Sunday, September 18, 2005

The Land of the Broken Headlights

San Juan, Puerto Rico - We have all seen the advertisements for the Isle of Enchantment, presenting the gorgeous island that Puerto Rico is and can be. It truly is a marvelous place full of beauty and ecological diversity, defying the normal concepts of what a tropical island should have. This is the main reason the highly controversial campaign slogan, "The Continent of Puerto Rico" was used a number of years ago, to describe the Island. But as in many countries and cities throughout the world, it is not without its little quirks and issues.

I will not go into the intricacies of Puerto Rico's values, problems, beauty, or anything of the sort. I'm going to talk about the fact that surprisingly, a manufacturing powerhouse like Puerto Rico (i.e. 16 of the top 20 pharmaceutical products and 50% of all pacemakers are made in Puerto Rico) can't seem to maintain vehicle headlights and could be awarded a new title and advertising slogan, "The land of the broken headlights." I'll explain what I mean.

I took to the road at about 10 pm on a Saturday night. The traffic was light, as it often is on a Saturday as long as you remain away from the heavily frequented night spots in Old San Juan, Condado, and Isla Verde. I hadn't reached the first stoplight and I had already counted 3 vehicles with broken headlamps. Having noticed this little detail that has so plagued the roads of San Juan as of late, I decided to count all the broken, damaged, or otherwise disengaged headlamps I could see throughout the entire distance to the aforementioned Condado area. From the township of Guaynabo to the tourist laden, oceanfront area of Condado in San Juan, the distance is approximately 6 to 7 miles (10 to 11 kilometers) depending on which road you've selected to travel on.

I counted without being too attentive (I was driving after all), and yet, I'm not even remotely exaggerating when I say that I saw at least 23 vehicles suffering from what I like to call, "abnormal headlamp syndrome". This medical condition that seems to afflict vehicles in the San Juan metro area is a disease that must and should be controlled for a number of reasons that include safety of the affected vehicle, the annoyance of oncoming traffic, and the possibility of infection of other vehicles from the unavoidably predictable accident that is likely to occur from the mislabeling of the oncoming vehicle as a motorcycle or cloaked Klingon vessel, instead of say a Mercedes M series wagon.

I wondered what the law had to say or do about all this, and even considered the idea of contacting law enforcement to find out. Then, I remembered that the police don't really do or care much about it, considering the amount of vehicles on the road that have already been infected, so that idea was worthless. Also, if a traffic infraction notice could theoretically be injected into the organic life form that acts as the brains of the vehicle, the dosage is too low to actually have an effect upon said vehicle.

So what do I think should be done about this baffling and particularly dark situation? Well, useless as the thought may be, the time for light medicines is over considering the disease has reached plague status, so, here goes. I propose a notice of infraction be provided at a dosage of 500 USD at the moment of diagnosis by an officer. This would quickly eradicate the problem by providing a heavy incentive for the organic form to act quickly on replacing the affected area with a brand new or repaired headlamp and therefore eradicating the blinding condition of abnormal headlamp syndrome. If within 15 days, the lamp has been reconditioned (verified by an officer), then, the dosage would be removed, otherwise the full dosage would be required within yet another 15 days.

Of course, considering that cops won't stop you even if you run a red light in front of them, that probably won't do much either, but may act as a deterrant to those fearing the miraculous event of a police officer actually doing their job. I'm not one to complain much on the freedom and flexibility of the local arrangements, but I can't help but wonder what kind of place it could be if it continues it's present course towards anarchy. It's time for a beer.
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Friday, September 09, 2005

Sony's New Walkman beaten with a Nano stick

Sony announced yesterday their new Walkman, striking images of the portable brick that was popular back in the 1980's. This announcement of course, has nothing to do with that old, market dominating, portable player. Sony's time has come and gone in the portable music market they created 25 years ago, fumbling to grasp what it was that customers wanted in this new, digital era. Apple is the new crown king of that market with its beautifully designed iPod MP3 player (74% of the entire MP3 player market) and its companion software and online music store, iTunes (85% of the global digital music market). Though Apple was not the first player in this new digital music realm, they redefined and brought to the masses innovation and ease of use previously unheard of in this space. Also, with the iTunes Music Store, they have become the music industry's savior in the P2P, File swapping world of the Pirates of the Caribbeanet.

