Sunday, December 31, 2006

Steffy: Not Hearing and Definitely Not Seeing Or Thinking

And here I thought the Houston Chronicle's Loren Steffy would be off until 2007. And yet, here is yet another example of business and economic muddleheadedness by the Chronicle's premier business writer.
Why, they asked, would [text messaging] be extra? I once asked a similar question about caller ID. Why should I have to pay a monthly fee to use a function that's built into my phone?
Loren, let me give you a clue, for free. It is called providing an enhanced service that people want and getting paid for it. And here is a second clue: caller ID is not "built into [your] phone". There is equipment and technology that costs real money to keep caller ID going. To think that it is "built in" is well, muddleheaded at best.
The answer is that phone companies charge for such things because they can. That's their prerogative, but for consumers, alternatives are emerging.
No, phone companies charge for such things because people value them and pay for them. I think caller ID is worth more money than the actual phone line. If I see an unfamiliar number, I don't answer. If I see my dad is calling, I can answer with a smart aleck response.
Eventually, phone calls, and for that matter text messages, will essentially be free, whether phone companies like it or not. The Internet will make separate phone service obsolete, and we will finally be free of their arcane pricing structures and serpentine bundling tricks.
Steffy is dreaming. There will still be costs associated with transferring a voice over miles of distances. People have to maintain lines, switches and computers. To think it will be free is just plain, well, muddleheaded again. But wait, in the same article:
The technology, though, isn't what holds the promise. It's the pricing. Eventually, we will pay only for a connection, regardless of what we transmit over it.
So instead of being virtually free, it will be flat pricing regardless of content. At least in contradicting himself, he makes more sense.
When the long-distance business was deregulated more than 20 years ago, the promise was cheap phone calls. That promise has been more than realized.
So now Steffy links deregulation to price decreases. Hmmmm, that is not what he was advocating here, here and here. Well, at least Steffy closes out the article like it began:

When I opened my monster cell phone bill, I was at first stunned, and then angry. But sometimes it takes the perspective of youth to see the absurdity to which we've all grown accustomed.

Shouldn't text messages be included in the price? They should indeed. And someday, maybe they will.

The bottom line is Steffy is upset because the world is more complex than he thinks it should be. He is angry that he has to think and research for himself rather than be responsible for his choices. Arguing against complexity and responsibility is not an adult response. The world is complex not flat, deal with it. You have to think and decide for yourself, deal with it. That is the bottom line.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Apple: "We backdated, but no misconduct"

Sorry, I just don't get the conclusions of this report. How can this be true:
Apple Computer Inc. said its own investigation of stock option grants found no misconduct by current management...
and this also be true:
...but it did find irregularities in some grants between 1997 and 2001, including a grant to Chief Executive Steve Jobs.

Its options mishandling will result in an additional noncash charge of $84 million.

The three-month probe identified a number of grants for which grant dates were intentionally selected in order to obtain favorable exercise prices, the company said.
Look at the language: "irregularities", "intentionally selected", "favorable exercise prices".

So, in summary, Apple backdated options, has to restate earnings and yet no misconduct was found. Here is Big Al Gore:
The board of directors is confident that the company has corrected the problems that led to the restatement, and it has complete confidence in Steve Jobs and the senior management team.
Once again, no misconduct, but "problems". No wonder I bemoan the fact that this country faces an ethical crisis. Leadership is certainly lacking at the highest levels of society. Why should the rest of us play by the rules if Jobs and Gore don't?

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Denver: Storm Conspiracy

There appears to be a conspiracy to keep me out of Colorado this holiday season. There is another storm headed there for Thursday and Friday. There is nothing I can do about it other than strap on the tin foil hat and spread conspiracy theories regarding back to back snow storms.

Al Gore, call your office. Nature is speaking.

Global Warming Demonizing

This editorial by Froma Harrop is typical of the global warming debate as approached from those who argue significant human involvement in the phenomena. It is equal parts scientific ignorance, demonization and revisionist history. Frankly, it is also an attempt to shut down the debate over the issue which is unhealthy, in my opinion.

Here is what I mean:
AMERICANS CAN ADAPT, one supposes, to an Alaska without polar bears, a New Hampshire without fall colors and a Florida without its bottom third.

President Bush was never one to lose sleep over future generations — just look at his budget deficits. Add in another matter he’s supremely indifferent to, the environment, and we have the Bush policy on global warming. That is, do zero to cut U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases. Actually, do less than zero. His early doubting that humans even play a role in climate change demoralized those trying to grapple with the problem.

The glad tidings are that the Bush administration no longer matters much.
So, according to Froma, Global Warming and carbon dioxide emissions began with the Bush administration's inauguration in 2001. And here, I thought the global warming trend began almost 20,000 years ago. I am not sure who was President then, but it was probably not a Republican.

