Monday, November 28, 2011

November 2011: The Internet Makes it All Easier

Technology, namely the Personal Computer and the Internet, have made me more organized, competent, and rigorous than I ever was.  I write more.  I write more effectively.  I maintain three blogs and am a heavy contributor to our business blog.  It is cool and a lot of fun.  
Truth be told, however, I am not the most organized person.  Also, I have had a major gap or disconnect between my ambition and my track record of realizing those ambitions.  For example, up until recently (recent being 2002), I hated to write.  I hated to do research.  I wanted to do both but they were tedious.  They were not just tedious; they were incredibly and ridiculously tedious.  When I was coming of age, writing meant pen and paper, editing drafts and then typing it into a typewriter, onto paper.  Simple changes to almost final drafts were unbearable.  It was boring.  Writing and re-writing drafts, typing and re-typing drafts and final products, was a major pain.  Therefore, I rarely did it.
Research was the same way.  It involved going to the library.  Sometimes it involved going to specialty libraries at a university as the journals I was searching for were not available at the local libraries nor were they available at the main university libraries.  Then, I would have to pore over telephone book sized tomes of journal summaries taking copious notes.  The next step was to take those notes and go find the journals in the library either on the shelves, on microfilm, or perhaps having to order the journal from another library and wait weeks for it to come in.  For me, this was mega-complicated and, I am not sure if I have used this word to describe it, tedious.  Therefore, I rarely did it.  
There is an inherent laziness at work here.  I know and admit this.  The laziness is greater than the ambition when the path to realizing the ambition is overly tedious.  Overly tedious is essentially boring and thus anything else is more interesting.  I have always wanted to get things done quickly.  Even as a kid, I tired of anything that did not be done in one sitting.  All my model airplanes and cars were horribly done because I could barely wait for the glue, paint or decals to dry.  Any long term project in elementary school?  The same thing.  
In junior high, we were taught how to use 3x5 index cards to do proper research for a term paper.  Then we were taught how to create an outline while amassing more and more cards.  Then after all this, we could sit down and type the rough draft of the paper.  Upon editing and reviewing with the teacher, we would type the next draft.  Upon another edit, we could finally type the final paper.  Mind you, all of this was done on a typewriter... multiple times.  Oh my!  This was not for me.  It was not for anyone.  I waited until the last minute.  I typed up the only draft of the paper with books and magazines all about it.  It was chaos but essentially done in real time.  Then, and only because the teacher required it, did I also type an outline and hand wrote enough 3x5 cards to give the appearance that I actually followed directions.  
The PC and the Internet has made this all easier.  Case in point, take an example form a few paragraphs ago.  I wrote “I would have to pore over telephone book sized tomes...”  I was not sure if pore, pour, or maybe a third word, poar, was correct.  In days of yore, I would have opted for pour and let the teacher or professor decide.  Sure, I could have looked it up in a dictionary or  style and grammar book but then I would have had to get up, find the book, the research my question.  Blame it on attention span, but if I were to do that, the chances of coming back to my writing would be minimal.  As I pondered the question tonight, I simply typing “pour over” into Google and quickly found ample instruction that led me to use the proper word, pore, and also realized there is no word poar.  It was easy, though there is still a risk that I could have been diverted by what a friend of mine calls “shiny things” that always seems to pop-up in my Internet searches.
For me and certainly many others, technology has helped.  I love the ability to research almost anything from my easy chair or desk via laptop or iPad.  I was talking with another friend on the phone a few weeks ago.  Somehow, don’t ask me how, we got to talking about a game that was played way back when by children.  It was a basic, simple, and seemingly boring game.  It involved a wheel and a stick.  The stick was used to keep the wheel rolling.  That’s it.  Sure it was an odd thing to talk about but we had somehow gotten there.  The next question was, “I wonder what that game was called?”  Who cares?  Who knows?  In the pre-internet days I would have simply let it go.  It is a small matter.  That day in front of my laptop, I simply typed in “wheel and stick game” and voila, sever listing for hoop rolling, hoop trundling, simply trundling.  Trundling?  Yes, trundling.I  am trying to fathom youngsters who could be amused, for who knows how many hours, with a hoop and a stick.  I wonder about the trundling youngsters of yore the same way young people playing the amazing graphic video games of today wonder how my generation  could have been so fascinated with Pong.
My first realization of how liberating this technology would be for me was back in the early days of the Internet.  I had arranged for Senator Joe Liberman to visit our church: The Armenian Church of the Holy Ascension in Trumbull, CT.  We were very excited as it was the highest US Government official to ever visit our church.  Our priest, Father Untzag Nalbandian, asked me to be the emcee for the event for being the driving force behind this auspicious event.  In truth all I did was contact the Senator’s office.  It was more do to the Senator’s very good policy of engaging the community.  We tried to do the same thing a few years later with Senator Chris Dodd.  We did not even get a reply from his office.
But I digress.  I was travelling to Argentina the week before Senator Lieberman was to visit our church.  I returned late Saturday evening.  I was expecting mail from the Senator’s office that was to include his biography.  There was no such mail.  It was 10 pm and I was wondering what I was going to do.  I did not want to embarrass the Senator, our church, or myself by not having a proper introduction for such a distinguished guest.  I then thought that perhaps they emailed me.  So, I checked my first email address, the kind that came with whatever dismally slow dial-up Internet service I had.  Again there was nothing.  
What to do?  The public library did not open early enough for me to get there and get to chruch on time.  What to do?  I then thought of using that new thing I had just got... what was it... ah yes... Netscape.  It came with what was then a new computer.  I typed the Senator’s name into the search box and hit enter.  Soon, I was at the Senator’s website.  He had a bio tab.  Wow.  This was amazing.  It was like midnight.  I was able to get and print his bio that I could read verbatim if I had to.  How cool!
It was incredibly cool.  I realized the power of where technology was going and what it would allow me to do.  The information world was literally at my fingertips.  From that moment on, the availability of information and the speed of retrieval has only gotten better, broader, and faster.  It is easy to learn about almost anything and everything really quick.  If you have any rights at a university library, the entire world of journals and papers are on-line.  The most classic papers in almost any field are available in pdf form on-line, this includes the Harvard Business Review which is probably the best in the world at trying not to provide free content.
I wanted to learn about alternative oud tunings.  A short internet search and voila:

