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January 31, 2007

Project Management

Several years ago I watched a series of PBS specials about the development of the Boeing 777 airliner. Some searches on the internet found the title to be 21st Century Jet: The Building of the 777. It isn't available on Amazon, but can apparently still be purchased from the Boeing Store. The film makers had an amazing amount of access as they filmed meetings, talked to engineers, suppliers, etc. It was a perfect case study in project management.

Boeing's goal was to develop a long-range plane to fill a niche just below the capacity of a 747. With a 5-hour series the documentary was able to go into detail about certain issues (for instance the difficulty in getting a 2-engine aircraft certified for trans-ocean flights or how they test turbine blades). It was fascinating to watch the pieces come together. One way to save money was to do virtual testing of the engine instead of using a flying test platform. The engineers thought they wouldn't even need to do the real-life tests because their models were so good. But the decision was made to do the test on a full-scale prototype anyway and on the first flight the engine flamed out (they used a 747 so they still had 3 other engines). The engineers went back and found a flaw in their computer model.

A lot of the time they followed around Boeing's project manager. It was amazing to see how he worked with a true team concept. When they had major problems he didn't get upset or let other people get upset, but would have a meeting with the key players and get a consensus on how to deal with a setback. You always hear about those things, but it is rare to see them in practice, and here was a guy making it work on a billion dollar project despite enormous pressure. A new plane was such a huge investment for Boeing that the entire company depended on them getting the plane right (compare to the Airbus A380 superjumbo that is still going incredibly wrong).

Anyway, I think about that show from time to time, and for a while I kept my eye out wondering if that project manager would ever take over at Boeing. I don't see why he wouldn't. On ABC news last night, I saw him again. He is now the president and CEO of Ford and is trying to turn the company around. Alan Mulally started as an engineer at Boeing in 1969. He was ultimately passed over as CEO of Boeing in favor of an outsider from 3M and went to Ford in September 2006.

January 25, 2007


A great article by Robert Samuelson of Newsweek about President Bush's plan to decrease gasoline consumption. While it is a great goal, the means is via huge government subsidies, when all that is really needed is requiring vehicles to get better mileage (rather than just passenger cars like the proposed scheme):


I would propose that any vehicle (car, truck, SUV, whatever, no exceptions) that gets less than 25 miles per gallon should have a $3,000 tax assessed. Any car that gets over 45 miles per gallon should get a $3,000 tax credit. Those numbers would have to be adjusted to make sure that the two balance each other out, but that's probably a decent start. It would cost the government nothing and instantly result in people buying cars with 80% better mileage.

My post in 2003 on Green Cars

January 22, 2007

DVD Kiosk

About a month ago I noticed a DVD rental kiosk at Kroger promising $1 per day rentals. I kept meaning to look at it more closely, but someone was either already at it, it was offline, or I was in a hurry to get out of the store. Yesterday I finally stopped by and rented a movie that I had kind of wanted to see but knew Susan would never want to watch (Talladega Nights: The Story of Ricky Bobby, C+, probably worth a dollar).

I guess the machine (about the size of a large coke machine) is filled with disks. They seem to have almost all of the releases from the last year, probably over a hundred movies, and with multiple copies there are probably 500 disks inside. There is a computer on the front with a touchscreen that lets you browse movies by genre and they seem fairly current with new releases. They take only credit cards and give you until midnight the next day before you are charged another dollar. After 14 days they charge you $35 plus tax to keep the movie.

Once you've selected a movie and swiped your credit card, the DVD is put in a reusable black case (no moving parts) with a bar code and comes out of a slot in the bottom. You can rent up to three movies at a time, but since it is a daily rental, I don't know why you would do that. When you return the movie you put it back in the case and put it in the slot. Then it charges your credit card $1 plus tax for each day. I don't see any reason the disk wouldn't be available again immediately. I wonder if they read the disk to scan for damage and that you put the correct movie back in the sleeve? They must.

