Friday, October 28, 2011

Morality vs Bulk Sale

Imagine yourself back in the 50's. You're watching a child on TV who reads a sign and does what it says, only to see someone else walk past him and ignore the sign. You know that within minutes the second child will get their comeuppance and the first child will be vindicated and rewarded.

Now, that scenario is in a commercial advertising Reeses, Snickers and Butterfinger candies. The second child walks off with a wad of candy after smugly telling the conflicted "good" child that "I can't read" (after being told exactly what the sign says, negating that argument). The "good" child stands there looking like a chump and we're told to buy in bulk because this is the way things are. Embedded in it is the stereotype smart girl over the dumb boy that we see a lot in recent years to depict female empowerment to a young audience (though as an issue of superiority rather than equality, arguably negating any social benefits).

Not that long ago, another commercial, this one from McDonalds, depicted kid in the back of a car being handed their Happy Meal boxes and being told to wait till they get home. There is a cartoon-style slew of eating noises as the children promptly disobey their parent. He turns around and with a surprised smile lets it go as if a cute smile negates parental authority.

I've seen dozens of these in recent years, promoting disrespect of parents, disrespect of elders, violence against people who've done such crimes as wearing clothes that aren't fashionable, massive overeating, sexual suggestiveness, and drug use, all in the name of selling products to children. Occasionally these are boycotted, but often enough, like this instance, they are ignored.

It is not the job of government to censor this. Nor does it mean you turn off the TV and keep your child sheltered from society. What you do, however, need to do is sit with your child while they watch TV. If you aren't there, the TV is off, or limited to DVD's you've approved. This allows you to be there and tell them "this is wrong". It also means you can keep in mind who felt the need to indoctrinate your children towards bad behavior, and not take your children there. If, after these sorts of commercials, sales drop from offended parents, then the commercials will change. If instead, they get nasty letters and sales increase, the ads will continue. Government censorship is not the answer, but you don't have any obligation to pay someone to push a viewpoint you disagree with.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

STS135 - The Final Shuttle Launch

It's taken me a while, but I've finally uploaded all the photos and video from the launch. For those living under a rock, that loud rumbling noise you heard on July 8th at 11:26 AM (EDT) was the last shuttle to launch from the United States. All further space exploration will be done through Russia's program, or by countries who give a damn about the future. For now, though, I'll simply tell about our trip for those interested.

My brother took some very good photos of the launch itself, and we took our pictures standing in front of the aftermath:
I also took video of the launch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DGDam8fkvcs

The experience was wonderful, and I would do it again in a heartbeat...if there were an opportunity to. My family tried to see STS-58 in 1993, but the launch was postponed. As a result, we were in Epcot Center when Columbia rose up in the distance. We could just see its trail and flame as it rose up over the roof of the "Honey I Shrunk the Kids" building. Nearly 18 years later, I finally got to see it close up with my youngest brother.

We arrived the day before and toured the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, getting to see several Star Trek props, a live show, and even seeing an interview with Peter Cullen (the voice of Optimus Prime) and watching the latest Transformers movie with him. We also bought a few souvenirs...

The day of the launch, we left the hotel at 2am, arrived at 3am, and got in a long line in the dark. The organization there was amazing, and we got through security much faster than I expected. The park only had a few things open, most of which we'd already seen, so we did the shuttle experience ride, looked at the enormous crowd for the bus tour, and decided to just wait for the launch.

We first went to the bleachers set up behind the IMAX building for viewing, and waited there for a few hours while the sun somehow burned me through the clouds. A few rays peeked out, and we were told the weather still only had a 30% chance of being safe for launch. As the time approached, the clouds got thinner and the crowd more optimistic and eager. I have never seen so many ThinkGeek customers in one place (literally, just going by t-shirts alone).

As the launch window approached, I overheard someone say that the best viewing area was behind the solid rocket boosters, and another said that the shuttle would rise near the flags. Not liking the fact that I could barely see the flags through the trees and IMAX building, I decided to vacate the bleachers with my brother, and we went past the trees to find a massive crowd gathered at the Astronaut Memorial and the entire walkway from it to the SRB's, so we waited at the corner of the fence in front of the alligator pond. We waited about 45 minutes there while the count was held the final scheduled time, released, and apparently held briefly, though we didn't hear that part.

Finally we heard the firing chain was armed, and with the igniting of the real SRB's, the 10 second countdown began. At 9 seconds, the crowd was counting down loudly...and quickly, reaching 1 three seconds too early. There was an awkward pause, and then we heard the official "2" and broke out laughing. Then "1", and then "liftoff". We waited, with many cheering, but seeing nothing, then some words I didn't quite hear brought a louder cheer from the crowd and a bright orange light came from the distant trees. Silently it rose up over the trees, skyward right along the American flag, just as I'd hoped when I prepared to video it earlier, and we watched it fly behind a small cloud and disappear amid fading cheers as if it was over. It then rose past that cloud and the cheers renewed as it rose and finally disappeared into a higher cloud.

