside has an upside. For example, since the nuclear bomb has been widely deployed the stand-off inherent in mutually assured destruction means there have been no world-wide armed conflicts.

So first I decided that technology itself is neutral (applied technology not so much). And then I entertained the thought that no single technology produces a net gain. Clean fuel, dirty residue. Increased mobility through automotive transportation, increased pollution. Greater travel, wider spread of disease. Heat resistance, lung disease. Greater access to useful data, greater exposure of private data. You can go on and on. As you do so, you'll probably think of mitigating factors. After all, new technologies are frequently developed that counter or avoid the downside of earlier technologies. No more lead in paint, no more asbestos in brake shoes, and so on. But remember my premise: 'no single technology produces a net gain.'

Take flame retardants. They reduce the risk of fire, the extent of fire damage, and probably save lives. You will find them in clothes, car seat cushions, computer wires, and the dust on your desk. And now we find that traces of potentially toxic flame retardant chemicals are showing up in people, and building up in their blood and tissue. What is more, chemicals long banned are still showing up.

This is risk displacement. It occurs in many areas of life. Consider seat belts. They save lives, right? But some studies have shown that people wearing them drive worse than people who are not. I'm particularly upset with those car commercials where people who are busy chatting away while driving get hit by another car and walk away. Are we doing enough testing of the phenomenon that, the more someone feels that technology makes crashing survivable, the more likely they are to crash?

Risk displacement also occurs in computer security. Closing down an avenue of attack does not in itself reduce the total sum of effort and resources that will going into attacks. The attacks will find a different path. Which brings us back to the big picture. Attacks on computers will only diminish when the general standard of human behavior improves. That is not an impossible goal. The amount of drunk driving going on today is less than it was. That is not a result of changes in technology but of changes in people. The lesson is not to look to technology for answers it cannot provide, and not expect a new technology to be all upside and no downside.

Black White Gap Widens in Some Areas: Black infant mortality higher now than in 1946

One of my favorite columnists is Tonyaa Weathersbee in the Jacksonville Times Union. She is determined not to let anyone forget the facts. Like these:
In 1943, black babies died at a rate that was 87 percent higher than white babies. Last year [2005], black babies died at a rate that was 122 percent higher than white babies.
Until Katrina, it was hard for most Americans to picture what life was like for black folk in the Southern states. From what I've seen, it's not healthy, that's for sure.

Your Tax Dollars at Work: Feds pay Google for dud drug hits?

This is something I may post in several places. It's about politics. It's about America's screwed-up health care. It's about technology. Our beloved federal government is apparently bidding on Google with your tax dollars. The goal? Top the results from searches for certain drugs, like Valium, in order to warn taxpayers that buying such drugs without a prescription could land them in jail.

Check out this screen shot from earlier today. The DEA is sponsoring one result, the US Customs has paid for the other (unless Google is donating these spots, which I doubt very much).

These agencies seem to be bidding for the top spots in several searches, including Xanax, Oxycontin, "pain killers." Does anyone else besides me think this is a just a bit weird. There are many reasons why people search for information about certain drugs. Is it a good use of taxpayer money to pay to deliver this message as a result?

One thing is for sure, the US Customs office is flat out wasting money with all its ads. Why? Because all the ones I clicked led to a 'page not found' message like this:
In other words, every time someone clicks one of those listings paid for by Customs, they get an error. And speaking of you think those agencies realize anyone with a grudge against them can sit and click those things all day to run up their Google bill?

I'd sure love to hear from anyone who has inside information on these programs.

Pickup of the Year! Awesome electric pickup points way forward

Now this is what I'm talking about, an electric vehicle that really makes sense: a pickup truck.

Not only is this one capable of highways speeds and several hundred miles on a charge, but it looks so darned good. The body styling is excellent. This design would sell like hot cakes as a gas model. Kudos to Phoenix MotorCars for not neglecting the look factor (which is crucial, IMHO, for the mainstream acceptance of electric vehicles).

Of course, electric power is ideal for utility vehicles due to the high torque of electric motors and the fact that many utility vehicles don't actually travel very far each day. This thing sounds like it would be as fast off the line with a loaded bed as my V8 F150. All it needs to be completely awesome is a lightweight camper shell clad in solar panels. These would help top up the batteries while the truck was parked AND increase mileage due to decreased wind resistance.

My first electric vehicle was a milk delivery 'pickup' (okay, it wasn't mine, but I was responsible for getting it back to the depot in one piece every day, which I managed to do most of the time). It hauled a very heavy load of milk in glass bottles and metal crates at urban speeds for eight hours a day. I know from my contractor buddies that their work pickups put on a lot of miles around town each day, but rarely more than 100. And most of those trucks spend a lot of time in traffic or parked at the job site. I think this is an excellent market for electrics. FYI, people tend to grossly under-estimate the buying habits and outlook of construction workers. In my experience they care just as much about the environment as any other group of people, and they sure as heck care about the exact number of dollars per day that it costs to run their trucks.

p.s. Kudos to tech-meister David Brussin for spotting this one and sending me the link

Who's in the Holiday Spirit? New Year and Boxing Day should be honored

I'm not a Christian. But I give to the poor at Christmas. And I say Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and Have a Great Boxing Day!

I was again amazed this year at how many people whined about the whole "Put the Christ back in Christmas" thing. I mean, it's not like those six letters, c-h-r-i-s-t were being removed.

Okay, I guess some people take exception to the use of Xmas instead of Christmas. But that's just dumb since the choice of the letter X is not random. Clearly X = cross = Christ. It's just an abbreviation (think fish on the back of the car). If you can use a fish for Jesus, surely you can use Xmas for his birthday.

If folks feel our society has truly lost sight of the real meaning of the winter holidays, they should be chanting "Put the Christmas back in Winter Holidays." That's right, Winter HolidayS, plural. There is more than one.

Apart from Hanukkah. there's New Year's Day and Boxing Day and Hogmanay. There's a whole season of winter holidays, hence the term "Happy Holidays." Duh! That almost like shorthand for "Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, and have a good Boxing Day while you're at it."

Boxing Day is a formal holiday in England and several other countries (a coalition of those willing to relax on the day after Christmas and count their blessings instead of assault the mall in a quest of more).

