Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Stuck In the Desert

I recently experienced one of my nightmares related to my travels in the wild outback of the southwest deserts. I got stuck. My car's battery died. This happened as I was gearing up for a nice hike up Cave Mountain. I was very lucky because I was within about 1.5 miles of the interstate highway (if I wanted to trek across the soft desert sand - which is dangerously annoying because it tends to give way letting you drop from 3 to 8 inches below the surface. I was also about 1 mile, and within view, of a cell tower. What luck. So I called up a friend (yeah Wes!) and he helped me find the closest tow service. I only needed a jump start, but still, it was really really expensive. The first pic is of my car sitting there on the powerline road - dead.

When I returned, I used my favorite forum for Acura MDX owners, acuramdx.org, to learn that the OEM battery traditionally lasts 2-3 years. So I should feel very lucky that mine lasted 3.5 years and 83,000 miles. Cool! I also learned that the best replacement battery is the Optima. They make the red top line for engine starting, and the yellow top line for deep cycling, which is popular with the young kids and their massive car stereos. Here's a pic of my new battery, the Optima 34R Red Top. It looks like a six-pack. It's a sealed lead acid gel type and can be mounted in any orientation and is very insensitive to vibration. It has terrific energy storage and is an inch shorter than the OEM battery (a 24 group). Optima includes several mounting adapters. I used the height adapter that attaches to the bottom of the battery allowing it to sit perfectly in the taller 24-size well in my car. It took me an hour to replace the battery. Most of that time was turning the small nuts on the mounting brackets, because I had to use a crescent wrench since they're metric and my socket set is English.

With my shiny new battery, I still wasn't properly prepared to return to the outback. I bought myself a portable jump starter. I took my time learning about the important metrics in this growing market. There are a LOT of products out there, with the prime manufacturer being Vector (they even make the ones branded as Black & Decker and Husky). More and more of these products are now including extras such as integrated air compressors and AC inverters. I chose to avoid those sinply because I already carry 2 air compressors and 2 AC inverters, and those features add bulk to the jump starter - making it take up more valuable volume in my SUV. I learned that the important metric is CCA = Cold Cranking Amps. Many of the products advertise a huge "peak amps" value - but be warned: this is not CCA. If it were, they'd proudly say it. As Wikipedia says, CCA is the amount of current the battery can provide at 0 deg F for 30 seconds. By comparison, those peak amps they advertise are very short peaks - like milliseconds. Clearly, CCA is more important in cold climates where the starter has more trouble turning a cold engine with cold engine oil. I chose to buy the Coleman Powermate Waterproof Jump Start System PMJ8660 (see pic at right). Nothing fancy and has 315 CCA. I've already used it with a 12v air compressor to pump up a couple of my tires. I like that the little light is on a flexible arm allowing me to point it at a dead battery at night, instead of most units that have the light integral to the casing - which might require me to tip the heavy jump starter to get much use from the light.

Of course, if I had bought a jump starter before-hand, I could have avoided hundreds and hundreds of dollars charged by the pirateering tow service. My bad. I failed to use the same level of safety and backups that I use for my tires. At least now I'm better prepared than before - so the experience has caused me to improve my overall preparedness.

Needless to say, I didn't get in the planned hike.

Monday, October 30, 2006

The Best Book of October

Here's the best book I read during this National Book Month. America. The full title is "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Presents America (The Audiobook): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction". It scores 4.5/5 stars from 579 Amazon reviewers. It's very funny and includes audio scenes performed by the Daily Show ensemble. I was driving to Zion National Park while listening to it. At one point, I was laughing so hard that my eyes were tearing, and I had to pull over so I wouldn't crash. I strongly recommend this one. Even if you read the book, you'll probably enjoy listening to Jon and his troup's performance.

More Books (it's still October!)

I also read The Innovator's Dilemma. Remember folks, I don't actually read these. I buy the audiobook versions and listen to them mostly while driving. This works out well since my hobbies include doing things far from home and that means lots of driving. This book is interesting. I had to say that first, because the audiobook narration was painfully dry. But having survived engineering school, I'm accustomed to gleaning value from dry presentations of all sorts. Here's a short excerpt from the Amazon summary summary comments by one Harry C. Edwards:
At the heart of The Innovator's Dilemma is how a successful company with established products keeps from being pushed aside by newer, cheaper products that will, over time, get better and become a serious threat. Christensen writes that even the best-managed companies, in spite of their attention to customers and continual investment in new technology, are susceptible to failure no matter what the industry, be it hard drives or consumer retailing. Succinct and clearly written, The Innovator's Dilemma is an important book that belongs on every manager's bookshelf.