I think it's great to be able to pay less to rent a movie for only one day. Blockbuster upsized everyone by making you rent a movie for 3 days or more and charging you more. It's also convenient having movies available in a grocery store, but since I usually shop too late to watch a movie at home that night, I would have to rent it for the next day or on weekends. One of the few disadvantages is that, like any self-service thing (ATM's, self-checkout, etc.), if you get behind someone it can take them a while to browse and make their transaction. Also it only takes credit cards, even though hopefully you are only spending a dollar. And you can't just drop it off as easily as you can at Blockbuster: you have to park, go in the store, hopefully not wait in line, and return the movie.

I don't see how they can make money on it (they will probably raise prices once people start using it a lot), but part of the economy was installing it in a number of stores at once. One person could probably service 20 of these things instead of 10 people working at one Blockbuster. I found the following press release describing the release of the kiosks, run by a company called The New Release. I figure the machines must cost about $20,000 each and if they contain 500 $10 disks, that's another $5,000. So $25,000 times 170 units is $4.25 million just for starters.

HOUSTON — TNR Entertainment Corp., owner and operator of DVD rental kiosks in supermarkets and grocery stores under the brand "The New Release," has just completed the installation of 170 new kiosks in Kroger stores throughout Greater Atlanta.

"The growth and vitality of Atlanta and surrounding areas make it an ideal choice for one of our largest geographic market installations," said Jeff Karbowiak, chief operating officer of TNR Entertainment. "This major new market for TNR is not only a significant extension of our strong relationship with Kroger, but it also allows us to introduce The New Release’s unmatched convenience and value."

The new kiosks are located throughout Atlanta, Canton, Decatur, Douglasville, Dunwoody, Fayetteville, Gainesville, Jonesboro, Lawrenceville, Marietta, Newnan, Roswell, Smyrna, and Tucker, among other sites.

January 21, 2007

Palm TX Review

I've been meaning to write a review of the Palm TX on Amazon for a while. After writing a brief review of a replacement Palm stylus, I decided to write up the TX too. Here it is:

4 stars

Very Good

I have had my Palm TX now for about 3 months. I have had a Palm Vx, m515, and now this one, and its capabilities blow the others away. The screen is fantastic. I love the extra space and resolution, plus the landscape mode. Having wifi is a huge plus even though I don't have a wireless network at home or work. With the better processor, this is also super fast. It sorts through 300 records in Smartlist in about a second.

Still I had some disappointments:

The screen isn't glass like the Vx. This probably makes it less likely to crack, but it makes the grafitti area more likely to be damaged and an overlay, at least in the grafitti area is a must. Even using a protector, I still had problems with grafitti skipping (like an "o" might become a "c" plus a blob even though I wrote an "o") and wound up returning the first one I got after about a month. If you don't bear down, it will skip. If you do bear down you are more likely to damage the screen. I have to take a star off for that.

I use a lot of third-party programs and many of them simply don't work or will crash the TX. Generally I can find substitutes, but I still miss some of that and it was an ordeal at the beginning. I don't think "hacks" are allowed anymore at all. But anything still being developed works fine. Also I really miss the old grafitti. I couldn't get used to the new version which seemed incredibly slow and clumsy. Fortunately there is a way to get the old version back.

I don't see why they couldn't make the silkscreen "buttons" customizable like the actual buttons are. In fact you should be able to change the icons. I don't use the Palm for e-mail and the media button is also kind of useless for me. I'd rather have the calculator and search buttons back.

The browser has problems. Wikipedia just shows up as a vertical line of letters. Also, if you don't crash while browsing, it isn't uncommon to crash shortly *after* browsing in a different program. Some secure websites simply won't work at all. I have to cut Palm some slack on that since handheld devices can't have browsers as good as a desktop, but being able to turn the screen to landscape should solve most things and it simply doesn't here. There is no excuse for the crashes.

