Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Local industries and an old hobby

Haven't posted in a while... sorry!

Many years ago, my dad asked me what we make in our area.  He's an old-school fella, and has concerns about the viability of a service-based economy.  I'm not so sure he's off base here.  At the time, I didn't have a good answer.

Recently, my ADD-addled brain brought me back around to an old hobby I dabbled in as a child - model railroading.  While doing a little background research, I started looking at what industries there were in my area that are served by the railroad.  Some interesting finds resulted:

  • A lightbulb plant
  • A peanut-butter plant
  • A sand/gravel/brick maufacturer
  • A scrap metals and recycling center
  • A major auto manufacturer
  • An army base
  • A major crane manufacturer
  • A manufacturer of packaging labels
  • Several agricultural and lumber businesses
  • A PET packaging manufacturer
  • A wire manufacturer
  • A plastics manufacturer
  • A paper manufacturer
  • An electrical equipment manufacturer
  • A specialty steel products manufacturer
And these were just the obvious ones picked up by scanning the railroad tracks around town on Google Maps.  It doesn't even count all the manufacturers who don't use rail transportation, or who used to use rail but no longer do.  Nor does it count this area being the home of a regional railroad line and services company.

Interesting what you find out about your town when you start poking around a little bit.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Letter to my Senators on Healthcare

Dear Senator,

You'll shortly be receiving for your consideration the health care bill that was passed by the House (as if you didn't already know that!).

I'd recommend that you and your fellow Senators simply burn it and start over from scratch. It's a horrible travesty of a bill that doesn't even try to address health care issues in America.

Not only do I think the bill passed by the House is the wrong answer... I'm not even sure it's the right question!

I think we should work towards a market-based approach that encourages and rewards creative solutions by the private sector by doing things like (in no particular order):
  1. Crack down hard on fraud and abuse.
  2. Establish "best practices" for common diagnostics that will simultaneously give doctors freedom to handle individual cases individually, but also avoid trapping them into ordering a CAT scan for every head cold.
  3. Streamline the billing and payment system for more efficiency, lower cost, and better transparency of those real costs to the end user.
  4. Promote HSAs and other things that will allow end consumers to understand the real costs of their health care, while encouraging competition to drive those costs down.
  5. Encourage "team care" and better sharing of medical records so that patients don't have to start over from scratch with each new specialist they see for a particular condition.
  6. Understand that PROFIT is a motivator, and can be a good thing if utilized correctly.
  7. Understand that government is inherently inefficient (that's not necessarily a bad thing, but must be taken into consideration), and should be in the business of setting the rules, not playing the game.
There's probably a few more ideas I could come up with, but that's a start. The point is, we don't need government mandates, single payer, "public option" and all of that. We need efficiency - and efficiency comes from a competitive market with the right safeguards in place.

It is well known that business - like people - respond far better to positive reinforcement than negative. The House bill is a stick, and it's being used to fix the wrong problem. Throw it out and grow a carrot that will fix the right problems!

I'm sure you'll do the right thing regarding this issue. After all, your job depends on it!

Thank you,


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The road to Hell...

A recent article on Weather.com echoed a sentiment i've heard many times recently, but it seems to fall on deaf ears. Antibacterial and antimicrobial cleansers, soaps and other materials may be a classic case of the best of intentions gone far awry.

There's a couple of different mechanisms at work here. First, the antibacterial stuff kills of most, but not all of the bacteria, encouraging the "stronger" ones (more resistant to the anti-) to proliferate. Second, the antibacterial chemicals are present in low concentrations in the retail products, so it takes a long time (if ever) for them to do their job. Couple this with the fact that most people only wash their hands for a few seconds (if at all!), and the stuff has no chance of working.

Third, research is showing that exposure to a variety of germs can help to keep our immune system active and healthy. Killing the germs off can result in a "bored" immune system, thought by some to be a contributing factor to allergies and asthma.

All this together means that we're really no better off (and possibly actually worse off!) using antibacterial soaps in most instances than using regular soaps.

Whoda thunk?