People with any passion share their knowledge and lore on-line with, basically, the world.  I am amazed with the volumes of people who read my blogs and which pieces are most read.  The ones most read are not necessarily my favorites.  
There is a negative side of all this freedom.  I can do easily get lost for hours.  The Internet is full of shiny and distracting things that can lead to hours of not doing what I originally intended.  Case in point, consider November 16 and 17th of this month:
    • On November 16th, I learned that Karl Slover passed away in Georgia at the age of 93.  Karl who?  Karl Slover was one of the last surviving Munchkins from the Wizard of Oz.  Karl Slover played the lead trumpeter in that classic film.  Karl Slover NYTimes
    • The distracting bit for November 17th was just as obscure.  Yahoo News informed me that the composer of A Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini, Lee Pockriss, also died.  Besides the bikini song he also composed the music for Johnny Angel and Catch a Falling Star.

I am not even sure what I had set out to do when I ran across these stories and veered well off my intended path.  Apparently some degree of focus is still needed.  Yeah, I just searched on “maintaining focus” and then clicked on the sub-choice of “maintaining focus to achieve goals.”  There is a lot of sites in this topic many of which point out in their abstract that maintaining focus is important in helping one achieve ones goals.  Yes, the Internet certainly can hammer home the obvious.  It does, however, seem like the kind of topic I may want to blog about at some later date.  
Technology is not standing still.  Voice recognition will one day rule the way we input into our various electronic devices.  Of course, that is only until we develop an interface for brain waves.  Right now, voice recognition  it is mostly on cell phones.  It can be very useful when driving to either text someone or have the phone retrieve a phone number from the web or one’s directory and then make the call.  It is useful for activating the GPS on one’s phone to provide guidance to a destination.  It is quite useful and much easier to use then in the recent past.
Almost every phone I have had has been equipped with voice activated calling.  In the early days, it was simply a matter of luck when it worked.  I would activate the system and speak the name into the phone, such as Jim Davis.  It was a surprise if it dialed Jim Davis instead of Jim Clayborn or perhaps Jerry Danville.  I used to get quite frustrated with it.  I would try to speak more clearly on the next few iterations.  When that didn’t work, I would speak more forcefully a few times as if that would have any impact on the software.  Often, I would give up and just look up the number using the keypad.  One time in the car with my daughter, Armene’, I was trying to call home to inform Judy of our whereabouts.  I said, “home.”  Nothing.  I said, “home” again yielding the same results.  After a few more times, I began to speak more clearly and also more forcefully resulting in the following chide from my daughter that she still brings up frequently, “Dad, if saying ‘home’ didn’t work, what makes you think constantly repeating ‘homa’ is going to help.”  She was absolutely correct.
Someone told me that my first edition Droid phone had voice recognition.  I thought I would give it a try.  So, with out glasses, I dictated a short text message to Armene’ and hit send.  She wrote back saying, “what are you trying to say.”  I was trying to say, “hey look, I am using voice recognition to text you.”  That was not anywhere near what the voice recognition system interpreted and filled into the text box.  Only the word ‘look’ was correct.
I let voice recognition go for a while.  A few months ago, I tried it again on a whim.  It is working much better.  I am convinced they have made a software upgrade unbeknownst to me.  I use it all the time now and am quite happy with it.  It is only a matter of time before we will be giving voice commands to our home appliances, entertainment systems, cars, and even computers.  It is inevitable and possibly the last minor information before the systems that help us self-realize and maybe self-actualize.  Well... the latter may still be on each of us individually.
I appreciate what technology has done for me.  I look forward to future innovations to enhance my ability to more easily research and communicate.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Leaves not Falling

