Thursday, April 30, 2009

Federal Cars, Inc.

Remember how, a few posts back, I declared that adding zombies could improve almost anything? I should have added a rider to that statement: "except the car industry".

In a blindingly obvious sop to the car unions in particular, and unions in general, the Obama administration has decided to allow Chrysler to go into administrative protection now that it's agreed to join Fiat in unholy matrimony, with the promise of billions more in aid in order to emerge "leaner and fitter" from the process. Great logic, and exactly the sort of thinking that should propel my new book, "the Amoebic Dysentery Diet", straight to the top of the best seller list.

Here, then, is a precise and detailed recipe for how to create a mega-zombie. Take one entity that has already achieved walking dead status, Chrysler, and duct-tape it to another, Fiat, that's been on life support for a couple of decades and is still rife with all the nasty diseases that all Italian business is riddled with (sloth, corruption, sloppiness and arguing-the-toss). In the process, screw over all the associated parts suppliers, dealers and, most likely, current owners, and embark on a death march that will take at least six months to complete, despite the ludicrous claims that things will be "back to normal" within 30 days, or "maybe 60 tops". Oh, and along the way said megazombie's sales will drop off a cliff as they are forced to slash prices even further in order to get anyone to buy their now worthless sheet metal.

There is absolutely no logic whatsoever to this deal, and here's why.

1. Chrysler will never have the money to bring new models to market at anything like the rate Ford or even GM - if they survive - will be able to muster, so there no greener lands of milk and honey anywhere within reach even if they do survive the operation.

2. But that's OK, because we can fill the gaps by selling re-badged Fiats, no? Well, actually, no. Today, zero Fiats (excepting Ferraris!) are sold here which of course means they've never been federalised. What do you reckon, 18 months minimum to get that process done? Hmm, isn't that a bit of a problem that no one is mentioning?

3. Does anyone in the US anyway even care about Fiat's mass-market cars? Probably not. After all, no other bog-standard Euro models have ever done much of anything in the way of sales here. Ford has never managed to get the hang of a world car despite throwing billions at the problem, and small hatchbacks of whatever brand are generally loathed here, regardless of the badge they bear.

4. And how exactly does this ridiculous partnership fix the problems Fiat has? While it was still just a no-risk way for them to get access to a broad-based US dealer network then perhaps it was an experiment worth running. Alas, they too are now going to be infected by the Chrysler virus, much as Daimler was before them until the Germans had the good sense to perform a serious amputation in order to halt their slide into oblivion.

There is no way forwards here that makes even the remotest sense. Cerberus, and their puppet master Nardelli, have systematically bled Chrysler dry to the point where federal zombification is the only way to keep this particular corpse animated and moving. Alas, by making this thing bigger instead of shooting it in the head, all the feds have done here is to increase its appetite for the "B" word, but in this case it's Billions, as in dollars, rather than "B" as in brains. Indeed, brains appear to be in very short supply in car-co land just now....

(Thanks to TTAC for the basics here - they are spot on, as always. Cool image at the top from here.)

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Are You Harbouring A Suicidal Prius?

Even Brain Surgery Didn't Help Percy Prius Combat Depression

We can all imagine how stressful it must be to have to act as the torch bearer for an entire movement. All those over-wrought expectations that can never be met, those endless cycles of ever inflating hype and hyperbole, they are all bound to take their toll in the end. Just ask any England football squad before the European Championship or World Cup qualifiers how well that turns out and you'll get an idea of how tough it is to live perpetually in the land of
"we are the champions" when in practice you fail miserably each and every time.

Spare a thought then for the Toyota Prius. Here we have a vehicle that's single-handedly become the symbol of how green one is. It's a heart-on-the-sleeve kind of thing, where everyone knows you've spent over the odds just to absolutely prove your love for mother earth. Each day, what's no more than a glorified milk-float has to look, act, be green, regardless of whether it gives a toss or not about your newly-minted Gaiaian credentials. And frankly, some days it's all too much.

Who, then, are we to judge when a Prius or two goes off the rails? When it wakes one day and says "screw it, I'm done" and decides to end it all in some grand gesture, taking the previously smug-and-happy occupants along with it for the ultimate ride, who are we to judge and to say, "bad Prius"?

