Monday, December 31, 2007

Firefox Add-In Idea: Auto-Detect "Skip this Ad"

When I encounter an advertisement screen (sometimes euphimistically titled "welcome screen"), I can not click "skip this ad", or the equivalent, fast enough. I find it hard to believe that anyone else does differently. Anyway, seems like the germ of inspiration for a Firefox or IE add-in. It would contain a database of ad-presenting sites (traditional media, such as NYT, Forbes, etc), and detect the presence of "skip this ad" or "skip this welcome screen", and if so, would auto-click that link as soon as humanly machine-ly possible.

Friday, December 28, 2007

We Need Better Teleconferencing Software!

Introduction


I work for a very large, very distributed company. For the first time in my career, I find that most of my meeting time is spent in teleconferences, rather than in-person meetings. Although I miss the face-to-face contact, I do think it is clear that teleconferencing will only become more prevalent, driven by various developments: distributed workforces, off-shoring and out-sourcing, and telecommuting.

Considering how critical teleconferencing is to getting work done for the contemporary knowledge-worker, I am rather shocked by the deep mediocrity of the technology. My employer uses AT&T Teleconference Services, which I have used for years at other companies, and it really hasn't improved AT ALL over time. Same old problems: everybody has to introduce themselves, and then hear a repetition of all the other people on the call; if someone puts you on hold, the rest of the conference gets serenaded with their PBX's muzak (I know there is an advanced feature that prevents this--nobody ever uses it); security problems if you have back-to-back calls on the same number, when the early joiners for the next meeting unintentionally "barge" into the meeting that hasn't yet ended. The fact that these old, well-known problems continue to be tolerated--never mind the failure to introduce cool new features--shows me a product category ripe for innovation.

What is needed--beyond a teleconferencing provider who cares enough about their product to continually improve it--is convergence between teleconferencing and web conferencing. In the admittedly limited sample of big companies I have experience with, web conferencing really has not taken off as one would expect. We probably have 10 teleconferences for every 1 web conference. Granted, there may be some discussions that simply do not benefit from any visuals, but as often than not, I find that there is inevitably a point in the teleconference where it would be very convenient to display something.(Maybe I shouldn't complain though--I have a long commute, and when possible, try to combine it with conference calls) In fact, we frequently wind up quickly emailing documents for the participants to review.

There are probably a few reasons for the under-use of web conferencing, but I think one big one is the tedium of scheduling them. I have used both LiveMeeting and Webex, and they both require meetings to be set up in advance, and the meeting URLs have to be distributed to all the participants. Ironically, ease of initiation is the one area where teleconferencing really shines, since there is no setup whatsoever required--just dial in to a well-known, persistent number and access code (unfortunately, there are some security problems associated with that, which we will get to shortly).

If teleconferencing and web conferencing could be tightly integrated, I think all the existing problems of both could be solved, and valuable new features added. An inventory of the improvements I envision is listed below:

Web conferencing is initiated automatically with the teleconference, and vice-versa


Just as employees receive their own, individual access code to the master teleconference number, so would they receive a standing URL for web conferencing.

As a bonus, teleconference/web conference addresses would be discoverable, for authorized individuals (see Security section for more discussion).

See who is currently connected, along with who was invited


Instead of taking an oral roll call, you can see who is connected. I bet introductions and roll-call takes a 5% productivity toll on teleconferencing time. So as mundane as this problem is, solving it would have a big payoff. Bonus feature--you automatically get a log of who was on the call, and even when they were on.

"Ping" invitees who have not signed on (via IM or phone call or email)


Another big time-waster is the need to "ping" the people who were invited but still haven't joined in 5 minutes after the start of call. Integration wouldn't completely make this go away, but it could make it easier--instead of manually adding their names to an IM or email, you could just click-select and invoke the "are you joining us" message. Bonus--an option for pinging could be a phone call with a pre-recorded message.

Display who is currently speaking


This feature would be very nice, though admittedly it would take some real technology, not just more integration. Still, it's value would not be insignificant--it can be very,very challenging in a large conference call to track the identity of the speaker.

Better security


Another thing that surprises me about all the corporations I have been at that use teleconferencing is the obliviousness to the gaping security hole. Since access codes NEVER change, anyone who gets one can join any call at any time. And given the lack of functionality, it can be very difficult to count and track all the beeps (not to mention, with quick-start calls, if the lurker is the first person in, they will be even harder to detect).

I would envision a layered security approach. There would be an option to provide a one-time URL for a given meeting. There would also be integration with network-based identity-management capability.

Bonus feature: for those occasions where the teleconference host won't be able to attend, instead of having to hand out one's standard host access code to a delegate, the ability to generate a one-time access code.

Conference Initiated But On Hold

I have worked in many different companies, and they all suffer, in varying degrees, from the problem of arriving late to meetings. To address this problem, the software needs to allow the conference to be initiatied but placed on hold (this enhances personal productivity, since participants won't feel obliged to engage in small talk while inevitably waiting 5 minutes beyond the appointed meeting time to have a quorum of participants available). The way this differs from current technology is that the leader, and even the participants, will have visibility to who has called in. That way, the leader can determine when a quorum has been reached, and at that point can take everybody off hold and into conference.


As a bonus, participants have the option to "break hold", if they want to talk as a subset. The key point is that everybody knows who is on the call, even if they haven't broken in to introduce themselves, as would be necessary with the current technology.


Auto disconnect web conferencing when done

A security problem I have noticed with web conferencing is that it is easy to forget to disconnect. Integrated software could have pop-up reminders, initiated when the participant terminates the call, if they are still logged in as a presenter on the web conference.


Icing On the Cake

Of course, a modern, integrated conferencing system would not have stupid anti-features, such as:

  • Inadvertently and embarassingly subjecting the rest of the teleconference to music when you put them on hold to take another incoming call.
  • Hanging up when you mean to take yourself off mute (inadvertent hang-up being an anti-feature of almost all current telephones)

Farther Into the Future

  • Development of an applet for mobile phones that provides most or all of the above features.
  • The development of full "telepresence".

CONCLUSION


The current state of teleconferencing reminds me of the state of web search or webmail before Google jumped in: minimally adequate, but long neglected, ripe for innovation and integration. In the short-term, it seems like some of the features I envision would require a highly integrated corporate PBX. In the long term, I hope they could be achieved via off-the-shelf handsets, or at a minimum, via standard cell phones.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Has Google Conquered Spam?

I switched to Gmail a couple of years ago, and have been consistently amazed at how good their spam-filtering is. I get very, very, very few false negatives, and as far as I can tell, nearly zero false positives. I've gotten so complacent, I have pretty much stopped thinking about spam. And it seems like I hear a lot less complaining about it.

Ports in Front!

PC Mag: "Even in this age of enlightened computing, there are still too many connectors on the back of a desktop PC. The Sunbeam 20 in 1 Superior Panel lets you transfer to the front of your machine just about all of those ports, some of which you didn't even know were an option. It's an all-in-one audio/video I/O panel, a memory card reader, and a fan controller—at an exceptional price." Why the heck don't they make this standard! I so detest having to lean over and fiddle to find the port I am looking for.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

True-to-Life Movies

It could be my imagination, but it seems like there have been a high number of good movies based very closely on true-life stories. Many of them are sports movies, others are historical. I have truth-squadded many of them afterwards, and have been shocked how historically accurate they have been. In fact, in many cases, had they not been factually-based, I would have criticized elements for being too implausible.

Anyway, it would be nice if there were a website "Truth-squadding the movies".

Movies that I am thinking of:

  • Charlie Wilson's war (I haven't fully researched this one yet)
  • The Greatest Game Every Played
  • Glory Road
  • Amazing Grace
  • The Natural (haven't researched in detail)
  • and a bunch of others I can't recall at the moment.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Innumeracy Watch: Dumb to Focus on Sports Contract Totals

I think it is so dumb when a newspaper article will talk about so-and-so-jock's $48 million dollar contract. Hello, people, we need a little context. Is that $48 million for one year? For 6 years? It does make a difference.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

It looks like LinkedIn now forces your emails to go through them

I'm really not impressed--the features they are adding are the wrong features! You used to be able to email your contacts from their site. I have been thinking of LinkedIn as a replacement for keeping casual contacts email addresses in Outlook, but now I'm not so sure. What's the next step--only being able to send emails to your own contacts if you have an "enhanced" membership?

Not hard to see why a lot of people think Facebook is going to eat LinkedIn's lunch.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Ethical Litmus Test: Ask service stations if they recommend nitrogen

A few weeks ago, I read in the Pioneer Press car advice column that nitrogen was better to fill your tires with because the pressure wouldn't vary as much with temperature. Since I had been thinking about what a "slop factor" temperature-based variation does create in maintaining optimal tire pressure, my first reaction was "wow, that would be great, although it just turned something that was free (air) into another consumable to be nickel-and-dimed by.

Then as I thought about it over the next day or so, I began to smell a rat. PV = nRT, the ideal gas law, hasn't been repealed, right? So I did a little quick web research. I found a couple of sites that tried to explain it was due to the larger size of the nitrogen molecules. But that, too, was quickly debunked. Basically, for applications other than race cars, the effect is undetectable.

