Saturday, June 30, 2007

Raising the Median: Computer Hardware and Software

Image Source: MadAsHellClub.Net

I'm mad as hell and not going to take it any more! (Well, not really, but I am more than a bit disturbed [ask anyone who knows me] :-)

In any case, I've kind of had it with computer hardware and software makers who don't promote better ways to do things and perpetuate the mediocre or inferior.

One obvious example of this is the present keyboard you are probably typing on (just as I am). It's antiquated and inferior in two very obvious ways:
  • Firstly, the actual locale of the letters on the QWERTY keyboard layout, is a relatively slow method to type (created to slow typing down, so 18th century typewriters wouldn't jam). Because of this crappy letter layout, Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) is epidemic among those regularly using keyboards. Additionally, it's a slow way to type, compared to several more modern alternatives, particularly a fairly new one that takes advantage of prior Qwerty training, while minimizing re-training time compared to using a Dvorak keyboard.

  • Secondly, the flat keyboard, with its offset letters, also contributes to RSI, to a higher error rate, and was something that was designed for the actual mechanics of a typewriter, never for the human being. That the computer makers chose to perpetuate this too when manufacturing computer keyboards, is even more unbelievable.

So, in relation to item #1 above, a Dvorak layout (which many of you may have heard about) is far superior to the standard Qwerty layout and results in superior speed (the world's fastest typist used a Dvorak layout), and less RSI. However, the problem is, is that almost every key (33 of them) is recast elsewhere on the board, with many also jumping between hands.

This results in a steep time-consuming learning curve, and many people give up because of this (as I did), even though you can easily reconfigure your keyboard through a software add-on (go to Microsoft, here, if interested). This is probably the reason that the Dvorak never caught on - the very steep learning curve.

No, based on this idea though, others have been at work to recast the keyboard letters, using the lessons of Dvorak, but minimizing extraneous key movement from the Qwerty standard, where gains are minimal. In the case of the Colemak layout (moves only 17 keys, and minimal moved to the "other" hand), this results in, reportedly, much smaller learning curve, with similar speed and ergonomic gains to Dvorak.

It is now the third-most popular English language layout, and is gaining converts every day. More information, including a downloadable program to convert your existing keyboard to this superior letter layout is located at I hope to download and convert to this layout. I'll report out on this from time to time.

(Note: If you're on a blog aggregator, you can visit The Confused Capitalist here or here [] for additional articles and exclusive content!)

Keyboard layout comparisons (click to enlarge any of the below):

QWERTY (The old-fashioned, crappy, standard)

DVORAK (A better keyboard, that never caught on, probably in part due to the learning curve - look how many keys not only shift position, but from one hand to the other).
COLEMAK (With some luck, this will become the defacto standard, particularly with young people. Note how many Qwerty positions are retained, because moving them doesn't create significant improvement and moving them needlessly creates more difficulty in learning a new board layout for old-timers, like me)

So if you're looking to be a faster typist, to alleviate your own RSI, and just generally to make the world a better place, head on over the for a free download to covert your keyboard. OK, that's Rant #1 over. Let's move onto Rant #2.

Secondly, the actual keyboard itself sucks! The hardware makers should have corrected the obvious deficiencies in this, once there was no mechanical reason to retain the "offset" configuration. It results in missed keys, too much finger stretching, and incorrect wrist position, among other problems. The Confused Capitalist has been researching this issue however, reading reviews on the net, and believes to have found a superior board.

While some boards split and twist the keyboard (like the Microsoft Ergonomic that I use at work) which solves part of the problem, it still leaves a large portion of the ergonomics unfixed. However, a newer board, called the SmartBoard, solves most of these problems and adds several other key fixes, as well. The SmartBoard is available from - see image below.
Finally, rant #3, isn't really a rant, but more of an eye opener. Many people use the Microsoft Office programs without believing there's any real alternatives out there. Well, Open Office has been picking up speed lately, and similar in some ways to Linux, converts. It is a free, volunteer-maintained open source program, providing an array of office suite type products. By all accounts on the internet, the latest release is continuing to improve and now rivals most of the Microsoft suite for utility, versatility, sophistication, stability, etc.

