mm368: Knowledge: Blast furnace of the 21st century

May 3, 2008

MUDGE’s Musings

Do you feel buffeted by the forces of the post-industrial revolution? How can you not?

The history of technology is a frequent visitor to this nanocorner of the ‘Sphere©, mostly because it has long been of interest to yr (justifiably) humble svt. Also, because the macro changes occurring all around us are, of course, culminations, or at least stops along the way, of trends that began when humans created civilization, perhaps 10,000 years ago.

L-HC‘s History of Technology

mm361: Gin, television, Web 2.0
mm359: The Navy’s ferry tale — unhappy ever after
mm278a: Don’t look back: Something gaining on you
mm272: What the devil time is it anyway?
mm228: Toothpicks — Good to great to gone
mm224: Dec. 17, 1903: A seminal date in history
mm195: Edison and Tesla
mm159: Sputnik | Spacemen are from Mars
mm119: Creating the sequitur
mm104: There She Blew

The ages of human development have long been characterized, and popularized, by the most important attribute of the era. Thus we can cite some of the various ages, stone (which actually predates modern homo sapiens), agriculture, discovery, mercantile, industrial.

Have we moved beyond the industrial age? David Brooks tackled this topic in yesterday’s NYTimes.

nytimes

The Cognitive Age

Op-Ed Columnist | By DAVID BROOKS | Published: May 2, 2008

If you go into a good library, you will find thousands of books on globalization. Some will laud it. Some will warn about its dangers. But they’ll agree that globalization is the chief process driving our age. Our lives are being transformed by the increasing movement of goods, people and capital across borders….

Read the rest of this entry »


mm258: It’s the economy, stupid!

January 18, 2008

MUDGE’S Musings

Can’t escape it.

Oil at $100 per barrel. And planted well over $3 per gallon at the pump.

Stock market with more bad news than good.

Another bank lost $billions last quarter, due to the mortgage fiasco that is shortening breath and whose ripples are washing ashore around the world. A bank in England with the oh so modern name of Northern Rock caused the first run on a British bank in 200 years last fall and had to be bailed out by Her Majesty’s government; U.S. subprime mortgages the cause. How unseemly!

How do you feel about your job? More and more entry level positions in MUDGE’s IT field have “right sourced” (love those euphemisms) themselves to Bengaluru and environs; where do they (the suited euphemizers in the corner offices) think that their own successors will come from? What, me worry?

A presidential election that for more than a year seemed so much a referendum on the Republican party’s mishandling of Iraq has, as elections often do, and as this preposterously lengthy election season guaranteed, morphed into another arena altogether.

It’s the economy, stupid!

Fred Siegel points this out in the latest City Journal.

cityjournal-new

Fred Siegel

The Globalization Election

Voters are showing their anxiety about the economy and immigration.

10 January 2008

The common thread that ties Mike Huckabee’s come-from-almost-nowhere victory in Iowa to Hillary Clinton’s unexpected resurgence in New Hampshire is a shared ability to speak to widespread middle- and lower-middle-class economic anxiety. In Iowa, Huckabee effectively disparaged Mitt Romney—who made a fortune at Bain Capital and outspent him 20 to 1—as someone who couldn’t possibly understand “people at the lower ends of the economic scale,” who fear that they’re losing ground in the increasingly globalized economy. And in New Hampshire, while Barack Obama’s rhetorical flourishes spoke most effectively to the young and to the “creative class” that has flourished in the global economy, Clinton—like her husband before her—felt the middle class’s pain, devoting most of her campaign events to highlighting economic issues and offering narrowly tailored programs to address everything from the rising cost of tuition to mortgage defaults. And it paid off: she defeated Obama by ten points among those who felt they were falling behind financially.

