Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Hardware for the Holidays

It started with my disgust of Xandros on Lisa's netbook...

Basically, I bought Lisa a netbook a while back and although it's capable, honestly the OS was a smouldering pile of crud for the most part. The touchpad stopped working properly, it was slow and likely someone else would have given it up for dead. Digging around a bit, it looked to be a no-brainer to put Ubuntu remix on the thing, so I set about making it happen. Seriously 30 minutes into the experiment it became obvious that the folks at ASUS are either asleep at the wheel, need their heads examined or are taking payola from Redmond. Why? Because Ubuntu remix on this netbook feels more polished and stable than any out of the box OS experience I've had to date.

And Lisa is happy so I'm happy with it. I've been able to throw a lot of extra hardware configuration at it with literally no issues. i-Pod nano [x] Check. Canon MP620 (network, wireless, no less ;) [x] Check. Digital camera [x], Scanning over the network [x] -- some of the configuration took place while she was using the darn thing (apt-get is so nice over ssh). Xandros was almost completely out of disk space. It's running at about 70% space right now and happy as a clam.

The old Kodak DC215

While looking for a memory card I stumbled across an old digital camera I had in a drawer from 1999 (my old LinuxToday days). Hmmmm. Will it blend? ,I thought, mischievously. The Kodak DC215 was dead thanks to it being dropped and the battery tray getting slightly damaged. It was a pretty decent camera in its day, though. And I just couldn't bear something with such sentimental value being tossed out when it might make a really sweet web-cam. Soooo...

It turns out that Graham Crawford's SDK for the DC210 series cameras is still available. It's last update was in 2005, built for Red Hat back in the day. I needed a serial cable for the camera. Googling around a bit, I found a pin-out -- and a matching cable that probably came with the camera. So I had a serial cable, the software, and a broken battery tray. I needed a power supply. I have a drawer where I toss old out-dated power supplies ... found a matching cable for the lug on the camera, and the power-supply for a Netgear hub was close (7.5 volts -- hey, that's near 7 volts, right ;). So, some electrical tape, the cable, a Dell PC running Ubuntu -- we're all set. 30 minutes later I'm taking photo's with a shell script.

The photo's are available via serial (albeit a bit slow). It would be nice if I could pull them off the SD card directly from the Canon network printer -- it's one of the few devices I own that still has a Compact Flash (CF) reader. Is it possible? Turns out that you can use:

$ smbclient -I [IP address of Printer] /foo/canon_memory/ " "
And the "foo" above could be anything, for what it's worth. I'm mainly interested in the utilitarian value here of being able to have a nice, easy spot place in the house where the photo cards can be plugged in and the data sucked down to the central photo repository (where they're backed up, cataloged, etc).

Broken Digital Picture Frame

It's over 2 years old, and as far as comparing to the latest digital picture frames, pretty lame. On the balance side of the equation, though, we're not (Lisa and I) heavy digital picture frame users ;)

The pictures from our latest camera simply would not load on the thing. -- for one, it has a brain the size of a walnut, so the 8 mega-pixel shots were only going to load, one at a time, sometime in 2011 -- for the first one. That is, if it could read the Jpeg file format, which for some strange reason, it couldn't. I located the factory PDF manual for the thing, and it was about as clear and concise as raw enigma machine data. So I did what any decent hacker would do -- I started looking at the difference between the Jpegs from the old camera (the one from 1999) and the new ones. It turns out to be something missing in the EXIF data, a part of the Jpeg file format. If this sounds like something you've never heard of, my guess is that you're not into digital media much. I know I wish I could forget what I've learned about it all, because it took some digging around to discover all of the nasty stuff you can do to Jpegs to make them behave.

The digital picture frame isn't huge and has a really lame display -- like about 6x4 inches with an over-square rez of something like 900x250 (yes, it's really that bad). Meaning that 320x240 would look just fine on thing. The down side is that this kind of resolution is really pretty pathetic and it's not likely to win over anyone who is looking at the pictures for detail. On the plus side, however are the following facts:

  1. We're not looking at the frame for the quality of the pixels -- just for sentiment.
  2. It has a brain the size of a walnut; 320x240 images load very quickly.
  3. With the rez of the frame, 320x240 looks about as good as anything else, anyway.
  4. You can cram quite a bit of 320x240-sized, compressed Jpegs on a 2Gig SD card.
  5. My eyesight isn't all that great up close anyway ;)
Sooo, off to the races -- could I find a way to?:
  1. Shrink our catalog of photos easily.
  2. Fake out the EXIF header such that the frame would read it.
  3. Not interfere with the normal operation of the SD card otherwise.
And the answer is, of course, with Linux, just about anything is possible. The key operating lines of a script (which ran for about 3 hours total on about 1/3 of our catalog of digital pictures) are:
        [ $DEBUG -gt 0 ] && echo From $J to $DIRNEW/$FILENEW
        /usr/bin/convert $J -resize x240 $DIRNEW/$FILENEW
        [ $DEBUG -gt 0 ] && /bin/ls -l $DIRNEW/$FILENEW
        /usr/bin/jpegtopnm $DIRNEW/$FILENEW > $P1
        /usr/bin/pnmtojpeg $P1 -exif=$EXIF > $DIRNEW/$FILENEW
        [ $DEBUG -gt 0 ] && /bin/ls -l $DIRNEW/$FILENEW

The EXIF header being inserted in the pnmtojpeg line above is completely bogus. It's not even the right resolution -- the digital picture frame simply doesn't care (Lisa's iPod nano is a different story, by the way -- it worked for all of the pictures taken landscape). The pictures ended up tiny -- 2500 pictures taking up a whopping 80 Megabytes -- literally pennies on the dollar, space-wise. This means that I can simply put the script in the root directory of the flash card and make it execute upon insertion on her netbook. Imake a directory called "DFRAME" next to the "DCIM" directory, and clone files into there. Works like a charm. I'm fairly certain that I can simply pull an EXIF header with the right proportions to fix the script so her iPod nano can show them properly.

Through all of this, the joy of having an operating system that behaves (and can run software from literally a decade ago) is something to behold.

Happy Hardware for the holidays!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Flight of the Penguin, er, Phoenix

Dear Diary --It's been too long...

I'm in full-blown Phoenix mode. For those of you who wish to understand what I mean here(Reference Wikipedia):

I'm starting a new practice around what I've done in business for the past decade or so: Changing culture and embracing Free / Open Source Software. I'm also doing a bit of recruiting and sales. This is a natural extension and progression but in many ways it's a re-birth. I'll be blogging more about Free Software (big surprise) in the near future.

My thoughts have been consumed lately on all of the things that consume a startup -- my time has been sucked into a large void in some respects, but that doesn't excuse my blogging absence (it just explains it).

In my new role I'm truly getting to know the movers and shakers in the Free/Open Source (FOSS) space. It's a wonderful re-engagement, because I was far more connected in 1999 than I have been in 2009 (that is, lately). The happy surprise for me is that, unlike 1999, the world is happily embracing FOSS -- it's all over the place now. It would be laughable for people to ask questions like "Is Linux ready for the enterprise?"

I'm sharing some of my findings from the perspective of a sales person -- I'm getting to do that kind of duty now. I get to talk to a lot of people that are pondering the FOSS question.

The question is now turned the opposite direction -- the real question is "Is your enterprise ready for Linux?" There are still some hold-outs, in other words, that still see heavy value in proprietary infrastructure. A lot of these companies are now looking at FOSS with a far more serious gaze. The money is driving the activity, unfortunately.

The "Free" in Free Software is still about the cash for these companies -- and that's a crying shame. It's sad, because it's not about the cash at the end of the day (although a serious bundle is often on the table when these choices are made). Rather, it's about liberating the IT of your company -- it's about having real choices, flexibility and freedom as it pertains to using the technological underpinnings of your business solution.

My Phoenix is an intentional "burn-down" of the old Paul Ferris. I'm far from done on the technology side, by the way -- my time has been spent doing architecture and development for the past couple of weeks, so it's not like I'm going to ever shake that ability. The bird that is rising is one of new ventures, planning and entrepreneurship -- very exciting stuff.

For those friends who've been asking -- thanks for the gentle prodding. I'll write more often and you posted.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Linux on Netbooks

You'd have to be living under a rock to not have heard about the current "netbook" craze. Basically, there is not really solid definition (in my not so humble opinion) of what a netbook truly is -- my definition is this: A laptop that has superior battery life, reduced features and that is so small and convenient that it fits in your purse (if you're of the proper gender to be carrying one, or if you're purse/gender agnostic -- don't get me started on this topic).

Anyway, I bought one for my wife recently -- running Linux, of course.

Now, there's been a lot of misinformation about Linux on desktops/laptops and netbooks. It's too hard to use, it's not familiar -- it's not Windows -- people return them at a higher rate than Windows.

But, not according to Dell, it seems. There are many reasons that this is news. Dell is the quintessential user computing device vendor. They have a well recognized brand and off and on, have courted Linux on the desktop. Linux has a lower acquisition cost for a hardware vendor -- and on a $300 computing device, there isn't a lot of margin.

