Tuesday, November 24, 2015

High-Markup Peripheral: Washer Pedestals

You know those nice, modern, high-efficiency front-loading washers that have become the upper-middle-class standard in the last 5 years? Notice how big they look? It is true, they are a little beefier than their top-loading predecessors, but mainly it is because they are mounted on ~14" pedestal drawers. I think I have discovered why those pedestals are so popular--scooping all the laundry out of the capacious front-loader is unpleasant stoop labor.

The cost of those pedestal drawers though, is beyond belief. A quick, I think represetantive search on Amazon indicates $250-$350. Per drawer. If the machine costs $600 (on the cheap side compared to what some people pay, but that's what we paid for what I find to be a very nice unit), that is like 50% for a freaking drawer!!

Screaming business opportunity. Idea #1: create universal pedestals with adapters for specific makes. Idea #2: create a platform that fits both washer and dryer, with drawers underneath. Basically a pre-fab version of this kind of DIY project.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Apple TV App Idea: Photo-Sharing

The latest iteration of Apple TV will run iOS and thus apps. There has been a lot of speculation about whether and what will be the "killer apps" for the iTV.  I personally think slideshows and photo-sharing has got to be at the top of the list.

For a decade, since the advent of HDTV in my household, I have been looking for better ways to turn my TV into a photo screensaver. With the Wii, I could use SD cards. That was OK, I would do it for special occasions, but way too inconvenient, on multiple dimensions.

We got HDTV #2 about a year ago, and I have been using Chromecast for the same purpose. That works okay, but it still isn't that good, and totally doesn't lend itself to casual, ad-hoc management on the TV itself.

I'm not even completely sure what feature set I am looking for, but I am sure there is potential. (Whether there is potential to have high enough volume to make money--I have no idea. This might be a good one for Apple to build in.)

Two-Factor Authentication

Bruce Schneier, for whom I have massive respect, said 10 years ago two-factor authentication is useless for consumer internet (another post more technical, along the same lines).

I think I understand some of what they are saying--it is not a panacea, and probably will do little to deter mass thefts. But it seems to me like it is an important defense against targeted thefts:
  • Targeted doxing, as happened to the CIA director, where someone who  is your personal enemy wants access to your email to embarass you.

  • Acquaintance-theft. Where someone you know gets your password (watching you type it at work, etc) and wants to access your accounts. This would include domestic incidents.
  • Public or shared-computer theft, via the dreaded keystroke-logger.
The second case is particularly important for financial fraud. At least if you are part of a mass-hack, you have some post-facto protection. If you are a one-off, there is a far heavier burden of proof.


Groupon: Down 70% from Google's $6B Offer

I've always been a Groupon skeptic. Every now and then I check their Market Cap, to see how much lower it is from when they turned down Google's $6B offer. Today it is $1.7B, so down about 70% below.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Uber: & Lyft: Only Use Location if Accurate

Used Uber and Lyft for the first time. Overall, experience was excellent, exactly as advertised. However, we did have a glitch. My Mom (most senior person I know using Uber) summoned them from deep within the movie theater. Good news was--she had a data connection. Bad news was--no GPS line-of-sight. So instead of obtaining a very accurate location via GPS, the phone provided the Uber app with the extremely approximate location, provided by the nearest cell tower. Driver confusion ensued--thank heaven we had mobile phones to straighten that out.

Seems like it would be good if the Uber app would be smart enough to know whether it has an accurate location from GPS, or a questionable one from WiFi or cell tower. Not 100% sure if this is allowed in Android, let alone iOS, but I am certain it is possible. And very desirable.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Overdue Browser Features: Highlighting and Single Page Archive

When studying or researching a topic, I love being able to highlight. Which makes serious web research tedious. The common work-around is to paste into Word, and highlight there.

I can't believe highlighting hasn't been built into modern browsers. Then the key feature to go with it is the single page archive. You know, like the MHT file IE has had for a decade or so?

The other day I got tired of pasting to Word, and looked for Firefox extensions. Good ones exist for each purpose, and together they give me most of what I want.

But seriously, this should be in the browser.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Need Search Syntax Standards and Libraries

Just as Amazon represents the gold standard in eCommerce ease-of-use (no CVV codes, no Verified by Visa, no captchas), so Google for search ease-of-use.

What I have in mind are not the powerful algorithms that deliver up the results, but rather the more basic but crucial details of software craftspersonship, that help insulate us careless humans from our own limitations. Examples:
  • Ignoring hyphens and their ilk. I.e., Google treats any non-alpha character as a space or wildcard. This seems like a small thing, but there are a lot of hyphens and slashes out there, waiting to mess up search results. 
  • Spellchecking search Terms

  • Ignoring capitalization (this one is fairly widespread in your average search implementation).
  • Allowing the user to override the compensations, with the simple and generally well-known convention of enclosing search terms in quotes. An example of being smart, but not too smart.

eCommerce Ease-of-Use Notes: Amazon Sets the Standard

I buy a ton of stuff on the internet. I say that not so much to mean that I buy a ton of stuff, but that I buy a roughly typical amount of stuff, but a disproportionately large amount of it on the internet. So I see a lot of eCommerce sites.

What I find is that very few match the attention-to-detail and ease-of-use of Amazon. In some cases, no doubt that reflects Amazon's massive advantages of scale, They can afford a lot more user-experience and software development. But then again, some things are pretty basic, and easily copied.