Apple's most popular model and therefore the number one MP3 player in the world is the iPod Mini,and every single competitor, including Sony has been struggling to copy what it is that makes the Mini so popular. But Apple has decided not to run the conservative plays of a market leader, and instead on Wednesday discontinued their number one player to introduce a new model, the iPod Nano, "1,000 songs in your pocket. Impossibly small." It's thinner than a number 2 pencil and considerably smaller even than Sony's new Walkman, yet it is a full featured iPod, with color screen, photo viewing capability, and that wonderful click-wheel iPod users adore.

Sony's Thursday announcement was dwarfed by Apple's Wednesday surprise. Everyone thought that Apple's Music Event was to introduce Motorola's new iTunes phone, the ROCKR, which they did along with the new version of iTunes, but other announcements followed, including that 30% of all cars sold in the U.S. would include iPod integration and a special iChat appearance by Madonna to announce the inclusion of all her music in the iTunes Music Store. It was the final announcement which blew the industry away, though, the iPod Nano, forcing Sony's Koichiro Tsujino to comment at a news conference, "I understand a certain company made an announcement...We will accelerate our challenge with these new models."

Trying to challenge Apple's dominance is no easy task, and recently Rio, an important player in the flash MP3 space, has exited the market, no longer able to compete. Creative is Apple's biggest challenger with its Zen player, yet continues to lag behind. Sony has attempted to follow the Apple model with its Connect music store, an obvious copy of iTunes, and it's new Walkman which does play MP3's (earlier Sony players did not include the important capacity to play the MP3 format, a mistake they will not soon forget) in addition to Sony's unsuccessful ATRAC format, but they lack the coolness and status Sony once commanded, looking more like wannabes.

To be fair, the new Walkman does have a more attractive design than other models on the market, and the organic EL display integrated into the casing does look pretty cool, but unfortunately it's just not as beautiful and efficiently designed as the iPod. It doesn't look uniquely cool. Also, the Bose iPod speakers knock-off, shown with the announcement looks like it was unattractively designed for a different player. To top it all off, the player is larger and more expensive than the iPod Nano in equivalent capacities.

The Walkman works with the Connect store, but not with iTunes, which is another deterrent to many buyers. Sony was offered a partnership in iTunes development, a way to guarantee its compatibility with the store and Apple's Fairplay (a digital rights management (DRM) music protection scheme), but Sony declined the offer, preferring to develop its own Connect store and now iTunes wannabe software. iTunes of course, has 85% of the global market, leaving Sony's Connect to share in the remaining 15% with Napster, Real's Raphsody, and all the others.

Apple not only leads the market in sales, but it leads the market in design, innovation, ease of use, quality, and the all-important cool factor. Sony had made some inroads in its local Japanese market, but that was before iTunes availability in Japan and still had only reached 27% of the flash player market at the time. As long as Apple continues to take risks and design products like the new Nano, it will be a gargantuan task for Sony or Creative to keep up.

Long ago, Steve Jobs said that he wanted Apple to be like Sony. It seems his prediction came true, and now, I'm sure that it's Sony, that wishes it was Apple.


Apple's Models:
iPod Shuffle (no display): Available NOW! Models: 512MB or 120 songs for $99. 1GB or 240 songs for $129.
New iPod Nano (black or white, color display, photos): Available NOW! Models: 2GB or 500 song capacity for $199. 4GB or 1000 song capacity for $249
iPod (color display, photos): Available NOW! Models: 20GB or 5000 songs for $299. 60GB or 15,000 songs for $399.
iPod U2 Special Edition (black with red click wheel, color display, photos): Available NOW! Models: 20GB or 5000 songs for $329. Includes a 50$ coupon towards the purchase of The Complete U2 collection in the iTunes Music Store as well as a poster.

