Sunday, October 26, 2014

Practical Center-Right Social Policy?

Some excellent suggestions from David Brooks:

Relocation subsidies

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

Bus subsidies

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

Human Capital Investments

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

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Cruz Staffer Tweet Linking Obamacare and Ebola

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

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

Saturday, October 04, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Unforgiveable Sins, Part I: Corporate Transgressions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Feature: Google Calendar Agenda View with Categories/Labels

I live by the Google electronic calendar and advance email reminders. Of course I rely on it for the standard use cases of putting in appointments in the coming weeks of course. But I also use it for far-advance reminders. Like "plan for Spring break next year" or "set weekend to clean out garage next summer".

What I would like to be able to easily access is a filtered, list view of these kinds of things. The list view part is reasonably well-handled--the Google Calendar Agenda view. And there is a very obvious feature for handling the filter part--Labels[1]. You know, like Gmail has had for ages? Sadly, Calendar has no labels[2] .

I am afraid to say it, but I see Google going the way of Micro$oft...once they have captured a category and killed off all competition, they neglect it [3].

[1] This is a ironic, because I although I am a heavy user of Gmail, I almost never use labels. The one time I want them--they aren't there for me.

[2] Yes, I know there are hacks, like using a separate calendar for each label type. For certain situations those may be okay, but for what I want they are definitely hacks, I already a have a few different calendar types, so I would really rather not solve the problem this way.

 [3] Probably more accurately--if continuous improvements do not have any clear, immediate connection to furthering the advertising business model, they don't happen.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Nice When UI Designers Sweat the Details

I am constantly frustrated by the lack of thought and crafstmanship in web UIs. For decades now, many Microsoft products have put intelligence into text boxes, to allow them to do text validation. So, for instance, I can specify my line-spacing as "2 li" or "4 pt" or ".4 in". They all work. Same with Outlook reminders: "60 m", "0.5 d" and "12 h" are all valid entries in the combo box.

But web UI is usually the polar opposite.  Even really basic, obvious text-input flexibility is lacking. For instance, if you paste your phone number and it includes hyphens, that may be rejected. Conversely, other times it may be rejected without hyphens. Then there are all the helpful inputbox labels that tell you exactly the format required: "mm/dd/yyyy", for example.

So I was happy today when I noticed Gmail was smart enough  to fix a mistake I made. I had right-click copied an email address, and pasted it into the TO field in Gmail. Just as I pressed the SEND button, I noticed that the copied text string included the "mailto" tag. I expected some kind of error message to appear within the next 2 seconds, and was astounded when it didn't. I had to check the SENT folder to convince myself--sure enough, Gmail had parsed and stripped the mailto tag. Seamlessly--not only an error, not even a warning or dialog asking "Remove apparent 'mailto; tag?"


Saturday, August 30, 2014

What Causes Friction?

As an engineering undergrad, I've always wondered, in the back of my mind--what actually causes friction? Curiously, unless my memory is utterly failing me, this topic was not covered, even cursorily, in any of my classes. Friction is introduced as a given, like gravity. Anyway, for some reason--which may have to do with greater free time, as my brood enters Young Adulthood--I finally bothered to research the topic.

It is surprisingly esoteric and unsettled.

What seems like the most obvious idea--microscopic surface irregularities--seems to have been largely discarded (except that surface irregularities seem to be cited as contributing to the adhesion theory). Some of the different theories I came across:

Someday, maybe in the long winter of American Siberia, I will muster the energy and ambition for a Part 2 on this.

On Narrow Networks in Healthcare

Interesting article on Narrow Networks, I agree with the reasoning. My theory of narrow networks is, for the most part, restricting people’s choice of physicians does not hurt, and can help, their health, at the same time taking cost out of the system. Consumers are notoriously poorly equipped to assess the quality of their physician.

If you told me tomorrow I had to switch PCPs and it would cut my premium share 10%, and I wouldn't have to travel any farther for my new PCP, I’d say “bring it on”. I know there are exceptions, people with complex conditions, or seeing a physician who has a rare specialization—those people are poor candidates for narrow networks. I’m talking the 90% mainstream.

The one big gotcha to find a way to avoid, with Narrow Networks—or at least make sure the buyer is aware of what they are getting--is geographic inconvenience. So while I would switch PCPs In a heartbeat, I would be more unhappy if I had to drive 5-10 miles out of the way to see the nearest provider. 

There is a movement in healthcare to create tools to compare and estimate consumer medical expenses. My personal experience with these is that they aren't that useful, for various reasons, notably statistically insufficient input data. But I do think these tools could be very useful for informing a consumer before they commit to a Narrow Network. 

It would be awesome if a tool could mine my family’s last 3 years’ worth of medical visits, and calculate the impact on distance to narrow network providers. E.g., “we estimate that if you had been in the narrow network, you would have had to travel the following distances to find the nearest network provider”…then list them out and total them up.

Location sharing

Almost as soon as I got a smartphone, equipped with Google Latitude opt-in location-sharing (long-since subsumed into Google+), I have believed that smartphone-based location-sharing will eventually have some significant effect on relationships. How could a person conduct an illicit affair, if their partner can track their location? Conversely, how could one explain refusing one's partner's location request?

In the ensuing 4 years, I have been surprised how slow adoption has been. As far as I can tell from my very young adult children, there is little to no location-sharing practiced. Not even that ad-hoc kind, enabled by Glympse. So maybe I am wrong, but I still believe this will slowly but surely come to pass.

There may be an intervening period of location-cheating apps, but then the discovery of one of those by your partner would be highly incriminating.

Candid Camera Scenario: Pressing the Button Repeatedly Actually Works!

You know how people press the elevator button repeatedly, as if they believe that will summon the machine faster? It would make a great Candid Camera scenario to rig an elevator actually respond. Of course, in classic Candid Camera fashion, there would have to be variations and wrinkles, to flesh out a full segment.

First, cue the frustrated would-be passenger (Passenger A)--the elevator never seems to arrive. New passenger walks up, presses button 5 times in succession. Elevator arrives in seconds--going in the opposite direction. So Passenger A tries the same thing--no results. Maybe tries again after 30 second pass. Meanwhile, another passenger (C) walks up as A is hammering the button. C wryly comments that "you know it doesn't make it work, to press the button more times". C presses button in opposite direction of A, elevator arrives in average time.

Rinse, repeat with small variations.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

What Is the Contribution of Gun Ownership to Police Shooting Unarmed Incidents?

I write this as the protests in Ferguson, MO continue. The proximate cause of the upheaval in Ferguson is that an unarmed, black teen was fatally shot (many times) by white police officers.

This is a huge story, with many layers and facets. This blog post is addressing only the phenomenon of unarmed civilian suspects being fatally--in hindsight, entirely unnecessarily--shot by police officers. My intent is not to excuse or even comment highly specifically on Ferguson, or any one incident. But there is a more general issue, well worth considering.

As much as anybody else, I deplore an unnecessary death. I also believe that being young, male and black unfairly raises one's chances of being the victim by an order of magnitude.