But don't worry, Froma has a partisan solution:
For one thing, Democrat Barbara Boxer is replacing Republican James Inhofe as chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

She says: “This is a potential crisis of a magnitude we’ve never seen,” and “Any kind of weakening of environmental laws or secrecy or changes in the dead of night is over.”

For this attitudinal change, we can thank the Democrats’ new majority, however slim, in the Senate. It’s another reason to pray for the speedy recovery of South Dakota’s Tim Johnson — and for all Senate Democrats to look both ways when they cross the street.

Yes. The Democrats will save us from the big bad, global warming disaster. But it will have to be tough love.

But we may have a last chance to deal with global warming. Will today’s Americans sacrifice for a posterity they will never see?

And lastly, we have to make it a moral issue.

This is about family values put to the acid test.

So let me sum this up for you:

1) If you question the effects of human involvement on Global Warming, you are evil incarnate? (I thought dissent was patriotic?). How long will it be before anyone who questions The Froma will be sued or put on trial.

2) Only government action can save the world.

3) Only Democrats can save us. Just forget the failure of the Clinton administration to even introduce the Kyoto Protocol to the US Senate and the failure of Europeans to abide by it.

I am sick of people like The Froma and Al Gore. The more they talk, the more they turn me away from the point they are trying to persuade me towards. Their demonization tactics, hypocrisy and deceit just turn me off. If they turn off people like me, how can they ever hope to build a political consensus?

Math Challenged: Traffic-related law officer deaths

As we think and grieve for those that protect us, I issue a plea to be statistically accurate when reporting the causes. This article reports on a study by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
According to preliminary statistics compiled through Monday, traffic fatalities claimed the lives of 73 of the 151 officers killed in 2006. This compares to 63 officers killed in traffic accidents in 2005, the groups said.
Simple odds factor into the increase, too, the groups said. There are more patrol officers on the roads now than ever — 900,000 sworn officers patrolling the roads compared to 693,127 in 1997, according to federal statistics cited by the report.

The traffic deaths outpaced gun-related fatalities as they have in past years. Officers shot to death in 2006 declined 9 percent, from 59 last year to 54, the report said.

Over the past 30 years, the number of officers killed in automobile crashes has jumped by 40 percent while the number shot to death during that period has declined by about the same amount.

OK. If you know the number of deaths and the number of police officers on the street, would it not be more statistically accurate to cite a death rate instead of reporting an absolute number? That would be more impressive and demonstrate a statistically significant trend. Should the trend be going up or going down, then corrective action could target the root causes. Otherwise, we might draw false conclusions due to poor presentation of the data. Maybe a minor point, but we should be improving mathematical literacy rather than obscuring what might be an important story.

Building under Construction Collapses

I wonder if the brain surgeons at the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) were able to predict this catastrophic event.

I know this is not their area of expertise (what is, by the way?), but some state or federal agency who claims to help industry must have had the foresight to predict it. If not, why not?

Naps Are the Best

For those of us that think naps are the best, this article provides validation. One cannot fight evolution. Of course, you can try fighting it, but you'll often lose, at least in the short term.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Virtual Life, Real Money

I still don't get living a virtual life in the online community Second Life. And yet, millions are doing it and making money there. Since they are making money, the question is, is it taxable:
Congress has taken note and is completing a study of whether income in the virtual economy, such as from the sale of gowns that Brown makes, should be taxed by the Internal Revenue Service. The Joint Economic Committee of Congress is expected to issue its findings early next year.
You know what? I don't really care. If they people spending time in Second Life worked as hard on their first life, they would not need a Second Life.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Everywhere I look, Class Warfare Talk

The Houston Chronicle prints an article from the Los Angeles Times. It bemoans the fact that corporate profits are outracing wage growth.
Total earnings of the blue-chip Standard & Poor's 500 companies have risen at double-digit percentage rates for 18 consecutive quarters, an unprecedented streak.

But to many rank-and-file workers, the booming bottom line may only serve as a reminder of what has been missing from their own paychecks.
And you all, by now, know the solution: GOVERNMENT PROTECTIONIST ACTION.
The swelling earnings of business — and of many top executives — have become part of the debate about widening U.S. income disparities. When they take control of Congress next month, Democratic Party leaders will focus intently on those disparities, they say, and on trade agreements that some contend enrich multinational businesses while destroying American jobs.
Yes, what every would we do without the Democrat Party digging into those greedy capitalists. And to end the article with a bang - a quote from a liberal (that is class warfare) economist.
By contrast, total labor compensation accounted for 56.4 percent of gross domestic income in the period. That percentage has fallen from 58.4 percent in the fourth quarter of 2000 and has been in general decline since the early 1980s.

What's striking to many experts is that labor's share of the economic pie has failed to grow during the last decade even as U.S. workers have become more productive. In essence, those productivity gains have flowed to companies and their shareholders, not to the rank and file.