Three things that I hate come to mind:

1. Verified by Visa. As far as I am concerned, it is awful. I have read defenses of it, so maybe there is another side to the story. But if there is--Visa and their partners have done a terrible job of telling that story. If Amazon can get along fine without it, why would a consumer expect or put up with it elsewhere? (And as noted in my post, an unforgivably poor job of implementing the VbV process during checkout. Given the subject of this post, an ironic counter-example of lack of attention to usability).

2. CVV codes. I HATE having to remember this when I check out from a website. Adding to the irritation--if you left out some other required piece of data, it rests the CVV code. Creating both irritating and often confusing behavior. E.g., I enter everything but my phone number, for example. The SUBMIT fails, prompting for my phone number. Fine. I re-submit, but it fails again, now because of missing CVV code. Irritating if I realize, confusing if I think there is some other field still missing.

3. Captchas. Oh how I loathe them. I must be especially captcha-challenged, but I often find it takes 2-3 tries to get it right.

One possibility is that Amazon's scale may somehow give them a critical advantage that smaller sites don't have. Maybe they feel they can take losses that smaller sites aren't willing to take. Or maybe they extract better terms from credit card companies. But from the consumer perspective, it hardly matters--just more factors to making Amazon the path of least resistance.

Does Voice Password Offer Unique Advantages for BIometrics?

Biometrics such as fingerprint recognition, retina recognition, voiceprint seem like appealing alternatives to the time-tested password. But one big drawback--if biometric data is compromised, as Slate says, "You Can't Change Your Fingerprints". 

But is voice different? Because a voiceprint is inherently sort of like a two-factor approach: a thing you know (your passphrase) and a thing you have (your voice). If your voiceprint is compromised, then you can just use your same voice, with a new passphrase, to create a new voiceprint. Like creating a new password.

This website seems to support my reasoning.

(Obviously no security technology is perfect. Speaking out loud has privacy implications that swiping a finger does not. Supposedly impersonation or pre-recording is not a problem, though.)

Donate Anonymously

A couple of years ago, I gave $50 to an issue-oriented charitable cause. It was a one-off donation, given as a show of support when their issue was front-and-center. I had no intention of becoming a regular supporter.

I should have donated anonymously.

Ever since, I receive 2-4 mailings per month, from this and related organizations, soliciting additional donations. Donations which most definitely will not be forthcoming. If we value the cost per mailing at $0.50, easily half of the value of my donation has been consumed, thus far, in soliciting further support.

It's sickening. Besides the junk-mail nuisance and natural resource waste, the sheer inefficiency of the process is appalling. I'm not singling out this organization, I'm pretty sure this is the dark nature of the organizing/fundraising process. Years ago, I read snarky advice, somewhat but not entirely tongue-in-cheek, that if you wanted to inflict harm on a cause you dislike, the thing to do would be to give them a small amount of money. $15, say. Then sit back and watch as they spend several times that amount in the following years, in the hopeless effort to inveigle further contributions.

I wish I had remembered that bit of wisdom.

Friday, October 09, 2015

Best Quote Ever

Jason Stanford, on the right-wing approach to (never) engaging in meaningful, measured discussion, on any policy issue whatsoever:
It's never the thing. It's always another thing that steers the conversation away from the terrifying jagged edges of modernity toward the comfort of repeating each other's confirmation bias back and forth, such that Solyndra and Benghazi are metonyms that make no sense to most people but are hugely powerful talismans of their increasingly lonely faith.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Must Customer Service Agents Constantly Re-Confirm My Email Address?

Can’t they have heuristics, like customer has had same email for 5+ years, only confirm it 1x per year thereafter?

Usubscribe for Spam

Seems like a great way to spam people would be to include an false unsubscribe link. That is the first thing I look for when I get spam.

Opportunistic Acquirers of Orphan Drugs Like Labor Unions?

This is kind of old news now, but the outage over a company that acquires rights to an orphan drug and promptly raises the price from $13 to $750 per pill is an outrage that no ideology of capitalism should attempt to defend. Most pro-capitalists would decry crippling labor strikes. rightly. Just because some damn union gets a stranglehold on a mundane, but crucial corner of the economy (trash collection, public transport, coal mining, whatever) doesn't mean they should be able to use that un-earned leverage to extort above-market wages. Well, what is right for labor is also right for capital.

Life value of defunct companies like Borland

This post on Dropbox and Evernote got me thinking about something I have always wondered about--what is the value of a lifetime investment in a once-highflying company that eventually founders and becomes defunct, through bankruptcy or acquisition? For whatever reason, Borland is the company I usually think of in this regard, but there are many others of course. Do they pay enough dividends along the way to make it still a decent, if not spectacular, investment, if one holds it from, let's say 1 month after going public, until the bitter end? 

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Ann Marie Slaughter Is My Hero

(Heroine? Do we still say that, outside of discussions of pre-20th century literature?)