It was interesting to examine some of my personal experience in the framework described of innovators. I never realized it, but there was a time when me and my coworkers at TRW were definitely innovators (by the standards described in the book) and were using the very same techniques to break away from the corporate status quo. I recommend the book for anybody interested in managing or participating in business innovation.

To balance that review, I read a book about a fish. Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World is not a good book. I was enticed by the 4.5/5 stars from 88 Amazon reviewers. Often, I thought the author must have been meaning to write a cook book. He includes cod-based recipes throughout the book. I did enjoy the historical information. It's neat to learn about how significant this staple was in so many markets around the globe. I would have preferred a more orderly presentation of that historical information. Maybe geographical, or chronological, or theological. Anything but the apparent meandering path taken. The same author has another book titled "Salt: A World History". It's not yet available in audiobook format. I may not read that one.

October is National Book Month

I haven't posted for a while. Just lacked motivation mostly. Well, with the month coming to a close, I had to post some book reviews since October is National Book Month.

I read "iCon Steve Jobs: The Greatest Second Act in the History of Business". It has 3.5 stars (out of 5) from 53 Amazon reviewers. Steve Jobs wasn't pleased with this unauthorized biography. I can understand why he reportedly banned it from Apple buildings and Apple retail stores. It's just impossible for somebody to describe detailed activities of Steve when he was admittedly alone in his home. Aside from that sort of thing (and there's enough of it to be annoying), it wasn't too bad. It certainly wasn't good.

The Little Book of Value Investing got 4.5 stars from 10 Amazon reviewers. If you're interested in value investing, then you might enjoy this. But even then, it doesn't add much value beyond what Ben Graham and Warren Buffett have already offered us. If you ask me, save your money on this one. If you want to learn more about value investing, then please read the Warren Buffet Way (an excellent book).

Taking my reading to new lows was Hedge Hogging. I thought it would be an informative description of hedge funds and how they work in the financial system. It turned out to be a very dry and annoying tale laced with pseudo-fictional stories. Painful, it was. To give it credit, 54 Amazon reviewers have scored it 4/5 stars.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Lowest Bid Wins! How to buy a new car for $50.

There is a REALLY cool site out there doing something very interesting. I read about it on page 38 of the October issue of Business 2.0.

Limbo is a novel auction site that auctions off merchandise donated by companies - primarily interested in the promotional value. For each auction, the winner is the person with the LOWEST and UNIQUE bid. So, if you bid $1.58 for that 42 inch plasma HDTV then you will win it, if nobody else bids the same amount and all bids lower than yours are not unique (multiple bidders bid that value). Check it out! I'm planning to try it this week - they just started up a new auction for a 42 inch plasma TV. Be warned, some auctions are free to bid and others cost you 99 cents per bid. Be sure to click on the "How To Play" link at the top of the page. It explains some interesting features - such as: after you bid, they give you some feedback about your bid in relation to others and ask if you want to bid again. Clever. The Business 2.0 article said that when you're charged 99 cents to bid, that money is split 3-ways: between Limbo, your wireless carrier, and the donating company.

Some people I've mentioned this to began to consider if this might relate to some game theories or other mathematical models. Based on the info in the "How To Play" page, it might be to a bidder's advantage to bid later - closer to the end of the auction. Also ... read the rules for any of the auctions so you can see some of the fine print. For example, most (if not all) have the rule that the prize cannot be re-sold or transferred for one year. That is a good way to prevent some clever folks from operating a business to bid many many times to ensure winning an item and then merely sell it on eBay for much more than they bid.

Simple Disaster Recovery for Macs

I've finally implemented another stage of disaster recovery for my mac system. I've always performed regular backups, and stored the files on separate media, and tested the recovery process. For all that, I use some shell scripts I wrote using Helios xtar for preserving the HFS resource fork data.

Today I have added another layer that will make me sleep better. My backups would still require a significant amount of recovery time because I would have to re-install the OS and then reload my backed up files. To improve on this process, I bought an external firewire drive that is the same size as my system drive (80 GB) and I created a bootable clone of my system drive onto that firewire drive. I bought an ACOMDATA 80 GB Combo drive from Fry's (cuz it was cheap). And then I used SuperDuper! to create the bootable clone. Simple really. Now I'll try to routinely create a new system clone - maybe every week or so. It only took 48 minutes.

So now if I have a horrible drive emergency, I can immediately boot off the clone and run diagnostics from there, or simply return to finish any task I was working to meet any deadlines I might have (and repair the primary drive later).