On today's special election in California

I too voted no on the props today. Our problems stem from the fact that we not only screwed up the property tax base with Prop. 13, but we've also voted in idiotic spending mandates like Prop. 98. It's a recipe for disaster. Plus, we're gerrymandered out the wazoo, as Graves said, and while there's a fix coming for that it hasn't taken effect yet. The only real fix for all of it is to rewrite the state constitution, since all of those lovely tax cuts and spending mandates were voted in as constitutional amendments. I'm hoping the failure of the props will spur exactly that.

—My comment on Megan McArdle's blog at The Atlantic

Detroit At The Crossroads, Part 2: Chrysler to Learn Italian

Now we know: Chrysler is going into Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, and when the dust clears it's going to be a whole new ballgame. If everything goes as planned (a fairly big if), the UAW will own a majority stake through its retirement plan, Cerberus Capital Management (the current owners) will be wiped out, Chairman Bob Nardelli will be tossed out on the sidewalk, and the company will start offering cars designed by Fiat.

Fiat??!!

Yes, Fiat. The automaker that ignominiously withdrew from the US market with its tail between its legs twenty-five years ago, the company whose initials were said to stand for "Fix It Again, Tony" (or "Fix It Alla Time"), the company whose Fiat 124 became the basis for the Lada, the Soviet Union's answer to the VW, is going to be the great savior of the New New Chrysler Corporation.

Actually, this isn't as insane as it sounds. For one thing, the Fiat of today is a very different company than the Fiat of 1983\. Led by Sergio Marchionne, an Italian-Canadian who has been obsessed with improving quality, today's Fiat is producing well-designed, well-made cars that are nothing like the temperamental beasts anyone over 40 remembers. Judging today's Fiat by the 1981 Fiat Strada is like judging Ford by the 1981 Escort (an example of which I owned, and which was an indifferently-constructed, flimsy, underpowered, horrid little excuse for an automobile that just loved to warp cylinder heads. But I digress).

There are a couple of potential flies in the ointment, however. One of them is that Chrysler may not emerge from bankruptcy all that quickly, and if so, then it may not survive the process, as the New York Times observed. The other and much bigger potential problem is that Chrysler may decide that it needs to make the Fiat products more palatable to the American consumer by tinkering with the design to "improve" them. According to a Wall Street Journal article quoted in Autoblog, Chrysler's current design chief said as much:

Chrysler's head of design, Ralph Gilles, told dealers that the automaker intends to have its own version of the car, with Fiat providing the chassis and Chrysler designing the exterior.

Oh, please God, no. Don't let them do it.

If there's one thing that the Italian auto industry is good at, it's design. There have been times in the past when the mechanicals underneath were horrendously unreliable, but the sheet metal the mechanicals were wrapped in was so good that they sold anyway. Putting the people who brought us the Dodge Caliber and the current Chrysler Cirrus in the position of redesigning the Fiat 500 or Bravo would be like hiring the old Atari team to redesign the Apple MacBook Air.

I had the occasion last year to have a good look, up close and personal, at a couple of examples of the Fiat 500 here in California that were brought over for evaluation (not the ones depicted below), and let me tell you something: the Fiat 500 is the _cutest_ damn automobile to be produced in 30 years. Park it next to a Mini Cooper, that Anglo-German icon of automotive cuteness and effortless cool, and it makes the Mini look like a cold and humorless rectilinear box of stress. And it performs that feat for about half the money of a Mini. All Fiat has to do is make sure that they're built well enough that they don't spray transmission parts out the back in the first 5000 miles, and they're going to sell like ice cream in August.

By way of comparison, here are a couple images of the Dodge Caliber:

If Chrysler screws this one up, they deserve to go out of business.


Exterior photos of Fiat 500 by Marco Molinari; interior photo by Robertofrom Cagliari, Sardinia, Italy. All photos used under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic licenseand are published here under the same license.

Dodge Caliber interior photo by Randy Stern. Used under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licenseand published here under the same license. Dodge Caliber exterior photo by Thomas Stromberg. Used under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic Licenseand published here under the same license.

More on what killed Pontiac

In the aftermath of yesterday's announcement of the death of Pontiac, Autoblog put together a gallery of the 10 Worst Pontiacs Of All Time, and Jalopnik did a piece on Seven Cars That Killed Pontiac. Be sure to read the comments, which are brutally hysterical, unless you have an aversion to the word “shit.” As for me, courtesy of Wikipedia, here's one of the things that killed Pontiac with which I had personal experience. I did my driver's training in one of these execrable badge-engineered monuments to mediocrity, painted Frigidaire white and complete with limp steering, chrome-plated plastic interior trim, bench seats, a beige interior, and a wheezing V-6. Behold, the 1978-1981 Pontiac LeMans:

“We Build Excitement”? Not so much. And they wonder why my generation drives Toyotas.