Barring all of that strategic schpew -- the fact is, my wife uses an Ubuntu laptop and seems to have taken to the netbook with a minimum of fuss. I use her viewpoint as an indicator of sorts. She doesn't hold much back in terms of criticism -- if it sucks I'm going to hear about it in short order. She's not a technology lightweight -- she uses facebook, email and web browsing as good or at a higher competency than all but my tightest technological contacts -- but she's not a programmer or IT type.

In short, if she can take to a Linux device without a lot of training on my part, I assume that the general public should have few to little issue.

And this describes her experience -- the Ubuntu laptop has been a terrific device, and she's used it for a couple of years now without issue. The netbook has a simplified interface, in comparison. It's an SD-based device (no hard drive) and so far so good, it has worked well.

I've always been skeptical of the claims that people can't use Linux as a network computing platform. My own experiences with my family (Mom and Dad use Linux these days as well) tell me that the market is fragmenting. I won't get into all of the technical reasons why Linux on the desktop is a good thing -- I could, and I've done so many times in the past -- all I'm going to say is that I'm happy to see that it's not hard to acquire a device running Linux these days.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Ebert Discusses Discussion

Roger Ebert's latest blog posting hits upon one of my favorite topics with the strength of a sledgehammer and the aim of a laser. His main point -- that our news has degenerated into a swill of yelling and uncivil discourse. That this lack of civility has become dangerous -- especially compared to times past.

I've spent a lot of time talking on this blog about this very issue. Whether or not you agree with the likes of Keith Olbermann, Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly, is irrelevant (and not the focus here). It's their technique -- their polarizing speech and the way they make the news more about propaganda than about level, balanced discourse. Our society is in danger of being polarized into groups of people that are more and more informed by people who are less and less informative. The anger is obvious. Keith O spent miles of airwave ranting against Bush. Bill O is now doing something similar -- his party didn't win, so he's going to spike the punch, that's my opinion. Spend some time (it doesn't take much effort) searching on YouTube for "shut up" video with Bill in it -- what he's doing is unpatriotic by his own measure. We're supposed to support our president, etc, etc.

I've had enough of this kind of partisan stupidity. Dialog -- quiet, carefully thought through actions, serious planning and lucid introspection of America is now in order. We're in a crisis of massive proportions, and these people and their obviously hate-mongering methods are not helping.

Roger Ebert says it better than I do. Read his blog for a really good breakdown of the present news break-down.

No, I don't know the fix to this problem. Given the fact that things like Rush and Bill sell really well these days, it's hard to imagine what fix is in order. I do know, however, that what we have is broken. Our media and the lack of local news coverage, the lack of independent voice and the popularity of junk news is a disease. We need the balanced clear voices of a truly moral news media to balance our democracy.

I shudder at the thought of a media run by the government (or even regulated). The fact is that somehow our society needs to come up with a way to pay for truly "fair and balanced" news reporting (in the strict, true sense here). The fact is that I don't want the government to do this for us. The fact is that corporate media has illustrated, really well for that matter, that they're not up to the task either.

How might this be accomplished in a democracy where free speech is supposed to be the order of the day?

Thoughts welcome,

Monday, June 15, 2009

Paul Krugman and Staying the Course

If you get a chance, read Paul Krugman's latest op-ed in the New York Times.

Basically, there are people that want to call off the recovery. They're wanting the US economy to be as responsive as say, a TV remote. Sadly, it took years of failed trickle-down economics to get us here, and it's going to probably take a lot of changes to pull us out.

Paul Krugman has my respect for a multitude of reasons. His lucid insight and eloquence surrounding the economy has a strong history of accuracy to boot. This article is more of the same.

Monday, May 11, 2009

A Glimmer of Hope for GM

I've blogged a lot about GM and American auto makers in general of late.

A lot of negative press, for most of that. It's only fair that I post something positive. Over the weekend, I got a chance to drive a 2010 Camaro. It was Saturday morning, and through some really strange coincidences, I have a contact at a Chevy dealer that has been keeping me posted as to when the new cars would ship.

Complicating matters, I wasn't feeling my best, so it wasn't the most pleasant time for me, but I drove out to the dealer and took a look anyway.

It was a silver V6 and automatic -- not the car I would choose, but it turns out, quite a bit to whet my appetite.

The long and short of it is this -- the 2010 Camaro is a beautiful work of art. It's everything a pony car should be and more. The V6 version lays down over 300 horsepower and everything about it was right. Drop dead gorgeous, quick, solid and the only time I've seen a GM product in real life that looked as good (in this case, better) than the prototypes I'd seen at the Cleveland auto show.

If GM can make things like this happen, pull some electric vehicles out of their past and put them back on the road and return to the creative force they were (even half of that), they can make it. This car was amazing. Of the three pony cars out now (Challenger, Mustang and Camaro), this one is the most beautiful in my humble opinion. The Challenger is a close second. I have to say that my impressions of the Challenger are similar, but that the thing is huge. It's been designed (the Challenger) to make this less obvious -- to get an idea, take a look at the size of the tires, and things begin to swing back into focus.

Bringing up the tail in terms of style, the latest Mustang is not quite there. Somethings' wrong with the back half of the car -- the prior attempt was very true to heritage, and yet somehow always kind of left me feeling like it wasn't all there from a styling perspective. The new Camaro and Challenger make it really clear what's missing.

It's nice to have choice, though, at the end of the day. Who would have expected this -- at this time, no less.

Let's raise a toast -- Here's to there being enough gas at a reasonable price in the near future to sustain some decent burn-outs ;)

Thursday, May 07, 2009

The Beginning or the End of the Republican Party

Rush, what a guy! He's apparently urging Colin Powell to leave the Republican Party ... along with McCain? Note that a lot of this is right off of CNN's web site. There's a lot of free press for Rush in there for a web site that's supposedly got a liberal bias. (Hint to die-hard conservatives -- when stuff like this is going on, something is fundamentally wrong with the picture). Gotta wonder, Rush -- who's going to be left in your party at the end of the day?

Even worse, the statement that Powell chose to endorse Obama was racially motivated. In case you think that this is me simplyfying Rush's words, here's a clip to watch that will make the point clear.

I read Powell's endorsement and justification with interest when it went down last year. It's anything but racially motivated. If anything, it was a lucid description of everything that I was feeling about the McCain campaign. You can hear this in Powell's own words if you're still not convinced.

Here's the deal -- Powell in the above clip is right -- he's dead on about what's wrong with the present party. What is interesting, is the stark difference between Rush and Powell.

Rush: Pretty much a person executing in units of rhetoric at high volume. His reputation be damned -- he makes money riling people up and unfortunately, wrecking the republican party at the same time. He's like a disgusting cheerleader -- never in the game, always yelling from the sidelines with simple-minded chants.

Powell: Total contrast to Rush in almost every way. Powell is commanding Military figure who has a reputation for honest, quiet and intelligent dialog. He's been on the field during some difficult moments. He's truly served our country.

I have a lot of friends on both sides of the political spectrum. Some of the more liberal ones are looking at the sad state of Rush affairs and smiling. They know that the more this continues, the smaller the party will be at the end of the day. They know that their agendas will be more likely to pass through congress and the senate (and they're calling for revenge).

As a moderate, I'm looking at this situation with a bit more distress. I'm worried that the lack of balance in our (often broken) political system will make for some serious instability. The people that follow Rush are either watching for entertainment value -- or they're true believers in the snake oil being sold.

It's like Professional Wrestling -- there are a lot of people that love to watch, even though they know it's fake. And then there are the people that really don't get the joke. I honestly believe that Rush's followers have to fall into those two categories. It's hard for me to believe that that many people can be that stupid, or simple-minded.

Rush's postulation that Powell's endorsement of Obama was completely racially motivated is simple minded. It's an example of Rush either being stupid, or maliciously defamatory. And it's a racist statement itself -- its says "Powell is lying, because he's black -- you just know it."

Part of me has to wonder if Rush is truly that stupid -- I sit in disbelief that he can be that stupid, and then I remember Occam's Razor. I have no true proof that Rush is being mean-spirited here. The simplist explanation is that Rush truly is that simple-minded.

Because anyone that takes the time to read and listen to Powell's breakdown of why he was endorsing Obama would find good reasons that have nothing to do with race, and everything to do with what's wrong with the Republican party.

The core of what's wrong is all over this blog posting -- the tendency to aim at the simple-minded and divisive rhetoric when complex solutions that require everyone's effort are required.

People like Bobby Jindal, as I've said before, aren't going to cut it for the party. The Party needs to step up and listen to the small, quiet, logical voices of its true leaders. The beginning of this change is in the nucleus of what Powell is and has been saying since before the election was over -- that to be inclusive, they're going to have to morph into something that abhors people like Rush.

And I think it's going to be a while, unfortunately, before that happens. Possibly a decade at this rate. The party will continue to shrink -- especially if idiots take Rush's advice. Given the popularity of his radio show, that's a distinct possibility. The party will eventually be very exclusive. It will be like, so exclusive that it will be made up of only loud, obnoxious talk show hosts.

I forgot, talk show hosts that talk racism with a wink and a nod. That talk about the "real" America forgetting that the real America is comprised of immigrants. The only "real" Americans here are the American Indians, if you want to get down to the demographics of the situation. The rest of us rolled into town a couple hundred years ago and started a new government that was pretty inclusive (if you don't count some slavery, land-grabbing and massacre). I'm probably not a "real" American in Rush's eyes anyway -- Puerto-Rican and Scotch-Irish in heritage, he would probably tag me as too hispanic. I seriously don't know or care -- I don't want to speculate too much because the last thing I want is to come off as loud and stupid and rhetoric-driven as Rush.