From Freakonomics Interview: 

SLAUGHTER: The book is about okay, we’re stuck. I mean, it’s Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family, and the unfinished business is the unfinished business of the movement for full equality between men and women. And in a nutshell, what I’m arguing is that if we’re going to get to real equality between men and women, we have to focus less on women and more on elevating the value of care and expanding the choices and roles for men. And that’s sort of counterintuitive, right? Because what we’ve been doing is, we measure our progress in the women’s movement by how many women CEOs we have, women leaders of all kinds, women politicians. And I’m all for having more women in high places. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for it. We need it. But that metric and that focus is not going to get us there. Because it’s leaving a huge number of women out — all the women at the bottom — and it’s assuming that you can get to equality between men and women by changing women’s roles but not changing men’s roles.
DUBNER: Right. You also, the phrase you use is that we need to “resocialize men,” which as a man sounds vaguely threatening, but not really. But, but you write about not only adult men who are in the workforce and maybe those CEOs that we’re talking about, but also young men, boys, and how they should think about the future work world and the future family world, as well. So talk to the men for a minute. This program is probably I’m guessing now roughly 70 percent male listeners. So this is a great platform.
SLAUGHTER: Oh, that’s so interesting.
DUBNER: What were some of the kind of basic signposts that we need to rearrange, or get rid of, or maybe the new ones we need to have written?
SLAUGHTER: That’s great. So let me start by saying how I got to this realization that we have to — I think I prefer, “expand choices and roles” to “resocialize,” which does sound vaguely Orwellian. So here’s what I realized: I have two sons, and I looked at my sons and I thought, “You know, if I’d had a daughter we’d be raising her 100 percent differently than the way my mother was raised, and even differently than I was raised,” although my father was very progressive and he raised me to have a career. But if I looked at my sons, I thought, “I’m raising my sons pretty much exactly the way my father was raised.” I mean, we’re raising them to have a more active role as fathers. My father never changed a diaper. Certainly my husband changed plenty. And I expect my sons to. But we’re still saying to men, “Your worth in society is a function of your breadwinning. It’s a function of how much money you can make and how high you can rise in your career.” And that is a very limited set of choices. It’s the flip side of saying to women, when my mother was raised you know, “Your worth in society depends on can you get married and can you have children.” And my point is all of us should have access to both.  As a woman I absolutely want to be able to compete. I want to have a career. That’s been fabulous. But I sure don’t want to do that at the expense of also being a mother and a wife and a sister and a daughter. And so, what I now say to my sons is, “If you believe in equality and you marry a woman or a man, whatever, and you believe that you’re going to support that woman’s career, then it may require you being the lead parent and your spouse to be the lead breadwinner.” And that’s been the situation in our marriage. And they understand that I couldn’t have a big career unless Andy played that role. So that’s the place where I’m really saying to men, if you believe in equality, it can’t be, “Okay, I believe in equality but I’m going to take every promotion I get, and if you get a promotion, I’m not going to move for you.”

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Some Startups Choosing LA over SV

Los Angeles is really not the alternative location I had in mind when I wished for more startup activity outside of Silicon Valley!

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Verizon More Expensive Than Ever

The good news: Verizon is following T-Mobile's lead in eliminating the hated 2-year phone contract, with its opaque, bundled handset subsidy pricing. And their pricing scheme is stick-simple--per-Subscriber, no family plans. The bad news: for families, this makes Verizon more expensive than ever.

T-Mobile Basic 1 Gb Plan
$50 for first Subscriber
$30 for second
$10 each for Subscribers 3-10.

Verizon Basic 1 Gb Plan
$50 per Subscriber

So for a family of 4, Tmo is $100, Verizon is $200. For bigger families, or combined families (we have our 5 plus my Mom plus a friend on our Tmo plan), the difference, at the extreme, is $160 vs a whopping $500.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Beverage Chiller: High-End Fridge Feature

This Rapid Chiller gets good functional reviews on Amazon. 1 minute to chill to 42 degrees F, 5 minutes to 34 F. The downsides seem to be convenience--it uses a lot of ice and water.

So what if it where built into a fridge? The water could be pre-cooled and re-used. Would be a pretty cool differentiator, for high-end appliances. Would certainly appeal to me. Less need to keep a wide selection of pre-chilled drinks.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

PSA: Don't Use Graphite (or WD-40) to Lubricate Door Locks and Especially not Hinges

I've bought a couple of houses where the prior homeowner used graphite to lubricate door locks, and even worse, the hinges. Graphite does have valid dry lubricating properties, but is a messy black powder that gets over everything. Think pencil shavings, except all lead, no wood, or ground up charcoal. Like was toilet seat rings, this seems to be a home maintenance practice that everybody learns when young, and never un-learns. It's horrible.

I did a little research on alternatives. Unlike toilet seat rings, the alternative is not so obvious, but I think they exist. For hinges, some kind of viscous, lithium or teflon grease is probably best. For locks, there is a lot of debate, but probably the same.

In any case, DO NOT use WD-40! In fact, here is a bonus PSA: ratchet back your WD-40 use in general. It is not primarily a lubricant, it is primarily a solvent. It has short-term lubricating properties as a secondary effect, but there are many better choices, as this comprehensive article in Popular Mechanics shows. Talk about a habit that nobody un-learns!

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Silicon Valley Isn't the Only Town in the Game

It has long seemed ridiculous to me that infotech is so over-concentrated in Silicon Valley - San Francisco. Those areas have gone from outrageously expensive to insanely expensive. Terrible places, even for elite tech workers, to try to afford to raise a family. And lots of drawbacks for employers--high rents, high salaries, job-hopping. I know, I know, there are the crucial benefits of concentration and proximity to venture capital. Still.

So I was heartened by this NPR report, featuring an ex-SVer, saying similar things:
"[Jerry Davis'] advice for young people: Forget the Bay Area.

'You spend a whole lot of your time on freeways. It's expensive, it's annoying. The weather is beautiful, but basically the Bay Area has turned into Los Angeles,' Davis says. 'All the things that people hate about LA are now true of the Bay Area.' "

And the home prices are worse. The median price in Silicon Valley now tops $1 million. In Detroit, it's $38,000.

