Monthly Archives: April 2009

Credit Card Companies Have Their Hands in my Pockets

I usually throw stuff from the credit card companies away without reading it. But since the econolypse I’ve had my rates raised for almost nothing: three days late was one excuse for raising my 0% promotional rate to 29.99%. (If I pay “on time” for the next six months it can come down again at their discretion, but by that time the promotion for which I opened it will be over).  And I don’t mean three days past 30 days, I mean three days past the billing date on the statement.  Not to mention the fact that Wells Fargo, my bank, taking advantage of the float, took its own precious time to auto-pay my bill.

Good thing I can pay this one off in full. But I can’t cut it up or close it, or it will hit my credit score. Although leaving it open and paid off also hits my credit score, because I have all that credit “available.”  From the time I got my first card in the early 70s, things have become remarkably more complex. And more expensive.

So I’ve begun to take more notice of the  incredible hubris of these banks and credit card companies, which goes unnoticed by a society largely without newspapers and focused by cable news on swine flu. No way you can tell someone who is busy with a family, or studying for a degree, or working two jobs that they MUST read the fine print. Fact is, they don’t. They rely on trusted institutions to deal fairly with them. (Insert rant here.)

Read the mail from your credit card company! You may get an unpleasant surprise as these companies race to do everything they can before regulation takes hold. I bet that at the end of the day, they will negotiate to have existing rules grandfathered in, because wait until you hear this, which greeted me at the mailbox today from my buddy Ken Lewis at Bank of America:

What is happening:

We are increasing certain transaction fees on your account.

Amendment to Your Credit Card Agreement:

Effective on June 1, 2009, the transaction fee (FINANCE CHARGE) we assess on each of the transactions identified below will be equal to 4% of each such transaction (Fee: Min. $10):

ATM Cash Advances

Balance Transfers

Bank Cash Advances

Cash Equivalents

Check Cash Advances

Direct Deposit Cash Advances

Wire Transfer Purchases

In addition, they are expanding the definition of foreign transactions to include transactions in U.S. dollars if they are made or processed outside of the United States. Each transaction posting on or after June 1 will be subject to the Foreign Transaction Fee, currently 3% of the U.S. dollar amount of each such Foreign Transaction.

Doesn’t seem too threatening, does it? Unless you order your business cards from a U.K. company, as I do, or buy stuff online at places like EBay. Truthfully, how often do you know where some of the things you buy are coming from, or whether you are engaging in a foreign transaction? I’m sure Bank of America is depending on that.

I can’t believe there isn’t more outrage at the way all this transpires.  Because there is a mailed announcement, and because parts of it are bolded, the banks can say they have disclosed. But is this what we thought we were doing when we opened a credit card account? We have woven plastic currency so deeply through the warp and woof of American society that most of us can’t untangle fast enough from these usurious practices.

Come on, American people, become outraged. Yes, you can stop spending, but of course that works against the very economy we are trying to save. As a society, we are in a Catch-22 that can only be resolved if the banks and credit card companies agree to act honestly and transparently, and unless we change our education system to provide our kids basic financial literacy skills. Ethics on the part of the banks would do less damage than if we all decided to rise up in the streets and tear up our plastic.

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Obama’s First 100 Days: Torture, Transparency, and Swine Flu

The ‘net has changed everything, from 1)the way we are viewed both by others and by ourselves 2)to how we think about the Somali pirates 3) to how we respond to Swine flu. The world is now a place of transparency, and that can be both exciting and frightening.  After all, as Warren Buffett said, “when the tide goes out, you find out who’s swimming naked.”

When Mosaic’s first Netscape browser was introduced in 1993,  it opened the riches of the world wide web to the public. For the first time, people outside universities could really see what resources were on the Internet, and it was all down(or up)hill from there. Since then, the web has only grown, and what’s more, it has grown from the edges — content is user-generated, by anyone who cares to post it. The growth of broadband worldwide has meant immediate contact with people ALL over the world, and instantaneous transmission of information, both good and bad.

As a result, President Obama really can’t be compared to any other American President, except perhaps President Bush 43. No one else has lived under these conditions. I’m sure Obama finds them trying.

First of all, he’s not going to be able to turn the page, at least not without Congessional hearings, on torture. If he doesn’t allow hearings, other countries will hold them for us, because unless we police ourselves, we have lost all claim to moral authority.

We became the “good guys” after World War II because we rebuilt Europe, did our best to remember the Holocaust, and participated in the war crimes tribunals held all over the world.  America, everyone thought, was the land of the free, home of the brave, country of laws and fairness. We don’t torture.

