Monkey motion at the USPS

SANFORD, FL (jbeech.com) – USPS online package pickup adds 26 man-hours each year to a small American business, and pickup takes one day longer.

In its quest to work smarter, the USPS may have stubbed its toe. Based on a recent postmaster-letter, which said Genesis Hobby must begin using the USPS website to schedule package pickup, we’ve found three adverse issues with this regulation.

  • Online scheduling adds a one-day delay in pickup.
  • Online package pickup scheduling takes time.
  • There’s more USPS monkey motion too.

Taken together; the three issues seem rather like shooting ourselves in the foot.

1. An extra day’s delay in getting your stuff

The brown-truck folks give us same-day pick even if they’re called as late as 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Online scheduling with the USPS results in pickups being scheduled for the next day. We’ve even tried scheduling at 6 AM – same result. Unsurprisingly, in today’s cutthroat business environment, the reason we go out of our way to hustle an order out the door the same day is because customers want their stuff right now, or as soon as is practicable. Without delay.

You know how things works; we ship product using either USPS or UPS. Customers decide which service to use based on each’s online rate-calculator. Thus, while completing their order they see both rates, plus an estimated delivery. Picking whichever best suits them is rational behavior.

Naturally, people want their stuff fast. They want it free too (but accept as cheap as possible). In delivery, nothing else matters. Introducing an extra day’s delay is not rational. RE: USPS, it’s like tossing a drowning man a cinder block instead of a life preserver.

Surely the regs can be streamlined as efficiently as UPS? This can’t be rocket science.

2. Shooting itself in the foot via excess regulation

It only takes us a few minutes each day to schedule a package pickup via the USPS website. However, it’s not free because these few minutes add up. In practice, scheduling via the USPS website takes about 6 or 7 minutes each day. Call it 30 minutes per week. This is 26 extra hours per year. This is enough to buy dinner for two with drinks at Morton’s. We’ve know because we’ve timed it. It comes from our bottom line and we can’t afford it.

Worse, the 26 man-hours represent more of a burden to a 5-employee business than a 5000-employee business. Thus, weighing down those folks (small businesses) whom are generally credited with creating the most new jobs. This is the worst idea possible.

Moreover, while it’s bad any time, it’s especially bad during difficult economic times. Levying this penalty throughout the US economy – right now – borders on the absurd.

3. It’s costing the USPS more too

Unsurprisingly, on the USPS side of things, there’s extra work too. For example, someone at the post office has to print all the online package pickup requests. Once printed they must make their way to the respective postmen, e.g. disbursed. Knowing bureaucracies, there’s probably some additional controls and procedures for this process, which take yet more man-hours.

Perhaps the real wonder is there’s only one day’s delay.

What to do when Kafka’s in charge

For many years Genesis Hobby – in concert with our postman – have used a simple system. When we have packages for pickup we hang a flag on the door, which he can see from the road.

Exactly like raising the little red flag on the mail box, this indicates there are packages for pickup. It’s an elegant solution because absent the flag, the postman doesn’t waste time stopping.

Intense competition from the likes of FedEx and UPS should sharpen the USPS. Making themselves less competitive seems ludicrous. Worse, they preclude the postman from managing upward and demonstrating initiative because in bureaucracies initiative is bad. Especially when the powers that be want packages scheduled and damn the consequences. We deserve better.

Is Franz Kafka running the USPS? Why the excess monkey motion?

Government regs, safety, and jobs

SANFORD, FL (jbeech.com) – too many government regulations adversely affect citizens – it’s a given amongst political candidates. Is it true?

While political candidates decry too many government regulations, why are they short on specifics? Any idiot can complain, how about offering up solutions instead. Something concrete.

General aviation

Mention business-use aircraft and a multimillion-dollar Gulfstream typically springs to mind. In point of fact, smaller propeller-driven aircraft make up the vast majority of the fleet. They’re largely very old, and due to government regs can’t be modernized economically.

For example, Genesis Hobby operates a 1954 Bonanza (nicknamed Sweet-E) for transporting display models. This nominally 4-place aircraft is usually flown absent back seats and loaded like an airborne pickup truck. She’s worth about the same as a new pickup too.