That's appealing to Aaron Mason, a 36-year-old San Franciscan. "Having a yard, having a garden, starting a family, those kinds of things," says Mason, imagining a possible move to Michigan.
Davis praises Detroit as an alternative. Myself, I like Minneapolis-St. Paul and Bloomington, IN. But most important is for the idea of other locations for infotech innovation to take hold.

Media: Nix the Glitz

Opening theme songs in TV and radio shows are such a tiresome waste of time. Now that I consume all such content via DVR or Podcast, I always skip over them. I suspect most people do the same, or would like to but just not quite enough to go to the effort of fiddling with the controls on their device. Why does anyone think this empty content is a good use of time?

I even use a compression setting on Podcast Addict to compress the time between NPR stories. I really don't care who the reporter is, where they are reporting from, and I have always hated the precious interlude music.

The most extreme version of this is all the inane pre-game hype before sporting events. From a purely commercial perspective, this form of empty content does make better sense than the useless intro filler. But I don't really understand why viewers would tolerate it, most particularly in the DVR age. If you are a superfan who wants lots of backstory, etc, , fine, but superfans aren't going to learn anything useful from the hype-rich, content-deficient pregame garbage. The internet is what they need.

So although I called out NPR in my extreme example, they actually score pretty high in this regard. The NPR ethos in general is to find important and fascinating stories, ply their master storyteller skills, and let the story tell and sell itself. No hype required.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Wax Toilet Rings Should Be Banned

We recently had our bathroom floors tiled, which of course entails removal and re-seating of the toilet bowl. This is a tedious but relatively low-skill job, so it was irritating, though unsurprising, that the Home Depot tiling subcontractor would not do it, as an add-on service.

So anyway, I found myself undertaking this chore for the first time since I was 16 and helped my Dad do it. Although I hadn't done it myself, I had talked with others who had done it, so I was aware that the standard for sealing the seat to the sewer pipe remained the wax ring. The messy, sloppy, unforgiving wax ring, loathed by millions of happless homeowners for at least a century.

The wax ring has major disadvantages:
  • Messy to put on
  • Infinitely messier to replace
  • Necessary to replace, every time you remove the toilet
  • Unforgiving, so if you in any way goof up, you have to: A) clean up the wax, again; B) go out and buy another wax ring; C) repeat.
  • Can be a problem if the height difference of the new floor is too great.

It has two advantages
  • Cheap
  • Well-known, so easy default
So while buying supplies at Home Depot, I tossed 2 wax rings in my cart, mentally cursing them for their poxiness. Then I stopped. I thought "there has just got to have been some improvement in the last 30 years." And Lo, down the aisle I found this.

Twice the cost, but so much better. In addition to alleviating the mess, it has more advantages, which I think ultimately pay for the difference:
  • Holds the bolts nicely in place.
  • That, plus the fact that it is forgiving, means that you may be able to do the job without a helper. 
  • Re-usable means if you have to move the toilet in the future, you don't have to buy a new seal.
  • The ease of the remove-replace cycle brings another, subtle advantage. Most homeowners avoid removing the toilet, if possible. That means the tedious, aesthetically imperfect technique of painting around it. No longer necessary, if moving it is quick, easy and neat.
I really think wax seals should be banned by code.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Prius Acceleration Is Adequate

Prius actually does have adequate power, but you really have to stomp on pedal to get it. So they discourage hard acceleration, thereby encouraging better fuel economy. But you can get it when you really want it. And that is without putting it in "Power" mode!

Monday, May 25, 2015

State Insurance Exchanges Are The Wrong Idea

(Disclaimer: I work in IT for a large healthcare company. These opinions are entirely my own, however.)

The Affordable Care Act (ACA, aka Obamacare) envisioned each state setting up its own insurance exchange. There was surprise when many states declined to do so. In the states that did so, the path to full administrative functionality is sometimes slow in the making. There's a really obvious question to be asked, and it feels like nobody is asking it. That question is--Why? Why would anyone ever think it makes sense for each state create its own Exchange??

Each state Exchange entails specifying, designing, coding testing and maintaining a major, complex, integrated information system. Why do the same thing 50 separate times? This is exactly the opposite of the logic that drives many corporate mergers, where the goal is to gain operational efficiencies by eliminating redundant, back-office functions. So why for the love of Pete is the blueprint for ACA that each state should do its own thing?!

There is an answer, and it lies in politics and the misguided perception that conditions vary so widely from state to state that each state that will be much better able to serve its local peculiarities (see previous post for more on this notion). In a modern, connected, transient homogeneous country, this is hogwash.

I really wish some of the national press would start asking this question. The business press, in particular, should be all over it.

UPDATE: This King vs Burwell article from NYT hints at it.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Hating on the IRS

I don't want to to spoil anybody's fun, but hating on the IRS is as morally suspect as reviling returning Viet Nam soldiers. The IRS is a civil-service function that tries to do the job assigned to it, with the resources allotted. Slashing IRS funding out of vindictive or ideological motives is a terrible idea. Do we want to become Greece, where most taxes go uncollected?

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Web App Idea: Preference-Based Approach to Coordinating Across Time Zones

My daughter is going on an international trip, and needed to coordinate a time to Skype with people in multiple time zones. By multiple, we're not talking U.S Easter, Central and Pacific. Or even a European time zone. We are talking, U.S., Europe, Australia. There is going to be zero overlap of normal working hours.

Obviously the ideal solution involves a web-app to coordinate reasonable times. Reasonable here being defined as anytime during a given party's normal waking hours.

