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Friday, November 20, 2015

“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.” - Warsan Shire

“So often the world sits idly by, watching ethnic conflicts flare up, as if these were mere entertainment rather than human beings whose lives are being destroyed. Shouldn’t the existence of even one single refugee be a cause for alarm throughout the world?” - Urkhan Alakbarov, geneticist


Baby recently out of Incubator

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Shaking The Dollar Tree

Some Dollar Tree Stores, Inc. (NASDAQ:DLTR) shareholders decided to “shake the tree” with a sell-off over the past few days. As a long investor in Bob Sasser’s management style, I found the exercise laughable. It provided an excellent opportunity to purchase more shares of DLTR at a discounted price. This is precisely the purpose of these stores themselves, to obtain bargains unavailable elsewhere.

Dollar Stores Virginia 1492250

Dollar Tree's acquisition of Family Dollar must have some analysts and investors sitting uncertain out there on a long branch. I see a firm going from approximately 8,000 stores to 16,000. Right now Dollar Tree operates 14,038 stores (this includes stores that may still look like the one pictured above). This is not exactly HP buying Compaq. Dollar Tree management made it clear long ago they were to going to a store count of over 20,000, well before the Family Dollar deal was announced. It is clear there was plenty of planning and number-crunching long before the $8.5 billion offer was made.

Of course operating costs will go up, but not nearly as much as if they had to outfit and staff all those stores starting from empty buildings. I understand Dollar General is larger, I'm also concerned about operating expenses at that firm. I once helped a logistics firm set-up 11 new sorting and distribution centers all over the U.S. The costs involved were incredible. But I documented standard operating procedures and learned from each new facility. By the time the last few of the 11 centers were started all members of team knew exactly what to do after getting the key from the commercial realtor.

Dollar Tree’s business model works so well because people remember the experience in each store fondly. I often see people shopping together in Dollar Tree outlets, more than I see in traditional grocery stores. More Dollar General stores seem to stand alone out there in lot by themselves or with only one other business whereas Dollar Tree stores sit near other businesses people frequent. Family Dollar facilities appear in both locations. It’s the psychology of belonging to something as opposed to going it alone.

Economic recessions drive new customers to discount stores, well actually most people drive themselves there. Even the perception of a financial crisis or a personal financial issue, like unemployment, raises consumer awareness of bargain shops. New immigrants or people that have just relocated need to keep expenses very low. Customers look around the shopping centers or communities where stores are located. They look at the store itself. Does the shopping center look safe? Is the outside of the store clean? Is the parking lot well-lit or easily accessible from a main highway? Is there a parking spot somewhere near the entrance?  My family’s experience with Dollar Tree is “yes.” Keep in mind all these are perceptions formed before the consumer gets into the store.

As you approach a Dollar Tree store two other experiences are likely to happen. First you will see someone leaving the store, talking on their smartphone, telling a friend about the deal they just found. Customers of discount stores appear to enjoy chatting and texting about new-found bargains. Second, you may encounter other customers just arriving to shop. They have little check-lists of the items they need or want for an upcoming party. They may have a list on their smartphone. Note: Dollar Tree should have an app that lets customers create a list while the app matches those items up with similar items in stock in the store.

Finally you enter a well-lit retail space that you can easily navigate in a few minutes. Remember you only have a few minutes to shop to get home in-time to start dinner and get everything going before your show or game comes on. Traditional grocery stores have grown the size of airplane hangers. Sam’s Clubs in Houston may even have a row of 777s somewhere in the back. The point I am making is that many consumers don’t have the time or energy to navigate superstores after a day of navigating hallways or offices at work. Dollar Tree is doable, it has good food I can find and prepare at home easily. If I happen to pick-up a pack of pencils, crayons or notepads to take to the kids in Haiti, so be it!

There is also the surprise factor with discount stores that Dollar Tree does better than most. What an incredible deal, well, always a dollar, on something I did not even plan to buy! I can afford a buck. What I cannot afford is the $4 jar of blackberry jam on aisle 17. I don’t have the $8 for the large container of laundry detergent but Dollar Tree will sell me enough soap to get to payday.

Some investors wonder if consumers quickly abandon Dollar Tree stores after they get a better job or a raise. Will rising stars switch to Whole Foods? I doubt that is the case at all. Promotions and more income nearly all come with greater demands on your time. Instead of driving home from the office you are now just getting off a flight from Chicago, there’s even less incentive to enter a big box store. It appears to me that rising stars remember the bargains they always find and return Dollar Tree, only to buy even more from this source than they did in the past. It’s not the Food Bank or anything that might indicate you are struggling but Dollar Tree is a destination some people go after the food bank. They head there to get the items they still need but were not at the food bank, like that container of laundry soap.

Lower prices at the gas pump leave consumers with more dollar bills to spend but not twenty buck notes. Dollar Tree does not depend on people coming in to buy a pack of smokes. They don’t sell cigarettes, a low-margin item anyway. Personally I don't like shopping where lung cancer is sold. Smokers often switch between 7-11 stores and Dollar General, depending on pricing, need and convenience. Margins are where Dollar Tree typically beats the competition, that’s what I look for during my research. The purchase of Family Dollar will enable even larger bulk orders of key products. As long as suppliers can eke out the economies of scale, Dollar Tree’s purchasing agents will keep finding them.

Dollar Tree customers are not so brand dependent. Like folks that shop at Aldi stores, these consumers look for quality even if they’ve rarely bought products with an unusual label before. Aldi shoppers have even grown comfortable with tags that say "Made in Croatia or Israel or Morocco." Europe is way ahead of North America in this regard. Much of what stocks the shelves in Dollar Tree stores seems to come from the U.S. though Asia is well-represented too. Savvy shoppers now look closely at the actual product and buy what they need, not always what a TV or magazine ad told them to buy. Coupons, paper at least, are a hassle that I don't see younger consumers hauling out at the register. Groupon? Well that's fodder for another column. I know Internet shopping is growing but not for small packages of frozen vegetables you will eat tonight.

