Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Why Are the Search Functions on Newspaper Web Sites So Poor?

(This was drafted on 12/07/08) In this morning's Washington Post I saw an article on a book called "Buyology", by one Martin Lindstrom. I wanted to read the article at my leisure, so I went online to look it up and email it to myself. I searched for "Buyology", figuring that would be sufficient. And I thought it was when I saw the results, it looked like I had a direct hit--the only result included the same photo that had accompanied the article. But when I clicked on it, it turned out that the link was only for the photo.
So then I searched the Washington Post site for "Buyology" and "Martin Lindstrom". This time I got a couple more results, including a review of his book from back in October, but still not today's featured article. My next step was Google News search: "buyology + washington + post". Bingo, first result.
I seem to experience similar behavior when I search within my local paper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Except, if anything, it is worse. I haven't ever bothered to analyze what is going on, but many, many times I search for an article I saw in the last few days, and either can't find it, or it is buried very, very deep within a lot of goofy results.
There is a lot of speculation in the air about how endangered print newspapers are, and that the ones which will surivive are those that will find a good transition to the web. Given the difficulty they have executing the basics on the web, I have my doubts. Read Dave Winer's article "A Plan B for News".

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Playing Football with the Flu

The Giants played their center, Justin Tuck, even though he had the flu. All through the game, it looked like he was struggling, and at the very end, he had come out. Maybe there is a detail I am missing, like the Giants backup center just broke his leg or something, but barring that, I just don't agree with playing a guy who has the flu. No matter how tough and how medicated, I don't think an "A" player fighting the flu is going to be effective as a healthy "C" player.

Mini-USB Charging Jacks

Pogue: Hail to every BlackBerry, cellphone, Bluetooth headset, Palm organizer, e-book reader, music player, cordless mouse and G.P.S. receiver that recharges through a mini-U.S.B. jack! No more big black power transformers — recharge from your laptop. It's the dawn of the universal, fully interchangeable power cord.
This is a great development, long overdue.

Power Stick

Wow, this sounds very cool. And MUCH cheaper than a second battery! The shuts off power when charging complete part is significant, too--I think that spending too much time on chargers contributes to the poor battery performance of modern devices.

POWER STICK Speaking of those hideous black wall warts [chargers]: you don't need them if you have a PowerStick ($65, It's a tiny universal gadget charger, the size of a stick of Wrigley's, that draws its power from your laptop's U.S.B. jack.

It comes with nine short cables for the opposite end, made to fit the power jacks of common cellphone brands (LG, Sony Ericsson, Samsung, Nokia), the iPod or iPhone and anything that gets its power from a mini- or micro-U.S.B. jack (see above).

First, you travel very, very light. (I haven't packed my cellphone adapter in a year.)

Second, the PowerStick does more than charge your gadget; it also stores a second charge, so that you'll be able to do another recharge in the field, without the laptop. (A cool "fuel gauge" lets you know how full it is.) Finally, a processor shuts off the power when the charging is complete, which saves electricity and, according to the company, prolongs your gadget's life.

Cell Phone Feature: Power Reserve Mode

It's great that cell phones can do so many things, but for most of us, emergency/short-notice communications device is by far the most important one. It's nice to play MP3's from my phone, but I don't want to run the battery to nothing doing that, and have it fail me at a crucial moment. So I would like to have a "reserve mode" feature, in which a cell phone pauses non-critical features, to warn you that battery life has dropped below 20%.

Noted that this may be the kind of feature that sounds good on paper, but adds more complexity to the platform than the feature is worth, if it causes flaky or unreliable behavior (like Windows Power Management has been known to).

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

NWA Flight Status Consistently Not Working?

My wife's flight was supposed to leave Cincy at 10:00 CST. Since 9:30 CST I have been checking the status on the NWA site, and there is no update beyond "scheduled". It is not 10:23. I was fed up enough, I hunted down another flight-status tracker, flighttracker, to see if it could do better. Sure enough, it told me the plane left at 9:15, and gave me an updated ETA.

This is the second time very recently something like this has happened. On her originally scheduled departure date, her destination, Albany, was due for a severe ice storm. We were 95% sure the flight would be canceled. But as of 3 hours before the flight, the NWA site still showed it as scheduled. Beth wound up calling NWA, and then they told her "oh yeah, that flight has been canceled".

Maybe this is just bad luck, but I am not impressed.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Teaching Pay Structure: Discourages Mid-Career Switchers

Okay, we already know that teacher pay is not great, and nobody goes into the field to get rich. However, there is an additional problem, that would really penalize anybody from switching into the field mid-career. That is the fact that raises are pretty much 100% tied to time served. If you become a teacher at the age of 40, there is no way to make up for 18 years of lost ground.

Whereas in fields where employers are free to pay for performance, someone who switches professions mid-career, if they along the learning curve fairly quickly, may quickly find themselves making a wage comparable to someone who has been in the field much longer.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Comment Reader Needed for Blogger

Few people read my blog, and slightly fewer than that comment on it. So I don't read comments regularly, though I do make it a point to catch up on them. And when I do, I always find myself scrolling through lots of posts, finding the few that have comments. Every time I do this, I find myself thinking "there must be some kind of comment-reader utility in Blogger".

This time I took a little time to search. I think I found the closest thing, which is the Moderate Comments option in settings.