I found a number of websites that do this to an extent. This one seems as good as any. The 4-color scheme requires some mental math, but then I realized, instead of trying to track the three colors that represented waking time, I just needed to eliminate the 1 color (red) that represents sleeping time.

The enhancement I would like to see is personalization. Instead of default typical hours, I would like the ability for each of the participants to enter times that conform to their personal schedule.

For extra credit, there could be two tiers: preferred, and can-make-it-work. Results would be returned, in sort order, using a two-stage algorithm. First stage would maximize the number of participants who can attend. E.g., if a time slot meets 100% of can-work but 0% of preferred, it will make the cut, whereas 90% preferred and 0% can-work won't make the cut. Then within first cut, sorting would be a points system. Say 2 points for each preferred and 1 point for each can-work.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Opscan Forms Best of Both Worlds for Voting?

For years over a decade I have frequently heard about security concerns, and outright flaws, with various kinds of electronic voting machines. For the same decade, I have lived and voted in Washington County, MN, where they use "opscan" forms. That's shore for "optical-scan"--the same sort of bubble forms that are used for standardized tests.

I have always thought that opscan offers the best of both worlds. Fast, machine-based counting, but a very solid paper trail. Cheap, proven technology, too. And a big bonus, the machine isn't a real-time bottleneck.

After hearing an NPR story, today, I decided to take a few minutes to research it. Though my research is far from exhaustive, and may suffer slightly from unintentional "confirmation bias" in the search phrase formulation, the results seem to validate this. Here are a couple of links.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Gun Control and Pro-Vaccination Movements Need "Poster Child" Tactic

The gun control movement in the United States is losing massively to the gun lobby. I am amazed they don't adopt a poster-child tactic. There are so many school shootings and similar gun-driven bloodbaths, I am statistically certain that among the tragically bereaved families, there are bound to be some (instantly, former) rabidly pro-NRA acolytes.

So why not try to identify these people, and carefully select from them a few "poster child" individuals, who would sincerely and heartbreakingly explain how wrong they were to oppose reasonable gun control.

It seems like such an obvious tactic, but I have not seen it applied.

Exactly the same reasoning applies to the pro-vaccination argument.

Guns don't kill people, people with guns kill people.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Eighth Habit of Highly Successful: Look It Up

The internet is a miracle of knowledge and opportunity for self-education. The mobile, wireless internet just takes it to the next level. For those occasions where you find yourself wondering "is this true?" or "how does that work?", etc--train yourself to take the extra few moments to look it up.

This also makes a great, easy-to-keep New Year's Resolution.

Pro tip: sometimes the explanations will be too long to read in the moment. Read-later apps, such as Pocket, are perfect for capturing those articles for later digestion.

Choking on California

For years I've bemoaned the fact that that the IT industry is so concentrated in Silicon Valley. Always surprised at the irony--the very industry that makes "virtual" possible is so stubbornly invested in physical co-location, despite extremely high costs to that arrangement. Happy to see another writer making this point.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Simplified Idea for Oak Flavoring in Bourbon and Wine

NPR had this story about how charred oak barrels are in high demand for aging craft bourbon. Producing them requires good wood, of course, but also skilled coopers. That takes time and money.

I have a different idea...why does the oak flavoring have to come from the container itself? Couldn't they use stainless steel containers, and obtain the oak flavoring by inserting some charred oak staves? Advantages: 1) Get both sides of a given stave (plank) to contribute to the flavoring, so roughly half the board-feet to obtain the same amount of flavoring; 2) Much less skill/time/labor required--no Coopering, just charring; 3) Lower shipping costs.

UPDATE: As my friend Bill Heymann pointed out, NPR had a story a year ago about a company implementing this kind of thinking, except far more aggressively.

Monday, December 29, 2014

First Purchase with Google Wallet

Made my first purchase with Google Pay (aka, Google Wallet) today. It was simple enough, though my first impression is as I suspected--not a whole lot easier or harder than pulling out a credit card. The need to enter your PIN kind of offsets the effort savings of not having to physically pull out and replace your credit card. (I also had to enter my zip--not sure if that was a one-off or is common.)

Still, NFC pay-by-phone does have an important advantage, specific to my personal use case. I keep my driver's license inside my phone case. That means I don't necessarily need to have my wallet with me, if I don't expect to be buying stuff. Most of the time, I bring it just in case. But if NFC payments became widely enough accepted, that might relieve me of the need to always carry my wallet. I would probably just keep it permanently in my car's glovebox.

My ideal would be for Google Wallet (and Apple Pay) to be integrated with Mint.com. Furthermore, I don't just want the transaction total, I want the transaction detail. I want the detail to be sent to my phone via NFC, and then uploaded to Mint.com. Sadly, I don't foresee this actually happening any time soon.

Good teachers learn early on to tell stories wherever possible — it’s a lot easier to remember "that time Professor Jones got $300 off on a plane ticket" than "certain goods have high elasticity of demand in the short run." We’re hard-wired to think in terms of other conscious actors, so it makes sense that anecdotes stick. The problem is that in the process of anthropomorphizing, or anecdotalizing, or allegorizing, we can impute agency where it isn’t due. When we teach kids that "electrons follow the path of least resistance" or "genes want to survive," when we insist that there’s a Mother Nature or Father Christmas, we occlude understanding.
This is a terrific essay for the layperson. I love stories as much as the next person, but I believe the human "weakness" for stories is problematic for multiple reasons. Notably, important facts that don't have stories attached tend to get ignored. Conversely, simplified stories are fabricated to enhance facts, but the story becomes the entire mental model.

