Saturday, December 15, 2018

A Different Kind of Nationalism for the USA?

"Nationalism" is in the news lately, in the US and elsewhere. I view myself as an American nationalist, but in a much different sense than the term is usually used. I am a "nationalist" in that my allegiance to country is far, far ahead of allegiance to state or locality. So naturally I would like to see a Congress that is constituted to reflect national interests more, and local interests less. I propose a thought experiment in that regard.

What if half of Congressional representation were de-coupled from geography? The goal being that these congresspeople would represent the interests of the entire country, not a particular state or geographical district. How could that work, and would it be a good thing?

The concept that I propose is for a national congressional district to be defined by randomly assigning voters to said district. So instead of districts that average 710,000 people within a given state, assign 710,000 voters from anywhere in the US randomly to the district. If I am right, the national congressperson would be far more inclined to take a national view, rather than stubbornly advocating for local interests--even when those interests diverge from their core beliefs.

There are of course tons of details to work out. A critical one is--who is permitted to run to represent a given district? I think that is straightforward--a person can run for the district to which they have been randomly assigned. That is their district(!)

So that speaks to some of the how. Would it be a good thing? I think it could be. Our current political system is broken in so many ways. An underlying flaw that gets way too little discussion, is the fact that 50 states, of widely varying populations, is a broken and outdated system. First, there is the somewhat widely-acknowledged flaw of size--where voters in small states have vastly disproportionate voice. There is also the dysfunction of seniority--if a given states' congressperson happens to be senior, they will be in a position to cater to the interests of that state--completely contrary to the national interest. Finally, I am pretty sure that no other democracy has gone 100 years--let alone 250--without revising its administrative districts (our U.S. states). It is miracle that this kind of man-made boundary drawing worked okay as long as it did, but it is way past time for a re-do.

DISCLAIMER. This is a thought-experiment. I don't expect it to happen. I certainly haven't through through all the details. But clearly the status quo is not working. The two, related things I would hope to get people thinking about are: 1) We would be well-served to look for ways to put nation before locality; 2) Closely related, the default assumption that our 250-year-old legacy of states is the ideal or natural way of doing things should be vigorously challenged.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Improved Gameplay for Codenames

I really like the board game Codenames. Especially good for 6-10 players. But as is usually the case, I have ideas for improving the rules.

There aren't enough lead changes. It usually comes down to whichever team misses one opportunity loses. Here is how I would like it to work:

  • A 6x6 grid instead of 5x5. Increases the intensity, and the opportunity for multi-matches.
  • (2) Spy cards. In playing ~30 games, I have never seen the Spy decide the game. That is mostly good, but I would like to make it a bit edgier. 
  • No 1-card clues--2-card minimum. Makes it much more challenging, especially with the above adaptation. (One mitigating strategy, if desperate, would be to include a neutral card in the clue.)
(Obviously, the pre-filled 5x5 maps the game comes with won't work. But it would not be hard to create your own 6x6 grids in Excel and print them out.)

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Anti-Pattern: Part 1 of Series Does not Part 2

Often when using the web for technical research, I will come on Part 1 in a series of articles. If Part 1 is useful, the next thing I typically want to do is read Part 2. Wouldn't a link be helpful, to let me click on through to Part 2??

I understand there is a design--challenge: often Part 2 doesn't exist when Part 1 is create. The obvious solution: when creating Part 2, take the extra time to go back edit Part 1 to add the link. The even better solution (not always possible) is to have a structure so that you know in advance where Part 2 will be posted. In that case, the editor can add a note "When available, Part 2 will be posted here".

(The article that pushed me over the edge, providing the impetus for this post, was this otherwise excellent article at O'Reilly, who really out to know better.

Monday, November 19, 2018

The NORAD-Santa Thing Sounds Like an Urban Legend

I've known of the Norad Tracks Santa thing for decades, probably before I ever heard the term urban legend. But if I were hearing of it today for the first time, I am pretty sure I would conclude "must be a UL". So, mark that down in my UL-detection record as a (fairly rare) false positive.

Of course, even true stories that become legends morph. Per Wikipedia:
Over the following years, the legend of how the annual event originated began to change. By 1961, Shoup's version of the story was that he had not been gruff with the child, but instead had identified himself as Santa Claus when he spoke to the child on the phone. Shoup and his family later modified the story further, adding that the child had dialed the "red telephone"—an impossibility, because the hotline was connected with the Strategic Air Command by an enclosed cable, and no one could dial into from the outside—rather than the regular phone on Shoup's desk, that it was a misprint in an advertisement that led the child to call him rather than the child misdialing the number, and that a flood of calls had come in from children on Christmas Eve 1955 rather than from just one child on November 30.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

What if Everyone Had the Risk Tolerance to Invest in Equities?

I invest 100% in equities. I have no plans to change this, even in retirement (still years away). Both theory and empirical evidence indicates that, over a reasonably long time horizon, equities provide a much better rate of return than bonds or, heaven forbid, CDs. So my question is, what would happen to the economy if all savers had a risk tolerance for equities? Set aside the transition effects, obviously it would be disruptive if it happened overnight. But assume over the course of a generation, everyone wises up and develops the risk tolerance for equities. What would happen?

1. Would return on equities go down, since more capital is available?
2. Would economies become more productive, since middlemen are being cut out, and risk capital is available?
3. Something else entirely?

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Navigation Apps: Better Historical Data to Extrapolate ETA

Modern navigation apps, such as Google Maps, are amazing. Refinements such as telling me which of the two left-turn lanes to take are incredibly impressive. But based on my limited experience--I am a full-time telecommuter who only occasionally drives the 30 miles across the metro to go into the office--there is one area I see a lot of room for improvement.

If I start navigation early into rush-hour, for my 30-mile cross-metro commute, I might see ETA 42 minutes. But that will typically elongate as I drive, peaking around 51 minutes. So the missing ingredient, particularly relevant for long, rush-hour drives, is the degree to which congestion builds. I have to think Google has more than enough data to build this in to their algorithm.

App Idea: Recycling

People suck at recycling. Primarily because they make mistakes of commission, motivated by good intentions. Placing a contaminated item in recycling is ~10X as bad as not recycling the same item, when not contaminated.

Ironically, I was having this very discussion with a colleague, who themselves started the discussion. I brought up my favorite example, the cardboard pizza box. Recyclable if never used, but certainly not once full of grease! To my astonishment, this was news to said colleague!

This suggests to me a mobile or Alexa/voice app idea. I envision a universal app (within the USA--apparently one already exists for the small but beloved country of Belgium) that provides directions, based on zip code and potentially other factors, such as waste-hauler, regarding what can and cannot be recycled. It would work really, really well with voice input.

(It is possible to go overboard the other way--it is wasteful of both time and water to wash containers very lightly "contaminated" with their contents--empty soda bottles, etc.)

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Rules for Napping

I am a big fan of short, rejuvenating mid-late afternoon naps. Just enough to take off the edge of unproductive drowsiness, without plunging into a coma-like state that makes re-awakening excruciating, or messing up one's sleep-wake cycle.

Set an alarm. This is the first commandment. Never but never nap without an alarm.

Keep it short. Everyone will have a different sweet spot, but in general, it seems like 30 minutes is the max. For me, assuming I fall asleep very quickly, 18 minutes is the ideal.

The rest of the tips relate to not getting toooo comfortable. First is: not in your bed. Don't let you body conflate napping with prolonged sleeping.

Not too warm--it is much easier to rouse one's self if not enveloped in a womblike state of torpor.

Not in the dark. The very worst thing is to start a nap at dusk, and wake up after dark.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Feature Set and Rationale for Night Suite App (Part 1)

From the day I got a smartphone, it was obvious to me that the standalone alarm clock was obsolete. Nevertheless, in the ensuing 10 years, I have continued to search for the perfect alarm clock app (Android). I still haven't found one. Alarm Clock Plus was close, until it quit being maintained in 2014. I have switched to Alarm Clock Xtreme, which is good, but not great.

