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  • How I became a Firefox/Thunderbird user

    Posted on April 6th, 2008 Lee Devlin 1 comment
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    I became a Firefox user about a year ago when Internet Explorer 7 started crashing every ten minutes on several of my computers. I looked all over the Internet and could not find a reason for the failure. When I encountered the message: “Internet Explorer has encountered a problem and must close.” The extra information, namely this:

    AppName: iexplore.exe AppVer: 7.0.6000.16608 ModName: oleaut32.dll
    ModVer: 5.1.2600.3266 Offset: 00065401

    was of no use to helping me isolate the issue. I don’t know what I did that caused this to start occurring, but because IE is so tightly integrated into the XP operating system, I don’t know of a way to remove and reinstall it, or even if that could fix the problem. So I started using Firefox and found features in it that I liked and so now I use it exclusively.

    I became a Thunderbird user the same way. About a week ago, my Outlook Express kept failing while trying to retrieve email from one of my POP accounts, giving me a cryptic error. I had confirmed that all the information and passwords were correct and after a few hours of fiddling with it, I made the problems go away by installing Thunderbird. Thunderbird took all of my email from Outlook Express and converted it over as well as my contacts list. Converting over my backlog of saved emails and contacts was what prevented me from getting off Outlook Express for so long. If I had realized how easy it would be with Thunderbird, I would have converted over a long time ago.

  • The Mathematics of MLMs

    Posted on February 10th, 2008 Lee Devlin 26 comments
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    Every once in a while I get solicited by someone promoting a Multi-Level Marketing (MLM) scheme. This has gone on for as long as I can recall. You have probably already heard an MLM pitch where you recruit 5 members, they each recruit 5 members, and so on until you rise to the top of a pyramid structure and become financially independent. It’s sometimes referred to as Network Marketing.

    The majority of these schemes often involve buying ‘lotions and potions’, which have near magical properties. Once you sign up, you agree to recruit others to do the same. The products have amazingly high markups compared to other similar products you can buy in a supermarket. They need these high margins because when you work your way through the math, half or more of their proceeds are gobbled up in payments to people at various levels in the pyramid. With an MLM, instead of eliminating the middle man, you’re adding about 4 or 5 levels of middle men.

    Unfortunately, none of these MLM companies can deliver the promise of financial independence to more than about .4% of the people who participate in the scheme. In reality, the ratio is likely to be less. I’ve worked through an example below that will show you what’s wrong with this business model.

    If you assume that financial independence for you means making 5 times a minimum wage of $6/hr, then you’d need $60,000 annually ($5,000/month) to achieve this. Many MLMs promise incomes much higher than this, but let’s be conservative and use this amount. Let’s see how big an organization you’d need to get to that income level in an MLM structure.

    Assuming that your product requires each member in your downline to purchase $200 worth of product per month and you get an average of 10% of the money that flows up through your organization, you would need about 250 people in your organization for you to earn $5,000/month. This means that it would be about 5 levels deep and might look like this:

    You + 5 + 25 + 125 + 95

    For the sake of simplicity in building a 250-person organization, let’s just say your bottom level is still filling in and that’s why the bottom level has 95 people. If you got a 10% commission on all these people’s purchases, your monthly income would be $5,000/month. That sounds pretty good right? Well, here’s the rub. ALL of the 250 people in your organization are making little or no money, yet ALL of them were recruited so that they can get to where you are, that is, to financial independence. The people in the bottom level of the organization are spending $200 per month and making nothing. The 125 people in the level above them are spending $200 per month and are making less than $8 per month in commissions on average, so they are out $192 per month. The 25 people in the level above them each have an average of 9 people in their downlines and thus are making $180 in commissions and so they are losing $20 per month. The 5 people above them have an average of 49 people in their downlines and are making $980/month less the $200 they spend on products so they are clearing $780 per month. That’s not even equal to a $6/hr minimum wage job.

    So, in order to achieve your financial independence, you’ve got an organization of 250 people and not a single one of them will be making more than the minimum wage. But ALL of them were recruited with the promise that financial independence was achievable. So in order to achieve YOUR financial goals, you have built an organization where fully 99.6% are unable to achieve THEIR financial goals.

    You may say that all you need to do is to keep on building the organization and that will lift everyone up, right? That’s all well and good, but the ratio of people who are financially independent to those who are making little or no money DOES NOT CHANGE. There will always 99.6% working for minimum wage or losing money in an MLM. Do you really want to be part of a scheme that only permits 1 in 250 of its members to achieve the financial goals that everyone who has been recruited is expecting to attain?

    What usually happens in these organizations is that the majority of people who are unable to meet their financial goals eventually get disillusioned and drop out and so everyone spends their time recruiting replacements. Few ever manage to rise very far, because the top people are already in place and the bottom members are getting replaced on a continual basis.