Detroit At The Crossroads, Part 1: The Death Of Pontiac

With today's announcement of the death of Pontiac, I figure it's time for me to say something about GM, Chrysler, and the American auto industry in general. First up: General Motors.

First off, I'm sorry to see Pontiac go. I've never been much of a GM man, but of the traditional five GM divisions (Chevrolet, Pontiac, Buick, Oldsmobile, Cadillac) I always liked the Pontiacs the best. With a few exceptions (cough, Aztek, cough) their design seemed to appeal to me more. Unfortunately for Pontiac, not enough Americans agreed with me.

It's hard to imagine now, but there was once a time when the divisions built their own engines and ran with a great deal of autonomy. Those days are long gone, of course, and that is one of the reasons that Pontiac was given a death sentence today. It's one thing when models are shared across divisions--that sort of thing has happened for decades, and not too many people had trouble telling the Chevrolet Chevelle from the Oldsmobile 442, Buick Skylark, and Pontiac Grand Prix (or, for our friends in the Great White North, the Beaumont Acadian). It's another thing entirely to bolt on a new grille and taillights, replace the marque badges, and call it a different car, which is precisely what has been happening with Pontiac. Sure, the G6 has its own bodywork, but the G5 is a Chevy Cobalt with a split grille, the execrable G3 is a barely-disguised Chevy Aveo that's really a Daewoo, and the Torrent is a Chevy Equinox. Even the Solstice, arguably the best-looking of the bunch, is also sold as a Saturn Sky. And finally, the G8, as good as it is, is really an Australian Holden Commodore under its red arrow badges, although since the Commodore isn't sold here under its own name, the badge engineering is less objectionable. At least it was an improvement over the Bonneville.

But with all that platform sharing, the question begs to be asked: why have a Pontiac division at all? 40 years ago, when GM still held a majority of the American auto market, it made sense to have variations on a theme, the better to capture more buyers. If you didn't like the swoop of a chrome strip on the Chevy version, you could have a Pontiac. And so GM was able to capture buyers who might otherwise have bought a Plymouth or a Ford. In today's shrinking automotive marketplace, however, all that duplication became a liability. As GM's market share shrunk to historic lows, it faced competition from the juggernauts that are Honda, Nissan, and Toyota, each of whom has exactly two sales channels apiece in the United States (Toyota's third brand, Scion, is sold exclusively through Toyota dealers). In the compact segment of the market, where Honda fields the Civic, Nissan the Sentra, and Toyota the Corolla, GM has been attempting to counter with 3 vehicles: The Chevy Cobalt, Pontiac G5, and Saturn Astra, all of which are built off the same basic GM Delta platform. The Astra, which is built in Belgium by Opel, is a rebadge of the Opel Astra, also sold in the UK by Vauxhall and Australia by Holden. Its predecessor, the Saturn Ion, was also a Delta-platform product. The strategy appears to be that if you can't compete with the imports on quality, you can baffle your customers with complexity. (Granted, Toyota also sells the Matrix, which is based on the Corolla; but the Matrix is sufficiently different enough to appeal to a different segment than the Corolla sedan.)

It's an interesting strategy, but not one that appears to be working very well. With a mishmash of confused marketing messages, GM is trying to sell one vehicle to a whole bunch of different people, and to convince them at the same time that they're not the same thing. Good luck with that. Show the average consumer a side view of the Cobalt, the G5, and the Astra, and most of them won't be able to tell the difference. A G5 looks like a Cobalt coupe, and even the Astra, while a hatchback instead of a three-box sedan, bears the telltale marks of platform sharing (hint: look at the shape of the rear side window frames and compare to a Cobalt sedan).

All of that duplication is senseless, of course, which is why we've arrived where we are today. Pontiac, once the "We Build Excitement" division, was reduced to selling indifferently-built Korean econoboxes and rebadged Chevrolet SUVs, and had to rely on our Australian friends for its flagship sedan. You can blame it on GM management, who for years have figured that if something sells as a Chevy, it'll also sell as a Pontiac; you can also blame the dealers, who wanted to sell a "full line" without regard for whether or not it damaged the brand. Small wonder that it received its death warrant today. It'll be strange not having Pontiac around, but it can fairly be said that it's been dying the death of a thousand cuts for years now. At least someone finally had the courage to do the decent thing and put a bullet in it.

Notes from all over

Some random topics that are too long for Twitter, but not developed enough for a regular blog post:

  • Has the Los Angeles Times lost its freaking mind? Today they sold a big chunk of the front page to NBC for a promotion, and Sunday they're going to do something similar with the Calendar section—only this time, it's going to include a Q&A with Times columnist Steve Lopez, just to blur the lines of journalism and advertising even more thoroughly. Nice to know that when the going gets tough, there's nothing the Times won't sell and no principle of journalistic integrity they won't betray. Hope they enjoy those thirty pieces of silver.

