Saturday, February 03, 2024

Wine Rating Scale

I am so tired of the numeric wine-rating scale popularized by Robert Parker. It is meaningless, every bottle wants to be 89-93. Some ideas for improvement.


That would be the Robert Parker-style score. But even in this category, we need to re-calibrate. 100 points is way too many. 20 would probably suffice. 

1: Actively disagreeable.

  • 2: Utterly bland and uninteresting. Someone who is utterly indifferent to wine and in the mood for an alcoholic beverage might drink it, but for anyone with even a modicum of wind appreciation, not worth the calories.
  • 3: Would drink as a last choice if in the mood to drink wine and no alternative.
  • 4-15: Relative ratings for wines most people are likely to drink--max price $50/bottle.
  • 16-20: for the elite.

As an Exemplar of Its Category

Assuming the wine fits a well-established category (e.g., New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc), how well does it express the qualities expected of the category? Sort of like how a dog show judges an animal's features not in the absolute, but relative to its breed.

Under the Right Circumstances

Most likely factor to influence this would be food pairing. E.g., this wine is generally rough, but with really spice food, it holds up. This category is a bit loose, if not careful, it could be an excuse for grade-inflation.


Graded on the curve of price.

Multi-Factor Console for Updating Critical Business Parameters Executed by Software

Major business policies, especially in financial services, are often driven by some simple parameters that are executed in software. E.g., for a lender, what interest rate is being charged.

There is typically a dashboard accessible to a small number of users with authorized elevations, to enter these values. In general, that works fine, but there may be concerns about data-entry mistakes or deliberate sabotage (less probable). I think a good solution involves:

  • Purpose-built UI (console), limited of course to an appropriate, small user group.
  • Require multi-factor -entry to implement a change: i.e., 2 or more members have to independently submit the update (exact number is configurable, depending on the sensitivity--but in general, I think 2 is the magic number).
  • Add some UX niceties for workflow—e.g., showing pending updates where only 1 entry has been made, reminders if 2nd entry is overdue.
  • Email the entire group whenever a change is initiated and completed.

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Email Feature: Reply All "Discouraged"

In email,  I feel like we need a middle ground between:

  1. The standard open distribution list, that tends to encourage the default behavior of Reply All;
  2. The bcc technique that prevents this, but makes it impossible both to see who is copied, and to Reply All if it is indeed appropriate.

So the Reply-All-Discouraged feature I envision would operate as follows: 

  1. Have to be consciously invoked. Perhaps even explicitly enabled in user settings.
  2. Set explicitly on a per-email basis. Sender could optionally provide explanatory rationale for when Reply All might be appropriate.
  3. When a recipient clicks Reply All, they would get a pop-up with a generic explanation of the feature, and any explanatory text from the Sender.

While making this work universally would require a formal or informal standards change, I think Gmail and Outlook have enough market share to implement independently, and get significant value out of it. For out-of-platform recipients, it would have to default to bcc. 

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Brueggers Bagels Quality Control Opportunities

I love bagels, I eat one for breakfast 5 days a week (used to eat 2!). We don't have a lot of choices, Bruegger's is the best around. I mostly get Everything.

So I have been patronizing the local Bruegger's heavily for about 15 years. I buy a dozen, and freeze them for daily consumption, so I am in the store every couple of weeks. There are some significant consistency problems. Here is a sample bagel from this week:

Seed coverage very inconsistent. Sometimes it is heavy (ideal), sometimes very light (unacceptable), sometimes moderate (acceptable). In this case, the sample is the high side of moderate (less seedy underneath).

Done-ness is similarly inconsistent. I personally like my bagels on the browned side--this one is about perfect. They are often far lighter.

Handling. Bruegger's uses paper bags rather than cardboard boxes. They cram delicious, hot, fresh bagels into a small-ish bag, and they get mushed--the photo is a good example. There are easy solutions. One would be boxes, like Einstein's and Panera. The other would be much bigger bags.

Online ordering (bonus complaint). The mobile app does not allow you to create a custom dozen (and the website doesn't seem to support online ordering at all. To the credit of my local store, they are very good about actually answering the phone when I primo "3" in the IVR.

Tuesday, December 05, 2023

NYC Experimenting with Noise Pollution Enforcement Cameras

A small step in the right direction. I do not understand why US society tolerates such abusive, anti-social, unnecessary, deliberate noise pollution assault.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Beck and Call vs Beckon Call

I was well into my thirties before I learned that the correct expression is"beck and call", not "beckon call". In fact, the first time I encountered it, I assumed the writer (a business colleague) had made a sophomoric mistake.

In defense of my error, "beckon call" reminds me of other terms such as:

  • borning cry
  • siren song, swan song
  • death rattle
Clearly the grammatically correct usage would be the gerund form, beckonING, as is the case with borning cry. But beckon is already a two-syllable word, and also a less-common word, which I would argue lends itself to a tendency to shorten, for metrical felicity.

My next example is "Siren song". This is not a perfect parallel example, since it does not involve a gerund, but illuminating in that it is an example of shortening for convenience (7.0M Google results for Siren, 1.4M for Siren's). Swan song is even more dramatic--"Swan's" yields very few matches.

My final example is "death rattle", which I see as being substantially parallel. "Dying rattle" barely registers in search numbers--though amusingly, the second hit is a brief poem that addresses the very point that death rattle is the more appealing phrase.


So I think that is all a good argument that it is almost a sign of good linguistic judgment to assume "beckon call", if one has never seen the term in print. 

But the most compelling, in my mind, is the Occam's Razor take: "beck-and-call" sounds like a textbook example of the simplified, monosyllabic phonetic rendering that is the hallmark of a typical mondegreen(!)

Egg corn vs Mondegreen

I've long been a connoisseur of mondegreens. Only more recently have I become aware of a devilishly similar term, eggcorn. I just spent 15 minutes researching the compare-and-contrast, and I am not sure this is settled law. My quick take: Mondegreens completely alter the meaning of the phrase, while eggcorns keep it at least adjacent (chomping at the bit vs champing at the bit).

Some sources claim that mondegreens are distinguished by a nonsensical meaning, but I think that is a side-effect, not the main effect. I.e., very often the completely different meaning will be off-the-wall, but not always. In fact, the founding mondegreen changes the meaning substantially, but in an entirely sensible way.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Where Are the Smart Monitors?

 During daytime, I set my monitor to 100% brightness. At night, I dial it down to 70%. Why can't this be automated?

Friday, September 08, 2023

Stories are dangerous

I have a longstanding fixation on the downsides of the human love of a good story. This article totally nails it.

Stories act like an anaesthetic on our sceptical, questioning faculties. It can be valuable and pleasurable to subdue that part of our brain, and immerse ourselves in an imaginary world; I love reading stories, including non-fictional ones. But if you come across a history book, or a scientific study, or a news report, which tells a great story, or which slots neatly into a master-narrative in which you already believe, you should be more sceptical of its truth-value, not less. Narrative can give an illusion of solidity. When the expert narrative about the world changes, as with China (see below), we shouldn’t just conclude that the old narrative was false, but that all such narratives are unreliable.

Tuesday, September 05, 2023

Scientific Explanation for Dog's "Sixth Sense"

Over the years, I have read and heard many stories of dogs seemingly supernatural ability to sense when their master is coming home, or when the mail truck is on its way, etc. I believe there is some tendency among humans to treat this as a magical "sixth sense". Or to over-credit the sense of hearing: "dogs can differentiate the sound of their owner's car/school bus from 5 miles away"--I'm definitely calling bs on that one.

But as so often is the case, there is a known or posited scientific explanation. This article focuses on the time-decay of smell, in combination with other cues, as the explanation. E.g., the family children, in this case, arrive home from school on a school bus. The departure and arrival times of school buses are pretty predictable, I bet +- 5 minutes 95% of the time. The rate at which the children's scent decays is the main clue. This signals to the dog that arrival is imminent, prompting it to lurk in anticipation near the door.

