The Unrepentant Individual

...just hanging around until Dec 21, 2012

August 23, 2006

Air Traffic Control

Last night, my wife’s crazy friend left to head back to CA (finally!!). Of course, she was scared out of her mind about flying, made doubly so by the bad weather we had in Atlanta. Always one to throw fuel on a fire, I had to correct her (and my wife) when they asserted that commercial planes had RADAR to detect the other planes in the air.

It made me think, how many things of this nature are people completely clueless about? I’m not a pilot, but have spent a fair amount of thought on planes, as my brother is a Marine pilot (helo and fixed-wing), and I was in a small Piper with my close college friend at the controls when we stopped* a plane in mid-air. So I know quite a bit, at least for a layman, about how aircraft fly, some of the differences in private and commercial aviation, and how this whole system fits together.

But how many people think that a pilot of a 747 is the one making sure they don’t run into other aircraft, with onboard RADAR as their guide? I’d say it’s quite a bit, largely due to movies like Top Gun, where pilots do have onboard tracking and targeting RADAR. Yet nothing of the sort is in common use. Our Air Traffic Control system is controlled by people in office-type buildings staring at computer screens and talking to pilots on radios. Thousands of airplanes in the air at a time, traveling at hundreds of miles per hour through crowded airspace; it’s a wonder that we don’t have more collisions. We’ve got a very complex system of RADAR, onboard transponders, banks of outdated computers, and a heck of a lot of human interaction, all making sure that people get where they’re going with an absolutely miniscule chance of trouble.

How does it work? Well, for that, I’ll point you over to To put it simply, before a commercial plane takes off, the pilot files a flightplan with the FAA, which helps everyone along the route to be warned that they’ll be expected to be certain places at certain times. The country’s airspace is divided into zones, and as a plane travels through each zone, it is routed by controllers on the ground. This is accomplished by RADAR that identifies that planes are in the air, where they are, their speed and heading, and by a transponder onboard the aircraft, which tells the controller which plane is which**. The controllers take care of routing planes around weather, congested airspace, and turbulence, for every plane within their geographical zone. As the plane traverses from one zone to another, it is passed to the next zone’s controllers.

It’s an insanely complex system. It’s built on a network of hundreds and thousands of people working in concert with technology to keep big multi-ton cylinders riding Bernoulli, filled with hundreds of passengers, from becoming a tragedy. And it works.

In fact, it’s one of those systems that is a credit to governmental action. Of course, I think if the private sector was left in control, it’s not something that wouldn’t be accomplished. And, of course, if the private sector was in control, the system would likely be much more modern and capable of handling more traffic than the FAA system. But the FAA administers the air traffic control system much better than the government administers the US Postal Service or the IRS. Funny how thousands of passengers’ lives create a bit more incentive than customers angry over lost mail. It doesn’t need to be done by government, but at least government does it relatively flawlessly.

Even more, it’s a system that reminds people how complex our world is and how well it works. I can’t remember the last aviation “close call” I heard about on the news. It’s been several years (if not decades) since the last mid-air collision I’ve heard of. Our air traffic control system, fighting old technology and barely designed to keep up with the current load, manages to work, because those thousands of people do their job every day. Thousands of people working to make sure their own small piece is done right (for the controllers, due to desire not to be fired, for the pilots, desire not to die) ensure that passengers make it to their destination and that people afraid to fly are the irrational exception, not the rule.

Reminds me a bit of a market, the open-source community, or a large corporation. Everyone in our nation doing a small thing, often for our own self-interest, and as a result we have a society that accomplishes great things. The Air Traffic Control system doesn’t have one central computer or central planner determining who flies when. It’s a bottom-up system, with pilots eager to be granted permission to fly 3,000 ft higher to avoid turbulence for passengers, controllers trying to fit a puzzle full of fast-moving aircraft into limited space, and yet it’s a tremendous success. Most government (in)action is defined by failure, and yet in this incredibly complex system, failure is so rare as to be a horrible tragedy when it strikes. Pretty wild, if you ask me.