As a postscipt, it occurred to me that this question could be a great, shorthand ethcial litmus test for assessing a candidate service station. Ask them "do you recommend filling tires with nitrogen"? If they respond "yes", cross them off your list.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Eating Your Own Dog Food Department

How ironic is is that Google, a company that makes its money from advertising, does no advertising itself?

Finally, A Typical Minnesota Winter

It's undoubtedly premature to be making this call, but my instincts are telling me that, after 5 previous winters in Minnesota, we are finally about to experience our first traditionally cold, snowy one. It's been below freezing for two solid weeks, we've had snow on the ground for over a week, we've dipped below zero, and the extended forecast calls for highs no higher than the mid-20s, and mostly clear, cold nights.

At least we might get in some cross-country skiing.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Feature Idea for Outlook: No ReplyAll if you are a BCC

If you took the trouble to BCC someone on an email, would you want them to do a "Reply All" with their comments? No, I didn't think so. So then why don't the email clients Outlook and Gmail prevent you from doing that? Especially for bloated, feature-rich Outlook, this seems like an obvious one.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Biking is the best sport because

1. You never have to be thirsty (wearing a Camel-Bak).
2. It is almost never too hot (since you generate a 15-20 mph wind, even on still days).
3. You can do it on a full stomach (unlike running, where you have to wait at least 90 minutes after eating, and then not too big a meal).

Monday, November 26, 2007

Facebook/Social Networking Use Case

For years, I have been looking for a good local auto mechanic. When I met a long-time resident of Woodbury, I would ask them if they had a recommendation for a really good, independent mechanic. Nobody ever did.

I eventually found one, in St. Paul. It was inconvenient, but worth the drive. Then he closed. But we had fairly new cars by then, so the question became less important. But recently our minivan needed a bunch of work, some minor, some of unknown magnitude. This time I thought to consult my network. It wasn't actually Facebook or LinkedIn, per se, but rather a mailing list of my biking buddies. Sure enough, I got 2 good suggestions out of that, and was very happy with the one I took.

So it was sort of like my personal Angie's List. Also, I think a Facebook-style inquiry would be more efficient than email. The people who care to follow the discussion can follow it, those who don't, don't get subjected to Reply All's, or conversely, overlooked by private replies.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Cereal Packaging Design Value-Add

Cereal is SO much easier to pour out of a bag which has had the corner cleanly clipped off. How hard could it be for the packaging to have a serrated, tear-off corner?

Monday, November 19, 2007

Amazon Kindle Reader

Amazon introduced this e-reader about a month ago, in time for the Christmas season. I haven't followed it closely, but my sense is that it generated next to zero buzz, and correspondingly low sales.

Not surprising. Seems like I've heard this before. $399 is WAY too expensive, and even if it were free, who wants another big device to lug around? I applaud the idea of best-sellers for $9.99--finally , content delivery that recognizes that the cost-savings for non-physical content should be shared with consumers, making it considerably cheaper than traditional, corporeal formats.

But the device makes no sense to me. Much better to incorporate with existing hardware--from laptops to cell phones. If they had to do something, partner with a notebook manufacturer to make a form-factor that is considered perfect for eBooks, and provide a bundling deal.

Business Idea: Third-Party Password Custodian

This Cringely column got me thinking...

Identity thieves aren't so lazy, especially when they have technology to help them. They can start a sweepstakes website that requires only free registration to win that cruise of a lifetime to Bora Bora. And in doing so the thieves can know that a majority of registrants will use a username and password combination that they also use at a lot of other sites, like bank and brokerage accounts. Not only don't they need to actually award the cruise, they don't even have to break into your bank account in order to benefit from the username/password combo. They just sell that information to another crook.

That is kind of scary. I don't tend to register for sweepstakes, but you never know. Plus, there is the old "inside job" possibility, that a company employee will steal and sell your data. Because I DO register for a lot of eCommerce sites. I know, the first line of defense is to use a special password for financial accounts.

Wouldn't a well-established, highly-trusted third-party password custodian be the solution? Kind of like how it works with the certificate authorities in PKI? So you register your User ID for each site, along with a master password (you get to have more than 1 master password, if you want), and then that site generates a strong password for you, which you don't even need to know, and performs the actual login, using that password. I remember reading, several years ago, about a hardware device that did this.

Also, a nice enhancement, to defeat keystroke-loggers, would be to present a bitmap of the alphabet, to allow graphical log-in.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Closing Helpdesk Tickets Too Early

Every organization that logs "tickets" or cases (e.g.., corporate helpdesks, should include a survey option--in the email they send 3 days after they log the ticket, telling you they are unilaterally closing the ticket--"In your opinion, was this ticket closed prematurely?"

I'm pretty sure that all these functions are measured on time-to-close tickets, and since we all know, in mangement, that you get what you measure, what you get is tickets closed on the flimsiest of pretexts.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Gmail Has Implemented My "Forgotten Attachments" Feature

I have been wanting this feature in Outlook for, oh, about a decade.

T-Mobile Customer Service

T-Mobile was ranked one of the top performers in this J.D. Power and Associates 2008 Wireless Customer Care Performance Study. I have to agree. I have called their customer service for a number of reasons since becoming a customer, and I have been stunned by the uniformly high quality. The CSRs are friendly, knowledgable, helpful and answer the phone very quickly. I typically get mildly nauseated at the prospect of calling customer service, but in the case of T-Mobile, it has almost been a pleasure.

Free WSJ, woo-hoo!

The Motley Fool thinks Rupert Murdoch is stupid for abandoning the paid model the Wall Street Journal has successfully built, and so many others (Slate, New York Times) have tried and failed at. I tend, strongly, to agree--I just can't believe that advertising can really foot the bill for all that great content. But I will be delighted, JUST DELIGHTED, if my favorite news publication is going free.

Coke Zero Found Mildly Addictive

After 3 months of drinking almost exclusively Coke Zero, I chanced to crack open a caffeine free Diet Coke, and I found it definitely tasted very diet-y.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Useability: Mute vs Hang up the call

I spend a lot of time on conference calls. It is ridiculous how easy it is, on the typical phone, to hang up the call when you are trying to un-mute yourself!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Adjustable Collars in Men's Dress Shirts

I've bought men's pants that have an adjustable waistband, to handle those little fluctuations in girth. Seems like an easy, obvious extension to put a little spandex into the necks of dress shirts.

Boring, Mandatory, Computer-Based Corporate Training

I'm at a new company, so I have to go through the excruciatingly tedious, mandatory, brain-cell-wasting-through-boredom online training for all the predictable topics. You could take them with the volume off. Rule #1: whenever an "All of the Above" answer is provided, it will always be the correct answer. Another rule: in the sexual harassment segment, when you are asked which of the employees gave the right answer, it will never, ever be the middle-aged white guy. I hate it when they slow you down by delaying the materialization of the "next" button.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Google Detail Missed: Root Words and Sub-Strings

In so many ways, Google search hits all the little details--hyphens and other spaces between words, mis-spellings. But they seem to completely ignore root words. Search for "computer" when your target contains "computers", and you come up empty. Same thing with numbers: "quality" instead of "quality1", and you lose.

This problem gets me surprisingly often. I notice it most when searching my own Gmail, because in those cases, I KNOW the item is there to be found, and that prompts me to pay attention and refine my search till I get it right.

An unusal miss for Google.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

JargonWatch: Deep Dive

Definition: to delve deeply into a timely subject, particularly one that appears to be becoming increasingly important or pressing.

Example: we've spent the last 3 days preparing for the deep dive the CIO asked for on our budget overruns.

Assessment: an unobjectionable and grammatically inoffensive employment of a reasonable metaphor.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Overpriced Polycom Speakerphones


How did Polycom ever get its iPod-like mindshare monopoly on business-quality conference room speakerphones? I mean, they work well, and get extra points for design coolness, but why are they worth $300 per unit?!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

JargonWatch: "Ask" as a Noun

After the Steering Comm meeting, we re-grouped to try to determine "What is the ask?" from the project sponsors.

The conference call covered a lot of ground, but we had trouble determining what was the ask from the client.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Clay Shirkly on Social Groups and Scale

...you have to find a way to spare the group from scale. Scale alone kills conversations, because conversations require dense two-way conversations. In conversational contexts, Metcalfe's law is a drag. The fact that the amount of two-way connections you have to support goes up with the square of the users means that the density of conversation falls off very fast as the system scales even a little bit. You have to have some way to let users hang onto the less is more pattern, in order to keep associated with one another.

This is an inverse value to scale question. Think about your Rolodex. A thousand contacts, maybe 150 people you can call friends, 30 people you can call close friends, two or three people you'd donate a kidney to. The value is inverse to the size of the group. And you have to find some way to protect the group within the context of those effects...

