Saturday, May 29, 2010

JIT vs the Death Wobbles

A modern capitalistic society has a number of companies which supply the populace with staple goods. These companies, like all others of significant size, are listed on stock exchanges, and require "shareholder value". This means being as efficient as possible, not wasting money, you understand. Which sounds reasonable, particularly if you own some stock of said company.

There is a problem though. A chain of supermarkets has warehousing costs that they want to keep at a minimum. When you get down to the nuts and bolts of this problem, you end up with the "just in time" philosophy. In essence, it means that they store only enough stock of goods to supply their stores "just in time" for them to run out, and keep a minimum buffer of goods. How skinny is this supply? Well, it is measured in days. Honestly, I work in retail, and I know this for a fact. In Australia, Woolworths (one of the biggest chains) keeps about a week of inventory. Of course, slow moving lines might go for longer (eg blank DVDs), and fast ones (like bread) are almost measured in hours.

You may be struggling to see a problem with this, and I don't blame you so far. Lets look a little further down the supply chain. The companies that supply the supermarkets warehouses work in a similar fashion - just in time - more of less, on aggregate to the entire market. It is not in their interest to be out of stock, but at the same time (and depending on the product) it is also not in their interest to have a large oversupply warehoused as well. It's a balancing act. So anyway, there is perhaps another week or so of supply in the next tier down, perhaps a little more, depending on the product. Could be a few weeks more, but probably not months.

OK, big deal, two+ weeks of stored supply before you reach the manufacturers. What's the point here? Well, the point is what might happen in a crisis. And by that, I mean any crisis, but there are several big ones potentially looming. I'm a bit of a "doomer" and what I have in mind is a currency collapse (Euro, US Dollar you name it), coupled with a stock market collapse. This may lead to a collapse in international trade and banking, even local banking. What happens then?

Well, people panic, and they buy food. And it will all be gone overnight. I mean it, overnight. Because the JIT philosophy works only under normal trade environments. In a panic, the shelves will not be refilled in time, and as soon as they are refilled (which mostly happens at night, by the way) they will be emptied. Even seasonal times, such as Christmas, throw this out of whack, and is a preview of what I am talking about.

I thought about all this today as I happened to go shopping, and at the checkout register I chose the credit card reader was not working - I had to go to another area to have my card processed. But I started thinking about what would happen if all the cards readers were not working. In a banking crisis, this would be the case. Credit would be frozen, and even access to a positive balance would probably be frozen. It would be cash only, and that would be a problem for a lot of people past the first few days. Do you have more than one weeks shopping cash on hand right now?

Assuming you could even pay for the food, the supply of staples is likely to be sold out anyway. There are a lot of lists online that people have compiled showing what is likely to run out first. These lists are not just made up (although some are), but are based on observations during recent crisis times such as Katrina, or during the collapse of the Russian empire. Some things are what you would expect - Fuels, Generators etc. Other things are perhaps a little odd-ball, and may not be front of mind, such as the gloriously politically correct "feminine products". How long can your household go without buying more of these?

What I am trying to get at here, and probably failing dismally, is the link between the JIT and the buffer society has against a panic during crisis. They really are at opposite sides. Now, one could reasonably argue that the times that JIT seriously fails us are "once-in-century", or less often even. The trouble here is that we have had stability since WWII, and that seriously looks like it could end any time to me. It is possible that I am either paranoid or delusional, but it is also possible that I am seeing things just a bit before everyone else. I keep a close eye on international finance and the story is very complicated, but in general we have gone from a lending crisis to a company/banking solvency crisis to a sovereign solvency crisis. There is no next tier up from here, except perhaps a global solvency crisis, and that is where the buck stops. We are well into uncharted waters in this arena. World wars have started on less than the conditions that we currently are under. The level of volatility is likely to rise dramatically in the near future which will cause extreme government policy action.

As a young boy I rode my skateboard down a lot of hills, much to my mothers disdain as this also meant quickly worn out sneakers that I used as brakes. There is a condition on a skateboard which was called by my friends and I - the "death wobbles". This starts out slowly, but the amplitude of the wobble grows despite your efforts to correct it, and culminates in you being thrown off the board at full speed. These events often ended in a minimum of war wound like skin scrapes, and at most broken bones. In the very final moments, when you know for sure you are doomed, your mind seeks in panic a place to fall to as a soft landing, to minimize the certain damage. Heaven in these circumstances is a patch of soft grass. It's also notable how the panic comes late in the game - up until that moment things are "under control" - until they aren't.

The analogy here is that with JIT in place, it's like getting the economic death wobbles and being surrounded by rough tarmac, and having no shoes on. There is just no escaping the damage. Food supply, along with personal security (and liberties), will become the primary concern when this thing gets out of control. The global banking system is in a death wobble right now, with the amplitude of the problems are growing. This is how I see it all anyway....