I also think we would do well to educate students about the very existence of cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias and agency bias.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

More Good Mainsteam Movies Lately

This article, from someone I presume to be a cinephile, laments the shift of the movie industry to the "franchise" business model (blockbusters with mutli-sequels). I understand his point, and a few years ago, I would have wholeheartedly agreed. But as a self-described "discriminating", serious movie viewer, I have been very happy with the trend of recent years.

Sure, "good" movies are outnumbered and even more out-grossed by schlock. But its sort of like the criticism that the internet is 99% garbage--maybe it is, but that 1% of worth is plenty to fulfill the choosy consumer.

The trend, or at least me noticing it, started fall 2013. We went to see Argo in early fall, and I was stunned that probably 4-5 of 6 previews all looked really, really good. Others from that class included: Captain Phillips, Her, American Hustle, Nebraska, 12 Years A Slave, Dallas Buyers Club, The Grand Budapest Hotel.

This year is shaping up well, too. Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, Selma, Mr. Turner, Unbroken.

I still hate how 75% of the "good" movies are jammed into the Nov-Feb calendar slot. The summer is still mostly a wasteland. But then, living in MN, the last thing I want to do is spend the temperate months in a movie theater.

Guns, not Protestors, Are What Get Cops Killed

I am super-sympathetic to the danger police face every day. The large vast majority of that danger, though, comes from gun-wielding members of the public. So I would expect to hear police representatives and unions would go all-out to take on the gun lobby. Until that happens, their credibility is fatally compromised. 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Android Lollipop--Slouching the Way of Microsoft Updates?

My initial reaction to the Lollipop UI changes--eye-candy. Seems beautiful, flashy, but without enhancing usability and probably degrading it. Feels a little like some of Microsoft's efforts to freshen mature products--upsetting well-known UI conventions for sake of a cooler, more modern look.

For instance, I have lots of muscle memory for the CLEAR button top right on the notifications windowshade. But now it is at the bottom. And it doesn't say "CLEAR", it uses that weird "Dismiss" icon, that looks way too much like the stacked "hamburger" menu icon, except pushed sideways so it has the footprint of a parallelogram.

That alone would be bad, but the coup de grace is, if you have more than a screen's worth of notifications, you have to scroll down to get to the CLEAR icon. I think I get the logic behind that--you scroll down through all notifications, and then you are ready to CLEAR--but it still seems weird and less discoverable.

The bounciness of the windowshade, where if you keep scrolling down, until it bottoms out, and then causes the settings shortcuts to pull down, compressing the notifications, also is very weird and disorienting.

The rolodex-style recently-used app thumbnails from the multi-tasking button seems worse. You see a little more in the thumbnail, but I think you see fewer apps without scrolling, and scrolling is more disorienting than when every thumbnail had a fixed position.

These all seem like they would be super-cool things in a hobbyist ROM. Not the stock Android experience.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

John Oliver's Breakthrough

I'm a huge fan of John Stewart and Steven Colbert. I've watched them for years, and I was a big fan of John Oliver on Stewart. After his star turn as Stewart's long-term sub, it was obvious he was ready for his own show. So now that he finally has it, I was eager to check it out. I don't have HBO, but I have watched a few segments online. I like it. I don't actually think it is as funny as Colbert and Stewart. But he has done something remarkable and unique. He is extremely funny and satirical, while at the same time being highly informative.

Ideally, one watches Stewart and Colbert with a solid, pre-existing understanding of the issues. Less than ideal, but better than nothing, a viewer clues in to an issue by watching them, and subsequently pays more attention to it. Their shows, as good as they are, aren't really a way to learn about an issue.
Oliver's show, on the other hand, has high comedic content, but less than Stewart and Colbert. The difference is, his segments provide a complete briefing on a topic, while still being quite funny.  So for many audiences, I think his show is amazing. It is like making vegetables taste as good as dessert.

Friday, November 21, 2014


Howard Gardner: "Among cognitive psychologists, there is widespread agreement that people learn best when they are actively engaged with a topic, have to actively problem solve, as we would put it 'construct meaning.' Yet, among individuals young and old, all over the world, there is a view that is incredibly difficult to dislodge. To wit: Education involves a transmission of knowledge/information from someone who is bigger and older (often called 'the sage on the stage') to someone who is shorter, younger, and lacks that knowledge/information. No matter how many constructivist examples and arguments are marshaled, this view — which I consider a misconception — bounces back. And it seems to be held equally by young and old, by individuals who succeeded in school as well as by individuals who failed miserably. Now this is not a scientific misconception in the sense of flat earth or six days of creation, but it is an example of a conception that is extraordinarily robust, even though almost no one who has studied cognition seriously believes it hold water. "

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Understanding "one in a million" in the age of big data

This is a great article for several reasons. My short version of what it says is: if you evaluate one million million-to-one propositions, it is likely enough that one of them will be "true".

First, it reinforces the idea, well-known in many quarters, that it is possible to be a superior stock-market trader. It particularly undercuts the idea of "technical analysis", something I have always doubted and dismissed.

Second, I've always thought this is one of the things that causes people to assign meaning to improbable but coincidental events in daily life. The hours and years of daily life offer so many different opportunities for patterns to emerge, everyone is bound to experience a few that seem remarkable, but are nevertheless entirely coincidental. (You may at this point call me unromantic or bloodless--I prefer the former, but I'll answer to either :) )

Third, although I'm not sure the article explicitly makes this point, it is yet another cautionary tale of the dangers of mixing correlation and causation. The most aesthetically pleasing way to discovery is to first formulate a theory, and then to prove it with data. Next best is to proceed from observational data, to formulate a well-constructed, internally-consistent theory that relies on well-known first principles. Less appealing is to find a correlation in data, and to construct a theory from it, using new principles that may amount to a post-hoc explanation, rather than time-tested principles. Worst of all is to take a statistical observation as law, without any underlying theory at all.