Three-years old when a ’57 Chevy was the height of Detroit’s wares, the sleek exterior belies the fact her avionics are antiques too. Moreover, FAA regulations impose such heavy economic costs modernization is unlikely.

The consequences aren’t just high costs but diminished safety and fewer jobs too.

FAA regulations: Certificated vs. non-Certificated

The FAA regulates both commercial and private aircraft. Commercial aircraft are more strictly regulated than private aircraft to better protect the fare-paying public. In broad terms, private aircraft can be segregated into two types, Certificated (made in a factory) and in homage to aviation’s roots, non-Certificated or Experimental.

While often professionally designed, Experimental aircraft are frequently crafted by amateurs, e.g. home-built. In fact, at one time all aircraft were home-built efforts because there were no factories. Successful designs eventually became commercial efforts the likes of Boeing, Cessna, etc.

The FAA’s antecedents, dating back to 1926, were charged with regulating the new industry. Unsurprisingly, they’ve created lots of regulations. However, over the years the FAA’s mission changed and thus, regulations have come to have unintended consequences. Ones, which adversely affect costs and thus, both safety and jobs.

FAA certification: Economic costs

The FAA certification process is complex and thus, costly. So costly the result is a market effectively split in two cost-wise. Parts catalogs often list a non-Certificated price while the Certificated price may be double, or more. Often a lot more. Some products are not available for Certificated aircraft because of regulatory costs.

For example, $1500 buys a single-axis non-Certificated autopilot. Meanwhile, an equivalent Certificated product is approximately $10,000. For a 2-axis autopilot the difference is $4000 vs. $13,000. However, the price delta is staggering for an all-singing, all-dancing model because $8000 vs. $35,000 is more than many aircraft are worth.

Moreover, a non-Certificated autopilot isn’t just less expensive, it’s better because it’s solid-state, operates on reduced current, has better features, and is lightweight. Meanwhile its Certificated counterpart is usually a heavy analog clunker designed in the 1960s. They’re so old they often predate integrated circuits.

Perhaps more tellingly, non-Certificated aircraft aren’t falling out of the skies due to using non-Certificated parts and accessories like autopilots. Far from it.

Surprisingly, once certified these products can’t be modernized. Not without incurring the whole certification process all over again. Consequently, these antiques are still sold – brand new! Unsurprisingly, they sell for inflated prices because the system works to protect these vendors from new competition.

This is akin to government regulations splitting the computer market in two. E.g. where business-users may only buy vintage computers. Meanwhile individuals may opt for the latest Intel screamer with the latest graphical operating system.

Thus, this regulatory cost burden becomes the crux of a problem with respect to modernizing aircraft worth what new pickup trucks cost. To wit, they cannot be modernized – not economically. This effectively prices innovation out of the Certificated aircraft market. An unintended consequence is this adversely affects safety as well.

The human costs of excessive FAA regulations

Like cruise control makes for a less tiring journey, autopilots result in less fatigued pilots. Flying in the clouds is very demanding. Think driving through fog, but worse because pilots may spiral out of control due to how the inner ear works (called a graveyard spiral).

In fact, pilot loss of control is a major component in aircraft accidents-stats each year. What typically happens is a VFR pilot inadvertently strays into clouds, or as happened to John F. Kennedy Jr., flies on a moonless night. Spatially disoriented pilots face tragic consequences.

The real tragedy, however, isn’t how just pushing the autopilot button may have saved their lives but how it isn’t an economic option for many Certificated aircraft because FAA regulations preclude installing anything but a Certificated autopilot. In effect, the overreaching FAA regulations favor the well heeled.

Sadly, this is the hitch in Genesis Hobby using Sweet-E to promote business. Operating her is effectively more risky because she doesn’t have a modern autopilot. Yet investing $13,000 for an autopilot – in an aircraft worth about what a new pickup truck costs – is difficult to justify. The numbers simply don’t work.