No, the potential here is for the new face of the republican party to become someone like Colin Powell. Someone who truly understands what's wrong -- who's not afraid to tell everyone to turn off the Rush Radio Raunch and move on to straightening out the party. Without that kind of balance, the party will continue the slide toward irrelevance that it is facing today. That's why I titled this posting about the beginning or the end -- it's moments like this where the vestiges of intelligent people that are truly loyal to the party can see the problem at hand with clarity.

Possibly Powell, in other words, can lead the Party back on track. The alternative (to listen to Rush, and leave) is far more damaging to the country at the end of the day.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Let's Regulate Corporate Banking Welfare

CC'ing the world on my dealings with my congressman (who has responded to me dutifully in the past), John A. Boccieri:
Congressman Boccieri,

Given the recent bail-out of financial institutions using government-backed funds, I have to raise a couple of issues and ask for your consideration of the implications as opportunities arise to address the issues at hand.

1) Bankers are supposed to manage risk.

2) Some of these people have clearly missed the mark, managing this risk. At the same time, the executive management of these same institutions were compensating themselves at a rate that most of us (the vast majority of your constituency) would consider obscene.

3) Having our tax dollars shoring up this risk is a dangerous proposition for our government.

4) They're continuing to pay themselves as if they were creating wealth -- recent measurements show that they're attempting to return their pay to pre-2008 levels.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/27/opinion/27krugman.html?_r=1 (Article reference is Paul Krugman's article in the New York Times entitled "Money for Nothing").

I ask you as my representative in the House to please do your part to regulate this new form of welfare. If we're going to turn the banking system into a new welfare state then there should be welfare-like compensation for the executive management. If they don't want this kind of regulation then they should find ways to be profitable and not take the money as a loan from United States taxpayers (such as you and I).

That's my request -- feel free to call anytime.

PS: Posting this on my blog as well -- just keeping you informed. I trust you as my representative and believe that true democracy requires transparency.

--Paul Ferris.
Writing your representatives is a really good idea. I'm sharing here in the hopes that everyone reading will feel similar motivation to get involved with their government and the overall solution. Vote, contribute and protest if need be. But above all things, be informed and involved.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Pontiac, the mark of Dead Car

GM is about to give Pontiac the axe. What comes to mind when you think of Pontiac? Youthful, Wide-Track, ... Sporty -- Dead?

The Pontiac brand has been targeted by GM management. It's likely going to be gone soon.

First a disclaimer: Paul Ferris isn't a fan of GM products -- I do think that new Camaro is smokin' hot though, and I'm a big fan of the Corvette -- though I'm not likely to own one simply because of the impracticality of a 2 seater in my life. Fact is that if there is anything I'm not it's a car snob. Cars are expensive. I have things I'd rather have my money doing than soaking up the remains of a BMW or some other brand of vehicle. If I want to have fun, a decent Toyota, Ford or Honda is probably going to fit the bill. I've blogged about my tastes in Mustangs and various other car-related opinions over the years. I've also made quite a few comments on GM and their deletion of brand-names.

So it is with no surprise that today I read that GM is finally doing the obviously stupid, and killing off Pontiac.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not totally in view of the GM brand management lineup here -- what I am aware of, however, is that the management of this company has to be one of two things:

  • Chock full of political stupidity.
  • Just plain stupid.
Dozens of reasons not to kill of brands come to mind. Think of a much reduced GM here -- one where the people that manage Pontiac and say Chevrolet are merged together into a cohesive unit of people that were the exact same size (or smaller) than the people that used to manage just the Chevy brand. In this new scenario, the Pontiac brand is sold at Chevy dealerships and vise versa.

In this new reality, GM simply manages the Pontiac brand the way that someone would manage option packages on cars. If a Pontiac branded car is coming down the line it simply gets the right badging and color options. If a car is one of the signature items for Pontiact it might get different grills and/or body panels. In some cases, the Pontiac version of a corvette, for example, or Camaro (for another obvious example -- something called a "fire bird") is manufactured. Otherwise, it's essentially a branch off of the Chevy item of the same name.

This isn't hugely different than what's been going on for the past 20 years or so. There was a time when Pontiac cars had completely different bodies, engines, transmissions. The buyers expected this kind of differentiation. The world has changed (more on all of that later). Buyers of today are not looking for the same thing they were looking for in 1969.

But GM -- wake up here. You may survive for another year doing stuff like lopping off your Pontiac leg. You're going to do it at massive cost, however, if you manage to piss off a whole bunch of Pontiac fans. I don't have to speculate much here -- likely there's a bunch of Pontiac executives that are slated to get the axe. Why GM can't pull it's head out of its collective ass and simply merge all of its executive leaders into a cohesive team that manages all brands is likely a big part of their problem.

The GM of today has to shrink in executive leadership -- let's hope that they can pick the best of the best inside of the company. Let's hope the people that stay behind are frugal, nimble and most importantly creative problem solvers -- and not simply blowing away brand names because of political infighting -- like I suspect is going on -- I don't know for sure that this is the case. If you're a GM executive insider, feel free to post some comments here or send me a private email.

The sad thing is, the GM of today has to be a completely different GM than the GM of 1959. The GM of 1959 functioned in many ways as a bunch of independent car companies. Buyers of a Pontiac or Chevy took note of the massive differences with pride. Those days are obviously gone. GM can't afford different executive leadership for all of the different brands -- but I'd argue that they still need those brands to be GM. Managing the brands shouldn't require different dealerships, assembly and so on. This is the point I'm trying to make. The fact that they're killing Pontiac says that they don't get part of their problem.

GM has to face some rather obvious glaring problems (that have nothing to do with brands) head on:

  • They're no longer the manufacturing technology leader that they once were. Hybrid cars, fuel cell vehicles, lagging engine technology -- I have no doubt that they have had the jump start here from an engineering perspective. They have smart engineers, in other words, that have been in front of the competition, and probably on all of the times I just listed. They have moronic executive leadership that hasn't let the cool stuff get made -- there's a rather obvious problem they need to fix. My father and I go to the Cleveland auto show -- we see their prototype stuff. It never makes it into product form. In the mean time, a few years go by -- someone else makes it happen. This has to stop.
  • Quality: GM quality is getting to be something of a joke. I have a next door neighbor that is a huge GM fan -- his wife just bought a brand new Saturn product -- and on the first day it blew an ABS sensor. I have a friend with a brand new truck -- the expensive alloy wheels look like crap. His dealership wants to replace them with "refurbished" items. His wife's brand new car has a set of headlights and grill that look like junk. And this is just me thinking of examples -- I haven't gone out to interview people or something -- these are examples that I've just accidentally came across in the past couple of weeks.
  • Brand cultivation: GM needs to have its Mustang or F150. No -- I don't mean that they need the trucks to be better, or to go head to head with the Mustang on effort (that would be cool, though) -- I mean that one of the things about Ford is that they're obviously starting to get the fact that brand management of automotive products involves making the same products (with minor improvements) year after year.

    People come back for quality. They come back because their kid someday needs a car for college -- and that [brand item] served them well. The lights must be on somewhere in the company or they wouldn't be doing the new Camaro. They wouldn't be making the Corvette, Impala and Malibu. Sure -- there are times to make new brand items for people to get attached to -- those times are not to be every year or two, in an effort (I'm supposing here) to get people to forget the crappy product that the Citation or Cavalier turned into. No obvious choices for this come to mind. This is probably a core weakness; GM has not made a long-running product that gained market share and made lasting brand awareness in quite some time.

It's truly as sad day when one of your brand detractors is sitting on the fence lamenting the situation (that would be me, for the record).

A closing note here: I have real reason to be sore at GM. There was a time, early in my engineering career. I was still a student, looking for work in Warren Ohio so that I could support my family. GM didn't hire people back then at the Packard engineering facility -- it used a contractor work situation. I had to take a job at close to minimum wage working as a long term contract employee. They had a system worked out where the contract middle-men took a big portion of your salary while you worked over many years getting next to no benefits and crappy pay. All of this was eventually cleared up with a settlement for a class action lawsuit (long after I had moved on in disgust). I got to drive my 1966 Ford falcon into work and hear crap about how I should be driving a brand new GM product to help support the company (I was biting the hand that feeds, according to a couple of people, driving a 20 year old rat-bag of a car). Oh yeah, I also drove a 1974 Nova -- it was my wife's car at the time, upon occasion. When it ran.

If you wanted to switch contractors to get a raise in pay there were all kinds of "unwritten rules" to prevent true marketplace competition in the compensation department. This kept the contract suppliers happy and was in effect a reverse union situation -- workers, unable to compete for a fair wage, were kept making really crappy pay while their contract bosses made out like bandits.

I still get angry when I look back. I had a 2 year old son and we had to make seriously hard choices between food and medical care at times. All the while, the cleaning people (GM employees) were making several orders of magnitude more than we were. I sat it out, learned some valuable skills -- and left for a company that would hire me as an employee. I left for a large raise and never looked back.