"We've had nine years of great productivity growth, and most workers see no gain for it," said Dean Baker, co-director of the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research.
So, if I can do some "liberal" math:
-The pie grew at a very high rate.
-The percentage going to labor declined slightly.
-Most workers saw no gain.

I cannot see how those three can be true. That is why I call it liberal math.

The fact of the matter is that capitalism works when entrepreneurs innovate and grow the whole pie. As a result, the people who take the risks, gather capital and invest get the rewards. The expectation that labor, who does not share the risk, should get an equal percentage of the rewards is unrealistic.

Let's look at it another way. When businesses are faltering, are the same proponents of liberal economics willing to take equal pay cuts? Are they willing to put their entire livelihood at risk for the prospect of non-guaranteed profits? I guess not.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Airline to allow cell phones

I certainly hope that this day will never come for any flight I am on. I hate phones in general and could not stand three plus hours sitting next to someone chatting on their cell phone and having them ring every two minutes all around me. Of course, I know the day will come when cell phones will be allowed on planes. Until that time, I will enjoy the peace and quiet.

Now, high speed internet access would be cool, especially on a international fight to Asia or Europe. If you cannot sleep and want to access email, doing so on the plane would be great.

Hong Kong attracts more IPOs than NYC

So, Hong Kong attracts more IPO's than NY. I wonder if Loren Steffy noticed? I wonder if SOx had anything to do with it?

Steffy in the hole, not spectacular

The Houston Chronicle's Loren Steffy is a mixed bag in this piece about the government deficit. The good:
"It seems clear that the nation's current fiscal path is unsustainable and that tough choices by the president and Congress are necessary in order to address the nation's large and growing long-term fiscal imbalance."

That's a statement from David Walker, the U.S. comptroller general and head of the Government Accountability Office, that was attached to the annual financial report released by the Treasury Department on Dec. 15.
Walker also noted that the GAO, which essentially plays the role of auditor in this case, couldn't render an opinion on whether the government's books are sound. In fact, the GAO hasn't been able to do that in more than a decade.

The report notes that the lack of controls doesn't mean the government's accounting isn't accurate, it just means that there's not enough information to determine if they're reliable.
After all of this, there is no Steffy call to apply SOx regulations or put department heads in jail for not complying with existing laws. And yet, when lesser issues come up in private industry Steffy has no problem with calling for jail time and continual audits.

Here, Steffy just turns muddleheaded:
Total liabilities, including Social Security and Medicare, now top $50 trillion, or four times our gross domestic product. That's more than doubled in six years.
In other words, we owe four times more than we make. We would have to quadruple our economy to meet our obligations, and that's if we did it right now.
Bzzzzz. Wrong. The $50 trillion figure does not require a $50 trillion economy to support its obligations. This would be like saying we could not meet a $500,000 house loan obligation unless we make $500,000 a year. Not true.

I think Steffy needs to read the actual GAO report as it is very clear there.
Where does all this lead? A paper by Boston University economics professor Laurence Kotlikoff and published by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis this summer frames the question this way: "Is the United States Bankrupt?"

Kotlikoff stopped short of saying yes, but he warned that the U.S. "seems clearly headed down that path."

There aren't easy options for changing course.

We can print more money and weather the effects of persistently high inflation, or we can raise taxes dramatically and gut entitlements just as the largest segment of the population begins to draw them.

Kotlikoff says adding a 33 percent federal retail sales tax, cutting discretionary spending by one-fifth, slashing trillions from Social Security benefits and curbing growth in health care expenses might do the trick.
I am surprised that Steffy does not offer his prescription that, no doubt, would be to tax higher income people.

Oh well. The crux of the issue is that Social Security and Medicare are Ponzi schemes that depend upon having many more young people than old people. That is no happening.

There is also no will to either raise taxes or cut benefits. That will mean we will not face up to the consequences of big promises made to people living longer and longer. And that is why I am excited to see what will happen in the future when financial war breaks out between the baby boomers and the rest of us. It is one of the most important issues of our time.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Toyota No 1 will face backlash

The NY Times is already setting up Toyota for a protectionist backlash when they become No. 1.
Being at the top could also make Toyota a fatter target for critics, particularly in the U.S. Congress, where its rise could fan a protectionist backlash, analysts said.

"Does being No. 1 matter? It matters for GM, and for America," said Hirofumi Yokoi, an auto analyst at CSM Asia. "It becomes a political issue when America gets passed in a core industry. Toyota will have to be even more sensitive and cautious in the U.S. market."
The only thing that can halt Toyota's rise to the top is Congressional action. Even that will not stop GM and Ford's decline. How did Toyota do it?
Toyota's rise would also prove a victory of sorts for its unique corporate culture, the so-called Toyota Way, which is rooted in an obsession with craftsmanship and constant improvement, or kaizen. Analysts said the Toyota Way would likely become enshrined as the industry's gold standard, and the model to mimic or surpass for new challengers from South Korea and China.
They are the best manufacturer in the world, bar none. The Toyota Way is already the gold standard. I just wish it and the Theory of Constraints would catch on in the chemical industry before it is too late. Regardless, GM and Ford had their chance and passed. Their decline is their own fault, not Toyota. Best make plans in the post-GM and Ford worlds. Their days are numbered.

