Friday, September 21, 2007

Dollar takes a trip to the loonie bin

The money market can be crazy at times, but this week, the U.S. dollar officially took a trip to the loonie bin.

For the first time in more than 30 years, the American dollar dipped in world markets to trade at par and even slightly below the Canadian dollar.

I grew up in Canada, and the last time the dollars were equal was in 1976.

For most of 2007, the Canadian and U.S. dollars have been close, with the loonie – named after the loon depicted on the Canadian $1 coin – valued at or greater than 95 cents U.S.

What this means for trade is that imports and exports between the two countries are trading equally, whereas before, someone paid extra or less depending on the direction of trade.

Just five years ago, in 2002, one Canadian dollar could purchase a mere 61 cents U.S., while a U.S. dollar had the purchasing power of $1.39 in Canada – the largest gap ever between the two currencies.

Analysts say high oil prices around the world, along with a strengthening Euro in Europe, have contributed with the U.S. dollar backing up to the same level as its surging Canadian counterpart.

Many countries that invest in oil are now using Euros instead of U.S. dollars because the Euro was recently valued at $1.40 U.S.

So, no matter how many loonies are involved, I’m just happy that we have equal opportunity.

Sync-ing feeling

Ford Motor Co. and Microsoft Corp. made news this week when they announced a voice-operated computer system called Sync that would be available in Ford Focus 2008 models. Or maybe the cars equipped with this system should be called the “Unfocused”?

The 4-1-1 on Sync is that it allows drivers (or passengers) to run their music players, radios, cell phones, and other gizmos with voice commands. It will read text messages and e-mails to you, although it won’t let you dictate replies. But count on it, that won’t be far off.

Sync is a hoss – it has a 400 MHz microprocessor, 64 MB of RAM and 256MB of flash storage. The option will cost only $395, and if the computer industry is any indication, that price will drop or just be waived to get as many “smart” cars on the road as possible.

Alas, there’s nothing Ford nor Mr. Gates can do to make drivers as smart as their vehicles. With the slew of warnings and studies showing that yakking on a cell phone or even adjusting a radio can be fatally distracting, one has to wonder at the wisdom of enabling so much car talk.

I can see the value in being able to tell your radio to tune in the local sports talk channel or your iPod to access the polka playlist. If the system is easy to learn, maybe even the most tech-challenged person could quickly master the voice commands. If not, though, imagine the frustration as you futilely scream at the speaker to stop playing Milli Vanilli.

Making cell phone calls truly hands-free will be a step forward, although it does nothing to eliminate the mental distraction of yakking with a pal, arguing with the spouse or wondering when dispatch will come back with those !#$#@# directions.

And for all you drivers out there on CBs complaining that people should hang up and drive – I’ve seen you dialing while driving. Mr. Pot, meet Mr. Kettle.

The text messaging thing really worries me, though, precisely because Sync won’t let you dictate a reply. How many people are simply going to sit there and listen to their own personal Kitt recite “4COL TSNF” (“for crying out loud that is so not fair” – if you need more text translations, visit Webopedia) without itching to reply?

Texting while driving is fast becoming a major safety issue, and not just among teens. A late 50s friend of mine just learned to text, and sheepishly admits to doing it while behind the wheel.

If I were Microsoft, I’d be hard at work on Sync 2.0, which would also work with collision avoidance systems and anti-swerve warning systems to help prevent distracted drivers from piling into traffic around them. The genie is out of the bottle on smart cars, and the best we can hope for is that the auto builders and software companies try to protect us from ourselves. And KISS.

For another take on driver distractions, check this out.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Why California is preparing for an environmental war

One by one they lined up to speak Monday at the microphone inside the California Air Resource Board’s Byron Sher Auditorium.

Representatives from the Sierra Club, the Environmental Health Coalition, the California Forestry Association, and a host of others approached the podium and vigorously thanked CARB for pursuing aggressive early action items related to AB32 – the states’ strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions within its borders.

It makes a person wonder what has led environmentalists and agency staffers to be as driven and focused as they are on trucks while seemingly stalling related efforts with cars.

Matt Schrap, environmental manager with the California Trucking Association, told me this week he believes CARB faces much political pressure to attack emissions in trucks.

“(CARB’s) authority is limited in dealing with airlines, railroads and steamships – who are very large contributors to greenhouse gases,” he said. “So we’ve got the big red target on us.”

Many of these same environmental interest groups failed in their efforts to convince CARB to keep its requirement for sales of zero-emissions cars in 2003.

The story behind CARB and zero-emissions cars is detailed in the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car.” The 90-minute film spotlights the General Motors EV1 electric two-door coupe, which was developed during the 1990s to meet the California Air Resources Board’s 1990 requirement that automakers develop and sell a required percentage of zero-emissions cars – thought to be a lofty goal at the time.

But GM did develop the EV1 – using a battery-powered engine that could be plugged in and recharged at home or at the office. Thousands of Californians leased the car, including celebrities such as Tom Hanks, who praised the car’s price (mostly comparable to other small domestics) while using the electric equivalent of 40 cents per gallon of energy.

