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.

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
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