Read more of this entry… »

Posted By: Brad Warbiany @ 6:37 pm || Permalink || Comments (6) || Trackback URL || Categories: Science, Technology

July 21, 2006

Airplane Trivia

I flew with the wife today to CA, in order to be at her sister’s engagement party. We flew Delta, but they had one of Song’s airplanes, which had been fully fitted and modernized a few years ago.

Part of the modernization was little touchscreen LCD’s that you can use to watch live TV, movies, etc, at every seat. Included in this is games. They have a trivia game that you can play against all the other passengers on the flight.

I got on the flight this morning intending to read some more of Restoring the Lost Constitution, by Randy Barnett. Instead, I got sucked into trivia. It’s somewhat fun, because you put in your name, and you can actually see the seat number and name of who you’re playing against. After battering the other passengers around with my great big brain (to the tune of winning about 6 of the 8 rounds, against 6-8 players each round), I was starting to think they might be tired of being abused and losing, so went back to reading.

About 25-30 minutes later, someone walks up to my seat and asks me “Are you Brad?” A bit surprised, I acknowledged, and he asked “Can you come back to trivia?” I said okay…

We were getting towards the end of the flight, so we only had one more round. I wonder if they were gunning for me? Maybe they decided to get their entire row to collaborate to beat me or something? If so, that’s too bad, because I beat the pants off everyone again :-D

Ahh, good times. I love winning.

Posted By: Brad Warbiany @ 6:41 pm || Permalink || Comments Off || Trackback URL || Categories: Personal Life, Technology

July 16, 2006

Firefox Gaining Ground

This story, courtesy of Doug:

According to the Amsterdam analytics firm onestat The FireFox browser has jumped from a global market share of 8.7% to a whopping 13% since April 2005.

The national usage of firefox make some interesting reading, too, with FireFox making up 16% in the USA, 24% in Australia and a huge 39% in Germany.

Doug asked about the upcoming IE7. Since I recently reviewed it, I’ve since uninstalled it. It conflicted with MS Outlook, causing any email I read to show up as plain text, not HTML. This made reading work email considerably more annoying, and since I used Firefox for all of my web browsing, wasn’t worth it.

My quick analysis puts IE7, at best, about 90-95% of where Firefox 1.5 is in terms of functionality. And considering Firefox 2.0 is on it’s way, I think Firefox will expand their lead.

Below The Beltway linked with Firefox Use On The Rise
Posted By: Brad Warbiany @ 6:52 pm || Permalink || Comments (1) || Trackback URL || Categories: Internet, News, Technology

July 1, 2006

Sue Different

France Lawmakers Approve ‘ITunes Law’

French lawmakers gave final approval Friday to government-backed legislation that could force Apple Computer Inc. to make its iPod music player and iTunes online store compatible with rivals’ offerings.

Both the Senate and the National Assembly, France’s lower house, voted in favor of the copyright bill, which some analysts believe may cause Apple to close iTunes France and pull its market-leading player from the country’s shelves.

Currently, songs bought on iTunes can be played only on iPods, and an iPod can’t play downloads from other stores with similar premium content from major artists _ like Napster and Sony Corp.’s Connect.

Uh oh… The American left isn’t going to like this. If France tries to break up Apple, who’s going to take on the Evil Empire?

Posted By: Brad Warbiany @ 1:33 pm || Permalink || Comments Off || Trackback URL || Categories: Internet, News, Technology

June 25, 2006

Coinstar Makes Life Better

I’m a Coinstar user. I realize they take about 9% of every dollar they count for me, but I’m lazier than I am cheap, and I’d rather take that deal than roll my own change…

But now they’ve pulled out that 9% fee, as long as you take your money as a gift card to one of the below retailers:
Virgin Digital
Pier 1
Linen’s & Things
Hollywood Video

So this makes me very happy. This gives me the full value of my change, which appeals to my cheap side. And it forces me to buy things for myself, which satiates my consumer need. All this without giving up my laziness!

Thank you, Coinstar!