I vowed at that time, never to support the company that had been so callous as to treat me the way that Packard (A GM subsidiary at the time) had treated me. The situation was compounded by the way that the employees walked around in a manufactured feudal system -- looking down their noses at the contract help like a second tier of society. They had GM car discounts, real medical benefits and a host of other reasons to feel so much better than the "contract help".

Years later, as I write this, real memories of disgust come to mind. The inefficiencies back then were obvious. My guess is that what we're witnessing these days is simply the result of a disease running its course.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Public Service Annoyance.

What are the police from Brecksville doing on Route 77 North, around Mile Marker 149 doing to help make the world a safer place? Catching speeders? Sure! But what about other forms of helping the community...
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That's probably what the people paying their salary (the dear folks living in Brecksville, namely) like to think. Too bad they're not making the world a safer place. Too bad that's not the image that they were projecting this morning. This morning, they appeared to be simply pulling people over for speeding on the Interstate to pump up the money for Brecksville township.

Call me an idealist -- but I think of Police fulfilling the roles that my Father-in-Law, a sheriffs deputy for many years in the 70's, used to fill. In that role, he gave out tickets, sure, but most of the time he was looking to make the world a safer place. That meant helping people in need -- not just cutting tickets for passing motorists.

I don't see the Brecksville cops in that light for a simple reason. On or about 9:06 AM, Good Friday April 10th of 2009, I witnessed them (2 cars) sitting in wait for passing speeders. Oh, and there was that elderly couple, with a flat tire, within eye-shot of both of the patrol cars, broken down on the side of the road.

Yeah, it's hard to have a conversation with them -- but not at all impossible. I did manage to locate a nice email address for Brecksville. I took a couple of minutes to write a nice message to them (repeated below, for your entertainment).


   Just wanted to say that this morning, around mile marker 
149 on 77, I saw an elderly couple fixing a flat on their 
car in the Southbound lane while I was driving on the north-bound 
lanes.  I'm writing you because two of your Police vehicles were 
in obvious eye-shot of the situation -- and obviously doing 
their usual duty (my guess: gathering speeding ticket revenue 
for your township).

   While I appreciate the safety that this regulatory 
function of your constabulary brings to the table, I would 
expect them, in situations such as this, to add some value 
in the form of community service.  Specifically, I was 
kind of saddened to see them sitting nearby and doing 
nothing.  I see the highway patrol upon occasion, helping 
others in times such as this.  Why not the Brecksville 

Awaiting your response,


--Paul Ferris

I don't expect a response -- if I get surprised, I'll post it here.

Any of my readers in the Brecksville area care to comment on this? How does it make you feel, knowing that representatives of your government (I count the police in this category) are projecting this image for your beautiful township?

Monday, April 06, 2009

Mister Rogers, the Epitome of Evil (to Fox and "Friends")

It's amazing how stupid you can look, when you simplify reality down to a few basic, incorrect statements, string them all together and attempt to make sense of your own nonsense. Then, to make up some air time, you sit around with some other people, who, like yourself, clearly have brains the size of a walnut. This "stupidity as a sounding board" tactic is part of what's going wrong with media today.

Seriously guys -- Mister Rogers?!? Can't you find some other villain to peg here? Mother Theresa is wide open -- why not her too? The basic gist of their argument is that Mister Rogers taught children to feel entitled. Backing it all up, some lame college study.

This is more of the same, simplistic thinking that's at the core of what's wrong with something I call "Partisan Logic" -- it's the kind of Logic whereby you can justify going after one president that blew a secretary whilst in office and lied about it, all the while thinking that invading another country while borrowing money from a hostile Communist state is just fine. Or, for contrast (I'm an equal party offender), you can rail against a gender or race inequitable system, and make arguments that sexual harassment by a President wasn't all that bad at the end of the day.

Can they seriously think that the this kind of lame, half-baked logic is a substitute for thought or basic reality? Have any of these people raised children?

Here's something to think about -- maybe turn the TV off -- that's what we did, by the way. I can't claim huge success but if crap like this Fox TV program was my Kid's only choice, I would have bought a signal jamming device in case he turned the set on one day when I wasn't home.

Friday, March 27, 2009

I Wish I Didn't Know Now What I Didn't Know Then

It's a sad day when you think you're reading satire or some piece of phony humor, and it turns out that it's really an article from ten years ago in the New York Times that contains the following quote:

The article is worth reading for a host of reasons. For one, it exposes our political system and highlights that some legislators do, in fact, understand our complex economy -- even if they're unable to stop the train of stupidity that they're riding on.

Another quote from the article that's telling:

That sounds like a commercial, if there ever was one, for economic destruction. Of course, my rear-view mirrors are spotless, so take all of this with a grain of salt. Remember this when someone decries the role of government and casts them as regulators holding back innovation. Remember all of this because there are a lot of people that make loud noises as great pundits that think that "simple" answers to complex questions are substitutes for history and intelligence. Remember things like the events, documented for posterity, by this article for what they were.

Hopeless, stupid mistakes by people that had all of the facts, the history and the understanding to know better, and yet they still proceeded to enact legislation that would be our downfall.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

More Partisan Stupidity

The latest Republican hopeful, Bobby Jindal, is going to continue a tradition:

What tradition? The idea that simple rhetoric and posture are replacements for true leadership.

This was attempted by prior candidates for president (mainly vice), and make no mistake, there are people that are gearing up for the 2012 presidential race with bets on Jindal.

The problem is fundamentally bigger than the above: The president-buying-public as it is, is looking for someone who can solve problems. My view is that they want a president engaged in dialog. Someone who is inclusive. Talk like the above is not inclusive -- it's disastrous. It really is un-American to wish that your president will fail.

The issue at heart that is not being addressed is that this was a game created by people like Bill O'reilly when he pontificated that people should "Shut Up" in regards to (name that tune, you un-American moron). Bill and people like him started and pushed the idea that to speak anything negative at a crucial time -- that's un-American. This is exclusive dialog -- it separates, rather than unites. At its core is a fundamental problem -- we as a nation are allowed to disagree sometimes. At the end of the day, however, we're supposed to work as a cohesive whole for the greater good. We're not supposed to wish for failure, in other words.

On the other side, Rush Limbaugh comes out after the Dems win the election and says he wants Barak to fail.

Out of control Republican pundits, in other words, have brought the biggest hope for success for the Republican party into the spotlight -- and his first order of business is to attempt to reconcile the moronic rhetoric of their pundits and talk-show egotists. He has to do this because if he doesn't, Rush and Bill are not going to support him.

What's really wrong with this picture? Rhetoric, exclusive dialog and simplistic thinking (in my not-so-humble opinion), have lost the conservatives a lot of ground lately.

Bobby Jindal, if he hopes to win the hearts and minds of the people that are going to elect him, is going to have to address the real problems in America with real solutions. He's going to have to find a way to include more people in his party. He's going to have to distance himself from the stupidity of what's running the party today -- Bill, Ann, Shawn and Rush. These people are doing real damage to the party that they supposedly want to win the presidential race.

I don't think Jindal is up to this, for what its worth. I think that there are far better conservatives up to the task -- but they're not going to get Rush and Bills support.

There is a guy right now who's engaged in real dialog with the nation. That guy obviously doesn't want to fail -- at least, that's what he's saying (and it sure looks real to me). He's an obvious problem solver. That guy has been working hard to be inclusive -- it's really obvious on a lot of fronts. That guy is our President. We have him for another 4 years.

I don't want him to fail because I don't think we've had problems this big for quite some time as a nation. I think we do need some Partisan balance to solve the problems that Barak wants to solve. I think we need more than simplistic thinking and negative, exclusive discourse to fix what we're up against. More to the point -- I think that the American people are smart enough to tell the difference, at the end of the day, between simple rhetoric and complex solutions to tough problems.

And now I'm going to do something I rarely do -- I'm going to take Bill O'Reilly's advice. I'm going to shut up.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Spitzers' Latest Column -- Read It

Eliot Spitzer's latest column, entitled "The Real AIG Scandal" is about more than the shameless bonus money -- it's about what's really wrong with the bail-out cash. It's about transparency (rather, the lack of it), corporate courtship (or affairs between corporations -- collusion and the potential thereof) and it's about how everyone but us (you and I, the taxpayers that are funding this charade) is getting paid in full.

In short, it's news that for some reason, is not making its way to the front page or onto the main screen of CNN and FOX.

Eliot -- glad to see you back doing what you do best -- exposing criminal behavior.

And if it isn't criminal today, you can bet someday it will be soon if enough people figure out how we've been robbed.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

More of the Same Problem With Our Media

In case you've missed it, something interesting happened Thursday night -- Jon Stewart in a show segment that more or less would probably make Morley Safer proud, took apart "Mad Money" host Jim Cramer.

And, following up it looks like his producers asked for the interview to be squelched by the rest of the NBC network.

I don't see any easy way to regulate our media. We can make all kinds of pontifications and express the deepest beliefs about freedom, but the fact of the matter is that popular crap sells advertising. Fox news, by pandering to ultra-conservatives gains a chunk of viewers that (from what I can tell) end up upon a news island of sorts, believing the rest of the media to be run by "media elite" liberals.

We could make laws to fix this, but I think the end result would be something even worse than what we have today -- because ignorance is much easier to achieve than intelligence. It's much easier to not understand the facts of the matter and to draw some stupid conclusions than it is to dive in and understand the specifics.