Believe me, outside the US the argument isn’t whether it worked–whether we got good information from torture or bad. It’s about whether, as the moral arbiter of the world, the convener and host of the United Nations, America had any right to do to “terrorists” what we judged so many others for doing. If we don’t subject ourselves to some kind of self-flagellation, which doesn’t necessarily mean prosecuting the perpetrators, but at least apologizing to the world for what we did, we will never regain the influence we have lost over the last eight years.

Especially since we’ve also been tagged with starting a global economic recession. We need all the good will we can summon.

Because, as the internets have pointed out, with the proliferation of different points of view and the dredging up of carefully buried and redacted information out into the sunlight, one’s man’s terrorist is another man’s hero. The Somali “pirates,” in our society, are wage-earners and food gatherers in their own. Their fishing beds have been raided by the boats of others, and poisoned by the dumping of hazardous waste in our oceans — the hazardous waste of countries far from Africa who knew they could do it because Somalia was a failed state.

And the Islamist “terrorists” are, in their own culture, religious martyrs. Just as the Israeli “terrorists” are the defenders of the homeland, and the Palestinian “terrorists” are the defenders of the Holy Land. These perspectives are widely published online.

At some point not too far in the future, the transparency of the web will force us to be honest about all this, and to respect the points of view that are now flooding the online world from every corner of the globe, and, indeed, from our own records. How long did it take the Nixon tapes to be released: 30 years? How long did it take Bush’s records? 30 days?

Lest you think all is lost, and yearn for the days when Roosevelt could hide his paralysis and Kennedy his womanizing, there are magnificent and life-saving upsides to this troublesome transparency. Look at swine flu.

Two days ago, no one knew swine flu existed,  yesterday people were already tweeting CDC Alerts, and last night my male dinner companion brought me an N-95 face mask as a gift. By today, the information about where to go and what to do was everywhere. If this is indeed a pandemic (whatever that is), the speed with which information travels, and the transparency of the processes, will be quite a change from when China tried to hide bird flu and SARS.  In fact, arguably we can stop this from developing into a pandemic by using the same transparency that spreads information about what actually happened in Abu Graib.

And think of the young medical student who thought he’d get away with killing a stripper even though he had a Blackberry.

Today, some talking newshead asked an administration spokesperson whether President Obama knew about what was being done to avert the swine flu pandemic. What a stupid question. Obama may have been golfing, but he does have a Blackberry.

HT to Mark Salustro for much of the thinking in this piece.

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Ten Companies You Need to Know About

When I became involved in the American Biofuels Council three years ago, the push for biofuels was at its highest point in the technology hype cycle. Now, in Arizona, under the aegis of the Desert Biofuels Initiative, a non-profit social venture advancing sustainable regional biofuels,   companies in the state are collaborating to produce and sell real products.

As everyone knows, after every  hype cycle is the disappointment: in the case of biofuels, that disappointment came from soaring world  food prices — due to the diversion of corn and soy from food stock to biofuel, and the concomitant grain shortages and rise in prices. Falling swiftly into disfavor, ethanol and soy-based biofuels declined in popularity, and the entire midwest suffered job losses.The same media that hailed biodiesel as as means to energy independence derided it as consuming more energy in its production than it saved, and causing the global poor to head for starvation.

But all biofuels are not made of food stocks. At the 2nd Annual Desert Biofuels Summit in Scottsdale, Arizona, I heard about biodiesel companies making fuel from many different non-grain sources. Many of them are already successful; others are starting in the unique collaborative, open source environment provided by DBI.

Here’s a summary of companies that presented today, although not all of them.

Waste Vegetable Oil (WVO) Companies
1.Arizona Biodiesel, makes B99 biodisel from waste restaurant grease. Its CEO,Dan Rees, believes the biofuels industry was founded to be local and use local waste materials. He believes biodiesel should use local resources to benefit the local economy and benefit the local environment.

2.Amereco Biofuels Corp. was developed to meet the standards for soy diesel. Its plant is geared for 15 million gallons a year. All its products are made from recycled ingredients.

Algae and Jetropha Companies:
3. Biofeedstocks Global LLC, a startup, is planning nursery operations to plant jetropha in Arizona, and is in R& D working with a closed loop algae system.

4. Algae Biosciences, part of the Northern Arizona Center for Emerging Technologies, produces algae in contaminant-free salt water aquifers near Holbrook, AZ, where there’s a pristine salt water aquifer from a long-dried up sea!. The company is producing a wide range of products, of which algae-based biodiesel is  a byproduct.