But other countries have racial prejudice within their police forces. There is something different in the U.S. That something is the significant possibility that the suspect may have a gun. It seems very obvious that this fact is going to push police to err on the side of shooting. In fact, police in the U.K. do not routinely carry firearms!!! And yes, it is true: In 2013, U.K. police in total fired fewer shots then one officer fired into Michael Brown.

Trigger-happy, indeed.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Removable Batteries Are A Must

I've said it before--removable batteries in mobile devices are a must. The very slight thinness and sleekness benefit provided by a sealed device is so not worth it.

The latest evidence in my personal life--Beth's Galaxy S3 has a bad port (not sure why). No problem, we have a couple of options. One is wireless charging. Just add a $15 Qi adapter--which I actually already did, just for convenience. It fits snugly with the existing, backplate.

Option 2--buy some extra batteries. Dirt cheap--OEM-quality batteries are $10 on Amazon. I got an external charger for all of $3--shipping included (it also has a USB port, nice bonus). So convenient.

If I were a handset manufacturer (are you listening, HTC?), I would suck up the extra $5 bill-of-material cost and bundle the battery charger and a spare battery with every phone, Then I would advertise "double the battery life".


One of the subtle reasons spare batteries are so useful is the safety blanket factor. They are so small, you don't even notice them in a purse, pocket, backpack or even bike saddlebag. So instead of lugging a heavy external charger, whenever you are concerned about running out of juice, you slip a spare battery in your pocket. 4 times out of 5, you may not even use it, but it is there that one time you need it.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Re: - The Confounding, Enigmatic 'Ode To Billie Joe'

Love this song. It fits in my favorite genre--non-love-song ballads (depending on your definition of ballad). American Pie, Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald are two classics. Downeaster Alexa, while nowhere close to that league, is a somewhat more recent example. Fancy by the same singer is also a good example.

Bobbie Gentry rarely gave interviews and disappeared from public life in the mid-1970s.

(why on earth do they have her posed next to a Victrola, or whatever you call that ancient record player?)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Goldfinch vs Downton Abbey

I really enjoy the great BBC miniseries, such as Downton Abbey and Selfridge. I know many people accept that fact that they are really just extremely high-class soap operas, but I don't. I think they could do better.

A characteristic of the soap opera genre is a huge number of plot twists. That is a big part, I guess, of what keeps people hooked on daily dramas, for months and years on end. And while sprawling, multi-character stories such as Downton Abbey will always have lots of plotlines and subplots to work with, I think fewer would be better..The surprises cease to be surprising--while the audience may not be able to guess exactly what direction the twist takes, they can usually predict the twist well before it arrives.

Closely related to the high number of plot twists is the implausibility. There are so many, and they come so fast, that most of the time, there is not enough set-up done. "Hand of God"appears with annoying frequency, to sweep the story in the necessary direction. Very unfulfilling, to me.

I recently read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. In the exposition of the book, she spends more than 20 pages, painstakingly fleshing out the improbable, so that is it no longer implausible. She spends many more pages setting up that incident, and then connecting it seamlessly with the rest of the plot.

Now I'll agree that the genre of a traditional novel is much different than a multi-year miniseries. The former will be much more linear. My only point is that if the miniseries cut the plot twists by half, and spent more time refining those that remain, the result would be much more satisfying, in the long-term.

Internet of Things: Security for Cars (and other critical stuff)

Security is a major concern regarding the internet of things. If your car's software can be updated remotely, what kind of risks does that create for malicious tampering? Or to take a less dire example, if your thermostat can be set remotely, what if a hacker tries to alter your setting? I have a couple of thoughts on safeguards. 

For less acute risks, such as the thermostat, every device should have a physical disconnect switch. So the person with physical control of the device, can instantly, indefinitely disconnect it from the internet. For more serious risks, such as autos, the ability to perform a remote update needs to be controlled. No wireless--software updates should only be installable via a physical port.

Inherited income regression to the mean?

NYT: "According to a recent study, if your income is at the 98th percentile of the income distribution — that is, you earn more than 98 percent of the population — the best guess is that your children, when they are adults, will be in the 65th percentile."

Seems much more of a regression than I would have thought.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Feature Idea: Turbo-Warm-Up Mode for Stovetop Burners

Is there any point to the top 40% of the range on an oven burner, if you aren't trying to boil water? For a burner that has positions 1-10, rarely so I cook above 5, maybe 6 if I have peanut oil. The only reason I turn it higher is if I am heating a pot of water, or to rapidly bring the burner up to speed. The latter occasionally causes problems, such as when I get distracted and don't turn it down soon enough to the desired, steady-state cooking temp.

So the feature I want is for the stovetop to automatically reduce the burner temp. This could be done one of two ways. Super-ideal, the burner would sense the temperature, or some proxy for it, such as electricity flow, and turn itself down when the desired setting was reached. Really, same as an oven works, when you think about it. Challenges to that are, first, the sensing technology, integrated into the burner/stove-top, probably involves additional cost. Second, the mechanical burner position will no longer correspond to reality. Not sure how to get around that, other than electronic controls--which are not necessarily a plus.

The variant would be timer-based. When you turn the burner to the very highest setting, only, that is turbo-heat-up mode, and only stays on a preset time, maybe 2 minutes, after which time it assumes you want an "average" medium-high temp. This avoids the need for the burner-integrated sensor, and it kind of solves the dial-setting issue, too.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Alarm Calendar; Best Android Alarm Clock App

In my seemingly endless quest to find the perfect Android Alarm app, I have a new champion: Alarm Clock Calendar. I won't provide a full review, that ground is pretty well-plowed. It has almost all the expected features that make smartphone alarm so superior to dedicated alarm clocks[1]. In addition, it has one vital missing feature: the ability to set an alarm, well in advance, for one specific, arbitrary calendar date. This is what I have been looking for.

NOTE: I am a feature maximalist when it comes to alarm clocks. Not everybody will want the complexity. If you don't find yourself wishing for missing features, stick with whatever alarm clock you have--perhaps the one pre-installed on the phone.

It has a couple of other notable features. One is really more than a mere feature, it is a new category of functionality: it shows you a calendar view, that highlights all your upcoming alarms. This strikes me as a thoughtful innovation. For me it is a nice-to-have, but I can see it being even more useful to some people.

The other nice feature is not only can you set an alarm for an arbitrary date, you can also create exceptions to repeating alarms. Again, can be very useful--for instance, to not sound on the Monday holiday. Then the integration between this feature and the calendar view provides some further value-add: instead of not showing alarms for the skipped repeating dates, it shows them highlighted in red, to call your attention to the fact that the alarm will be skipped.

The free version works fine, has minimally intrusive ads. But if you try this and like it, you should definitely support the developer by purchasing the $1.99 paid version

UPDATE 07/25/14: I still like it a a lot, but I have discovered two super-nice features from Alarm Clock Plus that I really miss. One is the ability to change the length of snooze, on-the-fly. I don't use this so much for morning wake-ups--too much effort, too dangerous--but more for reminder alarms. The other is to set "skip next occurrence". While Alarm Clock Calendar has a fine-grained way to set an arbitrarily complicated schedule of skips, it lacks this quick, super-simple way to set a one-off skip, for the very common use case of "tomorrow is an exception".