This hits home for me. The internet offers scale in certain ways, and those things can be useful, but as human beings, we are evolved or created (I don't think it matters which you believe) for human-scale interactions. Last night we had our bi-weekly small-group meeting for our new church. Small groups is a key technique large churches are using to make people feel connected and known. Then today I was taking super-dull, mandatory corporate CBTs. These kinds of training are terrifically boring under the best of circumstances, but if you take them with real, live other people, the tedium can be offset by the chance to meet other people and have real discussion (like rolling your eyes in boredom, for example!). Then on my drive home today, I was discussing with my friend Ted how un-fulfilling teleconferences and work-from-home can be, in terms of meeting the human desire for interpersonal contact.




Thursday, September 20, 2007

Idea: Industry-Standard Corporate Email "Disclaimer"

It is SO tedious, not to mention a terrific waste of storage and bandwidth, for corporate emails to go out with the usual, completely unenforceable legal disclaimer "this email is blah intended only for blah and is the property of blah corporation and if received by accident should be blah returned..."

What if there were an accepted industry standard disclaimer? Instead of every email spelling out the claimed rights, couldn't it just reference the standard? Just as copyright notices don't try to summarize copyright law (okay, maybe some do). Instead, you could have a much briefer notice like "This email protected under ISO Disclosure Standard 10,000.17."

Monday, September 17, 2007

IM in the Workplace

I guess I've finally joined the 21st century. We use Instant Messaging in the workplace at my new employer. I'm not a big fan of IM, since it seems to me to combine the worst features of phone calls and email, without their respective advantages. Few things are more tedious than staring at your computer screen, waiting for your correspondent to finish typing a message.

The major use of it seems to be to multi-task during conference calls. That has its place occasionally, of course ("I know u r on a call, but get off and meet me in the war room, we've got a production outage!"). But maybe I'm just a dummy, but as soon as I get sucked into an IM exchange, I tune out of the conference call. If the call is a waste of my time, that could be good, but if it isn't, I may wind up wasting everybody else's time asking for repeats. Conference calls are painful and inefficient enough, without IM making them worse.

A frequent secondary usage of IM'ing is within a conference call. This I find more useful. Typical case is a boss to employee: "I know you are right, but they're not getting it. Try explaining more slowly."

A tertiary usage that I find especially convenient is posting one's status and contact info. I typically work from home 2 days/week, so I update my IM status line to say "TUE: Work from home. Home office 999-999-9999."

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Cringely on Telepresence

Video conferencing has been around for a couple decades, but telepresence is different from that. You can see the entire other side of the conference table, for example, and the people who are sitting across from you appear to be life sized. They can see you and you can see them. When another person speaks to you they can look you in the eye. Body language and emotions are easy to detect and the sound of each participant seems to come from his or her direction. You can watch the people who aren’t talking to see if they are even paying attention. It really is tele-PRESENCE and the fact that you are looking in a video screen is forgotten after a minute or two.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Airport Suggestions

My suggestions for helping fix airport congestion:
  1. Fly 24 x 7. I have no idea why this hasn't caught on. Airports and airplanes are simply too expensive to leave unused 1/3 of the time.
  2. To combat bunching of flights during congested times of day, we need peak-based pricing, but it needs to be much more transparent. Maybe a surcharge from the airport, passed on to the ticket price.
  3. Assess charges for small aircraft more appropriately (they account for 16% of the system's operating cost, while only paying 3%).

Friday, August 24, 2007

It would be interesting to see a list of likely false conspiracy theories that are actually true. Or more generally, a list of likely urban legends that are actually true.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

HSAs and HRAs: Tie Goes to the Runner

High deductible health plans are getting more common. One subtle benefit of them, for employers, is that (I think, based on my own recent experience) those high deductibles are not typically pro-rated. So, if you join the health plan mid-year, you still have a full year's deductible to pass before the plan kicks in.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Bluetooth for Cordless Phones

In general, I don't understand why cordless phones haven't progressed to have more of the quality/qualities of cell phones. In particularly, I am baffled as to why there is almost no bluetooth on cordless phones. We all love our bluetooth headsets, wouldn't it be nice to be able to use them at home, with our cordless phones? (I know, there are bluetooth pairing complications that would make this not as smooth as we would like. Still.)

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Blockbuster Online Queue History: Feature for Re-Add

Blockbuster online has decent useability. They have a nice feature that shows you your rental history (beware future Supreme Court nominees). For each line-item, they have 3 buttons, allowing you to: Add to Cart, Suggest, or Add to Favorites. Add to Cart means buy; why you would want to purchase a DVD you have already viewed, and can view again at no incremental cost from BB Online, is a mystery to me, but I accept that it happens at least occasionally. I suspect the other 2 buttons are less useful to the majority of users.

What they don't have is the button that, for me and I suspect for most people, would be far more useful than any of those: the Add to Queue button! People re-watch movies all the time, right? I personally don't, but in my case, I often find that I don't get around to watching the movies that come in the mail. If I'm lucky, it gets returned mid-week in order to pop something else from the queue for the kids. If I'm less lucky, I wind up driving to the local Blockbuster store with the kids, to exchange my un-viewed movie for one they want now to view at the evening's sleepover.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Jargonwatch: No Worries

I've just been hearing this one in the last few months. I knew it was from Australia.

Assessment: a nice expression, a variant and subtly different from existing American English ones such as "no problem". Approved.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Conspiracy Theories

This othewise good article claims "A survey in 1968 found that about two-thirds of Americans believed the conspiracy theory, while by 1990 that proportion had risen to nine-tenths. "

Sorry, I'm throwing the BS flag on that one. The 90% number simply is not plausible. An egregious mistake for an article concerned with truth, accuracy and misperception.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Jargonwatch: It's All Good

Funny, these links say this expression is on its way out; I have only picked up on it's usage (won't use it myself, except sarcastically) in the last year.

I think the quite below captures how I hear it being used:

The phrase continues to be reflexively used in the rap world, and it has now been adopted ironically by upper-middle-class white people, in whose parlance "It's all good" is usually a way of preƫmptively closing a conversation--a discussion of the final episode of "The Sopranos," for example--and segueing to the next topic: where to find the best sushi in the East Village. But the most widespread use of "It's all good" seems to be among people who have recently discovered yoga and meditation. For this demographic, "It's all good" has become a kind of New Age, neo-Buddhist mantra, one with a peculiarly American flavor of optimism.

Assessment: very unfavorable, no good usage.


Sunday, August 12, 2007

Environmentalism Strategy Memo Part II

Click here for Part I.

The recycling issue is probably a much bigger example in the same category. There have been a lot of studies that suggest recycling, particularly curbside recycling, uses more energy than it saves. However, we still do it. Why? Because about 20 years ago, the fiction began to spread that we were running out of landfill space.

What really happened is that local landfills were filling up, and in NIMBY fashion, localities didn't want to create new ones. So yes, we were running out of landfill space, but only from a political, not a physical, perspective. However, a confluence of interests blew this up into a bona-fide artifact of conventional wisdom.

For waste-disposal companies that both delivered services and owned existing landfills, this could be a bonanza. It will be much easier to raise prices if consumers are well aware of an underlying cause for higher prices and are actually primed to expect price rises. That's pretty much what happened with waste-disposal costs, since we were, after all, running out of landfill space.

For well-meaning but under-informed environmentalists, this was a clear, visible, tangible easy cause.

For consumers, same thing--tangible way to do environmental good without much pain or need to adapt habits.

I believe there is a small, fourth category of environmental-movement types, who must have been well-informed enough to speak to the limitations of the benefits to be derived from recycling. However, from a strategic perspective, anything that raises awareness and makes it less convenient to consume should be a good thing. So I hypothesize that these "smarter" enviros would also have had this reason of their own to also jump on the recycling bandwagon.

There are two major flaws in that line of reasoning, though. One, I think people have a rather natural weakness to be drawn to "cheap grace". This means that successfully making the first, easy step of recycling would be more likely to motivate them to "quit while they are ahead", than it would encourage them to delve deeper into examining how they might further modify their behavior to benefit the environment. Two, even well-meaning people will have a very limited attention span for evaluating any given topic that they don't find intrinsically interesting; for better or worse, for most people, any topic that includes lots of details, the need to develop and maintain a complex mental model, and the need for sustained, subtle analytical thinking fits that category of "not interesting". So if you are going to try to get people's attention and ask them to make a change, you may want to spend your "attention capital" wisely--ask right away for a material change that will make a difference, not a relatively meaningless, confidence-building step.

So, to summarize, the focus on recycling let individuals feel good that they were "doing their part to save the earth", when they really weren't doing anything helpful, and furthermore, it foreclosed any subsequent claim on getting their attention to consider more meaningful changes.


Next in Part III: my best idea for a tactic that could maybe ultimately drive some significant behavior change.

Environmentalism Issue Strategy Memo, Part I

I've been reading various environmentalism-oriented anti-bottled water commentary on some blogs for the past few months, now the NYT has an article about it. The objection to bottled water is the impressive amount of energy and materials consumed to deliver a single serving-sized bottle of Dasani, or whatever your favorite brand is.

Personally, I have always been anti-bottled water because I think it is a teriffic waste of money. The idea of paying (retail) for drinking water galls me. What's next, air?

I am also sympathetic to the environmentally-based anti-bottled water objections. We do have both global warming and energy depletion to consider. A logical first step in addressing these problems is to just stop wasting, and that's what the bottled water issue seems like to me.