What I am thinking of is a kind of view that would make it very quick to see only my posts that have comments, and to read those comments. I think the ideal would include:
  1. A running list of posts, with the comments below.
  2. The post itself would be presented in outline form (first couple of lines, then the rest collapsed, uncollapsible via a quick "Ajax-architecture" plus button.
  3. Something similar for the posts, though the unit for them might be 6-10 lines.
  4. A way to "Mark As Read".

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Swiss-Army Cell Phone?

I have been interested in the long list of gadgets that the cell phone has subsumed. Here's an idea for another function to add to the cell phone: an LED flashlight. No, definitely not a major "game changer", but it could be kind of convenient, from time to time. Perhaps not worth the space and expense, but who knows, there might be use cases for it.

3/18/2010 Postscript: I have found this feature on a phone in the wild. Ironically, it is on the cheapest phone in our household--a $20 pay-as-you-go phone that my son got when he broke his real phone.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Even NYT Gets "Black Friday" Etymology Wrong

The venerable NYT committed this error:
Black Friday is named for the day when, historically, retailers moved into
the black, or became profitable for the year.

Although, I suppose, from the standpoint of a descriptive dictionary, this usage is steadily gaining ground versus the original usage (from Wikipedia):

The earliest uses of "Black Friday" come from or reference Philadelphia and refer to
the heavy traffic on that day, an implicit comparison to the extremely stressful
and chaotic experience of Black Tuesday (the 1929 stock-market crash). The earliest known reference to "Black Friday" (in this sense), found by Bonnie Taylor-Blake of the American Dialect Society, refers to Black Friday 1965 and makes the Philadelphia origin explicit:

JANUARY 1966 -- "Black Friday" is the name which the Philadelphia
Police Department has given to the Friday following Thanksgiving Day. It is not
a term of endearment to them. "Black Friday" officially opens the Christmas
shopping season in center city, and it usually brings massive traffic jams and
over-crowded sidewalks as the downtown stores are mobbed from opening to

Laptop Keyboards--No Two Alike

I am visiting my parents and using my mother's laptop. It is a full-sized machine, so the keyboard is not particularly cramped, but it is always a discomforting adjustment to use an unfamiliar laptop, since the layout of certain crucial keys always differs. Since I am a fairly aggressive user of standard Windows keyboard shortcuts (End, Home, Alt-Tab, Esc), this probably affects me a bit more than the average user.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Cranky Medical Residents

This article is on the general topic of how dangerous hospital physicians with bad tempers can be for the overall effectiveness of the system. However, the reference, quoted below, to a cranky, sleepy resident who couldn't be troubled, particularly interests me.

The American Medical Association frequently publishes articles calling attention to the health implications of people not getting enough sleep. But their industry is the absolutely, positively worst violator. What medical residents go through is insane.
It was the middle of the night, and Laura Silverthorn, a nurse at a hospital in Washington, knew her patient was in danger.

The boy had a shunt in his brain to drain fluid, but he vomiting and had an extreme headache, two signs that the shunt was blocked and fluid was building up. When she paged the on-call resident, who was asleep in the hospital, he told her not to worry.

After a second page, Ms. Silverthorn said, “he became arrogant and said, ‘You don’t know what to look for — you’re not a doctor.’ ”

He ignored her third page, and after another harrowing hour she called the attending physician at home. The child was rushed into surgery.
How much of a contributor is sleep deprivation?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

When All Else Fails, Remember to Try Firmware Upgrade

I recently ordered a Jabra BT8010 wireless stereo bluetooth headset. I found my previous wireless headset, a Plantronics Voyager, to be slightly flaky in regard to establishing and maintaining its bluetooth connection. This one, however, has been terrible. The funny thing is, the music connection worked flawlessly, it was the phone connection that was hard to establish.

I got so frustrated, I put it in the drawer a couple of weeks ago. For some reason, I thought more about it today, and it occurred to me that I should consider a firmware upgrade. So I did the upgrade, and tried the phone again. Based on about 30 minutes worth of data, and holding my breath, but it seems to have cured the problem.

So that is a good reminder--when experiencing problems with electronics, don't forget to try the firmware upgrade. In fact, it is probably a good idea to try it sooner rather than later--you don't have to wait till all else fails!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Nokia xPress 5610--Failing on the Fundamentals

My new cell phone, a Nokia xPress 5610, looks pretty cool, since it is so small and slim.

Unfortunately, all the effort seems to have gone into cramming all the expected features of a contemporary phone, into this tiny package. What seems completely lost is useability as a phone! (Unless perhaps all Nokias work like this--this is my first Nokia in years--in which case it is solely the fault of bad design, and not attributable only to the super-small form factor).

The general theme is waaaay too many button presses to do anything. The best example is mute--a crucial feature in a cell phone. Should be 1 easy click to mute/un-mute, and it should be obvious, at a glance, whether the phone is muted. Not here--to activate mute you have to: 1) invoke the menu; 2) navigate to the Mute option; 3) click Mute.

There are many other examples. Another thing that should be very, very easy is putting the phone on vibrate. In my prior phones, you could do this by just holding the volume switch down. On the Nokia, it requires: 1) access the menu (or, if you set it up, the shortcut); 2) click the menu option for "profiles"; 3) that brings you to a choice of profiles, you have to navigate to the one you want; 4) click the one you want; 5) here is the worst part--after you click it, you have to select "activate".

The whole thing is bad, but even half-way software competent design would eliminate step #5--activate is what you access 99% of the time, so it is what you get when you do a full "click" on the profile. IF you want to do something else (that would be the obscure actions of Customize or Timed), well, that is what the soft buttons are for!