Those concerned with the Dollar Tree's Deals stores may be comforted to learn of plans to roll the chains 200+ stores under the Dollar Tree logo. I don't have any idea of what will happen to that one West Park, Florida Deals store with a pharmacy. I am skeptical of those $200k pharma store add-ons though I do expect to see pharmacies in discount stores very soon.

I also expect Dollar Tree to do what it always does, head back up past 80 and beyond. It will split if it does go up over my current price target of $100. My original shares have gone through two splits, a 3:2 and and 2:1. They like to price things around 100!  If you look at the price history, without the adjustments for stock splits, the stock looks even more exciting. Dollar Tree's one-year (8%, even now), 5-year (150%) and and 10-year performance are quite interesting. Mr. Sasser and his team can handle the additional outlets Family Dollar brings, if not they will close redundant locations. It has to do with closely watching market growth. They maintain a very efficient strategic network of distribution centers. The firm is headquartered in Chesapeake, Virginia, one of America’s fastest-growing communities. Those are all important features that contribute to the success of a business that helps people get good buys, no matter what the size of their paycheck is. That is something worth talking about.

(The author has held Dollar Tree shares for the past ten years. As a Tidewater local, he has followed the firm since the "Only $1" days. 
The oldest of those shares are up 750%. He is not employed by any firm with any interest in Dollar Tree or affiliates.  That said, any stock can rise or fall at any time, for reasons few can explain. Invest wisely.)

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Bird of Prey

Hawk Maryland 15111639c

We had breakfast together, she ordered the rat.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Insights: The EU and the Middle East

(Note: This analyst speaks some Arabic and prefers the term “Daesh” for referring to the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Other outlets use ISIL or ISIS or even the term “caliphate.”)
 
It seemed like only a few months ago that the EU leader's military agenda was more about Scandinavian concerns with Russian military jets in their airspace or Russian involvement in the Ukraine. Russia was being accused of shooting down a civilian airliner. Today EU leaders are laser-focused on the Middle East. This analyst really doesn’t see mainland China invading Taiwan or Japan. Venezuela and Colombia are not likely to go to war soon. Filipino Islamic militants still hold Canadian hostages but that is not all-out war. So the conflict in the Middle East remains the hotspot of greatest concern. But this conflict with Daesh (essentially an extreme Wahhabi sect) is actually being fought in many places around the world.

Blue Angels over Annapolis 32535

The waves of refugees pouring into Europe are mostly the result of ongoing war in the Levant, which includes Syria, Lebanon and Iraq among other regions. This everyone understands. Yes, some Albanians and others are on the move, mostly in hopes of a better job or any job. Some Afghanis have every right to claim refugee status, part of their nation also suffers under the strict hand of the Taliban. Too many of the refugees hold Syrian passports, whether valid or excellent forgeries of Syrian passports. The refugee problem calls for greater military and diplomatic efforts in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Without a doubt war has arrived back in Europe. The tragic events in Paris this year (January and November) are not simply crimes committed with knives or small arms. The AK-47 is an assault rifle and should not be in the hands of civilians. U.S. public schools have understood this for years but a Republican-controlled Congress still tolerates the needless slaughter there. The U.S. public will probably not even demand a change in the status of assault weapons after Daesh fighters make their presence known at some U.S. public forum. Actually, The two that opened fire at Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest in Texas appear to have been Daesh-inspired Islamic militants. North America or U.S. interests aboard will remain targets, there can be no doubt about that. Unfortunately there is a method to this madness.

The vests worn by suicide bombers are also military weapons, not some self-defense tactic. There are apparently instructions for making these devices all over our beloved Internet. Add in the way certain young Muslims are enticed by slick social media campaigns and you have a recipe for “Acts of war” anywhere in the world.

The existence or easy manufacture of these weapons only facilitates the process and raises the body counts. If you read detailed histories of the World Wars, Vietnam or even the Civil War, you see improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are not new ideas. Train derailments, poisonous gases and incendiary devices were also commonly used. These are tough asynchronous attacks to defend against.

There are other patterns in these tragic attacks. Extremists including Daesh do have sympathizers in the U.S., there's no doubting that. But just like al Qaeda's early attacks in Africa, U.S. interests abroad provide softer, more accessible targets. I will still be traveling abroad, but like always, I will stay alert for sudden changes. I tend to avoid large crowds but that's no assurance as we can see in the Paris assaults.

An Ounce of Prevention

Paris France 1493046

Prevention of attacks by fanatics requires the use of multiple strategies. Limiting easy access to assault rifles is a start but those guns are not freely sold in Europe, like they are in the southern U.S. states. Even in gun-loving Switzerland there are many steps required before one can obtain an assault rifle. No matter, weapons that can be used to kill hundreds in minutes must be severely restricted. Hunters do not require the functions of an assault rifle. Peace-loving people know this and there are many more of us than gun fanatics.

We must also understand the root causes that lead certain young people to join violent movements or engage in violence. Identifying the reasons and providing a steady stream of alternative outlets for the energy of youth is probably a better investment than trying to get gun laws changed. We need to know more about and get better at identifying disturbed people like the killers in Norway, Virginia Tech and Newtown, Connecticut. These killers were not really inspired by so called "religious" motives. Of course we will never stop every one but stopping five or ten of them is still worth the effort and expense.

France was aware that some of the attackers in 2015 were “radicalized” but what could be done? If you lock-up these types along with known violent criminals you are simply running a terrorism training center. It is better to sit them down with psychologists or educated parents or community leaders. These are all long-term solutions but there is no better time to start the effort than now.

