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Tuesday, November 04, 2014

The Perils of Purging Voter Records

My father went to vote today, as he has nearly every year for the past 65 years. At the polling place, where he is well-known, Dad was told his name had been purged from the Virginia voter registration records. Virginia only had my name on the voter rolls. Like many sons, I have the exact same name as my father. The poll workers advised my father that he would need have a birthdate 30 years younger than his actual date of birth in order to vote using his name and address.

However, I could have voted in Virginia today. The problem with that is I voted early in Maryland last week. I have been a Maryland resident for the past 10 years, and voted in every Maryland election. The Virginia state government knows I am not a Virginia resident. The last time I voted in Virginia was perhaps 2003.

In the past my father could have gotten the issue resolved at the polling place and cast his votes today. But Virginia, a southern state, changed all the rules, supposedly to stop voter fraud. My father, a Virginia resident, was told he needs to go to the court house to fix his voter registration, and still would only be able to vote in the next election. He just went home and took a nap.

The GOP leadership in Virginia and other states really made all these changes to the voting process for reasons other than "voter fraud." It is widely known that southern GOP politicians, and Ohio changed the laws  and purged the voter records to make it harder for "certain groups" to vote. Those "certain groups" tend to vote Democratic in most elections.

The real irony of all this is that Virginia politicans stopped my father from voting today. Dad has been a registered Republican his entire life.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Regarding Kurdish Oil Exports

The decision is the Iraqi governments to make and they had better make it soon. Do they want a new neighbor that is thriving and prosperous? Do they want a new border country that has proved it is willing to put its sons and daughters on the line to defend, not only its own borders but Iraq's vast frontiers?


The Kurds are shaping up to be one of the most important new emerging economies in the entire world. The acronym that investors use to refer to emerging markets will be spelled this way: BRICKS. Brazil, Russia, India, China, Kurdistan and South Africa are the nations emerging from developing status into major world economies. Actually India, China and Brazil are already firmly there but with so many issues still to work out.
Looking Beyond the Occuped Area, West Bank 000011
Kurdistan is as much an idea as it is a place. The region developed mostly by the Kurds includes parts of Syria, Turkey, and Iraq. They are excellent at commerce and educating their people and quite united when compared to divided nations like Iraq or the not very United States right now.

The Kurds are ready to send grounds troops to defend their borders, often without air support. The Kurds are ready to develop energy resources, build new cities and let their people participate in the governing their new nation.

Do not scoff at the idea of a Kurdish nation. With all of the failed or nearly failing nation states all over the world, begging for foriegn aid why not let one that sincerely wants to pick itself up succeed? Does the developed world really want to add Kurdistan to the list of aid-dependent regions that include Haiti, North Korea, Syria, Burma, Bangladesh and too many sub-Saharan regions? Wouldn’t make far more sense to let the Kurds sell the oil they pumped from ground they fought hard to defend against the so-called murderous Islam State of Hell?

Consider the alternatives U.S. and Iraqi leaders. A close analysis of the situation proves there are no effective alternatives. Let the Kurds exist and thrive in the region they have always inhabited or watch Iraq quickly join the list of failed nation states.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Is Deflation Really All That Bad?

Lately people are noticing the price of gas really dropping. It went from $3.37 per gallon to $2.87 per gallon in one month at a gas station in Millersville, Maryland. To someone who drives 300 miles a week or 1200 miles a month that represents a twenty dollar bill back in their pocket (assuming their car gets 30 miles per gallon).
Royal Dutch Shell Station, Annapolis 48997
Wonderful.

350 million-year old Nautlius Ammonoid 70495
(downward spiral to be continued)

However there were some other things that started to happen during that time. The first was that the driver avoided going to the gas station until the tank was almost empty. This was because she expected the price of gas to drop even lower a few days later.

If it doesn't last very long deflation is not so bad. But deflation is like a house guest, if he stays around too long, he starts to stink up the place. Deflation often does hang around and it eats all the food in the refrigerator too!

When an economy is in deflation people delay purchases of big ticket items like houses, cars and washing machines as well. People figure the price will be lower next month so they wait before buying.

When prices are dropping employers cannot afford to give people big pay raises or possibly even any pay raise at all. In fact, overtime offers will dry up and some part-time workers will get fewer and fewer hours of work.

Suddenly this deflation thing does not sound like such a good deal.

It gets worse. People who make less money spend less money, they don’t go out to eat as often, they don’t take expensive vacations, and Grandma’s monthly Social Security check stays the same every year. That's okay, she can always come to live with you, right?

