Monday, February 25, 2008

Golf and Cigars

I don't get it. I just don't get it. I play a lot of golf. About 15% of the people with whom I play smoke cigars. Many of my friends smoke cigars when on the golf course and I-just-don't-get-it.

Many of the people I know took up cigar smoking later in life. To me, it seems that they took it up as a means of being "cool". I always thought that if you survived into your twenties after all the "cool" things you did there was a pretty good chance you wouldn't do as many stupid things to appear "cool", thereby increasing one's odds of making it into the next decade. Oh well, I was wrong.

The other day I was on the practice range at the golf course and someone behind me was smoking a cigar. Essentially sharing his "coolness" with all of us. There I was, on a beautiful, sunny day in the mountains enjoying the crisp, cool, clean air and I was struck by the pungent smell of someone's oh-so-cool cigar. I asked about it and was told that it was their last bastion. WTF! Who ever said you get a bastion inside my bastion. Smoke in your house. Smoke in your car. Smoke when you're walking down the course. But don't light up in my face.

I was going to rant aplenty on cigars but I could never say it better than George Carlin.

More Microsoft, this time with Yahoo

After Microsoft's latest Vista failings around SP1 (it was supposed to release in 2007), I started thinking a little more about their interest in acquiring Yahoo.

Microsoft has a history of being late to new ideas, usually having to ridicule them a good bit before having a go at it themselves. The internet was one of those things and ad-based revenue with searches was another. Microsoft, rather than attack the market directly, first had to develop or acquire their own tools in order to build the infrastructure necessary to compete.

Basically, we had Google and Yahoo using open-source products, tools and methodologies and Microsoft with their proprietary stack hoping to force their products as de-facto standards. Unfortunately, it's rather difficult to create a de-facto standard with only 9% of the market. One study puts the search engine market share at:

Google - 68.6%, Yahoo - 16.7% and MSN at 8.7%

Even if Microsoft were to acquire Yahoo, their combined market share would still be significantly less than half that of Google's, though it would pretty much triple their current share.

The problem, as I see it, is that Microsoft failed using their own proprietary products and has basically surrendered and said that they can only succeed in this market by acquiring a company that built their infrastructure on open-source technologies. But wait, you say, it's not what it was built with but how it was deployed? No, no, no. The proprietary nature of Microsoft's products prevented them from establishing the very relationships that Google and Yahoo have created.

Google is the most successful and the most open. Google has built a platform upon which others can create their own solutions. has become more of a de-facto standard for web-based mapping applications than anything that Microsoft has created because anyone can interface with it and it works on any platform. It is the very attitude of closed vs. open that has enabled Google and Yahoo to be tremendously successful and Microsoft's to continually fail.

My bigger concern, though, isn't that Microsoft might actually acquire Yahoo. Instead, I'm concerned that Microsoft's mere interest in Yahoo portends that the advertising-web-search business model is done with. Microsoft's interest in Yahoo combined with their habitual lateness to new business models may be an indicator that the model is ready to change. Could this be analogous to wanting to acquire Ford's Model-T production line just as the new 1968 Corvettes are about to come out?

Microsoft's continually picking the wrong side combined with their interest in Yahoo has me on the lookout for the next big thing. For one thing, I'm sure, it won't be coming from Microsoft's "innovation" engine.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Supply, Demand and Subsidies

Imagine for a moment that you produce a product. Your product is not only popular, some would even consider it necessary. There is no practical regulation on what you charge for your product. Now, imagine that the popularity/necessity of your product convinces politicians that they should make it easier for people to buy your product through subsidies. Yet, there are still no regulations on what you charge. Would you raise your prices?

This is simple economics. A presidential candidate promises that the government will provide everyone who wants to buy your product a $4,000 subsidy every year in order to make it easier to purchase your product. Would you raise your prices?

After all, there's more money available to buy your product. In fact, there are billions of dollars in subsidies made available in taxpayer supplied grants, cheap loans and other methods to make it easier to buy your product. Oh, by the way, you don't have to pay taxes on what you bring in. Would you raise your prices?

Simple economics tell us that if there is more money available to buy a specific product then the price for that product will rise if there is no pricing regulation.

Welcome to the world of higher education in the United States. The producers (the universities) are free to set whatever price they want. As costs go higher, politicians fall all over themselves to throw more money to the consumer to make it easier to buy the product. How can anyone be surprised that the price of the product continues to rise?

Now the worst of it. Many of the private institutions have billions of dollars in cash and are earning tremendous sums of tax-free money on their cash. Yet, with all the cash the private universities have, you, the taxpayer, continue to subsidize other people so they can go to those schools. These schools continue to raise their prices because of all the subsidies that you, the taxpayer, continue to lavish upon them.

Will this change? Can this change? Perhaps it has started to change. Stanford's endowment grew last year by 22% to $17.1 billion. Stanford is now dropping tuition charges for students who come from families earning less than $100,000 per year.

Stanford deserves a round of applause for this first move.