In this case, specifically, it means diminished safety for the employees. Yet there’s more because beyond increased operational risks, there’s another cost . . . jobs. American jobs.

The job costs of too many FAA regulations

To recap, FAA regulations dictate Sweet-E may either be equipped with an comparatively expensive Certificated-autopilot, or none at all. While the non-Certificated aircraft aftermarket is a vibrant business scene with many, many manufacturers, the aftermarket for Certificated aircraft is essentially dead.

It’s because year after year a few old-line manufacturers trot out the same old certificated-wares – at protected prices. Meanwhile, FAA bureaucrats handcuff market expansion via onerous regulations. Regulatory roadblocks means proven non-Certificated products can’t be used to improve the safety of the entire fleet.

This is especially tough during difficult economic times because it drives up costs for that part of the market, which is trying to create jobs. As if safer aircraft operation weren’t a high enough price for excessive government regulations, in bifurcating the market for manufacturers, they results in reduced opportunity for sales. No question, this is costing real jobs, right now.

Moreover, beyond the manufacturing jobs, it affects small shops and their mechanics, too. These are the little guys in American business, the ones who install these types of products. Excessive and burdensome regulations are handicapping the American economy at every turn.

Perhaps the owners of Genesis Hobby will ultimately conclude employee safety is important enough to justify spending $13,000 for the autopilot referenced above despite the fact it’s an uneconomic decision based on aircraft value. Maybe not. But there’s an irony is this because it’s a product of a company, which isn’t American.

Imagine you’re crafting the ’57 Chevy of your dreams. However, the US Government prevents you from exercising your property rights via regulations, which say it’s not OK to install a nifty new XM satellite radio. Instead you may either install an old fashioned AM push-button radio . . . or nothing at all.

We’re from the government. We’re here to protect you.

There are regulatory differences between Experimental and Certificated aircraft, which are affecting safety, spending, and jobs. These regulations should be simplified or eliminated. What would I change if I were King?

For private use aircraft it’s simple; at a minimum, once Certificated aircraft become older than the 17 years of manufacturer’s-liability then maintenance and modification should be of nobody’s concern but the owner. Better still, it wouldn’t be any different for Certificated aircraft than it is for other factory-made transportation products like automobiles, boats, motorcycles, or snowmobiles. E.g. take it in for maintenance or modernization to the dealer, your own mechanic, or do the work yourself because it’s your private property.

While I know this last, especially, is heresy for some the facts are we have a fully functioning system of civil redress and tort in America. Thus, if an accident occurs, whether it’s due to the maintenance or modernization, or not, there’s already a mechanism in place expressly designed to deal with it. This simply isn’t the purview of bureaucrats.

Conclusion

Ultimately, if the goal is to simplify regulations and get the government out of our citizen’s lives, we have to begin with the idea it’s not the business of the government to coddle and protect us against ourselves. In the alternative, the nanny state may as well put all citizens in padded rooms and feed us through a tube to keep us safe.

A dog in the hunt

It’s my fat ass usually piloting Sweet-E, so this is rather self serving in some ways because I have a dog in the hunt. While I offer this comment to aid the reader in judging how large a grain of salt to apply to this thesis, it doesn’t change the fact FAA regs impede economical fleet modernization and thus, adversely affect both safety and jobs.

Were the rules changed, Sweet-E would very soon get a good middle-of-the-road autopilot. One costing about $4000. It would improve our chances when flying. It would represent a shot in the arm for the manufacturer. It would give needed work to the mechanics and small shop owners at every airport across America.

Moreover, it wouldn’t stop there either because there are more non-Certificated gadgets available in the aftermarket on which the overwhelmingly old Certificated fleet owners would be able to spend money than you can shake a stick at. These innovative American manufacturers offer a vast cornucopia of amazing new devices, which would help modernize the fleet for safer operations. If only the government would get out of the way.

Some, for example, improve a pilot’s situational awareness – so much so it’s almost like seeing in the dark. These are devices offered for 1/10th the price of Certificated products, but because they can be updated and improved without the FAA’s regulatory burden, their evolution far outpaces the old-line ware manufacturer.How can our government – in good consciense – continue to stand in the way of modernizing the fleet? How can it – in good conscience – impede our American manufacturers? How can FAA bureaucrats – in good conscience – continue to keep consumers from acting in their own best interests?