5. XL Renewables, in Casa Grande, AZ. is a renewable energy innovation company focused on the large-scale production of algae biomass and the development of integrated biorefinery projects

6. Energy Derived is dedicated to the development of energy efficient algae production systems for the creation of algae-based biofuels.. Their goal is to have every farmer grow an acre of algae and produce his own fuel. Apparently, drying  algae is a relatively energy-intense issue; the company has attacked that problem.

7. Diversified Energy Corporation is a privately held company specializing in the advancement of a series of promising alternative and renewable energy technologies, including a biofuels conversion process that can take any renewable oil and produce transportation fuels that are physically and chemically identical to petroleum, and an algal biomass cultivation system that is scalable and economical.
8. PetroSun – is an example of a company that originated as an oil and gas exploration company, but and went from there into using microbes for cleanup and enhanced oil recovery, and from there into bacteria and algae as sources of fuel.  By no means a startup, they have a million acres of land leases in Arizona and New Mexico to cultivate algae for biofuels.

9. Desert Sweet Biofuels is another company that has changed its focus. It will use the facilities and work accomplished by Desert Sweet Shrimp to pioneer the husbandry and production techniques required for the economic production of algae Biofuels and biodiesel. Involved in aquaculture for 14 years, the company managed fields in Ecuador, and has switched to Arizona because of its warm dry climate, perfect for growing algae.

10. My personal favorite, although perhaps not the biggest investment opportunity: Verde Biotrailors, which produces pre-engineered mobile biofuel processors that can be located on a job site, handle smells and spills better than a processor located in a building, and can be cleaned up at a car wash. The units sell for $12,500 and bring biofuel processing to the people.

Some of these companies are not startups by young people; I’m also seeing a group of middle-aged scientists trying to commercialize technologies they’ve been working on for years out of true conviction. There was so much energy around the Workshop that I can’t believe there isn’t more support for these obviously important companies.

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Inc. Magazine Looking for Growing Companies

Inc. Magazine has made Stealthmode an outreach partner, because it’s tough for them to find companies that grew last year.  But I know SOMEBODY did, and this might be a good year to apply if that’s you. I imagine there are easier and more difficult years to make the list, and this would be an easier one.

Here’s what they sent out this morning.

“Inc. magazine is looking for the fastest-growing companies in America for its annual Inc. 500|5000 awards. If your company grew between 2005 and 2008, you could receive national recognition and visibility on this year’s list.
Although the formal application deadline has passed, Inc. is currently still accepting applications from members of our Inc. and partner networks.
One of the most prestigious honors in American business, the Inc. 500|5000 award ranks the 5,000 fastest-growing companies based on revenue growth over a three-year period, from 2005 to 2008. This year’s award will also recognize the top companies in many metro areas, regions, and industries, as well as the top minority and women-led companies—so you can help bring attention to your business community as well as your own company.
Click here to apply.  Call the Inc. team directly at 1-800-248-0308 for questions or more information.
Spread the word! Send this email to any private company in your area business network! ”

And if you apply through that link, they’re tracking where the applications come from this year.  They will know how good a communicator I am (or am not) by whether we generate applications. This has all gotten very transparent compared to what the process used to be in the past.

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Navigating the Shakeout: 2009 Solar Summit

Solar panel system
Image by 138 Photo via Flickr

 

If you are not in the solar industry and  are only observing it calmly from the outside, count yourselves fortunate. People actually in the industry are waking up in a sweat as they ride the roller coaster to the future, because the solar industry is shifting  this year like a pendulum. In fact, I’ve never before been at a conference where the market was shifting as quickly as this one is. The presenters are practically breathless with the effort they are extending to figure it out. 