The institution of higher-learning in this country, however, deserves continued, increasing pressure regarding their pricing as long as taxpayers subsidize their products. Personally, I think the universities should charge whatever they want for tuition. But I also think I shouldn't have to subsidize their consumers so they can afford whatever outrageous price the universities choose.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Dave's Product Reviews

I've been bored lately. There's really not a lot going on in the software world at the moment. We see the occasional acquisition but we seem to be in more of a stage of fine evolution rather than gross level revolution. So I've had a chance to play with some stuff and I thought I'd share my findings.

I have a fairly new computer (well, new for me, it's about a year old) that came with Vista somethingorother pre-installed. I say somethingorother because Vista has so many different versions that I can no longer keep track. This is one of many computers at my house running lots of different OS's - Mac, Linux, Windows/XP. All doing their own things. The Vista machine, however, is really one of a kind. It appears that many of the operations that I need to perform I need to confirm many, many times. After clicking on all of the "are you sure" buttons the screen goes black, everything hesitates and a final confirmation comes up asking me if I'm "really, really sure". Apparently, Vista's new security method is to ask as many times as possible before doing something dangerous. There are, of course, exceptions. The other day Microsoft's One-Care asked if I wanted it to clean up some un-needed startup programs. Knowing the number of confirmation levels I would go through I said yes, expecting it to show me the list of startup programs. Instead, it blithely deleted One-Care as a startup program with no further warning. Everyone's read about Vista everywhere else but I thought I would rate it anyway as Spectacularly Crappy.

The next product on my list is my Microsoft XBox 360. Besides the fact that it heats my bedroom to uncomfortable levels, it's extremely noisy and prone to repeatedly needing to be restarted. I also have a Sony PS3 which is very quiet and hasn't yet needed a restart. Again, Microsoft's products come in at the Spectacularly Crappy level.

Years ago I had two Unix servers in my office to conduct some testing for NIST related to the SQL standard. One of the vendors came in to ask if I had any feedback on their server. I told them they could do a lot to reduce the noise level as it sounded much like a hovercraft about to take off. I shut it down so they could hear the sound level of the other machine as a means of comparison. Once there machine was shut down they asked me to start up the other so they could hear the difference and they were quite disappointed when I told them it was already running. This is what that XBox 360 is like - a frikkin' hovercraft about to take off. My wife can hear the fans down the hall and talks about how peaceful it seems when I finally shut it off.

I mention the comparison because I was once asked by stock analysts my thoughts on Microsoft stock. I told them that I didn't see a strong future for Microsoft for back-end IT operations (I still don't) but that if they were bullish on Microsoft because of the consumer market then I couldn't provide a strong reason to disagree.

Today I'm sure Microsoft is incapable of doing anything innovative and I suspect that they really can't do anything competent either. From failures to force their products as standards, to XBox 360 to Vista to HD-DVD they keep coming up with the same level of product review from across their markets: Spectacularly Crappy. Have they no shame? How embarrassing it must be to be involved with any of these products or the company that produces them.

When I grew frustrated with both Vista and XBox I starting watching TV. Lo and behold there are now a series of Ford cars that have Sync powered by Microsoft to do things like listen to music or make telephone calls. WTF. My wife listens to me cuss out Microsoft's products almost every day; there's no way she would ever let me drive down the road attempting to get a car to play my music instead of hers. I can see it now, cruising down the road and saying, "Play Johnny Cash" and all of a sudden having Yanni come up. I'd probably just drive off a bridge.

Why would anyone want to take the frustration they experience in front of a Windows PC or an XBox 360 and transplant it inside of their car.

The problem is that Microsoft doesn't appear to see it. Each issue is isolated and completely unrelated. The reality is that all of these issues are evidence of a company out of touch with the market and with themselves.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Has the NFL gone insane?

There's a bunch of news about how the National Football League is prohibiting churches from allowing people to gather to watch the super bowl if the display for the set is greater than 55" diagonally. I first heard about it in a Washington Post article that was picked up on Slashdot.

The law in question is the U.S. Copyright law and it does state that an establishment may not display copyrighted works on an audiovisual device with a diagonal measurement greater than 55 inches. The code even states how many such devices (1) may be in a single room and how many total (4) may be in the establishment.

Of course, this is a very fascinating story that make's for fun reading and creates a certain amount of disgust within me related to the state of intellectual property laws in this country.

I'm not sure what the fuss is about though. The U.S. Copyright law also defines an establishment as "...a store, shop, or any similar place of business open to the general public for the primary purpose of selling goods or services...". The last I checked churches don't have the primary purpose of selling goods or services.

I don't think the NFL would ever sue a church for showing the super bowl on a screen larger than 55 inches - there couldn't be anything much dumber than that. On the other hand I'm getting pretty sick and tired of intellectual property "owners" attempting to impose more restrictions than already exist. The concept of me being some type of NFL licensee as a result of watching a game on my T.V. is grossly ridiculous. The intellectual property elite are attempting to create an ownership environment which simply doesn't exist. They seem to think that if they say something often enough then it will become truth. We all need to shout back that they're full of it.

This is this weekend's biggest WTF.

A Family That Understands

This is one of the christmas presents my daughter gave me this past year. Now, is this a family that understands me, or what? That thing in the background is, of course, Sammy.