  • In a surprising new Rasmussen poll, only about half of all Americans believe capitalism is better than socialism. Of course, you can slice and dice the wording of the poll however you want, but it would seem that more than a few Americans are prepared to start questioning the most basic of assumptions about our economic system. It's hard to blame them. In a world where the government is pumping billlions of dollars into failed companies, while ordinary Americans lose their homes and unemployment climbs into the double digits, our current system looks less and less appealing. Or maybe they just figure that since we've effectively started to nationalize companies anyway, we might as well go whole hog.

  • What's up with GM's styling department when it comes to Buicks? The Lucerne looks like someone grafted portholes and a Buick grille onto a VW Passat (the side and rear views are especially Passat-esque), and the LaCrosse looks like a previous-generation Ford Taurus with slightly better detailing. Where's Harley Earl when you need him?

  • Speaking of GM, it seems to me that the troubles of the automotive industry have a lot in common with the problems faced by the music industry and our rapidly sinking newspapers (see above remarks vis-a-vis the LA Times). In each case, you've got entrenched bureaucracies that have gotten used to having their way, coupled with an old-world view that refuses to die. Recent moves notwithstanding, GM is still behaving as if it had 70% market share (and Chrysler as if it still had a chance of surviving), the music business acts as if people still go to record stores to buy CDs (and as if artists still need them to distribute their music), and the newspapers still think that they're the ones to decide what is and isn't news. All of them are basically dead men walking. They just don't know it yet. And it is worth remembering that there will still be cars built in America if GM and Chrysler go under, there will still be music if the record industry collapses, and there will still be vibrant journalism if newspapers die. We may be reading RSS feeds on iPhones or Kindles while listening to MP3 files in our Teslas instead of reading the New York Times on paper while listening to FM radio in our Pontiacs, but then again we're also not reading papyrus scrolls while listening to wax cylinders in our Studebakers. Life goes on, you know?

Ventura after the rain

Today was one of those days that reminds us of why we put up with the expense of living on the California coast. There's nothing quite like Ventura on a blustery day after a spring rain.

Leaving America?

During the 2004 election, I was a graduate student in history, and I was amazed at the level of hysteria I found among my colleagues, both faculty and students, surrounding the re-election of George W. Bush (of whom I am no fan). Several people I knew, who were highly knowledgeable about history and who should have known better, made grumbling remarks about moving to Canada (a nation of which I am quite fond). I said at the time that this nation has survived wars, depressions, assassinations, and the presidencies of Franklin Pierce, Warren G. Harding, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter, and that if you have so little faith in our society, people, and government as to abandon it because you don't like the results of an election, then I for one welcome your departure and would like to encourage you in your emigration.

Something similar applies here. If you have so little faith in our nation that you would seek greener pastures in Third World nations and elsewhere because of fear, loathing, and what appears to me to be an unjustified panic, then please do so. You see, my part of the country, California, is getting kinda crowded because of all the people from around the world who want to come live here, and we could use the extra space. Don't let the door hit you in the butt on the way out.

-—My comment on Rod Dreher's Crunchy Con blog at Beliefnet.com

Commuting photo

Commuting home on a Friday in SoCal can actually be quite nice, as long as you know the right back roads to take…

Another kind of identity theft

When you say "identity theft," most people will immediately associate to the theft of Social Security numbers, bank accounts, credit histories, and other mostly financial items. But in the age of the Internet, one's identity is also tied up in Facebook profiles, domain names, email accounts, Twitter handles, and the like. What would happen if a domain registrar stopped responding to your communications? What if you no longer had control over your Google account, your MySpace page, or your personally registered domain--the very items that make up your Web identity?

These aren't just idle questions, and over the past few years there has been a growing movement to redefine how Internet identity is handled and how you control access to it.  Groups such as Identity Commons and OASIS have been at the forefront of establishing new and open standards for web identity, the purpose being to ensure individuals' personal control of their identities.  To this end, a few years back, there was a minor sensation surrounding something called an "i-name."

To make a long story short, i-names (read the link for more) were supposed to be a way to pursue the goal of improved control of personal identity on the web, with some interesting features. Most of the supposed benefits of the new technology have yet to materialize, but there were two nice things that i-names provided almost from the start.  First, i-name providers made a fairly spam-proof web contact form available to all i-name holders, making it possible to put a contact link on a web page without it becoming a spam conduit. Second, they provided a basic web forwarding service, so that even the technically challenged could set up easy-to-remember web links that were persistent and completely controllable.