But.

Relatively minor issues like this carry a strategic risk for the environmental movemement(1), in my opinion. One school of thought would say that, by focusing on a something relatively easy and simple, the environmental movement can "bring people along". People get involved, ditching bottled water today, setting house temperatures more reasonably tomorrow, the week after that they start changing their driving habits, and maybe in a few years, they become a card-carrying member of the movement.

I don't think it works that way. The limits on how much energy [pun intended] people have to expend on abstract, optional issues, plus the natural tendency to avoid unwelcome change, conspire to subvert this kind of implicit, baby-steps strategy. Here's what actually happens.

Some people who drink bottled water quit or decrease their usage. Since water is generally available for free, that's a pretty easy thing to do, once you pass over the "energy hump" of deciding to do it. Those people now get to feel mildly virtuous. And they are done. They have expended all the time and devotion they have for the environment, for this year, on this one little issue.

And the people who never consumed bottled water in the first place? They go along for the ride--they get to feel even more virtuous, never having even taken up the "nasty" habit. Likewise, they, too, are done thinking about any environmentally-friendly changes they might make in the near future, having so recently conquered the bottled-water bogeyman.

Conclusion: the bottled-water issue is a reprise of the recycling issue. Part II examines the "motivation" for putting so much energy into these false paths.

________
(1) Of course there is nothing like a central or coordinated environmental movement setting strategy, that is a conceptual construct. Which is why it can't have anything like an effective, cohesive, prioritized, single-minded strategy.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Make Sign-In More Convenient w iGoogle

iGoogle requires you to click "Sign In" to get to the sign in screen. As opposed to having the sign in right there, which would definitely be more convenient. Seems to me a rare miss for Google in the useability department.

Why Can't Webex Have a Standing Meeting Res?

I've been using Webex a lot in my new job. It is pretty good, but definitely not great. One feature I would like is just a default, personal, standing meeting reservation. Sort of like a personal conference call number (something else I am using a lot these days). Would that be so hard?

POSTSCRIPT (2008-05-13) It essentially does. It turns out you can continue to indefinitely re-use an expired meeting. This is very non-intuitive, I remember I was dumbfounded when someone told me that was their practice.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Changing Workplace

It's interesting how the workplace is changing. For most of my 5 years at my last employer, I had multiple meetings a day. These were in-person meetings. Conference rooms, especially larger ones, were always in short supply. It was pretty rare for anyone to call in to a meeting. Usually if they did, it was because they were stuck in traffic, and they would call directly into the conference room. It was not standard practice to reserve a conference call for a given meeting.

We also had quarterly "Town Halls", where all of a large functional area, or even all of the Minneapolis-based employees, would attend in person. The socializing was as important as the presentation.

Then in the last 6 months, we merged with a similar-sized company in Philly. Every meeting was scheduled with a conference call. For a while, it was usually conference room calling conference room, but over time, it became less common to gather on location--easier just to call in from your desk. It even got to the point where the occasional all-Minneapolis meeting was nevertheless held via conf call.

This is very much the norm in my new company. My second day, I had 5 meetings--only 1 in-person. In the 5 days since, that is still the only in-person meeting I've attended!

Expirations on Voice Mail Greetings

The Cisco IP phone at my new employer has a nice voicemail feature--you can set an expiration datetime on your alternate greetings. Very handy.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Hottest 3 Weeks in Our 5 Years in Minnesota

Probably have had the air conditioner off only 3-4 days in the last 3 weeks, zero days in the last 2. By far the longest stretch we've had in our 5 years here. Turned if off today, and looks like we have a nice spell of weather ahead.

Directions in the Health Insurance Market

In late June, the Indianapolis-based hospital system announced that starting in 2009, it will fine employees $10 per paycheck if their body mass index (BMI, a ratio of height to weight that measures body fat) is over 30. If their cholesterol, blood pressure, and glucose levels are too high, they'll be charged $5 for each standard they don't meet. Ditto if they smoke: Starting next year, they'll be charged another $5 in each check.

I figured something like this was coming. In the course of changing jobs, I was considering going out as an independent contractor, and I applied for individual health insurance. I knew COBRA coverage for my family would have been about $1000, and I figured individually purchased would cost about the same. Not the case, though. Individually purchased insurance, as opposed to group insurance through the employer, is medically-underwritten, so that the 20% of applications that seem a bad risk are turned down.

I've wondered, over the years, that employers, at least the ones I have experience with, do not seem to make any effort or evaluation, when interviewing candidates, to avoid those that might be prone to have high medical expenses, for whatever reason (yes, I know, many of those reasons would be legally protected, but not all). That obviously creates something of an arbitrage situation. The Clarian proposal is really just a baby step--the next step after charging smokers more. However, if the Bush proposal to let individuals deduct their health insurance premiums were to pass (I believe that is now considered unlikely), I think that would open the door for a new strategy for employers.

Instead of providing the insurance themselves, they could just pay more in salary, and develop a relationship with insurers, to accomplish expedited underwriting. That way, an employee could accept a job offer contingent on being approved for insurance. The benefit to the employee would be potentially higher salary, plus insurance portability--it is their policy, guaranteed renewable, to take with them wherever they go.

If this practice were to spread, at some point it would hit "critical mass"--the employers that practiced this would have a cost advantage over those that went the traditional group route. Of course, it would put the squeeze on those with health problems/risks and pre-existing conditions, and would further highlight the problem of insurance affordability and medical inflation.

(Just to be clear, this post is not advocacy, pro or con, merely an exploration of a logical path of development.)

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

We're Okay

Just in case anyone is wondering, in light of the I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis. Obviously, many, many people aren't, though.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

LinkedIn--Swinging the Pendulum Back on Employment References?

When I first started my adult career, in 1987, employment references were quite routine. It was automatic that if you were applying for a job, the prospective employer was going to ask you for 3 references. Then along came a lawsuit, in which an employee who had received a very negative reference from his former supervisor, won a substantial settlement. In little more than an eyeblink, corporate America switched to a "no references" policy.

That was over a decade ago. The sad part is that the case in question (I'm too lazy to find and reference it) involved a deliberately defamatory reference. A good former employee, a spiteful former supervisor, lies and a lawsuit. There is little to no case law, AFAIK, for a good-faith reference causing a lawsuit. Nevertheless, the No References practice has become common policy.

It does seem like the actual observance has been weakening in recent years. People have figured out that former colleagues and even supervisors will typically give positive references, and may even give some degree of negative reference, perhaps in "code". I see LinkedIn accelerating this work-around, since it makes it SOOO much easier to find "backdoor references".

Friday, July 13, 2007

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Chinese Products Scandals

I'm surprised that the series of scandals over Chinese-made products and ingredients hasn't been a bigger story. Not that it hasn't been covered, but mostly as a series of one revelation after another. It would seem to me that at some point, that would become a mega-story. Just shows how hard it is to predict what news item will get "legs".

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Common Property for Google Widgets: What to Open

I'm slowly getting hooked on the iGoogle personal, configurable homepage. I would like to see the different widgets all have a common, settable property for how to "open" when expanded. Mostly this choice would be New Tab vs. New Window (assuming current tabbed browser editions); could include a pop-up small-browser; and where applicable, "custom default" (as for Google reader, where it has the lovely pop-up).

As Outdated as the Floppy Disk: Limiting Search Results to 10 Items

I can't believe this vestigal feature--defaulting the search results to 10 items--is still with us. AFAIK, it is a relic from the dial-up era that should be ditched. At the very least, the default should be set high, at 50, and the handful of dial-up users can set their own poxy default.

Maybe the is a server-side performance benefit is also keeping this alive?

Poor Useability As A Covert Way to Fleece Customers?

While on the subject of the EZ-Pass economy...we went to the taste of Minnesota a week ago, and found an unmanned pay lot in which to park. It had a kiosk which read credit cards and issued passes, which you put in your windshield.

Anyway, it was drizzling as we parked, so the family and I were huddled under umbrellas as I essayed my transaction. I swiped my credit card, the display blinked briefly, but nothing else happened. No selection menu, no confirmation screen, no ticket spitting out of a slot in front of me. Thinking it had been a mis-read, I swiped it again. Still nothing other than a transitory flash of the display. So then I tried a different card, same result. Finally, I closely read the instructions. They said something about "open the door and remove your pass from the drawer at bottom". So I slid open the door, and of course I found three passes. So I had effectively triple-charged myself for (3) $10 parking fees (adding insult to injury, about the same time, my kids spotted another lot, slightly closer to the event, charging $5!).

I will cop to a bit of "dumb user" error, but only a bit. Every other self-service machine I have ever used has some kind of intervening event between swiping your card, and completing the transaction. At a minimum, there is an "Are you sure? Press YES, and your card will be instantly debited for $10". Or they push out a ticket--in front of you, not behind a window, where you can't possibly miss it. For extra points, they don't permit a new transaction till the ticket has been removed.

(Postscript, not relevant to the main useability lesson: Anyway, I scoured the website if IM-Park, and utterly failed to find a number for reaching a human, so I resorted to calling their corporate switchboard, and two calls later, was able to leave a message, which actually was returned fairly promptly, with another message to me, instructing me to fax in the copies of the tickets; so I am guardedly optimistic that I will get a refund without further ado.)