The final part of the magic trick is delivered by the acute--but not magically powerful--sense of hearing. The dog lurks near the door, and they do hear the vehicle far sooner than any human would. They react in anticipation, completing the illusion that they have a magical superpower.

Encountering scientific explanations is ultimately much more rewarding than crediting far-fetched or magical explanations of phenomena.

Apple Should Sell A Viewclix Killer

Viewclix is a popular photo-frame device whose canonical use case is to allow family members to share photos with an older relative who is not up on technology. It also has secondary uses of push teleconferencing (you can initiate the teleconference remotely, without a tech-challenged elder having to do anything), and posting reminders to your loved one ("remember, we will pick you up today at 11:00 for lunch"). 

It does work okay, but the usability, for photos in particular, is very clunky. So clunky I found myself putting off updating the photo rotation, which was the main reason for getting the device. I have since confirmed a much better solution for updating the photo frame functionality: simply deploy a spare TV or monitor, equipped with Chromecast, as a remote Google photos sharing device. Just a few, simple steps:

  1. Set up a shared album(s).
  2. Invite other family members to be contributors or administrators (depending if you want to let other delete, as well as add, photos) to the shared album.
  3. Set Ambient Mode on the Chromecast to show the shared album(s).


In addition to the >> UX, you also get a WAY bigger, TV-size screen. However, the roll-your-own with Chromecast does not address the other use cases. Which is why I think this is a great product opportunity for Apple (or Google, or Microsoft, but especially for Apple).

This is probably not an Airpods or Watch-sized market, but it is surely in the millions, in the US alone. Plus it would have strategic value, in strengthening the overall Apple ecosystem value proposition.

Tuesday, August 01, 2023

Bagel Inflation

9 years ago, in 2014, I could get a dozen bagels at Bruegger's for $6.99. Today, I am paying 14.49, including the $1 tip that didn't used to exist (at least not for me, especially paying by card). So one could say that the price has doubled in less than a decade, which seems economically shocking.

But it is intellectual malpractice to compare prices across time without factoring in the CPI. Adjust for CPI, I was actually paying $9.03 Still, that is 60% excess inflation. Granted, that was using the $2 off per dozen they had every Wednesday, since discontinued. Ignoring that, we are down to 25% excess inflation. If we also remove the tip, down to 16% excess inflation. Still quite a bit, no matter how you slice it.

Decreased Family Size & Social Class Concentration

From a purely statistical point of view, smaller family sizes decrease the likelihood of having close relatives who fall into more economically disadvantaged status. For instance, in a middle-class family of 6 siblings, it is not hard to imagine that 1 or 2 might, for various reasons, wind up experiencing substantially lower standards of living. This might tend to create empathy in more well-off layers of society, since they have close experience of those in a less-advantaged economic class.

In a family of 2 siblings, the statistics are greatly reduced. Then on top of that, there is the generational wealth factor. A comfortable family will be able to deploy more resources to help prevent or assist a child who might be in danger of slipping economically.

Sunday, June 25, 2023

Bigger batteries would be so worth it

The achilles heel in the lifecycle of a lot of rechargeable devices is battery life. Lithium Ion batteries diminish steadily, often in 3 years they are about half of what they were when new. For a lot of products, I think a reasonable solution would be just provision them with a bigger battery to start. Instead of making each generation of mobile phones a bit thinner, use that space for more battery.

I was a devoted user of the Jabra Elite 65t earbuds for 5 years. The main reason I replaced them was battery degradation. When they were new, battery life was good, not great. I use them in large part for conference calls, so maybe 4 hours, with the case providing about 8 more hours. So I could often get by charging them once mid-week. By the end, I had to charge them every day, and on heavy days, they needed a top-up.

The replacement Soundcore A40 are a decent upgrade, but not all that huge, for being a 5-years-later product. The one area they really shine, though, is battery life. Out of the box, they get 6-8 hours battery life, and the case has 4X charges (vs 2X for Jabra). They almost always last all week.

Like a Kindle, even when you get the low battery warning, you probably easily have a day left (including what's in the case). It's great, more than I really need. But the beautiful thing is, even if it degrades by a full 50%, it will still be very, very good!

Saturday, May 06, 2023

Google Should Buy Tile

I have been a pretty hardcore user of Tile Trackers for 7 years. At this point, I even have one in my travel kit, to attach to rental car keys. All in all, they have worked pretty well. But finding things via crowd-sourced location (leveraging all the Tile users out there as an ad-hoc mesh) has been pretty hit-or-miss, the few times I have used it. Whereas the Apple Air tags have the opposite problem--they are very good at "phoning home" to report location, and that is causing a major privacy problem.

So when I thought to use a bluetooth tracker to monitor my luggage, the Apple Air Tag was the no-brainer choice, even if it is twice as expensive. The fact that its network includes not just other Air Tags, but also iPhones, gives it an overwhelming network scale advantage.

Which got me thinking--Google should buy Tile (or, should have bought). Overnight, it could match Apple's network coverage.

Sunday, April 23, 2023

Eleminate charge fouls in basketball

I totally agree with this article, assuming that it does not literally advocate abolishing the very concept of a charging foul. Growing up playing basketball recreationally, and watching as a casual fan, I thought of charging as something usually pretty clear-cut and obvious, and therefore rare. When I got back into basketball fandom after a several decades absence, I was very surprised to see how charging works--the defender races the driving offensive player to a spot, and has their feet planted a tiny fraction of a second first. They thus establish position, putting their body on the line to draw the foul from the offensive player whose momentum is unavoidably carrying them toward the contested real estate.

The same test that has been applied to offensive players aggressively courting foul calls by unnaturally contorting their bodies mid-jump-shot should apply here: his is not a basketball move.

I would not buy a new ICE vehicle

At this point, no way would I buy a new ICE (regular gas-powered) vehicle. I personally am in a good phase in the car-replacement cycle, easily 4 years from wanting (longer from actually *needing*) to replace one of ours. But if I were otherwise ready for a new car, I would either put it off, or buy something (substantially) used. I think we are at the point where ICE is a very poor investment.

I do wonder if, a few years down the line, there will be havoc in the auto market, where nobody wants to buy ICE, but EVs are still a minority of production?

Chromecast vs Viewclix

Viewclix is a popular photo-frame device whose canonical use case is to allow family members to share photos with an older relative who is not up on technology. We got one for my mother about a year ago.

It does work okay, but the usability is clunky. I have found a much better solution is to use a spare TV or monitor, equipped with Chromecast, as a remote Google photos sharing device.

  1. Set up a shared album.
  2. Invite other family members to be contributors or administrators (depending if you want to let other delete, as well as add, photos) to the shared album.
  3. Set Ambient Mode on the Chromecast to show the shared album.


In addition to the >> UX, you also get a WAY bigger, TV-size screen.

(Granted, Viewclix has secondary use cases of teleconferencing, and posting reminders to your loved one. The Chromecast solution does not tackle those.)

Airline flight change offer

First time I have ever gotten this kind of offer to proactively re-schedule my flight, if I happen to find that convenient. If this is what I think it is, it is different than an offer to sign up to be "bumped". Those typically are on a bidding system--how much would you take in compensation to be bumped to a different flight?

If I am interpreting correctly, this is saying "hey, if you happen want to change your flight, we won't charge you for it. Do you want to take a look and see if a different flight would be an improvement?" I've thought for ages that airlines should do this kind of thing--see if there is a win-win to be had.

(I didn't pursue the offer, so I don't know for sure how it worked.)

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Optional Handling of Canceled Events

Online calendar software such as Outlook and Google Calendar always removes canceled events, once you accept the cancelation notification. That's often reasonable and fine. But sometimes, especially for recurring events, it is helpful to see an explicit notice of the cancellation. E.g., I don't have to get to work early next Thursday, because the weekly coffee club isn't meeting.