New Year's Day and the day after that are formal holidays in Scotland (by formal I mean the banks are closed, etc.). I vote that America adopt all of these. And accept that there's not much Christ in them. If you have ever celebrated the New Year in Scotland you will know that it is NOT a religious holiday (and yes, I am aware of the etymology of 'holiday'). There is a definite and frankly undisguised pre-Christian, i.e. pagan, aspect to the celebration. An example? Check out the Biggar Bonfire, now on the web!

As for Boxing Day, my personal favorite, there is some Christ in it (it is also St. Stephen's Day and St. Stephen was the first Christian martyr). And a leading contender for the origin of the name of the holiday is the idea that people box up their leftovers and give them to the poor, which is a fine Christian notion. But Christians don't have a lock on charity. A lot of non-Christian belief systems compel people to give to the poor. Heck, if you had to sign a form saying you were Christian before you could donate to the thousands of causes that receive massive charitable donations at this time of year, I bet the numbers would drop dramatically.

I'm not a Christian. But I give to the poor at Christmas. And I say Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and Have a Great Boxing Day!

Lack of Dulles Train is DC's Shame: Nothing says apathy like a failed rail link

The clean and attractive train you see on the left is the one that whisks you from the basement of Amsterdam airport to the heart of the Dutch capital for $3. Yes, you read that right, $3 give or take an exchange rate fluctuation or two.

The fact that you can't catch a train from Washington Dulles airport (IAD) to the heart of America's capital is a sad reflection on the lack of resolve to 'do something' about road congestion, automobile pollution, and oil addiction. Now, IMHO, the DC Metro is one of the best in the world. So there should be a Metro terminal in Dulles, or better yet, a direct high speed line right to the heart of the capital, with heavily-subsidized tickets that shout "We know how to reduce traffic and pollution and oil addiction."

Nissan Can Do Better Too: Almera comfortable at 80+ mph, gets 50 mpg

Ford isn't the only global car maker than is under-supplying small cars to the US (a crime of which I recently accused Ford, which is stingy with the US Focus, not to mention downright missing in action with the Fiesta and Ka).

On my last trip to the United Kingdom I rented a Nissan Almera. I cruised the motorways at over 80 mph in this vehicle, a comfortable 4-door (with hatchback). And I got the equivalent of 40 mpg doing so (slightly less in town, but I reckon close to 37 mpg overall). I can think of no reason that you can't buy one of these today at your local Nissan dealer here in America.

BTW, remember to do the math when comparing UK and US mpg numbers. There are 160 fluid ounces in a British gallon versus 128in a US gallon. So when the Brits say a car gets 50 miles to the gallon over there, that's like 40 mpg over here.

Focus? Come on Cobb, where's the Ford Focus?

Some readers complained that my recent comments on low mileage cars excluded the thrifty Ford Focus. If you read carefully you will see I was highlighting cars that had recently been introduced in the US to provide more options for mpg-conscious buyers. I give credit to Ford for offering the Focus in the US for many years BUT the US automaker gets a big de-merit for limiting the Focus offerings to models with low-end trim. The big market in small cars is "small-but-perfectly-formed" of which the VW Jetta would be one of the best examples if it was reliable. Folks want all the bells and whistles in a small fuel-efficient package. The models of Focus that you can buy in the UK for example, like the leather-trimmed Ghia, are what we need over here. Check the cool interior above.

And note that the Ford Fiesta and Ford Ka, sold in the UK for over 5 years at least, are smaller and more efficient than the Focus, and not sold in the US.

Is the War on Drugs About to End? Respected voices speak out

Harry E. Klide is a retired Stark County Common Pleas Court judge in Ohio. Not exactly the sort of person or place that comes to mind when you think about legalizing drugs. But check out this column he just wrote for the Canton Repository (hardly the place you would expect to see sentiments of this sort) under the headline "We have lost the drug war."
I don't know whether America is going to win the war in Iraq, but I do know that we have lost the war against the use of drugs, which we have pursued for the past 30-plus years. The war on drugs has been a dismal failure. It is not truly a war against drugs, but a war against us - our people, our children, ourselves.
I came across this right after reading about another respectable member of society, a former warrior in the war on drugs, who is not just calling for an end to that war, but full legalization of drugs. He is Jerry Cameron, former police chief of Fernandina Beach, Florida. There is an excellent profile of Cameron by Susan Cooper Eastman in the December 19 issue of Folio Weekly, one of the best regional magazines I've come across in a long time (old-fashioned too--they do not post their content online, although they do have a blog).

Cameron is a member of LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. This is a great title for an organization dedicated to educating society about the futility of the drug war because "prohibition" is exactly what Nixon's war on drugs has become, and every objective student of American history knows what a disaster the first prohibition was for this country. The LEAP web site is worth a visit. You can't fail to be impressed by the credentials of its endorsers (such as the late Milton Friedman and the thankfully not-late Walter Cronkite). Here is the LEAP mission statement:
Founded on March 16, 2002, LEAP is made up of current and former members of law enforcement who believe the existing drug policies have failed in their intended goals of addressing the problems of crime, drug abuse, addiction, juvenile drug use, stopping the flow of illegal drugs into this country and the internal sale and use of illegal drugs. By fighting a war on drugs the government has increased the problems of society and made them far worse. A system of regulation rather than prohibition is a less harmful, more ethical and a more effective public policy.
And this organization is a lot more than a web site. Checking the speaking schedule--these folks are speaking to Rotary Clubs and business groups around the country. When a guy like Cameron, who has kicked in his fair share of doors making drug busts, stands up and says this war is not winnable, it is hard to argue he has it all wrong. I predict a lot more politicians will poke their heads above the parapet in 2007 and at least question the war on drugs. That will embolden others and at least allow a serious debate without proponents of drug legalization being dismissed as dope fiends and baby killers.

p.s. I'm not running for office myself, but I just made a donation to LEAP, so you know where I stand on this issue.

Technology and Security, Crime and Punishment

I blogged this over on my computer security blog but it is worth a mention here also. The 25 year-old-kid who breached USC's online student application system in June 2005 and compromised 275,000 records, causing the university to shut down the site for 10 days, got sentenced to 6 months home detention.

Suppose he was a black kid who got pulled over by police who then found one twentieth of an ounce of crack is his pockets. What would the sentence be then? Home detention? Six months in jail? Try 5 years in jail. Mandatory. No discussion. That's the law in this country. It helps explain why 25% of all the world's prisoners are in America's jails.