Am I the only one who finds the timestamp to be a weird place for permalink in Blooger

No, I am not. This site commented on the same thing, and had a nice trick, which I implemented, to make the permalink obvious and CTRL-F findable.

Useability of ALT-TAB

I really like the tabbed browsing metaphor that FireFox pioneered/popularized. But. I also like the useability of ALT-TAB. I don' t know how much is key size and placement and how much is nearly two decades of practiced manual dexterity, but I find ALT-TAB to be invaluable for toggling between windows (as in cut-and-paste scenarios). I just haven't trained my fingers to do CTRL-TAB. Plus the fact that it enumerates through all tabs in the FireFox instance, rather than toggling.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Cringely on Universal UI Platform

Every time I struggle with the UI on a programmable thermostat, automatic sprinkler, or whatever, I think "how much better would it be if all intelligent devices (which is getting to be most devices) could be accessed via a PC interface?" Cringely touches on this in a recent column:

Think about anywhere you see a graphical user interface that isn't attached to a PC -- kiosks, high-end TV remote controls, touchscreens, ATMs, cell phones, digital cameras, VCRs, DVRs, GPS systems, set-top boxes, computer monitors, televisions, elevators, the Toyota Prius, medical equipment, Point of Sale systems, the "cash registers" at McDonalds -- everywhere, really.

In each case, the user interface was probably developed by a specialized team for specific hardware. The team may have limited training in GUI design or usability, the interface may not be portable across new device models, and the development tools may not be very evolved, which would slow the GUI creation process.

Flash potentially solves all those problems AND creates new opportunities.

Flash is well understood, and the development environment is highly evolved and therefore efficient. There are many experienced Flash designers, so the pool of available talent is potentially much larger. GUI design can be done by people who don't require intimately specialized knowledge of the underlying hardware. GUI elements would be portable across device models and even device categories. Think how the right-facing triangle of the "Play" button started on tape recorders, moved to VCRs, and is now on CD players, DVD players, DVRs, iPods, and any hardware or software that records or plays back content.

GUIs would evolve much more quickly and cost less to create. There could be standard interface libraries for all types of uses, and the similar GUIs would lower the learning curve for users. Talented interface designers would be in demand. User interfaces would be potentially upgradeable. More interesting, GUIs could be user-specific: the same cell phone might have a "Grandma interface" for one user, but a very different GUI for teens. And there's no reason why that should stop with cell phones.


Google Reader Widget Needs Font Size Pref

I love the Google reader "widget" that I have on my iGoogle page, and the way it creates an overlay for reading. I just wish I could set the font size larger.

Gmail doesn't let you archive draft emails

I was really surprised to find that I can't archieve my un-sent drafts. You know how it goes--those un-sent Drafts pile up, for various reasons. Sometimes because they are overtaken by events--you get a phone call from a person before you can send the message.

Yes, I could just leave them there, but that's messy, or I could delete them, but that seems like a violation of the core philosophy underpinning Gmail (never delete information). After all, 3 months down the road, I will find myself thinking "I swear I sent that email saying I didn't want to be chairman of the golf fund-raiser next year". Instead of searching for it and failing to find it, it would be nicer if I could search, and find it in an un-sent state, thus explaining why my memory was deceiving me.

Another Google Feat: Outstanding Spam Filtering

In my experience, very, very good performance with both filtering and avoidance of false positives. Server-based filtering, of course. One more reason to love Gmail. And it's free! I just did a check, I see that I have been using it just over 3 years now.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Easy Energy Saver: No-Heat Dry Dishwashing

I read some residential energy expert say that the average middle-class American family could cut their CO2 emissions without breaking a sweat. From an anecdotal perspective, I'm inclined to agree. I'm assuming he means just with short-term changes, not medium-term changes such as ditching the big SUV for something more economical.

The most recent example I stumbled on myself is the no-heat dry option in the dishwasher. I'm not sure, but I think only more recent dishwashers even have this option. Anyway, I have been using it, and it works very well. Glass and ceramics dry almost instantly. Plastics are slightly slower to dry, but only slightly. I would say that no-heat dry works 95% as well as heated drying. Ergo, the wastefulness of heated drying seems about as extraordinarily wasteful as "warming up" a car to run the defroster in order to get rid of some slight condensation!

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Promising LinkedIn Feature

Whose Viewed My Profile? is an interesting and tempting (to get you to upgrade your account) innovation.

E-Z Pass Economy, Electricity

NYT Article on the "Ez-pass economy": After an electronic system is put in place, tolls start rising sharply. Take two tollbooths that charge the same fee and are in a similar setting — both on highways leading into a big city, for instance. A decade after one of them gets electronic tolls, it will be about 30 percent more expensive on average than a similar tollbooth without it. There are no shortage of examples: the Golden Gate Bridge, the George Washington Bridge and the Tappan Zee Bridge, among them.

This is a great observation. I think an area where this principle exerts a bad effect is electricity--there is such a disconnection between consumption and billing that many people just don't internalize the value of turning off lights, let along replacing incandescent with CF, or easing up on the A/C.

Still Prefer Answering Machine to Voicemail

While on the subject of voicemail...I've avoided home voice mail for years. In part because I don't like the idea of paying a monthly fee. But also because I doubted that its useability would be as good as a dedicated machine. Well, I have recently had the chance to confirm that belief.

A few months ago we upgraded our phone service not so much because we wanted voice mail, or digital phone, or anything else, but because it was part of Comcast's three-fer $99 deal. So we got voice mail, but I immediately disabled it, prefering to stick with the answering machine.

Then the answering machine died (possibly due to that cat kicking it off the table), and in the interim, I decided to activate voice mail. I don't like it much, for three reasons. One, it is not as obvious as the flashing light on the answering machine (probably solveable with a more expensive, integrated handset). Two, it is much less convenient to access, compared to the "one-click" access for the answering machine. Three, we only get 1 mailbox, AFAIK, versus the 4 on the answering machine. Seeing as Beth gets 10x the messages I do, once we moved to the multi-mailbox answering machine, there was no going back to a shared mailbox for me.

All these objections are solveable, and probably have been solved in some implementations, but until they are there for me, ready for the taking, I'm sticking to the digital answering machine.

Monday, July 02, 2007

An old, unsolved problem: send to voice mail

Operators using corporate PBXs seem to be able to "send" a caller to voicemail, but they are about the only ones. When calling for someone, I would SO much prefer to leave a voice messsage for them, rather than try to dictate to spouse or child, and hoping it gets through. Likewise, when answering our home phone, I would greatly prefer to be able to bounce a caller into my kids' voicemail rather than try to take down details of the proposed outing to the local cinema.

Yet, AFAIK, this feature is pretty much unknown in homes. Perhaps many systems have some way to do it, but if so, the infrequency of use suggest there must be a learnability/useability bug with it. It needs to be very easy and very obvious to do.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

PowerPoint: Builds

Have you ever tried to follow a PowerPoint presentation via teleconference? Yes, I have heard of LiveMeeting/NetMeeting/Webex, but sometimes, well, those just aren't at hand. Anyway, it works pretty well, until you get into slides with complicated "builds". After three clicks in, synchronizing presenter and audience can get pretty tough. Which suggests a feature (admittedly, very much in the "bells and whistles" category) to show what "build state" the slide being presented is in (e.g., 4/6 would float somewhere near the slide to indicate the 4th build of 6 total).

Private Equity Like S&Ls?

I'm sure I'm not the first person to note this, but it seems to me the

The funds typically get 20% of profits in an up year, in addition to a (relatively) small "keep the lights on" management fee. In a down year, they collect the managmenet fee, but if there are no profits, they get no returns. However, I don't think there is typically a "carry forward of the losses". So in the world of private equity management, it is better to go 30, -40, 25 (average return to investors of roughly 5%, but fees of 11%), than to go 10, 10, 10 (average return to investors of 10% but fees of 6%). It's a bit like bookmaking, where the tie goes to the house.

So the motivation is to have some REALLY BIG years, even if that also means having some REALLY BAD years. It reminds me a bit of the pattern for the federally insured S&Ls that crashed 2 decades ago. If your worst-case is to lose nothing (because your government-sponsored insurance will cover any losses), then you almost, almost have a fiduciary responsibility to your investors to take huge risks, if they have a greater expected return than safer alternatives (and it is axiomatic that they should).

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Toaster Feature: Lever to Push Out Short Slices

I hate it when I have put a short slice of bread in the toaster (such as the end slices from a tapered loaf of rye), and can't get ahold of it to pull it out. This has to be a pretty common second-order design problem for toasters--even English muffins are problematic.

The solution I envision would be a pivoting lever, attached to the bottom of the bread carraige, that could be pressed on to push up the slice higher.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Idea for Money Magazine: Study of Bogus Charges

Recently I added a third line to my Sprint family plan. It normally costs $20 per added line, but they sweetened the deal considerably, giving me the line for $10/month, plus a 10% discount on my bill. That made the incremental cost about $3, cheap enough that it seemed like a no-brainer to pick up a third phone for the kids to share, when needed. But when I got the bill--almost indecipherable--it looked to me like the discounts weren't there.

