Saturday, September 27, 2008

Using A Seatbelt

I drive around quite a bit. Between my various jobs, I probably rack up about fifty thousand kilometers a year. Not nearly as much as a full-time truck driver, but it adds up. In my lifetime, I’ve definitely driven more than a million kilometers. And I’m quite proud to say that until yesterday, my driver’s abstract was completely clean and free of tickets or violations or accidents.

I’m a pretty big supporter of the use of seatbelts. The simple fact is that they frequently save peoples’ lives in major accidents, and they also prevent a lot of injuries in minor fender-benders. In my job supervising the camp of tree planters, I have about ten to twelve trucks on the road any given summer, driven predominantly by young males in their early twenties, driving large pickups on dangerous dirt logging roads. It’s a recipe for disaster. I try to force all of my employees to wear belts all the time, because the odds are that some of these vehicles will get into accidents. Over the years, my camp has completely written off about nine trucks. Several of my employees have been killed, although our track record has improved greatly in the past ten years or so. But even this summer, we had a roll-over for the first time in over a decade. Luckily, all five occupants of the truck were wearing their seatbelts, and all five got out without a scratch.

Anyway, last March, I got a ticket in Sackville for not wearing a seatbelt. It was a strange set of circumstances (I’ll explain in a minute). Since I was working out west all summer, my court date wasn’t until yesterday. I wanted to fight the ticket. When I got to court, the crown prosecutor suggested that I plead guilty. He said that if I did that, I could probably get out of the fine completely although the ticket would still go on my driving record. He also said that if I did contest the charge, the judge would have to impose a minimum fine but could alternatively charge a higher fine at her discretion (seems reasonable, as it probably would cover court costs). But I’m stubborn, so I decided that the principles were more important than the money.

I got up on the stand and told the judge what happened. I had been driving at the time (past the RCMP station, ironically) and stopped at the stop sign at the end of that street. My cell phone started to ring, while it was in my jeans pocket. I had my belt on. I looked in the rear-view mirror and there was nobody behind me, and since the car was stopped, I figured that I could answer it. I took my seatbelt off (partly) so I could dig my phone out of my pocket. As I was about to answer it, an RCMP cruiser drove past me around the corner. I had heard something in the news about it being illegal to use a cell in a vehicle, or that such a law was on the verge of going into effect, so I got worried and put the phone back down so the officer wouldn’t see me and give me a ticket. She drove by, then I put my belt back on, then started driving again.

A minute later, I got pulled over. The officer had turned around and chased me down (well, it was only about a block and a half away). I figured that I was either in trouble for the cell phone or maybe my registration stickers were expired. I was a bit startled when she said that she was pulling me over for the seatbelt, but of course, it immediately made sense. So off to court I went.

The judge found me guilty, despite the circumstances. I wasn’t really surprised, but as I said, I had to fight it on the principle of the matter. The judge reminded me that she could have fined me a higher amount, but graciously kept it at the minimum. She appeared to be a bit sorry about the matter. The RCMP officer also appeared to be a bit embarrassed, and had been extremely polite when she was on the stand. I didn’t really care about the fine ($172.50) but I was frustrated that I still got the points assigned against my license.

So much for the clean driving record. I now feel like a criminal. I guess that the moral of the story is that you should always wear your selt belt. And of course, don’t answer your cell phones while you’re in a vehicle.

PS: If any of the employees from the Town of Sackville happen to read this, please register my disapproval of the large tree at the west end of Union Street, which makes it almost impossible for drivers to see traffic coming from the north end of Salem. Somebody should cut that tree down. If I had been able to see the traffic coming more than twenty feet away, I probably would not have gotten this ticket. Half of the people in town hate that tree because it blocks the view of the road.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Lehman Brothers in Bankruptcy Protection

A year ago, there was an unobtrusive item in the news about the Bear Sterns mortgage hedge fund crisis. I wrote about that when it first happened, because although it didn't make the major news at the time, it was something that conspiracy theorists quickly jumped upon as the "straw that would break the camel's back" and finally expose the underlying weaknesses of the US financial system. Little did I know just how right they were.

Last week, the US government intervened to prop up Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, the two mortgage giants who hold almost half of the mortgages in the United States. Quite simply, the government could not allow them to fail.

A few hours ago, Lehman Brothers filed for Bankruptcy Protection in New York. The global financial implications of this are staggering. Lehman is a giant - a firm that is more than 150 years old, and an integral part of Wall Street. The company recently listed its assets as being worth almost $700 billion dollars. Yes, that's billion with a Big B, not million. Compare that to the assets of something like MicroSoft - about $72 billion. Yes, they are different types of companies and assets, but you get the picture. Lehman is/was Big League.