The phone is billed as a "music" phone, but it really doesn't do anything special in that regard, either. As far as I can tell, slapping 3 buttons--fast forward, pause, rewind--on the outside makes it a music phone. The only one of those that is particularly useful is the pause button, which could as easily just be replaced by the center click. And that seemingly uses up all available space for external buttons, so the other stuff that is usually activated by them--camera, voice recorder--is all buried within the standard menu. UPDATE: In fact, the buttons are more of a bug, because they are easily activated a la "butt calls"--an unforgivably, there is no option to lock the handset during music mode. That is just plain stupid.

This phone is like an uncomfortable, unreliable car that you buy just for its looks. I would not recommend it or pick it again (I knew I hadn't done enough research, but took a chance). It violates the basic commandment of design--above all else, do the essentials well.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Obama Appointees

Obama seems to have dispensed with the romantic and failed notion that you need inexperienced "fresh faces" to change things. After all, it was L.B.J. who passed the Civil Rights Act. Moreover, because he is so young, Obama is not bringing along an insular coterie of lifelong aides who depend upon him for their well-being.
Interesting point--my italics. Because the "fresh faces" concept doesn't seem to work so well, but then again, neither does the status quo.

Design Before Writing Requirements?

Not a bad article, I agree with a lot of it, this was the best part:
By nature domain understanding does not lead to specification. Understanding suggests design. A very important part of design is limits. When design is allowed to bubble up from understanding it’s easy to put the limit of the design into places that are logical for the domain. In contrast to design, requirement definition is limitless. The requirements gathering process typically goes on until someone says “I think we’ve got enough now”. That arbitrary stopping point becomes a design limit and hobbles further system development.
The solution is to write the requirements after the design is created so that the scope will be defined.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

New Google Background

The Gmail sign-on page now has the sign-on dialog screen displayed translucently, with a pretty photo of a mountain scene in the background. It looks cool, but seems to me to go against the Google spirit of minimalist, sleek, clean, uncluttered, fast-loading pages. First impression--no value delivered.

Gadgets and Functions a Cell Phone Can Replace

These articles discuss the various gadgets that cell phones have replaced. I was thinking about that the other day. In fact, I was making a list of the things my next cell phone has to do.

Miscellaneous observations:

Better software is the way to accelerate this. Until the advent of the iPhone and Google Android, you get whatever is pre-installed. And that is usually very mediocre--the cell phone makers definitely have the checklist mentality for features: it just has to be adequate to get checked off as being present, there is no concept whatsoever of striving for excellence in design, a la Apple.

Key features I am looking for:
1. eReader platform. I think cell phones will kill off eReaders before they ever get going. A big-screen cell phone will be adequate for incidental reading. If you want more than that, why buy an eReader when you could have a Netbook, for the same or less money.
2. GPS. I may be hoping for too much--I'm not paying $10/month forever to have a cell phone GPS.
3. Good note-taking.
4. This is a far-off dream: universal remote control.

I think something that would increase useability would be a Launchy-style interface, to get a them quickly. Although maybe with the real-estate of a large-screen phone, you could have everything you use frequently on the desktop.

Note taking has got to get much better; I think the design goal would be that jotting a very short reminder note should not take more than 2x as long as on paper, including time to access the app. Also need good integration with voice notes. That would include develop a user-based voice to text profile that is persistent (doesn't have to be started anew with a new handset). Google would have a big advantage here, with its huge database from Goog 411.

A spin-off article I saw listed the gadgets that would not be replaced by cellphones, along with the reasoning, related to functional issues. Two of them listed were: 1) Calculator 2) Alarm Clock. Interestingly, one of my children uses her phone exclusively for each of these functions, even though she has recourse to the traditional, purpose-built alternatives.

So I think there are two main factors holding back wider usage of cell phones for some auxiliary functions, such as these. One is age, and the habits that accumulate with age. As Steve Jobs famously said, death will take care of that problem. The other is the design factor alluded to above.

I believe with thoughtful design, a modern cell phone can be made to work very well for almost any given function. For the design challenge of the snooze button on the alarm, for instance, the phone could automatically go into an "any key snooze" mode, similar to the any key answer feature. As a bonus, software applications running on a modern phone--which is very much a full-functioning hand-held cmputer--probably can offer features that don't exist on the old technology (such as switching between standard infix notation, and HP-style reverse Polish postfix notation for a calculator).

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Neatness Counts at Kyocera and at Others in the 5S Club

I worked at Otis Elevator when 5S was religion. I am probably a hypocrite and short-sighted, but while I see its benefits in the factory, as an office worker, I say yuck, this seems like a joke that I am going to be more productive because I always put my stapler back in the same place.

Although the example of handling printer output does resonate with me. That is always a big problem. A simple, minimalist solution would be to have bins for each day. At the end of the day, the designated person puts all remaining output into the bin for that day. When the new week rolls around, anything still in the Monday bin gets tossed.

I note that the key difference is that example refers to a highly-shared area, not the personal space of a knowledge-worker.

Stupid Stuff: When Was that Picture Taken?

When looking at photo files in Windows File Manager, there are a slew of additional attributes (columns) that you can add, if you want to. Why in the world would M$ not have made "Date Picture Taken" (not the same as file Created date) one of those defaults??