Tree by my house 11-13-11
I do think about global warming now and then.  I write about it less frequently than I think about it.  Thoughts of global warming are usually triggered by crazy extremes.  It might be an exceptional cold spell in the summer or the extreme flooding that has suspend both business and daily activities in Thailand.  Another example could be the October blizzards in New York and New England that shut down everything and left millions without power for over a week.

Sometimes I think about global warming because of trend that I think that I see.  This year the leaves seemed reluctant to fall.  It is November 10 and I am sitting in a Starbucks at dawn awaiting a meeting with a prospective client.  As I look out the window, it seems like half of the trees still have leaves on them.  This seems is late.   The trees with leaves still on them are the maples and oaks:  the hardwoods.  These are usually the last trees to drop their leaves.  The softer woods, the aspens and ashes, are the first.

My recollection is that by the first of November, be it Detroit, Connecticut, or now Chicago, the leaves were usually gone.  The weather also takes decided turn toward the colder.  As far as the weather, that actually happened a week ago.  There is definitely a mid-fall chill going.  The heavier coats are out.  But, there are still too many leaves still on the trees.

I am a Professor of Statistics so I know that there is good chance this year is just part of the ebb and flow, the natural year to year variation, of how fall transforms summer into winter.  This could be at the long end of that variation.  It might be a sign that the globe is warming.  I would have had to have kept better records to actually have drawn an actual statistical conclusion.  I would have to see a trend that is established over a period of years.  That, of course, would have taken initiative, planning, and dedication.  I am more of a casual observer than even an amateur climate scientist.

I think back to the shamans, medicine men, and wise elders of native peoples.  It was a time before all of the modern diversions.  There were no TV or internet.  There was not even electricity.  Smart people noticed the natural world and the yearly cycles.  They had a practical knowledge that was passed on orally.  They may have not had official months or written calendars, but they could measure the number of moons from when the leaves budded and sprouted until they turned color and began to drop.  They would know by lore and necessity when the weather is expected to change.

Late or not, global or warming or not, I am not sure.  Will it still a cold, snowy, and long winter?  Or are we a few years away from the leaves never falling?  I cannot answer any of those questions.  All I can say is that I think the leaves are taking noticeably longer to fall this year.

Hey, it is just something I think I noticed.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Car Wars

I was watching college football on Saturday, October 29th.  I watched my favorite team, Michigan, beat Purdue 36-14.  I also watched Nebraska methodically beat Michigan State and Illinois snatch defeat from the jaws of victory versus Penn State.  As night set in, I switched between two epic battles:  Ohio St vs. Wisconsin and USC vs Stanford. But, this bloggy bit is not about football.  It is, of course, about automobiles.  It is specifically about Honda and Toyota.

As good as a channel surfer that I am, I do end up watching a few commercials.  Perhaps it is just for nostalgic feelings for the days when one had to get up and walk across the room to change the channel.  Amongst the commercials I watched were two for Honda and Toyota.  Seeing car company commercials during a football game is nothing special.  These ads, however, stood out.  Both companies were offering 0% financing on their cars and SUVs.   This made me raise both eyebrows and wonder why.