Then, shortly after that bombshell, another press release just notified the world that the Bank of America, after failing to come to a deal to rescue Lehman (as many had hoped), is going to buy Merrill Lynch (another Goliath) in a deal valued at $50 billion. There is little doubt that today, September 15th, is going to be one of the most gut-wrenching days in history for global financiers.

On a positive note, the Federal Reserve is taking extraordinary measures to try to calm markets. They have been wary of intervening too directly, after they got involved in the Bear Sterns mess and were highly criticized. But they are taking behind-the-scenes steps to steady the markets, through changes in debt collateralization rules. But even so, I doubt that they can have as much of an impact as they would like. Today is a holiday in Asia, so the Asian markets are closed, but Europe opens shortly, and when Wall Street opens, some financial analysts are predicting a bloodbath. A lot of people might shrug and say, "Who cares?" but the bottom line is that the fallout from this weekend's events will send ripples through the global economy for months and possibly years to come.

And don't think that this is the end of it. More American banks are going to fail in the next year. The economy will get worse. With the run-up to the American presidential election in November, chances are that the economy will enjoy a temporary two-month "grace period" where the shocks aren't as bad as they could have been, but 2009 looks like it could be a very ugly year. We'll see large jumps in businesses scaling back operations or folding, large jumps in unemployment, and rapidly rising food and gas prices at the same time to deal a double-blow to everyone. The worsening American debt crisis is reaching a global tipping point. It's not just mortgages and energy, it's the entire financial system that is not-so-slowly collapsing. As I've said before, America is an empire in steep decline. As Ernest Hemingway said in 1932, ""The first panacea for a mismanaged nation is inflation of the currency; the second is war. Both bring a temporary prosperity; both bring a permanent ruin. But both are the refuge of political and economic opportunists."

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but brace yourselves ...

ETA, 15 hours later: The Dow Jones dropped over 500 points today (biggest point drop since 9/11), the TSX dropped over 500 points today, and other markets around the world are also reeling. In the US, my bet is that Washington Mutual will be the next giant to fall.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Google Turns Ten

Ten years ago today, Google was incorporated as a company. At the time, it didn't appear to have much for assets: a $100,000 bank account, four computers, and the ingenuity of its founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. However, since then, Google has gone into the history books as being the fastest growing company in history (taking in $20 billion in revenue this year).

Google's search engine has always been the core product for the company, but as any computer geeks know, Google has expanded into many other niches – Adwords/Adsense advertising, GIS offerings with Google Earth and Google Maps, the purchase of YouTube, free Gmail email accounts for the world, and hundreds of other examples. In fact, Google has become so ubiquitous that it has become the de facto standard for people trying to check if their internet connections are working. If Google doesn't come up, the internet must not be working.

However, it isn't what Google has accomplished in the past that is important, it's what it will accomplish in the future. Management at Google have some pretty lofty goals:
- Digitizing copies of all of the world's books.
- Further improvements to its search engine, so it can fully understand questions in "plain human language."
- Providing software to businesses over the internet.
- Fully extending their data platforms and applications to cell and other mobile devices.
- Leading the change from fossil fuel reliance to alternative energy sources (this one seems to be a bit of a tangent, but do some research, and you'll be surprised at some of the investments that Google has made).

The company is not without a sense of humour. For its IPO several years ago, it picked a seemingly random number to value as its initial float - $2,718,281,828. Wall Street scratched their heads. Geeks everywhere instantly recognized this number as "e" – the complex number that represents the natural logarithm. And if you go to the Google Pranks page on Wikipedia, you can read about a lot of their other practical jokes and April Fool's Day pranks. One of my favourites was the fake "Google Romance" application in 2006. Their splash screen introduction was a classic: "Dating is a search problem. Solve it with Google Romance." And of course, another classic joke happened on April Fool's day this year, when Google rickrolled the world.

Happy Birthday, Google! And happy birthday to my nephew, Evan, who also turned ten on Friday.

Friday, September 05, 2008

The OhMiBod Vibrator

Watching the growth of the iPod over the past several years, it’s been amazing to see just how pervasively it has entered and affected many peoples’ lives. And speaking of “pervasive entry,” I’m going to introduce a neat little iPod accessory today that some girls have already heard of: the OhMiBod.

The OhMiBod is a vibrator that hooks up to your iPod. Turn on the music, and the unit pulses to the beat. What could be more simple? For the girls who enjoy music, and who also enjoy sex, this is definitely a winning combination.

