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The American Century and Outsourcing

Job outsourcing has twice been a weblog topic of mine. It started really bothering me in early 2003 when I saw it as a major threat, but I've since mellowed out. I think the American century is over, and consider outsourcing one factor that will gradually lower U.S. living standards over time. Other factors are national and consumer debt as currency investors begin abandoning the dollar for the Euro, and energy prices. Once the artificially high U.S. standard of living sorts itself out, outsourcing will decline, and the next disruptive phenomenon will come along. Change is good, right?

Maybe it's not the most appropriate analogy because it's so morbid and I really don't think the U.S. is dying, but the one that first springs to mind is the death of a pet. It's always painful and you never want it to happen, but if it's inevitable, you'd probably choose euthanasia over getting hit by a car. Death takes about the same time descend for both, but the way the blow is dealt makes all the difference. Getting hit by a car is instantaneous, but often falls short of gracefulness and leaves the animal in extreme pain and fear for the horrible final minutes. Euthanasia spreads the blow over several minutes, making it almost painless... the animal doesn't know it's going to sleep for the last time.

So where am I going with this? The think webloggers suffer from most is lack of an editor to keep them on track and ensure use of appropriate analogies.

My point is that I hope the U.S. decline is slow, occurring over a generation or two, because we won't notice as much, and if we do, our reaction will be muted... it'll be like going to sleep (although for me, the surge in personal bankruptcies is a noisy alarm clock). If the decline is too fast, it'll cause shock and revolt, and the resulting turmoil would be the equivalent of getting hit by a car as things sort out over the next generation or two.

In the meantime, risk-averse white-collar people like me seeking to hedge themselves against odds of outsourcing should consider Forbes' list of ten professions not likely to be outsourced. My career choice did make the list, and while no profession is completely outsource-safe, I hope Forbes' prediction of "not likely" proves accurate.

:: Bryan Travis :: 05/29/2004 @ 16:11 :: [link] ::

U.S. will tear down Abu Ghraib prison

The United States will demolish the notorious Abu Ghraib prison on the outskirts of Baghdad

The walls of Abu Ghraib itself are responsible for the Bush and Hussein regime's torture of prisoners. Yes, yes, tearing it down and destroying the evidence will solve the problem!

How assinine. I wonder if rebuilding the prison is budgeted in the original $87 billion, the requested $25 billion supplement, or not at all? Hey, George, since rebuilding foreign prisons is now a national priority, how about fixing up some prisons back home or building new ones so we don't have as many criminals released early back onto our streets?

:: Bryan Travis :: 05/24/2004 @ 20:19 :: [link] ::

Alternative Energy

Renewable Environmental Solutions successfully tested its patented Thermal Conversion Process (TCP), converting turkey offal into petroleum, natural gas, and other raw materials. Under a new U.S. government program, others may follow.

Critics argue the process is not economically viable, may consume more energy than it yields, and cannot replace society's total energy demand. Since RES was making a test run, the critics are probably correct, while at the same time ignoring advantages of economies of scale and technological maturation. In this respect, the critics are penny-wise and pound-foolish. Perhaps you're familiar with the accountant jibe: an accountant knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

Valid points. But not all investments yield immediate returns. An investment analyst knows the highest return investments tend to be the most risky. What is investment risk? Simply a measurement based on time, magnitude of potential gain or loss, and other outside factors which tell the investor the chance that an investment's return will differ from the expected return. How does one determine an investment's expected return? Aha, that is the million dollar question, the test of an investor's muster.

Perhaps in the end, the critics will be proven correct, and the returns and net energy output to make TCP viable will never materialize. Or maybe they will. Such are the uncertainties considered by the risk calculation.

For the critics who say thermal depolymerization alone can never quench our thirst for energy and hydrocarbon raw materials, you're damn straight, but if we really are facing a bleak future without cheap oil, we can hardly afford to continue our wasteful lifestyle, and must find numerous solutions to balance the equation. Thermal depolymerization would be but one piece of a larger puzzle.

Critics of the ethanol-as-an-alternative-fuel industy make similar arguments about negative profitability and negative energy yields, adding that without government subsidies, ethanol would be several times more expensive than gasoline. I take a more moderate approach, arguing that perhaps the ethanol fuel industry hasn't matured (that is, become energy efficient) because the government hasn't properly motivated it.

Effective government funding comes in two phases: the investment, followed by the subsidy. Funding designated for process development, efficiency, and/or improvement is investment. Funding designated for offsetting a net loss and masking inherent process inefficiencies is a subsidy. It's a careful balance... first an investment to develop the technology followed by a period of decreasing subsidy while economies of scale and technological maturity develops. The goal is a self-sufficient process.

Petroleum serves a dual purpose in the fossil fuel society. First, it makes us go... it's energy. Second, it's a raw material, the source for countless modern conveniences ranging from plastic to paint to clothing to pharmaceuticals. Even with a limitless energy source to replace fossil fuels, our society would still suffer from an addiction to petroleum-derived hydrocarbon raw materials.