Pundag, Purulia District 00025

Parts of India still experience train bombings and attacks by radicals. I lived for a time in Bihar and West Bengal and watched how these movements grow and spread. Entire communities of poorly-educated farmers were quickly turned into machete-wielding mobs by a few cunning leaders. Some of the violence was a result of land seizures. Intense police and military efforts seem to have limited results, except perhaps for the widespread use of metal detectors. Public buildings in Calcutta, Patna and Ranchi all had security guards with a metal detectors. Trains with a very visible security presence were perhaps attacked less, it is difficult to measure success rates. You don’t know about the cases where the extremist decided to go home, dismantle the bomb and go back to working in the paddy. In any event, India, in particular Bihar, still suffers from the occasional attack by internal extremists.


Purulia District R1_00031

It would probably help to hold a conference of the best anti-terror police and intelligence people from India, Israel, the Philippines, and other places that frequently experience such attacks. Sharing tactics might result in an overall improvement in the rate of detection and prevention.

Muslim leadership throughout the world should be speaking up loud and clear against these acts by “believers” but that seems too much to hope for. Instead too many leaders in Muslim nations and communities seem to enjoy inciting only more hatred between Sunnis and Shiites or between Muslims, Jews and Christians. One extremist Muslim leader is “too many.” The definition of “extremist” must also be widened. We have no choice if we want to go out and enjoy a football match or an evening with friends at a café.

Do not overlook the Daesh bombings in Beirut or Daesh-inspired attacks in many other locations. A Hezbollah area of Beirut was attacked precisely because of Hezbollah fighter presence in the Syrian front lines against Daesh. Did Israel intelligence know this bombing was going to happen?

A similar reason likely led to the bomb, probably triggered by a change in barometric pressure, on the Metrojet Flight 9268. The Daesh diaspora is showing a penchant for the bringing the slaughter back to the sources of the bombs falling on their heads. Daesh leaders seem intent on moving the fight out of Syria and Iraq, at least until they are killed or jailed.

There are few military historians who will deny that the seeds of the al Qaeda and Taliban movements were planted by the U.S. support of the mujahideen. We needed the mujahideen in our perceived fight against Soviet expansion in South Asia. We went a little overboard in providing the mujahideen with surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). The hardware and the training were thrown back at us when we went after al Qaeda in 2001.

Many observers will go so far as to state that Western nations continued support for oppressive regimes in the Middle East remains a causal factor today for the acts of Daesh and al Qaeda. Without the military hardware and training, several governments would probably not have lasted as long as they have. We essentially wanted stability in the lands where cheap oil was to be found.

We did not rush in to support Egypt, Libya or Tunisia during the Arab Spring uprisings. Egypt and Tunisia simply do not have the oil, though both do hold massive investments from Western nations. Not the least being the Suez Canal. Libya’s oil field production was apparently not worth supporting the unpalatable regime of Muammar Gaddaffi.

Time to Recognize Kurdistan? 


Today, in 2015, the West needs the PKK and other Kurdish forces in our fight against Daesh in Syria and Iraq. We also need militants to keep pressure on the oppressive Syrian government. At the same time we cannot guarantee that the Kurds or militants will not turn around and use the training or weapons we give them now against Iraqi or even Turkish government forces in the years ahead. We limit the assistance we provide to the all groups for exactly this reason.

We have learned a lesson, sort of.

I don’t believe there are any plans to equip the Kurds with SAMs, tanks, attack helicopters or fighter jets. Our support for the plethora of groups fighting Assad seems to vary from month to month. Unfortunately this also reduces their effectiveness in the current struggle.

Complicating this situation are legitimate Russian concerns for the future of their only Mediterranean naval base, in Syria. They would prefer that some type of central government persist in Damascus, if only to assure the future of that navy base.

Turkey certainly does not want the Kurds and their Peshmerga fighters to grow any stronger. The government in Istanbul also does not want Daesh forces rolling across their southern border.

On the other hand, Israel remains at least economically involved in Kurdistan, though you will seldom hear much about these transactions. Israel likes having a friendly partner located close to Iran. The Kurds currently control and pump oil from some very large oil fields. Israel, with few real friends in the region, finds support for Kurdish leaders and businesses palatable. So do I. The Kurdish kingdoms extend far back in history and deserve the right to be recognized. They are certainly earning respect right now in the fight against Daesh.

While the EU remains Israel’s largest trading partner, Israeli business leaders know they need to diversify. Some Europeans are pushing for divestment of Israeli assets. There is also a growing effort to boycott goods made in the West Bank and Golan Heights. This may be counter-productive insofar as Israeli businesses there do employ young Palestinians, likely keeping some away from the extremists. This sorely needed income flows into West Bank towns that do need more consumers. This generates other jobs. It is a tough triangle to ignore. Recently a rule requiring labeling of certain imports from the Occupied Territories was passed by the EU leadership. That legislation is hard to ignore. Standing in a Paris food market, I could not help but see all the Israel labels on the fruit boxes. Building ties with a growing Kurdistan, though not yet a nation, fills the bill in many ways for Tel Aviv.

Iran Moving Forward 


The last region we will take a glance at today is Persia. Iran seems to be preparing to meet the requirements of the recent treaty. Hard-line leaders may have little choice but to comply, given the desire of the Tehran business community to have sanctions lifted. Tourism may not increase dramatically, Shiites have continued to visit for various reasons all these years. Trade with Asian nations really never disappeared. But the need for Western technology in Iranian oil and gas fields, in aviation, and investment in manufacturing is great. Iran wants open access to the world’s financial markets, as well as the ability to use the funds in certain frozen bank accounts. Despite certain doubts held by Tel Aviv and Riyadh, Iran probably will comply with the treaty, at least for a few years.

This leaves us with some interesting conclusions. Knowledge-sharing can help with reducing the total number of incidents. State-sponsored violence, on any scale, seems to be reduced by inclusion, not exclusion. When young people can freely express themselves, obtain jobs, when societies thrive economically, and when families struggle less, there will probably be fewer people drawn to extremism. Usama bin Ladin came from one of the wealthiest families in the world, but the majority of young Muslims headed for jihad do not.