What has been on my mind recently, though, is that even a perfect clock app did appear, I still wouldn't be satisfied. I want a Night Suite app. The alarm clock would anchor the night suite, but there is a lot of important, complementary functionality that I want to be fully integrated with my alarm clock.

In my view, a compelling night suite would integrate an excellent Alarm Clock with the following key functions: Do Not Disturb with Whitelist, Night Clock with super-dimming, low power warning and super-reliability.

Do Not Disturb with Whitelist

This is pretty basic, and there are good apps for it, but I want it to be integrated. If my family members need to get hold of me in the middle of a night, I want Do Not Disturb to be overridden. Not if they send me a text, mind you, but if they call my phone at 2:00am, I do want it to ring.

Bonus feature: option for whitelist or non-whitelist members to receive an auto-response when they text during Do Not Disturb hours. Customizable, here is the default: "John Doe is in Do Not Disturb mode. If this is an emergency, you can try calling to bypass Do Not Disturb mode".

Night Clock

This one is stupidly simple, but shockingly hard to find. I want a very, very dim bedside clock. Similar to an LED alarm clock--bright enough to see, dim enough not to act like a light source and cast light on my sleeping eyeballs. Currently I use a combination of an app that dims but not enough, and a filter that imposes a semi-transparent black overlay to further dim the phone.

This should be matched with sunrise functionality, that decreases the dimming toward dawn. This would need to be flexible, to handle varying degrees of room shading. This could be handled by a percentage function for Dawn Adjustment.

Low Power Warning

If power goes out during the night, and my phone is in danger of running out of battery before the alarm goes off, I would want to be woken up. Or, as is more often the case, when I don't plug it in successfully.

I think the basic functionality here would be to sound an alarm if the margin of error for power dips below a certain configurable level. Default would be 1 hour.


I am not nearly technical enough to know how to achieve this, but a world-class alarm clock, of any kind, needs to be super-reliable. So anything that could be done to ensure an alarm that is less than 10 hours away does indeed go off would be critical. The thing that comes to mind for me is that I think alarm apps can either have system alarms, or their own alarms. I believe I have experienced alarm app crashes where the app didn't re-start. Maybe one way to deal with this is for the alarm app to have its own alarm, but also set a system alarm for 2 minutes after its own alarm. When its own alarm triggers, it would shut off the system alarm. Thus, if for some reason the app alarm didn't trigger, the system alarm 2 minutes later would be the backstop.

Suite Functions

Single-push widget to go into Night Mode, as well as options for scheduled times for Night Mode. Scheduling functionality would include "X hours before alarm", where default is X=8.

Alarm Notification Icon

The typical Android alarm clock app seems to put an alarm icon in the Notification bar if one is set within the next 24 hours. As a user of pre-set and recurring alarms, I don't find this very useful. Most of the time it tells me what I already know. In the rare event I forgot to set an alarm, I don't want to rely on noticing the usual icon is not present; I want a positive notification when there is no alarm set, within X hours of my standard morning. Default X=8.

Advanced Features

This is my basic, must-have-list. See Part 2 for advanced and nice-to-have features.

Feature Set and Rationale for Night Suite App (Part 2)


From the day I got a smartphone, it was obvious to me that the standalone alarm clock was obsolete. Nevertheless, in the ensuing 10 years, I have continued to search for the perfect alarm clock app (Android). I still haven't found one. Alarm Clock Plus was close, until it quit being maintained in 2014. I have switched to Alarm Clock Xtreme, which is good, but not great.

What has been on my mind recently, though, is that even a perfect clock app did appear, I still wouldn't be satisfied. I want a Night Suite app. The alarm clock would anchor the night suite, but there is a lot of important, complementary functionality that I want to be fully integrated with my alarm clock.

In my view, a compelling night suite would integrate an excellent Alarm Clock with the following key functions: Do Not Disturb with Whitelist, Night Clock with super-dimming, low power warning and super-reliability.

Part 1 covering the rational and must-have features is here. This Part 2 covers bonus and nice-to-have features.

Core Alarm

On-the-fly snooze (a feature from Alarm Clock Plus). So when the alarm goes off, in addition to Snooze, and Dismiss, there is a third option: Snooze Until. When you select Snooze Until, it defaults to the alarm's existing snooze duration, but you can dial it up or down.

Skip until X date. My current alarm app, Alarm Clock Xtreme, has a "skip next". This is super-useful, but an advanced feature where I can skip until X date would be great for vacations.

Do Not Disturb with Whitelist

Option to reply with a text first time the number calls. Second call within period triggers a ring. Useful for travel, or relatives who aren't good at keeping track of time zones.

Low-key visual indicator if you received a call from a non-whitelist party. Possibly useful if you wake up in the middle of the night and notice and think the call could be important.


The on-the-fly snooze can be even more useful for timers.

Friday, August 03, 2018

Low Unemployment Yet No Wage Gains

I have heard so many news reports over the past few years about how tight the labor market is, yet employers are not raising wages. Here is my theory for one cause; I call it "Wages and Employment are Sticky, but Employees Do Tend to Expect Internal Equity".

Let's say you have 100 widget builders, their hourly rate is $12/hour. Demand is high, you need 15 more widget builders to meet demand. However, the labor market is tight, you aren't finding candidates at $12/hour. Based on some experimentation, you conclude that in order to attract those incremental employees, you need to offer a 10% premium to the current wage, or $13.20/hour. Given strong demand, you have pricing power (no discounts) and equipment utilization is excellent, so even at $13.20/hour, those incremental employees will be profitable.

Except--what about your 100 existing employees? They are experienced and loyal. If you are taking people in off the street at $13.20 per hour, don't the existing employees deserve at least that much?

And therein lies the problem. "Buying" incremental labor is not like buying incremental raw materials. Raw materials don't expect internal equity. In the above case, the incremental hourly cost, idealized to ignore internal eequity, would increase by 16.5%. But if we factor in the need for internal equity, it goes up to 26.5%--making additional employees much more expensive, and exerting far more pressure on profitability.

I'm not a trained economist, but that is my theory. I don't claim that it is a complete theory. For one thing, the same principle would apply over the ages--hardly unique to our time. Still, it seems I am surprised that I never hear this argument explored, in the innumerable news reports I have heard on this topic.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Republican strategist Steve Schmidt renounces the Republic party and calls for the election of Democrats

(Now former) Republican strategist Steve Schmidt renounces the Republic party and calls for the election of Democrats:
this Independent voter will be aligned with the only party left in America that stands for what is right and decent and remains fidelitous to our Republic, objective truth, the rule of law and our Allies. That party is the Democratic Party.
Season of renewal in our land is the absolute and utter repudiation of Trump and his vile enablers in the 2018 election by electing Democratic majorities. I do not say this as an advocate of a progressive agenda [my ital].  I say it as someone who retains belief in DEMOCRACY and decency.
Steve Schmidt has done what so few other traditional conservatives have done. He has publicly articulated a clear line, differentiating between transient matters of policy and mainstream American political philosophy, versus the existential, anti-democratic perils of the Trump Party. Even classical conservatives who I generally appreciate, even when I don't fully agree with them, such as Mona Charen and Jay Nordlinger, have not been able to bring themselves to state this obvious truth: the most important thing the electorate can do, the pre-requisite for moving toward health and sanity of the nation, is to banish Trump, his party, and the 98% of his party who are enablers and worse.

Given our current two-party sclerosis, that means electing Democrats. Period. The next project after that can be starting a third, center-right, party grounded in values of the Enlightenment. But first we have to overthrow the Trumpists.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Tax Simplification Opening for the Democrats

"Tax simplification" is typically a Republican issue. You know--eliminate all those confusing brackets. Or--we will make taxes so simple you can file your return on a postcard.

The Republicans had their go at tax reform, and I'm pretty sure it did not include too much tax simplification.

The thing is, there IS a huge opportunity here. In many countries, for the 80% of people with straightforward tax situations, it is even better than file on a postcard. The government agency sends you a pro-forma tax return. If you think it is correct, you sign and send back. That simple.