    MLMs are a complete waste of time, money, and social capital. I was hoping that with the arrival of the Internet that these schemes would simply just go away as people were able to educate themselves about the other side of these “too good to be true” stories. It does seem to be helping expose these schemes for what they are. If you’d like to see a great website on the inherent flaws in the MLM business model, go to Jon Taylor’s MLM-TheTruth.com for an in-depth analysis of it as well as links to many other websites with similar supporting information.

    I post this only for the purpose of helping people to wrap their minds around the mathematics of MLMs. I know that the majority of people recruited into MLMs are decent people who were recruited by other well-intentioned people who just repeated the sales pitch they were taught. But you can see from the math behind MLM pyramid schemes requires that for everyone who achieves financial independence, about 2% in their organization will make less than a minimum wage and the other 98% will lose money. I cannot imagine anyone feeling good about being a member of such an organization, especially if he is the one living off the other 99.6% of the people in his organization.

  • January update

    Posted on January 25th, 2008 Lee Devlin No comments
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    I realize that many of my postings haven’t been of a personal nature, so for those of you who read this blog and may have gotten tired of reading articles about energy, here’s something more personal.

    A lot of people have been asking to ask me how I like ‘retirement’. For those of you who do not know me personally, I took a voluntary enhanced early retirement from HP in June of last year. I was 47 at the time. One third of HP’s U.S. workforce was eligible for this program, some as young as age 43. Terri and I have been avoiding layoffs for the past 6 years. I’ve survived 3 near layoffs and Terri has survived 4 of them. Prior to that time, it was virtually a given that you could work for HP or Agilent until you reached retirement age, but with much of the high technology industry moving to Asia, that’s no longer the case. Many good people have been forced to find work elsewhere. Dodging layoffs while working harder than ever takes considerable joy out of one’s livelihood.

    When HP offered an early retirement incentive program, I felt that it could very well be the last generous voluntary separation package ever offered. I thought it would be good to leave on a high note after 24 years of loyal service. In my last position at HP I had helped to initiate and introduce a new product category of network-attached storage products for the home that resulted in a new charter for my division. I am proud of the products and so I left with a sense of having done something worthwhile as my last contribution to the company. One of my fears about leaving HP was that I didn’t want to do it on bad terms like having my program abruptly cancelled followed by a hasty bum’s rush out the door. There were other divisions reducing staff at the Fort Collins site and some of my colleagues were looking for landing spots. I helped to provide one by leaving the company. I have no regrets about leaving.

    My wife and I have no debt and have contributed to our voluntary individual retirement plans for our entire careers. That turned out to be a good thing because my voluntary plan was worth quite a bit more than my standard retirement plan. As many people are finding out, an employer’s defined-benefit pension many not require the employer to actually pay you anything from a legal standpoint. It is within an employer’s rights to amend or cancel virtually any retirement benefit for which there is no contractual obligation. Like most employees, I had no employment contract for my retirement benefits. So getting the equivalent lump sum value of a retirement plan (discounted, of course, to its net present value) can be attractive compared to the risk of getting nothing should an employer be financially unable to meet those obligations some 20 years in the future. I could also feel good about it because I was helping my employer reduce its long term financial obligations. I think that the best thing that has happened since I started working was to move toward making an individual employee’s retirement benefits portable. To make all of my retirement benefits portable, it was necessary to walk away from an established career without the option of being able to return. Leaving a job voluntarily without having another one lined up is viewed in the same realm as renouncing one’s citizenship. Many people think I was laid off. I know a lot of people in that category so even if it were true, I’d be in good company.

    For the first part of my ‘retirement dress rehearsal’ as I call it, I did not immediately begin looking for a job. I was able to take a summer off for the first time since I was in grade school. I really enjoyed the time off. It felt revitalizing. However, I quickly began networking to see what opportunities were available for when I was ready to go back to work. The group I have found to be most beneficial in that regard is NoCoNet, which is set up to help Northern Colorado workers and employers to find each other. There are many other benefits to this group besides finding a job and the most significant is meeting lots of new people from around the area that I may have never met otherwise. Many of the new people are volunteers in NoCoNet and other organizations.

    Currently, the most promising industries in Northern Colorado are those related to renewable energy. They are the only industries that seem to be attracting any significant investment and showing signs of growth. Everyone seems to realize that it’s just a matter of time before we run out of fossil fuels, the only argument is about how soon it will happen. I think it’s better to be prepared for it than to try to come up with a solution after we no longer have any affordable energy resources. Having access to low cost fossil fuel is a bit like living off an inheritance. When you’re living off an inheritance, it’s a good idea to acquire job skills before you need them so you won’t have to figure out how to do it after you’ve run out of money. So I think it’s wise to invest in alternative energy sources today before we absolutely need it.