I meant to write about this several months ago, but I got distracted at the time. However, the well-known vocalist Marcie emailed me last night about something else, and it reminded me of a certain OhMiBod commercial, since she did the vocals for the music in the commercial:

YouTube link:

If you want to buy the track that accompanies the commercial above, here’s what to search for:

Tyler Michaud feat Marcie – Dirty Girl (System Recordings, 2007).

Beatport has a package of five different remixes available – search for Tyler Michaud and then go through his library.

I’ve gotten some feedback from female friends of mine who use the OhMiBod. It’s been suggested that albums like Madonna and Nine Inch Nails are good. Music that has some variation is more interesting, so house or trance music with a straight four-four beat wouldn’t be that great. But some heavy drum ‘n’ bass music might be very stimulating. The volume of the iPod controls the strength of the vibrations. Music that has been heavily compressed with a hard limiter would have an almost constant output, so tracks that have been compressed that way wouldn’t be that great. Of course, if you aren’t intimately familiar with music production, you’d have no idea what that means, and it would be tricky to sum it up here so I won’t bother. I’ll just say that sticking to classic rock would provide much more variation than heavily over-produced dance music. As far as the product itself, one of my friends said, "It’s obviously very much a novelty vibrator, and does not really compare to the more 'complex' ones such as the Jack Rabbit, but in comparison to other vibrators, the power is great. The different pulses are very interesting - teasing perhaps."

And if this isn’t enough to intrigue you, check out the company’s new vibrator that attaches to your cell phone. It’s designed to add a whole new dimension to phone sex …

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The "Chrome" Browser

Today, Google made another bold move in the global computing scene. Google now has a free internet browser available to the public, called “Chrome.”

Want to download it?

I was kind of curious to see how they set up the browser, although I didn’t really expect that I’d want to use it in the long term. Most of the time, I use MicroSoft’s Internet Explorer. After all, I work on several different computers in various locations, and IE is pretty common for any Windows-based machine. And it gets the job done in most cases. I also use FireFox occasionally, but that’s more for when I’m downloading larger files (because of Mozilla’s download manager). I don’t really like the bookmarks layout of FireFox, compared to IE’s favorites table, otherwise I would probably use it more often than IE.

But so far, my initial impressions of Chrome have been pretty positive. First of all, downloading and installing Chrome is fast – the whole process took well under two minutes on my first machine.

Chrome also has a very simple and clean interface. There are far less visible options than in Internet Explorer or FireFox. I think that quite a few options are fairly irrelevant anyway, so keeping the screen lean and clean is probably a positive move. And of course, think of Google’s search page – a simple search box on almost empty white space. Nobody has had better success with that approach. Keep it simple.

Under the hood, Chrome’s big advantage (especially for intense users) is that it loads pages many times faster than IE or FireFox. And for someone who surfs the web constantly, that is going to make a big difference. In fact, it will make a big difference for a lot of people from business users to casual surfers, not just for the internet junkies. Google (and other companies) have done a lot of studies and it has become very clear that when pages load faster, even if it is only by milliseconds, even casual users who can’t even really notice the difference will browse more frequently. And, lest you think that Google has become completely altruistic, remember that increased browsing often leads to increased placement of Google Adwords, since they have practically taken over the internet. Google is, after all, a $150 billion company – they do make money with some of their activities. The importance of fast page-loading also applies to searching, not just browsing, so it’s no surprise that Google would put such an emphasis on making sure that its browser is blindingly fast. Oh, and by the way, for the tech-savvy readers out there, Chrome is very JavaScript friendly, just like FireFox.

Perhaps Chrome’s biggest attraction is how Google has seamlessly integrated both the URL (address) bar and the search bar into a single search box called the “omni box.” I won’t lie – I really disliked the Google Toolbar, but mostly because it took away a line of screen space when I was browsing. So I’ve always avoided that add-on like the plague. However, the whole idea of being able to do your web searches without having to go to a bookmarked page (or having to type Google into the address bar) is quite appealing. And after playing around with the functionality of the omni bar for a few minutes, it certainly seems to work.

Of course, no matter how good or bad the browser turns out in the end, there will be mixed feelings about it. Some people will use it even if it isn’t that good, because they appreciate what Google is doing to make end-users’ computing experiences better. Some people will not use Chrome no matter how good it is, because “Google is evil and taking over the world.” Chrome will probably never take over the dominant market position from MicroSoft’s Internet Explorer, but I have no doubt that it will gain a devoted following pretty quickly.

So in short, I haven’t fully road-tested Chrome out yet, but my first impressions were pretty positive. Lean, clean, fast, and robust. Give it a shot …