Do we put a sack of cement on the shoulders of American sprinters when they’re racing at the Olympics? Why are we burdening our nation with so many regulations?

Your author is no genius but this is an easy way of giving America a kick in the economic ass. If I can see this, then anybody who wants to be my President needs to start getting specific about reducing the burden of government because I’ve had it with platitudes and generalities. Don’t take my vote for granted.

Whatever happened to land of the free and pursuit of happiness? 

MSFT – dead money for a decade

SANFORD (jbeech) – Dismantling Gates’ vision; Balmer’s hubris

CNN.com, Amazon.com, Genesishobby.com all three have different interfaces. In the early 80s, software too was a wild west-like scene. It was just as discordant as the multitude of website navigation schemes we have today. We have it easier in fact because at least we’re now all trained on using a computer mouse to select menus on the screen. Back in the day, e.g. predating the mouse, we used keyboard-commands like Alt-PrintScrn or Ctrl-Alt-Delete.

For example, before the mouse was common a spreadsheet program called Lotus 1-2-3 was the dominant numbers-tool (pre-Excel). Instead of a mouse, getting to its menus involved typing the /-key (this was technically called the /-prompt or slash-prompt). Frankly, it was as quick and easy as it seems, Just pressing the slash-key brought up the menu choices.

The problem was the premier database software (dBase) didn’t use the slash-prompt. It used the dot-prompt. Ditto for the most popular word processor back then, WordStar, and their innovative diamond.

While individually not too tough to learn, they were all different from each other. Absolutely nothing was the same. Unfortunately, zero commonality for even the most trivial functions, e.g. printing or saving led to higher training costs for business. This is bad.

Making life easier – common commands for common functions

Along came Bill Gates with a vision for making software easier to use. The idea was simple; common commands for common functions. E.g. opening and saving files was performed the same whether you’re using a word processor, a database program, or a spreadsheet. Similarly, go to the same place and do pretty much the same thing to print, or edit.

This was a revolution in ease of use, which promised to reduced the costs of training employees because learning one program put someone a fair way down the road to using another. The trick was in borrowing the concept of a mouse and graphical user interface. Bill too had seen the future in the work of Xerox PARC.

Toward that goal, Gates introduced a product called Windows. It was an especially risky bet because computers of the day were largely incapable of running Windows, a graphical product, which consumed seemingly vast tracts of RAM (CPU-hog too). This back when a 386/33 with 1 meg of RAM was considered a bad boy.

Incredibly, Windows competed with another of Gates’ products, MS-DOS because both are operating systems. In effect, Gates was so convinced he unleashed the mammals to eat the dinosaur’s eggs. As if that weren’t enough (and proving he has huge wontons), in concert with Windows, Gates launched a suite of programs expressly to compete with the big three, called Office.

MIcrosoft Office was generally composed of Word, Excel, and Access. They took on Wordstar, 1-2-3, and dBase respectively. Moreover, they introduced the now familiar File, Edit, View, Insert, etc. pull-down menu scheme.

Collectively, these programs soon eclipsed the command-line menus software as businesses responded to Gate’s vision. Simply put, in the real world, common commands results in software being easier to learn to use, e.g. more bang for the buck training-wise.

The bet paid off – big – and the already wealthy Gates became the richest man in the world. All because of the now ubiquitous Windows, plus Office, which supplanted the then then dominant big-three programs.

Kicking down sandcastles

Steve Ballmer replaced Bill Gates as head of Microsoft. However, for various reasons, Ballmer’s not getting it done. Witness MSFT, trading sideways since the dot-com bust. He’s been around a long time. He’s the wrong guy.

From the outside looking in, Ballmer’s like a bully kicking down the other kid’s sandcastle. Bound and determined to prove himself better than Bill Gates, he’s reinventing the graphical user interface. This is a problem.