Was the hacker let off lightly? I think so. What do you think? And do you think it is just to impose 5 years for less than .20 of an ounce of crack? If you're tempted to answer in the affirmative, I suggest you first spend some time with families whose loved ones are serving mandatory sentences for non-violent drug crimes. See the devastation first-hand. Look into the eyes of the kids who have lost their parents and their childhoods to the war on drugs. I think there's a good chance that you'll agree with me that there has to be a better way.

No, It's Not My Imagination: Spam is on the rise (again)

I thought it was just my imagination, a big and fairly rapid increase in the amount of spam I've been getting these past few months. I was wondering what I had done to deserve this. But it turns out I was not alone, according to the Washington Post:
More than 90 percent of all e-mail sent online in October was unsolicited junk mail, according to Postini,...Spam volumes monitored by Postini rose 73 percent in the past two months as spammers began embedding their messages in images to evade junk e-mail filters that search for particular words and phrases. In November, Postini's spam filters, used by many large companies, blocked 22 billion junk-mail messages, up from about 12 billion in September.
What a waste of technology! And you know what I'm going to say. First, a more widespread deployment of Symantec's TurnTide technology would reduce that number (and no, I don't make a penny off that technology and I own zero shares in Symantec). Second, someone ought to sue the three companies that could have stopped spam 5 years ago if they had listened to reason and agreed to work with each other: Microsoft, AOL, Yahoo.

p.s. Mr. Gates, are you ready for the one year anniversary of the end of spam (as predicted by you) coming up on January 24, 2007, I believe?

Not Talking Only Makes Things Worse

Looks like George W. Bush is hell bent on not talking to Iran. Not talking has a history of making things worse. A lot of Americans don't like to talk about some things, like birth control, race relations, or the policies of the government of Israel. In my experience, not talking is not good. It is not good for one's personal relationships, the welfare of one's society, or the security of one's country.

For example, parents who don't talk to their kids about birth control do them a great disservice (as does a president who appoints an opponent of birth control to the federal post responsible for birth control). Those parents sometimes end up having much harder conversations forced upon them.

Sometimes, not talking may seem easier than facing up to a tough subject. Some people would rather not talk about racial inequality. Some white folks don't feel comfortable talking to black folks, even when they really do want to talk to them, and vice-versa.

Over time, a lack of communication creates a communication gap, literally. I have to concentrate sometimes to understand what some of my black friends are saying, but I am happy to make the effort. The more we talk, the better we understand each other. The better we understand each other, the smaller the gap between us. The smaller that gap, the greater the hope we will reach the point where we can live in harmony and not hegemony.

The folks who pushed for the invasion of Iraq talk hot and heavy about exporting democracy as though democracy were the bedrock of our society. It is not. Democracy is a structure built on the bedrock of any society: trust. And you can't have trust without conversation.

You can't solve conflicts without conversation. For example, the British government never defeated the IRA. It talked to the IRA as both sides de-militarized the conflict. America should talk to Iran. And terrorists. And anyone who wants to engage in dialogue.

Refusing to talk now only makes it harder to communicate when we talk later. And sooner or later we will talk.

Palestine: Peace or Apartheid? First read the book

A lot of people were quick to pounce on former president Jimmy Carter recently, with no more provocation than the title of his latest book: Palestine: Peace or Apartheid. Some people assumed Carter was accusing the Israeli government of practicing apartheid. And some of those people seem to think anyone who would say such a thing has to be anti-Semitic, on a par with holocaust deniers. Which is clearly ridiculous. If citizens of the world are not free to criticize the governments of the world then we are in big trouble.

I have read Carter's book and found it to be an even-handed examination of the history of peace efforts in the Middle East, told from the unique perspective of someone intimately involved in some of those efforts and well-acquainted with many of the past and present players, including Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas. I flatly disagree with the Washington Post review that appears on the book's Amazon page. There Jeffrey Goldberg writes "Carter makes it clear in this polemical book that, in excoriating Israel for its sins--and he blames Israel almost entirely for perpetuating the hundred-year war between Arab and Jew--he is on a mission from God."

To me that is a gross over-statement of Carter's position. I'm not a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim. I think I have pretty good "pray-dar" when it comes to detecting preachy people on a mission. Carter's perspective does not strike me as religion-based. Indeed, it seems highly pragmatic in many respects, such as the numerous reminders that America has always officially opposed West Bank settlements but failed to prevent them.

And Carter strikes me as highly objective when it comes to conveying the changing realities of daily life for Palestinians. The book is worth reading for that alone. The decline he describes from his first visit in the seventies to the situation today is dramatic and clearly explains a lot of the anger that Arabs feel right now. At the same time, Carter makes it clear that he does not think--and neither do I--that it excuses any of the violence against civilians that Arabs commit.

I read the title as describing the crossroads at which Israel now stands with respect to Palestine. The Israeli government can pursue a path of peace, achieving long-delayed compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 242, which is America's official policy, or it can down a path that will lead to state of apartheid in which Palestinians live under Jewish rule, segregated by their ethnic background, deprived of the rights of full citizenship, of movement, association, ownership, by an array of laws and physical barriers erected to keep Jews separate from Arabs.

Florida Recount Vital: Otherwise voting is a farce

If the incoming Democrats don't demand a recount in Florida, you might as well kiss democracy in America goodbye. With your help there can be a full-page ad in the New York Times soon, urging action, run by You can contribute to help get the word out. For the record, I sent them $35. The meat of the ad is this:
Electronic voting machines have apparently lost 18,000 votes in a House race where one candidate is leading by just 369 votes. Despite warnings about paperless voting machines, Congress failed to require a paper record of every vote. Now, there’s no way to recount the votes short of holding a new election. Congress has the power and the obligation to order a new election—and they have done it before...Only a new election will dispel the dark cloud that hangs over the Sunshine State.
You can view an Acrobat pdf of the ad here. I can honestly say that I would feel the same way if the Republican candidate was on the losing end of the electronic snafu. Take it from someone who has spent more than 25 years in computer fraud and abuse, these machines can be rigged. Want to learn more, check out Black Box Voting.