It's easier to live in a fantasy world, such as the one that Ayn Rand has created, than the real world we live in today.

Because of these kinds of vectors and human nature, we face a problem of sorts with the media -- media conglomerates that own the news have motivation to go for economies of scale. They are not motivated to, for example, fund local news efforts. It's easy to see that newspapers are dying, local TV stations are much a thing of the past. Cable, the Internet, blogs -- there's a lot of diversity that's supposedly going to come in and balance this problem.

Except that maybe my blog, for example, is read by a bunch of people in Cleveland or Washington -- and at the end of the day, is no substitute for a newspaper. Not quite that long ago, newspapers employed local reporters and op-ed writers. Those people told the local story to an audience that more or less cared. They had an easy way to make local waves when the tide was needed.

This is the focal point of this post -- as these things are dying off, one has to wonder just what's going to maintain the sense of community required for a local society to function. What will be the local check and balance for broadcasting local corruption or just a basic focus on local issues?

The terrifying part for me here is that usually I can see some way to either remove some regulation -- or to add it. I don't think this particular problem is going to solve itself, in other words. I've known people that started their own publications -- it's extremely hard to do. Finding advertisers and talent to write the content is difficult enough -- the reader base has to have motivation to consume the news.

Lacking any kind of state run news (thankfully), it's a stretch to see something commercial coming along. Maybe though, it will be something based upon a device -- like blackberry or iphone essential local news. Still, all of this is hard to imagine given the fact that a lot of people think "Information wants to be free", but the hard reality is that "Information wants to be useless".

Both of the phrases in the prior paragraph are conjecture-style sayings. The first saying indicates that no matter how badly people try to charge for information, the public will find a way to broadcast said information for "free" (note, not counting, obviously, all of the bandwidth charges involved).

The second saying more or less coined by Bruce Sterling I interpret to mean something else. It states that after all information is broadcast through media done for free, it will essentially be unusable. Why? Because you won't know the source, won't know how far away from your viewpoint the broadcaster is, how old it is, whether or not it was filtered or compared to snopes.com and so on.

In other words, I would love to think that our free society principals and some blogging are going to be a substitute for a local paper -- but it's becoming really obvious (to me at least) that this is nuts.

Let's take the time machine back a ways -- let's go to some small town in the 1800 where some local press-jockey runs his own paper. The audience was controlled, the need for the paper, obvious. The cost to run the paper -- probably some serious blood, sweat and tears, but somehow, at the end of the day, the papers were cut, the copy delivered, the local news told. The local society, I'm sure, had differing views at times to the words that were being printed. At the end of the day, however, what was there served as a way to glue a local community together. Right or wrong, some people made a living doing this.

And here we are, 200 years later -- with things like free software, free desktop publishing software, cheap printers and ubiquitous digital delivery protocols -- and somehow we can't find the collective spit as a society to employ people with similar motivation to deliver local news?

What in the hell is wrong with this picture?

It's a conundrum for me. The vulnerability is obvious -- America could have a Tienanmen's square incident, and it could go unreported in the local news, because there won't be any local news. In case you're thinking "fat chance", read my last post (which is just the opposite, and a related concern).

Certain functions, news reporting and medical billing to name a couple of obvious ones, don't jibe as typical capitalistic transactions. News reporting in my view, is something that should be rewarded on an ethical scale somehow. Similar to this, when someone is dying in the emergency room at a hospital, they're obviously vulnerable at that moment -- it would be horrible to rob them blind at the same time just because you hold their lives in the balance of the "transaction".

Capitalism is great -- I believe in it wholeheartedly for creating work and making our productive society -- but it's high time we realized collectively and as a society that there are things that have to be reexamined -- and the news is one of them. I don't think we should regulate the news, but there must be some way to reward ethical news behavior outside of the framework we're seeing today.

Because it's obviously a sad day when the best news reporting you can find is being done by a couple of comedians on Comedy Central.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Problem With American Media

Over the course of the past few years in various posts I've talked from time to time about freedom-related issues. In various cases I've alluded to a problem with our so-called "free" press. I've talked about astroturf (phony grass roots) campaigns by companies trying to obscure the truth (there's a fine line between that and positive, generated buzz).

The issue is this: News is not, and never should be, a profit center. News is news -- it might be bad news about the very corporation that owns the media. In case you've been living under a rock or on some other planet, these days, there's been quite a lot of consolation of media. Large swatches of what used to be lots of independent media outlets have been gobbled up by conglomerates. As this has happened, our press in various forms has been impacted -- in my not-so-humble opinion, negatively.

I have very intimate experience (at a microscopic level) of this phenomenon in action, having done some time in the on-line news arena. The issue was advertising, and the general tendency to pander to a sponsor. If it was happening in the smallest sense, then I can only imagine the pressures of large corporations to do similar, much more damaging (to the news overall) actions.

Today, illustrating this concept, is the following sound-byte, taken from an extremely interesting article on the dirty-bomb plot surrounding Barak Obama's inauguration. What's that you say? You didn't hear about it? Oh, well, read the sound byte in the article (link provided):

How do you like them apples? Granted, this may not be the real reason we're not hearing about this attempt -- maybe there's some other reason.

Maybe people aren't interested in the topic -- or it was somehow censored by the regular news media by the government (highly doubtful).

Before I shout Occum's Razor or attempt to speculate some other explanation, simply ask yourself:

  • If there was a story like this in the press, wouldn't you have been interested?
  • If a story like this didn't make it to the press, wouldn't you also be interested in hearing why?
  • Why didn't it make it -- why haven't we heard about this one on CNN, FOX, MSNBC, the New York Times and so on?
I know I have my own opinions -- I'd be interested in hearing yours.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Why Social Networking?

A lot of people don't use facebook but do have an email address.

This posting started as a reply to a facebook wall posting by a family member. It's only fitting. The particular family member is not on facebook. The wall posting was by another facebook network contact who was wishing me happy birthday and relaying news from a relative who was not on facebook. I pass messages through them instead of via email. I started thinking "Why don't I just email that relative who's not on facebook?".

Out of those thoughts the relevance of what's happening today surrounding social networking worked their way to the surface. This posting describes what I see as a paradigm shift in communication. Things are changing and as usual lots of people are not completely sold on the "new" way of doing something.

In this particular case, I explained to my family member (through the other family member) that they could only avoid facebook for a while -- but that it's now like an email address was in the past. I can remember this easily -- there was a time when I was one of a only few people on the planet that had a working email address. I would say to people:

Me: "What's your email address?"

Them: "What's an email address?"

---- A year or so Later:

Me: "What's your email address?"

Them: "I don't do that yet. My wife/son/brother/boss/co-worker/strangers-on-the-street keeps saying I need to do that, but I don't see-the-value/have-the-time/want-to-etc"

--- A year or so later:

Me: "What's your email address?"

Them: "Oh, hey, I'm getting AOL soon. I send you a post card with it!"

--- And so on.

Facebook/Linkedin/Twitter -- social networking -- is like that today. The conversations are very similar. The time-frame, however, is compressed (see the book "Future Shock", written in 1970 for what it's worth, on the subject of time compression).

It sounds funny to debate needing something like email in your life until you realize how much we can't get by without it. Some people argue with me here -- social networking is still somewhat optional in their eyes and will be pretty much forever.

My perspective forces me to disagree. I was an early adopter of the Internet. I was managing high volume web sites in 1999 -- interactive news where the readers were posting comments on stories (I had to write a lot of that code -- very hairy stuff). I witnessed the birth of google -- no one searches the internet these days -- they "Google".

Yeah, Google is optional -- you can still search the internet other ways -- Microsoft's new search engine is going to kill Google! And we're all going to be driving flying cars in hell through a snowstorm at that time...

Social networking is to email what Google is to the old search engines (the ones that returned a thousand unusable hits). They (the old engines) simply matched strings of text with their results. The results were mildly relevant and there was a lot of time wasted slogging through pages of stuff that was often utter garbage. Along came Google, which ranked the page by relevance -- it added a value to the hit ranking that was based upon how many times a page was referenced by another page.

The thing that Google added was context. Pages being searched prior to Google were not valuable because context was not factored into the results equation. Similar value is added when you post a message on FaceBook -- sure, you could send an email message to a friend, but posting a status update on facebook adds context. It's now a message in the context of your network, instead of spam.

I know some of you are laughing disagreeably with me here, but bear with me...

Like those old search engines, email is pretty much single-threaded. It has one or two targets, unless its one of those annoying forwards, which is a separate subject altogether. Email tends to arrive in your inbox, and get processed for whatever its worth, and then archived. Social networking posts (like wall postings on facebook) are very similar to email to a group email listing. Except that the context is managed by the interface. Your social group of friends can opt to read what you're up to (or ignore it). And thanks to the way that the networking algorithms work, it's amazingly easy to find people that want to be in your circle of friends (or have been in the past -- again, another subject altogether).

Social networking has supplanted email. By bringing others into the conversation things have a completely different relevance. We all feel a lot more connected than we used to be (Because we are).

The ability to post photos, to send little gifts and so on, that's all icing on the cake -- or cruft -- I'm not into turning facebook into a gaming interface anytime soon, for example. The core functionality that facebook has brought to the table is the ability to easily add social context to conversation. Email can't easily do this. Blog postings can't easily do this.