Businesses delay expanding factories or opening new locations if they think it will be cheaper to do so next year. People who have a lot of money already tend to hold on to it even tighter when there is deflation. That means less work or pay for all of us who work for people that are wealthier than we are.

Tax revenue drops. That may sound cool but not if you work in any type of government job or have holes in your roads or need a cop, ambulance or firetruck to come around once every so often. Despite certain politicians cries for “No new taxes,” tax rates will need to go up or else government services and government jobs will need to go away.

But wait, there’s more! If you buy into this idea that deflation is a good thing, then we’ll throw in rising unemployment, more business closings and a much lower 401k balance at no extra cost!

Interest on any savings will drop even lower than the measly rates a savings account brings now. Investment income typically drops during times of deflation. The stock markets fall. You probably don’t think about it but if you have a 401k at work you buy stock or mutual funds every time you get a paycheck. If you want to retire some day, you’ll need retirement savings along with Social Security. It is very difficult to live on a Social Security check alone. Deflation eventually undermines all income, including retirement income.

Deflation is described as a downward spiral because all of the above happens but somehow college tuition, health care costs and home mortgage payments do not seem to go down with everything else. You might be able to re-finance that mortgage, true, but you will have a lower or stagnant paycheck to use to make the payment.

So the next time you get happy about the lower price of gas at the pump, consider some of the other complications. Start saving more now or at least start to save some of your paycheck now, or else you may get stuck at the bottom of a downward spiral yourself.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Bose Beats Apple

All the other background noise in my life apparently drowned out the recent sound of Bose accusations against Beats. Bose headphones are known for their superior noise-cancelling features. Beats headphones, recently acquired by Apple Inc. (AAPL), make similar claims about their audiophile ear muffs. Bose threatened to fight to block importation of Beats products through the International Trade Commission. Apparently Apple did not like the sound of this and settled privately with Bose.

Paris France 1492904

One cannot help but remember the prominent display location Bose headphones once held in already crammed Apple retail outlets. Recently when I went to apple.com and specifically searched for headphone accessories to go with a new 64GB iPod Touch for my niece, I was not offered Beats or Bose products. A search of all accessories on the Apple site initially turned up neither Beats nor Bose headphones. Eventually Beats by Dr. Dre headgear did show up. I wonder if I was browsing during the implementation of a new policy?

This seems like a very unusual way for Apple to profit from their multibillion dollar acquisition of Beats. Yet, when I went to the beatsbydrdre.com site there was a prominent link “Buy now on the Apple Store” which was functional and took me to a Beats check-out page at apple.com.

Further investigation brought to light the way Beats headphones are offered as accessories for the iPhone but not the iPad or iPod. This strikes me as odd, but perhaps dictated by the terms of some out-of-court settlement?

Next I searched for “Bose Bluetooth Headset” at apple.com. The search box still prompts the user with several Bose products. However the search results included everything except Bose products. A search for “Bose Speaker System” returned only the Beats Pill speaker. “Bose Quiet Comfort” returns Apple Care offers. “Bose headphones” returns only a bluetooth headset by a vendor called “Aftershokz.”  In any event, Sennheiser, Bang & Olufsen and even BlueAnt ear candy still appear for sale through apple.com.

Annapolis Maryland 1447234 Luckily Bose Corporation, headquartered in a very shiny building in Framingham, Massachusetts, is privately held and therefore immune to the fickle tastes of hedge fund managers and other stock traders. Bose achieved $2.5 billion in revenue in 2013. Otherwise the carnage might be even a little too loud for a set of their Custom QuietComfort® 25 Acoustic Noise Cancelling® headphones to drown out. Personally I do prefer their A20® Aviation Headset when sitting in the left-hand seat of my favorite mode of transportation. Apart from weekends up in the air, my daily ride, a Cadillac (GM), sports a Bose Sound System.
1969 Cadillac Convertible

In 1977 my buddy in college installed four shelves in the corner of his dorm room and mounted Bose 901s on each, my interest in jazz and rock was forever changed. But that’s another story entirely…

Annapolis Apple Store - June 24, 2010

My suspicion is that Apple’s rather experienced intellectual property law team wanted to send a clear message to any other businesses considering future patent litigation claims. Apple’s “you may win the battle but expect to lose the war” message seems to come straight from Sun Tzu. Of course once you shell out $3 billion for a line of products and services like Beats By Dr. Dre you may not necessarily want the top competition sitting in your showroom. I have never seen a Lincoln parked inside the local Mercedes Benz (DAI) showroom though they do get parked in the used car lot quite often.