It’s not that his vision is better or worse than the old way, the problem is it’s different. Different is a bad idea because the train has already left the station. As a world, we’ve already placed our bet between Windows and Apple.

Changing the rules opens the door to consumers reconsidering Apple. It’s a huge mistake and likely has something to do with the growth in the Mac OS since there’s no performance benefit to changing to their hardware.

Frankly, it’s one thing for Google to come up with something new and improved, but for Microsoft itself to do it opens the door to Apple because as the thinking goes . . . “I’m about due for a new computer, everything looks different. Show me an Apple.” It opens the door to Chrome too.

It’s especially egregious because it’s not like Mr. Market has deemed Office and Windows a failure, e.g. the reason the stock’s traded sideways. Instead, Microsoft seems to suffer from a surfeit of ideas and unlike mammals eating dinosaur eggs, this is self-immolation.

It comes under the aegis of Ballmer. He’s effectively dismantling Gate’s splendid achievement; the unified command structure. He’s seemingly intent on showing he’s smarter than Gates. He’s wrong. Notice how Steve Jobs would come out and say things along the lines of, “The user doesn’t need to learn anything new because it works the same, only better”. Basically, Jobs grokked users don’t like unnecessary change.

Changing the secret sauce – not what we signed up for

For example, upgrading your Office 2003 to Office 2007 (or 2010) is like opening a can of Coke, slurping it down, and spewing because it’s not Coke . . . it’s sweet tea. Not that you don’t like sweat tea, more like it’s just not what you were expecting, capisce?

Word in post-2007 Office doesn’t have File, Edit, View, Insert, Format, Tools, etc. but instead has Home, Insert, Page Layout, References, Mailings, Reviews, etc.

This is way different. It’s 100% different. Who sold Ballmer this bill of goods, and why wasn’t he smart enough to realize changing the secret sauce is dangerous? Hello.

Moreover, there’s a fly in the ointment. The common schema for using software is gone – poof. Gone too – and the part I, as a businessman, especially resent – is the business investment in employee training. It’s all tossed out the window because the software looks and functions so differently we have to basically learn how to use it all over again.

So different we couldn’t even figure out how to save a document

When we purchased Microsoft’s Office 2010 to upgrade various computers loaded with Office 97, Office, 2000, and Office 2003 we eagerly installed it across our network of computers (5 licenses). Frankly, we were quite excited to see what was new.

Amazingly, we had to resort to the manual. While this is OK for brand new software, it’s not OK for an upgrade. What happened to the common user interface? Poof, it was gone!

Ultimately, after a fair week of testing, which consisted of mostly futzing around to find the familiar tools like word count, thesaurus, formatting, etc. we took an unprecedented step. We decided to uninstall the new Office. Basically, our users hated it. 100% of them.

In part it’s because it was different, which meant retraining. People don’t like going back to school for no especially good reason. This is expensive to a company, much more so than the mere cost of the software. It’s expensive in terms of relearning muscle memory. Moreover, it wasn’t better. In fact, in some ways it was a little worse.

Reduced vertical space makes composition feel claustrophobic

Recapping; changing how commands are accessed left folks predisposed against it. Moreover, another complaint was how there was less vertical space for composing. It’s not a huge difference but everybody commented on it. Between Word 2007 and Word 2003 the vertical reduction is just enough less than what you had to be irritating.

Like learning Chinese

Another user-complaint dealt with icons for the commands. For example, now there’s an icon for File, and a different icon for Print, and a yet different icon for everything else. There are dozens of them.

Fortunately, in recognition they’re too confusing, Microsoft labels them. I wonder this of Microsoft, What was the point of replacing the menu choice File with an icon labeled File?

I suppose it’s fortunate we can read because other than icon designers, who else benefits from this scheme is anybody’s guess.

Oh yeah, the commands are grouped differently too. For example, after a decade of getting a word count by going to Tools, there’s a new way of getting a word count. Why? What was wrong with the old way?

Three strikes

First, the Ribbon Bar fails us because it forces expensive retraining since commands have been regrouped. Second, it also fails because it is so confusing the icons need text labels. Third, it even fails because it consumes more precious composing space.