SharePoint should work more like Google Docs

One big problem with SharePoint is that the permissions have to be provided at a macro level, in advance, by the SharePoint admin. In cross-functional projects at large companies, this makes it inconvenient to use SharePoint for the ad-hoc workgroups that often get pulled together in big companies. So what happens?--business as usual, i.e., passing around email versions, getting mixed up as to what is current, and generally clogging the Exchange server with large attachments.

Google docs works so much better. You create a document, and then invite people to collaborate. You can set rules that allow or disallow your invitees from inviting others.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Free Software

This article talks about the uptick in for-profit business using free software, instead of the entrenched, default option of MS-Office. I'm all for anything that breaks the M$ tax. I must say, though, that the way Excel is often used as a convenient, ad-hoc data-exchange format is going to be hard to replace with Google spreadsheets.

Online Advertising

Dave Winer says online advertising is soon to be dead (whatever dead means). I generally wish Google well, but I have long believed that oneline advertising is over-rated.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

One Fell Swoop

A curious phrase. Nice explanation here.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Thomas Friedman:
The blame for this travesty not only belongs to the auto executives, but must be shared equally with the entire Michigan delegation in the House and Senate, virtually all of whom, year after year, voted however the Detroit automakers and unions instructed them to vote. That shielded General Motors, Ford and Chrysler from environmental concerns, mileage concerns and the full impact of global competition that could have forced Detroit to adapt long ago.... Giving G.M. a blank check — which the company and the United Auto Workers union badly want, and which Washington will be tempted to grant — would be an enormous mistake.
Normally I am against "white-knight thinking", but I have to say, Robert X. Cringely's suggestion is intriguing:
Somebody ought to call Steve Jobs, who doesn't need to be bribed to do innovation, and ask him if he'd like to do national service and run a car company for a year. I'd bet it wouldn't take him much longer than that to come up with the G.M. iCar.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Google Flu-Tracking

Wow, clever:
Google Uses Searches to Track Flu's Spread

Google is tracking the ebb and flow of Web queries like "flu symptoms" or "muscle aches" in an effort to identify outbreaks.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

How Phonebooks treat SIM cards

I really don't understand. Having replaced a couple of phones under warranty, the SIM card is really the core of "your" phone, much more than the rest of the handset. So why the heck is the default to store contacts on the phone, not on the SIM card? You can move them, but as far as I can tell, only one at a time. Makes zero sense to me.

Postscript: this thread gives some clues. It seems that you need the contacts on the handset to have pictures or ringtones associated with the contact. Okay, that is presumably a hardware constraint, but it still strikes me as exposing WAAAYY too much implementation to the user. Why not just duplicate the contact in both places, if the user chooses to associate a ringtone to it? Why make them have to think about this stuff?

Friday, October 31, 2008

What Does the Recession Really Mean?

Here is what I wonder about...on a vast, global scale, what does a recession and economic crisis really mean? I think I have a decent grasp of capitalist economics 101. I understand that if a person, or demographic, or maybe even an entire country, has over-consumed and under-saved, they will have failed to accumulate the capital necessary to invest in a future. I get that, for the scope of an "open system".

But in scientific terms, the global economy is a closed system. There is no external creditor to borrow from. So I can't quite get my puny mind around what the implications are on a global scale. Why does there have to be a crash? Why can't we all just more or less keep doing what we have been doing?

I mean, I could understand a global economic crunch caused by a non-economic event, like war, or by a critical resource shortage. That I get. But I don't really, deep down, understand what is different, except that there is a crisis of confidence. Is it that simple? That could do it--if one day we all wake up, and decide to not spend a dime, that would cause the gears of commerce to grind to a halt. Paul Krugman alluded to that in his "Consumers Capitulate" column.

Or is the explanation more subtle? Have we felt flush for years, and been too willing to spend money on frivolities, such as meals out or manicures, for example? And now, as we come to realize that our net worth's aren't what we thought, and our incomes aren't going up like we thought they would, are we generating an economic dislocation, by suddenly shifting our consumption preferences? So we have too many restaurants and cosmetologists, and too few appliance repairmen (to keep our old appliances going, instead of buying new ones)?

Consumers Capitulate

Krugman: To appreciate the significance of these numbers, you need to know that American consumers almost never cut spending. ..So these data are basically telling us what happened before confidence collapsed after the fall of Lehman Brothers in mid-September, not to mention before the Dow plunged below 10,000. Nor do the data show the full effects of the sharp cutback in the availability of consumer credit, which is still under way. So this looks like the beginning of a very big change in consumer behavior. And it couldn't have come at a worse time.

It always does come at the worst time.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Tapping 401k for Mortgage Payments

There have been bills introduced to allow distressed homeowners to tap their 401k's, without penalty, for mortgage payments. I think this is generally a bad idea, from a social-policy standpoint. Although it is wrenching for a family to lose their house, they can recover. Displaced homeowners will find somewhere else to live--maybe an apartment, maybe renting a house in the same neighborhood, maybe even renting their own house. I don't want to minimize what a blow this would be, but from society's point of view, these are acceptable outcomes.

Whereas if people raid their 401k's in order to make mortgage payments, they are going to arrive at retirement, 20 or 30 years down the road, with nothing. And that is a social problem. So better to lose the house and downsize now, than be without a living in retirement.