Saturday, May 22, 2010

2013 - Future entry

Well, it's now 2013 and we can finally look back on 2012. What a year. As we all know, it wasn't quite like the movie. No giant meteors. No cosmic intervention, just the average human carry on. Mind you, that can be just as destructive.

I was reminded by the hype and tension for the Y2K. I worked in the computer industry and the fear by some pre-2000 was bordering on irrational. Set the clocks forward and see what happens if you are that worried, I said. Y2K? No real problems. 2012 was similarly supposed to be the end of the world because of some Mayan calendar issue. C'mon. And my tea leaves say Apple is a good buy at the moment, and if you are a Sagittarius born under the year of the Monkey, then you are going to get a pimple on your left butt cheek.

And yet, 2012 sucked bad. Let's face, it wasn't a good year. 2011 wasn't either, and 2010 wasn't much better - near the end of it anyway. It's a wonder how the fan keeps on working with all that shit being thrown at it. I am hopeful that the worldwide misery has peaked, but time will tell on that. The clowns running the show still don't get it, or worse, get it and are actively part of the problem. The human condition seems to excel in suffering.

There are lot's of things people miss now. It's strange to think that just a few years ago anything, and I mean anything, could be purchased for a price. Not that everyone exercised this "right", but the dream that it was there was at least something. Now this dream has well and truly gone and reality is biting down hard for almost everyone. What do you miss most?

For many, despite the lack of a meteor, 2012 was indeed quite like the movie, the outcome was similar. Worse even, as the deaths we have seen were not instant, innocent and painless. Nobody really wants to dwell on what has happened, in case it happens again, or worse, happens to us. I hope it doesn't happen to me or my family, and I hope it doesn't happen to you or yours. Survival, it turns out, is still a very strong instinct in the human species.

Anyway, I wanted to wish you all a happy new year. I hope 13 is not an unlucky number for me or you. Here's to a better year! Drink it if you've got it!

Kobo eBook Reader rough Review

A "Kobo", for the uninitiated, is an anagram of "Book", and it is an eInk based ebook reader. It cost A$199 from Borders bookstore. We got a black one, for reasons which I will explain in a minute. If you want some photos and thoughts on this device, I suggest a quick read here first before I give my take. Don't worry, I'll wait as long as needed.

Back? Ok. Well, let's start with my conclusion first - what's it like? ..... Good!

A book reader is a one trick pony. It must display text, as readable as possible, in a comfortable package. Taking this criteria, and keeping as many bells and whistles away, the Kobo achieves these simple goals. This also helps keep the price down, I might add, not to get distracted by other features.

I've used computers for decades, but I'd never seen an eInk display before. It looks a little like a very old Mac SE display (told you I have been using them for decades). Although not as many grey scales at 8. This is enough for simple images, but it ain't a portable photo album folks. It can just manage a passable book cover. As for the pixels, they are small enough to make a serif font look decent, and the complete stability of the display adds to its readability. You see, it only refreshes the pixels when it repaints the whole screen, something it does each page turn. This involves a complete black then white write, then the display is drawn black again. Think of an etch-a-scetch and you are not far of the mark. The contrast ratio is not perfect, the background is light grey rather than white, and the text is very dark grey rather than black, but in even semi-decent light it's easy to read without eyestrain. And yes, you need external light as it has no backlighting - something that enables the battery life to be measured in days.

What I also like about this unit is the dimensions - it's small but not too small (about the size of common paperback), and very light. It needs to be light because reading can take a long time, and every tiny gram starts to multiply with each hour. It is lighter than most books, so really it's a plus. It also has a nice "quilted" back, which is really just a textured matte surface, which does feel quite pleasant.

Navigation of pages is done with the 4 way controller on the bottom right of the unit, and it's dead easy to do - your brain does it by itself after a while so there is no taking away from concentrating on the book.

So, are there any negatives? Sure, I can give you a whole bunch. But they are minor gripes really.

Let's talk ergonomics. The first issue is the location of the USB port, which is directly under the 4-way controller at the base/side of the unit. As you are holding this one handed your hand falls on this port and it's uncomfortable compared the rest of the silky back. The controller also has slight bumps on them, like braille, and they surprisingly irritate the surface of the fingers after a l0ng while. If this was my unit, and it's not, it's my wifes, I would get a razor blade and shave them off. I know where to press, they are not needed.

We got the black Kobo, and that was for two main reasons, and one minor one. Firstly, the controller on the white unit is a really bright blue, which is distracting to your eye as you are reading. On the black unit it's a more subtle grey. Secondly, I felt that the white might end up looking grubby after a while of use, and black will hide this. The minor reason is that I just felt it looked better, just simple opinion.