On a similar front, Linkedin is doing the same for professional networking. It's not quite there yet, but I'd argue that Linkedin is the new resume. The old resume just told people what you had done. The new one says "Oh, and hey, I did it with these people." And because you did it with "those people", the odds of a recruiter finding your talents because they were looking at one of those people's networks -- those odds are much higher than before Linkedin. Before, a recruiter had your resume and it was -- like a dead-ended email -- just your resume, targeted at just you, with no social context.

And it helps, even if you're not looking for a job (another subject for another day). Suffice to say that I pay a lot of heed to my LinkedIn profile, because it helps attract talented people to work where I work and solve the kind of cool, impossible, fun stuff that I get to solve. I can't do it alone, just like NASA can't build the space shuttle with one brilliant engineer, the stuff I'm into these days is far beyond anything I can hope to accomplish as a single-threaded human on this planet.

I'll leave this subject here for now -- I'm sure I'll be back again though.

Social networking is changing everything. It's adding relevance and bringing people together. I suspect that the economic down-turn will push even more people into this space, more out of need than out of want. I can see it pretty clearly; There will come a point where a facebook profile is as ubiquitous as an email address.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Germans and Electronic Voting

Slashdot has a link to an article on a German court that has banned certain e-voting machines for a lack of transparency.

I find the lack of coverage of our own (American) voting problems, with similar issues, to be quite disheartening. Read the babelfish translation on the Slashdot page if you're interested in the specifics. As it sits, a host of similar issues troubles me about American voting devices. What is known about some of them was to be proprietary -- until it got accidentally leaked via an insecure FTP site.

I've blogged about this in the past. The Germans are doing the right thing here -- they're going back to paper and pencil until the technology requirements are clearly documented and the results transparently reportable. Too bad our media doesn't see this as news. Only a few states in our country see this as the vulnerability that it truly is.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Start up the Risk Takers

The New York Times today has a interesting OP-ED by Thomas Friedman: Start Up the Risk-Takers. If it sounds familiar to you, after reading it, you probably read something similar in my blog posting: "America: Land of the Lost" here a few weeks back. The article is making its way around a bit -- it will be published in Naturally Good Magazine soon.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Positive Sign: Facebook Listening

Facebook appears to have listened to their user base. In the past I've blogged about Toxic Social Media. This is the opposite -- or maybe it's more like the user base on FaceBook has gotten to be a democracy of sorts.

Regardless, I'm glad to see this. I use facebook a lot these days -- it's become something of a community gathering spot for the world.

Good to see that Facebook, unlike other Toxic Social Media gathering spots, is listening.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Creativity is Universal and a Resource

Sir Ken Robinson: A New View of Human Capacity

I encourage you to watch the above video snippet. It details Sir Ken Robinson's thoughts and experiences with the natural resource of human creativity. It's also quite funny for some sad reasons. Pay attention to the fact that a lot of humans don't value creativity when it comes to them from the outside.

Around the same time I found the above I came across this piece by Elisabeth Gilbert:

Elizabeth Gilbert: A new way to think about creativity.

Elisabeth Gilbert's piece is saying something different about creativity, but it is no less fascinating. Both of these videos are about something very elusive that I wager is what makes us most like gods -- the ability to make new things. Invention. Music Composition. Writing. All of the above -- you can argue that the lower lifeforms are creative, but the scale is obviously different. Mankind's creative endeavors are wildly complex, almost life forms of their own (think of things like operating systems and compilers).

In the past the most frightening thing about creativity, speaking from my own experiences, is the lack of ability to control it. It comes in the most inopportune times -- when I'm seriously supposed to be paying attention at a meeting the most hilarious (and often unsharable) observations will fly into my head. Things that make me laugh uncontrollably. When I need it sometimes it's not there (recent experience this past week, sadly). When it comes it emerges like an uncontrollable river torrent of thought. I paddle like a mad-man trying to get it all out in the short expanse of the boat that I call "this lifetime".

And so it was this morning when I woke up and realized that a lot of the bi-partisan thoughts I've been having over the past few weeks were creatively expressed by none other than Martin-Luther King. I know this, because my parents used to have it up on a poster in the dining room in our house in Jamestown Missouri.

We must learn to live together as brothers, or perish together as fools.

When he wrote this I have no doubts that he was addressing the racial divide in this country and hoping for a day much closer to the one we're currently experiencing. No doubt we still have a long way to go on the racial divide, but it's definitely closing.

The fact is that this statement is more pressing on the front of the partisan divide. The Republicans are in fact saying something important when they talk about fiscal responsibility. We're going to go much more deeply in debt at a time when we can ill afford it. The problem is that they are one side of a two-sided partisan coin -- and that this past 8 years or so they didn't seem all that concerned about balancing the budget if it served their needs.

The problem wouldn't be so hard to address if they hadn't spent so much time discounting the wishes of the other side. Now the pendulum is swinging back the other way and they're yelling about fiscal responsibility -- and few people are listening to this warning. It's a real problem -- two wrongs don't indeed make a right. The short term gain of power unfortunately is alluring and the Republicans are now tasting what it's like to be on the short end of the stick.

I'm not going to spend a lot of time feeling sorry for them -- the people to feel sorry for are our grandkids who are going to spend the next few decades (if they pull this off) paying off the mountain of debt -- debt brought on by both sides of the same United States Coin.

We must learn to live together as brothers, or perish together as fools.

I'm sure my Mom and Dad had that up on the wall for my brothers and I (we used to fight like cats and dogs). Or maybe Dad was simply trying to make me think (he was good at that).

In any case, we're not going to partisan our way out of our problems -- we need to work together as a cohesive country of problem solvers. Creative problem solvers. There's always going to be some moron who doesn't get what the creative types in our world are doing (the first video illustrates this), or worse, they do understand and simply want the power that is inevitably generated by the act of creation.

Barak is obviously a creative president. He's also very funny at times (in a very dry and intellectual way). He's being nit-picked at this point by different people for all kinds of oblique, inconsequential things. Keep that in mind in the next few years (maybe longer). Any moron can come along after the act of creation and say something about how they would have solved the problem of the day.

I've seen this a lot over my career -- both regarding things I've created and the work of others. As I've gotten more attuned, I've developed different responses for this kind of destruction. I'll leave the sharing of those responses for another time. Suffice to say that today (as usual) I'm involved in some seriously fun creative insanity. I work to protect those around me that are involved in the act of creation for obvious reasons if you get the thoughts on this page.

For similar reasons, I ask the Republicans in Congress and the Senate to think about the long term health of our country -- to get engaged in dialog and to put aside their bickering, whining attitudes. Get more creative and listen to the people creating, rather than the people who are obviously wanting our new president to fail because it serves their partisan interests. We have work -- creative work, to do as a nation, and it's not going to be solved by a bunch of divisive partisan fools.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Golden Handcuffs

The Fox newscaster in this context obviously wants to argue the point "The government should not interfere with Business" -- there's just one small problem; The Banks being discussed in this interview are now a part of the U.S. government. The dialog in this interview is priceless. Kucinich is a Dem and Fox is known for doing anything but "fair and balanced" reporting (and more or less bashing anything not part of the RNC mantra) -- but I have to give the interviewer credit here -- he engaged in dialog (there was no "mike-cutting" going on, one of Bill's tactics, for example) and at the end of the day, couldn't really argue with the points that Dennis was making.

What points? That the government shouldn't be bailing out failed institutions. That now that they are, people are enraged knowing that their tax dollars are being spent on lavish bonuses and stadium branding. Feel free to argue (like the interviewer in this context), that the government doesn't know anything about branding. Side note: Kucinich has a marketing background, and it makes for some hilarious "What do you know about marketing?" correction. Anyway, so the government doesn't know about branding -- they shouldn't interfere with business. Kucinich's point: he agrees, and says more or less if they don't want interference, they shouldn't be asking for corporate welfare cash from the government.

Say what you like about Dennis Kucinich -- it's at times like this I'm proud he's an Ohioan.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Democracy 101

How to write your congressman:
Start by going to this link:


  1. Select your state from the drop-down.
  2. Enter the zip code for your home address
  3. Select the button "Contact my Representative
This should take you to a page like the one for my district, which includes a host of methods for contacting my local congressman.

Chose email if possible (it should be), if not, write and print your letter and snail-mail it to the address shown.

Be polite and as objective as possible. Here's an example:

    Name: Mr Paul Ferris
    Address: My Address
    E-mail: [email address]

    Message Subject: WEBECON
    Message Text:

    Dear Mr. Boccieri,

    Recent economic events, the banking crisis and the bail-out have put our country in obvious jeopardy. I wanted to weigh in with my observations and opinions here because I'm deeply troubled. I take primary issue with the bailing out of financial institutions. I am troubled to read that the money has gone partially to bonuses for the executives of these institutions. I take issue with the fact that they don't feel that they're accountable for the money. I also don't think that our government should function as an owner of these kinds of institutions (it's a bit too late for that, I understand).

    I'd appreciate some attention to these matters, mainly in the area of better regulations for the people at the top of these organizations. If we're going to hand them cash to fix some issue then:

    1) The heads of these organizations have failed -- part of the rules of engagement should dictate that the board governing the organization choose new leadership -- leadership approved by some government regulatory committee.