Friday, November 07, 2014

NFC Receipts (Apple Pay)

I've been a bit of an NFC-payments doubter. Not hardcore, but swiping a credit card is not all that hard, so the motivation to uptake is not that high. But if paying by NFC got me an NFC receipt, and that NFC receipt were automatically entered into my Mint.com account, that would be a major value-add.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Analysis of Differential Tax Rate Impacts on Timinig of Exercising SARS

Okay, the title is a bit of a joke, I am sure the quality of this analysis is nowhere near the kind of academic rigor that title suggests. (Heck, it's not even peer-reviewed, so there is always the possibility I am just outright wrong.)

Anyway, the proposition I wanted to evaluate: if one has SARS (Stock-Appreciation Rights) that are significantly above water, is there a benefit to exercising them early, for the sole purpose of ensuring all future gains are taxed as long-term capital gains (LTCG), at a rate of 15% + State? In MN, that would equate to about 22% in the typical case. As opposed to holding them as long as possible, in which case all gains will be taxed as ordinary income (OI), at a rate of 28% + State? Again, in MN that would be about 35%.

To cut to the chase, the answer is an emphatic no, do not sell prematurely for tax considerations!!!

This is what I thought going in. A general rule of investing is that tax considerations should take a back-seat to investment strategy (don't let the tax tail was the investment dog). The reason I had to work this out to convince myself, though, is because of the rate differential. I wanted to see if cashing out at some early point, and thereby subjecting all future returns to the much lower LTCG rate, would offset the benefit of deferring taxation as long as possible by holding to maturity.

I am fairly confident that cashing out early is not optimal, under any scenario, given my reasonable, simplifying assumptions. Those are:
  • No market timing. Uniform rate of return for all years. Obviously this is not what happens real-world, but over a reasonable long time-horizon, it should be a good approximation.
  • Early-exercise proceeds, net of taxes, are immediately reinvested in the same stock (with zero transaction costs).
The model pasted below uses a 6% return on capital, and a 20-year time horizon. For simplicity, it assumes a grant value of $10,000, but any grant value will illustrate the same results. I played with all the parameters, and they affected the relative penalty of early exercise, but never resulted in a scenario where early exercise was optimal.

(A copy of my model is available here.)

So in the scenario above, each row shows the NFV of the investment at 20 years, if it were subject to early exercise at the year denoted in the row. For example, if the initial grant of $10,000 were cashed in at the end of Year 4, and immediately reinvested in the same stock, the value after 20 years would be $3,756. Whereas if held to its 20-year "maturity", the value would be $14,346.

In hindsight, the explanation is blindingly obvious. Before you cash in, you have the entire $10,000 basis working for you. At the point you cash in, you only have whatever you have gained working for you. I think it is a bit analogous to killing the goose that lays the golden eggs, thinking you can invest all those unlaid eggs now, versus taking and investing the eggs as they come.

Concluding thought: The idea of  attempting "market timing"--never a good idea--is wildly inadvisable in the case of SARS (and I think much the same analysis goes for stock options).

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Practical Center-Right Social Policy?

Some excellent suggestions from David Brooks:

Relocation subsidies

I love this one. Very innovative. Instead of promising dying cities that tinkering with the economy in just the right way will bring them back (Detroit, Buffalo), instead help people escape to more promising areas. This is definitely not a magical approach, relocation is a big deal, especially for the poor, and especially if it is relocation to an area where the relocatee lacks a support network. But it is definitely seems like one useful took in the toolkit.

Bus subsidies

In the wealthy suburbs, there is starting to be a shortage of entry-level service workers. My own teens and their peers are complaining how many hours are being pushed on them in their part-time jobs. What a tragic mis-match of demand and supply. So long as housing remains highly segregated by income, getting those in need of employment out to where the jobs are is a helpful compensation.

Human Capital Investments

Less innovative than the other two, but still valid. The whole gamut here, early childhood education, intervention, better schooling, better vocational training. Still a continuing struggle to make cost-efficient progress. If I had to pick two things, I think it would be early-childhood and vocational. If I had to pick one thing, it would be vocational.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Cruz Staffer Tweet Linking Obamacare and Ebola

This is just such a massive case of dumbshittery. I do believe that even a Cruz staffer doesn't actually take the assertion seriously. But it also doesn't really work as a joke, as Nick Muzin claims. So my conclusion is a sadly typical case of instinctive, knee-jerk, relentless, ankle-biting. It just becomes a partisan reflex to immediately fling any dung at hand, any time the opportunity presents, at one's opponent. It's a terrible habit, in my worldview, it pretty much disqualifies those who engage in it from ever receiving any credence, for anything.

Deliberate, repeated sins of counter-factuality, by those fortunate enough to have public prominence, are unforgivable.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Mobile fashion trucks may be the next thing after food trucks. It's an intriguing idea. The thing I really like is how it slashes overhead. It fits my belief that we can improve society by more often doing things the cheap way. And slashing overhead is at the top of the list for making that happen.

I have an idea for an app to support this industry. Somewhat similar to the apps that alert you when a favorite performer is coming to your town.