More on Israel's Nukes: Olmert equates Israel with higher power

As reported by AP and a lot of other sources: "Iran openly, explicitly and publicly threatens to wipe Israel off the map. Can you say that this is the same level, when you are aspiring to have nuclear weapons, as America, France, Israel, Russia?" -- Prime Minister Olmert.

And the answer is? Yes! There was this guy Nikita Kruschev beating his shoe against his desk at the United Nations in 1956, remember? He shouted at the US representatives: "We will bury you." Later his country smuggled nukes to within spitting distance of Florida. What level was that Olmert?

Russia and America both acquired nuclear weapons under belligerent circumstances and made threats with them. How is Iran different from them? Suppose the biggest military power in the world, a power that had earlier backed your enemies in a war where 1 million men died, was sitting just outside your borders, with over 100,000 troops and enough ship-borne nukes to blow your world apart 100 times over. Wouldn't you want a nuke too? When they feel threatened, nations tend to arm themselves. Iran has been openly threatened, as has Israel.

But when will Israeli politicians accept that Israel is just one country among all other countries? There is no way the world community can accept one country pleading a holier-than-thou attitude to nukes which ordains it with the right to possess them without the same regimen of oversight and scrutiny that other nuclear nations submit to. Israel should sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, as should Iran when it finally gets the bomb, which I predict it will.

The point is, I don't object to either Israel or Iran having nukes. Just have them openly. Have them regularly inspected by the IAEA and the UN. The only country in the world that has used nukes in anger is America. After that demonstration, history tells us that the possession of nukes has tended to bring conflicts to closure.

If India and Pakistan reconcile next year, as it appears they might, I think we will have yet more proof that arming two sworn enemies with weapons that guarantee mutual destruction is a pretty good peace plan.

On the Lighter Side: 01-2-09 is a growing sign

How do you like my new license plate? I designed it myself--the font and colors--to proclaim January 20, 2009. This is the last day, as many readers will know, of the George Walker Bush presidency, a day to which a number of web sites are counting down, like this one and this one. I thought of going with 1-21-09 to be different, but 1-20-09 is really catching on and I wanted to stay consistent to add to the growing awareness of something which strikes me as unprecedented. I've lived in the U.S. since 1976 and can't remember anyone doing a countdown to the president's last day. Of course, you can take this countdown phenomenon, and the license plate, in two ways:

a. I can't wait for the day when George Walker Bush steps down.
b. I will be so dad on the day that George Walker Bush steps down.

For example, consider what happened when I was at the car wash just before this photo was taken [on my Treo 650]. The attendant asked me "What's one twenty oh nine?" To which I replied "The last day that Bush will be president." Her response was "Can't come soon enough for me." Thus this simple number plate enabled me to ascertain her attitude to our president without revealing mine. After all, suppose she had said "What a sad day that will be." Then I could have chosen to reveal my true feelings [I think he is the worst American president in at least one hundred years] and engage in a debate. Alternatively, if I wasn't feeling like arguing, I could have said something non-committal like "Hmm, and how much is the Power Wash."

Death Rating of Doctors Hurting Healthcare? Study highlights complex issue

The statement of purpose for this blog pulls no punches. From my choice of words the reader can easily deduce that I am "mad as hell" and often ask myself how much more I can take. However, I fully recognize that the challenge of improving health care is, like most challenges we face today, complex and far from clear-cut. Sure, there are some things that ARE clear, at least IMHO, starting with television adverts for drugs. They don't help anyone but the shareholders of drug companies. Drug ads on TV should be banned. The laws that prevented them for so many decades should re-applied. Period. Do a little free reading here if you doubt this or dig into some of the scientific papers here.

But other issues are less clear cut. For example, should the public have access to a doctor's 'stats' such as survival rates for individual surgeons. This sounds like it might be a good idea. If I was about to have major surgery I would like to get some assurance that the doctor wielding the knife had a good track record. Indeed, a good friend of mine is facing hip surgery and found a set of stats in USAtoday that gave him pause. He was going to have the surgery done at Flagler Hospital in Saint Augustine, but Flagler only got one star in the ratings he found on the web, versus four stars at the hospital he chose instead. However, these ratings are tricky. Consider this chart. Flagler gets three stars for 2007, an improvement over one star for 2006.

Not knowing who or what stats to believe is only part of the problem. Consider this story in the Boston Globe about death rating doctors. And now consider this comment by Twila Brase, president of the Citizens' Council on Health Care:

"Physician report cards threaten patient access to medical treatment. Doctors who fear that the death of a patient will be a black mark against them have been found to avoid the patients that need them the most. Increasingly, patients may find doctors unwilling to try a risky procedure that could actually save them."
I don't always agree with Twila, but have remained on her mailing list because she often highlights the other side of the coin, so to speak. The CCHC web site is certainly worth a look.

As for the answers, well it seems to me that under a free market system anyone can get a good rating for their product or service, they just have to find the right rating entity, and invent one if there is not a pliant one to be found. Wouldn't a government rating system be better? After all, we get government crash test ratings for our cars. And would it not be better for those ratings to apply to a surgical practice as a whole, rather than single out individual doctors? Further research on the effect that Twila highlights is clearly needed.

Jimmy Carter and Middle East Politics: You cannot equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism

I have just bought Carter's new book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. I have not read it yet, but I plan to review it when I have read it (something that some other "reviewers" have failed to do). Some of the criticism that Carter has drawn is extreme, with reviewers on Amazon calling him "wicked" and "a liar." And I think I can hear mutterings of "anti-Semitism in the air. Clearly, anti-Semitism is wrong (there is a good definition and a very long entry on this topic in Wikipedia). But I see no basis for equating criticism of the government of Israel with anti-Semitism. Take one simple example. Israel has atomic bombs. If you believe it is wrong for countries to possess atomic bombs are you therefore anti-Semitic? I don't think so.

Remembering The Love Man: Otis Redding, 1941-1967

It was 39 years ago today that Otis Redding's plane crashed during a storm en route to a concert in Madison, Wisconsin. He was just 26 when he died, but Otis gave us an enormous body of work, songs that have become part of the soundtrack of our lives, from "Respect" to "Try a Little Tenderness." from "Shake" to "The Dock of the Bay." He gave us dreams to remember and he will always be remembered, with love and respect.