Links


http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/06/17/world/middleeast/map-isis-attacks-around-the-world.html

#war on isis #isil #syria #terror #metrojet #war #internet start-up #venture capital #daesh



Friday, November 13, 2015

ISIL, Internet Start-Up in the Levant

(Note: This analyst speaks some Arabic and prefers the term “Daesh” for referring to the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Other outlets use ISIL or ISIS or even the term “caliphate.”)

 It is well past the time that world leaders wake up to the global threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). It almost seems like most major leaders are so focused on what to call this group (Daesh or ISIS or ISIL) that they have neglected to properly weigh the threat it poses. Certainly some leaders were so incensed with this terror group’s daring dash across Syria and Iraq that they did not have time to come up with a coordinated response. The time to stop this juggernaut is now and time may even be running out.

Reliance on Kurdish Peshmerga forces, fairly uncoordinated air sorties by multiple nations and the Iraqi army is not enough. The generals and military analysts may think the current strategy will work given time but Daesh works fast and smart. It probably already has a monopoly on terror and no regulatory agency applies here, except the military.

Nearly every leader of the largest nations seems to be more so concerned with a fear of putting “boots on the ground” that they are missing the bigger point. This criminal gang is rapidly spreading terror well beyond Iraq and Syria. Daesh is succeeding at recruiting, training and expanding forces further into the Middle East, Africa and Asia. This criminal gang is actually more like a well-staffed Internet start-up, with more ideas about how to spread an ideology than Facebook or Craigslist.

Individuals are calling the shots within the Daesh organizational structure. These individuals need to be openly identified and bounties placed on their heads. They may not have degrees from Stanford, in fact they could be college dropouts like Gates, Jobs, Brin and Zuckerberg. Nevertheless, the leaders of ISIL have proven adept at recruiting skilled labor just as well as Microsoft, Apple, Google and Facebook.

Humvee Parked on the Mall 20026

Yesterday’s bombings in Beirut, the downing of Metrojet Flight 9268 and the near genocide of the Yazidi people are the most vivid, recent  examples of how big a threat ISIL has become.

Daesh initially succeeded because two nations did not plan on any small force growing so big so fast it could rob all the major banks in several large cities. Despite the lack of solid intelligence about Daesh, even a fool can see it is not being run by fools. They quickly overran military bases full of the best arms. They sell crude oil on the black market. Just like a start-up, Daesh has a detailed plan for future growth, they are acting on that plan, and they will only continue to spread terror to more regions of the world until they are completely eradicated.

It is time we begin thinking of ISIL in the same terms as a very successful Internet start-up company. That is exactly what they are. They exploit social media, blogs, videos and other slick marketing techniques to every advantage. They have fully-functional recruiting networks in the Middle East, Africa, the EU, the U.S. and likely elsewhere. This is definitely not old Ayman al-Zawahiri hiding out in a hut somewhere in Waziristan. This is more like Twitter except equipped with 50-caliber bullets, in addition to tempting tweets meant for susceptible young adults.

This essay is not a call for a “global war on terror.” I’m not trying to sound like George W. Bush here but the evidence for the size and scope of this threat is all too clear. This is a call for a real war, a conventional war, on a defined enemy, based, right now, in a clearly defined region. Rapid reaction forces are maintained by every major nation. If Daesh does not yet present a large enough threat to call-up these forces I am at loss to imagine what ever would.

The armed effort must be coordinated and planned but it cannot wait six months or a year to begin. By that time this Internet start-up will have grown to half the size of Apple Inc. and any smart investor knows that firm is a sure bet to sell more iPhones and other gadgets next year. What Daesh is selling instead is murder, rape, car bombs, aircraft bombings and quite possibly global mayhem or worse. World leaders ignored al Qaida until it was able to stage an attack large enough to send the global economy into recession. Is that what everyone is waiting for this time?

Intelligence agencies in the U.S. and abroad already spend billions every year gathering information to identify potential terrorists. These billions are clearly not stemming the meteoric growth of ISIL. New ways of locating the people using social media sites and smartphones to grow ISIL must be developed quickly. New ways of countering ISIL’s attraction to young people are needed now!

The flow of ammunition, food, fertilizer and other supplies into the regions controlled by ISIL must be stopped. Kurdish leaders cannot be left to bicker for months about who gets control of the tiny parts of Daesh territory they might take back control of. They did give us a real clue when they declared Daesh forces are far better equipped and coordinated than they are.

The world’s weapons manufacturers and arms dealers clearly don’t care who is ultimately buying their wares. It is time somebody else does care. If the Turkish government thinks they will avoid retaliation by staying relatively out of the fray, they are seriously mistaken. ISIL can launch suicide bombings in Istanbul just as easily as they did in Lebanon, and you can be sure they will.

Just like successful tech firms, Daesh appears to be excellent at growth through mergers and acquisitions. They may have already co-opted Tunisian terror groups, Libyan factions, Sinai militants, al Shabab, Filipino radicals and even the remnants of Boko Haram. Do we sit on our hands in fear like taxi drivers the world over hoping Uber fades away?

No, we do not. We cannot afford to wait.

We need to study Daesh as closely as venture capitalists study every Unicorn firm that suddenly becomes worth a billion dollars overnight. As a world community we need to do this research now, and not simply leave a few analysts sitting in CIA headquarters (or an unemployed technical writer) to ponder such a grave and expanding threat.

I am not trying to sound alarmist. The rapid expansion of Daesh outside of Syria clearly demonstrates their strategy of exploiting the Internet is working. The inability of the Peshmerga, Iraqi, Syrian and insurgent forces to contain Daesh is very apparent. The distraction of fighting in Yemen or Afghanistan or North Africa may not be a distraction at all. The mass flow of refugees into the EU might not be entirely just a side-effect of unrest in Syria. It may be part of a very well-coordinated plan by some rather evil entrepreneurs bent on bringing hell to a neighborhood near you.