I recall when my daughter Armene’ was buying her first car, we had looked at a variety of makes including Honda and Toyota.  Back then in late 2008 and early 2009, in the pit of the recession, Toyota and Honda were not really dealing.  Their dealerships were alive with shoppers whereas we were usually the only potential customers in any other dealership we visited.  It was very apparent.  As a result, Honda and Toyota simply were not dealing.  The salesmen at both Honda and Toyota basically said the same thing, “if you do not buy this car, someone else will soon.”  Well OK then, we went to Jeep, the SUV my daughter wanted anyway, and got a tremendous deal.

Toyota and Honda rarely given 0% financing.  I wondered what was up.  I simply assumed the entire automotive market had to be soft if Toyota and Honda was doing this.   With the power of the Internet at my fingertips, I can easily answer such questions.  So, I investigated.  A quick Google and a click took me to which is the Wall Street Journal’s Market Center - What’s Moving:  US Auto Sales.  

The site was graphs and tables.  I first saw that all segments were selling more than 2010 with the exception of large cars which is tracking 9.8% below last year.  Mid-Sized SUVs were a whopping 48.7% at the max end with Large SUVs up only 1.9% on the minimum end.  I was more perplexed why Honda and Toyota were offering 0% financing.

I scrolled more and found the section that told the story:  The Top 20 selling in the US were in this chart.  Everything was showing positive growth year over year except for five vehicles

  1. Toyota Camry        -  8.5%
  2. Honda Accord        -15.7%
  3. Toyota Corolla        -10.7%
  4. Honda Civic        -15.6%
  5. Nissan Versa        - 6.7%
Wow.  The top selling vehicles from these storied auto makers were down compared to last year.  

I am guessing this has to do with the all the turmoil in Japan due to the earthquakes and tsunamis.  Was supply constrained?  Or were consumers simply leery of buying cars they might be able to service so easy?  Given that both Toyota and Nissan are providing incentives, I have to conclude that if supply was a constraint, it is not now.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Seven Billion

The world population surpassed 7 billion on Halloween.  It is an incredible milestone.  People around the world are celebrating this historic threshold.  Both India and the Philippines had picked a child born that day and dubbed that baby the ceremonial 7 billionth person.  It is impossible to find precisely the birth that took us over the 7 billion threshold.  I have a friend, Bill Connelly, who told me his fourth grandchild was just born.  I told him that his granddaughter could easily be the 7 billionth person.  He and his family should simply declare that as they did in those two Asian countries.

It is an achievement for sure but it worries me more than it pleases me.  I worry about the world population growing so fast that we outstrip our food and natural resource supplies.  Growing beyond the food supply will be simply catastrophic.  I remember from biology class in high school what happens when a bacterial culture grows.  The growth is exponential while the food supply is ample.  As soon as the population is larger than the food supply, the drop in population is abrupt and significant.  There is a school of thought that basically believes the Earth is a petri dish and we are a bacteria growing in this dish at an exponential rate.  It is a scary school to be an alumnus of..

Here are some basic facts of human population growth:

  • Human population reached 1 billion in approximately 1804.  That is not all that long ago.
  • It took 123 years to reach 2 billion in 1927.
  • We achieved 3 billion just 33 years later in 1960
  • I remember I was in college in 1974 when the global population reached 4 billion.  The Chinese were 1 billion at the time - a quarter of the world’s population.  It was only 14 years to add this next billion.
  • In another 13 years we hit the 5 billion mark in 1987.
  • 12 years later, in 1999, the human population on Earth hit 6 billion.
  • Another 12 years later, bringing us to today, we crested 7 billion.
  • In 207 years, humans have grown 7 fold.   
There are any number of world population counters available on the internet.  The only one I looked at is  Their population counter as on 9:53:45 CST October 31st was 7,000,153,407... 408... 409...  Yes, apparently we have blown past the 7 billion by, oh my just a few minutes later, by 155,650!  It is an amazing counter to watch.  We have added the equivalent of Eugene, Oregon in less than 24 hours.  It is a little scary to think that we are adding the equivalent of Eugene, Oregon each and every day.  The numbers boggle my mind.  I had heard on NPR in the morning that 51 babies born just in India every minute.