    2) Bonuses in this context are out. If the leadership of these organizations are not happy with their pay and don't have faith that they can create long-term wealth with their position (future bonuses based upon performance), then they should find some other line of work. Bonus in this context: any pay beyond base. This means any kind of perk, including travel perks, housing -- anything beyond their documented pay.

    3) We should have a direct, obvious window into where the money is going -- we, being the American citizens that have provided a safety blanket. This could be done by some kind of Internet-based reporting that would be transparent to everyone.

    4) As long as the company (or bank) is receiving welfare like this, the board and the executive leadership of the company should be agreeable to scrutiny and governance. Pay levels should be set at some citizen-approved level. Excess of this level should not be allowed until the organization has gotten off Congressional welfare.

    5) People that do not comply should expect jail-time. We jail people that sell drugs in this country -- these people are doing arguably similar damage. Why they should not expect jail time for obvious immorality is beyond me.

    Please understand that I usually write my representatives only when I feel a matter is of utmost importance. If you wish to contact me via phone, I'm available to talk about this subject at any time. Mobile: [my mobile number] . Email: [my email address]

    I'm not involved in Banking industry at this time (I've worked in IT for a bank a few years back), but these recent developments are troubling and at this moment in time I am happy to report that I'm in a different industry -- and I'm saddened to see our great country projecting the image of immoral behavior at this point in history.

    Thanks in advance for your time and consideration.
    --Paul Ferris

Your letter should be to the point as much as possible and as professional as possible. Swearing is bad. Jargon is bad. Anything not diplomatic -- bad. You want to address issues objectively and express opinions where possible as such (in other words, you're free to put in an opinion -- just make it obvious).

It's fun, it's easy -- it's Democracy. Let's make it work!

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Art Imitates Life

Scott Adams has probably captured the back-end conversation behind the Belkin Astroturfing Fiasco that I commented upon a few weeks ago. You should read it (and laugh) here. Scott's definitely got a way of exposing the ethical issues in a rather comical fashion -- the sad thing is that a lot of people view ethics in an optional (rather than mandatory) light.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Smart -- The New Cool?

I woke up this morning and did something I usually don't do -- I turned on a TV set. This is unusual for a host of reasons; I don't watch TV as a rule, I was in a hotel room, and I had access to cable.

Bryant Gumbel was on talking sports and I stopped channel flipping for a second. He was talking a bit of hope on his program from the bully pulpit -- but it was interesting and it caught me a bit off guard. I'm not a huge sports fan, but I was captivated to hear some things about his view of hope from the perspective of someone viewing Barack Obama as a positive influence.

He was saying that a lot of today's athletes were identifying with Barack and that some of the influences he was hoping to see from our president were extremely positive from a role model perspective. He was talking about how Barak was a basketball player and the unspoken target was obviously the young African American male. Things like Barack's respect for his wife, his obvious morality were topics that he quickly touched on. His not speaking like a Gansta Rapper. His ability to articulate issues and engage in intelligent dialog.

Bryants' speech was well done from my point of view. It was extremely to the point and diplomatic -- the kind of stuff that might have an impact on someone. Hate speech doesn't work well when you're attempting to affect a target audience -- this is why the pundits gain a lot of my ire -- they're making the people that have already made up their minds happy and at the same time, intentionally or otherwise creating a rift in our country over important issues.

I liked what Bryant had to say but I caught myself wishing he'd have selected a broader audience. My own son could benefit from his words and he's not African American. The general young male population, speaking from my own observations, could benefit. We've had a couple of decades of culture focused upon young males and extreme ignorance as cool. Beavis and Butthead, Dumb and Dumber, Bill and Ted -- Hannity and Colmes. Rap music culture has components that are in part an obvious worship of the immoral but I'd argue that Jackass did similar damage.

Barack has obvious mental clout. Standing next to our prior president, he makes "W" look like a degenerate frat boy when he talks about anything. This isn't because George was a Republican -- it's because George thought ignorant speech was cool. I'm told that George W Bush wasn't a dumb guy behind the scenes -- that the talk was an act and the cowboy swagger part of what he thought was a cool image.

I hope Bryant Gumbel is right about this one, but I'd like to hope that the Barack effect here hits all American kids -- male and female. I hope that they learn to articulate problems and be a part of a general positive, intelligent discourse.

Yeah, I'm reaching for a lot -- I'm hoping for some rather impossible ideal conditions -- but we've had such a downturn in culture. Stupid used to be cool.

Maybe Barak's image will set a new trend. Maybe Smart will be the new Cool.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

It's Not That Simple

It's easy to get press if you simplify a problem so that any idiot can join a side and cheer for his ideology. In the Wall Street Journal video piece here, author Steve Moore is inteviewed about a book, which I won't read, purposely, about Ayn Rand's book Atlas Shrugged. You can argue that this is ignorant of me but I have my reasons. I would push back that having actually read Atlas shrugged, having understood and liked portions of it myself kind of gives me some leeway.

I agree with Steve Moore on some rather key points -- I think the bailouts were wrong (I've said it here many times). I think big government is bad. But I feel compelled to point something out that is far more dire -- Atlas Shrugged is a work of fiction. I don't need to read some authors lame posturing based upon a work of fiction to understand the problems we face today -- and I certainly don't need to read some book by someone who wants to superimpose a fantasy on top of our reality. Especially a fantasy written 50-some odd years ago.

Look, it's simple -- Ayn was trying to prevent the United States from turning into a socialist, communist or dictatorial state. The more government you get, the more dangerously close to this line we get. I'd argue that we're already partially there, what with buying into the banking and auto industries. We have a huge government, despite the professed belief in less government by the prior administration. We owe a huge debt to the Chinese, in part to help fund a war -- but also due to huge trade imbalances and a lack of manufacturing in the US.

Steve Moore, the author of the book, doesn't realize a major problem he's creating -- or possibly he does realize it and is part of some vast conspiracy of people that I would classify as ideological idiots. These are the people that, if the world ends sometime soon will be still doing the same thing. Picture them sitting among the ruin, shouting at shell-shocked passers-by saying "You liberals did this!". Just as stupid, sitting on top of some other pile of debris, will be some other idiot shouting something similar back about conservatives or big business.

And the truth will be far more painful to accept: if the world ends, it will be a mass of stupid human beings that allowed it to happen. Possibly part of the problem will be that they didn't figure out that problems are not liberal or conservative in nature -- the ability to classify things as someone else fault, instead of working through the issue as a cohesive society -- I believe that this is a big part of this problem. People want to adopt an ideology much like a brand. They want to believe in something. It's human nature.

For a great example of this, watch the video segment. Steve, in the interview over his book about a hypothetical book states clearly "Liberal's are going to say it was Free Markets that cause the collapse, and people like me and Ayn Rand would say 'No it's government programs' that created the crisis in the first place." During this time he's all smug and smiling -- he's reduced our current crisis to a "debate". I have a shocking concept for ya Steve: How about it was not quite that simple. Possibly the economic problems we're facing today can't be simplified into two sides of a debate that third-graders would have on a playground. Maybe it wasn't something quite so simple as the failure of "Free Markets" or "Government Programs" that got us here.

No, it's possible that what's caused the collapse of our present system is a multitude of variables. Rampant immorality by some corporate executives. Deregulated derivatives. Legislation that allowed sub-prime (and worse) mortgages. Banking executives that should have tempered their zest to make more money by not embracing things that they knew were high risk. People that wanted to own things that they could not afford. A contrived war in the Middle east that was funded by borrowing money from a Communist state. A lack of accountability by people in the executive wing -- of our country and businesses. People voting for politicians for the wrong reasons. People not caring about government. People not caring, period. Rampant lobbying. A lack of trust in government overall -- for really good reasons in some case.

In other words, I'm not objecting to Steve's embracing of the concepts in Atlas Shrugged -- I'm objecting to his desire to simplify the debate. To make a bold, callous, and stupid statement like the one above is counter-constructive. Has Steve missed the fact that all of the things I've mentioned here were spread across the at least the past 16 years of "Liberal and Conservative" leadership? No, I don't want to debate Steve on his view that all of the problem we're facing would go away if we could just get our government to not interfere. It's a nice fantasy, and it makes a good read. But it is, at the end of the day, a fantasy.

I have my own opinions: I think we need our government to interfere -- the right way. We need them to step in and tighten the rules for financial institutions, for example. We need to stimulate new ideas around reducing our energy dependence on foreign oil. We need to re-evaluate the wars we've taken on, how we're funding them, and our image on the global stage. We need some action, in other words, that's going to take unity of purpose and general cooperation. Do I think we need more people using the word liberal or conservative as hate speech? Get a clue here: No, I think I've seen enough idiotic ideology to last me a few decades, if not a lifetime.

None of the above items are liberal or conservative agenda items. All of them are pressing problems. To make some sort of lame debate around them at this hour might feel good, but haven't we had enough of this kind of stupidity? Atlas Shrugged is a wonderful read -- I loved the book, for what it's worth. It's view of the world and the weights that government add to productive business paint a terrific canvas for Ayn's philosophy.

Coming from Russia, Ayn obvious was obviously motivated to write something that would warn people away from totalitarian communistic society, and I can't blame her at all.