I leave you with a true story that happened to me and a dear friend just two weeks ago. My friend had received radiation treatment for thyroid cancer about a month ago. We drove together to Canada for a relaxing weekend in a spa at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. We drove through the Canadian border with no issues raised. Upon return to the U.S. border station in New York, our big car was surrounded by heavily-armed men. We were briefly questioned, and then guided, at a distance, to a holding area where it was determined, using a geiger counter, that my friend’s thyroid still contained some radioactive iodide element from the cancer treatment. We were promptly released. Canada is apparently unprepared to detect radioactivity or the U.S. is over-prepared. We felt slightly better about our nation’s level of preparedness. Are other nations prepared to respond effectively when Daesh recruits two elderly people to drive a giant car bomb into one of their major cities?

Is the world prepared to respond to an apparent explosion in the size of the Daesh?  I fear not. This is one Internet Start-Up we must all work together quickly to assure it fails.


#war on isis #isil #syria #terror #metrojet #war #internet start-up #venture capital

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Technical Jobs, Age and U.S. Employers

Yesterday I read again about the H1-B visa program in the New York Times. You probably know about the government program that allows very big corporations to use existing older U.S. citizens to train young foreign replacement workers to do the same job. When the training period is over the U.S. citizens get fired. In this way big business can pay far lower wages and benefits but still keep their offices in the U.S.. Congress wholeheartedly supports the H1-B visa program.

I’m unemployed, again. Then again, I’m 56 so most employers want nothing whatsoever to do with me. I have too much experience. I might need to use health insurance. I might require a day off to take care of my parents. I might expect to get a raise for using my experience to improve the profitability of the firm where I work. 

St Margarets 15109950
This photo is not me, at least not yet.

I have technical skills including the ability to write and troubleshoot computer code, conduct User Acceptance testing, author technical documents, including proposals. I can even write apps for iPhones and iPads. I know more about cyber-security than my friends that work at the NSA. I can even teach other people to do all of those things, including write code or scripts. My friends and family members tell me they don’t know anybody that understands as much about technology as I do. Apparently no firms or agencies need somebody like that, at least no 56-year-old.

Yet, when Congress holds hearings on the H1-B program tech executives sit there and say they cannot find qualified candidates. “Qualified” must include age, foreign citizenship and low salary requirements. I don’t hear them say those things but people like me who promptly submit a concise CV in response to matching job openings rarely get so much as a phone interview.

Oddly enough, despite all you have just read, I am not a bitter person, should you meet me on the street. I like to stay positive about the future, informed about current ideas and share what I learn with others. I knew I would be getting laid off soon after I turned 55. I understood I would lose any technical job after just 4 or 5 years. This has happened 4 times in my adult life, despite an excellent performance and attendance record, when I do have a steady job. Employers don’t care about performance very much, it is far more about how much they have to pay you and the cost of your benefits.

One young, inexperienced hiring agent even told me that the cost of my health insurance is a big consideration now for most employers. She suggested I apply for work at places that don’t provide health insurance for their employees. Heather also suggested that I leave the year I earned my college degree off my résumé. Most employers don’t care about a college degree these days anyway, she said. I knew these were dumb ideas but I decided to try them anyway. I got several job offers for entry level clerical positions over the next few weeks. They paid less than unemployment, after taxes and commuting costs.

Corporations really don’t want to hire U.S. citizens to do technical jobs any more. Citizens speak up sometimes, in clear English, about little things like somebody else's sloppy code, unpaid overtime, fair wages or dangerous conditions. Mind you we don’t usually do that because we’ve learned by now that we’ll be included in the next round of endless layoffs if we do tell the truth. It’s better to praise management’s decisions in all cases and just sit there and train the foreign worker to do our job.

Manufacturing and technical jobs, outside of health care, are disappearing, for the most part. America is a service-oriented economy. There is still plenty of work: serving drinks and food, doing oil changes, scanning products at check-out. If I cash out my retirement accounts and spend the money learning to be an dental hygienist, X-ray or MRI technician I’ll probably find a job quickly. The elderly need someone to drive them around, Uber is always hiring.

Moving Forward

Since I always know there will be periods of unemployment ahead of me, I plan extensive for these times. I do an excellent job at work, when I do get a raise or a bonus I buy stocks with that money. My employers can’t fire me so they have to lay me off. I might get some severance pay. After severance I can collect unemployment, if I still haven’t found odd jobs. I have to weigh the unsteady income from consulting against the steady unemployment check during those months.

My retirement accounts have consistently grown, mostly because I have taught myself how to invest wisely. My portfolio has grown 350% over ten years, more from stock growth and dividends than from money I’ve added. My ROI, according to Quicken right now is 116%.

One or two readers are wondering right now why I don’t try to get a job in the financial industry. I have tried. Bankers and brokers don’t care about my investing skills. They want to know how good I am at selling low-return funds to Mom & Pop investors. These funds give them a commission. They tell me researching and investing in high growth/dividend stocks is something only fund managers do well. I wonder to myself why those mutual funds are not growing like my portfolio does, year after year.

Anyway, I can live off consulting income, along with my growing portfolio and healthy dividend checks. I can do technical writing assignments and the occasional business process study. My experience as an advanced cybersecurity trainer gets a gig now and then. I do like to go out in the world more but if American employers don’t want mature people in their offices, I can live with that.

Outside Influences

I don’t expect the current crop of presidential candidates to do anything substantial except drive up the national debt. They are mostly millionaires with little understanding of issues faced by the shrinking middle class. We live in a capitalist monarchy. A Bush or Clinton will be appointed ruler while most people stay home or are prevented from voting on Election Day. That’s okay too, people seem to care more about their favorite sports team or television program than politics or real issues that impact their daily lives.

Eiffel Tower, Paris France 1493018

I will continue my research, my writing and sharing what I learn with those that want to know more about the topics I study. I will continue to evolve. I taught myself use xCode to create apps for the iPhone or iPad recently. I’m very good with the iPad and know a great deal about OS X El Capitan. There are some people in Europe that would like me to go work for them, for a few months. There always are. I speak and write French, that helps in the EU. I guess I should give up thinking about contributing more to the growth of some U.S. firm. They don’t seem to want a better mobile banking app, tighter cybersecurity or someone who can author technical documents. At least not someone who is 56.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

All The Networks In Our Cars

“G.E. is forecasting that by 2020 there will be one billion connected electric meters, 100 million connected light bulbs and 152 million connected cars globally.”