I took it to the Sprint store. The salesperson first tried to tell me it was included, pointing at various line-item adjustments, where the discounts plausiblly could have been hiding, but weren't. I politely schooled him as to the incorrectness of his assertions, and he was persuaded. It was another 10 minutes to get a manager to figure it out, then 10 more minutes to get the right "codes" in the system.

As if that experience weren't bad enough, 3 months later, my bill reverted to the no-discounts version. I called Sprint and read them the riot act. After some research, and the usual opening bid of "your bill looks right to us", they again fixed the problem, but could provide no reasonable explanation as to how the codes got dropped.

I can't help thinking that we consumers lose a not insignificant amount of money to bogus charges like this. A few days before our trip last weekend, we decided to change motels. Beth canceled the original reservation well in advance, no problem. But when she checked our Visa statement after we returned, lo, there was a one-night charge for the rooms, corresponding to the advertised cancellation penalty. She called, and they removed the charge without a protest. But even if only 3% of people fail to call on such bogus charges, that represents a pretty significant net profit for the motel chain.

So anyway, my idea would be for Money Magazine, or maybe even better, Consumer Reports, to do a fairly comprehensive study to estimate the overall impact of such bogus charges. (Just to be clear, I am talking about totally bogus charges, as distinguished from "unfair" ones, like late fees, that do in fact meet the letter of the contract.)

Friday, May 04, 2007

Windows Power Management

Power management in Windows (XP) seems so iffy and unpredictable. Often, I will find a drained battery when I power up my laptop 4 hours after shutting it down at the end of the work day. What seems to happen is that after I invoke Shut Down on my laptop--which takes a bit of time, especially if connected to the corporate network--and I flip the screen closed, that action--flipping the screen--invokes Sleep mode. Instantly, thus over-riding the shutdown in progress.

Cisco VPN Seems to Interfere with Gmail

Couldn't find anything when I did a quick search, but it definitely seems like my Cicso VPN interferes with Gmail. Curiously, the rest of the Google family (Blogger, Docs) seems okay, just Gmail is the problem.

US Primary Schedule: Everybody First, Tragedy of the Commons

First California, then Florida is moving up their primary date. The U.S. primary system used to be both "fun", for political junkies, and useful, in that a "dark-horse" candidate could emerge and build momentum. But then the states that were later, and felt like they therefore had little influence, started pushing to move their dates up. This has been progressing for the least 3 or so election cycles, but it seems that the current situations is the culmination of it all. Seems to me like a variation on the "tragedy of the commons" pattern--a system that was good for many states and good for the overall polity has now been destroyed, to the gain of almost no state, and detriment of the overall polity.

Mortimer Zuckerman has an op-ed piece on this in US News. The compromise, involving a sequence of regional primaries, taking turns in going early, seems like a hope to salvage something. Not as interesting, quirky or raw as the traditional system, but better than nothing.

Feature Idea for Linked-In: Strong vs Casual Connections

LinkedIn can be potentially useful to the job-seeker when looking for an "in" or reference at a company. The problem I think is that one's network becomes bloated and diluted. In real life, leveraging a "friend of a friend" is not that easy, even if the friendships in question are significant. However, if one of those friends is really not so much a friend as an extremely casual acquaintance that you met for half an hour at a conference, getting them to do something for you is a pretty low-percentage play.

But how to keep one's network from getting diluted? It is sort of hard to turn down requests to link, that could be viewed as rather unfriendly, the last thing one wants to get from a social-networking site.

My partial solution would be for LinkedIn to provide a checkbox for you to indicate "solid contact"--close enough to ask for a favor with a reasonable expectation it would be acted on--versus "casual acquaintance". Then, when searching, you could select to search only your "solid contacts".

I say "partial" solution, because I see a couple of flaws on the downstream side of the search. One, people might not like it if others could infer, based on search results, who they do and don't consider a solid contact. And even if that weren't problematic, it would rely on other people being diligent in using the checkbox.

Still, even if the feature were implemented on the front-end only, it would be a case of "half a loaf, better than none".

The other thing that would help is if LinkedIn would make it much easier/quicker to see the path of linking.

Oh, and forget about 3rd degree contacts--those seem totally useless.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Putting Google Calendar in Google Blogs

The Google blogging tool (Blogger, which is the platform this weblog is maintained on) has a number of nice, very easy page-element customizations. One obvious thing it lacks is a customization for Google calendars. It wasn't too hard for me to find a work-around, but given the exquisite attention to detail the Google team has shown, I was surprised they missed this one.

(The work-around is to create a custom script frame, and then embed the code snippet that Google Calendar provides for embedding.)

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Why Is A Degree So Important, If the Employer Couldn't Tell?

This NYT article tells the story of a high-profile MIT Dean of Admissions who resigned because she had claimed she had college degrees when she in fact had not even a BS degree. She had worked her way up into her present position over the course of 28 years at M.IT., and apparently was extremely well-respected and liked at M.I.T. and elsewhere (she recently published a book on admissions). While it is hard to condone her gross resume padding, lost in the discussion seems to be the fact that her employer couldn't distinguish, objectively, that she lacked a college degree. It does beg the question, just a little bit--is it dumb for employers to treat a degree as the sina qua non of generic credentialing for knowledge workers? Shouldn't a degree be a "plus", one of many things that employers weigh when deciding to hire someone? And once hired--does it matter at all?

From a strategic-HR perspective, I have thought that it would be really smart to be open to non-degreed people. You would of course have to have a good, rigorous hiring process, rather than relying on the crutch of assessing their degree and grades, but if done right, you would be able to exploit a niche and attract good people for, say, the lower half of the market rate. And they would also be much more likely to stick around, since you would be one of few employers who would give them a shot even though they lack that precious college degree.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

I Wish Wal-Mart Sold Bike Clothing

Road biking is my new hobby. I try to ride 100 miles per week. 6 weeks into this season, I am doing well hitting that target. I've even gradually lowered my temperature threshold, so that I will go ride 20-25 miles on a 35-degree day, so as long as we keep having milder winters, I've contracted the off-season to 2-3 months. Not bad for this cold climate.

What really annoys me is the price of biking clothes. A pair of padded shorts, a synthetic t-shirt with a zippered neck and pocket in the rear, those articles cost $60 each (or more)?! I could never bring myself to pay that much, I get them off-season or on-line for more like $30, but that is as cheap as it gets.

It's another example of the "if you can't buy it at Wal-Mart/Sam's, you are paying too much" syndrome. I have to think that if Wal-Mart sold them, they'd by like $19.99. Or Sam's might have a 3-pack of assorted colors for something like $41.99.

Benefits of Subprime, ARMs for Conforming

Two more comments on mortgages...there is a good side to subprime. The mortgage market is much more flexible than it was a generation ago. This opens up the possibility for people without really good credit or a down payment to buy a home. Given that home ownership is widely considered A Good Thing*, then that is a real benefit.

The next thing I am worried about is ARM adjustments. Not just for the crazy subprime PoAs with ridiculous teaser rates, but for conforming mortgages on a 5/1 or 7/1 schedule. 2-3 years ago, those were being offered at rates of 4% or even a bit less, fixed for 5-7 years, then variable according to an index. No gimmicks there, just a reflection of the historically low rates at the time. But the fully-indexed rate on those could easily be 6.5% today, and possibly more in a couple of years (or less, we really don't know). It seems to me that there have to be more than a few A-credit homeowners who will feel the sting if their rate goes from 4% to 7+% (I know there are caps, it probably takes 2 years to get there).

Friday, April 20, 2007

Predatory Lending Distinguished from Bad Lending

There is a lot of news coverage of certain practices in the mortgage industry these days, particularly the sub-prime sector. I work in the industry, although more on the IT/Operations side, and as a relative short-timer at 5 years. But I certainly know enough to critique a lot of the news coverage.

To be clear, I take a pretty dim view of some of the practices that became popular in the last few years. Regarding the "liar loans", whereby borrowers mere state their income, without providing any proof (W-2 or Income Tax filing)--well, I have been bugging my more knowledgeable colleagues for years to provide me with a coherent and internally consistent explanation of their purpose. I never received one.

Regarding the practice of negative amortization loans (PoAs, for example) and qualifying borrowers based on the teaser rate of 1.5-2.5%, rather than the fully-indexed rate of 7% or so, well, it seems very clear to me that that is crazy stuff.

So we definitely have some bad practices that probably are never really in the consumer's interest, if we adopt a paternalistic viewpoint. However, that is not what is normally meant by predatory lending. That term refers to loans which contain excessive fees. Because mortgages are complicated, having many different factors and variants, and because they have so many related fees, it can potentially be difficult for a less incisive borrower to see that they are getting ripped off. So there are various state regulations against predatory lending.

The things we are talking about are a little bit different from classic predatory lending. The borrowers were not necessarily getting a bad deal--the fees and rates may have been in line with competitive benchmarks. What they were getting was a deal that they clearly couldn't afford. The mortgage originator wasn't necessarily receiving outrageous (aka, predatory) profits on the deal. No, the point of all the features that let the originator "bend the rules" was just to be able to make the deal happen, to qualify a borrower who would not otherwise be qualified.