Monday, August 31, 2009

Mac mini vs. Dell, Round 3

And now, for Round 3 in our Mac mini vs. Dell debate.

Today, we'll compare Mac mini vs. the Chipper Chicken - the least expensive desktop model I could find on Dell's website. Our third Dell contender is the Inspiron 537s, and its specs (as compared to the mini) are as follows:

ItemMac miniInspiron 537s
Processor2GHz Core2 Duo E7300Celeron 450 2.2GHz
L2 Cache3MB shared512kB
Frontside Bus1GHz800MHz
Memory2GB DDR3 1GHz2GB DDR2 800MHz
VideoGeForce 9400MGMA X4500
802.11N WirelessIncludedOptional
PassMark CPU1371 / 192668 / 377

And here we go...

Mac mini vs. the Chipper Chicken

The first, most obvious thing we notice is that purchasers of the Insprion 537s save a whopping $530. That's quite a savings, no matter how you cut it. In fact, you could buy nearly three Inspirons for the price of the Mac mini!

But what do you get for your savings? The mini's processor is significantly faster, despite the Celeron's slightly higher base clock. This is due to the Core 2 Duo's inherently more powerful core and, of course, the fact that there are two of them. The mini also sports six times the L2 Cache, a faster memory bus, and the more efficient DDR3 memory.

In addition to the formidable processor and memory differences, the mini sports a significantly more powerful graphics processor, a faster network port, and built-in 802.11N wireless.

All of this points to the fact that, unlike Rounds 1 and 2, these two computers aren't really in the same class. It's like comparing a Yugo to a Mustang. Sure, they've both got four wheels, passenger seating and all the mandatory safety features, and sure, the Yugo is much cheaper, but they really don't compare.

That being said, a computer like the Inspiron will be a good choice for a surprising number of people, especially those on an extremely tight budget. It should do well for basic web browsing (though not, likely, with significant video content), text editing, and other such non-intensive activities.

Still, if you can afford them, any of the other reviewed machines would provide a far better long-term solution for most folks' computing needs.

Next Episode: Software! OS-X vs. Windows!

All of this results in a computer that isn't really even in the same class.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Mac mini vs. Dell, Round 2

Round 1 of Mac mini vs. Dell ended in either a draw or a slight lead on hardware to Dell. Of course, we have a long way to go.

Today, in Round 2, were go head to head on features. Our Dell contender this go round will be the Studio Slim, a trim midrange model that I found by using Dell's parametric search tool and searching on as close a processor match as I could find to the mini's Core 2 Duo processor.

For reference, here's a replication of the specs chart from Round 1:

ItemMac miniXPS630Studio Slim
Processor2GHz Core2 Duo E73003GHz Core2 E84002.66GHz Core2 Duo E7300
L2 Cache3MB shared6MB3MB
Frontside Bus1GHz1.3GHz1GHz
Memory2GB DDR3 1GHz2GB DDR2 1GHz2GB DDR2 800MHz
VideoGeForce 9400MDual GeForce GTS 240GMA X4500HD
802.11N WirelessIncludedOptionalOptional (included)
PassMark CPU1371 / 1922156 / 991794 / 129

So, here we go...

Mac min vs. the Spec Match:

The Dell Studio Slim is one of Dell's fashionable midrange models. Weighing in at a slim $539 with the optional 802.11N wireless card added, it's significantly less expensive than the Mac mini. What other differences can we find between the two?

The mini is still by far the smaller machine. It also boasts the newer generation, faster DDR3 memory, running at a faster 1GHz bus frequency. This means the memory subsystem is about 30% faster than the Dell. It also has the somewhat more powerful NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics processor.

On the other hand, the Studio Slim boasts a somewhat faster 2.66GHz processor (PassMark at 1794 vs. 1371 for the Mac), a modestly larger 500GB hard disk, and - of course - more room for expansion.

The performance differences outlined above would be relatively minor at price parity, but factor in the $170 price difference and this is a significant win for Dell.