Despite the negatives, there were some nice surprises too:

I love using the Palm as an MP3 player. Among MP3 players it is bulky, but since I'm carrying it anyway, it really takes no additional space. I use the included pTunes player and bought a 2 GB card with several hundred songs on it and I love it. I use the Palm more than my 20 GB iPod now.

It also makes a great video player. Once I figured out the right mix of tools, I was able to put DVD's on another 2 GB card. I can put 8 episodes of my favorite TV shows on one of those cards and it looks great using the free full-screen TCPMP player. People are amazed with that feature. The screen is bigger and has more resolution than a 5G iPod.

Battery life is surprisingly good. It's nothing like the Vx which lasted a week or more, but it is as good as the m515 even playing an occasional movie and using the mp3 player.

The integration of everything could be better, but that's part of the deal with an open platform. This thing is like an iPhone, only without the phone. And you can buy it today for much less money.

January 20, 2007

Sick iPod Well Again

A guy at work was having trouble with a 4G iPod that his son didn't need anymore. He said he couldn't sync it with his PC because it was formatted for his son's Mac. I told him to bring it in and I would try to fix it. I didn't have a problem syncing it (it was already formatted for Windows). I had an old program that was an iPod Updater that I tried to use to restore the iPod (wipe it out and completely reformat it, using the latest iPod software for that model), but that capability has now been built into iTunes. But iTunes wouldn't download the update for the restore even after I uninstalled the obsolete Updater. I gave him his iPod back and said it should work fine even though I hadn't restored it.

A few days later I was trying to make my first iTunes purchase since November and they wouldn't download either. I played around with my firewall settings in McAfee (even turning it off completely), but decided the problem must be with iTunes timing out before a dial-up connection could bring a song over (about 10 minutes for a song). It didn't help that iTunes was now trying to download three songs at a time instead of one like it used it to do. I tried some different settings in iTunes, but couldn't fix the problem.

I wound up uninstalling iTunes, reinstalling an older version, and so on. It took hours. Then I would try downloading songs and it wouldn't work, but after the error message the modem would stay active for a few minutes indicating it was still talking to iTunes. I was downloading several megabytes of data and not getting any songs. That seemed odd. Eventually I decided to uninstall McAfee Total Protection which I had installed in early December. After that the songs downloaded without a problem. So, like Mom, I have had to uninstall McAfee in order for my computer to work properly.

Meanwhile my iPod started to lock up and I wound up disconnecting even though the iPod said "Do not disconnect." It may have been filled up trying to sync Steve Jobs' 1.2 GB Macworld address and John Hodgman's free audio book, which there wasn't room for. Things went from bad to worse. The iPod was very sluggish whenever it was connected to the computer. In the end I would connect the iPod and the computer would crash with a "blue screen of death". The PC's blue screen had a curious warning: driver_corrupted_mmpool. That sent me trying to download new drivers for the iPod, but the drivers seemed to be up to date. I did a system restore back to December 2. Still I would get the blue screen and have to restart my computer (the system restore has never helped me out).

I went into diagnostics mode on the iPod (which was working fine as long as I didn't try to connect it to a computer) and ran the hard drive scan. I got the result "HDD FAILED" which usually means it is time for a new iPod. But I knew that couldn't be the whole story since the iPod worked, meaning the hard drive was still working too.

I found some posts on the internet that said you could find someone with a similar model iPod, open both of them, transfer your hard drive into their iPod and do an update. Well, I don't know anyone else with a 3G, except Martti in Estonia. Plus who would let you do a brain transplant on their iPod? Another post said you could connect it to a Mac and the Mac would recognize a damaged hard drive and attempt to fix it (which I thought would make a great PC and Mac commercial: PC turns blue and dies when it touches something and Mac just fixes it).

So Susan and I visited the Wizard of Snellville last night. After a few false starts (it wasn't quite as simple as I had been led to believe) Jeb was able to restore the iPod and get it working with a Mac. Jeb said it was very happy working with the Macs at his house and it wanted to stay there. But I took it home anyway. After listening to some songs Jeb had put on there as a test, I connected it to my computer today. The PC didn't crash!