I think the moral of this story is be very careful with whom you pursue lawsuits. Apple also appears to no longer be selling Bose products in their retail outlets. This could put a serious dent in Bose 2015 sales results but these days saavy shoppers often head over to amazon.com (AMZN), alibaba.com (BABA) or ebay.com (EBAY) prior to making accessory purchases. Reliance on a single channel for a significant portion of sales is a mistake few consumer product manufacturers have made since Tupperware.

In fact these days viral marketing through social networks seems to be the focus of many marketing strategists. Perhaps taking a cue from William Gibson’s cutting-edge novels, Zero History and Pattern Recognition, getting your product seen and discussed on Instagram or Facebook garners more market share than appearing in Apple’s online catalog.
Apple logo and Thomas Jefferson 000299
Speaking of Gibson, his latest adventure, The Peripheral, is about to show up in e-readers and remaining brick and mortar shops in less than 10 days. I can’t wait to study it, twice.

Disclosure: This author proudly researches, invests and discusses all manner of businesses, all over the world. From energy firms in Norway to Mexican telcos to Brazilian banks to Cupertino consumer product designers, I learn what makes a firm successful and invest accordingly.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Revolutions, Ukraine and Flight 17

By not immediately responding to the downing of a commercial jet, European leaders are setting a dangerous precedent. Inaction sometimes speaks as loud as action. There are other cases of weak European leaders not standing up to revolutionaries. The leaders in the EU are effectively telling Vladimir Putin that it is OK to escalate a civil war by providing sophisticated modern weapons, including tanks and surface to air missiles. It really appears to make little difference to them if a few hundred of their citizens get killed in the crossfire. Perhaps people are not reacting loudly enough to the tragedy, the shock is still palable in the air. It does not make any sense to blindly lash out against a nuclear power like Russia. After all, Putin has clearly proven that he is all too eager to use any weapon in his arsenal to get what he wants.

This was a Boeing 777 full of European citizens, not a drone. This was one of hundreds of airliners in the air at any given time. Putin's own Airbus was flying nearby at the exact same time. This is a big deal and demands a big response.

Europe does not want another war. It literally cannot afford a conflict and no doubt the Europeans would rather do something else this summer. Summer is not a good time to get Europeans to start a new initiative.

They sat back and watched passively while Vlad took Crimea.

It almost looks like that classic schoolyard situation where the bully gets his way simply because nobody wants to stick their neck out and get beaten. However in this case you risk other bullies doing other nasty things. For example, what happens if Iran starts sending weapons into Iraq or Gaza? Oops that’s apparently already happening.

OK so what if France decides to send it’s armies into West and Central Africa to stop the bullies there? Oh, they already have.

Hmm, what if NATO decided to throw an army into, say, Afghanistan? Been there done that.

This is the underlying issue. Europe already is involved in various conflicts or recently was. Once bitten twice shy. Military involvement is not a great way to get re-elected in Europe. The Germans, French and Dutch all have important business deals going with Russia. So do the other nations that make up the EU. These economic ties mean work for their citizens at a time when good-paying jobs are not easy to find in most European Union nations.

According to the Economist magazine, Germany has an effective unemployment rate of less than 6% but Spain is looking at 25% unemployment. 1 in 4 workers not earning income, at least not legitimate income. Every other country has unemployment rates closer to Spain, Germany is an exception. When that many people are out of worker leaders must be very careful about doing anything to threaten jobs. Threatening Russia or sending peace-keeping troops into Ukraine are not choices Francois Hollande, Matteo Renzi, or Angela Merkel want to make. Jean-Claude Juncker is unlikely to encourage such a step when and if he takes over as president of the EU.

So Mark Rutte, prime minister of the Nederlands must stand before his countrymen with strong words but not much he can do. Many Dutch view Russia with a different eye than other EU nations. Holland just finished a celebration of their long history with Russia. Blaming Ukrainians for shooting down a passenger jet makes little sense when you know it was Russia that supplied the missiles, Putin that insists on reclaiming as many of the former Communist satellite states as he can, and pro-Russian separatists literally shooting rockets at anything that moves in their skies.

One way to respond to the tragic loss of Flight 17 is to carefully ratchet up the economic pain on Putin. Not just sanctions but by educating business leaders and major investors that the “R” in BRICS is no longer a worthwhile gamble. Better to put your investment money in Brazil, India, China or South Africa. Anywhere is better than in investing in a nation that recklessly puts weapons in the hands of people willing to risk shooting down a civilian airliner.

Another way to respond is to stop the free movement of Russia's armed forces in and out of eastern Ukraine. I wouldn't want to be stationed in such a "Green Zone" but until that happens Putin will keep re-supplying his Special Forces teams in eastern Ukraine. Just watching all this activity from satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles is not sufficient.