For producers of solar supplies, 2007 marked the end of the glory days, as margins are coming down from 30-40% as demand temporarily sinks. Even if solar were cost effective, which it still isn’t, no one can buy today, because we  have a scarcity of asset financing capital, stifled debt markets that push up the cost of borrowing, and as a consequence, module prices that are falling constantly as overcapacity and inventory build. As a buyer, making a purchasing decision is like trying to catch a falling knife.
As a manufacturer, it’s more like trying to figure out whether you will be in the business tomorrow. Photovoltaics in the future will not have margins like they did in 2007 as polysilicon commoditizes. Companies like 3 M are trying to drive costs out of material to make solar competitive. At the same time, policy changes throughout the world whipsaw these companies simultaneously with the recession.
For the past five years, solar has been riding high on the hog:  there has been a shortage of solar panels as demand for them grew 50% a year, especially in countries like Germany and Spain, where government policies drove large numbers of solar installations that even led to a polysilicone shortage.  At one time, Germans were responsible for 50% of  global demand, as Germany installed 1500 MW of solar power, all subsidized by German taxpayers. But the German taxpayer is burdened as much as he can stand, so those subsidies appear to be over for now.  Both Germany and Spain have stopped buying.
As a result, the industry now has flipped quickly from a supply constrained industry to a demand constrained industry. 
Although the United States is looming as the next big market for solar, as Obama makes the push for green jobs and energy independence through ARRA,  no one knows how this will work quite yet. We know there will be a 30% subsidy for solar installations, and a 30% tax credit for manufacturing them. And  that you can “double dip,” taking advantage of state and federal incentives at the same time.
But there is also a mandate to manufacture in the US, and to develop green jobs.  So all the leaders in the field who invested in capacity abroad may find themselves threatened. And all the most automated factories, often called “lights out” factories because no on a works there but robots, may be ineligible for ARRA funds. New plants built in the US may purposely forego the latest manufacturing process technology to get the Obama money.
Thus incentives may not align with the capacity for quite a while, and valuable time may be lost toward making us energy independent..
But if we do get to the point where solar is selling for $1.50 a watt by 2012, which is what people expect can be accomplished, the US market can then install 2GW a year, which is a pretty solid market
Unlike many other technologies, which have deployed through sheer market forces, solar policies on the upstream side and the downstream side have historically dictated demand and shifted the balance of trade. Right now, the US is fully self-sufficient in the balance of trade in solar. But that will change because of the Recovery dollars.
As an example, ARRA changes the incentives for installing solar systems from a 30% investment tax credit (who needs it this year anyway) to an outright cash grant. Everyone can use that. This addresses the issue of tax inequity and makes it possible for government buildings to get paid back quickly install PV systems and collect energy to run themselves and perhaps even sell back to the grid. But shovels have to be in the ground  for these projects by 2010, and they have to come online by 2017.
To complicate things further, when these installations  create green jobs, we will have the problem of supply shortage again. The industry will shift back to lack of capacity, especially for solar modules. One of the speakers suggested that today might be the time to get into the business of assembling of solar modules in every state throughout the US, thereby generating local green jobs and lowering the transportation costs for these modules.
This conference, aptly called “Navigating the Shakeout,” is a two-day summit that brings together all the players in the solar energy industry to trade war stories and prognostications. I come away thinking that it’s not easy to plan when the government(s) keep getting into your business.

 

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Arizona At An Impasse

I just came from Greater Phoenix Economic Council’s “Convening Arizona’s Community”, an emergency summit held by an organization founded twenty years ago during Arizona’s last big downturn. While I commend GPEC for holding the summit, I can only say that it’s work over the past twenty years has been a big FAIL, because none of our problems have changed. They are only bigger.

The somber opening notes were struck by Mayor Hugh Hallman of Tempe, who said the state was facing unprecedented challenges and couldn’t afford competition among government entities. We have to collaborate, he said, to make the state sustainable, a good place to do business and to raise a family. He said that because the Arizona Governor and the state’s legislature are at an impasse on what to do to face these challenges. Both the legislature and the Governor are Republican, so this isn’t an ordinary political impasse.

In case you don’t live in Arizona, some background. Arizona faces a $3.2 billion deficit next year, and by 2014 will have a $15.4 billion deficit it nothing is done. And Richard Florida, a man economic developers listen to, says Arizona will not be a winner coming out of this downturn.

Governor Brewer takes pains to remind us that she has inherited the deficit, implicitly pointing at former Governor Napolitano, who used money during the upturn to make big increases in education funding, including instituting all-day kindergarten, hoping to close the state’s huge education deficit — about which we’ve been talking since I’ve lived here.

Arizona has always had an education system that ranked between 40th and 50th among the states. It has 220 separate school districts, with ridiculous redundancies in administration and boards, and no one has the political will to combine them. We are a state of local control. We therefore have wildly discrepant results, depending on where you live, on our standardized tests.

Brewer goes on to assure us that more spending cuts are on the way, and that she doesn’t condone or endorse ARRA, but will take the money. Stimulus dollars will not fix the underlying problem.
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Then, surprisingly for a Republican in Arizona, she admits that we must raise taxes. At least she’s being real.