It isn't going to be a liberal or conservative point of view or stupid one-sided debate that gets us out of our present jam. It is going to be some smart politicians working together on solutions. Note the shift in my language here -- a point of view is an observers stance. A one-sided debate is something that Bill and Rush do for (sad) entertainment. Solutions are things that solve problems -- dialog is something you do to hold a constructive conversation. You can post comments to my blog and I will respond to them. That's dialog. You want to simplify reality and back it with a fantasy and say "You disagree with me because you're on one or the other side of a contrived debate" -- I'm not going to be involved.

Here's a thought -- maybe I disagree with simplification of extremely complex problems. Possibly I view this kind of simplification itself is a worse problem than the oil crisis. It's worse, in my opinion, than the economic crisis. It's worse than a lot of the things we face right now. Oversimplification is worse because it keeps people from working together on solving the obviously hard problems of the day.

Steve Moore feels good reading Ayn's book. Good for him! Give the man a lime sucker and have him join the 3rd-grade debate team that's probably already forming on the playground. I'd like to say this to Steve: It's fiction, man -- get over it. We're living in a real world with lots of complex problems. We don't need you to simplify these problems -- we need you to work with the rest of us who are trying to solve them. It's time for you to stop feeling smug about your fictionalized view of the world. Let's try something new -- let's try looking at problems as they exist in our complex society, free of the prism of liberalism or conservatism. Possibly then, after dropping this filter, people can truly understand what things like our government are for at the end of the day.

We don't need liberals and conservatives heaving rocks at each other over stupid ideology. I am not going to be blowing my time in stupid debates (cast from fictional work no less) -- look where it's taken our country these days. I sincerely believe that rabid, rampant partisanship has taken us here. I worry that more of the same is going to be what brings about the end of the world as we know it. I also sincerely believe that its going to be unity that gets us out of the mud at the end of the day.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Bad Belkin Bayard Business ...

Seems a Belkin employee was caught red-handed looking for people to write positive reviews of one of their products.

Speaking as a person who's seen his fair share of AstroTurf (In this context -- AstroTurf refers to the practice of generating "phony grass roots"), I can only say I'm not surprised. It points to one of the darker sides of social media -- the ability for a corporation to quietly influence the blog-o-sphere or other social media with misleading content.

And the sad thing is, there really isn't much we can do about it. Social media wouldn't work very well if there were "social media police" that checked each and every blog or facebook post for authenticity or even more difficult, intent. There is the occasional story posted like this one that serves to highlight the problem.

Is this a new phenomena? Not really. For years companies have paid writers to create authentic-looking story content for magazines, for example. It's just something that's likely to increase as social media's incredible power manifests in the digital ecosystem that is the new generation of marketing.

I should take a second to mention that I work for an interactive marketing firm and that my job is IT-related -- I'm more of a user than a mover and shaker. This post is more about my experienced observations in the space, being involved as the editor for a rather popular news site in the late 1990's that featured a lot of user-contributed feedback to news stories. Issues arose that made these ethical issues apparent and caused me to reflect upon them early in the game.

Marketing campaigns are interwoven into youtube "viral marketing" videos. These videos are more than tolerated by the users for one obvious reason; they're blatant advertisements. People know, after the smoke clears, that they've been watching something created to drive traffic toward a vendor. I've enjoyed almost all of these kinds of intrusions -- they're viral for a reason -- they market and entertain at the same time.

Things go bad, however, when a company exhibits this kind of behavior posting to technical message boards or worse, staging phony letters to the legislative bodies of our government (both real-world examples from the same company -- and not one I would ever be associated with). Things like this have a way of dampening community enthusiasm, to say the least. They make people wonder what kind of noise is being generated at the community level. The long term effects of sowing this kind of distrust in the potential customer base of a product can only be bad.

All of this is part of a general break-down of our society. Ethical matters matter. Societies have to have ethical foundations or they will ultimately crumble. Treating the social ecosystem as something that can be AstroTurfed will ultimately ruin the value. Transactions are ultimately more than financial events, after all -- they are fulfilled value propositions. Taint the perceived value and you're likely, as a vendor, not to win the business.

Pushing against this obvious motivation to build marketplace trust is the lure of the quick win in the marketplace. What did Bayard expect out of this? Maybe he was surprised when this news story broke, but it's hard to imagine that he didn't know somewhere in the back of his mind that he wouldn't get caught. Possibly he was focused on the short-term gain of shoring up an inferior product. If so, it was a rather dubious gamble -- one that cost not just the trust of Belkin, but potentially the social media marketplace as a whole.

In this particular example, we can only be thankful that Bayard was so blatant about what he was trying to accomplish. Possibly he didn't see anything wrong with it at all. Belkin's management has since apologized for the misstep and although a positive sign, they're going to have a hard time gaining the respect of their market.

Is stuff like this illegal? No -- but it's far more damaging than something that's illegal. You can serve your time for something illegal. You can be fined or correct the problem and your market will probably forget about it or not notice at all.

But trust -- trust can't be bought, and as this example illustrates, it can very easily be lost.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

GM and Brand Name Deletion

Those of you who have never had the privilege of working behind the walls of something as massive as General Motors have no idea what kind of politics are present. All of this blog focuses upon my perception of GM from my (somewhat limited, but probably correct -- from the mid eighties) view of their internal politics, and how they apply to their present (somewhat dubious) plans to delete brands like Pontiac, Saturn, Saab and Hummer.

My view: GMs politics were similar to the ones in our government -- only with several political parties instead of just 2 major ones.

From reading the news, GM will likely sell Saab and Hummer (though that's also speculation) and simply blow away Saturn and Pontiac like they did the Oldsmobile brand.

A disclaimer here: GM -- I'm not a fan. I don't purchase your products. Although my father was a big fan of your Buick products, I didn't find the excitement there at all. But I feel compelled to weigh in (albeit, briefly here, given my time constraints) on the obvious coming shortage of GM brands.

Likely, there's some huge internal power struggle going on inside of GM, with VPs and other executive types acting upon the current crisis with all of the surgical precision of say, cluster bombing.

I can almost read the politics from remote: "My division is more profitable -- yours is not." and so on. Somethings gotta give -- why not a bunch of brands? Isn't this required to show that GM wants to pare down to some kind of lean, mean fightin' machine?

Well, in my not so humble opinion -- tactically, maybe, but strategically, no.

Brands can't easily be created (look at all the work that went into the creation of Saturn, for example). Brands have an emotional impact upon buyers. People are very brand-centric when it comes to a purchase. Getting people to switch to another GM brand if they're a loyal Saturn buyer -- and its gone, for example, isn't exactly a sure thing.

If GM wants to get serious, they should seriously rethink this thing from the perspective of the customer, in other words. Here's what comes to mind, when I quickly think of GM brands that exist today:

  • Cadillac: Sport Luxury.
  • Saturn: Import fighter.
  • Pontiac: Sporty. Younger crowd.
  • Chevy: Mom and Pops reliable shop.
  • GMC: Rebranded products from the other lines. Redundant.
  • Buick: Family cars for Sophisticated people that .. no.. crap. I hate the whole idea of this car segment -- ask someone else.
  • Hummer: SUVs for people that want to pretend they're fighting some kind of war -- or for people that want people to see them in a Hummer... I have a queue of Hummer jokes here that I'm omitting.
This is a lame assessment of their brand status-quo from my perspective. It's probably about 80% accurate though. GM needs to do this kind of assessment with some teeth, and then re-cast the vehicles they produce to match the brands. They need to merge all of the control of the brands and engineering into one spot and keep the names and the products. They need to consolidate the management of the stuff in other words -- but don't blow away the brands.

Want to piss off your buyer base GM? Try being a Pontiac-lover and finding out that your favorite vehicle is no longer available. Maybe you (the customer, in this context), will just have to find a new favorite -- say over there at Toyota. Toyota: remember those guys? They went out of their way a few years back to create a whole new brand. Probably took them some time... Creating the Pontiac brand over again after pissing off a huge group of people isn't a snap. Moving buyers isn't going to be easy, and maybe they'll try some other game if this one has been canceled due to rain (or tactical stupidity).

Consolidate the management, and clearly do some surgery on the brands that exist today. Does Cadillac need a corvette? Does Cadillac or Buick need an SUV? These kinds of things, floating around your brand-space, tend to be somewhat confusing in my humble opinion. Do you need to make stuff exclusive? Can you sell the missing components from all the brands from all of the dealers, in other words? For example, you're at Pontiac -- they don't have a Corvette equivalent -- can't GM relax the rules a bit so that the dealer is allowed in this context to sell a Chevy Corvette?

All of these items probably seem crazy, so I'll shut up now. I just feel compelled to point out that the deletion of Oldsmobile was extremely short-sighted. It was short-term thinking to address a short-term problem of profitability. Rather than do the easy brand-delete, GM should have taken stock of what they were doing wrong to chase off potential customers to that brand.

My guess is that all of this deletion contemplation is a way for some executives with power to out people they don't want to work with at the end of the day. Rather than do the hard thing -- re-organize into a single power structure that makes sense, they're probably killing off brands (and all of the redundant people that manage them).

All speculation, on my part, I know.

Regardless -- making brands make sense is still the hard task at the end of the day. Blowing away time-honored brands (and loyal customers), is the easy part.

GM, think strategy here. Think about your customers. Think about a lean GM with all of the brand names of today. I know it can be done.