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.

Sigh--youth.

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.


NOTES
[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 Jane.Doe@oldaddress.com, my email client will replace with Jane.Doe@newaddress.com.

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.


NOTES
[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

Tribalism

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.

NOTES
[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.

Summary

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

Crentialitis

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

Basic/Advanced

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.

Auto Insurance Cards - Non-Overlapping Effectivity Annoying

Credit cards get replaced every 3 years or so. When I get a replacement credit card, it is effective immediately--I can simply discard the old card, even though technically it may be a month or so away from its expiration.

Not Auto ID cards (at least not mine). I get an ID card every 6 months. So if the old one expires Feb 28, I receive a new one 5 weeks before that, but the new one isn't effective until March 01. I don't want to wait and hope I remember, on Feb 28, to make the switch. So I go ahead and "install" the new ID card in my glovebox, but I can't remove the old one yet.

Not a big thing, but a minor, seemingly stupid, thoughtless and unnecessary annoyance.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

True Value of 15% ESPP Discount

Disclaimer: I am an amateur. I did spend a few hours researching and modeling this. But there is always the possibility I used bad information or, more likely, made a mistake.

My current employer is the first with an Employee Stock Purchase Plan (ESPP). As is typical with such plans, it offers a 15% discount, and up to 10% of one's base salary can be directed to the ESPP. So even if you are generally disinclined to invest in specific stocks, as opposed to broadly diversified mutual funds, this is too good a deal to pass up.

However, what I didn't realize until recently, when I had reason to sell some of the stock, was that it is better than a 15% discount. Considerably better, for several reasons.

First, getting to allocate 10% of your base salary to stock, and buying it at a 15% discount, sounds like a 1.5% bonus. But the benefit is actually the reciprocal of 1.00 - 0.85, or 17.6%. So noticeably better than a straight 15%.

Then there are the tax effects. Two considerations here. First, Qualified ESPPs are not subject to payroll taxes[1]. So no 7.65% FICA. Second, so long as you hold the stock long enough[2], that discount is taxed as long-term capital gains, rather than ordinary income. Your mileage will vary, depending on tax bracket, but a typical scenario would be a 15% rate, rather than 28%. The state's bite, in my state of MN, is unchanged at about 8%. So instead of a total FICA + Fed income tax + State income tax bite of 42%, your rate is only 23%. That means your take home is .77/.58, or 32.7% greater.

So the 17.6% discount, multiplied by a 32.7% benefit from the tax treatment, gives you an effective benefit of 2.34% of your total income, assuming you invest the max 10%. More than a 50% increase in the apparent 1.5% benefit. Most 401k matching is 3%, so one way to view that 2.34% gift is that is almost doubles your 401k match.

But Wait, There's More!


There is more to that 401k parallel. Just as a 401k gives you the opportunity for tax-deferred compounding, so does ESPP compensation--so long as you hold the stock. (That does have a downside, though. Over time, you will accumulate a very large position in a single stock--the non-diversified anti-pattern. Worse yet, it is the stock of your own employer. So my preference is to flip the stock. Hold it long enough to get favorable tax treatment, but then sell it--even as you continue to buy more to get that discount on the new purchase.

One More Thing


Some ESPPs have a "look-back" provision. This establishes the purchase price as the lower of the price at the first day of the period or the last day of the period. This has a couple of benefits versus the last day of the period. In ordinary circumstances, the first day price would be a few percent lower than the last day price. So getting the first day price is more than ample compensation for having your contributions tied up for 6 months, earning no interest. Moreover, if the stock does particularly well, the value of the lookback is greatly increased. On the other hand, in the event of a downturn, you are still protected, receiving the last day price.

Notes 


[1] I'm pretty sure this is true. I found websites that say this, but I had to look really hard, and some seemed to suggest that this might change.

[2] The holding period is tricky. Many people will know there is a 1-year holding period to receive the very favorable long-term capital gains rate. But it turns out there is a 2-year-from-grant-date for the discount to be treated as a capital gain, rather than ordinary income.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Home Printer Anti-Pattern: After Running Out of Paper

Even though nobody seems to talk about it, I have to believe my household is not the only one this happens to...remote wireless printer runs out of paper or goes offline for some other reason. Various family members discover this only by accident, after sending the same print job like 4 times in a row. But it's 2015, paper is always optional (e.g., it would be convenient to have a printed recipe, but you can also just work off your smartphone), so nobody does anything about it for hours or even for days.

Finally, paper is restored, usually by whoever is really motivated and possibly in hurry for hard copy. What is their reward?--pages and pages of spooled print jobs spitting out.

It feels like there should be a better way. I propose this guardedly, since it is easy to dream up "smart" solutions, only to find they add too much user complexity and sometimes behavior the user finds unpredictable.

Okay, that disclaimer done with, here is what I think might work....If a printer is offline for more than an hour (and remember, nowadays the OS knows when that happens), I would like to see a pop-up that asks the user:
Printer back online. Print jobs were spooled while printer was offline. Would you like to: 1) Print all pending print jobs? 2) Cancel all pending print jobs? 3) Select which jobs to print?

Then, just one more touch to allow sophisticated users with specialized uses case to avoid OS-nag: a checkbox on the dialog that says "Do not ask me this in the future".


Monday, December 28, 2015

Apprencticeship vs Extended Secondary Vocational Education

I believe the contemporary American view (or really, default assumption) that:
  1. Higher education's purpose should be vocational
  2. The optimal form of vocational training is higher education

is a big, expensive mistake. I believe apprenticeship and on-the-job training is both more economical, and more effective, for providing most types of vocational training. And the mission of higher education (it is called "higher" for a reason) should be breadth of learning, cultivation of intellectual curiosity and development of analytical thinking.