This could be done in the USA as well, but the tax-prep lobby stands in the way.

I think this would be a KILLER campaign theme for Democrats.

Jargonwatch: Cover Off, On

In my corporate workplace, I am starting to hear the phrase "cover off on" to mean, well, "cover".  Examples:
  • Can I call you to cover off on a few things?  
  • Do we have anything else to cover off on before we adjourn?
So not one, but two, superfluous prepositions.

I did a quick search, was surprised to find nothing on this usage. What I did find were complaints (1, 2) about "cover off"--which, I agree, is itself objectionable. One of the proposed etymologies was a mental combining of "can we cover this topic" [so] "I can check it off my list". I think that is a stretch.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Home Circuit Breaker Labeling

Just spent 40 minutes updating and correcting the labeling on my home's electrical panel. Vagueness, unclear abbrevs, messy writing, omissions and outright mistakes. Some of that is inevitable human sloppiness, but it occurred to me that a few things could be done to improve it.

Instead of a label stuck to the panel, make it an insert in a sleeve that is stuck to the panel. Advantages:

1. Can remove it, so making it easier to write legibly.
2. Can replace cleanly with an updated copy--no cross-outs.

For bonus points, industry should standardize the template, so it can readily be printed off from the web. Here is a link to the simple template I made.

For super bonus points, include a schematic of the house, with rooms numbered, and cross reference breaker numbers to room numbers.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Amazon Feature Idea: Delayed Review Reminders

Amazon reviews are useful, but the best reviews come from people who have used the product for months. However, it seems like most reviews posted are from people who have used the product for days. I think human nature is either to be excited about a new purchase and review it shortly upon receipt, or never.

So my idea for a minor, optional Amazon feature would be to let buyers opt-in to be gently prompted to review things weeks/months after purchase. The exact duration of the prompt could be algorithmic, taking into account the nature of the product, and any gaps in the existing distribution of reviews.

Monday, December 11, 2017

NPR News Functionality on Mobile Continues to Break My Heart

I am an NPR superfan, a 25-year avid listener (and yes, sustaining member). I do 95% of my listening on my Android phone. Most days, I listen to Morning Edition and All Things Considered. I do skip stories, either the ones I don't care about, or the ones that seem repetitious. Still, I think I am around 98.2 percentile of NPR flagship news programs devotees.

I have long had a love-hate relationship with NPR on mobile, Android in particular. Here is a blog post from 2013 where I critiqued the NPR app. Not much has changed.

What I would really prefer is for NPR to be more podcast-friendly. In general, I don't want to install a separate app for every media brand I consume. I would definitely make an exception for NPR, but only if the app matched podcast app features--which I seriously doubt will ever be the case. Top of list:
  1. Accelerated voice playback, in user-defined increments (I currently prefer 1.4X).
  2. Automatic download and queuing.
So, I would settle for NPR news content being more podcast friendly. First and foremost, that would include a reliable feed. In 5+ years, those have come and gone. They actually seem to have returned, recently, but only a few months ago, in a private email exchange I had with NPR, the organization seemed to COMPLETELY reject the idea that there was mainstream demand to listen to Morning Edition and All Things Considered, via podcast:

So I am happy that the feeds are up again (however long they last). Still, they have a few major problems:

  1. Time delay. They are hours behind the actual newscast, and the NPR app.
  2. They seem to have timestamp problems. When I sort in A-Z date published order, they seem reversed.
  3. Worst--each is a single episode. NPR is totally missing the idea that loyal listeners want the entire show! Ah, but you say maybe they want to skip stories. Yes, definitely--that's what chapters are for!
Then recently I read a Slate article that referred to a redesign initiative at NPR. I did some searching, and was momentarily thrilled to see they have an update to the News App in beta. I was about to apply to be a beta tester then I saw it--iOS only.

NPR, you are breaking my heart.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

My Podcasts List

Podcasts are to audio what Netflix + DVR is to video. Perhaps more so. Most of the time when  I am working out, driving, or doing mindless domestic chores (cooking, dishwashing, laundry, lawn, etc etc),  I consume podcasts. There are so many, there is so much to learn. (Yes, there is a time for quiet, contemplative solitude, sometimes I do that, too.) Here are my current faves.


3-4 colleagues, all academic historians, who provide in-depth discussions of subjects in American History. Great rapport and collegiality, high production values, intellectually worthy.l

Dan Carlin's Hardcore HistoryThis is a "cult" podcast. Episodes only come out every 2-4 months, but they are 4-6 hours long. Dan Carlin is a former media pro and amateur history buff. Awesome storyteller of history, idiosyncratic, consistent style, range of history is incredibly wide, though mostly non-American, lots of it ancient. Always a must-listen.

More Perfect
A spinoff of Radiolab, legal history.

Revisionist History
Malcolm Gladwell, about 10 1-hour episodes per season. Must-listen. (Favorite episode: the one that ties Wilt Chamberlain's ultra-legendary 100-point basketball game, to social behavior.)


Accidental Tech Podcast
In theory this shouldn't interest me, 3 Apple fanboys (in the best sense of the word) spending 60% of their time discussing Apple products (which I never buy), 40% of the time doing very good but arbitrary and idiosyncratic consumer tech analysis. Outstanding chemistry and collegiality, very high production values, even though the most indie of anything on my list.

Infotech business analysis and strategy, must-listen.

General Interest

Death, Sex & Money
Not much sex, just a good documentary podcast. I think the name is meant to suggest it focuses on topics that are of eternal interest..

Podcast that continues the spirit of the book. Applying economic analytical techniques to myriad everyday situations.

Planet Money
I haven't listened a lot, but similar to Freakonomics, but specifically focused on financial topics.

Legendary radio show, podcast form. Great scientific storytelling that results from the intellectual curiosity of 2 media pros.

Science Vs
Like a well-curated, highly entertaining literature survey, on topical issues, such as what remedies work to cure balding, or is the bee-apocalypse real?

The Moth
Unique, always-entertaining live storytelling podcast. Broad appeal across the Myers-Briggs spectrum. The podcast analog to Prairie Home Companion.

This American Life
The amazing Ira Glass, the trailblazing radio show in podcast form.

General News

Documentary-form, where the reporter is "embedded" with the subject. E.g. expose of the satanic for-profit prison industry, by embedding a reporter as a guard for several months.

Classic investigative reporting.

The Documentary (BBC)
Classic BBC, high-end documentaries on various topics.

Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me
News quiz show. Only funny if you are well-informed. Host Peter Sagal is an improv genius. Causes me to laugh out loud, when listening at the gym.


Need To Know
Traditional, Reaganite conservatives Mona Charen and Jay Nordlinger are hosts. Sometimes a guest, sometimes not. Thoughtful political analysis, right-wing, but anti-Trump, traditional, intellectual, not religious (though sympathetic at times), not Alt-Right. Heirs to William F. Buckley. Good for educating millenials on what conservatism used to be like.

Slate's Whistlestop
Political history, quite excellent.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Franken Should Resign

Al Franken should resign over his sexual harassment of Leeann Tweeden. I say this as a center-left person, and Franken supporter/voter/constituent. In other times--given the lower degree of offense on the spectrum, his apparent remorse, and the vicitm's statement that he shouldn't be forced to resign--the answer might be different. But not in these times. The bar needs to be set, the example provided. Franken must fall on his sword, without delay. It is the most morally and politically consequential thing he can do, more so even than continuing to serve out his term as senator.

If he does this, running for the seat when it comes up again is not out of the question--assuming there are not more of these, hiding in the closet. The historical moment will have progressed, hopefully for the better; his offense was relatively lesser; and most important of all, he will have voluntarily performed a meaningful act of ethical atonement.

(Keeping in mind, in reference to other cases, current and future, that grave offenses can never be eligible for political redemption).