[1] One notable missing feature--no "math to snooze/dismiss" option. For some people this will be a deal-breaker, but I never use it. It also doesn't have a quick nap mode, and the UI isn't quite as nice as Alarm Clock Plus.

Community Library as Forerunner and Exemplar in "Sharing Economy"

I've started tutoring one night at Rondo public library in St. Paul. Rondo is a terrific, large library that is buzzing with activity. In my brief time there, I have seen that in addition to tutoring, it hosts ESL lessons, they have a drop-in legal clinic, and all kinds of other community stuff. It seems to be a center of community life and activity that suburban libraries, such as our local R.H. Stafford, however nice, will never be.

I kind of think that the community library was part of the "sharing economy" before that was "a thing".

I See Trouble Brewing for District 833 High School Boundaries

After a lull from the Great Recession, housing construction is picking up in the Woodbury area. Most of it is concentrated in the large expanses of open area in south Woodbury and north Cottage Grove. 

Much of the new development is roughly equidistant between East Ridge and Park high schools.  I think most people, and especially those building the new houses, would rank desirability of the 3 district High Schools, in descending order, as East Ridge - Woodbury - Park, with a marked drop-off from Woodbury to Park. Unfortunately, the order of capacity between the high schools is the reverse--Park has significant capacity, East Ridge does not.

So I foresee disappointment, complaining and special-pleading in the coming years, from some of those neighborhoods that get districted to Park. Maybe even lobbying for a fourth district high school.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Google Calendar Reminder As Smartphone Alarm

For a long time, I've wanted the Google Calendar to offer a third Reminder type. The two existing types are Email, and Notification. The notification pops up, but is not super-urgent and can be overlooked; and it will be muted if your phone is on silent mode. That's all fine and as it should be.

But there are times, mainly when I have an early-morning appointment, where I want my calendar event to also serve as my morning alarm (this is predicated on use of smartphone as your alarm clock, or at least having it in your bedroom). It needs to be treated as a first-class Alarm, primarily meaning that it will override silent mode, secondarily, that it provides the various features related to modern smartphone alarm clocks (snooze, gentle wake, math to dismiss, etc etc).

The primary benefit of this feature is that it would save me the trouble of double-entry: once for the calendar event, again for the alarm. Another important benefit is that most of the Alarm apps don't support setting alarms for arbitrary dates. So you still have to remember to set the alarm the night before--a critical opportunity for error. Finally, related to the above--if the event time changes, you have to remember to go change the alarm (as a night-person, I find it especially disappointing when an early morning event is canceled, and I forget to cancel the alarm).

For the first time in a while, I took some time to search Google Play store for such an app. Finally, I found something that comes close: the wonderful Calendar Event Reminder (CER) app. What this app does is convert every Notification Reminder into an Alarm. It also provides a wealth of configuration features, pretty much everything I would expect, and more. I've been using it for a week, and am so far very satisfied.

Note that while this is probably the best a third-party app can do, it is not quite the full realization of my ideal solution. Instead of adding a third reminder type of Alarm, it effectively transforms the Reminder notification type into the desired Alarm notification type. This has a few important implications.

First of all, obviously, all Notifications  are transformed from mild reminder pings, into urgent reminder alarms. If you use a lot of Notifications, this would get really annoying and is likely a deal-breaker. Fortunately, for my personal use cases, I mostly prefer email notifications anyway, so I can work around that side-effect.

Assuming then that you can live without the traditional Notification reminder functionality, you will want to update any of your recurring reminders that do use it. Otherwise, you will be getting intrusive alarms when you really don't want them.

The last compromise is that it doesn't integrate with Android Alarm Clock apps (a direct outcome of the fact that it isn't implementing the Alarm type, per se). So the alarms will be raised using CER's UI, not that of your favorite alarm clock. The UI is pretty good, so this isn't a big drawback, but it is an adjustment.

This is a $2.79 paid app. Well worth it, a more than fair price for those who crave this functionality. I am happy to pay such a small price to have this long-standing itch scratched away. Much preferable to ad-supported or, heaven forfend, in-app purchases.

Bottom line, this is a great app, one I have been awaiting over four years. 2/3 of a loaf is better than none!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Mao Worship Is A Festering Cancer That Will Prevent China...

...and many of its people, from reaching anything close to their potential. It's enduring "appeal", such as it is, is really incomprehensible to this westerner.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Please Don't Plan a Group Hotel Based on Where You Have Points

I am a big proponent of keeping costs down, in regard to life's activities. Especially if they involve groups of people, who may have differing incomes and financial situations. I don't like it when enthusiastic parents jack up the price of kids sports--everybody has to have matching Adidas warmups, that sort of thing.

Also, if you are the one organizing the hotel for an out-of-town tournament, do not choose a relatively expensive hotel, such as Marriott, just because you can stay there for free on points. That is just not thoughtful.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Neu's Law of Idiotic Analogies

With apologies to Godwin's Law...The first party in an argument to resort to a patently idiotic analogy is considered to have lost the debate, and the discussion is terminated.

(This one isn't as good as my other one, and of course neither approaches the originality and brilliance of Godwin. Still, I have been hearing so many really stupid analogies lately, so I felt compelled.)

Neu's Law of Sloganeering

With apologies to Godwin's Law...The first party in an argument to resort to sloganeering is considered to have lost the debate, and the discussion is terminated.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

The Bergdahl Release from Taliban Will Be the Next Benghazi of U.S. Politics (but better-justified)

I thought trading 5 Taliban prisoners for captured U.S. Private Bowe Bergdahl was a bad idea when I first heard about it. I have always been hard-line on resisting the temptation to cave, because it will only induce more of the behavior in question.

Usually, a government following this course feels pressure to do so from the public, and expects to be likewise rewarded in the court of public opinion. As I learn more about this particular case, I think no such rewards will be reaped. Rather, the administration has committed a major blunder.

First of all, right or wrong, there has been zero public outcry for Bergdahl's release. (Probably wrong, but that's another story). Political pressure to make a bad deal has been non-existent.

Now it turns out there is strong evidence that Bergdahl may be a deserter!

I have to believe Obama's opponents will make political hay from this blunder. And in this case, unlike, say, Benghazi, I think they have quite a lot of justification.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Basketball Statistic: Points per Attempt

I do not understand why Points per Attempt is not the key offensive basketball statistic, rather than Field Goal Percentage. First of all, it would correct for the major distortion of under-weighting the increasingly important 3-point field goal. Second, it would fine-tune for players who are good at both drawing fouls, and sinking free throws.

A Scholarly Response to ‘Tiger Mom’: Happiness Matters, Too

I won't recap the Amy Chua "Battle-Hynm of the Tiger Mother"story, if you are not up on it, it is easily Googled. I do think the hardcore "Tiger" style is unappealing, and often a mistake. As with so many things, the best course lies in blending best practices. The extreme discipline, the rote-ness, the un-Christian "scarcity principle" that underlies the idea that nothing short of being the top student, is all terribly misguided, IMO.