Clinton’s comeback aside, the most surprising fact to emerge from New Hampshire was that voters in both parties named the economy as the Number One issue. New Hampshire, where more than 81 percent of the voters have at least some college education, is prosperous by any standard. It enjoys the lowest poverty rate in the country, one of the lowest unemployment and taxation rates, and is in the top echelon of income. Yet only 14 percent of its Democrats and half of its Republicans believe that the economy is doing well, while a stunning 98 percent of voters in the Democratic primary and 80 percent in the Republican primary were “worried” or “very worried” about the economy.

Siegel has very perceptively connected our economic (skyrocketing oil, plummeting home values) shpilkes with the issue of illegal immigration, tosses in terrorism, and calls it the globalization election.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

The Globalization Election by Fred Siegel, City Journal 10 January 2008

In the end (290 days and a couple of hours from now) it will come down to which of the smooth (or not) talkers convince the voters that s/he understands the gravity of the issue Siegel calls “globalization” and has a plan to make all of our troubles vanish.

For all the talking we’ve heard, I don’t think any one of the candidates has convinced enough of us.

It will be an interesting 290 days…

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE

Faithful reader might be interested in how MUDGE came up with that 290 day number.

Got to the second page of Google results before the answer popped up – a site I’ve depended on for years.

Global as yr (justifiably) humble svt is, accurately knowing what time it will be in Sydney when it’s 7:00pmCST next week is part of the job. Long years ago, I came to depend on a terrific website, timeanddate.com to accurately deliver that information. On its Personalized World Clock page, one can specify up to 25 cities around the world, and you get a page that displays them. As I write this, it’s 5:58pm Friday in Honolulu, 1:58am Saturday in Sao Paulo, 11:58am Saturday in Beijing, and 2:58pm Saturday in aforementioned Sydney. Very cool.

Well, the site also has many other useful calculators. And, doh!, a days between two dates calculator. Also very cool.

And, a theme we’ve used here before, it’s only 31,795,200 seconds, give or take a few thousand, until a new president is inaugurated.

Can’t come soon enough.

Really, now, it’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE

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mm214: Dell faces the music — it’s a trend!

December 6, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

Dell Computer is the PC company one loves to hate. They make competent products. MUDGE uses three (count ’em, three!) of them regularly at work, actually, and has no complaints, other than those related to a corporate bean counters’ hardware refresh policy that keeps pushing back to indefinity (new coinage, if it is, covered under this site’s Creative Commons license). A five year old laptop is dark ages stuff, but I don’t blame Dell.

Years ago, Dell was an extraordinary success story. Everyone knows it: the college sophomore who figured out before anyone else how to commoditize an entire industry, and made it work by ruthlessly weeding fat out of the supply chain (i.e., source in Asia) and cutting out an entire swath of the retail distribution channel through direct to consumer telephone and then on-line sales.

Well the world has caught up, and finally, very late in this observer’s opinion, Dell has begun to make moves toward a more conventional retail selling strategy.

Dell Moves Further From Direct Sales

By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | Published: December 6, 2007

DALLAS (AP) — Dell is venturing further from its direct-to-consumer sales model and will start selling computers at Best Buy stores in January.

The companies said Thursday that Best Buy Co. will sell Dell’s XPS and Inspiron notebook and desktop computers at more than 900 stores.

Dell built its business around selling personal computers directly to customers, but it has been cutting deals with retailers as growth of PC sales slowed. The Round Rock, Texas-based company lost its spot as the world’s No. 1 computer maker to Hewlett-Packard Co. late last year, and HP has stretched its lead since then.

Of course, this change of course smacks of hurry-up desperation, since as the story will note, they’ve missed the huge holiday selling season at Best Buy.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Dell Moves Further From Direct Sales – New York Times

So, MUDGE. One might ask, where does the hate come in?

Nearly seven months ago, in its very fledgling days, this nanocorner of the ‘Sphere© presented a cautionary tale that, I believe, sheds some light.