Well, dear reader, it's happening, and it's happening now to a Prius near you. Witness this, just in case you thought I was making it all up and heading nowhere. The Houston News is detailing a number of cases where different Prius cars suddenly, and I'd say wilfully, sped off of their own volition, clearly hell bent on getting bent all to hell. Sure, sceptics will say the drivers are simply morons who hit the wrong pedal and are too weak-willed to fess up, but I say "no", it IS the car, and it's a car with a deeply troubled heart.

Therefore, dear reader, sit down and talk to your Prius. Ask it how its day was, and if there anything it would like to get off its battery block? Be candid, let it know that you won't hold it personally responsible if indeed the Arctic ice melts next year and hundreds of polar bears die of hunger. Tell it that it won't be the fault of your Prius that Orlando is now a giant water park with crocodiles swimming merrily past fourth floor hotel windows because the oceans have all risen 50 feet. Absolutely not. "You did your best", you will say. It really isn't your fault that it takes more energy and creates far more pollution to build you than other cars, nor that cheaper and simpler vehicles like the VW Polo Blue Motion actually get better mileage without all the weight, complexity and heavy-metal by products of building giant battery packs. It will be all right. Because if you don't then you might just want to start driving around in a crash helmet and tying sofa cushions to your chest before you get behind the wheel. A Prius has feelings too, you know, and having to shoulder all that guilt along with the sole responsibility from saving the planet from CO2-driven extinction is a disaster waiting to happen. And you never know just what it is that will push Percy the Prius over the edge. A rogue traffic jam, rain, the whole, depressing futility of it all when going to the shops for a tin of cat food, it will all get to be too much at some point, and before you know if then your pride-and-joy will be off and charging for the nearest freeway overpass before leaping off.

I'm just saying. Be prepared. The end is nigh.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Pig Flu - Why I Am Less Than Scared

"Come here you mass murdering bastard!"

It's been pretty well impossible to turn on the TV over the past few days without having to endure a stream of near hysterical news items predicting the end of humanity as we know it, all because some Mexicans died of the flu. Now let's be clear here: I think Mexicans are wonderful people and really don't want any of them to be dying of flu, be it pig, duck, Asian or otherwise. But so far they have been the only victims, so let's just look at the facts here before we all head to the underground bunkers and break out the gas masks, OK?
  • Every year, the US suffers approximately 36,000 deaths from flu, an annual figure that's slowly rising.

  • So far, not one death in the US, or indeed anywhere else but Mexico, can be chalked up to this particular flu variant.

  • As of today, 40 US flu cases are thought to be tied directly to this strain. That's it.

  • Existing anti-virals like Tamiflu seem to work quite well on this one, which is a good thing because there appear to be large stockpiles left over from the last flu scare.

  • This version actually has characteristics that make it a mix of bird/swine/human flu, so it's not all that new and scary once you get right down to it.

  • Pigs can harbor things way worse than flu, such as Ebola, so we're better off than some. Flu makes you feel bad for a few days; Ebola kills you when your internal organs liquify.

  • World pandemics have been declining in impact over the years, with nothing really major since 1969. Despite increasing air travel, we're getting better and better and controlling these things even when there are new outbreaks of completely new strains, which this isn't.

However you try and do the maths it's very hard to see how you might characterise this as a pandemic; it's hard yet to even call it an narrow-demic, but I suppose I could live with a more accurate term like "outbreak", if anyone were willing to use it.

But then, where would be the news mileage in that?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Bathroom Bandit

Driving to the airport on Monday, I heard a discussion on a radio call-in show about some poor bloke who was in jail because he dared to use the wrong bathroom. Let me explain.

Joao Correa made a big mistake. Prior to taking a Delta Airlines flight from Honduras to the USA, he decided to get something to eat. No article I have seen relates what the offending food item was, but we're talking Honduras, OK? Probably pretty much everything around you falls into the category of "not to be taken internally". Anyway, about 30 minutes into the flight poor Joao was caught short by the dreaded Montezuma's revenge. Still, at least he was on a plane positively replete with bathrooms, and the seat belt sign was off so no problem, eh? Alas, no. This was a Delta 737 flight, seemingly crewed by staff who graduated from the Stalin School of Service Person Charm.