Modern-Day Pirates

I have read a lot recently about modern-day pirates, particularly off the cost of Somalia. Here's what I don't understand--why can't large shippers use technology to foil them? Just like banks have panic buttons by every teller, a ship could have multiple panic buttons, that wirelessly set off a dozen hidden transponders.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Counting Calories Is Fundamental

For the last few decades, the most popular diets were complex formulas that promised abundant eating with just the right combinations of fat, protein and carbohydrates. Now those regimens are starting to look like exotic mortgages and other risky financing instruments. And just like a reliable savings account, good old calorie counting is coming back into fashion.
Yep, this seems pretty reasonable. There are some secondary considerations to what kind of calories you consume--more calories are used turning protein into stored fat than turning fat into stored fat--but the primary factor is just the number of calories.

I take the same view of calories in relation to exercise. I have always believed, for those interested in weight-control and general conditioning, that total number of calories was probably the most important factor. (Training for finely-tuned competitive althletes, seeking to maximize performance, may have more subtleties.) Likewise, in terms of fitness and especially weight-loss benefits, I think that total calories burned is more important than which zone you are in, or what your heart-rate is. (Although some of the literature on interval-training does make it sound "magical".)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Cell Phone Feature: FInd Me

Particularly as cell phones get smaller and smaller, they can get mis-placed. The key to finding them is to realize it soon after they have been lost, so you can call it and listen for the ring. But if Murphy's Law is alive and well, you will have mis-placed your cell phone some time when it is in silent mode.

Proposed Features
Find Me
So, the proposed cell phone feature is a password-enabled Find Me mode. You call your phone, and when it answers by going to voice mail, you have the chance to "enter 9, for Find Me option", followed by your 4-digit PIN. This causes the phone to switch to its loudest ringing mode.

Wake Up and Find Me
And what if the phone is not merely silenced, but is turned off? Well, contemporary cell phones have internal functions even when powered off, so that their alarm clock function works relaiably. So I can envision a more elaborate feature that would work this way:
  1. When powered off, the cell phone wakes itself up every 12 hours.
  2. When it wakes up, it "polls" the voice mail system.
  3. If it finds a "special" voice mail, in which the user activated the Find Me feature, it keeps itself awake but silenced, and will now respond to the Find Me feature described above.
As I think about it, this second version adds a lot of complexity, and poses some issues for environments in which cell phones must be turned completely powered off (airplanes and medical equipment are the two I am aware of). So I guess there would have to be an override option on the phone, that you set before turning it off. And therein lies mounting complexity--the average phone user will not be aware of the Find Me feature, and even less aware of the need to override in sensitive settings. So perhaps this part of the feature can be filed under the category of "cool idea in theory, but too many complications in practice".

Regarding the basic Find Me feature, I think there are fewer usage-oriented complications. I'm not a cell phone systems engineer, but I am pretty sure that the complicating factor for this feature is creating the ability for voice mail to call back into the handset functionality. I don't think it is anything that is impossible to solve, but I don't think it is how cell phones work. Maybe an opportunity for the gPhone/Android?

Working Class

Politicians and commentators frequently make references to "working class (Americans)", but in my opinion, working class is a meaningless term in modern America. (1)

Although Wikipedia offers a conflicting definition, I take "working-class" to mean someone who is not either independently wealthy (a member of the aristocracy), nor a member of elite, independent professions (traditionally medicine, law or the clergy), nor an business owner. In other words, somebody who has to show up, day in and day out, to earn a paycheck. That could describe a factory worker, but it could also describe a well-paid professional. (The Japanese term, salaryman, neatly captures the idea as related to professionals.)

Anyway, what got me thinking about this subject enough to finally sit down and write about it was this quote I came across:
"A stunning statistic is that unlike in past epochs, the higher up the income ladder you go, the more hours you work," said Dalton Conley, a sociology professorat New York University.
The key point being: working, in the sense of trading one's time for income, is highly correlated to economic status.


(1) In fact, it is probably an irrelevant term for almost all parts of America, for all times, except maybe plantation owners in the pre-bellum South.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Risk Issue Problem

In software development, people tend to use the following definitions:
Issue: something that will cause complications or setbacks for the project.

Risk: something that has the potential to cause complications or setbacks for the project, if it occurs; and there is no plan to actively prevent it.
Under these definitions, an Issue is more severe than a Risk.

To me, that is backward:
Risk: something that has the potential to cause complications or setbacks for the project, if it occurs; and there is no ability to completely be sure of preventing it.

Issue: a complicating detail to attend to. Something intrinsically manageable, however, so that as long as it is addressed as planned, there will be no significant negative consequences to the project.

Problem: a complicating detail which is not routine, and presents a significant challenge to overcome. This seems to be what most people want to call an "issue".
It seems that the general lingusitic trend of replacing the word "problem" with "issue" has crept into software development.

What Will Be the Last Major Sports Venue NOT To Have Naming Rights?

Yankee Stadium is gone, Shea Stadium is going...nobody wants to pay for naming rights to something really old, with a really well-established name that people might keep using, instead of adopting the new name (BigCo Park, Amalgamated Products FieldHouse, etc). They want to slap their names on shiny, new facilities. Maybe Lambeau field will be the last?

Corporate and Other Discounts on Cell Phones

First rule of getting a cell phone plan--make sure to ask for a corporate discount. Depending on which company you are affiliated with, that will be between 10-20%, off the top. Just for asking--not insignificant.