Some Russians seem to think all this ambiguity about their involvement in Ukraine provides sufficient cover. With the downing of Malaysia Flight 17 Putin's cover is blown away. The deaths of those innocent passengers rest squarely on his shoulders. Someone besides this writer needs to clearly stand up and make that known in no uncertain terms to the Russian people, the Europeans and the world.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Speaking of Mizoguchi I just finished my lectures on Sansho the Bailiff. I can't wait to share them with you. I enjoyed screening that film several times in my studio just to understand his wonderful technique!

Thinking about the Brain-Computer Interface (BCI)


Inquiry from a fellow UAT testing person:
I was wondering if you know anyone (or anyone who knows anyone…) who is somehow involved in the field of Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) research and development ? I am thinking it could be fascinating to expose my son to it, especially given that one of its application’s is “Neurogaming” :

“Currently, there is a new field of gaming called Neurogaming, which uses non-invasive BCI in order to improve gameplay so that users can interact with a console without the use of a traditional controller.[71] Some Neurogaming software use a player's brain waves, heart rate, expressions, pupil dilation, and even emotions to complete tasks or effect the mood of the game.[72] For example, game developers at Emotiv have created non-invasive BCI that will determine the mood of a player and adjust music or scenery accordingly. This new form of interaction between player and software will enable a player to have a more realistic gaming experience.[73] Because there will be less disconnect between a player and console, Neurogaming will allow individuals to utilize their "psychological state"[74] and have their reactions transfer to games in real-time.[73]
However, since Neurogaming is still in its first stages, not much is written about the new industry

This is a field that I've had an interest in for many years. It is now getting formally named and categorized but military, medical, software and gaming firms have been exploring this for several years. You just know Apple and Google have a skunk works doing this research. These and other firms all keep their research close but sometimes ask subject matter experts (SME) like myself to test it and give them some input, usually under the terms of Non-Disclosure Agreements. I'm on their lists of computer guys that can teach other people about the nascent field. There are some incredible new developments they've discussed with me but I treasure the relationships and never violate the NDAs. That's one reason they keep coming back to me. 

Another huge reason they like tapping my brain is my knowledge of digital imaging technology and Mac gear. I'm a very thorough User Acceptance Tester (UAT). I help them write the UAT scripts for every role, do the testing, capture every glitch and then present my results in plain English with plenty of visuals. That last part is tough to find in a UAT person but remember, I remain a photographer underneath all these layers of technology! Unfortunately my age seems to be the barrier to full-time UAT work, the job interviewers love my experience in many verticals, communication skills and computer background but they seem reluctant to put me on their group health insurance. I take smaller assignments anyway and keep my skills sharp that way.

I'm told my past five years in mobile broadband, especially with Apple (AAPL) gear and extensive 4G/LTE training and hands-on could get me in the door to a UAT lab but I have yet to find that door. My new boss at work does some UAT work so perhaps I'll get the chance at my day job!

Verizon has a special lab in Boston that does some of this research since all these applications require wireless or wired links to some computer server in another part of the world!



Surgeons can do some pretty precise work when their new tools include a Brain-computer component, for example. New Eye and nerve surgery tools now have some brain interface but very few hospitals can afford this gear. Veterans that have lost a limb are now using artificial limbs directly controlled by their nerves/brain. That's actually where the bulk of the advances were made recently.



In Gaming this concept is re-awakening the old virtual reality massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs), and massively multiplayer role-playing games (MMORPG) market. It will create a revolution in the market, if the military doesn't keep siphoning off all the best developers in this field. MIT and Stanford probably lead in creating new developers. Perhaps the new computer school in Paris, called 42, will get into this arena. Facebook wants to create chat rooms where people can sense what the other people are feeling. Sort of like virtual dating, if you will. The newest sensors are able to detect mood, physical and mental states, and how alert someone is. Google Glass does some of this just by having someone wear those funky eyeglasses. 


In the development labs they are wearing special headgear loaded with sensors. Some developers even swallow a tiny pill that has sensors and even micro-cameras. 

I enjoyed training for marathon races with software and sensors that input my heart rate and blood pressure. It was interesting to use that information, while I was running. I used a very special wristwatch. Now I use the same wireless sensors along with my iPhone to do much the same thing. I'm ready to put on a "thinking cap" to play computer games and I do wander around in virtual reality games. I'm just as thrilled screening an old 1920s G.W. Pabst silent movie or Mizoguchi film from the 1950s.