It is a somewhat esoteric feature, and probably tricky to design the UI for, but it really could be nice, for some of my use cases. One way I can think of to implement it is for the calendar to ask you, when you accept the cancellation, whether to hard-delete or logical delete. And then it could include an option for "don't ask me this in the future".

Saturday, March 04, 2023

EU USB-C Mandate: Compromise via a Sunset Provision

With the advent of USB-C, the device world has been approaching common-standard nirvana. To-date, Apple has remained the stubborn holdout ruining the fun. Maybe Apple would have cleaned up their act this year on their own, but it's hard to know, since the EU did it for them, with a 2024 mandate to standardize on USB-C.

Very few people, I think, disagree with the outcome of this particular regulation, but you do hear various degrees of concern about prescriptive mandates. I.e., maybe a company would innovate and produce a superior connector, better to let the market decide.

I think building a sunset provision into regulations like this would be a pragmatic compromise. E.g., let the regulation expire in 4 years. That leaves a reasonably foreseeable time horizon where USB-C is completely adequate, so by the time any hypothetical innovation is mature, the path will be clear for testing it in the market.

At the same time, the arrangement should remove any motivation to game the system. E.g., after switching to USB-C, Apple isn't likely to switch back when the regulation expires.

Wednesday, March 01, 2023

Podcast App Feature: Skip Intro/Outro

Some podcasts have annoyingly long intros, or ads at the beginning. Lots of podcasts are padded with ads at the end. Both are annoying. If you are in a position to fast-forward, they can easily be skipped, but if you tend to listen in "hands off" mode (driving, exercising, doing things that get your hands dirty like cooking), this isn't a good option. 

A killer feature for a podcatcher would be to allow, on a per-podcast basis, a user-configurable setting for skipping intro and outro.

Bluetooth Needs a (Don't) Connect Automatically Option

It has to be a common family scenario (in the car-centric US, anyway) for a couple to have 2 cars, with each paired to both spouses' iPhones. That's definitely the case in my household. And you know what happens? When one of us starts the car, while the other is connected to Bluetooth (Airpods, etc), the car instantly steals the connection. Super-annoying.

The solution seems so simple and obvious...Bluetooth needs an option, like wifi, where you can set whether to Connect Automatically, or not. Another approach would be a delayed connection. 

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Optimized Baseball-Viewing

This past World Series, I perfected my baseball-viewing approach. Time is limited, baseball games just drag on too long. The obvious first, non-negotiable step to improved viewing, for all televised sports, is to watch on DVR. Skipping commercials, etc, cuts time drastically.

But modern baseball, more than the other big American sports, has long, boring stretches. Yes, if you are a really serious fan, maybe you want to watch each pitch of the prolonged, multi-pitcher duel. That's not me.

So what I do is leverage the YouTube TV "key plays" feature. I jump to the next key play. From there, I watch all the action. So if the key play is a double, then the next 3 batters are retired, that's what I see. So I do get plenty of the pitching drama, while saving a ton of time.


The one thing I don't like is that the software tells you how many total key plays there are--especially as you progress toward the end of the game, that can be a spoiler. The world continues to be insufficiently attuned to spoiler-avoidance.


I have no solution for futbol. If you took this approach, you would cut out 97% of the game. Futbol needs more scoring.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

De Minimis Class Action - Make the Checks Worth Cashing

 I recently received this $3 check for my share of a class-action suit against Equifax. It is hardly worth the trouble it takes to cash it. Which I suspect is part of the whole, rotten, class-action game.

Here's a pro-consumer idea. Instead of sending 10 people a check for $3, have an internal lottery, and send 1 person a check for $30.

In other regulatory areas, there is the concept of a de minimis distribution amount. If the amount is so low that it is economically inefficient to distribute it to individuals, it goes instead to some alternative non-profit or regulatory recipient, with the idea that it will be put to good use, in alignment with remediation of the offense. I suppose, for all I know, that is what happens with un-cashed checks.

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Order Body Parts Online and Save Big $$$

This is Part 1 of a two-parter. Part 1 lays out the facts of my consumer experience. Part 2 will have business commentary.

I hit a deer recently. Fatal for the deer, smashed up the passenger side of my front bumper cover. I have collision insurance coverage, so I filed a claim with my carrier, USAA. Because of the long wait at their preferred shop, I decided to use a local shop. I sent in photos, and USAA valued the repair at $1447. The local shop quoted me very nearly the same price (without knowing what the USAA estimate was).

However, they also told me that I could cut $1100 off the price if I could source my own bumper--e.g., find something used at a salvage yard. That's not the kind of thing you usually hear from a car repair place, but it certainly made a good impression. I think partly they are a good, honest, reputation-valuing local company, and partly the parts-finishing work is labor-intensive and tedious, and not their core value proposition, in this time of labor shortages. So they have to charge a lot for parts-finishing, and would be just as happy to forego that work.

I did some poking around the internet, and pretty quickly found MBI Auto. Reviews on their site were good, and there was also this very detailed this positive review of a prior MBI Auto customer, with many similar positive experiences by commenters. MBI's prices were absurdly low. $290, shipping included, if I was willing to let them ship the bumper folded, $450 not folded. I get why folded is cheaper (bumper covers are light but bulky), but while $450 is still a very good deal, that difference seems huge--I would have thought folding was worth maybe a ~$50 savings in shipping.

Anyway, I did some research, and it sounded like folded was a decent bet. Many people said it was 100% fine, worst case seemed like it would have a little crease and a crack in the paint. But seeing as this new bumper cover is going to be the shiniest part on an 8-year old vehicle, I wasn't after perfection at any cost. I know from prior experience that the key to affordable auto body repair is not going after perfection--85-98% perfect will often cost 1/3 as much as 100%.

The cover arrived super-fast, faster than promised, a mere 5 days from when I placed the order (the local shop would have taken longer!). It was carefully packed, and took some doing to unfold it (they include instructions). Leaving it in a warm, preferably sunny, room for a few days is part of the program.

No issues with the product quality. I even asked the local body shop if they thought the part was sub-standard in any way, and they said no, perfectly fine. So by sourcing from MBI Auto, I cut my parts cost from $1000 to $300. Quite a savings.

Saturday, December 31, 2022

Dabbling with Home Automation


Kasa smart plugs and light switches work well and are very affordable. If you are curious about home automation, you can experiment with little effort and at a cost of $15-$100. The plugs are super-simple, the light-switches require very basic electrical wiring competency.


I've begun dabbling with home automation, mostly for lighting. I have purchased the Kasa EP25 smart plugs (4 for $40) and Kasa Smart light switches (<$30) that are well-reviewed by Wirecutter.

One of the light switches is motion-sensitive. I'm still fine-tuning it, but seems to work well. In hindsight, I would say if you think there is any possibility you want motion-detection, get it, because it doesn't cost much more, and you can turn it off if you don't want it.

Setup of the smart plugs was reasonably easy. The hardest thing is the fact that they only operate on 2.4 Ghz wifi, and require the setup device (smartphone) to be on the same band. Since phones will generally default to 5.0 Ghz, this requires going into your router control panel (not hard, but you may not remember how to access it or the password), and temporarily turning off 5.0 Ghz (don't forget to turn it back on).

Installation of the switches was not hard, and I rarely do electrical work. There is one gotcha, which is the volume of the plug is>> than a dumb plug, and you may have a hard time jamming it all back in the box.  I'm sure a pro could manage it, perhaps by trimming excess ground and neutral, but I wasn't up for that. After some searching, I came up with a pretty good work-around: these $5 box extenders.

The Kasa app is pretty good, and the plugs, though not the switches, are HomeKit-compatible.