Because Jeb had made it a Mac iPod (intentionally), I had to reformat it again and do a restore to put it in Windows format (as a Mac iPod the computer recognized it, but couldn't read it). Once again for some reason iTunes was unable to download the restoring software. It said I wasn't connected to the internet, even though I was and could connect to the iTunes store and download songs. At this point I was using an older version of iTunes, so I installed the latest version. I think the problem was I had uninstalled the Apple Software Update. Anyway, with the latest version of iTunes installed with Apple Software Update, iTunes now acknowledged my internet connection, and I soon had it reformatted and loading up with songs. By the time I finished writing this post my iPod was good as new again!

Thanks, Jeb!

January 16, 2007

Timex Watch

The band on my watch is getting very frayed, so I figured it was about time for a new watch rather than spend money getting a new band. I've had fairly good luck with Timex watches so I went to their site to see what they had that would be similar to my current watch.

timex-t56731.jpgDuring the search I came across a Timex Ironman watch that has the interesting feature of having analog hands over a face with an LCD display that can be turned on or off. In the comments for the watch at Amazon people mentioned the Will Ferrell movie Stranger Than Fiction. According to Wikipedia the watch practically co-starred in the movie (I haven't seen the movie yet). That article also identifies the watch as being a Timex T56371 model. I guess Timex paid a bunch of money to have their watch in the movie, but it would still be kind of neat having the same watch as in a movie.

timex-t42491.jpgNot enough for me, though. I opted for the less snazzy T42491 which has no digital component. I debated between it and a similar one with a white face (T42501 after deciding against a neat chronometer model. The moving parts of a chronometer appeal to the engineer in me, but it doesn't offer that much utility. I decided it was better to have the day and date than 3 different dials for seconds, minutes, and hours and the date shoved off to one corner. They're really pushing the chronometer because it comes in a several different color schemes including red, blue, and beige. Susan said the red one was ugly.

Anyway, I should get my new watch this week.

Putting together these links it looks like the Timex website is just an Amazon store. Their URLs for their watches use the same ASIN number as Amazon.

January 15, 2007


This weekend I downloaded the podcast of Steve Jobs' iPhone presentation at Macworld. I had never seen one of his speeches, but had always heard great things about them. iLounge said this about it "Despite the fact that it clocks in at a feature film-length 1 hour and 45 minutes, Jobs’ keynote is unquestionably the most engaging public speech iLounge’s editors have ever seen, introducing the company’s new iPhone with a level of oratorical mastery that deserves academic study."

Having downloaded it (at Susan's and then loaded onto the SD card I keep in my Palm; over dial-up it would have taken 53 hours) and watched it today, I don't know if I would agree. But I will say that instead of including instructions, they should just give you a video of his presentation when you buy the phone. Since it really is a small computer, I think they will be able to work out any problems with the software and add all kinds of new capabilities. And the price should come down over time as well (currently $500 for a 4 MB version, $600 for a 8 MB version after signing a 2-year agreement with Cingular). And although Steve had one that appeared to work just fine, it won't be available until June.

I think they will have a phoneless version that will be a widescreen iPod which will include wifi and browsing capabilities. So rather than get a 5G, I think I will continue waiting for that new thing. In the meantime I am still enjoying the widescreen Palm TX, even though it's software certainly lags what is loaded on the iPhone.

January 1, 2007

Roth Direction

Last year I was debating about whether to put my 2006 Roth IRA contribution into one of three Vanguard funds: Total International Stock Market Index (VGTSX), S&P 500 Growth Index (VIGRX), or the FTSE Social Index (VFTSX). I ruled out the international fund because 2005 had been such a good year and I didn't think it could hold up. That led me to the latter two and I chose FTSE because it was pretty close to the S&P 500 index, but also had a social conscience. As it turns out FTSE outperformed the growth index, getting an 13% gain vs. 9% for the growth index while the S&P 500 was just under 16%. But the international index blew them all away, with a 26% return in 2006. Meanwhile the small cap value index that I had contributed to the previous two years did pretty well again with a 19% return.