Feds critical of portable trailer safety plan

So the brain surgeons at the Chemical Safety Board are critical of the American Petroleum Institute's suggestion regarding portable trailers in chemical plants. I have not found nor read BP's procedure, but it appears to me that this is something else that needs proper risk assessment rather than a blanket, Eva Rowe, 1000 foot rule. I'd rather have engineers making the assessment rather than people who don't know the difference between the TNRCC and TCEQ. But this is just me talking here (who, by the way, has a chemical engineering degree and 15 years experience in the chemical industry).

It's All About Capacity in Denver

In Denver, the airport re-opened, but that does not mean people are not stranded.
As planes began taking off again at noon Friday, passengers with long-standing reservations filled most of the outbound flights. That was bad news for those waiting to rebook flights canceled during the storm.

Airline officials tried to explain to unhappy travelers at the airport that they cannot simply bring in extra planes to clear the backlog, and those stranded learned it could be Christmas -- or later -- before they can catch a plane at DIA.

"When we get an airplane, we run it 10 hours a day every day," said Frontier spokesman Joe Hodas. "It's not like we can decide Dayton's not important and just pull some planes from there."
There's just not enough capacity in the airline system to handle a 36 hour outage instantaneously. It will take time to clear the backlog. The key is to start flowing airplanes and flight crews into and out of Denver as fast as possible and get people moving. After that, it is just a matter of time.

Me, I am not going to make it to Denver this year until a week later. It is probably better that way. My slight cold has gotten worse and I am under the weather. Hopefully, I will be better by Monday to attend dinner at a friend's house. The worst part is the weather in Houston is pretty darn good and I am trapped inside today. The dogs are restless and could really use a morning at the dog park. We will see how I feel tomorrow, but it does not look good today.

Elections have Consequences

Donald Luskin writes about early effects of the 2006 Congressional elections.
The biggest threat from the new Democratic Congress is protectionism — legislation designed to protect American jobs by restricting imports from other countries. Here's a perfect case to see the difference between a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress.
I could not agree more. Free trade means free people and moves towards protectionism will make all of us less wealthy.
I doubt that any really big, bad antibusiness legislation is going to come out the new Democratic Congress. But small, bad things will happen. And some good things that might have happened now won't happen.

We'll survive. But it doesn't help America to have its currency devalued, forcing up the prices we pay for foreign goods. It doesn't help America to take money from oil companies who should be exploring for new sources of energy. It doesn't help America to prevent two companies from merging and creating a more efficient broadband environment.
I don't know. A 27.5% tax on Chinese goods would be pretty bad. I wonder what the Congress has cooked up to save Ford and GM.
We'll see the consequences down the road. Yet another exciting thing to watch develop before your eyes.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Steffy on Sarbanes-Oxley Again

Once again, the Houston Chronicle's Loren Steffy writes on a topic that he obviously knows nothing about - the SOx regulations that are, indeed, stifling businesses of all sizes. What he fails to recognize is the business is good right now, SOx or no SOx. That businesses are making money right now does not correlate the the detrimental effect of SOx. In other words, we are making money despite SOx. Productivity is being sapped by the wave after wave of external, internal and corporate audits, all to comply with the nebulous SOx regulations. The effect are seen in the number of companies that are going private or moving their stock offerings to the UK or Singapore. In the medium-to-long run, there will be an effect on American industry as the ratio of overseers to workers increases.

A similar economic effect is seen with income tax compliance. Surely, no one would argue that the income tax regulations aren't onerous and sap national productivity. And yet, American income is at an all time high. In Steffy's world, the application of more tax law would prevent income growth when in the real world, more regulation prevents even more productivity from working its way through the economy. That is the situation with SOx. Imagine what corporations could do with the lost hours spent with 20-year-old kids who never had to make it in the real business world.

Once again, I call for Loren Steffy and the Houston Chronicle to be subject to the same auditing that I get every month. Then we will see if his productivity is the same.

Here Comes Toyota

Toyota will become the number one auto maker in the world, sooner rather than later.
Toyota announced on Friday a global production target of 9.42 million vehicles for next year, increasing the odds that the Japanese manufacturer will surpass troubled General Motors Corp. (GM) as the world's No. 1 automaker.
Although Detroit-based GM says the perception that its cars are gas-guzzlers is unfair and inaccurate, it is undergoing massive restructuring after racking up more than $10.6 billion in red ink last year and $3 billion more the first nine months of this year.

Toyota, on the other hand, is on a roll, reporting record profits, churning out best-sellers like the Camry and Corolla as well as carving out a reputation in hybrids, which use a fine-tuned technology of switching between a gasoline engine and electric motor to save gas at a time when oil prices are rising.
There will be no growth without quality," Watanabe said, adding that quality will be closely monitored at all levels of production, including design, development and procurement. "We'd like to continue our efforts to make good products that win support from our customers."