Here we see fairly clearly the cost tradeoffs of the Mac mini design. One of the core design principles for the mini is its extremely compact size. To reach that goal requires the use of more expensive laptop components vs. the Studio's standardized (and less expensive) desktop components. Dell is able to exploit this to a fairly significant value difference.

Keep in mind, though, this is only a hardware comparison, and as we will see in a later round, there are significant differences in the software load that may make this a closer match than it appears here.

Next up: Mac mini vs. the Chipper Chicken!

First Day of School Rant

Oooh... I'm going to get into SO much trouble for this post.

A lot of my friends and acquaintances have children who are attending school (usually Kindergarten) for the first time. My own two went off to third grade a few weeks ago, so it hasn't been all that long since I did the same with them. Plus, we spent a fair amount of time volunteering in the church nursery when they were little, and I saw a lot of parents dropping off their little ones for the first time - or the thirtieth time.

Folks.... GET A GRIP!

Your child is just FINE. Your child is where he (or she) is SUPPOSED TO BE. Your child is GROWING UP. Your child NEEDS to learn that it's perfectly normal to go away from mommy for the day and hang out with his friends and teacher.

Now, certainly, there are the rare exceptional case of a child who's particularly troubled in one way or the other, but I've seen FAR too many parents and children with separation problems!

Is that first day of school bittersweet for the parents? Yes. Is it a bit scary for the kid? Certainly... but only for the first five minutes or so before he meets Bobby in the chair next to him and starts chatting wildly about Bakugan. Then, usually, he completely forgets the issue until he gets home to his worried parent who, by expressing his/her concern and sadness, reminds him that going off to school is a scary thing.

My son HATES transitions. He doesn't like changing clothes. He doesn't like changing channels. He doesn't like leaving the house, the car, or anything else. And yes, the night before the first day of THIRD GRADE, he told me he didn't want to go to school. And guess what? The next morning, we got up, had breakfast, left the house and I dropped him off at school just like it was mid-November and he'd been in the routine for months. And when his mom picked him up that afternoon, guess what? He was all excited about the new friends he'd met and the old friends he'd reconnected with. Same reaction he's had every year since that first day of preschool.

I always cringed while doing nursery duty (on principle, we never watched our own kids unless it was unavoidable) when a nervous mom or dad (or both!) would make a big deal of dropping their kid off. The most well adjusted kids were always the children of parents who dropped them off, signed the papers, and casually said "see you after Church, honey!" while walking away like it was the most normal thing in the world. The children, almost inevitably, would saunter off, find a friend and/or a toy, and be happy as a clam until mommy returned. Even on the rare occasion when a child seemed traumatized, the vast bulk of time once mommy was out of sight the child would dry up, find a friend and/or a toy and play contentedly until mommy's return (at which time, promptly, the waterworks would be turned back on...). I could count on one hand the number of times a child was truly inconsolable - and most of those, the kid was probably ill.

I'm convinced that in the vast majority of cases, parents unwittingly project their own separation anxiety onto the children, who are usually much better adjusted to the situation than the parents. Those who teach their kids early on that it's normal to be apart for a while (church child care, occasional babysitters, preschool, then school) end up with self-confident kids who trot off to school like it's the most normal, everyday thing in the world - WHICH IT IS!

I made a rule when our kids started Kindergarten. I do not accompany them to school unless I have a need to (a) haul heavy stuff or (b) talk to the teacher. First day of school it's "Have a nice day, and watch the seatbelt when you shut the door!". Am I a mean daddy? Probably. Do my kids fret and cry over going to school? Nope. Not a bit. They usually hit the ground running.

Kids are supposed to grow up. They're supposed to go off to school, to be independent, to tie their own shoes, make their own beds and pack their own suitcases. Don't shed tears when they do these things. Laugh and clap for joy. Worry when they don't, or when they can't. But make sure they're not just picking up that vibe from you.

Go ahead... < puts on fireproof suit > Fire away...

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Mac mini vs. Dell, Round 1


The top two complaints I hear about Macs from PC users are price and compatibility. In all fairness, Macs hold only about 10% of the market, and they at least appear quite expensive, bang-for-buck.