My #1 need was to provide good & reliable wall-switch illumination of rooms that didn't have overhead lighting. Each room had the typical (1) switch-controlled outlet. So that takes care of one light, and doesn't require any smart stuff to work as expected. That was important, I don't want an over-complicated home where a guest can't turn on a light without installing an app. Then the other lights in the room are connected to a smart plug, which is triggered to go on with the smart switch. All works well, albeit with a ~3-second latency of the additional light to go on.

I also automated the fan in our bedroom that provides "white noise". It is on the floor in the corner, and my aging back dislikes stooping to turn it on and off. So I put it on a timer that corresponds to bedtime + 1 hour.

Similarly, I have a foot-warming carpet in my office that I also have to stoop to turn on. And that I sometimes forget to turn off. So I hooked that up to a smart plug, and put a turn-off schedule for the end of my workday, in case I forget.

Our Christmas tree lights are also very inconvenient to reach, so those also went on a timer (though given they are LED, I think the energy savings is negligible). On that note, these plugs include energy monitors. It is mildly interesting to see how much energy different appliances consume.

Last, I have a Corsi-Rosenthal fan setup in the basement, where the cat lives. I like to run that a couple of hours a day, not for cooling but for filtering. That was easy to put on a schedule

So that's it for implementation experience so far. In the process, I did quite a bit of research--much more than was needed for my relatively straightforward use cases--so I will document that next.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Apple & Subscriptions

I hate the fact that Apple rakes in up to 30% of subscriptions through the app. BUT--they sure do make it easy to monitor and cancel. I routinely check my subscriptions (mostly for streaming services), and set calendar reminders for when I need to cancel. Or if you are pretty sure you just need the one month already subscribed, you can proactively cancel, and you get the service till the end of what you have paid for(!) Quite a breath of fresh air in that regard.

Here's a feature idea: save me the manual step of the calendar entry--let me set reminders tied to subscriptions, by clicking on the subscription. (For extra credit--this is asking a lot probably--create calendar entries as reminders.)

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

I want a smart light switch that has up/down positioning

I don't live alone. It is absolutely critical that when a person stumbles into a room, when they fumble on the wall to flick the light switch, they get the expected illumination. The smart behavior can't get in the way of that.

Many of the smart switches, including the Kasa ones, don't work this way. They have a push interface that toggles between on and off. But you have no way, just by looking at the switch, to know which is on and which is off. 

This can be made to work nearly the way I want, replicating dumb switches. I simply connect the switch's ON and OFF states to the "toggle lights" scene. So the user who hits the switch to change the state of the lights gets what they expect. But it is still less elegant, and slightly less obvious, than if UP meant ON and DOWN meant OFF.

One counter-argument is that the state of the switch can become inconsistent, if the lights are turned OFF, say, via a smart app. To me, the solution is that toggling the switch DOWN and back UP will solve this problem. That is probably the most natural thing to do anyway. 

Another alternative would be to extend the behavior of the 3-pole dumb switch (2 switches controlling the same light). UP and DOWN don't necessarily correspond to state, but flipping the switch guarantees a toggle. The problematic detail here is what to do if state is mixed, for multiple connected lights.

Friday, December 23, 2022

Business idea: Customized service to notify a fan it is worth watching the game

Recording sports and watching them on my own time & terms is transformational. I think I would watch 90% less sports if I had to suffer through them in real-time.

I am also very much in the anti-spoilers camp. I know not everybody has the same viewpoint, but I am hardcore about it. The downside, though, is you lose the flexibility of entirely skipping a worthless game.

I can imagine a service that uses a combination of machine-learning and user-configuration parameters to notify a user if a given game is worth watching on the DVR. The user could set various parameters such as:

  • My team wins (I personally don't include this one, but some people do).
  • The score is close at the end.
  • The score is close most of the game.
  • The game involves a reasonable amount of scoring.
  • The scoring is not all on penalty kicks (I'm looking at you, futbol) or home runs (baseball).

Also, the result wouldn't be a pure yes-no, although that would be an option. There would be an overall rating underneath the yes-no. So if you are me, a spoiler hater, you might want just the yes-no, because the score could give something away. But if you are on the fence or particularly busy, maybe you want an indication if it is a really good game, not just good enough to be a generally enjoyable watch.

Then there are all kinds of ways you could incorporate statistical and machine-learning elements, to adjust the rating. Just scratching the surface:

  • Higher rating if many other people with profiles similar to yours rated the game highly.
  • Lower the rating if you identify that you accidentally found out the result (lower still if you know the score).
  • Use ML to adjust the rating based on your own ratings of past games.

Then also enhanced features such as telling you how far to skip ahead, or to skip to the last few minutes.

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Email feature Flag R for reply expected

Sometimes when you send an email, you definitely expect a reply. But people's email habits being what they are, said reply does not always arrive. Google actually tries to use AI to remind you of emails that seem like they need a reply but haven't. That's nice, as far as it goes. I would like email to have a feature where you can set a "Reply Expected" flag.

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Some E-Commerce Apps Should Be More Careful About Default Stores

Over the years, I have had a few cases where online apps wind up placing my order at the wrong location. I can't universally rule out user error on my part, but I have some clear-cut cases where the app messed up. In one case (can't remember now which app), when I identified my use case as In-Store Pickup, and an item was not available in my default store, but was available in a nearby store, it auto-switched my order to the nearby store. 

Recently with Panera, the app had a flat-out bug.

Either way, I wonder if more thoughtful preference configuration could help. What jumps to mind is asking the customer to identify which use case best describes their needs:

  1. I almost always order for the same location. If an order is ever different than my default location, please ask me to confirm.
  1. I order for many different locations. Do not ask me to confirm when the location changes or is new.
For extra-credit, AI could probably be brought to bear, to refine the options, or to default them.

Google Calendar Feature Idea: Filter Recurring

 I tend to use Google calendar for a lot of recurring reminders (renew drivers license, perform monthly maintenance tasks, etc, etc). I would like a UI affordance to toggle my view to show All - Recurring Only - Non-Recurring Only.

Friday, December 09, 2022

Central Mexico Trip Report

My wife, adult son and I just returned from a teriffic 11-day vacation in Mexico. Not beach Mexico, but historic, central Mexico. 6 days in Mexico City, 5 days in Morelia--an old, colonial city 4 hours west of Mexico City. We would never have chosen this vacation, if not for the opportunity to visit old friends, who were living in Morelia for 4 months, while on university sabbatical. But are we ever glad we discovered the delights of central Mexico!

First thing nobody told me about is the climate. I vaguely knew Mexico City was at a high elevation, but I never put two and two together. I dumbly looked at a map, thought to myself southern Texas is really hot, Mexico City is way south of that, it must be a blazing inferno. What a misconception! The mile-high elevation means it is very temperate, all year round. Think Hawaii or San Diego, except maybe a bit more comfortable--75-78F and very dry.

The next recalibration I had to make was the Mexico City environment. I absorbed the idea, 25+ years ago, that Mexico City air quality was horrendous. I think that was true, but like LA, it has improved a lot. It isn't great, but it also isn't a smoggy hell-hole. Most days we were there the weather app rated it "acceptable".

It was also very clean for a large city. The various street vendors were always sweeping up in their downtime. Compares favorably to US cities.

Now on to the question of security and safety. We have all read the chilling tales of drug-cartel violence haunting Mexico. It is real, but it is confined to certain areas, mostly near the border. Mexico City and Morelia both seemed very safe. I am sure there are dangerous areas of Mexico City, just as there are in Chicago, but no reason to go near them as a tourist.

Cost-of-living is very favorable for rich-country tourists. We stayed in the expensive part of the biggest city in Mexico, and overall costs were maybe one-third what they would be in the US (granted, the current exchange rate of nearly 20:1 is historically favorable). 