Although Toyota's production methods, which empowers assembly line workers and trims inventory, are praised by experts, transporting that production to new places remains a challenge.
Here's the thing: Toyota has exported its management and production philosophy all over the world and achieved upwards of 96% of the productivity seen in Japanese plants. They do it with local management and local labor. They do it with and without unions. Therefore, I can only conclude that it is the failure of American automakers to match Toyota's skills that is killing American manufacturing, not just in the auto industry. As I noted here, American management has had its change to learn from the Japanese, but has not.

Shame on us.

Stuck travelers

I guess I am one of 100,000 people who will not make their Xmas destinations. Oh well. I am going a week late so will have two Xmas celebrations.

After hurricane Rita in 2005 and that evacuation nightmare, I have learned to not be disappointed with travel delays, weather and traffic. As the bumper sticker says "S**t happens" and when it does, it matters more how you react to it than what actually happened. Getting angry that Denver got dumped on by mother nature would not get me there for Xmas. I guess I could have vented to the Travelocity agent in India, but that would not do any good. Instead, I re-framed the event to put it into a positive light:
1) I have a place to go for Xmas. I had several offers to come to coworker and friends' houses for dinner. It is good that people care about me here in Texas.

2) I have my dogs with me and we will put up my tree, go food and gift shopping. The weather is very nice here in Houston although I have a slight cold that will prevent going for a hike with the dogs.

3) I can watch all the football on this weekend without taking time away from family to do it. My Broncos play Cinci this Sunday for a spot in the playoffs. Now, I can watch on the big screen in high def without feeling bad for doing it while on vacation.

4) I will be going to see family, just a week later than normal. By then, my cold should be gone and I can go X-country skiing with dad.

Everything will be just fine! In fact, I will have a good time away from work and not going through the stress of traveling. I need some non-stress to get over my cold and just chill for awhile.

Christmas in Texas! One for the ages!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Eva Rowe and BP

As a result of this, I have a lot of respect for Eva Rowe who lost both her parents in the BP blast:
the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, which treated the most critically injured during the blast, talked about its plans for $12.5 million it received as part of the settlement between BP and Eva Rowe, the daughter of two workers killed at the refinery.
However, I am not enthusiastic about this development:
Rowe said the settlement with the oil giant is only the beginning for her. She and her attorney, Brent Coon, said they are planning a campaign calling for mandatory safety changes in the petrochemical industry.
Rowe and Coon have the Eva bill in mind. It can be found here. Here are my comments:

1) Most of actions suggested by the bill already fall under OSHA and other federal or state agencies. Why do they want redundant inspections and injury reporting just involving petrochemical facilities.?

2) One section says:
This task force is changed with the inspection of all such facilities to assign process safety standards conform to established industry standards and operate within all guidelines or regulations as established by the TNRCC, the EPA and any other states or federal agency involved in the monitoring or regulation of environmental standards.
I hate to tell Rowe and Coon, but the TNRCC (lovingly called "train wreck" in the industry) no longer exists. The relevant state agency is called the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. This change was effective in 2002, more than four years ago. The TCEQ already has the power to inspect any facility and ensure we operate within all guidelines established by any number of statues and operating permits. There are also city and county agencies that monitor and inspect petrochemical facilities regarding environmental issues. They will crawl up your backside at any opportunity. Why do Rowe and Coon want to create another agency to do exactly what these agencies already perform?

3) Another brilliant section:
This division shall further create a task force to inspect facilities primarily engaged in the manufacture or distribution of products or materials identified as known or probable carcinogens or with known or recognizable flammable or explosive properties (hereinafter referenced as high risk worksites).
I find it interesting that the chemical industry is one of the safest professions on a statistical basis. And yet, we are branded as "high risk worksites". This is an illogical brand given the dangerous nature of construction and commercial fishing.

4) More:
Each employer and/or worksite owner involving high risk facilities shall report to the commission for permits for the installation of any temporary housing to be located on the premises engaged in the manufacture, production or distribution of products identified at Sec. 411.154 (d). No such temporary buildings are to be allowed on the premises of any such facility without a permit approving the structure and location. No such permits shall be approved by this commission or approved to locate any such temporary structures within 1000 feet of process units or storage facilities containing flammable or explosive materials with the intent of utilizing such facilities for occupancy by personnel.
Why 1000 feet? Why not 10,000 feet? Why not dictate that all structures must survive a 500 lb bomb detonation?