Hoops for Hope: Hope for kids in more ways than one

Very sorry I didn't blog this in time for their December 2 fund-raising event. Hopes for Hope is an organization raising money for children orphaned by HIV/AIDS. In the process the organization is raising awareness of the problem among children and adults in this country. Featured on NBC. And started by a 12-year-old!

This is definitely a hopeful sign that apathy has not completely overtaken our nation's young, something I have talked about before.

Carter Bashing: At least get the facts right

Former president Jimmy Carter has a new book and the old complaints are being echoed again, along with old errors. Consider "He Failed and He Can't Shut Up, Opinion by Allan Saxe, WBAP Political Analyst."
What is it about former President Jimmy Carter? He continually finds faults with the United States and those countries that uphold western civilization and the rule of law.
Presumably those countries include America and Israel and Mr. Saxe thinks former presidents are not allowed to talk about things like Abu Ghraib and conditions in the Palestinian refugee camps. According to his detractors, Carters' sins are numerous:
He has sanctified the elections on the rise of Hamas to rule the Palestinians. On the other hand, he has said that the elections in the United States do not meet up to his standards.
Or is it that years of neocon intoning that democracy will save the Middle East looks dumb when Middle Easterners elect someone neocons don't like? And gosh, everyone knows touch screen voting in America is jolly well accurate, just ask the undervoters in Sarasota, Florida. What's to criticize?

Fortunately, Mr. Saxe understands "why this former President disdains the democracies and inadvertently legitimizes tyrannical societies. And why he is so critical of his own country." Okay, let's hear it:
It is because he lost the presidential election in 1980 to Ronald Reagan. For an incumbent President to lose an election straight away to a single challenger, with no third party taking votes away and scrambling the election like Ross Perot did to President Bush the Elder in 1992 or Ralph Nader’s candidacy affecting Vice-President Gore’s bid for the Presidency in 2000 is very rare.
Hmm, so what about John Anderson, the moderate 1980 Republican turned independent candidate? Close to 6 million people voted for him over Carter or Reagan. Indeed, Anderson took a not insignificant 6.6% of the popular vote. Sure, Reagan won by a landslide. But to claim Carter is a sore loser, and then rewrite history to make his loss look worse than it was? C'mon folks, let's try to stick to the facts.

Smartcar Looks Smart:: We want smart cars now!

Seen here outside Foyles, the largest book shop in London. The sad thing is, that was THREE YEARS AGO! Come on people now, let's sign together: We want fuel efficient cars NOW.

Nothing will cool the tension in the Middle East like a big fat drop in U.S. fuel consumption. Wise old Sheik Yamani figured that out back in the seventies: Jack the price of crude too high too fast and Americans will switch from Caddies and Lincolns to Toyotas and Hondas, cutting demand. Sure enough, gas consumption dropped off at the end of the seventies and didn't rebound until the late eighties.

Believe a former petroleum accountant when I say, there is a nightmare scenario for oil producers: Crude left in the ground. This can happen if price per barrel falls below the per barrel cost of extraction, which rises as an oil field ages. Here is an interesting snippet from Yamani back in early 2005. Note the correctness of his prognostications: oil has fallen off its highs.

And Americans can now buy the 40 mpg Toyota Yaris, the 38 mpg Honda FIT, and 36 mpg Nissan Versa, all introduced in recent months to round out high mileage offerings. Add a bunch of 60 mpg SartCars to the mix and average mpg could drop enough to scare producers into being more amenable to diplomatic negotiation (not to mention the reprise from pollution).

Smartcar for Work: Commercial delivery in Amsterdam

While DaimlerChrysler continues to deny Americans the Smartcar, these superb vehicles are finding many uses in other countries. Here is one I saw in Amsterdam being used for commercial deliveries (with just a driver in the car it can carry a surprising amount of stuff).

Binder Clips to the Rescue: Travel tip for a good night's sleep

I am a big believer in getting a good night's sleep when traveling. This has been made easier by the move to upgrade bedding, led by Marriott if I am not mistaken. But even on a "plush" bed I will have trouble sleeping if the room is not dark. This is especially important when you have shifted time zones and want to acclimate to the new zone.

Of course, most decent hotels provide light-blocking drapes/curtains, but for some reason I have yet to fathom, these often fail to close all the way. The result: the lights from the parking lot keep you awake; or a shaft of blinding sunlight strikes your face at 6:30AM when you really needed to sleep until 8. The answer: binder clips (medium). These are the metal spring clips you get for just pennies a piece at the office supply store. I have had great luck in keeping drapes from drifting apart with just one or two of these clips applied to the inter-folded edges of the fabric. Slip a few into your bag before you head out.

Another room darkening trick is to roll up a surplus part of the bedding (one of those foo-foo decorative cover bits for which I don't even have a vocabulary) and put it across the bottom of the hotel room door, you know, across that yawning gap which doesn't seem too bad when you first turn out the lights, but slowly expands to admit enough light to read by.

Traveling Light: A good idea gets better

Here's an old travel tip made newly useful by the increase in lost airline luggage, due to the increase in checked luggage, due to the reduced-liquid-in-carry-on rule: travel light. Easier said than done maybe, but think about the last time you flew. Did you wear all of the clothes you took with you? A lot of people will admit that they did not. Next time, take two items out just before you leave. I bet you won't miss them. Repeat each trip until you are down to the bare essentials.

And what about the essentials? Could you have packed fewer items if you had a chance to wash your clothes during the trip? Well you do. Here's what I do when traveling on business in North America, i.e. staying in hotels at night and wearing a shirt and tie during the day. I take just two shirts and wash one every night in the sink in the hotel bathroom. Tepid water and a touch of hotel hand soap. Then I wring them out in a hotel towel (I will post some pictures if this is hard to visualize). Then I hang the towel and the shirt to dry, smoothing out the main wrinkles in the shirt and putting it on a hotel coat hanger in the bathroom (for hotel hanger's that don't have proper hooks just hang the shirt on the rack or use a twist tie--I carry several with me, plus a few rubber bands and binder clips--more on those later).

The typical American hotel is so dry that the shirt is bound to be ready by morning, plus the shirt and towel will have eased, slightly, the humidity in the room, which is good for you. Use the hotel iron to remove any remaining wrinkles (I've noticed a lot of budget hotel chains are now providing irons). To make life easier, chose a good no-wrinkle shirt to start with. I find JCPenney Stafford shirts work great and look great after dozens of washings, but still have the feel of 100% cotton.