On top of that, if you drive a hard bargain, you can do much better than store prices. What I did, when switching to T-Mobile for a family of 5, was shop Amazon for our phones. Amazon has amazing, post-rebate prices, but there are a few catches. First catch is not too surprising--2-year service contract, just like you would get at the company store (though even more restrictive in details). Second catch--you have to mail in the rebate in a window--after 60 days, before 120 days of service. That is a big gotcha--everybody knows rebates are dicey at best, but having to remember to send it in after 60 days ups the ante. Third catch--they don't have a way to give you the corporate discount. To get that, you will have to ask after you sign up. I think that works, but it's not the best position to be in, so if you go that route, verify in advance that you will be able to get the discount (and nail down the % off) after the fact.

Those are complications, not automatic showstoppers--the Amazon phone prices are jaw-droppingly cheaper, especially for high-end phones (and it really adds up when buying 5 new phones). What I did, though, was to call T-Mobile to compare. I didn't bother with the store, I went to the business division. They couldn't quite match Amazon's phone prices, but they came close, with less of it in the form of rebates. The clincher, though, was that they offered a one-year contract. I was really kind of stunned by that--everybody knows to get the big discounts on phones, you have to sign up for 2 years. And we were getting the discounts on 5 phones.

1 year is terriffic. That just opens up your options. Either to switch carriers, if either dissatisfied, or just seeking a better deal.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

We still haven't really had to turn on the heat

(though I did for 1 hour yesterday morning, just to be generous), but the dreaded first appearance of snow in the forecast has appeared. Before anyone gets too excited, it is for the slightest flurries, but still, it is an unwelcome milestone.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Why I Probably Will Never Be An Apple Customer

This article helps explain why I will never be an Apple customer, unless I win the lottery (which I don't play):
Apple has had great success in part because it has convinced customers to turn away from a $1,000 Windows laptop and to buy its $1,600 laptop instead for its stunning displays and ease of use.
$1000? $1600?! You've got to be kidding--$500 is more than I want to spend on a home laptop.

I briefly thought about a Mac. I've heard rave reviews, including "runs Windows better than Windows". I could see paying, oh, say a 30% premium for the Apple experience. But 100-150% premium? I don't think so. Same thing with the iPod--they are double what competitive MP3 players cost. I held out from buying one, and now am using my new cell phone. Definitely not nearly as slick, but one device meets both needs, and anyway, I'm a light user.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Problem of Government Meddling

Many people say the same about Healthcare and College Tuition (government involvement led to exorbitant, destructive increases in cost).
Many believe that wild greed and market failure led us into this sorry mess. According to that narrative, investors in search of higher yields bought novel securities that bundled loans made to high-risk borrowers. Banks issued these loans because they could sell them to hungry investors. It was a giant Ponzi scheme that only worked as long as housing prices were on the rise. But housing prices were the result of a speculative mania. Once the bubble burst, too many borrowers had negative equity, and the system collapsed.

Mild Ride

Parental controls for cars--when my kids were born 14 years ago, I figured something like this would be available by the time they started driving (probably still too late for us, since will only be in new cars, and I don't see one of those in the immediate future...)
MyKey allows parents to limit teenage drivers to a top speed of 80 miles per hour, cap the volume on the car stereo, demand seat belt use and encourage other safe-driving habits.

also highlighted MyKey’s low-fuel warning, which lights up earlier than normal. He called it “a little thing for Mom and Dad.”
This is a great idea. I think 60 mph would be a good upper limit. Maybe 50, if you could be sure your child wasn't going to need to go on the highway.

Niche PC Ideas

In general, the Windows PC is ultra-commoditized. It is very hard to do anything to earn a higher margin. My ideas for carving out a niche would be:
  • Crapware (aka, Trialware)-free (because right now Best Buy is getting some people to pay an extra $75 for this)
  • Built-in backup (software, but also a mirrored hard drive)
  • One or two very modest design and engineering touches--such as the Mac-style magnetic power cord
  • The crowning glory would be easy-to-use virtual machines (VMWare), so that you could always roll back to a pristine install

Paying Best Buy to "Optimize" Your Computer

The excellent price I got from Best Buy on our new laptop was the happy part. During the brief sales process, I was prepared for the sales guy to try to upsell me. I politely declined the offer to install anti-virus software for me. But when he asked me if I wanted them to optimize remove the pre-installed crapware for me, it was almost too much. He literally said "we will remove all the junk they pre-install on it"!

I know I am not the first person to make this observation, but how ridiculous is that--I'm supposed to pay them to remove the junk that comes on the product they sell to me?! As I've said before, it just completely undermines the user experience, unlike when you buy Apple. Needless to say, I curtly dismissed this pitch.

I think a big part of the problem is that margins are so thin in the PC hardware business, that the OEMs are just desperate for incremental revenue. It's almost like spam--even if only one person in 500 upgrades their pre-installed trialware to the payeware version, the comission on the pre-install still represents a desperately needed revenue stream for the OEMs.

I still say that a better user experience is an opportunity for a niche player in the Windows PC market.

PS What did surprise me was that the salesman never bothered to pitch two of the usual favorites--expensive cables and extended warranties. I guess my profile--cheapest laptop in the store, no time of day for the virus protection--told him I was a lost cause.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

More Mortgage Problems

I am afraid I agree with this article, that lays out a reason why the mortgage crisis will continue unabated:
It seems that the majority of investors, economists, and governmental leaders are overlooking a very important right hand side of this mortgage rate reset graph. The subprime loan reset period (represented by the green bars) may be nearing the end, but the lightly-shaded yellow bars represent $500 billion worth of option-ARM loans expected to reset from mid 2009 through 2012.
I also think the author is overlooking another factor, which is that 5/1 and 7/1 ARMs for non-subprime borrowers will also be re-setting in the next few years. The results may not be quite as catastrophic, but there will still be a lot of rate jumps, particularly if prevailing rates go up between now and then.