Maybe this all seems like a difference without a distinction, but there is an important consideration. In the case of predatory lending, a fair and just resolution may be some kind of workout where the excessive fees are reimbursed. In such cases, it is reasonably to expect that the borrower can stay in their house. In cases where borrowers were qualified based on a very low teaser rate, or because they lied about their income (possibly with the encouragement of a mortgage broker), it is quite possibly or even probably unreasonable to think they can stay in the home. What is the workout--that they get to keep a 1.5% interest rate for 30 years?!

No, sadly, in those cases the best option is a sale. A smooth, well-planned sale that nets the best possible price, as opposed to a forced liquidation via foreclosure. They can't afford the house, they need to sell it. Unfortunately, the fly in that ointment is the fact that housing markets are softening, and the price the homeowner is likely to get may very well be less than they paid a year or two ago. Of course, many of those homeowners put very little down, so their economic downside (as opposed to the personal pain of selling and relocating and perhaps losing their dream of home ownership) is also limited.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Tire Air Pressure

As part of my 2005 New Year's resolution, to take excellent care of my car tires, I check the air pressure regularly. I have found that every 2-3 weeks is often enough. I bought a high-quality gauge (they have 'em cheap at Wal-Mart) that is accurate to about 1/4 psi. So my goal is to keep them within 0.5-1.0 psi of spec (excluding somewhat greater variations when outdoor temps change a lot).

The key--as with so many things in life--is convenience. Getting air at the gas station is often not so convenient. First, you have to find a station with free air that is on your commute. Then when you stop, you have to hope nobody else is using it, or not using it but parked in front of it (common at convenience stores). Then, you can assume it will not have a built-in pressure gauge, so you have to have yours with you. Then it is often cold and windy (here in MN).

My solution is just to use my hand pump, the same one I use for bike tires and the kids' balls. It typically takes about 8 pumps per psi, so not an undue amount of exertion. All in all, it is quicker than stopping at the gas station.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

How Stupid Is Yahoo

I was searching for a Yahoo group, call it somegroup@yahoogroups.com. First I just went to yahoo.com and pasted in somegroup@yahoogroups.com. Nothing found. Okay, I knew that was a bit lazy, so I took the time of going to www.yahoogroups.com and tried again to find somegroup@yahoogroups.com. Nothing. So then I thought "can they really be that stupid?" and dropped the "@yahoogroups.com". Voila!

If Yahoo can't trap a simple, very predictable user "error" like that, they are simply not paying enough attention to detail.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Getting Users to Print More

Vyomesh I. Joshi, the senior vice president in charge of Hewlett-Packard’s printing division, wants to know how to keep people printing and how to get them printing more. I have a tip for him, but he might not like it: cut the cost per page. Substantially.

I print a lot of stuff of the web, for off-line convenience reading. Just black plain text, so any printer has more than enough quality. All I care about is cost and speed. So I buy the laser printer with the cheapest possible consumables. Usually that means generic substitute cartridges. Brother is typically the best bet here, HP the worst.

I will grant that he has one idea I like: getting web formats that don't have an "impedance mismatch" with printing. THat would be most welcome. A fair amount of the stuff I print requires me to do a Select-All, copy to clipboard, then paste into Word for readable printing.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Disinhibited/Oblivious Behavior in the Rich and Powerful

Research findings cited by Conniff indicate are that rich or powerful people lose inhibitions, sometime in ways that get them in trouble. The particularly interesting aspect of this that the effect seems to be almost instantaneous--even in contrived situations, where an arbitrary person is given nominal power, the effect manifests.

The whole topic is interesting enough, and really doesn't seem so surprising when you think about it. The aspect I would like to see discussed more is the moral/ethical counter-balance that perhaps was sometimes more present pre-modernity. I am thinking of concepts such noblesse oblige, or Christian humility, which, when operative, could give rise to a strong, deeply felt internal check on such overprivileged behavior.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

New PCs Filled with Crapware

Mossberg has a column today on how the new PC experience is ruined by all the crapware (trialware, etc) that they install. He goes on to contrast it to the Apple experience, which is very clean. Definitely a great opportunity for Apple to differentiate itself. Would also be a good niche for a player in the Windows-compatible market. Infuriating to pay good money to put up with this!

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Age Discrimination in Employment?

This NYT article talks about another vanishing component of the private-sector "social safety net"--a reliable, steady procession of annual raises. It cites the recent Circuit City layoff of experienced, higher-wage workers, for the sole reason that they are higher wage workers. Not a RIF, not clearing the deadwood--they were going to be replaced, but with new hires who would start at the bottom of the pay scale.

It has always been obvious to me that there is no such thing as widespread employment age-discrimination, per se. The problem, so to speak, is the strong tendency for employees to get annual raises more or less automatically, without a clear link to their productivity. Like interest, this effect compounds quite significantly over time, to the point where a cold, analytical eye scanning a list of employees sorted by salary readily picks out some expensive outliers. They just happen to be older, because getting older is how you get more time-served (aka, experience).

None of this is to say that the pill is any less bitter for the experienced employee who gets laid off, with little prospect of being able to match their former salary. It is a painful break with expectations, with a perceived social contract. But it is not age discrimination.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Eating Your Own Dog Food In Other Industries

There is a notion in parts the software industry that it is a good and necessary thing to "eat your own dog food", meaning that the developers of a piece of software should be active, committed users of it. I think this ethos transfers well to other industries and environments...I thought of this when I heard a report about the filthy, dirty rooms in Walter Reed Army Hospital (not just the outpatient annex, but even in the main hospital). It seems to me that a good practice for management would be to make a point of spending a few nights in the hospital each year. I suppose arranging it and keep it secret could have complications, but the basic idea applies.

Another area I have always thought this approach would be useful is in "VIP" flagging of customer accounts. For instance, my wife worked in healthcare claims years ago, and they definitely flagged the claims of the customer's senior mangement for special-handling. If I were the customer, I would forbid this. Not so much out of egalitarian notions, but rather because if VIPs are getting special treatment, the very people who are the decision-makers regarding the insurance service provider are going to be screened from getting an accurate read on the quality of claims-payment performance.

Same thing for your local help desk--absolutely no VIP handling, until and unless a VIP demands it.

Friday, March 23, 2007

SharePoint's Members-Only Security Model a Flaw

SharePoint is a collaboration tool, but its default "private" security model really gets in the way of that. At least that's how it is set up where I work. Time and again, somebody will take time do do the right thing--post meeting notes in SharePoint, and email the link only to the meeting attendees, rather than just blasting out a quick email, for instance--only to receive a cascade of replies saying "I can't get in to the site".

I know, there is probably a setting in SharePoint administration not do that, but it's a bit like systems security—however it is set out-of-box is what matters, not how it can be set if you have the mental model and motivation to do so.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

TrackPoint Going Extinct?

I guess I'm out of luck if/when I buy a personal laptop. For all the years I've had laptops, provided by employers, they have had a trackpoint (the little nubby thing between the G-H-B keys). I believe IBM originated them years ago. Sometimes just a trackpoint, sometimes both that and the touchpad, leaving the user to choose. But I always choose the trackpoint.

Well, I was just wandering around Office Depot, idly checking out the laptops, and out of 14, not a one had the trackpoint. Ouch!

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Don't Overlook Wal-Mart for On-line Ordering

of books and other stuff. I just ordered a book from Wal-Mart, it was $2 cheaper than Amazon, and shipping was only $0.97, so that is another few bucks (Amazon has the advantage if over $25, of course, because slow shipping is then free).

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

How Doctors Think

I heard about 15 minutes of interview with the book's author (an eminiment doctor) on Fresh Aire. Very interesting stuff. Lessons:
  • Don't assume the doctor is infallible.
  • Definitely don't assume tests are infallible (he quotes an error rate of 30% on radiology!). Even if the test is theoretically perfect, there is always the possibility of human error resulting in you being given another person's results.
  • The simple practice of asking "what else could it be?" is cited as a way to move pysicians off their bias (common to humans in general) for latching onto the idea introduced initially.
A couple of times I have gone for second opinions, and when I do, I make it a point not to tell the second physician that I am there for a second opinion.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Run Capital Intensive Industries Round the Clock

The WSJ had a good article, written by a report hospitalized for a week with pneumonia, for a cost of $100,000+, on effective but expensive hosptial medical equipment. One observation was that, unlike other industries, new medical equipment seems to augment, rather than obsolete, old equipment, so the capital bill just rises and rises. It seems to me that this expensive equipment absolutely should be run around the clock. Shift-based discounts could be given if you were willing to come in for a CT scan at, say, 3 AM.

Likewise for airplanes and airports. Given all the problems with airport congestion, why are there no flights between 10 PM and 6 AM??

Mortgages: Liar Loans

You can't open the Business section of a newspaper these days and not read an article about the woeful state of the mortgage industry, notably the subprime sector. A lot of the misery in that sector is tied to "liar's loans": "No Documentation" and "Stated Income" loans that don't require a W-2 or tax return.