Wash-as-you-go helps reduce the amount of stuff you carry on with you, and the impact of misplaced bags. Since I travel in a good shirt, lost luggage won't stop me looking good the next day. I became a believer in this strategy about 20 years ago when I took a day trip down from the home office in San Francisco to a client site in LA for 8 hours of consulting that stretched into two days. The client was delighted that I could stay the extra day and didn't even notice that I had not brought a change of clothes with me. I just washed the essentials overnight.

Images Abound: Goosing a blogspot blog template

Just a quick word about the images on this page (all Cobb originals). They are, clockwise starting at the top left:
  • The nose of the DaimlerChrysler Smartcar, photographed in London. There are over 750,000 on the streets of the world, but they are still not sold in America. How backward is that?
  • Aeroflot Tupolev Ty-154M passenger plane, taking off from Moscow airport.
  • Maserati Quattroporte, the most elegant four door passenger car design ever (IMHO), photographed outside a showroom in Moscow, then turned into a pencil sketch with PaintShop Pro. See the real thing below.
  • TGV high speed train, photographed in the Gard du Nord, Paris, after I arrived there from Amsterdam on the Thalys, another high speed train. The lack of high speed trains in America is testament to the continuing power of oil companies and the trucking/road building lobby (favored by a certain governor turned president).
A train, a plane, and two automobiles. A taste of things to come.

Oh, and the blogspot template that formed the basis of this page? It is called Lighthouse, but it looks a lot different from this when you first install it.

Catalogue Craziness: 13 per day is just too much

Right now we are getting an average of 13 catalogues in the mail every day. What a waste! We hardly look at them. We usually just toss them in the trash.

Yesterday we got back from a Thanksgiving vacation and found the accumulated mail from 10 delivery days included 131 catalogues, that's over 35 pounds of paper. Harder to delete than spam.

Is there no way to stop these from coming, other than writing to each and every one of the 131 senders (okay, some senders sent more than one, but it is still about 80 different entities that are doing this).

On the Road Again: Cobb blogs travel

Looks like I'm going to be doing some more traveling and so I figured I would start a blog to share some of my experiences and maybe help people get more out of their travel. Will also post some photos from along the way.

Hope you enjoy...Stephen

p.s. When someone says "On the road again" do you think of Canned Heat or Willie Nelson?

Iraq Solution = A Lot More Troops, A Lot More Diplomacy

Okay, so the long-awaited Baker/Hamilton report is out. Hands up who thinks Bush will listen to their suggestions. And what are those suggestions? Basically, more diplomacy and less troops (via phased withdrawal). Personally, I would back more troops if it meant a LOT more troops, like twice as many as we have there now. Anything less is unlikely to work. Of course, some people say we haven't got that many troops to send (we could get them if we re-instated the draft, but that would take time and man would it get Gen Next off its butt and into the streets).

I'm with Colin Powell and former U.S. army chief of staff Gen Eric Shinseki (and others) in thinking that you would need something like 500,000 boots on the ground to stabilize a country the size of Iraq (I am also mindful that we couldn't stabilize Vietnam with that number). And for Iraq that 500,000 number is probably good for a time before people living in Iraq suffered a couple of years of daily double digit body counts to make them really unhappy about American presence in the region.

And sending any more troops without a serious new diplomatic effort to engage Iran and Syria in meaningful talks, well that would be a complete waste.

Turntide Still Working Away: Not perfect but pretty close

"Not perfect but pretty close" is what this Computerworld article concluded about the anti-spam technology I helped create a few years ago.

It was maybe early 2001 when I was sitting around a table in a basement in Pennsylvania with a couple of friends discussing ways of fighting spam. Back then there were not many people who believed spam would become a huge problem. Many dismissed it as a mere nuisance. Boy, were they wrong.

Anyway, we had been focusing on a way of certifying email as legitimate, so only legitimate email would be allowed to get through to your inbox. This was the inverse of attempts to stop spam by allowing all email in unless it came from a known bad source. Early anti-spam products were emerging that followed the allow-all-but-known-bad model, including some attempts to filter messages on a case-by-case basis according to their content. But a couple of us were skeptical about this approach. It seemed to be based on an anti-virus scanning model (and we all knew how well that was working--not!). Furthermore, when these filter systems produced false-positives that meant valuable messages might be delayed or lost.

So we analyzed spam from the spammers perspective. What was the motive? What would be a dis-incentive? Virus writers were not being deterred by legal penalties and so we doubted that approach would dissuade spammers. But we realized spammers are different from your classic virus writers: spammers are in it for the money.

So we followed the money. What we found was a fairly simple formula. If a spammer can't get X number of messages into network N within Y period of time, the spammer will move on to the next network, N1, and so on. This is because the spammer makes money off such a tiny percentage of responses. To be cost-effective there have to be huge numbers of messages delivered on target within the relatively short period of time that exists before a particular spam site is shut down.

Aha! we said. If only there was a way to slow down messages from spammers. One of us, David Brussin, realized that there was a TCP/IP mechanism for slowing down network response, and we figured out how we could couple that to a spam detector mechanism. The result was a device that sat on the edge of a network, or at an ISP, and slowed down network connections if they appeared to be delivering spam. The first test results were amazing. The device, dubbed "SpamSquelcher" after those knobs on ship radios which tune out noise, literally saved a regional ISP from being overwhelmed by spam.

Selling this idea to end-users was a tough one. The device worked best on larger networks. This was not something you could give away to end-users for free and hope that big companies would pay for licenses. Eventually the product was re-launched as TurnTide and acquired by Symantec which incoporated it into their product line. Today there are a lot of corporate and academic networks using this technology to save bandwidth and protect their networks. If a lot more of them would do the same, particularly ISPs, then the net voume of spam might actually go down.

Vacations: The good news and the bad news

With holidays in full swing I was struck by this eWeek headline: The Vanishing Veg-out Vacation. Seems that less and less employees are taking time off and, when time off is taken, less and less relaxing is being done.