Posted By: Brad Warbiany @ 4:47 pm || Permalink || Comments (1) || Trackback URL || Categories: Economics, News, Personal Life, Technology

June 24, 2006

It’s About Time

NASA hopes to spur commercial space growth

It took help from the U.S. Postal Service to jump-start the nation’s commercial aviation industry in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin thinks a little push from government could do the same for the commercial space industry in the next several years.

The U.S. space agency is sponsoring a competition in which winning companies will get $500 million in seed money to develop space vehicles that NASA will never design, build or own. Like a U-Haul truck rental, NASA instead will merely lease them on a per-trip basis for sending cargo and eventually crew to the international space station.

The arrangement is unprecedented in the nearly 50-year history of the space agency, which traditionally oversees the development and construction of its own space vehicles instead of purchasing trips from private companies. NASA will pay out the money incrementally for each milestone achieved in the vehicles’ development. After that, the company or companies who win the competition will have to finance the vehicles on their own.

“I consider it to be a big gamble,” Griffin told a U.S. Senate committee recently. “It is well past time for NASA to do everything it can to stimulate commercial space transportation … and I’m trying to do that.”

I’d like to say that the commercial space industry will manage to flourish without this, but every little bit helps. At least we have someone who understands that if you want to get something done, you work with the private sector, not try to replace them.

Posted By: Brad Warbiany @ 10:11 pm || Permalink || Comments (1) || Trackback URL || Categories: News, Science, Technology

June 12, 2006

Net Neutrality

I haven’t posted much on the whole Net Neutrality debate. As most of you know, I take a very critical look at anything that will expand government’s regulatory powers, especially into an area like the internet. Even if Net Neutrality will be ineffective and a miniscule bit of regulation, I know what happens when you let the camel’s nose in the tent!

I’ve stayed out of the debate, though, because it’s really rather confusing. And given that I’m a lot more internet-savvy than the average American, something that confuses me this much is indecipherable to others. What I didn’t understand was the hysteria generated by the pro-regulation crowd, to regulate something that seemed to be functioning well, and the lack of substance in their website. They do very little to tell you what their regulations are, or how they’ll work, yet you’re supposed to believe they solve a problem that doesn’t even exist. That’s not a red flag, that’s a truckload of red flags.

But I was struck by something. I checked out the Net Neutrality Scare Ticker, where there’s been a running tabulation of how long it’s been since the Net Neutrality movement began, without the internet implosion its supporters have predicted (it’s already been 3 1/2 years). They linked to this story talking about Microsoft joining the movement, and then this story (PDF), talking about Microsoft’s exit from the Net Neutrality movement a year after it began:

It all started about a year ago when a fuzzy group named the Coalition of Broadband Users and Innovators (CBUI) was formed., Disney, eBay, Yahoo! and many Internet and technology associations threw their lot in with Microsoft to fight for the right of free passage online, otherwise known as network neutrality.

The CBUI argues that the federal government should regulate the broadband industry, effectively creating rules that would prohibit broadband providers from forming content and service partnerships that, theoretically, would harm users and competitors.

There’s one fact I have always been able to count on: when companies are lobbying for their own industry to be regulated, they’re doing so for their own sake, not the consumer. I think in this case, it may be a fight between them and the telcos, rather than them and their own competitors, but you can be sure it’s for their sake, not ours. Companies don’t spend millions of dollars on lobbyists to protect consumers, they do it to protect themselves.

Posted By: Brad Warbiany @ 9:22 am || Permalink || Comments (3) || Trackback URL || Categories: Economics, Internet, Libertarianism, Politics, Technology

June 8, 2006

When Criminals Meet the Internet Swarm

In the matter of 3 days or so, one stolen Sidekick (a cell phone/PDA/camera/etc) has generated some absolutely insane traffic.

In New York, a Sidekick accidentally left in a taxi was retrieved by its next inhabitants. Despite numerous attempts to alert the new holders of the Sidekick, including offering a reward, they decided it would be better to use it as if it were there own. Big mistake. They took photos which have let the original owners know who they are, have logged on to AOL and other incriminating behavior, and now there’s a web site devoted to the whole fiasco:

Check it out. Sometimes, it makes me think that a smart person would be able to be a pretty devious criminal, yet somehow countless morons are drawn to that profession.