Monday, November 06, 2017

Virtual Visits - Finally Dispense with the Minor Waste of Height, Weight, Blood Pressure

Every single time I visit the doctor--for a sinus infection, for a cut that might need a stitch, whatever--we go through the ritual of height, weight, blood pressure. I've always thought it was a minor waste, but nobody seemed interested in eliminating the waste.

Except now, virtual visits to the doctor are rapidly gaining traction. And of necessity, virtual visits must dispense with this mindless record-keeping. Amazing how something that seemed unthinkable is suddenly totally negotiable.

Another example: for years I have been complaining about the convention of "3 incorrect password attempts and your account is locked". Who determined 3 is optimal?! Too easy to combine mis-remembering and a typo or two, and you are done for. I always thought nearly the same level of security could be achieved with a range of 6-8. But 3 seemed nearly universal.

Then mobile came along, and the challenges of a small, virtual keyboard made 3 impossible. So, overnight, the limit was increased to 10!

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Refined Scoring in Scrabble-Like Games

I have many ideas for refining the scoring in Scrabble like games:
  • Cap on points per letter
  • Cap on points per turn
  • Bonuses for playing the Best Word
  • Bonuses for word length
  • Bonuses for infrequently played words

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Visio 2010 Layers - Yech!

I have long known Visio has a Layers feature, but I have never used it, nor seen anyone else use it. I had a little time on my hands, and a use case that could benefit layers, so I decided to invest 40 minutes in trying to master it. Yech--very clunky. (Disclaimer--I'm a salaryman, so at the mercy of the corporate upgrade cycle. This is Visio 2010. For all I know, it is better in a later version.)

Without thinking too long and hard about how it should work, instead of burying the Layers commands in a modal dialog, it would be much better if each Layer were a horizontal tab on your drawing. Standard CTRL-click functionality to display multiple layers at once.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Healthcare Cost Savings Idea: DIY CPAP

Does anyone who ever goes for a sleep study not get a CPAP prescribed?

I had a sleep study. It cost about $1800. Insurance covered it, sort of: with a high-deductible plan, it effectively came out of pocket.

Of course the finding was mild sleep apnea, treatable with CPAP. Insurance covered the CPAP machine, a Respironics Dreamstation. Cost: another $1800. Again, covered, but only after cost-sharing, so effectively not.

Guess what that CPAP machine costs on Amazon? Less than $400! I have no idea why insurance would pay 4.5X as much. Sure, there is a little value-add for the lesson from the respiratory therapist. Being generous, that is worth maybe $100. (For those inclined to self-study, easily replaced by YouTube or a 5-page paper.)

So here is my idea. Primary Care Providers should be able to prescribe CPAP. So long as the patient is healthy, and not complaining of extraordinary symptoms--skip the expensive sleep study. Just prescribe them a CPAP machine, and see if it helps.

Voila, over $1000 cost taken out of the system.

(I wonder how they do it in other countries?)

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Small idea to simplify updating auto insurance card

You know how when you get your replacement credit card, it arrives a month or so before your old one expires, but is effective immediately? That's smart--no need to manage the transition by hanging on to the old one until the last day. You know what's dumb? How auto insurance cab cards work. They, too, arrive a month in advance. But unlike credit cards, the insurance cab card has an effective date. So you can't just immediately replace your current card with the new one.
Instead of trying to manage the transition--remember to put them in the car the very night before they expire--I just put them in immediately, along with the prior one (and I remove the prior prior). But I can foresee, in some moment of panic, one of my family members will pull out the expired card, and think they don't have the current one.
I expect there is a regulatory element to this. Like so many things in life, just a combination of independently reasonable policies and practices that combine to create an annoyingly flawed experience. Obviously, if anyone was paying attention and cared (regulators included, perhaps principally), the 6-month thing could be finessed. 
But in the absence of that, I think a reasonable hack may be available to an insurer, without requiring any regulatory chnages. Provide a copy of the new card, along with a repeat of the old card, with some kind of "EXPIRING SOON" stamp across the old one (or if regulators didn't like that, above the margins of the old card) Then you could just cut out, fold in half and voila.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Dream Hoarders

I've been following Richard Reeves, author of Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do about It lately, as well as some other writers on the same topic.

In this latest newsletter, he highlights pundits who disagree, including Robert J. Samuelson, Samuelson says Reeves has it almost backward, the upper-middle class are setting a good model for society to aspire to:
Reeves has the story almost backward. As a society, we should try not to restrict the upper middle class, but to expand it. In general, it’s doing what we ought to want the rest of society to do. Its marriage rates are higher, its out-of-wedlock births are lower, its education levels are higher. As for parents, why make them feel guilty for wanting to help their children? What are parents for, after all?
I think there is a straightforward reconciliation to their two positions, and it is already embedded, I think, in Reeves model. The problem being that the UMC may disproportionately enjoy these traits in their own orbits, but exclusionary housing policies, and the leveraging of networks, prevent them from migrating to less privileged groups.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Remote Car Hacking

There are a lot of articles about the vulnerability of cars to remote car hacking. I continue to think that it should not be possible to update car control software over a wireless connection. Period. Physical access needed to update.

That's not a panacea, but it seems like it would eliminate a lot of the problem. Also, the article talked about passengers hacking driverless cars via the ODB2 port, and exiting the car. Partial physical solution there is to lock the ODB2 port--maybe under the hood. Of course securing the software is the more complete solution.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Healthcare Not Deserved Case?

Cases like this one are maddening to those of us who do generally believe that healthcare is a right:
"Already being treated for diabetes, but 'I started drinking soda again,” confessed Willie Johnson...'Quite a bit.' Also "stopped taking his cholesterol medicine because it left a bad taste in his mouth. And he was using neither the gym membership that IU Health helps pay for nor his sleep apnea machine. 'I never could get adjusted to it,' he told the docto
This guy is never going to get better. I can maybe feel sorry for him in the cosmic sense that somehow he (presumably) has this terrible disposition toward unhealthy habits and absolutely no motivation to take care of his health. Maybe there is some deeper underlying cause for that (depression, PTSD for example--who knows?). But as a good-government centrist, I really can't feel sorry for his health situation--nor do I feel that he deserves healthcare. It is a waste of resources, he will never get better. He literally can't be bothered to lift a finger on his own behalf. Spend the money on healthcare and education instead.

Don't get me wrong, I know this is anecdotal evidence, and the exception. In no way is it to be construed as a evidence for "see, most of the people getting government-assisted healthcare are this kind of 'undeserving sick' ". That's why I'm blogging about this, rather than Facebooking,

Monday, January 02, 2017

Young Males and Car Preferences

Many things have changed since my youth. Including the general importance of cars (go, millenials!) A couple of things that haven't completely changed:

  1. Young males impractically prefer 2-door cars. 
  2. Young males impractically prefer manual transmissions.
Even in my day, #1 was (in my book) a silly aesthetic preference. The drawbacks of 2-doors are overwhelming. I have only owned one in my life. Not because I wanted 2-doors, but it was a cheapie Tercel, and I think that is all they came in. My son insisted on buying a 2-door Focus a couple of years ago, and every now and then I have cause to drive it, and every time, I hate it. I have never had to sit in the back, thankfully, so that biggest drawback is not even my reason for complaining. But the doors are heavy and cumbersome. And the seatbelt is much harder to reach (I know this because I owned a 4-door Focus, which did not share this problem--not quite sure why).

#2 had some justification in my day. Manual transmission was cheaper (I'm guessing about 7%), and got maybe 10% better mileage. But those advantages have almost disappeared, and the problem is, nobody drives manual. So spouse, friends, may not be able to drive your car in a pinch.


Friday, December 23, 2016

Texting App Feature

Bundle multiple texts, selected in chain, into an email.

Even IF He Were Politically Paltable, Trump Has 2 Fatal Flaws

I think Trump is a monster. There are so many reasons to believe that. But even if his words and beliefs were reasonable, there are 2 things he does that are the hallmark of a severe problem personality, and disqualify a person from any kind of leadership position.

One: the nothing-is-ever-my-fault attitude. Never even the slightest admission of fault, mistake, or weakness. We've all worked with this person. They are all about finger-pointing, whenever anything goes wrong. Utterly poisonous to a workplace.