I'm very enamored with my new Mac mini, but to be fair, I thought I'd do a breakdown vs. some comparable Dell models. The intended use matters very much in choosing a "best" system. In this case, it's a typical home user who surfs the web, uses office apps, perhaps uses Netflix instant movies or Hulu, runs Quicken, and the like. Heavy duty gaming is saved for the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, not for the computer. No heavy video editing or graphic arts, either. I believe that this is the type of user Apple is targeting with the Mac mini. A significantly different use case would require a different selection of computers.

For comparison, I chose the $799 2GB/320GB mini model, and sought out three Dell models to compare it against: (a) the cheapest desktop they have, (b) the desktop their parameter searcher brought up as the same price ($799), and (c) as close as I could get on a feature-for-feature customization match.

I came up with the Inspiron 537s Slim ($269), the Studio Slim ($539) and the XPS630 ($799). Here's a chart of the specs:

ItemMac miniXPS630Studio Slim
Processor2GHz Core2 Duo E73003GHz Core2 E84002.66GHz Core2 Duo E7300
L2 Cache3MB shared6MB3MB
Frontside Bus1GHz1.3GHz1GHz
Memory2GB DDR3 1GHz2GB DDR2 1GHz2GB DDR2 800MHz
VideoGeForce 9400MDual GeForce GTS 240GMA X4500HD
802.11N WirelessIncludedOptionalOptional (included)
PassMark CPU1371 / 1922156 / 991794 / 129

ItemMac miniInspiron 537s
Processor2GHz Core2 Duo E7300Celeron 450 2.2GHz
L2 Cache3MB shared512kB
Frontside Bus1GHz800MHz
Memory2GB DDR3 1GHz2GB DDR2 800MHz
VideoGeForce 9400MGMA X4500
802.11N WirelessIncludedOptional
PassMark CPU1371 / 192668 / 377

I'll explain the meaning and details of some of these values as we go along. All of these machines are easily obtainable from either Apple or Dell, and they're pretty much off the shelf configurations. I did add the optional 802.11N wireless to the Studio Slim since it was supposed to be as close to the Mac mini as I could make it. The wireless option is included in my price of $539. I did not include any tax or shipping costs. None of the prices include monitors, keyboards, mice or other peripherals either, just to keep things fair.

I've chosen the PassMark benchmark test suite results to compare the processors. These tests are an average of many user submissions, and is easily available.

The Dells, as priced, don't include any productivity software, and I'll hold off on comparing OS X vs. Windows until the end, since those comparisons are the same across all machines. However, these differences can be the deal maker/breaker, so hold on.

But first, the hardware comparisons!

General Observations:

A few general observations can be made about the mini vs. all the Dells. The mini is obviously much smaller than even the Studio Slim. It's also quite an attractive package.

On the other hand, because the Dells are all made with industry standard PC parts (except the Dell-custom motherboards), they are generally easily repaired and easily upgraded. This can result in more flexibility and a longer use life. The Mac mini is generally not user-modifiable, unless you're a "hacker" and don't mind voiding the warranty.

Mac mini vs. the Price Match:

The Dell XPS630 is marketed as the base model of Dell's gaming machines, which means it's supposed to have some serious horsepower. Also, note that the XPS630 is quite a bit larger than the mini.

The XPS630, at the same price, sports a significantly faster processor, a moderately larger hard disk (500GB vs. 320GB), and dual video controllers. Also, largely by virtue of its larger size, it provides several PCI and PCIe expansion slots, drive bays, and more USB ports. It does not, however, come with wireless, though this is a low-priced option. On price, I'd say the larger hard disk and lack of wireless are a wash - unless wireless is particularly important to you.

In short, if raw horsepower and expandability matter, and size doesn't, the XPS630 wins. On the other hand, for this type of user, too much horsepower is wasted, expansion ports often go unused, and size very well may matter, so I think the mini is still competitive here.

Next episode: Mac mini vs. the Feature Match!