Posted By: Brad Warbiany @ 11:15 pm || Permalink || Comments (1) || Trackback URL || Categories: Internet, Technology

June 7, 2006

Book Review: An Army of Davids

Ahh, the advantages of plane travel: I finally get a chance to read in peace!

I just finished reading Glenn Reynolds’ (of Instapundit fame) An Army of Davids. The tagline, “How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government, and Other Goliaths”, pretty well sums it up. Reynolds believes we’re at a turning point in world history, where technology has leveled the playing field, chopping down the natural advantages that the “Goliaths” have had for many years. If anything, Reynolds is a firm believer in the Adam Smith “invisible hand” theory, where millions of distributed individuals, working at what they love, bring about monumental changes. It’s not government that does so, unless they find ways to harness the power of those individuals.

If you’ve read me for any period of time, you will see that I’ve had some influence by the ideas Reynolds brings up this book, although since I rarely read, he hasn’t been a primary source for me. I’ve posted here, here, and here about how I believe the current shift has moved away from government to the individual. I think I had found my way, through the blogosphere and my own introspection, to agreement with Reynolds on a number of subjects presented in the book.

As for the book itself? Well, how can I dislike a book whose opening line in the introduction is “About fifteen years ago, I started brewing my own beer”?! It was a very well-written look at the ways that individuals are gaining power in the world, with only a short look at blogs and the media. Moving along, he touches on subjects like the growing ability of workers to telecommute and the rise in entrepreneurial opportunity, the change in music recording and distribution brought about by the internet, and the ability of humans (both within the blogosphere and in the meatspace world) to act as a pack of individuals with a common goal– and not a herd being led. He goes on to point out how our media has grown and will continue to grow with the revival of the citizen-journalist, and how “horizontal information”, as he calls the greater inconnectedness of information in today’s society, changes the learning curve of humanity itself. Throughout this first section of the book, he gives real-world examples of trends he’s spotted in today’s world, and where and how he sees them impacting humanity in the short and long term.

When you get into the second section, he moves farther into true futurism, such as nanotechnology, life-extension, the colonization of space, and the Singularity. Through these chapters, his greatest theme, as far as I can see, is a simple one: “Hey folks, this stuff is coming. We’d better get used to the idea, so we can plan for it.” Reynolds doesn’t ask whether these advances will occur, he asks what we’re doing to help ensure that we know how to handle life when they arrive. In this section (with the exception of the space colonization chapter), he does tend to stray from his “Army of Davids” theme, though. He occasionally comes back, with discussions of how technologies such as nanotechnology might empower individuals, but it ceases to be a central theme here. Either way, it’s still an interesting read through these chapters, especially if you’re not already well versed in these areas.

The central theme of the book, of course, is truly a heartening idea to individuals. For a very long time, the dominating change in our world has been towards greater and greater centralization of power, whether it be in corporations, media, or government. Technology, however, has now reversed that trend. We are seeing every one of those areas returning power (though reluctantly) to individuals, as individuals find their voice to demand it. From the effects of blogs on media (i.e. Dan Rather) and politics (i.e. Porkbusters), to the effect of open-source on technology (i.e. Microsoft), loosely-connected groups of individuals, working for their own personal reasons, have acheived incredible accomplishments. He points out the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, when– in the absence of government control– individual citizens simply organized on the fly and took care of what needed to be done. As the world becomes more complex, central control becomes less useful. With the march of technology, though, it becomes unnecessary even more quickly.

Reynolds uses the example of the creation of the internet as a global information warehouse, pointing out the naysayers– had they been asked 10 years ago if our current access to information was even possible– would never have thought it could occur. The argument of “it would take every librarian in the world decades to input all that information” doesn’t make sense when you have millions of individuals willing to do it for them, for free, simply because they find it interesting. Curiously, Reynolds doesn’t use the example of the open-source movement, which has the same nay-sayers. The open-source nay-sayers think that programmers would never work tirelessly to bring about major innovations in the software world. Yet exists, and provides a usable alternative to Microsoft. Did someone organize huge stockpiles of capital to make it happen? Nope, a million dedicated people who wanted to see it happen simply did it.