Two: crossing them in any way is treated as an all-out attack. Trump is utterly transparent in this regard--he doesn't even try to hide it. Any party who is in any way anti-Trump is immediately subject to a no-holds-barred, ad hominem attack. Any party who does Trump a favor, even if only by accident, is praised lavishly.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Easy-Remove Car Batteries, for Cold (Convenience Also)

Growing up, our garage was an unheated peninsula attached to the house. So it would get as cold as the outdoor temperature. During one cold snap, with lows consistently -10F (to the best of my recollection), my Dad would bring the car battery inside every night. Worked great.

With modern auto technology (fuel injection, probably better oil, maybe better batteries), this wouldn't be necessary at -10F. I have consistently been able to start modern cars around -20. But the one time in my 15 years in American Siberia that it got well below -20, I took the opportunity to do an experiment. Sure enough, at -27, vehicle did not start. (Later in the heat of the day, -13, it started fine.)

So anyway, that got me to thinking--I don't think it would be too hard, or expensive, to design car batteries to be "snap-in, snap-out". Use spring-loaded clamps on the terminals, instead of bolted lugs. Extra credit, to make sure they hold (and reduce the required spring strength)--provide an indentation on the terminal (I'm thinking groove around it), and a corresponding protrusion on the clamping contact, to mate into it. Also, a similar grooved, spring loaded clamp to hold the battery in place.

Clearly, this would be useful in the very coldest places (even MSP is only marginal). But I think it wouldn't be that hard, once auto designers put their mind to it (like flip-out windshield wipers). The thing is, besides helping the 1% of the population that wants to bring their battery in the house to keep it warm, it would make changing the battery much easier for 100% of the population.

Snow Tire Benefits

Snow tires are amazing. Yes, in many places, with the advent of front-wheel drive, you can live without them. If you have a heavy vehicle, you can even do pretty well, even in snowy climes. Our Dodge Grand Caravan plowed through snow, and did okay on ice, with all-season tires, here in American Siberia.

But snows help so much. I first re-discovered snows for our small cars: Ford Focus, Honda Civic. Terrible snow/ice performance without snows (especially with OEM low-profile plus-size tires). Add snow tires--they performed better in slick conditions than abovementioned behemoth minivan.

Our kids drive those small cars now, and Beth and I drive a Subara Forester, and Toyota Prius V, respectively. I just got snows for them, and wow, what an improvement. Yeah, the Subaru is AWD, but honestly, for most slick conditions in the flat midwest, snows are more important than AWD. AWD is great for going uphill when slick, but flat & slick is the most common challenge in MSP, and the softer rubber of snow tires is what helps with that.

Snow tires do cost, especially since you need a second set of rims. Here are my tips:

  • The price of steel rims varies widely. For small cars, $50 is fair, for plain-Jane steel rims; for mid-size, maybe $62.
  • Consumer Reports has consistently rated General Arctic Altimax snow tires highly. They are not the very best--usually those are Michelins--but they are close, for 40% less cost. I now have them on all 4 vehicles.
  • I have ordered online, from TireRack. They will ship either directly to you, or to a designated installer. Their prices are great, but the high cost of shipping does tend to eat up much of the savings. Here's the thing--if you are getting rims + tires, they will preinstall them for you, saving the cost of installation. On top of that, if you live in a major metro area, such as MSP, you may be able to pick them up at the TireRack warehouse, for no charge. That's what I did this time.
  • When evaluating the cost, you need to use lifecycle amortization techniques. In the long-term, the substantial cost of the snow tires is partially offset by the fact that you aren't wearing out your summer tires as fast. Granted, snows may cost a bit more (not that much), and wear faster (softer rubber), but that is maybe a 30% premium. I.e., if a snow tire costs $75, the true incremental cost for that tire is probably $25. The second set of rims, on the other hand, the rims, at $50-$65 per, are pure incremental cost (unless you can use them on a future vehicle).
  • A major pro tip is "minus sizing". If you have a mid-size or larger car (>16" rims), both rims and snows become very, very expensive. I was almost going to pass on snows for the Forester, for this reason. The cost was double the Prius, which has 16" rims. Then I read TireRack's recommendation for minus-sizing winter tires. It cut the cost in half.
  • Another bonus to ordering online: you can avoid the cost of TPMS (about $20 per wheel). Many states require installers to add a TPMS sensor, if the car is so equipped. But the mail-order sidesteps this. (Of course you lose the benefit of TPMS. But really, you should not rely on TPMS, you shoudl check your tire pressure at least every 3 weeks,)

A downside, beyond the obvious financial impact--you have to store the tires. We put them under our our deck. For a few years, I tried covering them with a tarp. Results were so-so. Then I thought to search Amazon, and found these--inexpensive covers forr stacks of tires. Highly recommended.

Oh yeah, the other downside is spending an entire Saturday in November, and another in March, swapping tires. You can hire this out, but if you have 4-5 cars, like me, it is easier to just DIY than go back and forth to the shop.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

We Must Establish the Republican Brand

The Republicans and the Right have completely capitulated, and in many cases, cravenly embraced, Trumpism. We patriots, resolutely opposed to the Trump/Republican/right agenda, need to lay the groundwork for the day, hopefully not so far off, that Trump is reviled like Hoover (not necessarily for the same reasons, just the same result).

A tactic I propose is to relentlessly hammer home these facts, at every opportunity:

In the short-term, Repulicans/right are the party that took 10 steps backwards in health insurance, and caused millions to lose their coverage.

In the medium-term, Republicans/right are the party of Donald Trump--inseparable and indistinguishable, and wholly accountable for, any and all Trump policies, random actions, and their results.

In the long-term, Republicans/right are the party that not only ignored, but aggressively denied and dissembled about climate change, long after doing so became anything but an exercise in ideology or wishful thinking.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Why Adults Don't Learn to Like Rap

Not that I have ever tried, but I have developed zero appreciation for rap as a musical genre. Not even the odd song here or there. I have roughly the same appreciation for it that my father, born 1932, had for rock: none whatsoever.

So when I reported back to my kids that I over-the-moon LOVED the Hamilton soundtrack, they were like "Even the rap?" Yes, even the rap. Things is--I wouldn't have recognized it as rap, without prompting. I would have just said it was spoken-word material, seamlessly incorporated into an ultra-sophisticated piece of peerless musical theater. 

I think I know why I choke on any rap I encounter in the wild, while Hamilton went down like a fine aged whiskey. It's not that different than rock. Rock was the soundtrack of my adolescence, so I automatically developed an appreciation for it. But by college, I was getting tired of most rock, with its juvenile, repetitive themes of partying, young love, rebellion and--worst of all--being in a band and "rocking out". I listened to less rock, and didn't discover any new rock, beyond the college years.

So same phenomenon with rap. If not born in the rap generation, the themes and the cultural baggage are likely to prevent an older listener from developing a taste. This review gets at it:
Tesfaye’s relish for playing the bad guy in his musical theater is plumb in line with what rappers have done for decades...But as Tesfaye reaches his late 20s and the dubious ethics combine with lazy repetition and too many plays for sympathy, the immaturity starts to bore.

Saturday, December 03, 2016

The Dirty Truth About Obamacare

Obamacare is so messy and troubled, even President Obama doesn't like Obamacare. He can't admit it publicly, of course, but I'm sure it's the case. And if the man isn't proud of his signature achievement, that pretty much means he must be the worst president ever...right?

Nope. The unpleasant but inescapable fact is, politics is the art of the possible[6]. The Obama administration decided that tinkering around the edges was the most that could be accomplished. No single-payer, certainly no National Health Service[1][2]. Tinkering around the edges inherently involves what we computer nerds might call "a pile of hacks". It's a miracle it works at all, and it's certainly not pretty, and it is very fragile. That's Obamacare.