Allow us, if you will, to take you back in time to a place called Left-Handed Complement post no. mm006

Storyteller

I tell stories. This is not news to those who know me. They’ve heard all of them, many times, many too many times, before. That won’t stop me from telling them here. In fact, you are a whole new audience for my stories. I can already feel my spouse poking me, as she does about seven minutes into the latest retelling of most any episode.

Ouch. But, let’s tell the one I alluded to last post. We were coy, and called my former PC a “heck.” I don’t know why I’m being so squeamish in a venue no one at all is looking at, but we can make this tale more generic this way, because I’m sure many of you can share similar ones.

I am a software tinkerer. I am always tweaking, downloading, never leaving well enough alone. There’s never enough RAM, enough HD, a big enough monitor to handle all the stuff I try to do at one time. So far, that places me only in the 56th percentile of PC users, I’m sure. But, this was not a problem related to all of that tinkering. This was a fundamental incompatibility between my printer, a most useful multifunction model from my (and pretty much everyone’s) favorite printer company, and the BIOS in my PC. When I purchased the printer, a mainstream model, and found this incompatibility with my PC, also well in the mainstream (dude!), I was forced to download and install an earlier version of the BIOS, a scary process involving creating copy of the download on a floppy disk to install/boot from. Pretty ugly for mainstream, but not that odd for a few years ago.

One day something changed. Don’t remember anymore exactly what, but I was getting ugly results trying to print. So, into support hell for literally hours, beginning with the printer company. Thirty minutes of hold time, and a lengthy explanation later, and I was directed to the PC company. What seemed like hours later, but probably 45 minutes or so actual time, I reached a support person in what seemed like an ex-US location. Explaining took a great deal of time, and the advice received wasn’t making a lot of sense, but I stayed patient (this was a few years ago while I still had some, apparently) throughout the ordeal. And I do mean ordeal, between disconnections, being bounced back and forth between printer company and PC company, speaking near midnight with people thinking about lunch.

A most frustrating eight (eight!) hours, and the problem really wasn’t resolved. I was resolved however to change PC brands. Oddly, the printer support people, obviously located in that same part of the world, may have been better trained, or more responsive, because I remain today a committed customer of their products.

But I went out virtually the next day and bought a new PC (it was time, four years since the last purchase), from a different manufacturer altogether: a Sony Vaio desktop. Well regarded in the various reviews I found on-line, with a built-in audio/visual media reputation, known for respected laptops, and NOT a “heck.” Brought it home, and let it sit unopened in the box for a few days, waiting, I guess, for the weekend and a suitable block of time – migrating from one PC to the next is not lightly undertaken (unlike placing a support call, it turns out, even though the time commitment turned out to be roughly similar!).

So, Sunday afternoon, took my shiny new box out of its box, plugged it all together, turned it on, and …

Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Sigh. Don’t know what happened to it between factory and my desk, but it was, and I can hear Andy Sipowicz saying it, D.O.A.

Okay, what to do? First, I’ll call tech support. Sigh.

So I called, and very much to my surprise, navigated through a simple menu, waited virtually no time at all, and found myself talking to a well informed support person.

In Florida!

He said that he could get someone out to my house the next day, but suggested that the best bet would be to return it to the retailer for an immediate replacement, which I did.

Glass-half-empty man, my standard persona, would usually think: what a terrible choice. D.O.A. out of the box! Find another brand!

Glass-half-full man, carrying the scars from eight hours of recent tech support frustration, actually thought: D.O.A., but resolved pleasantly, immediately (although it required an extra round-trip schlep to the retailer), by a cheerful person working in Florida on a Sunday afternoon.

The replacement system has worked perfectly ever since, although it is starting to show its age (not enough real horsepower for Vista, though I’m not seriously contemplating that can of worms!). Until and unless something horrible happens with my Vaio RS620G or my dealings with Sony, I’m sticking with that brand. They deserve it.

The lesson seems obvious to me, and I’ve read in the 2½ years since this incident that my former brand has begun to rethink its outsourcing ways.