Frankly, File, Edit, View style menus were simple. They were elegant. Commands were out of the way until you need a function. It’s a clean interface. I like it better than Apple’s. Moreover, nearly all programs – until now – use this titanic shift, so if you switch and then hire someone who’s not trained on Word 2007 or newer, expect to pay for training, or time futzing about. Seems to me this is a lot of human value being undone for little benefit.

Alternatives

Fortunately, eBay came to our rescue. We bought new, unopened, licenses of Office 2003 for all the new computers. An attractive free alternative, Open Office, also exists (if cost is a principal issue). Be warned, it’s similar to Word 2003, but different enough it entails retraining as well.

Thus, and quite sadly, instead of making Office better, Mr. Ballmer’s made things worse. Like New Coke was deemed inferior to the Coke, Ballmer’s vision for MIcrosoft lacks.

Any idiot can complain

Solutions count because any idiot can find things wrong. I believe there are many places Office could be made better. Re-creating the cash cow. For example, instead of a new application for website design (Front Page), why not just extended Word? Or offer the old style menu structure alongside the Ribbon Bar . . . let users choose.

Meanwhile, folks now use PHP to generate dynamic web pages, which are composed largely of written words. Surely between Word and Access they could have done the same thing in Office. Speaking of Access, it’s something of a dead end too because folks are using MySQL instead. Hmmm, are all Microsoft’s cash cows now dead? Is there no hope? Not so fast.

The king is dead, long live the king

No, MIcrosoft’s cash cow possibilities aren’t dead because there are new cash cows aplenty in the world of software, which Ballmer’s neglecting. For example, there are tools for creating and managing websites called shopping carts. Does Microsoft offer one? Nope.

Amazingly, instead of turning to Microsoft for building out a widget website, people have to turn to a shopping cart product created (essentially by a nobody). Mustn’t be too hard to do judging by the multitudes of shopping carts available.

Unsurprisingly, none have the finish and panache of a Microsoft product. MIcrosoft could make it and give it away because the money’s in the hosting.

Folks pay $100 month for the software and service. Now this is a cash cow – by any definition –  but especially in a world where the OS as well as Office are bundled for little more than a one-time shot of 100 bucks each. Who’s asleep at the switch? Ballmer.

And it’s not just widget websites. There are vanity websites too, e.g. photo websites, family websites, and a host of others because nearly every computer user at some time will surely express an interest in a website if it’s as easy as Internet or Windows Explorer. Talk about marketing the cloud, those are fees for data storage, hosting, etc. These are all cash cows . . . on steroids enough to humble Office in its heyday.

Meanwhile, a lack of extended Office tools – for the web – result in stuff like Expression.

Other examples of Access-Word hybrid software applications abound. E.g. CMS products like Drupal, WordPress, and Joomla! are popular. Where’s Microsoft?

Frankly, it beggars the imagination how this need exists and Microsoft is out fighting yesterday’s battles remaking Office. Or ineptly explaining the ‘cloud’ with incredibly inane television commercials.

Moreover, once a widget website is alive, the next question for an entrepreneur is this; how do you link this thing to my accounting, e.g. QuickBooks? The short answer is you don’t, not easily because QuickBooks requires a cluster of a procedure – 3rd party tools.

Worse, even if you drag your data kicking and screaming into accounting, you cannot turn around and update the website, or otherwise manipulate it easily. Hmmm, do you remember Microsoft Money?

Another idea is use the Money investment to fold it into Office. After all, it was a nifty enough personal finance package Microsoft once offered, which failed because users didn’t want to learn a new way of doing things. However, instead of extending and improving it, e.g. competing with Intuit’s Quicken and QuickBooks, seamlessly fold it into Office. Jobs would.

Speaking of Jobs, once upon a time Steve Jobs’ return propelled Apple to the moon. While he stepped out on top, MIcrosoft shareholders (and loyal users) better hope Gates gets bored and returns to Microsoft to right the ship. If not Gates, then somebody else . . . please, anybody but Ballmer.

Until then, MSFT is dead money. It’s a sell.