    That’s one of the reasons why I’ve been researching and posting about energy-related topics. In looking back through my blog, I see I’ve written over 18 entries related to energy topics. Even though I’ve never worked in the energy industry, save for one summer at an electric utility company, I would like to know as much about it as any industry insider. I realize that’s a daunting task, but energy terminology and concepts are familiar to me. Converting from kW to HP to BTUs is something I’ve been doing in my head for as long as I can recall simply because I find the subject of energy fascinating. And I enjoy reading and writing about it as well.

    Back in November when Terri found for the second time in 6 months that her new job was moving to Singapore, I applied for a few positions that looked interesting. There’s a company involved in renewable energy that has called a few times but we haven’t set up an interview yet. The last time I talked with them, they thought they’d be interviewing candidates in February. Even though it’s a local position, I’d have to fly to the east coast for the interview. But I don’t know if anything will come of it. Terri managed to find a new position with just a few weeks to spare so it isn’t as important that I get a job as it was a few months ago.

    In reality, I don’t really want to be retired in the sense that most people think of it. I wouldn’t be happy spending all my time golfing or lounging on a beach, although I know plenty of people who think they would. Like several of my other friends with whom I’ve talked with about it, happiness requires finding a way to be a productive and contributing member of society. That’s probably true for everyone but some people don’t realize it. I am involved in a few consulting activities I do on a volunteer basis that are related to technology ventures, mostly for friends. I also like to get out and talk with other people regularly so
    I generally have a few meetings each week networking with various groups and individuals. And, of course, I participate in Yahoo Groups for products I helped to design. I realized recently that I’ve posted more than 350 entries to the HP Media Vault Yahoo group since retiring. I responded to at least as many email requests in private too, so HP is still getting some work out of me despite my departure.

    I haven’t been flying the LongEZ or working on the Cozy as much as I thought I would. It is a surprise to me (and everyone else too) but then again, the weather has been too cold this winter for those activities. We just don’t seem to have the warm spring-like days we used to have at least once a week throughout the winter on Colorado’s Front Range anymore. With Colorado’s 350 days of sunshine per year, it was rare to see it snow on top of snow, except for up in the mountains. We’ve now had snow on our lawn for 2 months, which previously was quite rare, but it happened last year too. I’ve been wondering what’s happened to my global warming dividend.

    So there you have it, an update and something a little more personal than my typical blog entry.

  • The Matrix Unloaded

    Posted on May 6th, 2006 Lee Devlin No comments
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    When I was a kid, I loved science fiction. I recall watching episodes of Lost in Space and Star Trek with such a sense of awe that I couldn’t wait for the future. At the time, the U.S. space program was on track to put a man on the moon in a few short years. How much longer would it be before everything envisioned in these sci-fi shows became reality? I also vividly recalled watching the H.G. Wells inspired classic film, Time Machine, when it first aired on TV in the early 60’s. One of the scenes from that movie that was burned into my memory over the years was that books were no longer needed. No one studied anything. If one needed to know an answer, he just spun a ring and asked it a question. The rings would answer any question in a human voice. Although the user interface is quite different, this reminds me of the Internet today.

    I saw Star Wars when it came out, but never became fanatical about the series. I realized after seeing the reactions of others that my enthusiasm for sci-fi was beginning to wane although I couldn’t quite identify the reason. I’ve tried to read some sci-fi books recently and found it hard to get through them, even though they are considered classics in the sci-fi enthusiast community (William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash in particular). I think that after spending 20+ years in engineering, the luster had worn off of sci-fi because the stories depend an audience that is either completely ignorant of science or has an infinite capacity to suspend its disbelief in implausible scientific reasoning. When I was younger I’m sure I fit both descriptions. Now that I am older, I see sci-fi from a different perspective, and if a scientific priciple is asserted that is completely at odds with reality, then it causes a kind of cognitive dissonance that spoils the story for me.

    This realization came to me after watching The Matrix, a film that seems to be at the top of the lists of many sci-fi fans as the best film in the history of the earth. My sense of reasoning was completely assaulted when I became aware that the premise behind the film was that human beings were being used by some nefarious forces as a source of energy, sort of like batteries. My head was about to explode when I tried to comprehend how abolutely ignorant one must be to make such an assertion. Human beings consume energy at approximately 100 calories every hour they are simply resting. Humans cannot be used to power anything without putting in at least three to four times the energy they are producing. And it’s really hard to extract energy from humans. You’d be much better off with a generator. Built on top of this shaky premise was an orgy of special effects, none of which made any scientific sense. An example of gratuitous special effects was the scene where, when shooting automatic weapons at an unseen opponent, it was necessary to simultaneously perform cartwheels. It was a feast for the eyes, but pablum for the brain. I know that my assessment of The Matrix will not be approved of by those who think of the movie as a science fiction masterpiece, but I suppose if you are completely ignorant of science or have an infinite capacity to suspend your disbelief in faulty reasoning, you may think the movie set a new high water mark.

    It makes me a little sad to come to the realization that I’ve outgrown science fiction. But I suppose it would be sadder if I had a closet full of costumes to wear to sci-fi gatherings. 🙂