Much, much better to inculcate emotional intelligence and above all, a love of life-long learning. Not learning and scholarship for the sake of top grades or clearing admissions hurdles, but simply because it is: A) enriching; B) ultimately, temporally rewarding in unpredictable ways. More of Confucian view, perhaps?

Here are a couple of good responses: Brooks, Tatlow.

Digital Natives - more conventional wisdom than truth, I think

There is a school of thought that thinks applications of information technology and the digital world continue to be a "young person's game". One expression of this school of thought is the label "digital native". I don't agree.

I think it is reasonable to believe there continues to be some statistical correlation to "digital fluency" and age, but it is increasingly weaker. The average 18-year-old does not "get" digital technology in some qualitatively different way than the average, 40-year-old knowledge worker. By virtue of their age, and the free time and lack of installed base of digital commitments that comes with it, they are undoubtedly more likely to adopt and experiment. But I don't think using 5 social-media tools, versus the 1 their parents likely use (Facebook), represents a major qualitative difference in experience.

Something that particularly surprises me is the lack of adoption of person-to-person electronic payments by the millenials. Judging by my 3 older teens, this generation is as likely to rely on IOUs and cash to settle debts as we were at their age. None of them seem to use the very convenient PayPal app, or its competitors.

Then there is the tendency to conflate comfort with "digital lifestyle", and technical understanding of information technology. In the latter area, I think there is even less difference between digital natives and their parents. In my experience, the typical, non-STEM teen has a very shaky understanding of the Windows file system, for instance.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

How Long Till Location-Sharing Makes Cheating Impossible?

Frictionless, always-on location-sharing has been possible at least since the earliest days of Android (2008). I have been surprised that it hasn't become more common, but I have to think it will. The Google+ implementation is very nice, and there are other options as well.

From the time I first discovered it, I wondered what impact this would have on relationship cheaters. The analogy would be the surge in spouse-installed PC spyware--such as Who, What, When--in the early, pre-cloud, pre-social network days of home computers.

While I doubted by generation would embrace location-sharing, I figured "digital natives" would. Hasn't happened as fast as I would have thought. But still, I have to think it will happen. And once always-on location-sharing becomes normative, how do you refuse or temporarily suspend your significant other? That alone would obviously be the proverbial "red flag".

(I suppose I can also foresee partially-effective countermeasures, apps that interfere with or false-report location. But if you are using something like the built in Google+, that could be hard.)

Thursday, May 22, 2014 I Love the Cheapskate Ethos

I love the ethos of no-nonsense consumer frugality and value-seeking in this video and product. I love, love, love the fact that it takes a mean swipe at the fact that any heavily-advertised product must be more expensive than it really needs to be. That is a core belief of mine--any product that is heavily-promoted is certainly too expensive. (Often, not really that good, either--looking at you, Keurig--but definitely too expensive).

Consumers need to train themselves to have that immediate, allergic reaction to all advertising (Thought bubble: "This product is being advertised a lot...look for a more generic knockoff...").

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Some Regulations for Drones

Consumer-level drones are in the news a lot these days. Industries, such as agriculture and film-making, are using them, even though the FAA says commercial uses are prohibited, pending formulation of regulations for them.

Drones offer lots of potential but also plenty of reasons for concern. I have a few thoughts for steps to controlling them.
  • Drones should be licensed with serial numbers.
  • Drones should transmit their location to a registry. If secrecy is required, then that is an option, but requires a special permit and incremental fee. In that case, they still transmit, but the registry is not publicly viewable (but is there if needed by law enforcement, or in the case of liability).
  • Drones should come with governors. The governors would control things like altitude, and distance, putting a ceiling on human error, as much as possible.
  • Defeating the governors should be a severe, possibly criminal, infraction.
  • Stating the obvious--it should be a criminal offense to knowingly equip a drown with any form of weaponry.
  • Law enforcement may enforce drone licensing comparable to fishing or hunting licenses. 

Friday, May 09, 2014

Government: Invest in research, not industries

most people on Wall Street are primarily motivated to make money, but a few people are primarily motivated by an intense desire to figure stuff out.
This is why investing in research, not industries, is where scarce government investment dollars should go. The payoff from research is just tremendous. 

SnagIt: Should be, Could be, the Graphics Editor for Every PC

I've known about SnagIt for a while, and have been using it at work for a couple of years, ever since I discovered we have a site license and it only costs $2 to get it (I think that is correct, take with a grain of salt). Whereas at $50, a retail copy is a bit pricey.

I wonder if SnagIt is missing a market opportunity. While best-known for screen capture, in truth, SnagIt could be the default graphics editor Windows has always lacked. I assume they are making good money at $50 per user, but I think they could go after a much bigger market.

One idea is that Microsoft should acquire or license (or, less auspiciously for SnagIt, clone) them. Every copy of retail Windows should include a version of SnagIt. Another idea would be to have family-friendly consumer pricing. We have 5 PCs in the family. No way am I paying $250 to equip them all with SnagIt. But I would probably pay $50 to do that.

To avoid cannibalizing the full-price version, maybe they need to think about a "lite" consumer version. Not sure, off the top of my head, what features to put in what version. But one candidate would be the fabled "scrolling capture"--where SnagIt almost magically captures a scrolling window. Much more of a professional than a consumer feature.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Jargonwatch: Like White on Rice

I never heard the phrase "Like White on Rice" before the past year. I don't care for it. Different sites (such as this one) seem to think the rationale for the analogy is clear and obvious. I don't agree. It is easy to figure out the meaning from context, but I really don't see the analogy being so strong. To be annoyingly technical, white's pigmentary relationship to rice is more "of" than "on".

Could have been a better OAuth Authenticator? started as a paid, no-advertising Twitter clone. I know it grew to be more, stuff that I didn't really follow. I wonder if it could have been a much better OAuth Authenticator?

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Reasons not to Login with Facebook, Twitter, etc

In the past few years, it has become common for web sites to allow users to create accounts by simply using their Facebook, Twitter or Google logins. I recoiled in horror the first time I saw it, and I thought it was a one-off hack. But then it became ever-more prevalent, and I slowly realized it was sanctioned.

I finally got around to investing about 2 hours of my life in better understanding this. It is part of a standard called OAuth (open authorization). It's interesting, powerful and convenient. But based on my research, I conclude my initial reaction is still valid. OAuth, as I understand it, has some substantial drawbacks (note--for convenience, the examples below refer to "Facebook", but it would be the same for any of the social sites that support the OAuth login buttons):
#1: The most severe is impersonation. When you use OAuth for authentication to, say, the website, retains a token, giving it the indefinite ability to impersonate you, at other sites! (I wonder if this is behind the bouts of bot-generated friend-spam I get periodically.) 
#2: The website or app using Facebook login can, as part of the login request, bundle a request for authorizations to Facebook resources. E.g., "allow this app to post on your behalf" or "allow this app access to your address book". Of course the user has the opportunity to decline, and thereby cancel the login process, but they can't selectively decline the authorization requests. It is all-or-nothing. (Looks like that might be changing, at least at Facebook.)
#3: This creates one more avenue for Facebook to collect data about you. The last thing any of us need.
#4: It is a single point of failure. If for whatever reason, you get locked out of your Facebook account, you are locked out of all your other accounts, too. This could happen by your own mistakes, by Facebook's technical problems. It could also be a vector of attack from someone out to annoy you (try to login in as you to get your account locked).
There is a work-around that mitigates #2 and #3: create a special, fake Facebook account, solely for logins. But #1 and #4 are still problems, so I really don't think this is good enough.