As the popularity of electric cars seemed poised for mainstream attention in the early 2000s, automakers and oil companies began hyping hydrogen-powered cars. Shortly after CARB’s decision, GM required all EV1 leaseholders to turn their cars back in.

Many Hollywood celebrities, including Ed Begley Jr. and Baywatch lifeguard Alexandra Paul, led protest efforts, even camping out for weeks outside one GM building where dozens of the final EV1’s were kept before being crushed.

The major automakers successfully argued that demand for electric vehicles was too low, and costs were still too high.

The documentary countered that GM relied on hand-built assembly of about four cars a day that did make production costs too high, and said newer battery technology gives between 120 miles and 300 miles of driving per charge.

The movie points out that the CARB chairman at the time, Alan Lloyd, had joined the California Fuel Cell Partnership just months before the agency’s critical decision to abandon its own zero-emissions requirement. During the board meeting, Lloyd cut a battery expert’s presentation to three minutes after allowing automaker representatives unlimited time earlier in the meeting.

GM, other auto manufacturers and even oil companies such as Shell have touted Hydrogen-powered vehicles in the future, though “Who killed the electric car” should that technology is further away from being ready for mass consumption than battery-powered electric cars.

The October CARB meeting agenda will include one early action item to consider a mandate of hybrid medium and heavy-duty trucks (which CARB considers trucks above 10,000 pounds). No hybrid heavy-duty truck has been invented yet, though CARB has decided to wait on mandating hybrid cars and light-duty trucks, for which technology already exists.

As CARB continues to stockpile new rules to limit emissions and greenhouse gases, you have to wonder how if the agency will bend its ear to trucking as they have for the auto industry.

By the way, other electric vehicles are still available for purchase, though this site showed some pretty high prices.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The truth will set you free

“Accuracy first.”

That message was painted in black letters, outlined in red, on a yellow sign that was about 12 feet long and 3 feet high on the wall of the first newsroom I worked in as a professional. It was in the building housing the St. Joseph News-Press and Gazette, two daily newspapers owned by the Bradley family in St. Joseph, MO.

To a fresh J-school grad from KU, the sign seemed to state the painfully obvious.

“Accuracy first” – No sh#* Sherlock. Who in their right mind would be dealing in anything other than accuracy if they were working in a newsroom?

How naive I was.

I thought everyone in the news business was as committed to the truth as I was – and still am, by the way.

But there has not been one single week in my more than 25 years in news that I have not seen sloppy, lazy or irresponsible reporting prove the necessity of the reminder on the wall in the St. Joe newsroom. And just this past week, one of the world’s oldest and most respected news organizations published such a report.

With a dateline out of Monterrey, Mexico, and the byline of Robin Emmott, Reuters published 585 words under the headline: “Safety ‘myths’ said to block Mexico trucks from U.S.”

The headline should have been something more like: “Reuters report shows its reputation has become a myth.”

Not only did the report say that only one Mexican truck had come into the U.S. on the first day of the U.S. government’s cross-border pilot program – there were actually two trucks – but Reuters’ Emmott reported that the program had lasted only five days:

“Checks are so tight that only one truck, from Mexico’s northern city of Monterrey made it deep into the United States in the five days the project lasted.”

In many ways, it doesn’t matter how many other factual errors there were in the report from Reuters, though there were several. The damage is done. People who read the Reuters story posted on Sept. 12 will think the cross-border program was killed when the Senate voted to cut funding.

It’s not a done deal – the program is ongoing and the Senate’s version of the funding legislation must be reconciled with similar legislation from the House, which then must be approved by a conference committee and signed by President Bush before it becomes law. Even then, the administration will likely try to keep the cross-border program going through other means, which OOIDA and others will continue to oppose until safety questions are answered.

In the mean time, we are left with a grossly inaccurate report from Reuters.

For more than 150 years, the news service founded by Paul Julius Reuter and his carrier pigeons has had the respect of the public and journalists worldwide as a trusted source for accurate information. That respect was well-founded, after all, Reuters was known for not only getting it right, but getting it first.

For example, the pigeons got the financial news out two hours faster than the trains did.

And, England and the continent found out about the assassination of President Lincoln sooner rather than later, thanks to a Reuters report that reached London ahead of all others. An enterprising Reuters reporter intercepted a mail boat off the Irish coast to telegraph the news to the British Isle – the Reuters reporter beat others who had shared his 12-day Atlantic crossing and then waited for the boat to dock to file their news.

Today’s digital reporters should take a lesson from that.

Technology has made the publication of news faster than ever imagined by Paul Reuter and his feathered friends. But the rush to “get it posted” shouldn’t be an excuse for sloppy, lazy, incomplete or irresponsible reporting.

Similarly, today’s news consumers should be ever vigilant. If you see a report that you think is inaccurate, contact the reporter or media organization responsible for it. And remember, just because it’s in print, it’s not necessarily accurate, even though some of us are still striving for “accuracy first.”