The way the state’s budget is currently structured, 46% of state revenues come from sales tax and 36% from individual income. Only 8% of our tax base is from corporate taxes, although we have very high corporate taxes.

Both of our largest sources of revenue are highly volatile, and this year they have both fallen off a cliff. In addition, our sales tax revenues are based on contracting and auto sales! Cars and appliances.

On the spending side, 41% goes for K-12 education, 16% for Medicaid ( AHCCCS), 10% for universities, 10% for corrections, and 14% for health services and economic security. Since the state government is mandated to provide those, there are clearly no easy cuts. AHCCCS is growing, and the Department of Corrections is adding 150 new inmates a month, which adds up to a new prison every two years. The state has already had a round of agency reductions, tapped its rainy day funds, and borrowed from K-12’s allotment.

So, the governor says, it is time for budget and tax reform, focusing on long term planning and better forecasting. The state operates on a cash basis now, and she would like to move it to accrual. Thank God. Nothing should run on a cash basis. Among her other proposals she lists other funding cuts, a reform of the tax system and –drum roll here — a temporary tax increase of $1 billion.

The legislature, also dominated by Republicans says no. They speak next, saying that AZ’s private sector has lost more jobs than any state but Michigan, and that a tax increase makes consumer purchases more expensive and causes more job losses. The legislative leaders propose privatization, asset sales, fund transfers, securitization, and rollovers. I think of those as gimmicks to avoid the real elephant in the room.

The elephant in the room is residential property taxes. I am no tax specialist, but my property taxes are 3x in California what they are in Arizona. We have ridiculously low property taxes because our state is run by the real estate community, which lobbies to keep them low so we can have cheap housing and development. Not that California is great, but it’s time to take the industries that benefit the most from Arizona and let them pay their fair share. I also think that citizens really want to pay taxes for a good education system and for Child Protective Services. They just want the money used responsibly.

The most depressing part of the meeting was the panel of education leaders talking about how they were dealing with the deficit and its effects on their own institutions.

Dr. Michael Crow, ASU’s president, and a man with grand visions of high quality education, semi-sarcastically reported that he’s proud he can finish the semester after 900 layoffs and 12000 furloughs. He still sees record demand for the university, record productivity of the students, record output of both graduates and research. Crow says we still need to graduate more educated people and that the university must have some time to restructure. But he did encourage the audience to ask itself whether it had a real commitment to quality education. (ASU is going to have to do tuition surcharges in the four figure range to fund itself next year and into the future.)

The last speaker, an economist who has been speaking at these events for thirty-five years, and a good friend of mine, said we have to take better care of our base jobs to be competitive. Don’t even get me started on this one. We have very few base jobs because we chose, over the years, not to create them. We have no way to grow companies in this state. We start them, because we are very entrepreneurial, but we can’t grow them because we have no capital formation here and no political will to help companies grow. Now that the Motorolas and the Intels are shrinking, we can’t fund their laid off engineers to grow companies to replace them.

I think everyone walked away stunned. But I’ve lived here for all my adult life, and I know what will happen. The overhang of housing will clear away, and we will all be back to “normal, “scraping the desert, creating the suburbs, and planning for growth.

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Community. It’s Everything

Image representing FriendFeed as depicted in C...
Image via CrunchBase

Yesterday was a big day in the social media world, what with the launch of Friendfeed’s new beta in the morning and the recording of Gillmor Gang in the afternoon.It was an all-day community day for me, as I first joined my community in the morning to try the new interface and joined another community in the afternoon to listen to the opinions of friends about it and its chances against the other community platforms I use.

But the “meta” information from the day is more important than the actual discussions. The metadata tells me that the feeling of being linked to others of like mind is more powerful than jobs, economies, almost any competing activity. People up-end their lives to be part of these communities. People who are not really geeks, like my friend Michael Vandervert, a human resource specialist in Florida, are involved. Michael is a spiritual person who believes in the power of connections.

I can’t help drawing a parallel to my Blueprint for Survival workshops. The one coming up on April 20 filled up in two days. Why? Because when people lose their jobs they lose their communities, and if they don’t have these online platforms already in place, they’re stuck trying to figure out how to work LinkedIn.

LinkedIn, however, is not a true community, as Twitter is, or Friendfeed. Or even Facebook. If you lose your job, your wife, your 401(k) these communities offer empathy, help, alternatives. LinkedIn only offers a chance to do the “work” in networking. But what we really need is the “net” — the circle that draws us in so we don’t feel alone.

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