Here is an excellent article on the topic, which pretty much says everything I did, but in far more detail.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Not enough to win, others must lose(?)

UPDATE: Jeremy tweeted me that this is not true. He said he was quoting a New Yorker cartoon (which does exist, and does pre-date his speech, here), and saying he disapproved of that mind-set.  I accept him at his word, and can only assume the newspaper article I linked to was written by someone who mis-quoted him (wouldn't be the first time that happened).

Jeremy Frommer, Wall Street Exec, went to visit University at Albany, his alma mater, and told the audience: "It's not just enough to fly in first class; I have to know that my friends are flying in coach,"[1]

This "I can only win if you lose" attitude is sick and destructive. It is the worst kind of "scarcity thinking"--something most (all?) faith traditions would condemn.

It's not just a question of morality, though. From a purely secular perspective, business leaders who take this view are likely to depart from their fiduciary duty--namely, to act in the best interests of their employer and shareholders. That will often mean striving to come in "first", but it is not always the case. If coming in second, or third, or whatever provides the greatest shareholder value, that is exactly what the executive should strive for, ego be damned. Unlike sports or elections, business does not always confer the absolute clarity of an undisputed victor. Position and success can produce different rankings. When executives reduce business to a personal contest, bad things are prone to happen.

A counter-example to illustrate the point...Apple, Inc, currently one of the most profitable companies in history, has never measured its success by "winning" market share or unit sales. They measure it by profitability. Competitors are welcome to the sales Apple can't make while maintaining it's margins, at whatever profit they provide. So even though they sell only 25% of smartphones, they make more money than the rest of the industry, put together.

Vinyl Love: Agency Bias and Audio Elitism

There has been a fun debate going amongst the Accidental Tech Podcast crowd regarding the merits and science of vinyl LPs audio quality versus CDs. I won't rehash that here, but the summary seems to be:
  • Science strongly supports digital as a vastly more accurate means of capturing and transmitting recorded sound. (In fact, after reading the Marc Edwards analysis, I found myself marveling that vinyl does (did) work as well as it did.)

  • Probably the most common underlying reason people profess to find vinyl superior is the "tea ceremony" aspect. I.e., all the loving handling and ritual involved in accessing and preparing a vinyl LP for listening is an inseparable aspect of the overall experience. In many cases, the vinyl lover may not be fully aware of their reasons for finding vinyl superior, in which case it also takes on some strong overtones of placebo effect: they expect vinyl to sound superior; and since the vinyl experience involves close, purposeful listening, it is easy for the listener to convince themselves that the sound is better.

  • Another possibility raised, is that the distortions created by analog mastering and vinyl reproduction are a feature, not a bug.
I agree with the above, primarily the first one, but I suggest two other reasons may explain some cases of vinyl preference.
  • First, there is a variant of "agency bias". Agency bias is the belief that things don't "just happen"--there is always an active agent. E.g., it wasn't luck that caused me to miss my connection and avoid a fatal plane crash--there was some active force (fate, God) that was the agent of my good fortune.

    The mental phenomenon I have in mind is the idea that there has to be a payoff for effort. It's the same reason many people insist on overpaying for high octane gasoline, when it has no benefit for their vehicle. Or want to buy $40, gold-tipped cables that don't deliver a digital signal any differently than generic $3 cables. Vinyl takes effort to get a good result. CDs don't. This just seems wrong, if you are prone to "effort bias". Anything that easy can't be very good.
  • The other factor is audio elitism. With vinyl, you could easily tell who cared about their audio and who didn't. Just randomly examine one record from someone's collection, or watch them prep an LP for listening. Doing it right requires careful storage of the albums, loving removal from the sleeve, taking care to only hold the sides, and then the Discwasher ritual of cleaning the record. Every. Single. Time. Anyone who didn't care about their music would be marked by beat-up records, and punished with crackly sound. With the advent of CD, any slob can have the same excellent sounds as the audiophile.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Epilogue to the Movie/Musical "Once" (Spoiler Alert)

Spoiler alert...stop reading if you don't want to know the ending to Once.

We saw the movie in 2008 and just saw the musical at the Orpheum. We loved them both. Terriffic music. I really liked the non-storybook ending. However, if we continue to play out the characters' lives, I think the storybook ending might come to pass. Here is my reasoning...

The relationship between Guy and his NYC expat girlfriend is clearly too tempestuous to last. I think he goes to NYC, gets back together with her, but they only last 18 months, 2 years tops.

As far as Girl's relationship goes--any husband who can't get along with such an all-around delight as her is bound to be worthless. Maybe he just can't adjust to life in a new country, I don't know. But no way are they going to stay reconciled.

So, within 2 years, Guy and Girl are both free to take up with each other. Whether that happens is not a sure thing. If he finds stardom, all bets are off. Likewise, if he stays in NYC, it's probably going nowhere. But there is a significant probability he is headed back to Dublin in 2 years, tail between he legs. And if that happens, the next step is obvious.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Klein on PPACA (Obamacare)

Klein is right on about some big things:
  • Obamacare is here to stay, and Republicans would be well-advised--politically as well ethically--to focus on improving it, not continuing to pretend they can end it.
  • Doing so would give them an opportunity to pursue a favorite issue, the need for malpractice reform (maybe they could take some real chances, make that their own Obamacare moment, and actually do some lasting good).
  • The fact that each state has so much leeway in how to implement it is crazy and needs to be fixed.
But off-base on some important details, inherent in the nature of health insurance:
  • There should be a broader variety of options (lower premiums, higher cost-sharing)
  • Likewise a broader variety of coverages ("if a family believes it receives all the mental-health counseling it needs through its church", it should be required to pay for that coverage).
The problem here is self-selection. Should young people be able to opt-out of coverage for heart disease? Fit people out of diabetes? Down this path lies expensive complexity that ultimately adds no efficiency to the system.

Likewise the idea of more options for cost-structure. I already am in the camp that believes the options that exist are problematic. If I expect to be a low-utilizer, then I will go for the cheapest coverage (bronze). Even if I guess wrong, and get diagnosed with an expensive chronic disease, in a guaranteed-issue environment (aka, Community-Underwriting), I only have to wait the remainder of the year, for the next open enrollment, to sign up for a much more generous plan.

So the point is that self-selection will make having too many options actuarially un-viable. Better to make the most of the situation by keeping it stick-simple, and thereby reducing administrative costs.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

U.S. Bank Hair-Trigger Fraud Detection Renders Card Unusable

I thought Wells Fargo was bad for excessive false positives on fraud detection, but my new U.S. Bank FlexPerks card puts Wells to shame in the department of destroying useability through over-active fraud detection.