We spoke zero Spanish, and unquestionably stood out as gringos (being of mostly northern European ancestry, and some of us being pretty tall). Nevertheless, the people were very friendly, especially by megacity standards. 

Finding English-speaking service workers was spotty, a bit more than I might have guessed. Google Translate was indispensable. Get familiar with it before you leave, and download the Spanish language pack for offline translation.

We did not even think of renting a car. In Mexico City, like Manhattan, a car is the last thing you want. Uber is as reliable as in the US, and costs maybe one-third as much. For traveling between cities, there are extremely nice first-class buses. A four-hour trip to Morelia cost $33, and the bus was shiny, new and very comfortable.

Credit cards are widely accepted. Not quite as universally as current day in the US, maybe the way it was 10 years ago (i.e., cabs and street vendors don't tend to have Stripe swipers). So you will want to carry some cash. Including 5 pesos for public toilets.

Also, on the subject of currency, be aware they use the $ symbol to denote cost in Mexican pesos. Given the exchange rate while we were there, that meant dividing by ~20.

Bottom-line, central Mexico is a vastly under-rated tourist destination. It would also be an amazing place to snowbird. Or if so inclined, even to fully retire to.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Induction ranges should have one conventional electrical burner

Induction burners are the future of stovetops. One thing that causes consumer resistance is the concern that all your cookware has to be replaced. In many cases, that concern is overblown. But to ease the transition, it could be helpful to equip the induction stove with one conventional burner.

I guess one downside is that consumers will become accustomed to the cooktop instantly cooling, and may have a mishap with the conventional burner that remains hot (hopefully not actually touching it, but maybe placing a heat-sensitive item over it).

Cut tree stumps off below ground?

Is it really worth the cost of grinding away a stump? Can't you just cut it off good and low, and then do something creative with it?

Idiomwatch: Begs the Question

In modern usage, "begs the question" is "misused" more often than used in its correct/traditional meaning. Until recently, I was among the guilty. I, too, believed it means "begs (for) the question (to be posed)." I came to know that was incorrect (though I still think it has a lot of merit and utility). But I still did not realize the correct definition. I thought the real definition was "begs (off) the question", though I see now that doesn't quite fit, since begging off is active, versus passively trying to avoid the question. Wikipedia does note this usage.

The Wikipedia examples of the logical fallacy are not usages I commonly see.

Saturday, October 01, 2022

Reminder Feature for Google Calendar

When receiving notifications (especially email notifications), include an option for "terminate any more notifications for this event". 

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

When I was in my teens, I picked up the idea of  "triple redundancy" as the NASA standard for fail-safe systems. The idea being, your backup also has a backup, so a catastrophic failure would require 3 (hopefully) independent things to fail at the same time. Without litigating whether this was actually a NASA design principle, or whether a more apt description is "triple failure, double redundancy, I can say the concept of redundancy made an impression on my youthful self.

Think about losing or misplacing your car keys. If you lose track of your primary key one day a month (1/30), adding a backup key takes that to once in 3 years (1/30^2). Add another backup, and you are at something like once over an entire lifetime (1/30^3 = 1/27000). And that is ignoring the fact that, once down to your second backup, you are probably going to be really, really careful.

Anyway, this week I experienced a rare quadruple redundancy failure--this time related to housekeys, not car keys.

We are having our siding replaced, so the garage keypad was removed (and resting inside the garage, where the workers left it). I idly noted that, as I walked out the garage, and walked to my car. What was I getting in the car to do? I was going to drop it off for service, and bike home. So that took out another source of access, when I returned home (via bicycle--that is how I minimize the pain of vehicle drop-offs)--no garage door remote. 

But I have never been one to rely on the garage for access, since if the power goes out (relatively more likely), or the opening system has a problem (even less likely), you are SOL. I keep a housekey on our keychains. BUT, we have a new car, and I haven't installed the housekey yet.

Still, I wasn't worried, because I also have a Tailwind smart garage door opener. I can easily open the garage door from my phone. Except it was this night my Tailwind chose to fail me (I think because of a required update). So had my wife not been at home, I would have experienced 4 system failures, resulting in lockout.

(I have since placed the keypad on the back deck, as a temporary backup, until the siding work is done.)

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Inflation's Distorting Effects on Taxation of Interest

We've been in the era of 2% inflation so long that many of the distortions it causes have faded from memory. While reading up on iBonds, I remembered one of them: taxes are assessed against total returns, not real returns.

High-inflation example: 

  • Inflation is 8%
  • Your aggregate marginal tax rate is 32%
  • You earn 10% interest (2 points above inflation)

So your after-tax yield is 6.8%--somewhat below inflation, so you are not even quite preserving your capital.

Low-inflation example:

  • Inflation is 2%
  • Same aggregate marginal tax rate of 32%
  • You earn 4% (2 points above inflation)

Your after-tax yield 2.76%--somewhat above inflation.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Ordering Wine online Vivino


  • I placed 2 orders to Vivino, for 8 bottles per order, each a mix of 2 different wines.
  • There were under-$20 wines reviewed in the New York Times, and hard/impossible to find in St. Paul, MN.
  • The retail price was competitive with the price listed in the article. Shipping was free. One order evaded sales tax.
  • The delivery arrived promptly and was fully satisfactory.
  • My cursory investigation suggests that buying directly from the distributor, to cut out Vivino's "middleman" profits, is not an option.

My (Limited) Experience

I've used Vivino (the wine rating/discovery app) lightly for a few years. I am a wine-lover but a dabbler.  I am not building a cellar and have a modest budget ($15-20 a bottle), so I really haven't gotten that much value out of the app, in terms of curation and discovery (and like many others, I consider the ratings nearly worthless, being crowd-sourced and utterly un-calibrated).

I finally got around to using Vivino to actually order wine, and I think that might wind up being my most valuable Vivino use case. I will frequently read some article in the general press--sometimes New York Times, sometimes the local paper--reviewing and recommending wines in my price range. I'm often curious to try what is recommended. The problem is finding it. The NYT stuff is almost impossible to find locally. And even the local stuff may only be available in a wine shop across town. That's way too much friction.

So recently I ran though a NYT article with recommendations. Of the 10 I looked for, I successfully found 4 on Vivino. Not bad. The prices were competitive, if not especially a bargain--never less, sometimes 5-10% more, than mentioned in the article.

Where Vivino shines is reasonable shipping cost. It appears that for < 9 bottles, they charge $15 flat rate. That actually isn't bad, for say 6 bottles. But it seems like there is a tipping point, I believe at the odd number of 9, where shipping becomes free. That makes Vivino a very convenient, price-competitive way to try and obtain wines that are not locally available.

And here's the thing--while Vivino doesn't support pure mix-and-match to get free shipping, it also doesn't have to be 9 bottles of the same wine. The way it seems to work is that Vivino has relationships with a number distributors. I don't know what that number is, exactly, but the same few kept coming up in my query vs the NYT list.

I don't have enough data to know if each distributor has their own requirements, but the two that fulfilled my order both seemed to set 9 as a breakpoint. As far as I could tell, any 9 bottles from that shipper could be combined to get the good price. I split my orders 4-5.

Both my shipments arrived promptly enough--4-5 business days--and were accurate. Very well-packed.

Comments About Vivino on Reddit

On Reddit, I have seen comments that put Vivino in the same category as DoorDash, and claim that they take a 15-20% cut. Given the competitive prices, I don't see how there is room for that much margin. But as a consumer, I am sympathetic to the idea that the aggregator should not eat the lion's share of the profits; I make sure to subscribe to anything I can directly, not through the Apple store.

So what I found interesting was that Vivino was absolutely transparent about who the distributor was. I looked up one of them on the web (Corkery Wine & Spirits). The price on their website was the same as Vivino, but then I noticed that they warned they only ship to 3 states (MN not one of them). I found this very curious, so I called them. I explained my situation, and they confirmed they only ship to those 3 states under their own name, but through Vivino they can ship elsewhere. I didn't try asking for a fuller explanation.