Sony's Models:
New Walkman: Available starting November.
Flash memory based models (include FM radio): 512MB for 22,000¥ ($200 USD), 1GB for 27,000¥ ($246 USD), and 2GB for 32,000¥ ($292 USD).
Hard drive based models: 6 GB for 30,000¥ ($274 USD) and 20 GB for 35,000¥ ($319 USD).

NOTE: Japanese Yen to U.S. Dollar conversion based on exchange rate on September 9, 2005.
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Thursday, September 01, 2005

The "third world" is right at home

In any land of need, the suffering masses will do anything to survive. We've seen the effects of this in many "third world" countries as they grow and develop their societies under dismal conditions and lawlessness. Constant civil wars, looting, "freedom" fighters and what not are the daily bread of many of these nations. Within the supposed first world nation of the United States of America, it would be inconceivable to think that such violence, overall lawlessness, and revolt could occur since the economic power of the nation provides for the needy people within it, right? Well, the state of Louisiana has been the land of need for a long time. Almost half the population of the state lived in poverty and the high school drop out rate was (some officials estimate) as high as 90 percent (NOTE: The high school drop out rate statistics seem to vary greatly but all remain above the unacceptable 50% level. Thanks to Russ for this clarification.). The state answer to the latter was to cut millions from the education budget. So much for Bush's no child left behind initiative. With between 6 to 8 billion dollars a month being spent in Iraq (218 billion dollars to date and more than in Vietnam), where is the aid of the needy at home? Hurricane Katrina has dealt a deadly blow to an already "third world" state and to the entire U.S. Gulf Coast sending it into Somalia, Rwanda, or Haiti type levels, yet the President was on vacation reenacting his September 11th, 2001 performance by reacting slowly to the news, and Congress approved a measly 10.5 billion for a devastated area the size of Great Britain.

Over 400,000 people along that coast were forced to leave their homes. New Orleans continues to be under 8 feet (2.43 meters) of water and the situation is not expected to improve for at least another couple of weeks (UPDATE 9-2-05: Army said it could take 36 to 80 days to drain New Orleans). Coastal towns like Biloxi, Mississippi had 90 percent of its buildings blown to bits. There is no drinking water, there is no power, and food is running out. In New Orleans , countless dead line the street or float through its waters. Tens of thousands of people were and continue to be stranded with no means of evacuating. The war of need has begun.

The U.S. and its media cohorts like National Geographic and others, have long portrayed "third world" countries like lawless war zones in extreme poverty, to market its powerful image over that of the rest of the world. We've all seen them in the news and National Geographic documentaries: the gun toting owners of shops defending themselves from looters, warring groups shooting at each other in the streets, people stealing from everyone and everything including medical supplies from hospitals and food from anywhere. This is New Orleans today. Armed with pipes and axes, a group stripped two hospitals clean, leaving many of the sick and dying without vital supplies to survive. Violence is rampant with no order in sight despite the National Guard troops that have entered the city. Mobs rule, the gangs rule, violence rules, death is everywhere. It's a war zone.

Desperately obvious is the fact that more help is needed...and pronto. The number of troops is definitely not nearly enough to bring order to Iraq...ahem, I mean New Orleans (see a pattern here? Ed.). The Salvation Army has been aiding with food and supplies, which is a step forward, but the amounts have been limited and could cause the situation to deteriorate at each cantina should these run out. A more realistic, and particularly respectful, monetary figure should be approved by the U.S. Congress.

In the end, when the waters have receded, the violence subsided, and order been brought back to the coast, the developing nation or "third world" state of Louisiana will not only require a gargantuan, Iraq-like effort and attention to resuscitate its devastated cities and neighboring regions, but a particular attention to home that has been missing from the U.S. Government for a long time. While the nation focused its attention on Iraq's infrastructure and effort, Louisiana had become the "third world" even before Katrina. Mississippi wasn't far behind.

In a land of need, the desperate will do anything and all is justifiable, but why in the U.S. is there a land of need?
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