There’s more to the bottom line than the bottom line. It’s the quality of the beans to be counted, Mr. Green Eyeshade. Or else, there just might be fewer beans to count next quarter.

The kid does tell a story, doesn’t he?

Okay, you’ve figured out what brand “heck” represented in the story.

So it’s this observer’s opinion that Dell’s problems of late have not been due to their direct to consumer model suddenly becoming obsolete.

I dare say that on-line retail sales of all kinds, especially technical gear like computers, is at an all-time high. Gear-heads like yours truly love to itemize components of PCs down to the cubic feet per minute air movement specification of their cooling fans, although as PC penetration moves into the last hold-out households prepackaged units sold by slick marketers like Best Buy will definitely move the needle.

But the issue is, if they’re so good, how come they were passed up? Let’s face it, everybody buys their components in Asia; many now assemble complete boxes there. It’s this curmudgeon’s perception that as opposed to outsourced supply, outsourced support, an easily discernable difference, has gradually chased customers away.

It’s no secret that Dell has moved support for their business customer base back on-shore, in response to strongly stated dissatisfaction.

Consumers, though, making an individual purchase every 2-4 years don’t have the business marketplace’s traction with a manufacturer, but they will, as MUDGE has, eventually exercise the only control that individuals have in a capitalist economy: vote with their feet. Here’s a trade publication story from a couple of years ago that supports my analysis.

I so voted, and lots of folks must have joined me, leading to HP’s recent attainment of sales leadership in the market.

I believe that Dell’s reputation for indifferent consumer support practices is what caught up to them. Maybe Best Buy and their Geek Squad can help repair the reputation.

In a time when the venerable and mighty IBM brand on a PC is owned by a Chinese manufacturer called Lenovo, U.S. companies can’t afford to stumble.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE


mm118: Overhaul of Air Traffic System Nears Key Step – washingtonpost.com

August 27, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

Those of us victimized by the airlines, airport management, the TSA, too many too small aircraft in the skies (per Patrick Smith, most recently quoted here and here) can find a glimmer of hope in this report:

washingtonpost

Satellite Network Projected to Cut Flight Delays but May Take Years to Complete

By Del Quentin Wilber

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 27, 2007; Page A01

The federal government is expected this week to award a contract worth more than $1 billion to build the key components of its next-generation air traffic control system — a high-tech network that officials say will alleviate chronic flight delays.

The system comes at a critical time, officials say, with flight delays at record levels and commercial aviation expected to continue growing steadily. The network will rely on satellites, rather than radar, to guide aircraft, and it is expected to allow planes to fly closer together and take more direct routes, saving fuel and time while reducing pollution. Government officials say it will also improve safety by giving controllers and pilots more precise information about planes.

An ambitious plan, to be executed of course by the lowest bidder.

[Per L-HC’s reformed process, please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Overhaul of Air Traffic System Nears Key Step – washingtonpost.com

And, of course the ADS-B system is controversial in the U.S. (happily adopted in lots of the rest of the world, but what do those gals and guys know about technology, anyway?) — everybody who wants this system in the U.S. wants someone else to pay for it.

And I can’t help but feel, the way the story is written, that the air traffic controllers union feels that should the national system be improved it will come at the expense of employment of controllers. Hey, guys, traffic’s expanding! Jobs for everyone! (Of course, if it’s just a matter of talking on a two-way satellite radio, and looking at a screen, the everyones might be working out of their homes in Bengaluru, or Shanghai, but that’s details.)

Of course, this writer will probably be more concerned about a different variety of wings by the year 2020 (if alive, I’ll only be 18 years away from retirement!), but we can all dream, can’t we?