In some cases, some of the programs are reported as superior, with the most notable complaints being for the Power Point equivalent "Impress" still not up to the Microsoft standard, while the spreadsheet program "Calc" isn't - for sophisticated users - as good as Excel. However, huge strides have reportedly been made over the prior release. According to my research, many users are reporting that they prefer the Open Office word processor. You can go to to download this FREE program. So, even if a couple of the programs aren't quite there yet, it's not hard to think they will be soon.
Oh, and did I mention that Open Office can both properly read and save back into a Microsoft format? So my only question would be - unless you have very sophisticated spreadsheet or presentation needs - why on earth would you spend the bucks to upgrade to the latest Microsoft suite?

By the way, many of you might note the label "Global Warming" below, and wonder how this bloggering possibly ties in with that theme. It's simple really - any improvement in efficiency offers the possibility of turning off the computer sooner, and therefore reduces power consumption. Further, less RSI means fewer trips to the doctor. Ergo, less greenhouse gas emissions.

Secondly, using Open Office, an open source document, means that you don't - perhaps - have to work quite as much, since you don't need to pay for this particular type of product. Ergo, the potential exists for a couple of less trips to work every other year. Times millions of workers = less greenhouse gas emissions.

Perhaps not obvious connections, but ones which can, and I believe, do, exist.

Well, that's it for now - I have all of these links on the right hand side of my blog, under the title "Computer Stuff". I hope you are able to use this to improve your own life - to "raise the median".


The Confused Capitalist

Monday, June 18, 2007

Food Shortages and Food Inflation: Malthusian future?

Image: Food skyscraper of the future?

Although Malthus has long been laughed at by those convinced that technology will solve any problem, in any finite system, one must reach some sort of system limits, as demand for a resource outstrips that method of producing it.

Although it may happen for slightly different reasons than postulated under the Malthusian catastrophe scenario, it appears this is starting to happen with food and will soon be found in a supermarket near you, via food inflation.

There is a confluence of forces that make serious food inflation, at the minimum, particularly likely over the next five to ten years:

Factor number one is the bee die back, and the effect it is likely to have on food prices over the next few years, as yields are curtailed due to a reduction in pollination. One economist figures that this will put over $15 Billion in North American crops at risk, all adding to potential for food inflation.

Factor number two is the growing wealth of emerging markets, and their propensity to emulate a western-style meat-heavy type diet, as wealth grows. This puts increased pressure on grain crops in particular, as it takes anywhere from about 5-20 pounds of grain to produce a single pound of meat. As large populations in China and India move further away from vegetarian or semi-vegetarian type diets, this strains limited global food stores even further, adding to food inflation.

Note: If you're on a blog aggregator, you can visit the Confused Capitalist here or here ( for additional articles and exclusive content!

Factor number three is the changing climate. Scientists have long known that food yields can come under pressure in at least two ways as global temperatures climb. Firstly, at higher temperatures, some plants - despite ample water - either cease production, or lower production. In either case, yields are lowered. Secondly, changing climate results in more extreme weather, including droughts, hurricanes, extreme rainfall etc. Total yields are obviously reduced under those circumstances too. (Alt citation, PDF)

This was recently brought home to me by an Australian cousin, who laments the drought his country has been going through for some time: he tells of kids in some parts of the country now entering high school, who have never seen rain.

Factor number four is the number of lunatic politicians, in their bid to never offend anyone while running for office, avoid telling the truth about ethanol from corn: it's doubtful it actually produces any additional (net) energy after it's energy inputs are calculated, AND it's going to (in fact, already has) further increased food costs.

I watched a shameful 20/20 series where every single presidential candidate at a town-hall type meeting claimed that ethanol was part of the solution, rather than more likely to contribute to an even bigger problem. Whatever happened to a "give 'em hell", Harry Truman style candidate? Are they all too meek, too bland, and too gutless for even one of them to stand up and tell the truth? And the truth is, is that ethanol, bio-diesel, or any other fuel made from food sources is only going to add to food inflation, possibly to serious food inflation.

One article also discusses many of these issues and interestingly points out that China, to feed itself, should be adding a quantity of arable land equal to Maine, every year. Instead, it has lost that amount every year over the past decade. Another article, in the respected Popular Science magazine, discusses these looming food questions.

There are, of course, always those head cases who are convinced that technology will solve any problem. However, increasing technological solutions have coincided with increased energy demands and, in a global warming world, one of these trends most likely has to give.