The price was reasonable, so I signed up with 2idi.com, the original i-name broker and, as far as I know, the largest.  It's been of minor utility, but worth the small annual fee involved to reserve my preferred name (plus a few variations) in what might end up as a significant technology down the road.  It's also been pretty much stress-free. It's there, I use it occasionally, and don't have to think about it when I'm not using it. Until recently. I knew it was almost renewal time, so I logged on to check my renewal date. Sure enough, there it was:

2idi.png

Just as I expected, my renewal was coming up.  It very helpfully directed me to the renewal page, so I proceeded.

listofinames.png

I was stunned to find that while my i-names were nearing expiration, renewal was "not available at this time."

Huh? This made no sense, so I dug around some and found that 2idi.com had not allowed registration in at least a month, perhaps longer for all I knew. This was weird. I went to the front page, where the founders of 2idi, Victor Grey and Fen Labalme, have their contact links displayed:

fenlabalme.png

I had corresponded with Victor before about a minor glitch, so I clicked his link and sent him a message through his 2idi contact page. No response. Nothing. Okayyyyy… After a couple of days, I did a quick search and found what I assumed was his 2idi corporate email address on Alexa:

2idicontactinfo.png

I fired off a quick email, the old-fashioned kind.

Still no response.

Feeling somewhat irritated, I decided to switch gears and try to contact Fen Labalme, the other principal listed on the 2idi.com site.  I sent him a message through his 2idi contact page (I know the contact mechanism is working because I received a couple of messages through mine recently).

After a couple of days, no response.

Now feeling very irritated, I thought of calling the phone number given on the Alexa page above. But first, for the hell of it, I dug up the address for Neustar, the company that runs the XRI registry that oversees i-brokers such as 2idi. com. I found a link to the email address of their i-broker support group, and fired off an email to them asking what recourse registrants such as myself have when their broker seemingly ceases to function. I didn't expect much, but a day or so later I got an email saying they were attempting to contact the responsible parties.

That was a couple weeks ago.  So far, I've heard nothing.

Finally, I tried calling 2idi's phone number, and left a voice mail.  It has been a couple of days now, and I don't know if I'll get a call back or not. But there is one thing that I do know.

I know that when you are trying to promote a new technology, especially one that does not natively interact with the prevailing one (i.e., the DNS system), you had better make a very compelling case for it, and you had better get the early adopters on your side--and once you get them, you had bloody well better make sure they're happy, because nobody, and I mean nobody, is chomping at the bit hoping for something to take off that produces strings like http://xri.net/=somebody/(+business)*department.  It may make sense when you know the syntax, but it looks like freaking algebra, and the whole point is not to complicate but to simplify. Although, it must be said, such a string will resolve to an "i-number" that looks something like this:

=!15ns.4va5.9631.a9y4

Oh, yeah. That's much better. Lord, have mercy…

So now, when what the identity activists need is something compelling, something simple that just works, something that makes your life easier, what they've got instead is something cryptic that is so broken that the major provider of the service is dysfunctional and not responding to requests from new and existing customers who are trying to give them money in order to do business with them.

And this leads me to my next point. In the matter of identity, trust is everything. The entire point of a technology built on the concept of identity is that it can be trusted. When the oldest and largest purveyor of that technology effectively ceases to operate in any normal fashion, that trust has been irrevocably shattered, and the path to widespread adoption has suddenly become much steeper and rockier, so much so that continuing along the same path is probably pointless.

I, for one, have decided to stop trying. I own several domain names, I have a blog, I have a tumblelog, I have accounts on Twitter and Facebook and the like. It's hard for me to see what significant benefit I'm going to derive from continuing to pursue this matter, particularly when my domains are all less expensive and much more useful. I don't mind supporting new technologies that might be beneficial down the road, but there's a limit, and that limit has now been reached.

I-names are dead.

(If anyone from 2idi.com or the XRI community would like to respond, I welcome  your comments and will publish them in their entirety. However, given my experience to date, I eagerly await what I fully expect will be an echoing silence.)

Update 2009-03-13: A message sent to Drummond Reed, co-chair of the OASIS XRI and XDI technical committees, shortly after this was posted produced a reply last night via email. Mr. Reed said that the relevant authorities were "well aware" of the situation, that it involved "a change of business direction" for 2idi, that they were within "a few days" of a resolution, and that he had cc'd Victor Grey and Fen Labalme so that I could be sure they received the email and to give them an opportunity to respond to me directly.  To his great credit, he further specified that "it has been suggested to Victor and Fen by many of us that remaining silent to their own customers is not, as you mention, the best way to engender trust."  I should think that would be self-evident, but at least there is someone reinforcing that point.

Also, in the wake of Mr. Reed's email, a follow-up email to Neustar's support people generated a response, in which it was suggested that Neustar could be of help in transferring my i-names to another registrar.  I appreciate the thought, but at this point it seems most prudent to wait and see what develops in the next few days.

Also, for the record, neither Mr. Grey nor Mr. Labalme have yet responded, either directly or indirectly.

Commute photo

All in all, not a bad view to have on my Friday commute home.