Despite having worked in the industry (more accurately, on the IT periphery) for the past 5 years, and having inquired of several people what the logic for those loans is, I have never received a really satisfactory answer. Supposedly it started as something for self-employed. Okay, I understand, if you are self-employed, you haven't got a W2; but you certainly should be able to produce a tax return.

Anyway, from that original purpose, the loans migrated to wage earners (i.e., non-self-employed) and worse, subprime. So any shred of rationale for the program was lost. Oh, I would hear justifications like "it's for people who are willing to pay a premium for the convenience of not having to go through the paperwork". Gimme a break! How much work is it to produce a pay stub and copy of your tax return? If someone is lazy enough to pay 0.25% more on their mortgage to skip that step, they are too lazy to pay their loan!

No, given the classic information asymmetry involved, the vast majority of people taking these loans must be lying. And in fact, the most recent article I read said that, in an audit-style study, 90% of people did exaggerate their income, and 60% of them by more than half!

Salespeople Flogging Mortgages

A key difference in the world of retail mortage over the last 15 or so years, I think, is the emergence of an "active sales" model. 18 years ago, when we got our first mortgage, two things were different. One was what it took to qualify--I remember being right on the edge of qualifying to be able to borrow what we thought we reasonably comfortably could afford, to buy the condo we wanted. Now, what the originator would be willing to lend me, as a percentage of income, is downright scary--they do not care if I eat, as long as I can make the payment!

The other thing that is SOOO different is the role of the mortgage broker. When I needed a mortgage, I checked a few newspapers ads, called a couple of banks, picked the one that seemed to have the best rate, and made an appoinment with a loan officer. They asked some questions, and then told me how big a 30-year fixed loan I qualified for.

Nowadays, many people have "their" mortgage broker like they "their" insurance agent. The industry has gone this way for various reasons, but the relationship with the broker had been heightened by the prolonged period of declining interest rates, during which many, many people (wisely) re-financed 2 and even 3 times over the course of a half-decade or less.

Nothing against mortgage brokers, there are plenty of good and ethcial ones. But--there are some who aren't. And they are pushing mortgages at people. They even adopt the lingo of a used car sales salesperson: "I can put you into X house for X payment".

I know, I know, nobody held a gun to the homebuyer's head. But I do believe that some substantial number of people were, to some extent, enticed into mortgages--albeit of their own freewill--that they would not have walked into in the old model. I'm not saying "there oughta be a law"; it is just an observation on the state of affairs.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Streets & Trips Feature Idea: One-click Directions + Map

I've been a fan of MS Streets & Trips for a few years now. As nice as, say, Google maps is, the thick-client advantage for mapping applications is huge. I tend to like maps, Beth tends to like printed directions. So I often wind up printing both, but that uses two pages. A nice technique I only discovered in the past year is to copy the directions to the clipboard , and then paste them into a textbox overlayed on (an unimportant section of) the map view.

MS has included very nice, intelligent copy commands, so it isn't too much trouble to do this. But a 1-click command, PlaceDirectionsIntoTextboxOnMap, would be--as my kids say--sweeeet. Odds are that it would have to be hand-tweaked after placement, but automating the copy-insert textbox-paste would provide very nice start. And it would lead less sophisticated users to the technique, which they might otherwise never discover.


Saturday, March 10, 2007

Strategy: iTunes Influence in Music Industry

The WSJ has an aritcle discussing the influence of iTunes in the music industry. The part that sticks out for me is how they don't follow the simple, obvious, somewhat crass business model of promoting whoever pays the most. While they are hardly "pure"--they definitely want something in exchange for front-page promotion--it is much more subtle and thoughtful than "payola". They look for exclusive material instead of cash.

So they are much closer to pure in terms of being a reliable taste-maker, instead of just another purveyor of unwanted commercial messages. Very effective strategy.

Twin Cities Biking Season IS ON

Okay, 5 straight days of good biking weather, sunny and mid-40s into the 50s. So I am declaring my personal spring biking season OPEN. I had 2 pre-season rides 2.5 weeks ago. Before that, the last riding for me (I'm good above 40, might venture 35 and sunny for 10 miles) was New Year's Weekend. So that makes for a 10 week off-season. Not bad for this cold clime. Although the last month of fall/winter was marginal, limited good days, and probably the same will hold for the spring.

Google Bus System

Google is running its own bus system. Very interesting stuff. Of course most companies would never even think of doing this, but if they did, fleetingly, entertain the suggestion, they would instantly dismiss it as having nothing to do with their core competency. Google's ceaseless innovation mindset, not confined to products, but extending to process and culture, reminds me of Wal-Mart and Toyota.
As much as it is a generous fringe benefit or an environmental gesture, the shuttle program is a competitive weapon in Silicon Valley’s recruiting wars.
A secondary advantage a Google has is the "Disney effect" of providing a pleasant, upscale, "people like us" ridership, thereby mitigating one hidden objection to mass transit. No risk of having gun-toting, anti-social co-riders.
When I was at Otis Elevator 20 years ago (1988), it hadn't been so long since full-time working mothers had become a totally mainstream phenomenon. Child-care was a big issue. I remember at some kind of employee HR meeting, someone noted that it would be really convenient to have on-site child care. HR, in a somewhat typically condescending way, responded by first agreeing, in a pseudo-empathetic way, that yes, that would be nice; but, "you know, we're just not in the child-care business", so it can't be done. Within 5 years, on-site day-care started to become somewhat common. Not run by the employers, but by co-located out-sourcers.

EXCERPT:
In Silicon Valley, a region known for some of the worst traffic in the nation, Google, the Internet search engine giant and online advertising behemoth, has turned itself into Google, the mass transit operator. Its aim is to make commuting painless for its pampered workers — and keep attracting new recruits in a notoriously competitive market for top engineering talent.
And Google can get a couple of extra hours of work out of employees who would otherwise be behind the wheel of a car.
The company now ferries about 1,200 employees to and from Google daily — nearly one-fourth of its local work force — aboard 32 shuttle buses equipped with comfortable leather seats and wireless Internet access.
...
As much as it is a generous fringe benefit or an environmental gesture, the shuttle program is a competitive weapon in Silicon Valley’s recruiting wars.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Style Over Substance

Paul Graham: "A few years ago I read an article in which a car magazine modified the "sports" model of some production car to get the fastest possible standing quarter mile. You know how they did it? They cut off all the crap the manufacturer had bolted onto the car to make it look fast."

Monday, March 05, 2007

Arab Democracy

Azure.org:
the West performed a dual function in the inculcation of liberal democracy in the Middle East. On the one hand, Britain and France acted as political mentors, helping to move Arab societies towards full independence; they aided in the establishment of a political system that would guarantee fair competition between parties, freedom of speech and inquiry, freedom of assembly, and equal rights for women and minorities. On the other hand, the Powers also sought to promote their own strategic interests and bolstered the status of political forces loyal to the West. This duality inevitably resulted in a deep mistrust of Western forms of government in the Arab world: Arabs largely perceived it as a fraud, an illusion intended to distract them while the West perpetuated its domination of the Middle East. They came to regard democracy as a synonym for the underhanded promotion of foreign interests. This is where the Gordian knot of the Arab democratic question emerged: The West was seared into Arab consciousness as a liberator that is also a conqueror, and liberal democracy as a solution that is also a problem.

British Spelling of "Canceled" Mysteriously Taking Hold

For some strange reason, it seems like the British spelling of canceled (cancelled) is becoming increasingly common in the United States. In a meeting today, someone was writing on the whiteboard, and paused after the first "l" to ask "how do you spell canceled?" Right away, someone piped up "l-l-e-d".

I did manage to stifle my internal pedagogue.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Automatic Backup-to-Net

Here's a business-technology idea...a background feature that automatically backs documents up via the internet, as you work on them. Just as MW-Word, Excel, etc can auto-save in the background, this would auto-save to your personal backup repository in the "internet cloud". A key feature would be that no configuration or filing would be necessary--it just happens automagically.

Another important design consideration is the "find, don't file" metaphor Gmail uses. So no need to specify where to file.

Of course, this feature would be a slam-dunk for Google...

Postscript--just tried Google Docs and it essentally has the feature, of course--including the no-file-folder option.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Real Winter in Minnesota

This is as much snow as we had in our 5 winters here. Back-to-back 1-foot-plus snowfalls. Kids are enjoying it. Too bad it didn't come early in the season; though they say March is the snowiest month. A couple more and we might be up to an average snowfall.

The snow, along with the 2+ weeks of frigid temps, almost makes it like one of the winters of yore.

Getting Widescreen TVs on the Right Aspect Ratio

It always bugs me when I am in a restaurant/pub that has TVs showing standard 4:3 broadcasts, and they have the TVs set to "wide" mode. It also surprises me that other people either don't notice or don't care. (This would include the rest of my family, as it happens; I'm the only one who ever switches the aspect ratio on the TV.)

"Think Small" Article on Housing

A good NYT article on ultra-small stand-alone housing options. Interesting stuff. Not exactly what I have been thinking about (Good Design Reduces Need for Raw Space), but definitely in the same spirit.

Friday, March 02, 2007