I don’t disagree with Mr. Imelt and company, I actually think they are vastly underestimating the totals of various connected devices.  I would argue far more cars will be connected to the Internet, in far more ways, especially by 2020.  To be realistic, nearly every car and truck already on the road is already on the Internet. If the driver or any passenger holds and smartphone, and most do, then the car is on the Internet. If there is any way to connect a phone and the car’s audio system, then that car is effectively already connected to a network.

FBI Headquarters, Washington DC 077717
The smartphone in the car leads to the application on the smartphone tracking the location of the car in order to provide accurate directions. But big data loves more data so while you are using Google Maps, Google Maps is selling someone else information about all the people using Google Maps, with local trends highlighted. While you are signed in to Gas Buddy what is to prevent Gas Buddy from selling your location to a firm that wants to direct a personalized ad to people in the same place where you are right now?

It is already done, all the time, trust me. Data is being bought and sold every second of the day.

But returning to the connected car, many newer cars have a mobile phone and data connection built-in. OnStar is a big player in the connected-car market. OnStar does require a subscription for the premium features but some features remain on for as long as you own the car. The OnStar button still works to make phone calls and call for Roadside Assistance, even though you might no longer pay the monthly fee.

OnBoard GPS navigation systems need to be updated and most of the newer systems can connect to the Internet, using a mobile phone connection. GPS gives the location and hours of local businesses all along the way.

Now we get to satellite communication systems, a feature becoming more and more common in all car models. You may not subscribe to Sirius XM Radio, or maybe you do, either way if the system is installed in your car, it is communicating. Every so often Sirius XM offers free weekend or holiday listening. Try it some time, but also realize that satellite system is still there active in your car, another link to other global networks, just in case you or someone else needs it.

I am fully aware of the current limitations of all the comm systems mentioned above. But think about them collectively, what if the satellite service provider has a data exchange deal going on with mobile phone company which has a deal going on with OnStar which has a deal going on with the GPS equipment providers?  What if all these firms are getting excellent cooperation from the automobile manufacturers?

My car sends a monthly report to the firm that built it. I’ve seen copies of this report. It is mostly concerned with engine performance and sensor operations. It does indicate miles driven, top speed attained, key RPM data, engine temperature figures and other important data.  I’m not sure if it breaks all this data down by date and time but I would not be surprised if it did.

Next you have all the local police departments scanning the license plates of cars simply driving around their town. They have sophisticated cameras and read the license and tell the officer if the driver has any outstanding citations. This data is also kept in police databases for a period of time, supposedly in an effort to prevent terrorism? In any event this also puts your car up on some network, if not directly on the Internet.

All the channels mentioned about offer the potential for new applications, but also offer the opportunity for data mining businesses and government officials to invade your privacy.

You can’t prevent the collection of your data, it happens too smoothly for you to even notice.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Mass Migrations: Ideas and Solutions Wanted

I’m not certain that everyone involved understands the consequences of allowing a mass migration event to occur. On the one hand, Germany and certain other European nations are doing something humanitarian by letting hundreds of thousands come and stay in their nations. On the other hand, millions of displaced people back in refugee camps will hear of this invitation and possibly follow suit.

Who in the Third World or a war-torn nation would not strike out for the chance to live in a peaceful, developed nation? Even just for a short period?

Ananda Nagar, Purulia District 100017

Having lived in Third World situations, for extended periods of time, I can say with certainty many of my neighbors wanted desperately to leave. They see how the 5% live, at the movie theater, on TV and in magazines left behind. Their impression of how people live in developed nations may be somewhat distorted but still sits close to the truth. Our streets are paved (just not with gold), we have running water, inside plumbing and a steady source of electricity. There is work available, for those willing to do anything. Our streets are generally safer, with the exception of certain urban districts.

It is only natural that a person living in a drought-striken, war-torn corner of Sudan or Syria would dream of living in a modern German or American city.

It is only natural that a person living in Haiti would want to move to Florida. This would not solve the problem of poor education, little training, and no savings, it just relocates people to a place where more possibilities are available. The real solution is to make those natural parts of a normal human life available back in the refugee’s home nations.

All modern societies already struggle under the weight of migrant populations. In Europe it is the huge existing illegal immigrant population along with the Roma and other groups. The very structure of the EU encourages workers to move where there is work.

In the U.S. there is the same freedom to live anywhere from Juneau, Alaska to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Most people have cars. We have a very mobile workforce. There is also a sizable homeless population, mostly located in or near the largest urban centers. Our illegal immigrant population sits anywhere from 10 million to 20 million. Accurately counting all these groups is impossible, but we can estimate that they are huge numbers of people.

If we suddenly open the U.S. borders you can expect a stampede to soon follow. Border regions would be the first regions to be overwhelmed. In some cases, such as Texas, they might already be. But the borders are also located in every international airport. When a plane from overseas lands, citizens, tourists, students, business people and new immigrants are all likely to walk off.

Passenger manifests are much more closely scrutinized than in the past but some “tourists” and some “students” are actually immigrants. They fully intend to stay beyond the length of their visas. Those immigrants join the people that walked across border, though we may not treat them the same.

All of these immigrants will eventually find work. The rules that bind family are stronger than the rules we impose on employers. Immigrants traditionally worked in businesses owned by relatives or associates. Immigrant populations stick together. Illegal immigrants from Ireland were employed in the Irish pubs and businesses in Boston and Baltimore. Illegal Chinese immigrants often started out their careers in the back of restaurants. Farm and outdoor work long ago became the immigrants domain. There will always be business owners willing to hire someone willing to work hard and quietly, for less pay.