Is this bad? Well, all of us have probably encountered employees whose attitude could use some improvement, and a vacation--a proper vacation--might bring about that improvement. And burn out is definitely a risk if you don't take time to clear your head. Furthermore, I have bemoaned America's stingy approach to vacation days ever since I emigrated here over 30 years ago. I think of my sister-in-law and her seven weeks of annual vacation working for Surrey County. Or my cousin who works for the BBC and has just completed a year's career break (unpaid time off to clear your head and grow your self, with full benefits and position reinstated upon your return).

But there may be good news hidden here. Many office jobs are transitioning to a more fluid, organic structure. Less emphasis on time in the office, more emphasis on results, regardless of where you put in your time, at home or at Starbucks. If picking up groceries is something you can do when you feel like it and not something to be jammed into lunch hour or rush hour, then maybe you will feel less need to leave the job behind for weeks at a time. Jobs are becoming more a way of life for some people, whether in a startup where you live the job because you have to, or in an enlightened enterprise where you live the job because you enjoy it. If you do enjoy your job then setting it aside to spend time on a beach might not be a good idea, unless you are feeling burned out (which, just FYI, can happen at jobs you enjoy as well as at jobs you don't).

And here is another thing about vacations: They cost money, particularly the ones you spend somewhere outside your own back yard. Sounds like a statement of the obvious, and it is, but it's an obvious fact that is often overlooked in financial planning. Money spent on traveling leaves little residual evidence except in your heart and soul and your memories. There have been several times in my life when I have found myself asking "Where did all my money go?" And I have always been surprised by how much of the answer is made up of travel, air fares, hotels, restaurants, stuff that leaves few tangible assets behind as evidence (aside from the souvenirs and snapshots you bring home).

I'm not saying don't travel. I think it is a wonderful thing to do and I have reaped huge inner rewards from my journeying. But bear in mind it narrows the gap between outflow and inflow, the gap that is the wealth you create.

Fizzing Ahead of the Curve: Berocca finally getting noticed

Twenty-one years ago, as I was heading off on a transatlantic trip, my wife handed me a metal tube of fizzy tablets and said "Take these with you." Ever since then I have carried these tablets--called Berocca--with me on most of my travels across time zones. Take one Berocca tablet, drop it into a glass of water, and you can:
  • replenish your vitamins,
  • settle your stomach,
  • turn nasty hotel water into a reasonably tasty fizzy drink.
But I have always been mystified as to why you can't buy Berocca in America (I buy mine when I visit family in England or order over the web from New Zealand). Finally, the New York Times is taking notice. Hopefully, the fact that some people take Berocca for a hangover will not dissuade Bayer from selling them in the land of the Puritans.

Funniest Radioactive DVD Ever? Ross Noble gets my vote

Finally got my copy of Ross Noble's "Sonic Waffle" DVD from Amazon UK. Rewarded with belly laughs, giggles, tears of laughter, big grins that last for hours, and generally uplifting after-effects that last for days. Somehow ordinary words like "hilarious" don't do it justice.

And talk about value for money. You get the very tight "Live at the Apollo" show which was screened on cable in the US in 2006. That was my first exposure to this Geordie comic and I was going to try transferring it from my DVR when I thought to check Amazon for a DVD. You also get a full-length unedited show from tsfa. From this show you get a real sense of what it is like to see Noble perform in person. And you realize what you might have suspected from the Apollo show--he makes this stuff up as he goes along. Taking cues from the audience is a fine comic tradition, as is the art of hanging your repertoire of jokes on those cues, but Noble uses audience input to create his show, live and off the top of his head.

Bonus features are the commentaries and the back story short film. The latter is firmly in the Python tradition and leads to the crowning absurdist epiphet: Radio-Active Kung-Fu Refrigerator Boy and Monkey-Slayer Ross Noble. As for the commentaries, I find these rib-ticklingly funny, first the commentary on the ssss show, then the commentary on the commentary--a first to the best of my knowledge ("This is me commenting on the commentary you heard might not realize it but that commentary was entirely unscripted" and so on.)

I strongly urge anyone who is a fan of the Pythons and/or Eddy Izzard and/or The Big Lebowski to check out Ross Noble. He is unlike anyone else but those three reference points should be good predictors of your predisposition to find Noble knee-knockingly amusing. Not that everyone will find him equally entertaining. My wife insists she is not interested in seeing his shows a third time and only watched one half of one DVD commentary (she also promises to hit me if I repeat any of the material ever again--that's fair enough because I am content to enjoy a Noble-sque view of things and make up my own absurd banter when the mood strikes me).

But the burning, almost radioactive, question now is this: Why would someone who lives in America order from As of right now, there are no Ross Noble DVDs published in the US. So I ordered one from the UK, having noted that it was not region coded. but so far that's the only way to get this DVD. Why? I don't know. But I do know it plays fine on my Toshiba SD 3980 PAL/NTSC Region Free DVD player.

Millionz: Right and wrong ways to think about your financial future

I'm sure that, at one time or another, we have all dreamed of "making a million." This dream often includes a time factor that can be described as: fast, overnight, instant.

Unfortunately, too much focus on that sort of time frame can lead you to miss the time frame that worked for most millionaires in our country's history, namely "slow and steady." As the landmark studies done by the guys who wrote the Millionaire Next Door series make clear, most millionaires become millionaires by spending less than they earn. The difference between the two, between what you earn and what you spend, is known as wealth.

The tough part is to get to a point where what you earn is far enough ahead of what you spend for the difference--known as wealth--to accumulate. For many people, the earning side of the equation is the tough one. Wages at the lower end of the earnings scale have not increased in real terms at anything like the rate they have grown at the upper end. (When was the last time the fat cats in Washington voted to increase in the Federal minimum wage which sets the base line for wages in most states?)

Yet many people, through hard work and constant striving, do get to the point where they are earning enough to cover their essential expenses. Sadly, that is the point at which some people fail in their efforts to accumulate wealth, and thus achieve financial security, right at the point where their earnings rise above the cost of paying for their basic needs. Spending on frivolous or unnecessary items is a huge temptation, especially when you've gone a long time without any spare cash. And there is that voice--I think most of us have heard it--that says: "What the heck, now you've got some cash, why not splurge a little?" And a little splurging may be okay if it boosts our drive to do better, strive harder. But too often we go one splurge too far, or two splurges too far, until we have splurged away that gap between income and expenditure.

