Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Is rapid innovation still possible in the US?

Ever since The Streetsweeper posted a link to an article by Richard Florida, I've been pretty consumed with the question of whether or not the United States has, at this moment, the capacity to experience rapid innovation.  There are times in an ordinary day where I see a new application of an existing technology and marvel at how innovative that is.  For example, yesterday I ordered and paid for a customized burrito for lunch on my iPhone and picked it up after a 5 minutes walk!  Are you kidding me?!  Think about that.  I didn't talk to anyone.  I didn't even sit down at a computer and pick out my toppings on an expensively made e-commerce website.  I hit 7 or 8 buttons on a TELEPHONE and had a hot burrito in my hands 5 minutes later.  It was so easy, so practical and effortless, that it was suddenly possible to envision a world where a great deal of transactions are carried out this way.
Though, to be fair, the true paradigm shifting innovation that allowed my moment of awe occured 20 years ago with the emergence of the internet as a commercial utility.  Everything since has been an evolution of that technology.  It is that type of innovation that I'm talking about, the earth-shattering kind that leads to the creative destruction of an entire sector of jobs, while creating a new industry and jobs to go with it.
I'm not sure that our government, knowingly or otherwise, is interested in fostering that type of innovation anymore.  The policies and actions taken aren't so much against innovation, so much as they are protectionist of the industries that are dying at the hands of creative destruction.  Those actions slow the advancement of emerging technology.  The government places a value on certain industries and sectors of the economy, and then ignores others.
The bailouts of the automobile industry are the most glaring example of our government stifling the creation of more efficient alternatives.  Then they turn around and ignore the death of the print media at the hands of a more nimble online media.    In one instance, creative destruction is a monster to be stopped, and in another it is deemed okay. 
The innovation of the internal combustion engine was a true paradigm shifting moment in history, one in which we made the decision, tacit or implicit via policy, to let the professions associated with horse travel go by the wayside, yet 100 years later we can't return the favor to the creators and refiners of the fuel cell, electric, gasoline hybrid or hydrogen powered engines.  Why do we place the jobs of the relative few ahead of raising the standard of living for the entire world?
If you compare the rate of change in the computer industry, to that of the automobile industry you really begin to see the effects of protectionist policies, and how consumers in the aggregate lose.  Our computers have experienced exponential gains in efficiency coupled with reduced costs to attain them.  While our vehicles have only experienced gains in those areas where the goverment demands them, fuel efficiency (modest gains at that) and safety (significant gains).
There has been little to no intervention in the emerging computer market.  5.25" floppy drive and media makers died out, replaced by CD makers that have since disappeared in favor of flash media and solid state hard drives.  Consumers win, jobs come and go and come again but at least we've had the innovation that has presumably bettered our lives as a result.  I wish I could say that over 20 years my automobiles have offered that level of satisfaction.  
All of this is coming around, I suppose, to an opinion on whether or not the US is capable of rapid innovation.  I believe that we are, under the right conditions:
  • the emerging technology must not be in direct competition with an existing titan of industry, otherwise the full force of the goverment will act to stifle it to protect jobs or special interests.
  • the emerging technology must evolve in marketability/profitablity quickly, there is no help of the government to see it through it's infancy.
That is not a long list.  Any innovation that threatens the status quo in a major job sector will face an uphill battle as the goverment acts to subsidize the now obsolete technology in the name of job preservation.  In the long run, even the job market is hurt by these policies.  Look no further than the computer industry to see how many job sectors have been created by the innovation of the personal computer.  Luckily, that emerging market wansn't destroying anything huge.
I won't say that I never support helping an ailing industry, but when there is a new technology waiting in the wings that needs some assistance in lowering it's costs and getting into the mainstream, I sincerely wish we'd refrain the "Too Big to Fail" mentality of supporting the old guard.  Those instances are truly few and far between.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Baptize! On 3! Break!

Oi! When is it ever a good idea to take your high school football team to a church revival? I'd say it's never a good idea. There seems to be a certain subset of folks who just will never be happy with living their faith, and feel the need to impose it instead.

I was recently invited by a friend of mine to attend his church in the coming weeks for a series of sermons that did in fact sound pretty interesting. I was appreciative of how politely he extended the invitation, and honestly I expect nothing less from him. That's how you win converts. You live the faith. You don't use God as a team bonding event, pull a few heart strings, and whip out the peer/coach pressure to secure a baptism. If my kid made a commitment to God and Christianity at an event like that, I'd be furious too. I'd never be sure he/she only took part to appease the person doling out the playing time. Kids do far dumber things than that to fit in with teammates and make coaches happy.

Besides the fact that it is unconstitutional, there are practical reasons to keep religion out of our public school activities. Kids should never feel there is a quid pro quo for their affirmation of faith, or that a grade might depend on their involvement in FCA or some other religious after-school activity. We preach the virtue of fighting peer-pressure, and then use it achieve something much more personal and important in a young person's life. An affirmation of faith should be from the heart and uncoerced.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

We're on the move!