These are alternative systems we have for handling illegal immigration, however informal or  illegal they may be. Those charged with finding every illegal immigrant have not the time or resources to do so. They can only go after the largest offenders at best.  A poultry processing facility is raided. The other chicken plants check everyone’s Green Cards again.

This whole system would be upended if 100,000 people were suddenly brought to our cities. Or would it? Hundreds of thousands of people already move around the U.S. every year. Some migrate to enjoy the Florida sun, others move to North Dakota to work the Bakken. No, the first one hundred thousand we could accommodate. It is the next 900,000 that concerns me.

The next 900,000 are already deeply concerning to the European nations. These mass migrations could develop into a situation that causes global turmoil. The only way to stem the tide is to deal with the reasons why these people are suddenly migrating. Drought in Africa is a tough problem to solve but agricultural assistance is one way. War in Syria is tougher still but Assad and the fighters must be brought to some terms someday. The so-called Islamic State joins Boko Harum, Al Shabab, the Houthis, and the Taliban, just to name a few other groups driving people to migrate north.

The makeup of groups now crossing by land into Europe tells the story. There are Afghans, Sudanese, Eritreans, Syrians, and even people from the Balkans moving towards Western Europe. From the south boatloads of refugees from Africa are risking drowning at sea to get to any piece of European soil. Those groups often end up in Spain, Italy and Greece. Organized crime is making millions selling a non-existent seat on a leaky raft to a man so desperate he would pay for such a spot, sight unseen. Others are sold a suffocating location in an overcrowded truck body or shipping container.

SHORT TERM HOUSING

Short term housing solutions are available.  These include vacant homes, vacant apartments, tourist hotels, emergency shelters, camps or second homes and finally empty rooms in large homes. These last two are the most controversial simply because most people do not want to invite a poor stranger into one of their homes. Those that do offer to house refugees should be given a tax-incentive to help with some of the additional costs.

A million tourists visit Europe every summer and typically leave by mid-September. They stay in hotels, BnBs, and even hostels. Many of these rooms sit empty until next Spring. A financial incentive, such as a tax-break, might encourage some of the owners of these places to open their doors to a destitute Syrian family.

Camp Letts 0089836

I would imagine Germany has hundreds of thousands of beds available in summer camps. Camp owners are probably preparing to close up these rural locations for the winter. Most camp structures are probably not suited for habitation beyond October.  These rural camp locations are still likely to be better than creating new tent cities out in some field.

Now the use of summer camps does complicate things when the refugees have to be moved again, once the typically harsh northern European winter begins. The summer camp solution is really just a way of giving authorities a 60-day window for developing other housing solutions.

LONG TERM HOUSING

The wars in Syria, Afghanistan and the droughts in Africa will not be ending any time soon.

Finding a place for a million people to live for a couple of years will not be easy. Existing vacant structures can probably accommodate 250,000 or more, that will require an analyst to determine. AirBnB and other similar services probably know of many empty beds in Europe. In any event the owners of those structures will certainly want compensation. Encouraging them to allow poor refugees to move into their units will not be easy. Landlords can only image the toll these people might take on the structures. In the end it may be no different than renting to any other tenant but the fears of property damage will still be there.

Construction of new housing, while an interesting source of employment, will not be a popular solution. It takes years for such buildings to be planned and safely constructed. Pre-fab housing can be installed in a much shorter time-frame but these units still require foundations, roads and utility connections. These projects would best be constructed in the border nations of Italy, Greece and perhaps Spain. I understand there is a great deal of half-finished construction all over Europe, leftovers from the recent economic recession. The idea of using campers or caravans, poorly attempted after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, should be passed over.

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Germany and other nations have rules whereby new refugees are not permitted to work for the first year. This may not be the best way to respond to this current crisis. Many of these refugees are from Middle Eastern nations. We have learned the hard way that radical Islamic groups feed upon idle Arab youth, often using social media on the Internet. There is simply no other way to put it. Having hundreds of thousands of idle refugees sitting around European cities is a recipe for disaster.  European nations may need to consider the voluntary work schemes like the WPA used during the Roosevelt Administration in the 1930s. The current situation certainly looks similar to the Great Depression in many ways.

REAL SOLUTIONS

The only real solution to the refugee crisis is the elimination of turmoil in the places where these people were living. Wars would need to be ended and housing rebuilt in places like Homs or Aleppo. In places suffering from drought perhaps drought-resistant crops could be introduced.  Creating new jobs through development would certainly encourage some to return home. Governments would be wise to work closely with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) already prepared to perform some of these tasks. Peace negotiations may even take on a new urgency.

I’m trying to envision this entire event, from a all perspectives, in order to understand what can and will happen next. There are many angles from which to view this ancient problem of migration. It cannot be left up to the U.N. Refugee Agency alone to find the solutions. Larger, better funded governments will need to step in.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Revolution in Progress: Jott, AirDrop and Mesh Networks

Billions of dollars change hands every day in the stock markets. A significant portion of those transactions can be linked to mobile technology firms and their suppliers. Mobile tech is a broad umbrella that includes manufacturers like Apple or Samsung, network operators like AT&T or Verizon, and app developers such as Google along with scores of app developers.  No matter what direction you look, mobile communication is becoming more and more integrated into every aspect of our world. Besides the millions of dollars paid for employee’s phones, and monthly bills, service firms and manufacturers are spending more on communication costs for office and mobile Internet, M2M shipment tracking, satellite services, offsite storage and other security measures. People are also spending more time social networking or enjoying videos on the go.

Since 1991 the author has brought new technology into mainstream use in large organizations. The last 6 years for a major service provider. This column is the first in a series intended to address the many new ways mobile phones are impacting our daily lives.


Look closely and you’ll see a dish antenna on the roof of roadside markets. The Redbox out front has a built-in mobile data connection. Of course the water and electric meters are all going online, they already have in the Baltimore/DC region.