5) And to top it all off:
Refinery/Chemical Facility Start Ups/Shutdowns: Refinery or chemical facility unit startups and planned shutdowns shall be initiated only upon 48 hour advance written notice to this agency and to all personnel working within 1000 feet of the unit. Employers are expressly prohibited from allowing any nonessential personnel within 1000 feet at any time during the startup process of a unit.
This is the most ignorant part of the whole proposal. It is obvious that no one who advised on this bill has ever worked in a chemical plant. Having to advise any government agency of a startup 48 hours before it occurs would absolutely cripple any chemical plant in the world. A lot of chemical processes are batch in nature meaning they startup and shut down all the time. Hell, pumps, compressors, exchangers, etc are started up and shut down all the time. Under this bill, would that necessitate a 48 hour notice each time starting up an individual piece of equipment? Would a 15 minute shutdown due to a power failure require a 48 hour notice? Would a loading/unloading operation require a 48 hour notice prior to starting up?

The bottom line is I applaud Rowe for structuring the settlement like she did. If she wants advice on making plants safer, I would advise getting a plant education first. For a small fee, I would be glad to advise her on the subject. Needless to say, I would not advise anything she requests in this bill.

Workers, residents sue chemical plant

Here is just the latest lawsuit filed over a plastic plant fire. And here is the cause:
The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board said the accident happened after a forklift towing a trailer pulled out a small drain valve at the Olefins 2 unit of the plant...
That allowed liquid propylene to escape, forming a large vapor cloud that ignited.
Not for nothing, but that could happen at any chemical plant in the world. That is, unless you want to eliminate any vehicle traffic from a plant environment. This was a tragic accident that would be difficult to prevent. Nevertheless, the plaintiffs will likely get all the money they want, and probably more.

I wonder if the brain surgeon in charge of the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) predicted this event. No? Why not.

Christmas in Colorado: Canceled

I had planned to go to Colorado and Wyoming over the holiday weekend and visit my dad, aunt and uncle. No such luck as Mother Nature had other ideas. In my whole life of traveling, this is the first time something like this has happened. I spent five hours on the runway in Cleveland once getting de-iced and 16 hours in the Charlotte airport due to fog and a pathetic airline. I have never gotten stuck somewhere overnight or slept in an airport.

I guess I am glad things happened today rather than tomorrow when I was supposed to leave. At least now, I am home with my dogs and can make other plans. I had five different offers for Christmas dinner already and half my friends don't even know, yet.

Paging Al Gore: where is that global warming now?

Happy B-Day Jake

My loyal dog Jake is four years old today (December 21st). I call him my Solstice Dog (the Unconquered Sun). Here are two pictures, one from the day I brought him home (Feb 7, 2003) and one more recent. Notice the scale. He was only one tile long as a puppy, now look at how large he is compared to the same tiles. All I have to say is this:
-Jake is a great dog and a great friend.
-He was so cute as a puppy; now he is a handsome, strong fellow.
-I am so lucky to have him.
-May the Uncontuered Sun live a long and healthy life.
-Happy Solstice to Everyone!

Japan Demographic Shift While You Watch

A plummeting population will be the test case for Europe and US's declining population. However, at least the US is accepting immigrants while Japan never has.

We will see how this works out:
Japan already has the highest number of elderly people and the lowest number of young as a percentage of its population.

The imbalance is threatening future economic growth and raising fears over whether the government will be able to fund pensions.

But Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki said: "It's impossible for the pension system to collapse due to the declining birth rate because we will adjust the amount of money put into it."

All such schemes are doomed to failure; it is not a matter of ideology, it is a question of mathematics. And this is why the next 20 years will be the most financially interesting time in human history. I look forward to watching things like this unfold. It may not be positive, but it will be exciting!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Houston-based chemical company extortion

Don't worry Houston. Companies like these will soon be gone as the center of gravity for plastics manufacturing moves to the middle east. You won't have to bother with the property taxes and high paying jobs for much longer. We hope you will tolerate our presence in your community for a little longer.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A Little CO2 Hypocracy?

I guess the Europeans have abandoned their drive to reduce CO2 emissions. Too bad. It makes them look like hypocrits.

Friedman: Free to Choose

Milton Friedman's groundbreaking series is streaming on the internet here. Don't tell Loren Steffy.

Hyundai, Toyota Misleading Headline

This story has a misleading headline:
Hyundai, Toyota small cars perform poorly in crash tests

Here is part of the article:
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave its lowest rating of poor in side-impact protection to four vehicles: a version of the 2007 Toyota Yaris without side air bags, the 2006 Scion xB, and 2007 models of the Hyundai Accent and the Kia Rio, which share similar underpinnings.

The institute evaluated several minicars for their ability to protect people in a severe crash. The 2007 Nissan Versa, which offers standard side air bags, received top scores in frontal, side and rear crash protection.

The 2007 Toyota Yaris with optional side air bags and the 2007 Honda Fit — which has standard side air bags — also got top marks in frontal and side-impact tests.

The bottom line is if you have a small car, or any car for that matter, get side air bags. The jerks at the AP just cannot get it right, can they?