(The distributor for one of my two orders didn't charge tax for my state, giving Vivino an additional cost edge. I do not feel that this kind of online tax avoidance evasion is ethical or fair, so I don't consider this a pro for Vivino, but others may feel differently.)

Vivino vs

Some Redditors speak more favorably of, since they maintain inventory, rather than acting purely as a middleman. From the perspective of supporting your local wine ship, I don't see how this makes a difference. From the purpose of economic efficiency, I believe--for a highly fragmented market such as fine wine--maintaining inventory is unlikely to deliver net economic efficiency, and is instead a source of overhead and inventory limitations. The longstanding dream of online wine sales, after all, is to be able to buy any wine you hear of, for a price comparable to the normal brick-and-mortar retail price that prevails in its traditional physical distribution footprint.

In my limited experience with, I found their inventory hit-and-miss, with a roughly similar hit-rate to Vivino (keep in mind, sample size with both is very small) . But I found their prices consistently on the high side--15-20% more than the typical retail price.

And that is before shipping. I haven't used in a few years, so I did some quick investigation. It looks like their shipping price for 6 bottles is about $4.50 per--nearly double Vivino's $2.50. At 12 bottles, the per-bottle price decreases to about $3.25. It seems to very slowly decrease with volume from there. But clearly they are going for the Amazon Prime approach, by offering a $60 annual fee to get free shipping. Which is not a bad deal. 

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Venmo Feature: Advanced Functionality for Splitting the Bill

Venmo has a split-the-bill feature, where the user can assign payment amounts. It's a good start. But a common use case is multiple people go to a restaurant, one person pays, and the payor doesn't know who ordered what. The basic functionality I would like to see:

  • Attach a copy of the bill.
  • Enter a total amount, invoke the split request.
  • Each user examines the bill, calculates their share of the base bill. Venmo apportions tax & tip.
  • Venmo keeps track of the total reimbursements received.
  • Venmo provides reminders for parties who haven't responded.

Advanced functionality:

  • If total is off by more than a set amount (e.g., 10%, above or below), Venmo notifies all users.
  • Venmo scans receipt, and lets users click on their line-items.

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Email Is Better than Texting


(Mainstream) Reasons email is better

Option to use a full-size monitor and real keyboard (yes I know Mac users)

Much easier to bring someone into the conversation mid-stream

Subjects are helpful

Vastly better search

(Mainstream) Reasons texting is better

Many people have developed bad habits about email, and tend to ignore/postpone 

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

I. Hate. Organized. Gambling.

Alarming and depressing article on the explosive arrival of app-based sports betting. I hate organized gambling. I hate it intellectually--it is the triumph of hope over math. I hate it aesthetically--the trappings of gambling, from garish smoke-filled casinos to grimy OTBs to convenience store lottery lines--is soul-crushing. I hate its social effects. And now, also hate it for overshadowing the sporting events themselves.

Sunday, January 09, 2022

Keyless Entry Strategy for iOS or Android

I recently installed a Tailwind iQ3 smart garage door opener. It is very impressive, pretty simple to install, and downright cheap at $60. Just the fact that it will alert you if the door is left open at night, and if desired, will automatically close the door, if probably worth the price.

It also eliminates the need for a keypad. In my experience, keypads are a hassle and a bit of security risk. Because the code is typically very hard to change, people don't change it often, or use the temporary code feature. 

You can open the door remotely, which comes in handy in various situations, such as your neighbor wants to borrow some tool in the garage when you are away on vacation. Even better, you can assign opening privileges to other Tailwind app users. Great for guests, or families with more than 2-3 garage users, who would otherwise need to obtain extra garage door modules for their car.

Which brings me to my main point. While the sharing privileges feature is great, it comes with the substantial friction of each guest user having to install and provision the Tailwind app. It would be SO much better if this were nearly frictionless--i.e., if it were built into the mobile OS.

(Note: I know that a garage-oriented view of home access is a very suburb-centric viewpoint. There is a clear analog with smart door locks, more on that in a moment.)

Apple or Google should acquire Tailwind, and partner with the lock industry, to build keyless entry access-sharing into the OS. 

Apple is probably the more obvious candidate, at least in the US. If this were an Apple-only feature (think iMessage), it provides a distinct source of competitive advantage and lock-in through network-effect. Given that households in the US that have garage doors, and can afford smart locks skews upper-income, this fits well with Apple's customer base. Moreover, Apple's good image regarding security in general should transfer well to this use case.

I think the immediate first step is acquiring Tailwind (who I believe is the market leader, certainly the functional leader), and making it Apple-only going forward. The smart garage door market is new enough that I think that a play for total dominance is realistic.

The door lock market is much more established and fragmented. It also has a heavy decorative dimension. So I am doubtful that a total domination play is viable. Instead, Apple could move quickly, and leverage domination of the smart garage market, to establish its standard, open for adoption by heterogenous door lock manufacturers.  



As a consumer, I would ideally prefer to see an industry standard. But from the perspective of business strategy, it seems like a great opportunity for Apple. Also, I am doubtful about the standards-based approach happening any time soon.

A consumers should never rely solely on anything electrical, let alone "smart", for critical access. I cringe when I talk to someone whose only access to their house if via the garage door opener. So always carry a housekey--that applies to smart locks as well. But for many use cases, you can tolerate the pretty low risk of an electrical outage. E.g., if you have a weekly housecleaner for 10 years, and there is a 25% probability that once over those 10 years, the power will be out, and they won't be able to get in--that doesn't seem like a crisis (unless of course Murphy's Law strikes, and it happens to be the day before you are planning a big house party!).

My Original Covid "Modeling"

I recently came across some back-of-the-envelope modeling I did early in the Covid ordeal (05/18/2020). Conclusion was that the duration of "Flatten the Curve" was a theoretical minimum of 214 days. I didn't even bother posting it at the time, because it seemed to depressing.

The core assumption underlying the model was that a large percentage of the population was going to get Covid, it was only a question of when (my working figure was 60%). Then the next key metric requiring an assumption was--what proportion of Covid patients would require hospitalization? My guess at the time was 10%. This turned out to be way too high (by a factor ~5X), although per this paper, I think that was a figure that was circulating at the time.

Anyway, from there it was just a matter of calculating how many "inventory turns" of hospital beds would be required to cycle the entire Covid population through, and how long an inventory turn required (on average). My guess for duration (5 days), turned out to be very low, so partially offsets the high guess for proportion of population infected.

Keep in mind that 214 days is the theoretical best. It assumes the rate of Covid sickness is perfectly optimized, never exceeding hospital capacity (which would imply excess deaths), but never leaving any slack (to ensure the shortest possible duration).

Optimization is always hard, but optimizing rate of acquisition of a novel disease is impossible. So the real-world outcome probably would have been both excess deaths, and still a duration of longer than 214 days. That is, if the 10% of Covid patients require hospitalization assumption had been accurate. Thankfully that was not the case.

Hospital beds per capita
% devoted to Covid patients
Steady-state hospital beds
proportion of population who gets Covid
proportion of sick requiring hospitalization
Proportion of population requiring hospitalization at some point
"Turns" of beds, to cover entire hospitalized population
Duration of hospitalization
Total days required to work through entire population,
if curve flattening is perfectly optimal.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

I Can't Help It, I Hate the Placebo Effect

I know it is wrong, but in my heart of hearts, I detest the placebo effect. I prefer a world without this kind of statistically noisy pseudo-magic. So I take guilty pleasure in reading this article, which casts doubt on the belief, developed over the last 70 years, that the placebo effect can be an important clinical tool.

The "open placebo" stuff, especially, is hard for a devout rationalist to stomach.