Cell Tower, Downtown Key West Florida 1528809
So much more is happening that many people are unaware of. The security camera in your favorite restaurant wirelessly sends video through an Internet connection so the owner can watch over employees simply by using an app on her phone. That little box the package delivery person carries is far more advanced than you realize. In developed areas WiFi routers are now being mounted in-between the cell towers to allow a more consistent mobile data experience.

Applications like Jott, Skype, FaceTime and iMessage are threatening the business models of Vodafone, AT&T, Orange, and all other carriers. Jott, in particular, is most concerning because it allows users to send and receive text messages, without a mobile phone account, or even a WiFi connection. It uses a technology called “mesh networking” to literally bounce the messages through nearby phones running the same application.

Jott creates and uses these mesh networks when enough application users are within range of each other. These applications directly send texts using Bluetooth or wireless signals alone. They allow messages to travel from someone’s iPad to someone’s Android phone, even if getting there requires hopping across several other devices. The amount of data and processing required for a text message is so small that the other functions going on in each phone are not impacted in the least.

Think about how teenagers get together in school or at the mall. If you want to text a friend nearby why not use a wireless signal that skips the cell phone towers? It’s really basic technology applied over small areas. This is not that much different than the walkie-talkies popular decades ago. Except for one very important detail; mobile network operators make money from text messages.

Granted, text messaging as a source of revenue has been declining for years, Apple’s iMessage is not really a new application. But at least applications like iMessage used mobile data, another precious commodity sold to us through our monthly phone bills or pre-paid cards. When you are at home or at your workplace, WiFi probably carries those iMessages, but someone still pays for the cable or other Internet connection too.
Jott and Airdrop are two examples of technology that edges the carriers out of the loop. I just sent a 6MB photo of my niece from my tablet to my laptop, neither device was connected to any network at the time. I also just used a Share feature to send a copy of this article to a nearby friend’s tablet for a second opinion. No network required.

My friend’s daughter explained Jott to me in this way:
“When both of us are using the Jott app, I can text my friend on the other side of the classroom. My message might move through our friend Lucinda’s phone, she uses the Jott app too. Lucinda would not even have known that happened, and she cannot read the message anyway, her phone just acted as a path for our message. Lucinda’s texts to Alice, who sits behind me, probably crawl through my phone too!”

Some of you are thinking of a whole host of issues here. Teenagers have learned the hard way that texting costs money, or does it? With businesses and governments tracking so much of our on-line activity it feels good to communicate “off-network.” Teens aren’t exchanging anything mission-critical, like quiz answers, just chatting about a movie they both saw last weekend. At least we hope so and texting during an exam would quickly get you in trouble anyway.

Of course cheats and criminals can use Jott or any existing communication method for their nefarious activities but this has always been possible. What has not been common is the use of a mesh network by teenagers in school yards. Or dissidents living under some repressive regime.

Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have already contributed to the overthrow of governments in the Middle East. Despots will find mesh networking quite unnerving once activists learn to get together and share information using Jott.

Tibet Protests Paris 5 This is also the start of a revolution in communication that will continue to erode the profits of the major carriers. Add mesh networks to downward pressures on pricing, the cost of subsidizing handsets, and the higher costs to build and maintain networks and the total starts to look troubling.

Some at Ma Bell may shrug off applications like Jott for now. Just like they did with Skype. So people are using mesh networks in addition to the Internet and mobile networks for their texting, so what?  Skype and FaceTime already make a serious dent in the profits telcos glean from international dialing. But many mobile networks already run at or near capacity during the peak hours of the business day. During disasters mobile phone towers are quickly overloaded. Jott may turn out to be a lifesaver in those situations.

Think about it, Jott and Airdrop don’t really require a central server, they are simply ad hoc solutions. This is where the threat to phone company profits begins to materialize. What happens when a voice calling app that uses mesh networking hits the market? You can be certain it will.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Swine Flu versus Inflexible Employers

The Washington Post writes today about how some organizations are using technology to spot Swine Flu outbreaks. It's a shame they did not suggest to employers that they should relax their attendance policies in regards to this possible flu epidemic. I found myself suddenly overcome with high fever, headaches, and heavy nasal congestion late last week. I have no idea if it is/was Swine Flu or not. I did notice that it was the fastest onset of all those symptoms that I have ever experienced in recent memory.

It was also the first serious case of the flu I have had in many years.


More importantly, my "new" employer showed no sympathy or concern for my illness, or the possibility that I might spread the illness to other worker. They needed my services too badly to relax their extremely tight attendance policy. After trying to log-in sick and having my time-off request rejected, I was left with no choice but to go back to work the day after I left early with the above-mentioned symptoms. The alternative was clearly spelled out, I would lose my job. In times like these a job is such a difficult thing to obtain. Sudafed is not quite so hard to procure.

Geisinger Hospital Danville  PA 15100742

Being a single person with no Cinderella around to help me, I also had to drag my sneezy, grumpy, sweaty self through grocery stores, pharmacies, and another store prior to knocking myself out with medication each evening. Did I expose other people to my illness recklessly? Yes, I suppose I did but unemployment was a greater concern at that point.

I did not go to a doctor because I did not want to somehow be forced to stay away from work, and lose my job. My illness is documented only here, and so few people read this blog that it might as well be a billboard in a basement.

When I asked I was clearly told that I am not allowed to take any earned vacation days, I'm too new and too low on the totem pole. I had already taken 1.5 days off in my first 4 months on the job. If you exceed three days off in the first six months you are told to find a new job.

I know where I caught my flu, Swine or not. At my workplace. I know that having three days off in a row in my regular work schedule this week probably kept me out of the public realm longer than other people suffering from this nasty bug. I also know that employers should consider being less pennywise and more pound foolish when it comes to an obviously ill worker.

Other than losing about 5 pounds, the long term consequences of my actions I have yet to learn. What my public actions caused to those around me I do not know, though I did make a point to keep 3 meters between me any most people. But all those months without a job or health insurance or good prospects taught me one thing. Follow every rule precisely at this new position, it may be the last job with benefits that I find in years to come.