I read a recent article suggesting that food skyscrapers may be the way of the future - but these won't be coming any time soon and, due to costs, may end up with all those other strange Popular Science ideas that never see the light of day due to cost or technical issues that can't reasonably be overcome.

The Confused Capitalist will provide some practical and investment advice on how to deal with this over the coming while.

More reading sources:


The Confused Capitalist

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Beating the S&P 500

Back in early 2006, The Confused Capitalist suggested a low maintenance model portfolio that I felt would outperform the S&P500 over the next five years or so. The portfolio was based on certain themes, some of which are ones which have generally proven to outperform over longer periods of time, such as buying value positions and small companies.

Additionally, I felt that commodities and emerging markets would continue to benefit from the world situation, and that the US dollar would continue to be under pressure - thereby adding to investments denominated in something other than US$. I suggested positions in a total of six ETFs, at values of 7.5% to 25% of the portfolio, with most around the 20% range.

To compare, we suggested a suitable tracking comparison would be the S&P500, as represented by the "SPY" ETF which was then priced at $131.47. It closed Friday June 15, 2007 at $153.07, a gain of 16.4%, which is pretty good. Add in dividends of roughly 2% or so, and the total gain is about 18.4%. If you'd gotten this, you would have beaten about 80% of the mutual funds out there, using traditional five year horizons as a guide (only 1 in 5 mutual funds beats the index, when the period is five years or so).

Sidebar note: If you're on a blog aggregator, you can visit The Confused Capitalist here (or here: for additional articles and exclusive content!

Let's see how our own simple ETF-based portfolio, which looks like this, performed:

  • 20% weighting to a broad-based international ETF - EFV - $64.91 - ishares product tracks the MSCI EAFE Value Index, which tracks European, Australian, and Far Eastern markets. This ETF closed at $78.92 on Friday June 15, 2007, for a 21.6% gain, plus dividends. Advantage: The Confused Capitalist.

  • 20% weighting to small company - IWN - $74.99 - ishares product tracks the Russell 2000 Value Index (US small cap). This ETF closed at $85.11 on Friday June 15, 2007, for a 13.5% gain, plus dividends. Advantage: The S&P500.

  • 25% weighting to emerging markets - EEM - $105.45 - a broadly-based (for emerging markets) ishares product tracks the MSCI Emerging Markets Index. This ETF closed at $132.42 on Friday June 15, 2007, for a 25.6% gain, plus dividends. Advantage: The Confused Capitalist.

  • 20% weighting to the value portion of the S&P 500 - IVE - $70.62 - an ishares product tracking the value portion of the S&P500. This ETF closed at $83.78 on Friday June 15, 2007, for an 18.6% gain, plus dividends. Advantage: The Confused Capitalist.

  • 15% Own Ideas (in this case, my belief that commodity-oriented countries will do well for the next five to ten years). I'd equally weight a Canadian ETF (EWC) - $24.86 - and a Brazilian ETF (EWZ) - $44.25. The EWC closed at $30.58, for a 23.0% gain, while the EWZ closed at $62.66, for a 41.6% gain. Advantage both: The Confused Capitalist.

These weightings result in a total gain of 22.0%, plus dividends which, in this case, would add about another 1.5%, so the total would be about 23.5%, versus the 18.4% all in of the SPY ETF.

So not only did the Confused Capitalist beat the S&P500 ETF by five percentage points in just over a year, it did so in 5 of the 6 ETFs selected, showing broadly-based outperformance. The Confused Capitalist feels comfortable continuing to hold these same positions and original weightings going forward over the next year or so, and will check back in 2008 to compare relative performance.

I hope to continue to show that a low-maintenance portfolio, with modest thought given to what the future might look like, will continue to be able to outperform static indices. Those wishing to view some similar simple portfolios felt to have an excellent change to outperform the S&P500, should go here, here and here.

With these increases in value, the weightings have changed slightly going forward, but not enough to warrant a re-balancing. These weightings are now:
  • EFV - 20.0%
  • IWN - 18.6%
  • EEM - 25.7%
  • IVE - 19.4%
  • EWC - 7.6%
  • EWZ - 8.7%
June 18 2007. 12:10PM Pacific time. Correction made to the EEM discussion bullet, which misstated (understated) the current price and percentage increase. Ah, the dangers of using the "cut and paste" function!


The Confused Capitalist