Energy sources are plentiful if we're crafty enough to find novel ways of exploiting the renewable sources, but hydrocarbon raw material (at least for now) seems to be the more difficult to replace of the two petroleum uses. So as time passes and cheap petroleum is harder (and more costly) to come by, we will develop and exploit new energy sources. For an encore, we'll look high and low for new sources of hydrocarbon raw materials. To solve part of the problem, perhaps we will turn to our discarded organic waste - the turkey offal, used tires, and mountains of plastic that otherwise take up space for generations to come.

Bio-remediation and other waste-to-energy technologies may consume more energy than they produce, but if they satisfy the greater need of raw material and the energy crunch is solved, it won't matter. Raw materials and empty spaces are cheap and plentiful enough that we consume both indiscriminately, but the demand and supply curves are moving to an intersection. If the energy crunch isn't solved, it won't matter, because civilization as we know it will grind to a halt. If the energy crunch never occurs, then RES and other bio-remediation companies are doomed investments, and the critics will have their day to say "I told you so."

Now comes the investmen analyst's muster test. Will there come a day when demand will surpass supply of hydrocarbon raw meterial? History and economic theory tell us when the demand and supply curves have begun sloping as steeply as they appear to be sloping today, nothing short of a crisis, nothing short of demand outstripping supply can force the market to find alternative solutions and correct itself.

In the end, critics and pundits (including yours truly) be damned.

:: Bryan Travis :: 05/23/2004 @ 17:07 :: [link] ::

Correlation Does Not Imply Causation

Oh, sure, I can preface by disclaiming correlation does not imply causation, but if I post this, it's hard to be convincing. But still... isn't it ironic?

via MetaFilter from americanassembler.com

... and so is this Rumsfeld Face the Nation segment.

:: Bryan Travis :: 05/14/2004 @ 20:02 :: [link] ::

Brood XIV, not Brood X

Back in winter I was surprised to hear about the Brood X cicada emergence this year because I could have sworn the emergence I remembed was when I was a sophomore in high school, just before I turned 16 in 1991. But oh well, I thought, it must have been 1987 when I was 11 going on 12... but that was the 6th grade, and I thought I was in high school.

So I discounted my memories, until now when the cicadas have emerged elsewhere, but still no cicadas in Louisville. Last night I found this. Brood X doesn't come south of the Ohio River into Kentucky at all (this map suggests it does, although it's less established), but Brood XIV is centered in Kentucky, Tennessee and southern Ohio. When did Brood XIV last emerge? 1991. Now it makes sense... so central Kentuckians, uncover your young trees and put away the cheesecloth until 2008.

:: Bryan Travis :: 05/14/2004 @ 19:15 :: [link] ::

Condo for Sale

My condo went on sale April 30. This comes after weeks of cleaning, reorganizing, and throwing stuff out. It's amazing what one can accumulate in 4.5 years. Going through stuff at the rate of one year per week, it's been a laborious month-plus, but after it got to the point that I wanted to stay instead of leave, I knew it was finally ready to sell. Oh, the irony.

Please buy my condo - I did all this work for you!

I'm a pack rat, and I vacuumed up many cobwebs, but the spiders weren't fat. That's my way of admitting I have a clutter problem, but I can't stand filth. I don't qualify for diagnosis with the clinical psychological disorder known as hoarding, but it runs in the family and is in my genes. My mother's paternal uncle is a hoarder. I've never seen his house, but I hear he has a room full of old newspapers, piles of junk mail, paid bills, and the like. He simply can't stand to part with any of it.

Please buy my condo - I did all this work for you!

Crap accumulates slowly over time, but I suck it up when necessary and throw it out. I'm weird about some stuff, though:

  • Dryer lint. Every two weeks I wash and dry three loads of laundry, or six loads a month. After drying a load, I'll clean the lint filter and let it pile up for about four months on top of the dryer into a large, multi-colored mass of two dozen lint strips. It drove Rachel nuts. Why did I do it? No reason, really... wanted to see how big it could get, thought I might try to weave a sweater from it, whatever.

  • Gum. When I was a kid, I kept every piece of gum I chewed for over two years, rationalizing it was recyclable for later chewing. That's disgusting, of course, and I never recycled any chewing or bubble gum, but that didn't stop me from amassing a pile several inches in diameter.

  • Cicadas. Brood X of the 17-year cicada is due to emerge any day now. Last time they swarmed, I preserved several male and female cicadas in isopropyl alcohol. This might have had arguable scientific value, except that I never planned to study the specimens at a later time or put them on display in a museum.

  • My tonsils. This is possibly the grossest of all. My tonsils were removed at age 9, and I got to take them home from the hospital. They were throw away 11 years later. Maybe deep in my subconscious I was hoping for a medical miracle allowing my tonsils to be implanted without the annual strep throat infections they allegedly caused (although it's worth noting that while I did get strep throat a month after the tonsilectomy, I've never had it since).

I keep personal letters and photographs, though, and make no apologies for it. They go into so many shoeboxes, poignant memories of my past. Summer camp friends long faded into obscurity, ex-girlfriends, journal entries and letters to myself - all there. I invented an alphabet to encrypt my writing and keep it private from others, but I've lost the key. I kept pages of it, but the meaning is lost in those symbols reminiscent of Phoenician or Etruscan characters. Rather a good metaphor for how we use objects in an attempt to hold onto the past.

Please buy my condo - I did all this work for you!

:: Bryan Travis :: 05/03/2004 @ 00:06 :: [link] ::