It may be easy to dismiss the Occupy Wall Street movement as a “bunch of kooks.”  But, there is something at the core of their movement that should ring true today.  We cannot keep growing and consuming without end.  The impact that has on the environment and our ability to sustain life in any modicum of quality is severely strained.  We have to bring some rationality to the way we live, work, and operate in this world.  It begins with the way capitalism, the profit motive, and the distribution of wealth works and extends to all areas of governance and planning.

I freaked out when we hit 4 billion in the early 1970s.   There were predictions of gloom and doom.  It was in my sophomore year of college when we read a book, Limits to Growth, in a Social Philosophy course.  I was young, impressionable, concerned, and really took the book to heart.  The book was an everyman synopsis of an MIT study conducted on population growth and the consuming of natural resources.  The population growth and the consumption of resources from water and food to metals and fuels all were growing exponentially.  The study and book predicted a grim future unless mankind began to act differently.  In our Social Philosophy course, we took that “acting differently” to mean acting more proactively for the welfare of the entire earth to ensure a sustainable place for generations upon generations of humans to live harmoniously with each other, with the natural world, and capping our population at that 4 billion number.   We surmised that capitalism and communism needed to find some common middle ground.  

We also realized despite our sophomoric naivete and sincere intentions... the vision we had laid out was far fetched and had little chance of coming to fruition.  I became resolved that we would be the generation that would see a catastrophic decline in population due to us outstripping our food supply which would probably result in the US and USSR unleashing the nuclear arsenals.  The world would emerge as depicted in the lyrics of the rock ballad “Wooden Ships” written by Stephen Stills, David Crosby, and Paul Kantner and recorded by two of my favorite bands Crosby, Stills, and Nash and The Jefferson Airplane.

Something funny happened on the way to the scorched and barren earth.  Beyond the rise and fall of disco and the go-go 1980s and 1990s, the world population grew to 5 billion, 6 billion, and now 7 billion.  We are still here and thriving.

Literacy rates continue to climb.  38% of the world was illiterate in 1970.  Today, 15% or so are illiterate.  Some 5 billion of have cell phones.  While there some issues with food, there is not any kinds of shortages that keep us having hit the 5, 6, and now 7 billion thresholds.  There are more cars than ever and apparently enough oil being pumped, refined, distributed, and sold to keep things going.

We read about global warming, the sooner than we think end of oil, and, of course, the food and water catastrophe looming.  We hear about the demise of whales, big cats, and whatever is in the Amazon.  We hear about super bugs that will make the plagues from the middle ages look like a common cold.  We have seen the ebola virus, mad cow, and even AIDS come and go.  We hear about medicine resistant TB, staph bacteria, and who knows what else.  

We hear to predictions of what appear to be very smart scientists and concerned global citizens.  In 2004, a thirty year anniversary update of Limits to Growth was published.  The model was refined but the message was the same forecast of gloom with a glimmer of hope if we act soon.   We hear the naysayer politicos and talk show hosts naysaying what the aforementioned are saying.  Remember “drill baby drill?” I remember reading that there is enough shale oil in the US to sustain the world for centuries.  Who is right?  Is the die cast and the humans are dead men walking?  Or will capitalism, free trade, and human innovation figure out some way to thrive  at human populations of 10, 50, and even 100 billion?  Will God teach us a lesson or provide us an answer?

Does it matter if I am approaching 60 and I now kind of believe that none of these doomy and gloomy things will happen in my lifetime?  I could easily join the vast majority of the 7 billion earthlings who do not give any of this much thought.  They are more concerned with what they have to do today and tomorrow than worry about g obal issues.  They know they cannot do anything about the global issues.  I suppose they believe that our leaders will somehow guide us through this.

Humans can comprehend broad sweeping issues.  But, as a species, we act in the short term and somehow believe that will yield optimal results.  That however is simply not the case.  Short term optimization does not necessarily lead to optimization especially if long term strategies are the only thing that will work.  Systems analysts (not the IT type) and operations research professionals understand this very clearly.

I still am inclined to believe our population cannot keep growing at this rate.  There are limits to the resources of our planet.  The only question is when that will happen.  But, the when it will happen assumes nothing will change.  It assumes there will not be some miraculous scientific breakthrough that allows us to transform the mountain of refuge with which we have polluted the Earth into a material plasma that can then be easily transformed into fuels, food, metals, plastics, and fibers to satisfy our every need.  It is possible, I have seen it in the movies.