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.