The last month we've listed our house for sale and sold it in 9 days. Then came the stressful process of finding another home. Mrs. Bliss and I have mostly similar views on what we want in a home, and in this case what we hope to be our last home.

When I made a mental list of the things I wanted in a home I was surprised at how many of the things were not really related to the house itself:
  • large mature trees
  • close to schools and work
  • inside New Circle Road
  • nice usable yard
  • flat driveway for a basketball goal (seriously, this is important to me.)
  • rear entry garage
As for the actual house, all I personally cared about were actual needs:
  • 4 bedrooms and the ability to make a 5th
  • 2.5 baths
  • a basement, finished or not
That was really all I wanted. Now, my wife had other ideas for inside requirements, but I could be totally flexible as long as most or all of the 6 external requirement were met. So we set about in finding something that would meet our needs to house 5 children and give us some outdoor space to keep them from going stir crazy.

Yesterday we got a signed contract on a home that met 5 of 6 of my external requirements and all 3 of the house needs. It has a front entry garage, but a beautiful new concrete driveway that is perfect for playing basketball.

Best of all, it is across the street from an elementary school (like, the crosswalk is 15 feet from our front door) and is directly across the street from a park with a playground, bike/walking trail and a baseball field. It was a home we KNEW we wanted as soon as we saw the location. As long as the house was marginally well constructed and modern, we were going to make an offer.

I won't post pictures yet, as we just signed the contract. Once we close, or at least get the inspection and appraisal behind us, I'll put up some more information. Needless to say, Mrs. Bliss and I really feel like we are getting the last residence we'll ever want.

Friday, September 4, 2009

I think humans as a race were smarter a few hundred years ago.

"Neither a borrower nor a lender be,
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry."


-Polonius, Hamlet


"The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower becomes the lender's slave."


- Proverbs 22:7


I'm not ashamed to talk about money publicly.  Or more specifically, my money and how I spend it.  I won't proselytize but I'm perfectly comfortable discussing my finances.  That definitely was not always the case.


The first quote I posted was one I often heard from my mother growing up.  The only problem was she usually stopped after the first line.  The second and third lines are the ones that really make the case.  "Husbandry" refers to an act of conservation, and in the financial realm it means saving.  To borrow is to truly dull the effects of saving, if not entirely negate the concept.


Usury, in its original application, is the practice of loaning money and charging interest.  Later, it came to be known as charging a higher interest rate than the law might allow.  It is a concept that I became fully aware of in the last 2 years as my wife and I made a decision to follow a different financial plan.


We entered college with very little knowledge regarding personal finance, quickly obtained credit cards, and even quicker accumulated debt.  Not a lot in the grand scheme of things, but for having no income it monumentally stupid.  Our most dubious purchase was a $300 Adirondack chair, hand painted in a Jimmy Buffett theme, purchased at the Woodland Arts Fair.  It is still a beautiful chair, but looking at it reminds of how ignorant I was.  And because of that, I don't find it to sit all that comfortably.  By the time we paid off the card, I'd guess we paid $1000 for that chair.


Our first stop as a married couple was down to the bank to consolidate our credit card debts and cancel the cards.  So from the age of 20 on, we've lived without credit cards.  It's just how we live.  It wasn't easy. It wasn't convenient.  But we got by.  Looking back, I don't really see how though.


But even after paying off the cards, we still hadn't made a conscious change in our philosophy with money.  We simply didn't use credit because we knew we were unable to use them wisely.  There was no greater principle guiding us, purely self-preservation.  That wouldn't come until later.


Through our first years of marriage while we had a daughter and were still in college, we made full use of the federal student loan program.  We received some grants, but we almost always took the full disbursement of the loans offered as well.  We used that money to prepay rent through the semester.  It seemed like worthy spending choices at the time.  After all, it got us by.  Today, these are our only debts aside from our home.


At the ripe old age of 28, I discovered Dave Ramsey on the radio.  I'll try not to make this an infomercial, but to say that it was an awakening would be an understatement.  His use of scripture wasn't what convinced me, though I clearly like and subscribe to the principle in Proverbs 22:7, it was the sheer sound of joy from all the people who were proclaiming their freedom from debt.  I wanted that.  I'm fully aware that he's peddling common sense, and in that respect he is no different from a Tony Robbins figure.  But at the same time, I guess I had lived my whole life assuming that debt was normal.  Just because I'd sworn off credit at age 20, debt as a way of life was still what I expected. 