The reason it is a guilty pleasure is because, also in my heart of hearts, I know that I should applaud anything that helps. If placebos and open placebos improve clinical outcomes and reduce suffering, that is a good thing.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Comments on Crypto

I'm a hardcore crypto skeptic, borderline hater. Regarding digital currencies, such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, I don't see what real problem they are solving--outside of enabling criminal activity in general, and ransomware spectacularly. 

My impression is that many of the proponents fall into 2 or 3 camps. One camp is the promoters--they have something to sell. Maybe because they are also a believer (Camp 2), often because they are a huckster. Another camp is the deep believers. These seem to be libertarian types, who have some very deep-seated dislike of any form of centralization. They see currency independence a crucial step in some form of idealized, Atlas Shrugged-ish elimination of the need for individuals to have any need for government. Then the third camp are speculators. They see the meteoric rise of crypto and are drawn in by the justifications. The difference between the deep believer camp is that the financial payoff is what gets their attention; the belief follows.

So there is another strike against cryptocurrency--the company it keeps.

There are a number of crypto supporters who jump in to say that the tech is about much more than currencies. But I never hear even vaguely convincing examples(1). People talk about smart contracts, but they seem very vague, it isn't clear to me how they practically improve on "dumb" contracts (other than the satisfaction of removing a "middleman", even if that doesn't save money or have any tangible benefit), and it seems like they assume away the enforcement problem.

Then there are NFTs! The first time I read about them, I thought it was an elaborate tech in-joke. NFTs are screaming "The Emperor Has No Clothes"--setting aside extreme niche, hobbyist uses, that could probably also be accomplished with traditional commercial centralization (e.g., being able to prove were an early backer of some Indie artist). 

I've listened to podcasts on the topics, to see if I can find out what I am missing, and they usually just convince me more. I should admit, I am at some risk of "motivated reasoning", especially regarding NFTs, because their promoters talk about creating "digitial scarcity". As if scarcity can be a social good! I hate scarcity, I want abundance!!!! 


(1) Granted, it in principle it could be that time will find great use cases, even if nobody is citing them now. E.g., Friendster or even FB didn't foresee the power of the news feed. I will still keep my bet.

Wednesday, December 08, 2021

Service to Facilitate Cash Offers for Houses

NPR had an interesting story on a trend where companies enable consumers to make cash offers for houses, rather than having a mortgage-approval contingency. This makes their offer more appealing to the seller, since it reduces risk. Even with a pre-approval, many things can go wrong. My mother was a real estate agent, and as a youth, hearing her stories of deals falling through due to a buyer's buyer's buyer failing to qualify for a mortgage, I often wondered that the whole system didn't wind up in gridlock. Cash offers do eliminate that problem.

I'm not sure what to think. When I evaluate a new business process innovation, I want it to make the overall system more efficient. Usually, that means taking cost out of the system. For instance, mortgage securitization adds an extra step in the process (packaging the loans), but those transaction costs are outweighed by the efficiency of capital allocation (no geographic disconnects between mortgage demand, and funds available to lend).

The question the interviewer should have asked, but didn't, is what is the net additional cost to the buyer, to get the backing of the company that "fronts" them the cash?

I can think of ways this might add efficiency. One source of efficiency is simply compressing the time-to-closing (another benefit of cash offers). The longer the time-to-closing, it could be more likely there are inefficiencies such as temporary housing, temporary storage, or the pending sale house standing empty. It's not completely obvious though--closing too fast could bring complications of its own. Of course, just because you make a cash offer doesn't mean you have to close fast--the cash buyer could offer the seller flexibility, fast or slow, whatever they want. So it seems like there is surely some efficiency there.

 The existing mortgage underwriting process is cumbersome and time-consuming. So maybe there is some efficiency through vertical integration and better sharing of information? Maybe the cash sponsor is adding value as a trusted advisor (that part in the NPR story about not letting the customer offer more than they think the house is worth).

Tuesday, December 07, 2021

Make Congressional Representatives Less Parochial

A few years ago, this idea came to me that the US, collectively, might get a better Congress if it were less parochial. My proposal was that some fraction of Congress should be elected by randomly assigned national constituencies.

I have a refinement, or alternative, to that idea. I would like to see some fraction of each member to be elected by a randomly assigned national constituency. Off the top of my head, 20% national constituency seems like a good number.

That would preserve local representation, while introducing a national constituency large enough to be a powerful tie-breaker.

Viruses do not necessarily evolve to be milder story

Zeynep: Viruses do not necessarily evolve to be milder...Evolution is not a teleological process, bad match for a story-telling species' brain. Things seem to make sense—the just-so story...

The whole thread is right-on, but as someone whose bete noir is the human weakness for a good story, I love the second sentence. 

Monday, November 01, 2021

Adoption of e-Delivery for Documents

Companies would like customers to opt for e-Delivery of bills, statements and other documents. It saves the company a non-trivial amount of money, and is environmentally beneficial. 

Sometimes a user concern is that they will lose access to the account, perhaps because they (unwisely) chose a work email address (don't get me started). Or the e-Delivery notifications will go into their spam folder. Or they are just bad at email.

I can think of a good mitigation. If a consumer hasn't accessed a company's online portal in, say, 6 months, that should trigger a paper delivery of the next document (bill, monthly statement). Included in the paper document should be an explanation, and the option to convert to paper by scanning a QR code. That also might be used as a way to regain access to their online account, in the event that is the problem (subject to security considerations). 

Monday, September 20, 2021

The remote-controlled assassination of Fakhrizadeh marks a scary precedent

While I don't mourn the death of a top Iranian nuclear weapons scientist on the merits, the manner of his death is deeply troubling. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was assassinated by a remote-controlled, AI-assisted machine gun. It was undoubtedly a given that such an event would happen sooner or later, but it is nevertheless a horrifying precedent.

The advent of remote control assassinations is the immediate concern, and that is plenty bad enough. But imagine what kind of carnage could occur if one, or a few, of those were let loose in a crowded public assembly?

I always assumed respiratory viruses were primarily airborne

Must have been a case of being right by dumb luck, but my mental model of respiratory viruses (influenza, colds) was that they were primarily transmitted by inhaling particles in the air--not by having projectile droplets land on your facial orifices.


Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Tournament Codenames

I love the board game Codenames. The online version is even better, because you can add your own words. However, I have ideas for a more intense version of the game.

The normal game is a ton of fun, but the fun mostly comes just from the guessing. There are limited tactics and very little strategy. Often the margin of victory is decided by a single turn.

My solution is to make the guessing process richer. Typically in my experience, 2 word guesses dominate. I would like to see more 3's, and even the occasional 4. But the way the standard Codenames works, that is nearly impossible. So here are the changes I would make:

Expand to a 6x6 grid

This will give substantially more opportunity for finding multiple connections.

Eliminate 1 Strike You're Out

To encourage guessing higher numbers, and to counteract the increased chance for false matches that will come with more cards in the grid, tweak the rules to allow the turn to continue after a wrong guess. I think some experimentation will be necessary to find the ideal. I toyed with the idea of 1 wrong neutral guess being allowed, but I am thinking maybe it should be just 1 wrong guess (after all, a wrong guess that exposes the other teams card is worse than a neutral). It would be prohibited to guess more answers than remaining cards (e.g. if your team has 3 cards and other team has 6, you can't guess 5 to get extra bites at the apple, you can only guess 3 or lower).

In conjunction, I would eliminate the "continuation guess" that is currently allowed, if you don't successfully use all guesses from a prior turn.

Possibly Decrease the Number of Neutral Cards

I'm not sure about this one, but something to consider--will draw out the gameplay, allowing strategy and superior play to accumulate in a clear victory, rather than chance and which team happened to go first.

I am calling my proposed version "Tournament Codenames".

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Run government like a business?

GDPR cookie notices are a failed experiment that should be rescinded. Yet they remain.