Overall, I consider it to be a great read. However, for those of you who are already evangelizing for the “Army of Davids” world, and who consider yourself a “futurist”, there isn’t a whole lot new here. Reynolds does craft it into a very readable and cohesive package, though, so it’s a great read regardless. If the preceding description doesn’t apply to you, though, buy it now! There are a heck of a lot of people who think the world is headed for some big changes, and Reynolds lays out a simple, readable, and entertaining description of what shape he (and I) think it will take.

The world is changing, and changing quickly. If there is truly an “Army of Davids”, consider me a self-ranked Lieutenant. Glenn Reynolds may just be one of our Generals. Thankfully, though, unlike the U.S. Army, the chain of command is nonexistent, and I don’t have to fear the UCMJ. I can go tell Gen. Reynolds to go pound sand if I like, and the best he can do is not link to me. Of course, knowing his sense of humor, he’s more likely to link to me with a derisive “Heh.”, defusing my suggestion of pounding sand pre-emptively. Either way, if Gen. Reynolds ever finds his way through Marietta, I’ll have a bottle of homebrew waiting :-)

As for what convinced me to “serve” in the “Army of Davids”? To that, I can only say the same thing I’d expect to hear from my fellow warriors: I’m doing this to make me happy, and any benefit you receive is ancillary.

Liberty Corner linked with Carnival of Liberty XLIX
Below The Beltway linked with Around The `Sphere
Posted By: Brad Warbiany @ 10:53 pm || Permalink || Comments (3) || Trackback URL || Categories: Blogging, Books, Economics, Internet, Libertarianism, Media, Science, Technology

June 2, 2006

Health is the Issue

Why are we anti-steroids in baseball? Well, Charles Krauthammer thinks we’re all hypocrites to support performance increases like Lasik, while blasting Barry Bonds for being pumped more full of ‘roids than Teddy Kennedy is of Chivas.

Performance enhancement turns out to be disturbing only in the narrow context of competition, most commonly in sports. And the objection is not cheating nature, but cheating competitors. It’s basically a fairness issue.

When everyone has access to technological improvements (graphite tennis rackets, titanium drivers, more tightly wound baseballs) the sport may be transformed, but the playing field remains level. When technology is enhancing the equipment, fans become quickly reconciled to the transformation. (And it can be radical: the transition from bamboo to fiberglass totally changed the pole vault.) But when technology enhances the physiology of the athlete, we tend to recoil.

Interestingly, however, not always. What about Lasik surgery? Tiger Woods had it and said it made his game stronger than ever. I have yet to see a banner at the Masters saying: “Nicklaus did it by squinting.”

Vision enhancement is even more helpful to baseball players trying to follow the flight of a ball approaching at 90 mph. Hitting requires hand-eye coordination. Bonds turns his arms into tree trunks, and boos rain down. Change the physiology of the other part of the equation — the eye — and no one cares.

Why? Because Lasik is legal, common and available to all. Steroids are not.

Krauthammer is impugning us all as using the Appeal to Authority argument. But, at least for me, that’s not what this is about. I’m not worried about technological advancements. I’m not worried about the fact that better knowledge of physiology allows athletes to train better and become stronger naturally than they used to. And I’m not worried about things like Lasik, where baseball players are paying to enhance their vision beyond 20/20, in an effort to be able to better compete. More natural “steroids”, such as creatine, also don’t rankle me.

Why do I accept all those competitive things, but I’m against steroids? Because steroids are dangerous. Lasik is widely regarded as being a safe medical procedure, with no known long-term side effects, and very low risk of damage. Natural “steroids”, such as creatine, likewise appear to have little long-term health benefits, it’s just a way of helping the body convert fuel to muscle. Not so for steroids, though. Steroids have all sorts of unwanted side effects, and are widely considered to be a good way to shorten your lifespan.