So, in use there is another minor issue - the slow response time. The screen is not like an LCD on a computer, or a TV. You do something and then wait a second or two for it to refresh the screen. And you see the flashing while it does it, it's quite obvious, not subtle at all. I use it as an opportunity to blink, or close my eyes for a second, to give them a split-second break from reading, but that's just my way of dealing with this issue. I am not an overly patient person, and if it was even a fraction of a second longer it would be too slow, but as it is, it is acceptable. Straight reading is ok, but navigation to other pages at random is trickier.

The unit does have expandable memory, which is good because some other readers don't have this (ie Kindle). However, the SD card slot only reads SD cards up to 4GB, and it doesn't come with the spacer (blank plastic) card which keeps the dust out. I had a spare lying around, but c'mon. Oh, and there is not cover or carry case of any kind included, nor can you buy any yet, so you have to be super careful not to damage the unit. Not that it feels flimsy, and the screen has a plastic feel to it, not glass covered, so a slight knock might be ok.

In terms of syncing the unit, and buying books, the experience is fine. It can handle only a few formats, ePub and PDF, but they claim to be "working to improve this". We'll see what the future brings there. I would expect at least support for plain text files, that should be a no brainer.

What is the point of buying such a thing, you may still be wondering? Is it just another totally unnecessary tech toy the world can do without? Well, I sympathize with this sentiment, but counter with a bit of mathematics, and a bit of green ethos sprinkled on top (which may or may not hold water)

So - mathematics? Well, dollars and cents. My wife is a fairly "Constant reader" and churns through a few books a month. These cost somewhere between $20 - $30 each in paperback, and we have groaning bookshelves of them despite her giving them away when she can (to school book fates and the likes). Anyway, in a single years reading, at 2 books a month, she might spend 2x12x25 = $600. It all adds up you know. So, enter the Kobo. It cost $200. And books cost $10-$20, that is, they are often $10 or more cheaper. I think you can see where this is heading. So the year cost of the Kobo, with the purchase price included, is 200+2x12x15 = $560. So it's making money back after a year. If you keep it up, after several years you have made back a sizable sum as you don't have the cost of the Kobo in there.

So - green ethos? Well, ignoring for the minute the environmental cost of manufacturing, shipping the Kobo itself, and possibly the poisons released when it's disposed of at the end of it's life (See why I said "may not hold water"?) - eBooks are better than Paper Books. It's the whole atoms verses electrons thing. You can move electrons - information - about with a lot less effort than atoms - thinly sliced trees with ink (ie books). Books have weight and volume, and manufacture and shipping have costs. Hard for me to measure exactly, but picture a Kobo on one side of the scales, and all those books on the other.

You can carry a decent library with you on a trip with a lot less weight than the real thing. But to me that's balanced by the issue of having to look after the device - battery level and make sure you don't damage/lose it etc. When you finish a paper book, you can pass it onto a friend, if you wish. With any eBook reader there is the issue of DRM (the dreaded Digital Rights Management) and of big brother stopping you from doing anything generous and natural like that. There are free formats, but most of the things you want are probably not free.

You could yack all day about the pros and cons of ebooks versus paper books. In the end, I think they both have their place. eBooks are a bit like a movie rental - for something you are more or less going to consume and not really need afterwards. Paper books are for things of sentimental value, or those with pictures, or something you have a stronger emotional connection to perhaps and you want to really "own" a copy.

Other random gripes are the inability to delete a book from the reading now list (open a book once, and you are reading it pal, like it or not, until you scroll past the last page). Also, in the book store, the 100 free classics don't show up in your bookshelf, which seems counter intuative, and there does not seem to be a way of deleting any of these if you don't want to have them any more. Some people are having poor battery performance (a few days), and the battery level indicator and the charging seem to be somewhat contradictory and confusing. I suspect people are not turning the unit "off" and this has something to do with it, but perhaps that's me, and besides, it should have some sort of auto-off feature. It asks you the time, but yet there is no easy way to find out what the time is. These all feel like version 1.0 issues, and I'm hoping in time they will more or less all go away with software updates. Things like colour, full touchscreen, MP3 playback etc are all overkill in my opinion. I see this as a very different device to an iPad, for example, even though you can read books on an iPad or a computer.

There is a lot of potential for simple refinements in the Kobo. It think a dictionary would be a good one. It may not be possible, but in terms of the eInk screen a selective refresh would be a great improvement (that is, if it only needs to redraw part of the screen, just black/white/redraw that bit rather than full screen). And better grey levels and contrast ratios, faster response etc will all come with the subsequent generations of devices. Wait for them if you want, but I think this device is cheap enough to dip your toes in the water with this technology. It's fun, we are all enjoying reading on it, and anything that encourages reading can't be bad, right? Right?