Friday, July 2, 2010

Web sites to see

Though limited by hunt-and-peck typing, TheRaven flies fast in the digital realm. I've found a few websites worthy of interest. There's no theme here other than user interaction. This post covers blogs, movies, games and the most interesting automotive start-up company you've never heard of.

BLOGS - there's a bazillion blogs out there, including this one. Some of the more intelligent and thoughtful blogs seem to attract the biggest groups of nitwits. The New York Times climate blog a case in point. TheAtlantic's culture editor, Ta-Nehisi Coates, maintains a blog noteworthy for: (1) highly educated audience; (2) frequent discussion of history; (3) skill, background and interests of Mr. Coates; (4) thorough nitwit thrashing when they dare show up . Click here for the best blog TheRaven has found thus far.

GAMES - Armorgames is the best of many sites offering free Flash games. Flash games fall into well-defined categories, such as tower defense and shooter. When the inherent limitations of Flash games lose their charm, check out Steam, a site that sells computer games and hosts multi-player interaction. Advances in game technology made 3-5 years ago created highly regarded games that Steam now sells for cheap, as well as more current titles sold at higher, but generally discounted, prices.

Three noteworthy games for $10 or less:
  • Silent Hunter III - this submarine warfare simulation is extraordinary. Developed by Unisoft (in Romania!), Silent Hunter III may be the best of its kind, perhaps eclipsing versions IV and V. A review of Silent Hunter III at explains why. Pilot one of dozens of U-boat variants in several possible missions or participate with other players. Realistic to a fault, Silent Hunter III is an example of the worth of excellent games, for example, by providing a hands-on demonstration of why the model XXI U-boat was a super-weapon. You just can't get such understanding from a book. Camera functionality allows you to fly around the battle space in real time. For only $6.69 (current sale price), it simply can't be beat.
  • Company of Heroes - one of the best in the strategy genre, this WW2 era game has a Metascore of 92. Excellent graphics and a well-developed tutorial get novices up to speed quickly. Only $9.99.
  • Rome: Total War - this game, like Silent Hunter III and Company of Heros, appears on some "best ever" lists. It's a strategy game with similar functionality to Company of Heroes, but a bit more dependent on keyboard commands. It also has a Metascore of 92 and costs $9.99, which makes it a no-brainer. Company of Heroes has a cleaner interface. Silent Hunter III's interface borrows directly from the real McCoy.
MOVIES - we all like movies, how'd you like to make a cartoon? This funny clip (language NSFW) makes fun of the iPhone and was made using Xtranormal, a website that provides "text-to-movie" functionality. Ever wanted to script the Northern Nitwit's true "thoughts"? Now you can.

AUTOS - battery-dependent vehicles are getting all the press in yet another example of media myopia. The same lithium-based battery technology which has worked poorly in generations of laptop computers is now hyped as the salvation of planet Earth. A new report from the UK suggests that battery-powered cars will depreciate to only 10% of their new value after just five years. Limited battery longevity and high replacement cost are the unsurprising issues here. Considering the comparatively high cost of electric vehicles (roughly 2x of a comparatively-equipped gas engine model) depreciation issues will restrict appeal to eco-vanity buyers. This suggests that Tesla may be well-positioned in the short-term but fast-depreciating products will forestall development of next-gen electric power. Chrysler provides a telling lesson. The high depreciation rates of its vehicles fed a vicious cycle of diminishing sales and R&D curtailment. There are two other problems: (1) focus on electric propulsion distracts support from bio-diesel development; (2) increasing consumption of lithium creates growing dependence on Boliva and potentially Afghanistan.

An obscure start-up with a fascinating product waits to be discovered. This company relies on crowd-sourced design. Buyers pony up $50,000 and must participate in vehicle assembly. Sounds crazy! Have a look at the finished product before we examine its specs...
Welcome to Local Motors, home of the Rally fighter, a fully off-road capable, road-legal, emissions-compliant car. At first blush, Local Motors seems like one of many, niche auto builders, perhaps a step above a pure custom shop. And who really needs a $50,000, 2-seat car with 18" wheel travel?
The Rally Fighter features tubular steel construction with carbon fiber panels. It has a 6.2 liter V8, so fuel economy isn't a selling point. The Rally Fighter uses a vinyl skin in lieu of body paint. Most people don't need such a vehicle, but Local Motors' open business model creates intriguing possibilities for variants with wider appeal:
  • Price vs. volume -$50,000 is a product of very low production volume. As of this writing, Local Motors has taken only 105 orders for the Rally Fighter. This means that even a modest sale to a government agency or two would jack production volumes into a declining price curve. The Rally Fighter looks tailor-made for border patrol work and its use of vinyl skin means that it could be specialized for law enforcement, e.g., in desert cammo.
  • Design vs. fuel efficiency - the 6.2 liter V8 is a recent change. Local Motors featured an inline-6 from BMW several months ago. That engine produced impressive fuel economy. The point here is that design flexibility begets efficiency options. The Rally Fighter and the Jetta TDI both weigh about 3,200 pounds. This suggests that a non-competition, much higher-efficiency version could be accomplished using Volkswagon's new-generation, 4-cylinder diesel. This version would appeal to government agencies that need both off-road capability and fuel economy, such as the Park Service, perhaps the Postal Service and private industry customers such as oil-field service, surveying, engineering and construction firms.
  • Fixed vs. variable labor - the owner participation aspect of Local Motor's model is cute but it won't scale. The Border Patrol isn't about to detail a bunch of its agents to assemble a few hundred Rally Fighters. This may explain why Local Motor's site doesn't report any venture capital investors (despite having an innovative product, good management team and advisory boards). The site mentions "18 investors" in passing, a sure sign Local Motors is funded by angel investors. The owner-assembly model is a clever tactic for lowering fixed labor costs in a cash-poor start-up but it must be supplemented by contractual relationships with automotive manufacturers that can handle final assembly tasks in volume. This would leverage Local Motor's inherent strength, design innovation coupled with component flexibility, to enable multi-unit sales that will in turn enable wider market appeal.
  • No dealer network - Local Motors has wisely avoided a big chunk of overhead by skipping the middle-man and selling direct. The site makes decent use of an online community but in the early going, Local Motors remains obscure.
  • Open source design - Local Motors runs car design competitions but misses a trick by ignoring a design community of graphic artists. A vinyl body skin is a graphic design canvas. Local Motors should create another design competition just for skin graphics. This would create publicity and increase the odds of viral awareness by attracting a much bigger group than auto body designers.
Local motors needs publicity, the kind that only Hollywood can bestow. Adam Aircraft's innovative designs were certainly better known after its A500 appeared in Miami Vice.
Unfortunately for Adam, it needed investment funds just as air transport industries entered a multi-year retrenchment period. Adam subsequently filed for bankruptcy and ceased operations in 2009. Local Motors needs its own version of Michael Mann before the next auto industry convulsion. It's vinyl body skins are a big selling point here, tailor-made for Hollywood adaptation.

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