I’m not willing to support a sport where we have to tell athletes they need to seriously impact their health by taking dangerous substances to be able to compete. When medical science creates a safe (within relative levels of safety, of course) steroid, I’ve got no issues with it. But until then, I fully support MLB taking every step they can— short of looking to the US Senate— to stop the practice.

Posted By: Brad Warbiany @ 12:37 pm || Permalink || Comments (17) || Trackback URL || Categories: Libertarianism, Media, Politics, Science, Sports, Technology

May 27, 2006

Started Testing IE7

Click Picture for Larger Image

Ever one to look to maximize my browsing experience, I recently downloaded Internet Explorer 7 Beta. I’ve become a dedicated Firefox user, but I’m willing to keep an open mind as to whether the 800-lb gorilla can keep up.

Unfortunately, early testing isn’t very promising. I see some good signs, and see some bad signs as well.

The Good:

First, they finally have tabbed browsing. Frankly, this is one of the premier user-interface complaints about IE6. If you’re not familiar with tabbed browsing, you need to be! It’s a whole new way to access the web, and Microsoft has finally jumped on the bandwagon.

Second, they finally have add-ons. Called “Extensions” in Firefox, they are external applications that users can install to change their browser experience. In Firefox, I use several extensions, as I prefer to customize the browser to be exactly how I like to browse. IE7 beta is new, so there are currently not many add-ons available, but this could be a big plus. Firefox without extensions would be only slightly more competitive than IE, it’s the work of all the extra developers to create these add-ons that make it so versatile.

Third, it appears that they’re doing better to meet agreed-upon web standards in the browser. This is just an early look, though, but this blog used to appear differently in Firefox and IE6. In IE7, they’re much closer to being identical. There still may be some back-end things that are different (I’ll leave that determination to people who know more about the standards), but it is looking better from a user perspective.

The Bad:

First, I mentioned that they have add-ons. At the moment, those add-ons are mostly created by outside companies, and they’re mostly not free. Some of these add-ons are as expensive as $50 or so, for the same thing you can get free in Firefox. As I said above, this may change, but from Microsoft’s previous behavior, I don’t think they’ll offer the same sort of open-source access to individual developers that has made Firefox so great.

Second, the interface is klugey… This could just be a beta thing, but I don’t particularly like it. And at the moment, I don’t see much in the way of “skins” to modify it. Or, it could be that I’ve only played with it for a short time, so there may be some features that I haven’t gotten into yet. But out of the box, it’s quite a bit different than IE6, and not necessarily in a good way. They do say that one of the goals was to create as much browser space as possible, which they’ve done, but again, what they have is no better (and quite a bit worse) than Firefox.

Third, there are no real innovations that I can see here. At this point, it seems like Microsoft is simply following others, and not really doing a great job of it. Of course, that’s been their business strategy for years, so it may be enough to maintain their market position, but it’s certainly not enough to make me switch back. It’s a temporary stop to the bleeding, not a cure.

My conclusion:

Microsoft, in my opinion, was hemorrhaging users to their competition over the last few years. Mozilla is a much stronger product, and has met the unmet needs of users. IE7 will help Microsoft quite a bit to stem the flow. But they haven’t completely caught up. The product, at least in its current form, is still not as good as what Firefox provides, and without high-quality free add-ons, it’s not likely to get much better. The improvements to the product will cut down on the rate at which people leave Microsoft, but I don’t think it’s going to stop it, or help them to win many users back.

Posted By: Brad Warbiany @ 12:12 pm || Permalink || Comments Off || Trackback URL || Categories: Internet, Technology

May 4, 2006

Crash Different

I don’t like Macintosh. Something about a computer that won’t let me format my hard drive bothers me. Granted, I’m not a big Windows fan, but if the devil has 95% market share, sometimes you have to deal.

If I want a computer that will let me do whatever I want (even if it’s stupid and will break it), Linux is the way to go.