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE

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mm085: Danger In The Repair Shop

July 26, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

My habit is to enjoy Business Week at (my usually) solitary lunch break. Imagine my digestive condition after reading this:

Business Week Online

JULY 30, 2007
GLOBAL BUSINESS

Danger In The Repair Shop

FAA inspectors are warning about the risks of outsourcing maintenance

The global economy has given consumers a lot to worry about these days: lead-laced toy trains, tainted toothpaste and pet food, and counterfeit drugs. Now add this to your list of fears: commercial jetliners that are routinely repaired in maintenance shops around the world that the Federal Aviation Administration has neither the funds nor the staff to oversee properly.

No one seems more worried than some of the FAA’S 3,000 inspectors themselves. They are sounding the alarm that foreign maintenance shops receive inadequate oversight and have become a risk for shoddy work and counterfeit parts. In interviews and in recent congressional testimony, inspectors and their union representatives say they are able to scrutinize thoroughly the work of only a handful of the 698 overseas maintenance contractors licensed by the FAA.

These facilities are sometimes found to hire unskilled and untrained employees. Inspectors, moreover, don’t have any ability to oversee an unknown number of obscure maintenance shops that lack FAA certification.

Fears about the safety consequences of outsourcing maintenance have been around since at least 2001. Worries were heightened in 2003, when an Air Midwest commuter jet crashed, killing 21, following faulty work by a domestic maintenance subcontractor. Now those anxieties are on the rise again as major carriers, faced with soaring fuel prices and cutthroat competition, move more of their work overseas. In March, Delta Air Lines (DALRQ ) outsourced the maintenance of airframes on 12 Boeing (BA ) 767 aircraft to a Hong Kong company, part of a wider strategy of moving repair work overseas that the company says saves about $250 million annually.

Two years ago, United Airlines Inc. (UAUA ) outsourced its 777 maintenance to another Chinese company. Delta and United say overseas outsourcing is safe and the facilities they use meet FAA standards. “Safety is always our first priority,” says United Airlines spokeswoman Megan McCarthy. “We’re not worried about the quality of the work.”

Every major U.S. carrier, in fact, has outsourced repair work beyond U.S. borders. But the extent of such work is growing. The Transportation Dept. estimates U.S. airlines spent 64% of their maintenance budgets, or some $3.7 billion, at outsourced facilities last year, up from 37% in 1996. And with U.S. consumers ever more wary of tainted goods and services from China, the latest push could stir a fresh wave of anxiety.

Already, some legislators and safety advocates are warning that outsourcing repair work is a disaster waiting to happen. In an interview with BusinessWeek, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who chaired a June Senate subcommittee hearing on foreign maintenance facilities, said she thinks “Americans would be shocked if they knew we have foreign repair stations that are not secure, employees without criminal background checks, and mechanics who are not qualified.”

According to some FAA inspectors, there’s plenty to worry about. In Taiwan, for instance, inspectors have been deeply troubled by what they observed over the course of the past two years at Chiang Kai-shek International Airport, where Boeing is modifying four 747 jumbo jets into extra-large cargo freighters. Inspectors say they found discarded B-747 parts, which they worried could wind up back in a commercial aircraft. As the old parts came off the planes–everything from aluminum panels to generators–they were dumped into unsecured bins, according to two inspectors who each shared their concerns separately with FAA inspector Linda Goodrich, a 23-year veteran of the agency and a senior member of the FAA inspectors’ union.

The repair shop, a unit of the Taipei-based Evergreen Group, a transportation conglomerate, is required to seal off the work area and destroy the parts, according to FAA regulations. Inspectors worry that any scavenger could grab the parts and resell them into the brisk market for counterfeit aircraft parts. The FAA itself has estimated that some 520,000 counterfeit parts make their way into planes each year. “These parts could be installed back on a passenger jet,” says Goodrich, who is based in Washington, D.C. “There’s no telling where these parts might show up or what could happen.”

Boeing Co. officials say the company followed FAA regulations and the parts in question have been destroyed. A senior Evergreen executive agrees that the work complied with FAA guidelines and that the parts were disposed of properly.