Buy Cheap When It Comes to Laptops

I just bought a laptop at Best Buy. My philosophy of computers, especially laptops, is--buy the cheapest one that meets your basic requirements. The expected life of a laptop, before it is lost/stolen/broken/obsolete, is somewhere under 3 years. I used to be anti-laptop, for casual home use where portability is merely nice, not essential, because the laptop cost substantially more, carried much higher risk of breakage, and was prohibitive to repair. However, laptop prices have plummeted so much, that I have changed my view. Just plan to buy cheap and replace as needed.

On that score, I think I did pretty well. I went in, looking for the $499 Dell Inspiron that was advertised. While I was waiting for them to fetch me that, though, I saw an almost-equivalent Acer, clearance-priced for $375. That is about as low as I can possibly imagine getting a Windows laptop; or, for that matter, any PC. And it even came with Vista Home Premium. I believe Micro$oft has given up on trying to extract a premium for VHP over Vista Home Basic--even the very cheapest laptops now come with VHP.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

I Don't Like Door-to-Door Campaiging

I am not a fan of door-to-door campaigning, unless the person appearing on my doorstep is the candidate herself. Otherwise, what is it really about? The visit serves no truly useful purpose, other than trying to increase the popularity of their candidate. It is not much different, in spirit, than junior high school student student council campaign.

As was observed in the early days of email spam--unsolicited, unwelcome email is still spam, even when it comes from a charitable organization.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

A great Steve Yegge article screed on the importance of touch-typing, and the fact that it is never too late to learn.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

On The Fly Price Comparison

two companies showed off their Android applications. Big in Japan showed ShopSavvy, a neat tool that scans a bar code and then searches the web and local stores for the same item
That's a pretty good idea. I have thought something like that would be useful when considering a purchase. If you aren't tuned in to the price point for an item you are considering purchasing (probably as an impulse), you can very quickly get a readout on what is a good price. Of course, as with so many things, the business model seems like a great big question mark.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Extend Toner Life

It is outrageous that the printer manufacturers are doing this to us! From Slate:

To find out, I did what I normally do when I'm trying to save $60: I Googled. Eventually I came upon a note on posted by a fellow calling himself OppressedPrinterUser. This guy had also suspected that his Brother was lying to him, and he'd discovered a way to force it to fess up. Brother's toner cartridges have a sensor built into them; OppressedPrinterUser found that covering the sensor with a small piece of dark electrical tape tricked the printer into thinking he'd installed a new cartridge. I followed his instructions, and my printer began to work. At least eight months have passed. I've printed hundreds of pages since, and the text still hasn't begun to fade. On, many Brother owners have written in to thank OppressedPrinterUser for his hack. One guy says that after covering the sensor, he printed 1,800 more pages before his toner finally ran out.

Proffesionals Marrying Professionals

John Derbyshire:

our cognitive elites are increasingly inbred. Doctors used to marry nurses, professors used to marry their secretaries, business moguls used to marry starlets. Now doctors marry doctors, professors professors, moguls moguls, lawyers lawyers, etc. Those modest origins of our meritocratic elites are less modest by the year. We might be drifting towards a caste system, except that meritocracy requires some openness, some vacuuming-up of high-I.Q. outliers from the lower classes, some dumping of low-I.Q. duffers from the elites.

Product Design Idea: Improving the Grocery Cart

When I go grocery shopping for our hungry family of four, the cart fills up. I mean, really fills up. Although I start out putting the crushable stuff on one side, and the heavy stuff on the other, as the cart fills up, it all jumbles together, and some stuff at the bottom inevitably gets squashed.

A nice, pull-up divider would be a great solution. Keep the heavy nicely segregated from the soft stuff.

Observation on Test-Driven Development

With TDD, I think probably half the benefit is the process benefit of wrapping your mind around the problem and thinking through the test cases. As opposed to the tangible benefit of having the test cases in hand, and the test automation developed (which I think also is significant).

Launchy for Apps

A friend told me about Launchy. You just type a few letters, and it pulls up the apps whose name matches: W-O-R for MS Word, P-H for Photoshop, etc. That's great. I have wanted the same thing for Recently Used Files, for years.

I guess Vista, like the Mac, has this built in. About time. I also think it is an example of classic Microsoft. No improvements, the same festering shortcomings live on for years, until a competitor lights a fire under them.

Reagan's Impression on An Apparatchik

Aleksandrov was an experienced functionary of high rank who had met plenty of Americans in the course of his work. But years after he had seen President Ronald Reagan for the first time he still trembled at the impression. It was not Reagan's words or policies that grabbed Aleksandrov's attention but his manners. The day in question called for an umbrella. As the president and his wife walked in the open air, the president held one aloft to shelter her from the rain. Aleksandrov recalled his own astonishment. Soviet political wives were meant to avoid the limelight; the task of sheltering them was supposed to be discharged by some nearby lackey. For Aleksandrov, Reagan's behavior was chivalrous in the extreme—an example of an ease of social conduct that Aleksandrov was to witness on several other occasions as he became acquainted with the United States.


David Brooks: In the current Weekly Standard, Steven Hayward argues that the nation's founders wanted uncertified citizens to hold the highest offices in the land. They did not believe in a separate class of professional executives. They wanted rough and rooted people like Palin. I would have more sympathy for this view if I hadn't just lived through the last eight years.