Obviously, both the mobile stores and their "fans" register with the service.

Most simply, mobile trucks can share their location real-time (e.g., Google+, Facebook). So users can search for it. But users can also elect to be push-notified when the mobile store is stopped within X distance of them.

An obvious complication here is that you really don't want to be notified when the truck is whizzing by on the road with no intention of stopping. A partial work-around would be for the notification to occur only when the vehicle has been stationary for 10 minutes or so. There are still problems with that, though--you may wind up chasing the truck to the garage, for instance.

That's part of the reason I think a more full-blown app is needed. The app would allow the service to explicitly indicate that they are stopped and open for business. For extra-credit, they could indicate how long they intend to be there. As a value-added bonus, the app should be activated by NFC (touch a dot with your phone). Better yet, it should be connected to a simple, physical, analog piece of hardware--i.e., flip a switch when you are at your destination and ready for business.

That's the supply side. I think an app will also be useful on the demand side. It could allow users to indicate a desire for the store to come by within X distance of X location. This approach is kind of interesting within a large metro area, but it could be even more interesting out-state. In smaller cities that wouldn't be visited as often, if ever, a critical mass of requests would give the proprietor a hint that they have a receptive geographic market to go after..

I tend to think the market for mobile stores is pretty limited. If anything, it would have been a somewhat better idea pre-eCommerce. But with the ability to order anything you want--and variations thereof that you didn't even know existed, until you started online shopping--I don't see the markets extending beyond things that are perishable in some sense, or perhaps things that are really, really important to see and touch in person.
 I suppose a mobile food truck might be one remedy for the urban "food desert" problem. It also might be a way to test-market a geography--if demand is high enough, then open an outlet.

Pet Topic: The Tenuous-at-Best Link Between Mental Illness and Creativity

The shopworn notion of the tormented, suffering, often half-mad artist continues to be commonly held. This article does a very nice job surveying the scientific research on the subject and concludes the question is not completely settled, but the preponderance of the data does not favor the hypothesis. For ordinary, run-of-the-mill creativity, the link appears to be negative. For the "super-genius" (Beethoven, van Gogh, Wagner)--maybe there is something to it.

The theme I want to build on this research is: the deleterious effects of this addled notion on the young and aspiring. Notably the young people who yearn for artistic greatness that they will never possess. Such types may be drawn to mimic the dysfunctional, self-medicating behavior of the truly disturbed. The results may be a few wasted years, or occasionally, greater tragedy resulting from utterly pointless self-destructive behavior.

Then there may even be a feedback loop onto the truly gifted. A young person who is genuinely artistic may be drawn to the notion of the tormented, suffering, self-destructive artist. Either because they simply think that is how they are supposed to be, or perhaps because they believe that is the necessary price to pay to grow in their art. Either way, it can lead to more unnecessary suffering.

I would love to see a popular movie explore this theme. It would be the single most likely way to start excising it from the mass psychology.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Unforgiveable Sins, Part I: Corporate Transgressions

Any corporation will make mistakes, some big, bad or especially galling ones. When they do, they deserve to suffer, in proportion to their offense, both through immediate financial impact, and reputation. This is important for society, because corporations are basically amoral. Within the very wide latitude of what is permitted by law, the Pavlovian reward-punishment of the marketplace is the only reliable check on corporate behavior. This is not a bad thing, it just is the nature of a for-profit corporation (and applies much of the time to not-for-profits as well--more on that in Part II).

Yes, corporations may claim to have fixed ethics and ideals, but over the long-term, those are quite changeable. They are a blend of how the corporation has traditionally acted, what the individuals who make up the organization believe, and what the corporate can get away with. The latter being the biggest factor, especially in the long-term. So the only real constraint on non-illegal corporate behavior is the opinion of the marketplace.

By the same token, just as all humans are flawed and will transgress, the same goes for organizations. It is unrealistic to think any organization can ever be without sin--especially when definition of "sin" will vary from consumer to consumer.

So while it is good and righteous when consumers and public opinion punish an organization that has done immoral/bad/harmful/unethical things, most of the time, punishment should be tempered by realism. Forgiveness can be extended based on a direct redress of the offense, of course (backtracking and refunding customers who purchased a lousy product, for example). It can also be extended based on the passage of time. Just like a prisoner is released from prison after they have "paid their debt" to society, so it may be that after buying a lousy product, and avoiding a corporation for half a decade, it is time for the consumer to give them another chance.

However, some organizational sins are so severe they can't be forgiven for a generation. Not until (and unless) the corporation has had a complete turnover in its "DNA".

I used to be a "fan" of Micro$osft (I didn't spell it with the $ back then). The company has done many, many things to lose my good favor. But two standout out as unforgivable. Both are sins of omission.

First is neglect and stagnation of the browser, once they achieved monopoly position. As much as we hate IE today, at least it has plenty of credible competition, to spur it on. Think how bad IE was when it had a near-absolute monopoly in the market.

Second is neglect of security. Even though they were the de facto platform vendor of effectively all consumer computing, M$ simply did not give a s*** about security. Didn't fit their strategic plan, didn't help their bottom line, traditionally an area filled by niche vendors, so they couldn't be bothered. And millions of consumers--consumers who were Micro$osft's customers--suffered substantially for it.

For these reasons, it is difficult for me to think well of any product Microsoft offers. Even ones that get very good press in the marketplace. I simply can't trust them.

(Ditching the bombastic, sales-myopic Steve Ballmer may prove, 20 years from now, to have been Microsoft's first step toward corporate redemption.)