Monday, December 18, 2006

Ford Continues to Falter

The bankruptcy watch continues as Ford sells two more auto part plants. Ford shows signs it will disappear before GM although both are destined to either go out of business or be absorbed. Even money says Congress will intervene with some sort of protectionist measure.

Duh! Animals Dream, Too

Anybody who has a dog knows that animals dream. I guess we needed someone from MIT to tell us something we already know.

My Jake barks and growls in his sleep. His legs even move. Of course he is just plain cute, but his dream movements are really, really cute.

Class warfare, Again

Here we go folks. Here comes the class warfare, back again for another round. I find such talk like this dangerous:
Democrats are considering proposals to shrink the income gap, such as boosting the minimum wage, scrutinizing executive pay, increasing tax credits available to the poor, and making health care and higher education more affordable.
The crux of the argument is "you have it, I want it, hand it over." Instead, we should argue for mobility between income groups which has always been the equalizer. In America, the fact is the same people don't stay in the lower (or higher) income brackets their entire lives. Most move up and down within the bracket. Chronic, long-term poverty is very low and people that are willing to work, make a good living. That is the American way, not income redistribution.

Besides, there is a lot of mythology and bad data surrounding the income statistics. See a great article here.

Ex-Employee = Future Employee

This is happening a lot where I work. Former employees that either left for early retirement or other opportunity are being re-hired on a contract basis. I see this more and more as the baby boomers retire and look to work part time. Heck, I would not mind working part time at this point.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Steffy: The free market lacks compassion

It is articles like these that make the Chronicle's Loren Steffy such a mixed bag as a business and economics reporter. The issue I have with Steffy is he misapplies the most fundamental concepts of capitalism and what it means to practice capitalism. For example:
A few months ago, I found myself discussing the minimum wage with a couple of friends.

One argued, as many people do, that the minimum wage is an unnecessary control and that the free markets should set the price of labor. If that's $1 an hour, so be it.
Good so far, because capitalism is about free markets and the voluntary exchange of goods and services. The key word is "voluntary". Then Steffy goes on to argue this:
I found myself thinking of the discussion when I read a recent story in Bloomberg Markets magazine by my former colleagues Michael Smith and David Voreacos.

The story, "The Secret World of Modern Slavery," documents what are basically forced labor camps in Brazil and Peru.

It outlines in shocking detail how workers are lured into camps deep in the Amazon, then essentially held without pay for months while forced to work in horrific, disease-ridden conditions.

It reminds us that capitalism without limits is nothing more than a theory. As a practice, it needs boundaries, protections against the darkness of such abuses. Humanity is more than a balance sheet entry.

Let the market decide the value of human work? Without our guidance, the market that provides us all with so much can — and in some places does — rationalize slavery.

The market speaks without compassion, without concern for human suffering, without regard for exploitation.

Steffy somehow thinks this is capitalism when it is clearly illegal and anti-capitalist. That is why real capitalists, like me, argue that the markets should set the labor rates in a free, competitive manner without coersion or collusion. Therefore, it is the place of governments to ensure that competition is assured and that people are free from coersion. Further, effective capitalism will also destroy companies that engage in illegal practices.

I imagine I could make the same argument regarding the freedom of the press, an issue surely close to Steffy's heart and checkbook. There clearly have been ethical lapses and outright journalistic scandals at some of the oldest and most respected journalistic institutions. Dan Rather, Walter Duranty, Eason Jordon, and Jayson Blair come to mind, among others. And yet, I doubt that Steffy would argue that fraud and scandal is central to mainstream journalism and that legal penalties should be meted out for the abuses. In the same way that Steffy would certainly circumscribe the scandals outside of journalistic standards, I circumscribe the iron slavery situation outside of capitalistic standards.

I leave Steffy with this comment from Adam Smith, the father of capitalism and author of both Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations:
"a free enterprise system degenerates unless individual business people practice intentional virtue"

I suggest that Steffy ready both. Maybe he will then avoid the thought errors that are pervasive in his articles.

Steffy: Root cause of Enron's fall

The Houston Chronicle's Loren Steffy, who writes a lot on the Enron debacle, writes an interesting piece again. As much as I sometimes disagree with Steffy and his writing, there are sometimes when he is correct.
The words, then as now, resound for anyone who has ever drawn a paycheck. Even if we love our jobs, there are days when that love alone isn't enough, when work is simply work, a mere financial necessity.

We may not commit crimes, but we've all inched toward the line at some time or other in the name of being a team player, a loyal employee, a good provider. We need the job. We make compromises. The boss tells us to. He tells us it's OK. He tells us he'll take responsibility. Only later do we find out he may also take the witness stand.

At the same time, I think it is entirely possible to create a network of self-reinforcing ethical practices that go beyond the law and policy where things are just done right. I know that is what I strive to do with my organization where we do it the right way, because, well, it is the right way. We comply with SOx and then go miles beyond that to effectively manage our business. That is just what we do.