Anyway, this quote from a chef, regarding the closing of Le Cordon Bleu cooking school, is right on:

Jones said with the foodie boom, demand for chefs is higher than ever. He said Le Cordon Bleu grads aren’t ready to run a kitchen.

“Kids come out of culinary school and say: ‘I want a job as a sous chef.’ And I say, ‘No, you have to start at the bottom, like anyone else!’” Jones said.

Those entry-level jobs cutting, blanching and glacĂ©ing vegetables don’t pay very well. Jones said grads can come out of two years of culinary school with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans.

“You learn infinitely more in a restaurant like this, than you would anywhere else, virtually,” Jones said. “The idea that anyone would want to come into this industry with debt is ludicrous.”

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Assortive Mating's Contribution to Income Inequality

For a long time, I've suspected that "assortive mating"--marrying someone from a similar socioeconomic background, educational institution and/or vocation--was an important contributor to income inequality. Far from the only one, and the factors are probably multiplicative, such that if the other factors were diminished, the contribution of assortive mating would be proportionately diminished. But nevertheless significant and worth considering.

This article makes the point, and claims statistically that something like 25% of income inequality may be explained by the contribution of assortive mating.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Don't Mythologize Scott Weiland

I deplore the tendency to mythologize the suffering artist. I really liked the op-ed by the ex-wife and mother of his children of Scott Weiland, recently deceased member of Stone Temple Pilots. Best quote:
Let's choose to make this the first time we don't glorify this tragedy with talk of rock and roll and the demons that, by the way, don't have to come with it. Skip the depressing T-shirt with 1967-2015 on it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Email, Texts and Probably IMs Should All Be Treated as Members of the Same Family

I like email. Email should always be considered the default workhorse of ordinary, textual communication. Texts have their place, mainly as a signal of urgency. I want a text only if it is time-sensitive--like, read and respond within 10 minutes, or the moment is lost.

Note that urgency may coincide with priority. It just means that the topic is time-limited. Could be "hey, I'm at the grocery store, is there anything you want me to get?" Or could be "I'm at the hospital, come see me".

So a text can serve as a reasonable proxy for urgency. What about priority?--i.e., it doesn't matter if you look at this in the next few minutes, but this is really important, so don't ignore it. Users of Outlook will be familiar with the red exclamation mark that indicates priority. Generally A Useful Thing. As far as I know, there is no widely-accepted equivalent in standard email. There should be.

Which brings me to my point: the distinction between email and text should be erased. They should both just be a message. Any message can have 2 distinct attributes, one for urgency, one for priority. The recipient can control the settings on their device accordingly. E.g.:
  • Most of the time, my phone would play a chime and pop up a window, for anything urgent.
  • At certain times, such as important meetings, I would suppress this and only do it if both urgent and priority.
  • In my case, I check email often enough, so no special settings for Priority alone--just iconic representation, a la the Outlook exclamation point.
It is not hard to imagine other refinements, such as only accepting Urgent + Priority from certain known contacts.

The last thing to consider is IM. I think that is a variation on urgency. It would be urgency, with an intention to conduct a more prolonged conversation. So if I received an IM request, but didn't feel like an extended conversation, rather than ignore it entirely, I could send a reply, but implicitly decline the IM, based on choosing to reply as standard urgent message.

I want all of these to be a subset of email, archived and searchable with all the same rules and tools that are well-established for email.

Oh, and one more thing--no proprietary forms of communications. Whatever is built into Facebook or Twitter or Snapchat should be a subset of email. The app of origin could just be an attribute (e.g., I might ignore emails from Twitter contacts).

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

High-Markup Peripheral: Washer Pedestals

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

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

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

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Apple TV App Idea: Photo-Sharing

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

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

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

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

Two-Factor Authentication

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

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

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


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

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

Monday, November 16, 2015

Uber: & Lyft: Only Use Location if Accurate

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

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

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Overdue Browser Features: Highlighting and Single Page Archive

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

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

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

But seriously, this should be in the browser.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Need Search Syntax Standards and Libraries

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

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

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




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

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

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

Three things that I hate come to mind:

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

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

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

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

Does Voice Password Offer Unique Advantages for BIometrics?

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

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

This website seems to support my reasoning.

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

Donate Anonymously

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

I should have donated anonymously.

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

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

I wish I had remembered that bit of wisdom.


Friday, October 09, 2015

Best Quote Ever

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

Monday, October 05, 2015

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

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

Usubscribe for Spam

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

Opportunistic Acquirers of Orphan Drugs Like Labor Unions?

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


Life value of defunct companies like Borland

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

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Ann Marie Slaughter Is My Hero

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

From Freakonomics Interview: 

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

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Some Startups Choosing LA over SV

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

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Verizon More Expensive Than Ever

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

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

Verizon Basic 1 Gb Plan
$50 per Subscriber

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

Friday, July 31, 2015

Beverage Chiller: High-End Fridge Feature

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

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

Saturday, June 27, 2015

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Silicon Valley Isn't the Only Town in the Game

UPDATE: 03/05/16 This WSJ article says SV is experiencing loss of residents.

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

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

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

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

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




Media: Nix the Glitz

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

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

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

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


Saturday, June 06, 2015

Wax Toilet Rings Should Be Banned

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 29, 2015

Prius Acceleration Is Adequate

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

Monday, May 25, 2015

State Insurance Exchanges Are The Wrong Idea

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Hating on the IRS

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