Here’s a guy that has learned how the Mac Experience truly works…

Posted By: Brad Warbiany @ 9:55 pm || Permalink || Comments (5) || Trackback URL || Categories: Technology, YouTube

April 25, 2006


Engineers solve problems. In the below clip, for example, you will see the full breadth of human ingenuity at work. This is an engineer and an entrepreneur, working to fill a need in the market.


Posted By: Brad Warbiany @ 8:35 am || Permalink || Comments (1) || Trackback URL || Categories: Humor, Technology, YouTube

April 21, 2006

Look Out, Microsoft

I’ve said, now that I’m getting more and more experienced in Linux, that I don’t believe Linux is quite ready for prime time. It’s not that I think Microsoft is a good product, but for normal end-users, it simply works. Most software vendors and hardware vendors don’t do much to support Linux, on the other hand, because there are so many flavors and issues to be supported that it would take too many resources. Until now.

Linux Distributors Unite on Standard

In a move to make the freely distributed Linux operating system a stronger alternative to Microsoft Corp.’s Windows, a group of major Linux distributors announced Friday they have united on a standard set of components for desktop versions of Linux.

The standard created by the Free Standards Group should make it easier for developers to write applications that will work on Linux versions from different distributors.

Linux has a firm foothold as an operating system for servers — it’s popular for hosting Web sites, for instance — but has only a few percent of the desktop market.

That’s partly because, Linux, created in the early 90s by Finnish programmer Linus Torvalds, is really just the kernel, or core of an operating system. For a Linux computer to perform meaningful tasks, more software needs to be added that does things like presenting a graphical user interface.

Unfortunately, those added software libraries differ among Linux distributors, making it hard to know if an application like a word processor will function on a particular Linux computer.

“One of the big things that’s difficult is consistency, and that’s Window’s biggest strength,” said Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Free Standards Group.

If you buy a Windows program, you know it will run on a Windows computer, and Linux needs to work the same way, Zemlin said.

“If you really want to become a broadly adopted and used technology, you have to have that degree of standardization,” he said.

Linux is close to being where it needs to be. Linux is secure, powerful, configurable, and has certain features (such as a package management system) that blow away Windows. That so far has made it a wonderful operating system for power users. But the average computer user doesn’t want to be a power user. They want a computer that turns on and works. They want everything done for them. That is where Microsoft has been able to make strides, even if they’ve lost in the security and features realm.

Either way, though, this is good news. As with any natural monopoly, Linux may not beat Windows, but it’s growing strength in the market will force Microsoft to innovate again. Whether Linux wins or not, it’s entrance as a viable competitor will raise the level of both systems, which is only good for the consumer.

Posted By: Brad Warbiany @ 4:18 pm || Permalink || Comments Off || Trackback URL || Categories: News, Technology

April 5, 2006

Outsourcing at Both Sides

In the outsourcing debate, there are always emotions that carry a lot of baggage. After all, everyone knows someone who’s been laid off, and almost everyone has a friend whose job moved overseas. Whether it’s manufacturing, IT, or any number of other industries, jobs are liquid things, and when someone loses one due to cost-cutting, outsourcing is an easy scapegoat. After all, when someone “over there” is doing the job you once did, it doesn’t do a lot for your feeling of self-worth. And when you start seeing people in your own industry getting the axe for cheaper labor elsewhere, you start to worry about your own job security.

Despite all that, I’m a firm believer in the idea that free markets must be allowed to work. Of course, people look at an engineer and say, “Just you wait: One of these days, they’re going to start outsourcing your job. Then you’ll feel differently.

Those people are wrong. I’ve spent a mere 5 1/2 years in the job market, and I’ve seen outsourcing from both sides. When I first began working, I was up in Silicon Valley at the peak of the technology boom. Which is to say, when I started, I had no experience, no seniority, and the job market was falling apart all around me. My job was an “Applications Engineer”. Basically at the time, it was an advanced technical support role. Without going into who my employer was, my job consisted of working with engineers who were using our products, and helping them to work through the design issues they faced. 8-12 hours a week, this consisted of answering phones on a hotline, and the rest of the week was spent supporting more in-depth inquiries and our field engineers.

