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.)