We can quibble in hindsight. On the left, many wished for something grander. On the right, many wished for nothing--though they won't admit that now. Because here is the real dirty truth. The American healthcare "system" is hardly a system. It is a Frankenstein monster that was started by accident[3], and continued to grow first because nobody recognized the danger, and then because nobody had the courage to do something. You can't find an economist or public health expert, and hardly a hospital administrator or physician, who has much good to say about it. The system is shot through with flaws, perverse incentives, inefficiencies, false premises and conflicts of interest.

It has been this way my entire adult life (I was born in 1965), and then some. And all that time, a succession of administrations, some Democratic and some Republican, came and went without trying too hard to fix it. On the Democratic side, there were sporadic efforts. The shining exception would be Medicare. It has imperfections[4], but all-in-all, it's a pretty coherent, cost-efficient system that provides effective coverage and care. And of course the Clinton administration tried something grander, but we all know how that turned out.

Mostly, the Republicans did nothing[5]. Other than periodically resorting to the empirically false defense of claiming "America has the best healthcare in the world, [thus it must be worth the cost]". So Obamacare is terribly imperfect, but it is a SOMETHING that is better than the longstanding alternative of NOTHING.

Politics is the art of the possible. A pile of hacks. That's all Obamacare is. At least in Round 1. Because here is the other thing. Incrementalism is like compound interest or regular exercise. Its effects are imperceptible from day-to-day, but over time, it can be transformational.

Thus, I also believe that Obama, thoughtful political scientist and patient human that he is, hoped the initial Affordable Care Act was the start of something bigger. A mere opening move, a means to break the logjam of do-nothing inertia. A program that could be iteratively improved, or perhaps even completely replaced with something much more ambitious. Unfortunately, in calculating the worst case, Obama underestimated the intransigence and tribalism of the contemporary Republican Party Party of Donald Trump.

So unimproved Obamacare is all we get. Not so much, but definitely better than nothing. (To those who couldn't afford health insurance but now can, probably much, much better than nothing.)

While Obama undoubtedly recognizes, and surely deplores grieves, the imperfections of Obamacare, he can rightly take pride in it. And much more pride in the political leadership he provided in enacting it. Obama did what he could to push the the nation forward, and his reward was to incur the wrath of the Party of Donald Trump, and bitter disappointment from the left. As a passionate centrist, and an empiricist, I love Barak Obama more than any president or politician I can think of. I will miss him very much.

[1] Single-payer is not synonymous with "socialized medicine". It does not require that the government run the whole system--employer of all healthcare providers and provider of all hospitals and other facilities.

[2] Also, contrary to popular hearsay belief in the U.S., the NHS doesn't actually suck, at all.

[3] Ironically, the seeds were sown largely by misguided government tinkering (WWII wage and price controls) and tax policy (exempting employer-paid premiums from income tax).

[4] Those imperfections are mostly related to under-"reimbursement"--not paying enough for procedures. That is an effect of the coherent sub-system of Medicare trying to exist within the larger Frankenstein system. 

[5] The odd exception of George W. Bush passing Medicare Part D--prescription drug coverage. Making the most functional part of the monster much better, but doing nothing to improve the rest of the system. The political calculus probably being that this would be a very good way to court elderly votes, and since it didn't mess with the overall system, it wouldn't inflame entrenched ideologies and interests.

[6] Clear corollary: any politician who promises "no compromise" should immediately be rejected as a cynical liar, or hopelessly naive.

Emal Client Feature Idea: Address Substitution

Since the advent of Gmail, email addresses have become much more stable. For most of us, gone are the days when we switch from cable to DSL, and in doing so, have to change our email address.

Still, from time to time, acquaintances to change their email address. This is where Gmail giveth, and taketh away. The auto-complete keeps remembering the old email address. Even if you personally fix this in your Contacts, other friends in your circle (assuming you have a circle of friends) will send emails with the old address in the distribution. So when you do a Reply All, the old address is propagated.

I envision an email client feature which would fix this. I would like to be able to specify address substitution. So when I do Reply All to, my email client will replace with

The minor details--confirmation dialog, for example--are left as an exercise for the reader. :)

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Love to read that "Minneapolis math teachers trade calculators for smartphone app". I've been appalled and disgusted[1] at the ability of Texas Instruments to leverage switching costs and the fact that decision makers don't bear the costs, in order to keep selling a fabulously overpriced $100+ graphing calculator, that is all-but-mandatory for the last couple of years of high school math classes. I believe it is a moral imperative for educators and educational institutions to do everything possible to hold down costs.[2] This is a very easy target, delighted to see it happening.

[1] Just to be clear, I wouldn't call for this practice to be regulated out of existence. I don't really blame TI for their "rent-seeking" behavior--corporations are amoral. But that doesn't change the fact that I deplore the practice, and I expect and hope to see educators, institutions, and parents to rise up and overthrow an economically wasteful situation. And, ideally, for this kind of rent-seeking behavior to be recognized and called-out, so that in the future, it has a high enough reputation cost that companies shy away from it. I know, that's dreaming. :(

[2] College textbooks are another appalling example. Shout-out to UWRF for renting textbooks to students, for a reasonable cost.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Trump's Lieutenants

Trump is bad enough the worst, but one small mitigating factor is that he has no ideology or fixed beliefs. He is quite willing to completely reverse prior positions if it suits him. That works well enough for him when all that is at stake is words. 

But he despises backing down in a fight. However ill-considered the fight may be. So here is the problem. If his various lieutenants, perhaps pursuing their own agendas--I'm looking at you, Jeff Sessions--get out in front of Trump, and commit the Trump administration to a given course of action, that will take Trump past the point of no return. It won't be a matter of backing down from words, it would be reversing policies and facts on the ground. He hates that.

So my point is, to the extent that Trump has been not quite worst-case since the election--not prosecuting Hillary, for example--that willingness to back away from the brink of madness may disappear, once the administration is actually in power and doing things.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Hedge Fund Skepticism

I'm a major skeptic of hedge funds. Actually that is an understatement. I'm highly skeptical they could beat the market before fees. Taking their outsize fees into account, I'm certain they are a losing proposition. Glad Calpers is waking up to this.

Standardized XML Recipe Format

I think it is pretty much time to give up on XML formats or microformats taking hold, for anything like standard consumer use. If we can't get our act together for resumes, we'll never apply it to recipes.

Too bad, though, I think it would be nice to have recipes more standardized. There could be various optional sections, such as Prep in Advance. I would like to be able to search by that--when I'm in a hurry, I don't want recipes that require marinading for 4 hours.

Millenials Who Stay on Their Parents' Cell Phone Plans

It's a kind of meme to criticize millenials' lack of independence, by citing as an example that they stay on their parents' cell phone plan years after entering the workforce. For the most part, the analysis behind this is wanting. There are 3 basic scenarios to consider, and the slacker label only applies to one of them.

First, if the adult child is paying nothing, then yes, that may be slacking. But the fact is, a family plan is a much better deal, on a per-person basis, than a single-subscriber plan. T-Mobile, for instance, has plans that give you decent data, unlimited minutes and text for $10 per additional line beyond 2. Imagine that a family of 4 has a $100 bill, where the first 2 lines cost $80, and the next 2 cost $10 each. If the child pays $10, then they aren't really free-riding. Their folks are break-even, and the child is getting a good discount--because a stand-alone plan would cost at least $30 for a single subscriber.

The third approach is where the child pays more than their incremental cost--they pay their apportioned cost. In the above example, that would be one-fourth of $100, or $25. Not as good a deal as $10, but still a savings. Of course there are shades of gray, where the child pays more than their incremental cost, but less than their apportioned cost--e.g., $20/month.

Sunday, November 06, 2016


Decades ago, I remember some commentator, pretty far to the left, decrying use of the term "tribal" to refer to politics in some less developed countries. They noted that it carried an implicitly pejorative connotation of primitivism, and was never used for the developed west, where we used terms like "partisanship" or "factionalism". At the time it felt like political correctness in search of a target. I am happy to report that feeling has been validated. It is now entirely appropriate to refer to politics in many western countries as often having "tribal" characteristics. (the U.S. where I live, but I listen to enough NPR to know it is prevalent in many other places, too--note Brexit).

