Friday, July 29, 2011

I Love Big Government (Sans the Debt Ceiling)

I love big government! Seriously, I do. And I bet that our country's forefathers would love it too.

Just think about everything we have, today, that's paid for by the federal government through our taxes. I'm talking about the really useful stuff. We can drive across town or across the country without paying a penny to the federal government for using their roads – it's already been paid for. (Hmm, is this socialism? Should all roads be toll roads?) Think about potable running water, electricity, air traffic controllers, original funding for the Internet, bridge and building inspectors etc, etc. – I'm talking about our entire county's infrastructure and capacity. These are good things.

What we hate (and I'm speaking for our forefathers, too) is inefficient, ineffective, government waste. Pick your favorite government agency that you love to hate. You don't have to dig too deep to see the "rusty cannon" syndrome: Doesn't work and can't be fired.

Think about the stereotypical federal or state employee who religiously works only 9-5 (actually 8-4) and not a minute more. They're just "putting in time." I've seen this first hand – at 4:03 p.m., they are gone; like lemmings off a cliff. Not all of them, but enough to notice without looking for it. Left behind, after the bureaucrats head out the door, are the contractors. While you might think that the contractors are working late for the money, many are on a 40 hour per week budget. To go over that budget requires prior, written, approval. Long story short, the contractors end up eating their costs, in the short time, to keep their consulting gig in the long term.

When I worked at Apple iServices' iConsulting division, I was on a project at a large federal agency in the D.C. area. One day, at lunch, an Apple coworker of mine, who also happened to be a former Marine, pointed out how dull and depressing it was in the government cafeteria. The atmosphere was the complete opposite of the excitement and electricity we felt at Apple's Cupertino campus cafeteria (Caffe Macs). Keep in mind that I'm not talking about the Apple of today, either. I'm referring to the Apple of ten or twelve years ago when the stock price dropped in half, literally, overnight, during the Dot-com crash and the stock price continued down from there. Those were Apple's dark days, before iTunes, iPod, and the digital hub strategy. That was a time when Apple was 25x smaller than it is today.

Never mind politicians – they're too easy of a target. And, believe it or not, they are some of the smartest people in the context in which they operate. There's just no easy way to win an election in order to get a job in politics, at any level, from municipal through federal. Don't get me wrong – politicians are not blameless – but they really do have to work hard, from time to time – at least to get the job. Keep in mind that they get their job because we, their constituents, gave it to them. If you don't like your duly elected politician then blame your co-constituents.

In the U.S., bigger is better. I've lived off the economy in dirt poor developing countries and seen, first hand, what bad infrastructure and maintenance looks like. In these countries, you can tell the no-bodies from the some-bodies in each village because the person with the most body fat is the leader. More power equals more food. While money is good, food is better. You can't eat money. These developing governments, at all levels, are brittle and, just like the recent Arab unrest we saw earlier this year, it doesn't take much to go from order and rule of law to riots and insecurity.

No American citizen wants to sacrifice any of their own entitlements to reduce the deficit. Boaters would hate a new tax on their boats, pilots would hate to pay user fees at airports, and hard working, salt of the earth, commuters would hate car and gas tax increases. Why not tax the upper class at a proportionally higher rate? Well, that is what we do and the rich can still make a good argument, in their defense, at least in theory.

What's the solution to reduce the national debt? Practically speaking, there probably will never be one. The solution will be death. It's no different than when a person overextends themselves with mortgage and credit card debt. You either generate more income, tighten your belt, or declare bankruptcy. The problem is that, unlike an individual, the U.S. can't get bankruptcy protection and the other two options are just as unlikely.

Throughout history, every singe currency eventually becomes debased. You'd be hard pressed to find a compound interest calculator that can compute how much a dollar would be worth 1,000 years from now at 3.6% interest (the current rate of inflation). The result is so large that it "does not compute." We're literally talking about more money than the world has ever seen. (If you really must know how much a dollar would be worth at 3.6% interest over a thousand years, the answer is $2.3 quadrillion. But we're "only" talking about the "short" quadrillion scale.)

How much is all the money in the world? Around $50 trillion – or 45x less than the compounded interest of $1 a thousand years from now. Could you really see today's U.S. dollar being worth more than 45 times all the money in the world?

Perhaps Bitcoin – or something similar – will replace the U.S. dollar over the next few decades. After all, most countries use a fiat currency and Bitcoin aims to be a currency that's the equivalent of an electronic gold standard. Whatever currency replaces the dollar, hopefully, it will be a peacefully planned transition like the Euro.
My point is that working for a company that's flirting with bankruptcy, declining market share, and relevancy was still an order of magnitude better than working as a bureaucrat for the federal government.

Don't Forget Your Pilot's Guides!

I recently upgraded my airplane's panel with an Aspen EFD1000 along with some other engine and transponder avionics. Now, instead of "steam" (analog) gauges, I get many of the benefits of a glass cockpit.

Since nearly all of the avionics have been replaced in my plane since it was built, the original airplane manual, which must always be on board the aircraft while in flight, is no longer current. The simplest solution to this problem is to carry the pilot's guides for all of the equipment that's been installed over the last four decades. Obviously, this can be bulky since it includes manuals for the autopilot, GPS, radios, PFD, transponder, engine monitor, tachometer, etc.

iOS to Lighten the Load
Since I never fly without my iPad and iPhone I realized that I could add the pilot's guides – which are all available in PDF format – directly to my iPad and iPhone.