I think that is where American and global businesses need to go. They need to re-develop the social technologies of truthfulness, ethics and trust. Those technologies paid dividends in the past and will do so again in the future.

Texas microbreweries direct sales

I applaud this effort to legalize sales of beer directly from the place it is manufactured. Saint Arnolds is a local brewry who creates great beers. I would love to go on a tour and be able to purchase the product right there. Why not? There is no reason other than protectionism for large brewries. The restriction should end.

Friday, December 15, 2006

FuturePundit: Blame Cows Before Cars For Greenhouse Gases

FuturePundit: Blame Cows Before Cars For Greenhouse Gases

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Christmas and Shopping

Have you ever felt this way? That is that buying someone a present at Christmas makes up for all the neglect all year long? I do sometimes. And yet, for those of us who are not religious, buying gifts is still an important holiday ritual that makes the holiday period special. I have always treasured the time spend with family during the holidays over the gifts given and received. In fact, most of my childhood memories of famliy are built around holidays. That is what makes this time of year special to me. I hope it is the same way for you and your family.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Meteorite Organic Matter

This is a very cool story regarding the oldest known metorite ever found on earth. It sheds some light and opens new philosophical questions regarding the origin of life on earth. That is cool:
Understanding the origins of that matter is inherently tied in with understanding the origins of life.

Payrolls Jump by 132,000

The strength of this economy in terms of jobs is just amazing. It also defies my expectation of a global economic slowdown. This is one case where I am glad I was wrong. That is except for not participating in the stock market on this massive run up. I have really been late to the party. Oh well, you cannot pick all the right moves. At least I cannot.

Bayport facility to Open

I cannot wait for this facility to open and take pressure off Barbour's Cut and also provide some competition. Right now, it is hard to get loaded and unloaded at BC on a consistent basis. Having an alternative will force BC to improve.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The American Idiot Speaks....Again

Lou Dobbs embarrasses himself again. Here is just a taste of his idiocy:
Victorious Democrats will, with the opening of the 110th Congress, have a historic opportunity to right the course of a country that has been hell-bent on permitting free-trade corporatists and faith-based economics to bankrupt the nation.
Eye-glazing stuff, international trade. But the consequences of faith-based free-trade will be eye-popping in the disaster it wreaks on our economy and working Americans.
Dobbs goes on to argue, without explicitly stating it, for a new round of protectionist legislation that will kill the economic miracle of the American economy.

To Dobbs I say: the facts are that free trade makes everyone wealthier. E-V-E-R-Y-O-N-E. From the people laboring in China to the average American. Further, when we trade with potential military adversaries (China), we lessen the risk of armed conflict.

Asking for a legislative answer instead of adapting to the new global reality will not change the facts of a globally competitive economy. Dobbs' pleading for Congressional interference in the matter won't change those facts.

Automakers Slow Death or Fast Death, Your Choice

The die was cast many years ago and the results of American automaker's refusal to adopt efficient management and manufacturing techniques are being seen now. It appears it will be a long, slow death for first Ford and then GM. Ford is cutting back 46% of its work force. The results of this will reverberate through the economy. The best case is Ford being absorbed by Honda or Nissan. That will be the only thing that will save the company.

Of course, there is always the possibility that a Lou Dobbs-(The American Idiot)-style protectionism will allow the Ford and GM dinasaurs to survive a little longer.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Judge asks BP for their crystal ball

I am not sure what would constitute sufficient proof of safety improvements, but a judge asks for it anyway.

Here is the thing about chemical plant safety: there are few predictors of good safety performance other than a systematic approach to safety practices. The only thing that demonstrates improvements is the lack of injuries and catastrophic events. Even those are deceptive as some injuries are beyond the control of management. For instance, say a guy steps down off a normal step and breaks his ankle. That counts as a safety incident. How can that be prevented? In the case of these plaintiffs, it appears they are arguing safety is being nickled and dimed at BP. I wonder what level of spending would be sufficient to alleviate their concerns. Further, what measures fall under the diminishing returns principle?

Of course, I am not arguing that the BP disaster was unpreventable, because clearly I have argued the opposite. I am only arguing that we put aside hysterics and approach safety from a rational point of view. Only then can BP and the rest of the chemical industry operate safely and responsibly.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Baffled Expert

How can an "expert" be baffled? Usually, that is Loren Steffy's job.

Goodbye Ford, You are Done

Sorry Ford, your time is almost over. Toyota took the number 2 spot in November:
Toyota Motor Corp. took the No. 2 spot in the U.S. market in November from Ford Motor Co., which saw sales tumble by a steeper-than-expected 10 percent.

GM, Ford and Chrysler are all losing money, cutting jobs and production. The Big Three Detroit automakers also have been struggling to manage inventories. The problem is most acute for Chrysler, which is working to eliminate unaccounted-for, unsold inventory.
How did they do it? Let me guess: smaller, more fuel efficient car sales and a hybrid strategy.