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Jargonwatch: Net New

Not sure if this one will blossom into full-blown office jargon, but I am occasionally hearing the term "net new". As in "we brought 3 net new sources into the data warehouse this quarter".

What I am unclear about is what "net" adds to the meaning of new. Urban Dictionary has a couple of  definitions:

1. What is new if you don't count what was already there or done before.
2. Very new, as if it just appeared on the Internet.

I think #1 points to the original usage. I believe it likely has its roots in sales commission accounting as these articles suggest. In that sense, it is probably a legitimate, domain-specialized usage. It seems to mean “after running the nominally new business through the rules that define new business for purposes of commission, what remains" (i.e., the "net"). In other words, “truly” new business, net of incremental extensions to existing business.

#2 explains how I am hearing it used. As is often the case with specialized qualifiers that roll off the tongue nicely (like "net new"--short, punchy, alliterative), all-too-quickly the specialized use morphs into a unthinking, generalized intensifier (see "literally" for the canonical example).

Monday, August 08, 2016

Democratic and Republican Parties Have Inverted

Much of my life, I considered myself a Republican and moderate conservative. There were various reasons, but 3 important ones for leaning right were:
  1. Anti-Communist, anti-totalitarian stance.
  2. Valuing facts over feelings.
  3. Not resorting to gloom-and-doom, America-is-a-disaster politics.
  4. Stupid, self-indulgent threats and hyperbole.
25 years later, the parties have flipped. There is no global Communism, thankfully. But the American right is more authoritarian in sentiment than the left. And that was before Trump's love affair with Putin.

Facts over feelings? Watch this John Oliver clip. (Also, climate change, anyone?)

Glood-and-doom? Just contrast the two conventions. David Brooks (moderate conservative) goes into detail.

Threats and hyperbole? I used to choke when lefties would threaten to move to Canada if Reagan/Bush I/ Bush II were elected. Now the dishonorable right, the likes of Paul Ryan, defends blank-checkbook support of Drumpf with the justification that anything is better than Hillary. That's just a crock, whether you agree with her politics, or find her personally likeable, Hillary is centrist, safe hands. She may not inspire, but she won't crash the car.

Truth is, I felt this way before the Trump nomination. Just listening to Lindsey Graham or Mitch McConnell speak used to be enough to make me gag. And I thought putting Palin a heartbeat away from the Presidency was unforgivable for a generation. How ironic that they are the relative voice of reason in the party now, and a heartbeat away looks like a comfortable distance.

The Presidency is not a sporting event. Winning today, at all costs, is not worth any price. 

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Jargonwatch: Resonate

Usage: That example didn't resonate with me.

Translation: I hated it.

Assessment: I first remember hearing this usage about 20 years ago (c.1996). I kind of liked it, since it seemed to be based on the scientific principle of constructive interference. But it is way over-used, mostly euphemistically, in the same way we say "issues" rather than "problems". So it should be avoided.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Probably Best to Pass on the Lump Sum Pension Offer

I served spent the first 12 years of my career at Otis Elevator, back in the waning days of when defined benefit pensions where still "a thing". So happily I crossed the magic 10-year-mark and am vested, though between the short time of service and low early-career salary basis, it is really a pretty small amount. Material to one's retirement calcs, but only just.

Anyway, I just received advance notice of a forthcoming optional pension lump sum distribution offer from UTC/Otis.  I.e., rather than receive a small monthly payment for the rest of my life starting age 65, I could receive a chunk of cash now, to invest as I see fit (taxable if not rolled into an IRA of course). Without even researching it, my immediate assumption was--almost certainly disadvantageous. It's a classic information asymmetry problem. Other than the minor effect of transaction costs, it is a zero-sum game, so if it were a good deal for me, why would they be making the offer? (One article even likens it to the famous "marshmallow test" of willpower in children.)

I did a little generic research, and it supported my bias and explained the timing:  First, the Internal Revenue Code allows plans to use a higher interest rate in calculating the lump sum than is used by insurance companies in pricing annuities. Second, the Code allows companies to use less conservative mortality tables than those used by insurers.

So I'll probably go to the effort to run a fuller quantiative analysis, but I'm pretty sure I know that the resulting decision will be to pass on the lump sum.

(I realize there are special cases, such as you are age 45 and diagnosed with a terminal illness. Please let's not get into those, they are important for the small number of people to whom they apply, but they utterly distract from the general discussion. :) )

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

A shark can smell blood from a mile away....Just how does that work??

We've all heard that a shark's sense of smell is so acute that it can smell a drop of blood from a mile away in the ocean (or a quarter-mile, or whatever--some vast distance, the specific number hardly matters). But how does that work? How can a drop of blood, physically present at point X[1] be detected by a shark nostril at point Y, one mile away?

The answer is--it can't.

It's not like smell is transmitted as a fast-moving wave. It is based on parts per million. The key bit--parts. Molecules have to make their way to the shark nostrils. A molecule a mile away is, by definition, not being detected by a shark's nostrils.

So where does this myth come from? And is it a myth, or just a crude misconstruing of the actual facts?

I strongly suspect it's the latter (with the "a mile" part being a convenient exaggeration...I get the say "a kilometer" in the rest of the world). I think a correct illustration of the sensitivity of shark-smell would to say that a drop of blood, as it diffuses through the ocean, generates enough ppm that a shark can detect blood, at a much later time, after diffusion has spread it out a quarter-mile[2] distant from its origin.

That's not the same thing as saying that when you cut your foot on a rock, you risk summoning all the sharks within a quarter-mile radius.

[1] More technically, diffusing slowly out from point X.
[2] Without researching it too heavily, it sounds like 1/4 mile, not a full mile, is the correct distance.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Peter Thiel Tactic for Gun Control

While I deplore Peter Thiel's billionaire bullying of Gawker into near-bankruptcy, I do think his tactic is worth emulating for better causes. Namely, I think the gun-control movement should be aggressively, relentlessly funding lawsuits against gunmakers. Maybe it is just starting to happen organically, but I think this would be a great tactic for well-known anti-gun billionaire Michael Bloomberg to fund.

How Long Till Driverless Cars?

The barrier to the promised land of total, hands-off driverless cars is high, but progress has been rapid--without all that much research effort being focused on it. A couple of considerations make me even more bullish on the realization of the driverless dream.

Driverless cars are making great leaps on existing roads. Imagine if roads started to be modified to help driverless cars. Sensors in the roadway might be expensive and take a long time, but I have to think there are much simpler things that could be done, optically, without digging, to make driverless cars better.

The other consideration is cars themselves. If cars were built to inter-communicate, that would also go a long way to making driverless work better. I am thinking even before 100% of cars are driverless, existing cars could be retrofitted with some sensors and communications devices, to help them interact with driverless cars. I do think this would have to become a regulatory mandate. One hopes that the decrease in insurance costs could self-fund it.

Gerrymandering Must End

Gerrymandering to create safe seats and pack minorities into a minority-majority district is an abomination. It may be the one thing I consistently agree with the WSJ editorial page on. For a long time, I thought maybe the answer would be to create districts algorithmically. But 15 years ago, that seemed to abstract to have any mass appeal. Now that even liberal arts majors have a solid grasp of what an algorithm is and does, though, maybe it is time?

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Diamonds Vastly Overrated

I've never been a big fan of diamonds. I resent the whole industry, starting with the DeBeers cartel, and continuing through to the wretched social expectations, and the utter BS sales line about setting aside 4-6 months' salary for your engagement ring. All for a pretty, shiny, perhaps scintillating--when recently cleaned--but ultimately not all that interesting chunk of carbon.

So for decades I have cherished this thought experiment. Knowing that there are industrial processes to produce gem-grade diamonds, but that they have not been cost-effective, I liked to think--what if someday a top, gem-grade 1-carat diamond could be produced for $100? It would still be as beautiful. Would it still be cherished? Obviously I doubt it would be. It's all scarcity thinking--something else I generally dislike.