On a 737 there is but one aisle which, at the time of Joao's attack was blocked by the drinks cart. The ever helpful stewardess, on hearing of his dilemma, thoughtfully refused to move. After all, pushing a metal cart full of fizzy sugar water is important airline-type business, is it not? Joao, fearing the inevitable and fast-approaching roar of the aforementioned offended Mexican deity, asked if he could use the business class bathroom. This, too, was refused.

After a few more minutes back in his seat, with the cart still in the way, Joao could take it no more and made a run for the business class lavatory. The stewardess apparently put out her arm to stop him so he pushed it out of the way - or twisted it, if you take her side on this one - finally getting into to a place where his bottom could explode in safety, thereby avoiding incommoding both himself and likely anyone else within a radius of 50 feet.

Upon landing, adding further insult to injury, poor Joao was arrested and slung in jail for two days while being charged with interference with a flight crew. Oh, and in case you didn't know, TSA says using the wrong class of bathroom on an international flight is also against the - or rather, its - law, so he's probably up on that charge too.

What on earth has happened to common human decency and empathy with one's fellow man? I've seen flight attendants move carts for bathroom-bound passengers countless times. It's easy, too, just to step into a row and allow the cart to shuffle back and forth but once in order to get past. Why in God's name do some flight attendants think they are there solely to control passengers and not to help them? If you don't want to be in the service business then for heaven's sake please go and find a profession more suited to your temperament: debt collecting or rodent extermination might be more suitable, or how about Amish-style dentistry? And quite frankly, what was the poor guy supposed to bloody well do? Letting nature take its course would be far from pleasant for poor Joao, and decidedly miserable for every other passenger within sniffing or squelching distance too. I for one wouldn't care less if I never even got my fizzy sugar water if it meant avoiding that particular outcome.

Flight attendants are supposed to be there to help, aid and assist passengers, not to wield power over them just for the sake of a quiet life or, worse, just because they can. The vast majority I encounter firmly fall into that "keen to help" category, even at times when passengers can be a right royal pain in the ass. However, to my mind this is at the level of a medical emergency and should be treated as such. Bad job Delta. Back to the retraining camp on this one.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

33 And Counting

Y Travel?

Bored, having an hour to run between ARN and LHR, and having read everything to hand that was readable, I decided to try and work out how many trips I’ve done overseas in the past few years. Handily, I had my passport in my pocket and saw that it’s almost exactly 5 years to the day since it was issued.

I found a total of 33 re-entry stamps to the US, and given that I’ve only been to Canada once in that time – and even then I’m not sure they stamped it - then they are all recording long-haul flights. Given that these trips are therefore either to Europe, the Far East and even Africa, I reckon that makes for a total anywhere between 350,000 and 450,000 miles.

Upon reflection, I’m not sure I needed to know that, and it likely means I have a personal carbon footprint matched only by that accumulated by the Chinese state power generating board over the same period of time, but somewhat less usefully.

And by the time you read this, it will have clocked up to 34, with every chance of being 36 by June.

Shouldn’t that merit some reward more impressive than a large balance of air miles in multiple accounts and an intimate knowledge of BA’s seasonal menu roster in economy class?

Friday, April 17, 2009

Otter, Baby Otter, Kelp

From the indoors to the outdoors, and an even more difficult photographic situation. S spotted this mother-baby pair hiding in kelp and some way off from our balcony window. (The weekend package we got at the Plaza included an excellent view, along with a place to view it from!)

The shot shown here was a) a tight crop from the original frame, b) taken with a 1.4x teleconverter on the Canon 100-400 mm lens, c) had to be manually focused and d) was steadied just by leaning on the balcony railing. In short, far from easy conditions to try and produce something usable. We spent a lot of time watching and waiting for them to move, but when they did it was obliquely and further away from us, so things never got easier!

Wonderful though to see a breeding sea otter in a place where numbers have been under threat for quite some time.

Heading home from Europe on Sunday.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Otter, Water

Of course, since we visited the aquarium to see the sea horses, we also had to go and see the otters, long one of their major attractions. Timing worked out well, so we were on-station when feeding time rolled around (11:30 am for the morning session.) As you can see, photographing these animals is just a difficult as it would be shooting any other fast moving creature living behind a wall of glass like, say, a sea horse, just to pick something at random! This was about as good as I could get that day.