It is sometimes asserted, often by political amateurs, that "government should be run like a business". While I  mostly view such statements as mindless sloganeering, there are occasionally situations where it is instructive.

The GDPR cookie notices are the worst. No actual consumer benefit, huge inconvenience. If cookie notices were a business proposition, they would have been canceled within the first month. But somehow, the governmental forces that brought us the GDPR can't seem to find a path to fixing what is obviously broken.

Assortive effect of online dating

How much do online dating services to "the big sort"? By no means am I thinking only of political beliefs. Education, income, religion, interests--it seems like this might be a big consequence.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Design Idea: Kickstand for Watering Wand

 Beth bought a nice watering wand recently. Mostly it is meant for hand-held use, to shower small and medium-sized plants. However, it has been so dry this summer, that I need to water a newly-planted tree. I don't want to stand there for 10 minutes by the tree. Instead, I tried to set the wand on the ground, upside-down, to provide a nice, distributed shower to the tree near the drip line. It didn't work great, though, because the want wanted to flip over, and bury its nozzle in the grass.

The idea that gave me is that the wand should have a simple kickstand bracket attached, to allow it to better lay upside-down.

Probably too niche a use case to be very marketable, but would be a nice improvement.

My Personal Dating of Climate Change "Tipping Point"

A nexus of events this summer makes me feel like climate change is upon us, and from this date onward, the world is in the "after times". Once in a millennium European floods, floods in Henan China, a(nother) very bad U.S. wildfire season underway, combined with my own personal experience of the hottest, driest summer in my 20 years in MN all adds up to this feeling.

Of course my impression is somewhat subjective, anecdotal and personal, but the climate has been building toward this for a while. I think it is a good bet that, 25 years hence, if I am there to look back, I will agree that this is the point at which climate change became undeniable, and not distant, based not on science and modeling, but on personal experiences.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Billionaires and Income Tax Rates

There has recently been a major controversy about the amount of income taxes paid by the ultra-wealthy. This is based on data leaked to ProPublica. There has been something of a backlash, with many commenters (including those in agreement with the billionaires-pay-too-little spirit of the article) pointing out that income taxes are based on income, not wealth. While technically correct, these comments often miss the point--are the ultra-rich paying their fair share of income tax?

I can think of a few angles to look at when assessing this question:

  • Capital Gains rate is ~half of the rate for ordinary income.
  • Richer investors can borrow against investments with substantial accrued capital gains. This allows them to have their cake and eat it too, by getting present liquidity, at low interest rates, while preserving the long-term deferral.
  • Tax-lot harvesting can allow investors to greatly reduce realized gains.

But most significant is deferral of capital gains. This amounts to a "loan" from the IRS, for as many years as a taxpayer holds an appreciated asset. In the dozen or so conversations I have stumbled across, none of them have examined possible modifications to the tax code that would "correct" for this phenomenon.

The term is "Lookback Taxation" of capital gains. Basically, it makes certain assumptions about the accumulation of capital gains, and when they are finally realized, it retrospectively applies taxation, to offest the benefit of deferral.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Was German Almost Official Language of US? (no)

I myself have fallen victim to the urban legend that, at one time, German almost became the official language of the US. In hindsight, the idea seems preposterous. I think I may know why it sneaks through the sniff test on those of us who should know better: another surprising (I think closer to true) fact is that German ancestry is possibly the largest single category in the US. If one is already aware of that fact, the assertion about language may slide by the reality-checking circuits.

(I am not convinced that German is really #1, either as predominate ancestry or even as a component. I suspect that is English, but for historical reasons there is little self-awareness / self-identification of English ancestry--being a WASP is probably the proxy--it is very likely underreported.)

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Breakthrough Is a Bad Choice of Words

TL;DR: "Breakthrough infections" is a misleading term, let's not use it. Not sure what the ideal term is, maybe post-vax infections.


I wish we would stop referring to cases where fully vaccinated people get Covid as "breakthrough" infections. That term has strong suggestion that the primary cause of infection is that a variant strain of Covid has become fully vaccine-evasive. 

Variants do muddy the water a bit, but let's set them aside for a moment. No vaccine is 100% effective. The wide range of available Covid vaccines are quite effective, with the predominant ones used in the US, Pfizer and Moderna, being an astonishing 95% efficacious. Which, reminder, means not that 5% of vaccinated people are destined to eventually get Covid; but rather, the incidence of getting Covid will be 95% lower in vaccinated people.

So, variants aside, the efficacy rate indicates that there will always be some fully vaccinated people who get Covid. Why? The vast majority of the time, it is because, for one reason or another, the vaccine did not generate an adequate immune response. Sometimes because the person is already immunocompromised (more likely if elderly, or if on immunosuppressants, or perhaps exposure to a massive viral load), but also sometimes happens for other reasons to younger, healthy people.

My point: in those cases, nothing has been "broken through" by the nasty Covid virus. Rather, there was no strong defense in place, Covid waltzed right into their body. No breaking was required. This no more involves breaking-through than a non-vaccinated, immunologically "naive" person getting Covid.


Okay, now about the variants. It is true that some of the variants are better able to evade the immune response of vaccinated people. But the immune response in general is not like a levee that is either breached or holds (excellent article from Zeynep that explains this). And the immune response from the vaccines is particularly massive. So while variants to-date may be somewhat more likely to cause a breakthrough post-vax infection, that is incremental--it is not the main explanation, and hence it is misleading to refer to it as a breakthrough phenomenon.


Another thing that should be emphasized is that even when breakthrough infections occur, the severity is markedly less. Many are entirely asymptomatic, and found only by random testing. Others are very mild. The efficacy of vaccines against severe Covid and death is stunningly high, in the 99+% range. That gets back to the flawed levee analogy, and also maybe the nature of Covid variants, as compared to other things, especially the familiar disease-resistant antibiotics. It it much less all-or-nothing. A person with a weaker response, or a variant that is more vaccine-evasive, usually involves far less risk of a dire outcome than for an unvaccinated person.

So variants are worrisome, but not cause for panic. Of course, the more people that get vaccinated, the less change for variants to emerge. 

In the meantime, let's stop referring to post-vax infections are "breakthrough".

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Gift Card Breakage

Gift cards must be the most profitable thing that many retailers sell, what with the breakage. Even without breakage, gift cards are a great deal for retailers (assuming they are sold at face value). They have guaranteed business, and an interest-free loan for the interval between issuing the card, and it being redeemed.

So from a consumer protection point of view, I think there should be regulations to lessen gift-card breakage. What seems simple enough would be to email the purchaser of the gift card, if it hasn't been used within 2 years, and offer them the option of a refund or re-issue.

I suppose that raises potential privacy issues for the recipient--especially if they lied and said they used it, because they were too embarassed to admit they lost it.

Maybe the best thing is just to eschew gift cards altogether.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Will Vaccine Status Become a Requirement

I am curious to see if vaccine status requirements (e.g., vaccine passports), becomes a major thing in the US. For employment, for travel, for entry into events, etc. So far I haven't personally heard of companies that plan to require it. I suspect it will eventually become an issue, unless we get supremely lucky and the current level of vaccination really does brings the virus fully to heel. 

I suspect employers are temporizing. Waiting for others to go first, and waiting for justification--e.g., a company experiences a widely-reported outbreak amongst unvaccinated employees. When/if that happens, I predict a bandwagon effect of employers making it a requirement.

I would like to think the example of other countries, less infected by vaccine conspiracy theories and (mostly) right-wing anti-scientism, could help steer the US in the right direction. But given the many other issues where that hasn't happened, that may be wishful thinking.

Some parents are demanding their pediatrician's offices certify they do not accept non-vaccine-compliant families. Ideally that would be another lever to push for full vaccination, though it requires collective action on the part of the less-motivated majority, so I won't hold my breath.