Well, it sounds like that day is getting closer. Not $100/carat, but 40% cheaper. Just give it time. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Idiosyncratic Prius V Review

We bought a 2104 Prius V (the wagon-ish large version) 16 months ago. There are plenty of comprehensive review elsewhere, this is my idiosyncratic review.

First thing to understand--this is a "V", the BIG Prius. It is every bit a mid-size car. 6" longer, 3" taller, 1" wider than the standard, compact Prius. I am 6-1, and very comfortable in the rear seats.


Prius V is a great value. No hybrid premium at all--if anything, maybe a bit cheaper than much of the competition. A little fun-challenged, though.

The Good

  • Price & trimlines. There are only 3 trimlines. We bought the base, which had almost everything we wanted. No heated seats, but those are easily available aftermarket. Sunroof might have been nice. Otherwise, not regrets.
  • Huge shout-out for all 4 windows both having auto-down AND auto-up. This on the base trimeline!
  • The proximity key is very convenient. Walk up to the car, it unlocks itself.
  • Click once on the fob unlocks all doors--not just driver . I've always thought it was a dumb "because we can" feature that you have to double-click to unlock all doors. (I wish proximity did the same)
  • Locking the car with the gob elicits a mild chirp, doesn't beep the dang horn.
  • Acceleration is fine. Nothing to write home about. It is tuned to be mild. But if you need acceleration, stomp on the pedal, you will be fine.
  • Both driver and passenger makeup mirrors have sensors--turn light on and off automatically.
  • Rear-seat space is excellent. What takes it to the next level is fold-back rear seats. Very nice that this is in the base model--the Subaru Forester we recently purchased only includes this simple, but invaluable feature in the +1 trimline.
  • Storage is excellent--2 glove boxes, plus a capacious center console that can accommodate a "boutique" size box of tissue.
  • Low-maintenance. Especially the brakes.
  • The confirmation that doors are locked is a mild beep--not an obnoxious honk.
  • Can fold the passenger seat flat--infrequently needed, but very nice when you do need it.

The Bad

  • Display is U-G-L-Y
  • Pushbutton start is convenient, but the flip side is it messes with longstanding habits. E.g., if you are driving with someone else, it is quite possible to exit the car, key in your pocket, and not realize it.
  • More complicated to jump-start.
  • Copying the proximity key is horrdily expensive.
  • Cup holders are inconvenient--the passenger cup-holder is way over on the right, and doesn't accommodate large sizes.
  • USB port is only for data, does not charge.
  • Center display is kind of goofy.


Republican Leaders Are This Generation's Confederates

It is hard for a modern American to grasp the devotion to one's state that many of the founders held (the glorious Hamilton musical provides good reminders of this). This attitude persisted through the Civil War: Robert Lee famously was offered, and turned down, command of the Union Army, and although perhaps not eagerly, served in the same capacity in the Confederate Army.

Without indulging too much in 20/20 hindsight, I think it is fair to say that contemporary Americans are largely dumbfounded by this "my state over my country" attitude. It was the wrong side of history.

I think Republicans leaders who support Trump are a contemporary equivalent of the state-loving Virginians*, except with much less in the way of principles to mitigate their historically abhorrent position. Supporting Trump has been indefensible at least from the date of his outrageous defamation of Mexican illegal immigrants. But after nonstop Trump outrages since, numerous Republican leaders have baldly exposed their morally doomed position: "I wouldn't trust him with the nuclear codes...but I support my party"; "that is the textbook definition of racism...[but I have to support my party]".

*(Sorry, the "my state over my country" attitude wasn't exclusive to Virginians, but that is the most prominent example.)

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Good Regulation (Standards) vs Bad (Dictates)

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer wants to require the Federal Aviation Administration to establish seat-size standards for commercial airlines, which he says now force passengers to sit on planes "like sardines."
As a tall male, I am definitely sympathetic to the motivation behind Schumer's comments. But it isn't the government's place to mandate seat size/spacing--unless there is a compelling safety concern. That level of descriptiveness is excessive (bad) regulation.
Where I am more sympathetic is standards that compensate for information asymmetry. Companies will generally exploit their superior command of details, versus their customers, to hide, mis-direct and deceive. For instance, banks will vigorously trumpet their interest rate, but will never compete on overdraft charges.
In airlines, the accepted wisdom is that price is the only thing that matters. There is a lot of truth in that, but even if a consumer wanted to evaluate an airline on seat spacing, they lack an easy way to do it.
This is where good regulation can potentially come into play. If some regulatory body--could be the government, but doesn't have to be--establishes standards for seat sizes, then companies will feel pressure to meet those standards. They may even decide to compete on that basis, and advertise "exceeds federal seat-spacing standards by 20%". And just to be clear--they will be free to space their seats below standard--but they have to clearly identify that they are providing "sub-standard" services.

Monday, April 25, 2016


Startrib: From eyelash extensions to breastfeeding consultants, Minnesota looks at new licenses.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Bought a Desktop Computer

I just bought a desktop computer, for the first time in over a decade. When I left desktops, my rationale for going laptop-only was that you pay a relatively small price premium for the great virtue of mobility. The thing that has changed since then, of course, is that phones and tablets generally scratch the mobility itch. For casual email, web surfing or social medial phone is fine--I have a 7" tablet, but I hardly even use it. Anything serious enough to send me to a full PC will also benefit from a good keyboard and, most of all, a nice, big, high-res monitor.

So far, it's really nice. Blazingly fast, almost perfectly silent--it takes a lot to get the fan to come on.

My one complaint--and it is not trivial--NO BUILT-IN WIRELESS!! I couldn't believe it. Did not even occur to me to check if this was an included feature. I happened to have an Edimax multi-use router/range-extender/access point lying around, so the problem was easily overcome, but this was a major disappointment.

I will be interested to see how this machine ages. I future-proofed it as much as possible by insisting on 16 Gb of RAM, and an SSD (the latter is a no-brainer, I even required that for the most recent family laptops). I am hoping to get at least 4 good years out of it. By that I mean 4 years where I never think "I wish my computer were faster"--not just 4 years of "works ok".

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Sharing photos by link

Sharing Photos by link, a la Google Photos, is so the way to go. Emailing is the worst. But having to create an album just to share a photo or two is way too cumbersome. Much better to be able to share an arbitrary selection of photos by link.

Friday, February 26, 2016

I don't get why Obama would nominate a Republican to SCOTUS

This NPR story suggests Obama is thinking of testing/tweaking the Republicans regarding their determination not to consider anyone who would nominate as a Scalia successor. By appointing a Republican to the vacancy. I am totally sympathetic to the motivation, but I just don't get the politics of it.

It would give the Republicans the opportunity to demonstrate equal-opportunity refusal to consider, and point to that consistency as evidence they are acting out of principle, not for political advantage.

The political gift wouldn't have to end there, either. If the Democrats do win the election, when President Clinton II then nominates a more liberal candidate, the Republicans can attack that person as an extreme choice, and point to the sweet moderation exhibited by her predecessor.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

UI Paradigms: Basic/Advanced, Toggle Defaults/Retain Settings


Advanced features create a User Interface challenge. Some great, feature-rich programs (looking at you, Sparx EA) are really hard to learn in part because the common UI commands are totally interspersed with advanced, obscure ones.

I like a UI approach that tries to work the 80/20 rule. The 20% main, common features are super-discoverable, front-and-center. The 80% complex, advanced, and obscure features are segregated in a pen labeled "Advanced". Of course this is an ideal, sometimes the problem is that while most users only require 20% of the feature set, everybody has a different 20%.

Toggle Defaults

Often in troubleshooting software, the surest, simplest thing is to return to a known state. Often, this means something along the lines of "reset to factory default". Much software, though far from all, incorporates this feature. The feature I would like to see coupled to factory reset is "store all current settings". Effectively, allow the user to toggle between factory-fresh, and their current, sometimes painstakingly configured state.