And speaking of going places, I'm once again in Stockholm. Oddly, it seems balmier here than it was in CA when I left at the weekend. Probaly just means that global warming is more of an issue for Europe than it is in North America. Oh dear, and pass me another SUV, please.

Back Sunday.

Oh yes, the punchline. "What's the definition of a water otter?" Answer: a kettle.

Must be the jet lag talking.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Morning With The Gee Gees

Though in this case, the aquatic variety!

We had headed off to Monterey for a couple of days as a bit of a mini Spring break. As part of the deal offered by the Monterey Plaza hotel, we got free tickets to the Monterey Aquarium in addition to much-reduced room-rates.

Purely by luck, mid last week their new exhibition, The Secret Lives of Sea Horses, opened. So off we went.

Despite getting there as soon as it opened, and with advance tickets no less, the exhibit was still crowded. Being there on Easter weekend was always going to mean the place was heaving so no real surprises there I suppose, but even so each of the aquariums was more of a squeeze to get to than we anticipated. That, combined with the optical challenges - especially true of the circular tanks - meant that photographing these little beasties was a real challenge. The above, a leafy sea dragon, was an amazing creature that this shot does a bit of a disservice to, and worth the entry fee alone to see. However, mixing low lighting, crowded conditions, curved glass and creatures that are actually quite active means that you will likely end up with only a handful of shots in focus, let alone worthy of being labelled "keepers".

Notwithstanding the crowds, it's well worth the effort to catch this exhibit if you can. They've done their usual exemplary job of pulling together a fascinating review of a whole class of creatures, as anyone having seen their previous jelly fish exhibit will already know.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

I Really Hope This Was Photoshopped

Because the alternative doesn't bear thinking about.

Those NASCAR fans, eh? Still, could have been worse. His wife/girlfriend parked next door could have taken her shirt off too.

(Thanks - if that's the right word - to Tom for the pic. I am now so traumatized that I'll be taking the afternoon off.)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Is There Anything Zombies Won't Improve?

Turns out, the answer is probably "no". Thanks to the BBC, I just learned about a new book: "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies". Finally, an English literature classic I can relate to. Never did get on with all that irony, social commentary and long, boring, mannered prose Austen was perennially fond of. How better, then, to make it more accessible than to add zombies to the mix? Brilliant.

Here's the opening line ...

"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains."

I mean, it doesn't get much better than that, eh?

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Sun Split On IBM Deal?

Fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal saying that the IBM acquisition of Sun has been pulled. Seems the board is divided over whether or not to accept with a faction led by Scott McNealy against vs. a group led by Schwartz for the deal. Price isn't supposed to be the biggest issue, despite IBM apparently lowering its bid following extensive due-diligence.

Regardless of how this plays out - and it's likely the saga hasn't yet reaches the end of the telling as yet - bet Sun's stock price gets clobbered tomorrow morning, especially as the WSJ also says there are no other suitors waiting in the wings ....

Friday, April 3, 2009

Where Did It All Go Wrong?

Here's a picture of an American icon: the 1957 Corvette SS. This race car prototype debuted with a magnesium body over a steel tube-frame chassis. It weighed just over 1,800 pounds, had aluminium brake drums, used coil-over suspension and enjoyed a high-revving V8 delivering over 300 hp. Rule changes ultimately meant that this car never really competed seriously, but it's some consolation that the world got the Corvette Stingray instead, the direct descendants of which we are enjoying to this day.

How on earth did the US car industry manage to sink from these sublime heights to the deep, dark depths it's currently plumbing? At the very least, they forgot to love cars, preferring instead to hear the ringing of cash register as accountants in the 80s and 90s squeezed another year of record SUV and truck sales out of 20 year old technology.

Chrysler is dead, we're just waiting for the funeral to start. GM will be put into a controlled coma, hopefully to emerge sometime in the future when the US government has found a cure for what ails it. Ford ... well Ford will make it through, it seems, largely because of some adult supervision appearing on the scene a couple of years ago that was finally willing to take some very hard decisions.

Let's all hope the US car industry can, at some point soon, once again find some passion, and produce innovative cars that will lead the world. But don't hold your breath in the meantime, OK? Expect nothing much except more of the same for the next five years. Still, at least we have the memories.