For those who don't know, this card has for years been one of the best-rated rewards cards. Richer and much more flexible than the airline cards. After hearing about it from my mother, who has had several years of good experiences using it, I got one.

I used it a few times, no problem. Then I used it at my local gas station. Denied. I thought little of it, figured it was just a one-off glitch  But then the card didn't work anywhere else. Called U.S. Bank. After wading through the usual IVR swamp, when I finally got a human being on the line, they explained that the card had been locked. I asked why. They gave me this long song-and-dance about fraud detection, gas stations often trigger it, we just have your best interests in mind, blah, blah, blah. Although I knew it was a waste of breath, I pointed out:
  1. This is my local gas station--same zip as my card.
  2. As a bonus, I think it is safe to say it is in a "good neighborhood".
  3. I've used 3-4 other cards there, never had a problem.
  4. Okay, it's one thing to decline the card. But locking it from a single attempt to use it? That seems like gross overkill.
Anyway, you can imagine how effective any attempt at logic might be. Just elicited more scripted, faux-soothing responses from the CSR. I asked if this happened again, was there a special number I could call. "No, just call our general number". Thanks a lot.

Okay, card re-activated, used it a few times, no problem. Then, without even thinking of it, I tried it at an entirely different, though still local, gas station. Same result.

Card has been sitting unused ever since.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Mobile Tracking Feature: Notification Your Location Have Been Viewed

Mobile location tracking feels creepy or controlling to some, but it also has its benefits. There are various implementation options that can mitigate the creep factor. Glympse is one very good app that serves a number of scenarios.

A scenario I would like to see served, particularly but not exclusively for benefit of parents:
  • Person A has the ability to unilaterally view Person B's location (e.g., via Glympse or a similar app), but B will be notified.
  • A variant on this, which Glympse already supports, is for Person A to request a notification update. Person B has total control over whether to comply.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Annoying Slate Article Typology

I like Slate much of the time. But they do have their fair share of throwaway, barely-articles with link-bait-ey titles. Here's one: Spain Shouldn’t Change Its Mealtimes. We Should Change Ours. I thought it might provide some kind of scientific or at least economic justification for the title. It didn't. It was simply a brief, mildly opinionated love letter to late Mediterranean mealtimes. It would have been a reasonable okay blog post, but really doesn't rise to the level of a general-interest magazine article.

Or this: How to Biathlon-ize Every Winter Olympic Sport. I thought it might speak to how the biathlon combines to disciplines in a way that creates an exciting, real-time finish--no judging, no racing only against the clock--and offer creative suggestions for other sports doing the same. I couldn't quite imagine how, but I was intrigued . I should have known. No such serious thought was offered. Instead, it was predictable, one-joke riff on combining two unlike activities that might produce a slapstick-volatile combination. Again, reasonable for a post on a small blog, but not worth my click-attention on slate.

Give to smaller colleges instead of Harvard, and same for museums

There is a meme going around that well-meaning donors should stop giving to the already over-endowed elite colleges (Harvard, Stanford), and spread the wealth more. I agree. I would also like to see it applied to museums. You always hear how big museums have 80% of their collection in storage. While I understand they can't display everything all at once, it is a big waste for them to have stuff they never display. Pass that on down to lesser museums, I say.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Amazon Prime Pricing

Amazon is hinting at a price increase for Amazon Prime. Makes sense to me. Although a pretty major Amazon customer, I have resisted Prime for years. I am rarely in a rush, so the Super Saver shipping, free with a $25 minimum, worked for me. This Christmas I needed wanted something fast, so I decided to give Prime a try. I'm happy enough, but still not sure I will renew it. But I digress--the point of my post isn't to dwell on the consumer benefits of Prime, it is to look at it from the Amazon viewpoint.

I think I understand the general idea behind Prime. Make Amazon fulfillment more "frictionless", make people feel like they need to get their money's worth, collect a nice fee up-front. But the economics do seem daunting. For instance, Amazon just shipped me this huge box

(albeit not overly heavy) containing a set of $20 hubcaps, and a $20 water filter. Small order, low margins, before shipping costs. I'm sure they get amazing rates on their shipping, but still, it's hard to imagine it cost less than $5.

Part of the problem is that there is absolutely no incentive for the consumer to economize. In this case, I would have been perfectly happy if it took a week to arrive. I didn't need 2 days. But they both cost the same with Prime.

So here is an idea. Maybe Prime lets consumers get stuff 2-day and 1-day at a discount, but not free. Free would be standard shipping. Prime would be maybe 50% off. Or maybe 70% off. I don't have a strong opinion on what is the ideal precise number, but it has to ensure that consumers have enough "skin in the game" that they consider reverting to standard shipping when they really aren't in a hurry.

Note that this helps Amazon reduce their Prime costs in two ways. One, by redirecting a percentage of shipments from 2-day to cheaper standard ground. Two, by extracting a substantial "co-pay", when the consumer does choose Prime.

I know, it lacks the beautiful simplicity of all the 2-day you can eat, for one low annual fee. And I do think it is very important that Amazon can be positioned as providing free shipping. Especially for e-commerce newbies, the assumed cost of shipping can be a major perceived barrier. So it is an important competitive weapon for Amazon to be able to take this off the table. But I'm not sure they have extend that two 2-day.

Next-Level Bike Sharing

Ad-hoc use of bicycles, as a substitute for walking, becomes more and more viable as the transaction costs are reduced. Bike share is good wonderful, but it does take time to check out and check in. For a 10-minute or less walk, may not be worth the overhead. If you can just grab one instantly, though, that is a game-changer.

Sounds like the Olympic Village is an ideal special-case for frictionless bike-sharing. May be hard to achieve a pure pick up almost anywhere, drop off almost anywhere outside of such a special case, but that is the ideal. seems like an intriguing attempt to get close. 

Obama Jawboning Against Hiring Discrimination for Long-Term Unemployed--It Just May Work

One of the grab-bag of topics on President Obama's recent State of the Union was cajoling employers not to discriminate against the long-term unemployed. On moral grounds, I certainly think the sentiment is worthy. The idea that one major incident of bad luck--becoming unemployed, for whatever reason--could destroy a person's future prospects is shocking. One of the great attributes of America is the idea that the door is never closed--it's never too late to try something new, to reinvent yourself[1]. This kind of structural inflexibility reminds me of Britain c.1900[2]. It is morally wrong, and very un-American.

But is it the proper role of a President to micro-manage in this way? And is it likely to be effective? On the first point--I'll say yes, given the circumstances. With an obstructionist Congress foreclosing the possibility of doing anything big; and a country still struggling with unemployment--I say, do good where you can. This initiative both aims to do practical good, and provides a secondary benefit of perhaps stimulating some reflection on unexamined assumptions regarding how society is organized (this essay for example).