I stopped recording, thinking it was over. Just as I did, a rumble came, and the ground shook softly. Fish started jumping in the alligator pond in front of us, agitated by the vibration. As it passed, we watched the trail of smoke spread out and grow, and decided on one last photo with us beside it in the picture. And with that, it was over. Before we got near the park entrance, the shuttle had left the atmosphere and was over another country. We met up with my boss and her father, then left to get much-needed sleep, barely able to stay awake for the two hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic before finally our path diverged from the bulk of the crowd and we drove back the last 40 minutes of our normal hour drive at regular speed. Before I could sleep, the shuttle had made it around the whole Earth already.

With the extra time of the shuttle taking off as scheduled instead of late like I feared, we caught my brother's favorite band, The Protomen, in concert in Nashville the next evening, then woke up late and saw the Parthenon replica, then drove home. All in all, it could hardly have been a better trip.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Comparing Apples and Microsofts

With mounting pressure for Balmer to step down at Microsoft, and the panicked cycle of investment and dumping of projects, it's easy to see Microsoft is in trouble. The enormous juggernaut of the 90's keeps putting out products that sell, but they're the same products year after year, with few exceptions. They aren't entering new markets, they aren't gaining ground on old markets. Which is a disaster, because those markets are growing.

What's killing Microsoft is also mobile computing. If you've used Windows CE or one of its children prior to Windows Phone 7, you probably have said at some point that they deserved to lose that market. Unfortunately, that's the growth market, and Apple took the lead by being the first to bring the old capacitive screens to phones. Windows has spent and spent to get back into the market, but the damage is done, and the money is being wasted.

What will be killing Microsoft is Cloud. Yes, they have a cloud presence, but after years of licensing practices that users thought were confusing, problematic, and downright dishonest, they don't have the credibility to lead that market over Amazon, Google, and other heavy hitters, and there is a growing interest in small companies offering the same Cloud services, that don't have huge targets painted on their servers like the heavy hitters do.

Apple, by virtue of their glamorous perception, has been growing in the public view. In the early days, Jobs and his mindset of acting like a monopoly until it became reality nearly killed the company. They went to "underground" as a marketing campaign multiple times to keep their computers afloat, getting small pockets of strong support among unproductive people and artists. Then came the iPod and OSX. They jumped on a market that nobody dared invest in and established themselves there they was Band-Aid did bandages, to the point people thought any other mp3 player was a "knock off". They also solved the nagging issue of compatibility with the Windows world by letting the Open Source community do the hard work for them with a *nix base to OSX. When you throw in the iPhone and its early dominance, and the iPad's current early dominance, Apple has risen above Microsoft in company value, as far as Wall Street is concerned.

For all it's evil, Microsoft was never as bad as Apple about locking down its platform or restricting its users and customers. We thought this changed with OSX, but iOS brings it back with a vengeance. In the emerging markets, Google is the "white knight" to Apple's "black night" in this regard, even though Google has its own share of evil. Apple also lacks the vast cash reserves that Microsoft has spent to fight progress for a decade. It's no longer the fastest growing in the mobile market, and its Cloud presence is a joke. Apple did sweep the over $1k PC market, but most people are spending under $1k for their PC.

In short, Apple is doing well today, but it has positioned itself where it always positions itself - Overpriced, with an overinflated perception of quality, excessive restrictions on its users, and fighting against compatibility with the rest of the industry.

Unlike Balmer, Jobs does two things well. First, he sells. He is probably the greatest salesman to run a company since PT Barnum. He has developed a cult of personality that instantly translates to sales. Second, he dives in. The technology for the iPhone and iPad has been around for decades. Market experts said it wasn't viable even as people complained about why such things didn't exist. He listened to the people and invested his company's assets into it.

Unfortunately, Jobs isn't healthy. His health issues that don't bode well for him seeing another 20 years at the helm, and even 5 is suspect. We already see the stocks take a nosedive every time he sneezes or drives by a doctor, so the reality is there that the day he does quit or kick the bucket, Apple will redefine terminal velocity as its stock falls. The model he has structured is sustained only by his ability to convince people he has what everyone wants. Microsoft, for better or worse, made themselves necessary. Apple products, though, are immanently replaceable. iPhone held the market for a while, and iPad holds its market now because the alternative is seen as imitating rather than offering new value. That perception died with the iPhone with Android and maneuvering by Google. The iPad won't magically fare better in the long run.

And then there's the stock value. It's huge for what little Apple actually owns by comparison. The company's P/E is 15.5, which is relatively moderate, and it's still faltering in the business sector. All this tells me that the stock is overinflated. Much like his products, Jobs has sold his company well, and the stock has risen accordingly.

Apple isn't taking Microsoft's place. It is, however, taking back the place it occupied in the late 1970's. If anyone, Google is the new Microsoft, reaching to the masses and to businesses rather than trying to present their products as status symbols.