I feel like the stock market is due for an off year soon, so maybe I should put this year's contribution into a money market fund drawing about 5%, at least until the market goes down some. The problem is I also feel like the dollar will go down in value and China may stop propping up its value. So if the dollar goes down 5% and I get 5% interest I would be breaking even. That is still better than having money in the stock market if the market goes down, but it makes putting the contribution into international equities more attractive despite yearly returns of 40%, 21%, 16%, and 26% in the last 4 years. It seems like performance of international funds can't keep up that pace.

I also read an article that said large-cap growth funds have been underperforming for several years and are due to outperform this year. Maybe 2007 will be the year the big growth stocks finally outperform?

Fourth Quarter Results

Happy New Year!

This is a special edition of quarterly results because it also marks the end of the year. At the end of each year I reset my web site's counter. Last year I had 159,227 visitors to my website compared to 81,763 the previous year, almost double. Some of that was due to the big peak in June and July when the battery pack was mentioned on Make, Digg, and Hackaday. After that traffic levelled out to about 400 hits per day, higher than the 300 or so a day I had been getting before that.

AdSense revenue has stayed pretty strong, but seems to have plateaued out at around $45 per month. That's fine, really, because if it were over $50 per quarter I would start pushing $600 annually where they report the income. I got less than $400 from them this year, but my total paid all-time by Amazon and AdSense passed $1,000.

Amazon sales were off during the last quarter primarily because the best-selling battery pack was discontinued. I had sold 58 Belkin battery packs the previous quarter, but only 11 this quarter as people scrounged the last of the inventory at various Amazon sellers. But, I finally revised my web page to accept this reality, removing the picture of the Belkin and replacing it with the similar Maxell pack. This boosted Maxell sales to 17 units, mostly in December. The EZGear Powerstick sold 7 units and I sold 7 of the rechargeable Jwin battery/case combo. So while October was a terrible month, with only $24 in commissions (less than AdSense), November and December recovered to $44 and $67. December is always huge for retailers, but I sold more back in July.

My Sony car stereo to Ipod page started registering some sales with a popular product that enables the audio-in port on a Sony car stereo for only $30. I sold 11 of those. The most unusual thing I sold were 5 boxes of Glad recycling bags. I also sold one iPod shuffle and one 30 GB iPod. I'd love to sell more iPods but most visitors to my site probably already have one.

During December, Amazon offered an extra bonus of 4% on items sold through A-stores and Omakase links. Omakase links are banner ads that track people individually. When I visited, it would show things in my cart or on my wish list and was trying to prod me to buy those things. A-stores are store-front pages you can set up where you have certain items that are being sold through Amazon. I didn't want to do an A-store, but I did try an Omakase banner on my battery pack page and another on the Dejumbler page. I had 12,136 impressions for those banners and 37 clicks generating only 1 sale. That's pretty horrible. I get twice the click-thru rate for any given product link on my page, and almost 4 times as many sales. I went ahead and removed the banners today. That is the second time I have tried and failed with Amazon banners.

I got similar results when I tried some Best Buy links in October.

Lastly, Amazon has revised how they will be doing payouts next year. Instead of paying a month after the end of each quarter, they will pay two months after the end of each month. The minimum to receive payment is only $10, so I will start getting paid every month. The commission structure, based on volume, has been changed to by reducing the targets to one third. This means some months I might only get 6% and sometimes 6.5%, but since most of my sales are for electronics which are fixed at 4% regardless, it will make less than a dollar of difference per month if I miss the 6.5% cutoff of 31 items per month. It doesn't seem like it should take them two months to process the payments, since they know the totals for the month the day after the month ends, but the average wait time is the same under this system. Since Amazon does mostly credit card sales, they probably don't get paid right away either.