As to whether it will be effective--in other cases I might say it's 99.5% empty, if well-intentioned, sermonizing from the bully pulpit. But this might be an exception. Corporate HR departments are just about the least creative, most reactive, most risk-averse organizations you will ever find. Nearly never do they have striking original ideas, so they are always looking for trends (sometimes called "best practices") to latch onto. And then once a policy is promulgated, HR will want to observe it religiously, black-and-white, no shades of grey.

So the way it could work out in this case is that some corporate HR departments propose equal opportunity in hiring, for long-term unemployed, as a company policy, and get general management to sign-off. Instantly, it becomes the mission of HR to ensure the policy is pursued. Trust me, many HR types will do this, even to the point of being counter-productive. E.g., you as hiring manager have a dozen promising resumes for an open position, but none are long-term unemployed...HR will push to keep the posting open, in the hopes of attracting some long-term unemployed resumes. This is dumb, it goes way too far (I don't want affirmative action for long-term unemployed, just non-discrimination). But the point is, if presidential jawboning results in corprorate HR getting behind the idea, it just may catch fire.

[1] Not saying it's easy, that's a whole different argument. Just saying that the door isn't supposed to be barred on principle.
[2] At least that's how I recall having seen it portrayed in multiple BBC series. A young family man, aspiring but of humble origins and without connections, loses his job to a spiteful boss and permanently falls back 3 rungs in the economic ladder. Or a mere domestic servant, dismissed without a reference, is reduced to begging.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

I Think I Am A 48-Year-Old Millenial

I love the idea of the "Sharing Economy".
I think cars are vastly overrated.
I totally expect to watch what I want, when I want to (with no commercials).
I see no reason to own music.
I think cursive is obsolete, and try never to write by hand if I can possible help it.
I just say no to voice mail.
I find the dead tree format inconvenient for the most part.
I would not subscribe to a newspaper, even if it were free--who wants the clutter?
I don't want to do anything in person if I can do it online instead.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Pay Now Option for Rental Cars

First time I have heard of the Pay Now option for rental cars. Here is a good overview of it. My take:

  1. It is a good development in principle, since it makes the industry more efficient, and shares the benefits with consumers.
  2. The implementation is generally fair--you can still cancel, for a modest fee.[1]
  3. There are also good consumer work-arounds. E.g., book fully-refundable well in advance. Then, when within a few days of your travel date, and you are confident things won't change, cancel that and book a pre-paid.
So bottom-line, this has a lot to recommend it, and there aren't any really nasty gotchas. Also, I think the prepaid option will pretty much eliminate any benefit to booking through the "opaque" sites, such as Hotwire and Priceline, because it will offer comparable savings with fewer restrictions and full transparency.
[1] Some companies far more fair than others. As of 01/27/14, Hertz is $50 for >24 hours, $100 for <24 a="" but="" completely="" hours.="" href=" do I cancel my prepaid rental PRIOR TO SCHEDULED PICK-UP TIME?" not="" outrageous="" pretty="" steep.="">Budget
, on the other hand, is an incredibly reasonable $10 any time before. I believe others are in-between.

My Goodreads Review of The Goldfinch

The GoldfinchThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Terrific. Beautiful writing. Good balance of plot, theme, character-development. Always interesting to me that a female author can create such fleshed-out, believable male characters, including the protagonist.

Although some may not agree, I appreciate the indeterminateness of the ending. It wrapped up the plot--anything less would be too unsatisfying--but did not wrap up the character's lives. That works for me.

For almost the entire book, I was mystified by Theo's obsession with Pippa. But by the end of the book I think I get it. Somehow symbolic, twinned with his obsession with The Goldfinch painting, a longing for something that can never be obtained. In his case, the loss of his mother in adolescence, and with that, the chance for a normal, safe, not-self-destructive life.

The sense of place is well-done. Particularly post-great-Recession Las Vegas. I have never been there, but that is just how I imagine it.

Beautiful, lyrical writing, likely to send anyone at least occasionally to the dictionary.

View all my reviews

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Smarter Amazon Reviews: Optioanl Structure and Meta-Data Needed

Amazon reviews are invaluable. It is getting to the point where I try not to make any vaguely "consumer durable" purchase without them. But there are problems with them. The one I would like to attack is getting more insight into which dimension of product delivery is bad. Is it the seller not the product? That's a crucial distinction--most products on Amazon have lots of sellers to choose from. Is it the entire product category that you don't like? As in--as cordless drills go, this is the best one ever, but I find they are never powerful enough? That's important to know--other people's use cases may be much more tolerant of whatever limitations you find in the product category. Is the product fine, but over-priced? Again, important to understand, might mean that if one shows up at a much lower price it would be a fine purchase.

Here is my attempt to do it right, in a review of a recently-purchased Electric Kettle. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

Kickstarter Idea: Wireless Charging Shelf

Background: We have 6 Qi devices in the family (all our phones plus my Nexus 7 tablet). Thus it is very convenient to keep a Qi wireless charging pad front-and-center on the kitchen counter.

Problem: this is messy, and uses valuable counter space.

Solution: I want a wall-mounted Qi shelf. One idea I have is for a custom socket wall plate, which includes mounting hardware for the shelf. That would probably be the ultimate, deluxe solution. But more costly, both for parts, and effort to install. And not portable. So it is one idea, but maybe not first choice.

A variant that might address these problems would be to have the charger-shelf plug in to the outlet.

The challenge here would be combat flimsiness and instability. I think it could be done. Combine a very rigid plug with a little raised "fence" around the perimeter of the charger-shelf.

If someone creates a Kickstarter for this, I'll fund it for $75.

For bonus points, create some kind of adjustment mechanism, to help position the device. I am thinking of some kind of slider, like on a printer, for different paper sizes.

(I'm pretty sure this thing will not be practical for even a 7" tablet. Win some, lose some.)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Touch devices digits

"Research out of Boston College indicates that consumers feel a deeper affinity for products they touch on a screen than those selected using a laptop touchpad or a mouse." I think this is partly a manifestation of the power of the brain-hand interaction, which I hypothesize as one of the reasons people sometimes surprisingly prefer tablets when a laptop might actually be more effecient.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Attention Book Clubs (and others): You Can Simultaneously Share 5+ Copies of a Kindle Book

The Amazon Kindle allows the same account to be registered on multiple devices (at least 5-6, maybe more). Each device will have access to all the books on that account, up to some limit, which varies by book but apparently is often 6, set by the publisher. To my mind, even if the number were only 3, that would bring the average Kindle book purchase down to the eminently reasonable $3-4 range.

This makes it very easy and convenient to simultaneously share a given book. I have searched high and low, I can't find any indication that this is any way illegal, or even contrary to Amazon's terms of service.

The only real catch that I see is, they all have to be on the same account. So some level of trust and cooperation is required, but not as much as you might think. Instead of buying the books using that account--which would require somebody's credit card to be attached to it, and thus available to all within your circle--you just take turns gifting the book of the month to the shared account. So mostly, you just have to trust that nobody in your circle will go rogue and take over the account and lock you out.

You also might think the everybody's progress would stomp on each other, but that also does not seem to be the case, in my experience (which, I admit, is limited to a 2-user-sized circle). When I open the Kindle app, it asks me if I want to synch to the furthest point read (because Mom is always ahead of me), but I just have to say no.