Now I'm not saying that accumulating wealth is the one true path in life. There are many ways to be happy without being wealthy. And being wealthy is not all about driving flashy cars and living in huge mansions. One of the joys of wealth is that you can share it with others. Another is that you can make a difference in the shape and direction of society. But one thing I have learned after thirty years of living in America, is that there are precious few "fall-back" positions in this country for people who have not accumulated some wealth by the time they reach a certain age or run into a sudden need.

A significant percentage of the needs that people cannot meet by themselves are met by people who have accumulated wealth. So the art of accumulating wealth is well worth studying, for everyone's sake.

The Most Fun on Four Wheels? Artic Cat ATV Tough to Beat

First off, let me say that I should be wearing a helmet, but some complex risk assessment told me it was better to wear my safety orange hat and avoid being shot by deer hunters than protect my head from branches (or a fall) with the helmet. Maybe an orange helmet should be my next ATV-related purchase.

I am grinning because I have just negotiated "Suicide Drive" which is one of the trails on our property in upstate New York. I will post a picture of it as soon as I figure out how to take a shot that shows just how steeply it rises from the back of the cabin going about 200 feet almost straight up (okay, not 90 degrees to the horizontal, but I'm going to say 45, at least it feels like that--I will get out the inclinometer next time).

For those who have not tried an All Terrain Vehicle, these things are a blast. Mine is a 400 c.c. Arctic Cat with 4-wheel drive and a mini-pickup bed behind the seat (you can just make out the chain saw in there, useful for clearing trees that have fallen over and blocked the trail).

We purchased this machine at Performance Recreation of Richfield Springs. You couldn't ask for a better dealer. The help and support we have had from them is fantastic. From helping us choose the right machine for our needs, to basic riding lessons, delivery, and super prompt attention to the one minor problem we have had so far (now fixed, no charge, free same-day pickup and delivery). If you are looking for an ATV or snowmobile and are within 100 miles of these guys, it is worth the trip.

The Arctic Cat web site requires IE but is still worth visiting. And their mail catalogues are stuffed with cool accessories. I have a winch which has already proved to be a very good investment. Next up is probably a shotgun/rifle scabbard and rails for the pickup bed to hold more wood. In the meantime I plan to cut some fresh trails to explore the old stone walls we have found. This machine can take you absolutely anywhere if you take it slow and easy, letting you park and explore places you would probably never see if you had to hike in there on foot. Then, when you feel like a kinesthetic kick, find a smooth trail and open her up. By the time you reach 25 m.p.h. you will feel like you are flying.

Ubuntu Moves On

The rest of my experiences with Ubuntu will be appearing on "Cobb on Tech" which is also located on Blogspot at along with other tech stuff.

See you there!

Teach for America: There is much work to be done

I was struck by the truth of this statement by Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America and an evangelist for education reform in low-income areas:
"Six percent of the kids who are growing up in the communities where we were working will graduate from college," says Kopp. "We believe that that issue has to be our generation's civil rights issue."
Based on my work with Dare Not Walk Alone and my experiences in the predominantly black neighborhood of West Augustine, I am inclined to agree. I think there is a whole sector of American society that has been below most folks' radar for the last twenty years or so. These are families, even entire communities, where nobody, not the parents or the kids, has a high school education.

Not that a high school education is, in itself, a great benchmark, but the correlation between graduating high school and "making it" in our society is well established. Yes, you can get by without one, but it is going to take exceptional effort, and the kind of hope that rarely flourishes in this part of our society. And frankly, if it wasn't for hurricane Katrina, I think a lot of Americans would still believe these neglected souls don't exist.

So, I say Wendy Kopp's organization is to be acclaimed for stepping up to this challenge and framing it in these terms. Read the NBC story here.

Cool Firefox Trick: The "get me out of here" option

I have previously posted about the problems of deceptive URLs, one small aspect of the whole phishing industry. I think I have also noted that one of the reasons I like Eudora as an email client is the warnings it provides when a deceptive URL is present in an email message.

Well, on the left you can see a related feature in Firefox, my browser of choice. It's the "get me out of here" option that appears when you have navigated to a suspect web site. I think it was a stroke of interface genius to provide a simple link that says "Get me out of here!" When you click that link you are indeed taken away from the site, to the Firefox home page. If you opt to "Read more" you will reach a nice little tutorial on phishing and the anti-phishing feature in Firefox.

Nice one Firefox!

The Money Gap Gets Wider: Rich Folks Should Start to Worry

After some of the interesting comments on my remarks about a million dollars, I did some digging and found this staggering fact in an interesting piece by Jeanne Sahadi, senior writer, from July:
Last year, the average CEO of a company with at least $1 billion in annual revenue made $10,982,000, or 262 times what the average worker made, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) released Wednesday....Put another way, the average worker--who earned $41,861 in 2005--made about $400 less last year than what the average large-company CEO made in one day. That assumes 260 days of pay (52 weeks x 5 days a week).
Now, as a business person who gets some of his business from other business persons, it might be wise of me to keep my thoughts on these numbers to myself. After all, at times I have been hired by companies with at least $1 billion in annual revenues and I might like to work for them again. But 262x?!* Come on! That is just too much. (I'd love to hear from a CEO who truly believes he or she is worth that much.)

To picture the size of this disparity I created the bar chart that you see on the left. The black bar is the average big company CEO income. The red bar, more like a tiny red strip is the average employee's income.

And that 262 is an average. Which means some CEOs are taking home an annual salary of even more than 262 times the annual earnings of the average worker. In all my study of economics and all my years in business, I don't see a way to rationalize that. Sure, a CEO might make some amazing deals and lead the company into huge profits, but what about the employees? Any company doing more than $1Bn a year has to have several thousand employees, some of whom must have helped in the earning of those profits. Spreading the wealth is not only morally right but good business, in the long run.

So, dare I say that CEOs who pocket megabucks lack long term vision? I certainly think there is a good case for saying that sustainable prosperity depends on social equity. Sure, several generations of the mega-rich few may enjoy life conscience-free in the stratosphere of luxury, but how long can that last if the poverty gap keeps gnawing away at social stability?

And yes, I started this blog by saying that $1 million is not what it used to be. But surely there is still such a thing as too much money. I think a salary 262x that of the average worker might be it.