And I was outsourced. Not overseas, mind you. But still outsourced. After surviving a hiring freeze 2 months after I started, and surviving the first round of layoffs, our department at the time was about 50 people. Only those of us with little experience with the company were still on the hotline. To be fair, the hotline portion of our job didn’t really require the services of someone with a 4-year Electrical Engineering degree. And the company understood that. They axed 17 people that day (about 12 of the low-experience folks like me, and 5 others). Part of what they were doing was streamlining simply to cut costs, but they entirely closed the hotline at that location. Instead, they hired people with 2-year associates degrees down in San Diego to staff the hotline full-time. Those folks were available for about half the cost of a full-time engineer in San Jose, so they could hire enough to keep the hotline fully staffed, even counting transition and training costs, and still improve the bottom line. While it wasn’t seeing my job go to China or India, it hurt me just as much.

That began the rough time in my life, when I had to find another job. I spent a few more months in San Jose, then moved southward with my wife (who had at the time just become my fiancee, with the help of my 401k funds!). She was having trouble, having survived a few layoffs, an office move, and the general insanity of Silicon Valley at that time was causing her to have anxiety attacks. Eventually I found a job, so did she, we got married, and it’s been looking up ever since. (FYI, if you’re ever unemployed, having a motorcycle definitely makes it a little more pleasant!)

But here’s where it gets ironic. The job I found was with a company based in Asia. No longer was my job outsourced, my whole industry was outsourced and I became an Applications Engineer here for a company there, and now I’m in the business of helping replace American-designed products with those designed and built in Taiwan and China. In my industry, that’s just the way things go. The computer motherboard market is mature enough that it’s so much cheaper to have the work done there, there’s no point to doing it here. The only domestic competition we face are in custom products, where having local design engineers is enough of a boon to American-based competitors where we only win a majority of designs, instead of a crushing majority. The shoe is on the other hand now!

We’re in a global market, folks. But let’s be honest. We’re not all fighting for a slice of a small pie. The pie keeps getting bigger and bigger. Taiwanese engineers aren’t replacing American engineers. In this world, more engineers (unlike lawyers!) are a good thing. The more scientists and engineers we have in this world, the faster the rate of technological progress will occur. And that’s what makes the great pie get bigger. When engineers get laid off, they don’t go start flipping burgers. John Kerry might talk about how jobs are being replaced by worse jobs, but people don’t simply give up. They become consultants. Or they find a new job.

Or, they create a whole new company. During the bad days when I was unemployed, I read a story about engineers in San Francisco who had all gotten laid off, and had actually been living in a shelter. In that shelter they created an idea for a brand new startup! I never saw a follow up, and I don’t know whether the company succeeded, but the negative effects of outsourcing are purely temporary. It’s tough to tell that to someone who has been laid off, but it’s no less true.

America should take one lesson away from this, however. It is a good thing to slow down outsourcing at the margins. Reforming our tax system and regulatory bureaucracy (and fixing our public schooling system) will go a long way to slowing down outsourcing, and to enticing companies in other high-standard-of-living countries to set up shop here. But we need to understand that some outsourcing will never be stopped, and that it shouldn’t be stopped. What makes America great is people, and freeing up people from jobs who can be done more efficiently elsewhere gives them freedom to focus on other things. Computers are now becoming mature technology. It wouldn’t be smart for the US to have remained an agrarian society after the industrial revolution, and we won’t survive as a manufacturing power after the information revolution. Yet nanotechnology, medical research, advances in bioengineering and genetics are all occurring here on our shores, because America is still the leader of the industrial world. We have stability, we have wonderful universities, and compared to most of Europe, we have a favorable business climate. As long as we keep those things, America will always be a formidable world competitor.

The Unrepentant Individual linked with Carnival Time!
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Posted By: Brad Warbiany @ 8:55 pm || Permalink || Comments (3) || Trackback URL || Categories: Economics, Personal Life, Technology

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