The only trifling issue that leaves, as far as I can see, is that everybody's highlights and annotations are going to get mixed together. For most people, I see that as a total non-issue.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Glide Path to Retirement

From a financial, longevity demographics and keeping mentally fit standpoint, early retirement looks like a worse and worse idea. In fact, I think most people will need to work past even the current "full" retirement age of 65. What we really need is more labor-market flexibility, where people slowly ramp down. Maybe work 32 hours a week for 3-4 years after 65, then 25, 20, 15 and maybe out around 75-80.

Big(ger) Data for Hiring: Beyond Experience and Degrees

This NPR report on data-based hiring practices made a couple of important points. The correlation of a college degree in computer science, to job success, was nil. I have no doubt that applies to other fields as well. Also, the correlation between experience and success is not at all obvious. Certain kinds of experience transfers very well, but very specific experience is much less critical than you would think. I.e., for entry-to-mid-level positions, hire for aptitude, not  experience.  

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Is there a word for terms that are created for one thing and applied where they don't make sense?

Example that comes to mind “hedge fund”. It was originally a fund that pursues hedging strategies, but has come to be used nearly synonymously with "private equity".

Another example is “clipless pedals”. Bike pedals used to have toe clips (aka "rat traps") that covered the toe of your shoe, to help hold your foot against the pedal, and more importantly, provide the ability to get some power from the upstroke, not just the downstroke.

20 years ago, they were replaced with a far superior mechanism, involving a cleat on your shoe that locks in to a receptacle on the pedal. Since the new, cleated mechanism replaced toe clips, they were referred to as "clipless". Thing is, the act of locking in the cleat is very much a process of "clipping in". So when people new to cycling see clipless pedals demonstrated, they find it confusing.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Backing Up Gmail Automatically via Thunderbird (free and easy)

I've been (mostly figuratively) losing sleep for most of a decade now, not having a local backup of my cloud-based Gmail account. Now that kids are mostly grown up, I find I actually have time for stuff like this. So I spent a chunk of my Saturday night working on fixing this bad situation. 

Huge thanks to Chris Hoffman of for a great article (here). As a mid-level but not hardcore geek, I agonized over what approach to take. I finally decided to go with Thunderbird, as Chris described. Very happy, not much pain, 90 minutes later I have my 10-year-old, 7 Gb Gmail account backed up. THANK YOU, CHRIS. I actually spent more time researching and agonizing, than I did configuring--even with a couple of minor Murphy's Law incidents.

A couple of updates to Chris's article:

1. Biggest thing--if you have Gmail 2-step authentication, you will have to generate an application-specific password. Obvious to some, but not me--I only realized in a "duh" moment when I searched for help.

2. In the new version of Thunderbird, I didn't have to do any of that boolean preferences stuff. It all just worked. But took me a while to give up looking where I could set them, and try my luck. What a pleasant surprise.

3. Avast had SSL conflicts. I wound up turning off Mail monitoring. Will go back to it eventually and see if I can make it happy.

In the meantime--thanks again to Chris and!

Next stops for me: Google Takeout, and a 1 Tb external drive.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Jargonwatch: Clubbed (together)

Example: "If we wait till next week, we could just club these three changes together, in one update". "I clubbed all the complaints under the category 'poor communication'. "

The first time I heard this usage was 6 years ago. I have heard it intermittently since then, mostly at my employer. I found it very strange. "Clubbed" didn't seem to convey anything that "combined" did not already accomplish. And the denotation was unclear to me.

Although I still do not care for the term, some quick research suggests it is not simply a modern invention. Many sources give secondary definitions of "unite or combine". I think the usage goes back to the root: "1175–1225; Middle English clubbe  < Old Norse klubba  club; akin to clump".

Idiomwatch: "[That's] on you"

Example: "Nobody ever got fired for buying Microsoft Office. If it has problems, you as the IT Executive aren't held personally responsible. But if you take a chance on some small shop or open source thing, and it doesn't work out--that's on you."

Definition: an act or decision for which, if things go badly, you are going to be "held accountable" (another over-used phrase). I.e., you will be roundly blamed for the action and its outcome, and you will be viewed as a weasel if you don't accept full responsibility (because, after all, it "on" you).

Like "on line", I suspect this of being a British-ism that has crossed the ocean. Unlike "on line", which seems a case of variety for variety's sake only, I find it unobjectionable. It provides a very compact formulation, that seems to have a usefully different connotation than the conventional "that's your fault".

The closest variant that comes to my mind is "that's your doing". Difference: "that's your doing" seems to be used more for small-bore, personal actions. "That's on you" for actions that have a widespread, public effect.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Idiom Checker, as a Software Component


Next frontier for word processors and text editors of all kinds: an "idiom checker". One obvious purpose: in multi-nationality work teams, to point out to writers that they may be using idioms unfamiliar to other nationalities. Conversely, for the non-native speakers, to highlight idioms, and offer immediate, integrated translation.


Develop this as an open-source project.


Crowd-sourced library of idioms. Somewhat like Urban Dictionary, but more curated, along the lines of Wikipedia.
Ability to obtain a structured extract, for local usage and packaging.

UI Conventions

Something comparable to the now-ubiquitous red-squiggly underline that signifies a misspelling. I am thinking maybe a purple, dashed underline[3]. 

For definition lookup, I am thinking a two-stage presentation, along the lines of Amazon Kindle. E.g., a mouseover brings up the first, short, most common definition. A right-click brings up the option to "see idiom wiki page". 

Nice-to-Have Enhancements

Some degree of "fuzziness"...e.g., identify "out of a clear blue sky" as being a trivial variant of "out of the clear blue sky".

Providing examples that replace the idiom with non-idiomatic formulations.

Rating the idiom in various dimensions: uniqueness (something will be lost in translation), triteness, ambiguity, frequency, age-group popularity, source [2].

To take the rating to the next level, define contexts: business, personal, official correspondence, journalism, general public announcements.


[2] "Sports" may be the 800-pound gorilla of categories, for frequently used business idioms.
[3] Since I can't make a purple, dashed underline with my text editor, I am substituting lavendar highlighting for the examples herein.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Blockbuster's Demise: Bad Karma from Late Fees

I have a deeply-held belief that companies which generate significant, sustained ill-will from their customer base will suffer in the long run. I both think this is true, and really want it to be true. I think Microsoft is headed there.

NPR's report on Blockbuster reminded me how greedy they were with late fees, in the VHS days. They thought they had wiped out the competition, so customer goodwill didn't matter much. Now, they are closing their last few stores, and still being sued over late fees.

What are some other companies that I think are candidates for cosmic justice?

Comcast. High fees, forcing too much bundling on consumers, offering too many short-term teaser deals, rather than solid, long-term value.

Facebook. For relentlessly testing consumers' limits on privacy. Like a 2-year old testing their parents.

Verizon, AT&T. For high rates, complicated price structures, and relentlessly sticking to the opaque business model of bundled handsets and two-year contracts. Go T-Mobile!