There are two simple ways to add a PDF to your iPad or iPhone so you can read them in the iBooks app:

1. E-mail the pilot's guides, in PDF format, to yourself as an e-mail attachment. When you receive the e-mail on your iPad or iPhone open the PDF attachment, click on the arrow in the upper right, and select Open in "iBooks" which will copy the PDF to iBooks. I've created another "collection", in iBooks, called Aviation, in addition to the two default collections (Books and PDFs), and moved my pilot's guides into this new collection.

2. Drag the pilot's guides, in PDF format, to your iTunes library. The next time that you sync your iPad or iPhone with iTunes, check that each PDF manual is selected under the Books tab, in iTunes, to be sure that it's transferred to your iPhone or iOS.

More Than You Bargained For
The beauty of having these PDFs on both devices is not just that I have two copies with me when flying, but also that I can bookmark pages on one device and those pages will be bookmarked on the other device after syncing with iTunes. Also, most of the hardcopy pilot's guides tend to be printed in black and white by the manufactures to save costs, but the PDFs are in full color.

Additionally, I can run a text search to find what I'm looking for in case I hadn't already bookmarked it. So, how do I lean out my airplane's engine, during cruise, to 100° rich of peak? No problem, it's a snap to find that page in my pilot's guide since I've bookmarked it.

But why stop with my pilot's guides since I also bought the FAR/AIM in the iBookstore, too? The only feature that's missing for the PDFs is that you can't highlight text, as you can in a regular iBook. So, my FAR/AIM, which is not a PDF, but, rather, a genuine iBook, is not only well bookmarked but also "highly" highlighted.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Apple's Worst Product Design (and it's not really that bad). Due to Steve Jobs Attire?

Without a doubt, I believe that the mic on the earphones that ship with iOS devices is currently Apple's worst designed product.

When I worked at Apple, high praise was, "This doesn't suck too bad." And, that's true, for the most part, about the earphone mic.

However, this problem is not an issue of sound quality or intended functionality. I love how a single click on the middle of the mic can either answer or hangup a phone call - or how it will pause and resume music. Two clicks of it will skip to the next song. I also love how convenient it is to have the volume adjustment on the mic too.

But, what I can't stand is the mic's industrial design. Its poor functionality reminds me of the old hockey puck mouse that shipped, for so many years, with the original iMac.

The problem with the design of the mic on the earphone cord is that it has tiny, right angle, edges that are about a sixteenth of an inch. While this is a tiny lip, it's a huge pain when trying to use the earbuds while speaking on the phone and turning your head because it constantly gets caught on my shirt collars and pulls the ear buds out of my ears. Obviously that's a distraction we can do without while driving.

The solution to this problem is obvious: simply taper the edges of the mic. It seems like a simple fix.

I wonder if Steve Jobs is overlooking this problem since he always wears an uncollared mock turtleneck shirt?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Harry Chapin - Thirty Years Later

Thirty years ago, today, Harry Chapin died on the Long Island Expressway. He's probably best know for Cat's in the Cradle - which is one of my favorite songs. Ten years ago, this song was ranked number 186 of 365 on the RIAA list of Songs of the Century.

Harry Chapin was driving in the left lane on the LIE near exit 40 in Jericho when he put on his emergency flashers because of either a mechanical or medical problem (possibly a heart attack). After veering into a couple cars he was rammed by a tractor trailer. The official cause of death was a heart attack, but it couldn't be determined if it happened before of after the initial car accident.

Harry Chapin would have been 68 years old if he was still alive. Last summer, I was back in my hometown (Huntington Station, NY) helping my former sixth grade teacher, Ms. Cooke, scan her 30+ years worth of student photos into Facebook. As soon as I mentioned to Ms. Cooke that I was planning to stop by the local cemetery to visit Harry Chapin's grave, she pointed to the following framed concert poster that hung on the wall in her condo. Harry Chapin died while he was driving to this concert.

Tonight, at 8:30 p.m., there will be a celebration at Hekscher Park to honor his life and work. People are encouraged to bring canned goods to be donated to charity.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Running with a virtual buddy

Today, I went running with my virtual running buddy. I've been using my Garmin Forerunner GPS / heart monitor since 2005, but I've never used the running buddy feature before today. It's a cinch to configure - you just tell the unit what pace and how far you want to run. During your run, you can see how far ahead or behind you are compared to your running buddy.

I'm a big fan of using heart rate monitors during runs since it'll tell you your exact effort level. If you're sick or not well hydrated, that info will reflect in a higher heart rate compared to a typical run.

My resting heart rate is average: 65-75 beats per minute (bpm). But, my max heart rate has always been high - well over 200 bpm. Today, on the long, steep, uphills around mile three of my four mile run I pushed my heart rate up to 207 bpm, yet I still kept falling behind my running buddy. I had built up a solid one tenth of a mile lead at the beginning of my run knowing that the uphills were coming, but I ended up giving back all of my lead, plus I fell behind my running buddy by a tenth of mile. Luckily, the last three quarter miles of the run were down hill and I managed to sprint it and beat my running buddy by about 75 feet.

When I first started using a heart rate monitor in 1995 I was concerned that my high max heart rate was an issue. But, it turns out that it's not. Just like a person's height, your max heart rate is mostly a factor of hereditary. Statistically, your max heart rate will drop about one bpm/year as you age throughout adulthood. However, your resting heart rate is a factor of fitness - so, the better shape that you're in, the lower your resting heart rate. Less heartbeats equals a longer life - all things being equal.