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.


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.