[Following publication of the story, Boeing officials conceded that FAA inspectors’ account was accurate. Boeing officials confirmed that two years ago parts taken from 747 jets were not identified, destroyed or disposed of properly. But as soon as the problems were identified, Boeing and Evergreen resolved them, said Boeing spokeswoman Mary Hanson. “Boeing did have some initial issues with scrap part identification and marking when it first started up the modification program in Taipei,” Hanson said. “Procedures to ensure proper part identification and marking were promptly put in place.” She said Boeing and Evergreen have since been in compliance with FAA rules.]

More broadly, the FAA disagrees strongly with its unions that foreign maintenance facilities pose a risk, citing the impressive safety record of U.S. carriers in recent years. James J. Ballough, FAA director for Flight Standards Service, says the agency visits each foreign repair station annually. “I am confident that we get a true picture of the compliance posture of those repair stations,” he says. “We have a great safety record.”

Some FAA inspectors, however, dispute the official line. They claim their biggest problem is simply getting the funds and clearance to travel to overseas sites. One inspector based in the Midwest says he is charged with inspecting dozens of facilities in Asia and Europe. But he’s able to visit only one or at most two such facilities a year, and then only briefly. “We’re not able to oversee the work to ensure it’s been done properly, whether they are properly using the tools, whether they have trained technicians,” says the inspector, who insisted on anonymity for fear of losing his job. “When such facilities were located in the U.S., we’d be in the shops every day.”

When inspectors do get overseas to observe the overhaul of, say, a jet engine, they say they find myriad problems, including faulty engine installations and improperly documented parts, a red flag for counterfeiting, according to Goodrich and several other FAA inspectors. Another common violation is not cleaning critical rotating parts before they’re inspected and checked for possible cracking. Such cracks, if undetected, could lead to an air disaster if the component fails, the inspectors say.

Such accounts are similar to testimony before Congress last month. “Our mechanics have found that aircraft returning from overseas flights had departed with obvious mechanical problems,” testified Robert Roach, vice-president of the International Association of Machinists, which represents many of the U.S.-based airline mechanics. The union opposes outsourcing and views it as a threat to its members’ jobs.

The ranks of FAA inspectors are likely to thin, not grow, as half of them are set to retire by 2010. But more inspectors wouldn’t help what is perhaps the most worrisome aspect of repair outsourcing: the hundreds of unlicensed maintenance subcontractors that operate completely below FAA radar. Licensed outsourcers often turn to these shops to save money, according to recent congressional testimony by Calvin L. Scovel III, the Inspector General for the Transportation Dept.

The IG testified that uncertified foreign repair stations have been performing maintenance that goes well beyond the simple oil changes and tire pressure checks previously thought to be taking place at these facilities. Instead, they’re repairing critical components, such as landing gear, and performing complete engine overhauls. The IG said that the FAA did not know the extent of maintenance performed at uncertified repair facilities, though he said the FAA is trying to find out.

And how do U.S. carriers follow up to ensure the work has been done? The IG said they rely mostly on telephone calls to the repair shops with which they’ve contracted.

By Stanley Holmes

Danger In The Repair Shop

So, once again the Republican stewards of our nation have screwed up yet another facet of the government that they have been trusted to oversee.

Why should any of us be surprised that the administration that has brought us the circus in Iraq, the post-Katrina catastrophe, and the threat to the Bill of Rights that is the Dept. of Homeland Security should have stumbled so badly managing airliner repairs?

In this case, the joke just might be on them — since you have to figure that the members of the plutocrat party spend more time traversing the airways than we serfs.

Meanwhile, MUDGE is not a frequent traveler by anyone’s standards. Of course, for the first time ever for this employer I am due to fly to Boston for a conference in 10 days. And of course, United is my employer’s preferred carrier.

Do you suppose my boss would allow me a few extra days so that I can make the drive?

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE

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