More powerful than anything Dave said, was what his callers had to say.  I could relate to every single one of them about the crushing feeling of living paycheck to paycheck.  I realized that how we managed our money meant that no matter how much income we had, we would always live paycheck to paycheck.  When a caller said he made $150,000 a year and still was worried about money and making ends meet, I learned something useful about money management.  Our spending controlled us, not the other way around.  The only advantage we had on the folks calling Dave was that we only spent what we made.  But dammit, we spent it all!


Over the last two years, we've developed a pretty strong, well disciplined budget process.  We save vigorously; roughly 25-30% of our net income each month depending on that month's planned expenses.  Every dollar is spent on paper; even the money saved is designated for something, usually up to 10 things we are simultaneously saving for.  We know which expenses are our downfall and try to build ourselves in some wiggle room.  We're now in charge of our spending, and the results have been pretty staggering.  We basically started with no savings, like most Americans.   My goal, if I can keep a working jalopy for the next 2-3 years, is to walk into a dealership and pay cash for a new car in 2012.


On the whole, I don't mind my student loan payment and my mortgage payment.  In that respect, we diverge from the path Dave sets out.  We could be taking that 25-30% of our income and paying down those debts, but the truth is, I've become so tired of living without a safety net that I want to build that up sufficiently before tackling those debts.  It would take upwards of 3 years to pay off both of our student loans if saved nothing during that time.  Just too much can go wrong in 3 years.  But all in all, we finally feel like we are winning the money game, and in some ways we feel "rich" in our ability to go do something if we want to because we've made decisions that enable that. 
On this front, there may be significant news to share this afternoon.  I'm trying not to get my hopes up, but I've got my fingers crossed.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Be Loud...Let your colorshow!

This song has such a great energy, and performed live it's just incredible. There is something so unique and satisfying about a banjo and a primal scream that I can't stop listening to it. This song is off their Four Thieves Gone album, which I don't consider one of their best in it's entirety, but the high points are fantastic. See for yourself.

Their new album is coming out later in September, their first on a major label and produced by Rick Rubin. I can't wait. Here is the title track:

Lastly, this clip is from the show my wife and I saw at the Kentucky Theater in June. It was a much better show than the one I attended at the Master Musicians Festival in Somerset a year ago. This is how you shred a banjo:

"Should Kids Hear Obama?"

We now officially live in a world where the headline on the newspaper website is THE headline, and whatever makes it above the fold in the morning is old news.  So when the Lexington Herald Leader online has as one of it's top stories "Should Kids Hear Obama?", that strikes me as a headline meant to grab readers and clicks.  In this case, it's a bit of a bait and switch.  The question is apparently, should Obama be addressing kids while in school, and should schools interrupt learning for a presidential address aimed at them?
The quotes from Republican Party leaders already insinuate that this address is an attempt to push left wing propaganda on America's youth.  Surely they don't believe Obama is trying to hold a town hall summit on health care with school kids, right?  This may be the first time that a President has ever aimed a speech at school kids, but it certainly isn't the most blatant attempt at propaganda ever made by a President. 
FDR had entire administrations devoted to promoting his New Deal agenda, through music, photography, plays and obviously print media.  Of course, everyone was along for the ride during the New Deal.  It wasn't propaganda, it was patriotism.  You remember that year that followed September 11, 2001?  It was like that, except it lasted for a decade during the FDR years.
All things considered, I have very little problem with a one time address to school kids.  My daughter would be excited for something like that.  I don't think a president can hope to achieve anything tangible from speaking with people who can't vote for him.  What does concern me though, is that some parents are so partisan as to actually request that their kids not be allowed to listen.  If that ain't the pot calling the kettle black...

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Next on my reading list

I finished up The Forgotten Man, by Amity Schlaes this weekend and continued my recent trend of alternating between Fiction and Non-fiction reading.  Up until a few months ago, I couldn't even remember how long it had been since I read any fiction material.  Something about perusing my Dad's classic sci-fi library got me started again.  I've read just about everything of his that looked interesting, but I've been going back and filling in the gaps of what I missed as a teenager, starting with Robert Heinlein.
Saturday at Barnes and Noble, I picked up a copy of Time for the StarsIt's the story of exploration of the galaxy for earth-like planets to colonize as the Earth reaches it's population tipping point.  Also, it's about using identical twins to telepathically transmit data back to Earth, as that type of communication ignores all laws of physics relating to the speed of light and Einstein's Theory of Relatvity.  In a nutshell, a radio signal from 11 light years away would reach Earth way too late to be of any use. 
Besides the great story of how the two main character brothers drift apart as the one living Earthside ages and the other doesn't, the overriding theme that occurs to me is that maybe our planet is currently reaching a tipping point, and we're not doing anything in an exploration capacity that will reap a usable benefit for the human race in time make a difference.  I suppose the same notion was a concern in the 1950's when the book was written as well. 
So far, it's been a great book and a quick read.  I'm hard-pressed to think of a Heinlein book that wasn't interesting or thought provoking.
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