Social Security ROI

My father-in-law mentioned that he had a number of acquaintances who had unreported incomes for years, and now were suffering because they had reduced Social Security earnings. In theory, those tax cheats would have still come out ahead, had they just had the discipline and foresight to set aside some of their undeclared income for retirement. Of course, that is theory, it often doesn't work that way in messy human practice.

That got me thinking, though. 15 years ago I read that people currently retiring were, on average, getting the equivalent of a 30% return on their Social Security witholding, whereas people just entering the work force could expect a return of between -3% to 0%. 30% is quite a rate of return. Would those people seen a large NPV had they declared all their income, and payed into Social Security, and reaped that 30% rate of return? I'm too lazy to work the math, but it seems like they probably would have.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Chat and other features in Webex

We use Webex a lot at work (daily). The chat feature--which nobody ever seems to use anyway--is dangerously designed, I think. As I have found in teleconference-intensive environments, there is often a fair amount of back-channel conversation ("they are exaggerating the impact of the problem...", "...that's another missed commitment...", etc.). It is natural to use some form of chat for that. Typically, from what I see, the vehicle is instant messaging.

Imagine trying to do that instead through Webex. The default in Webex is to send a message to ALL meeting attendees. WAAAY to easy to open virtual mouth and insert virtual foot. Ouch!

Monday, September 08, 2008

T-Mobile Faves and Conference Call

After 10 years with Sprint wireless, we switched to T-Mobile. A big part of the draw, besides the general appeal of being a new customer and showered with free phones, was the unique Faves program. That lets you select 5 numbers which you get unlimited calling minutes for. They can be almost any domestic number, even T-Mobile competitors.

That had 2 big benefits. One, it let me cut back from 2000 to 1000 minutes, saving $30/month. Two, I can make my company's universal conference call number a fave. I spend about half my day, at least, on calls, and I work from home 2 days/week, so that is a huge convenience. It also should allow me to drop by second line, another $10 saving.

Donate To This Political Ad

Dave Winer with yet another creative idea:
...put a Donate button on the ad. If I give you $100 you commit to using that money to run this ad.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Value-Added Packaging

I am a big proponent of "value-added packaging". Some recent examples I have come across in my personal, consumer life:

Coleman "wrap and roll" air mattress. This is the third air mattress we have purchased, but the first with this nifty little feature. It is as simple, and low-cost, as could be, but makes the job of storing the air mattress so much tidier. Great example of highly economical value-added packaging. (I think Coleman in general has a lot of VAP.)

MS Mouse 7000 snap-in bluetooth adapter. The bluetooth adapter, an easily mis-placed item, neatly stores in a cavity on the underside of the mouse.

LG Decoy Phone with Built-In Wireless Headset. I don't own this one, but as soon as I read about it I recognized a clear example of VAP driving product differentiation. In fact, I had a very similar idea, years ago, for a built in wired headset, with retractable cord.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Google Browser Incognito Feature

This article reports Google is going to launch their own browser, Chrome. One ground-breaking feature if Incognito: " a special privacy mode that lets users create an 'incognito' window where "nothing that occurs in that window is ever logged on your computer." This is a read-only feature with access to one's bookmarks of favorite sites."

Very clever. They should also implement an option for anonymous browsing.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Palin VP Nomination

There seems to be some excitement about Palin, but I don't share it. I think it is an inadvisable choice, both tactically, and on the merits. It reminds me of George H. W. Bush's choice of Dan Quayle in 1988.

Palin's experience seems ridiculously thin. That is already a problem, but a much bigger problem when the guy at top of the ticket would become the oldest president, by several years.

I wonder if McCain was not excessively captivated by Palin's own apparent "maverick" (boy is that word over-used, for lack of a good synonym) image. This Peggy Noonan article dwells on the notion that McCain defines himself, more than anything else, by his "maverickness".

Then there is a subtlety pertinent to being the first woman in the office. Not every husband is well-equipped to be a good first gentleman (or whatever he will be called). Margaret Thatcher's husband, Denis, I believe was thought to have laid down a great path to follow in the U.K. I really know nothing about Palin's husband, except that he must have far less experience of the world even than she does, so one just has to wonder about that angle.

The Republican Party Has Developed A Bad Habit

...of nominating the guy who has paid his dues and whose turn it seems to be. And typically that kind of person is a career pol, an organization man, and not necessarily a very exciting candidate. That was how George W. Bush got nominated in 1992. Riding on Reagan's coattails, a record-breaking economic expansion, and a weak opponent, he got himself elected once, but was weak against Bill Clinton. Dole in 1996 was an even more stark example of the habit. Bob Dole was a good man, a dedicated and dutiful politician, but clearly a terrible campaigner for national office. He got destroyed by Clinton, it wasn't even close. Even Reagan was, to some extent, awarded the nomination after waiting his turn (I didn't say the habit always produces lackluster candidates!).

John McCain is yet another example. That wouldn't have been the case in 2000, but it is now. Waaaayy too old and establishment for the present mood of the country.

The one time the Republicans deviated from this recent pattern? Well in 2000, they did the exact opposite, nominated a guy who hadn't paid any dues at all, and that got us Dubya. Which I think explains this year's strong reversion to form.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Exercise Fights Cancer

One more benefit of exercise. As close to a "silver bullet" as one is likely to find. And it is nearly free.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

There Is No Domestic Oil

This whole article is good, using very arch and pointed language to provide an econ and politics 101 lesson about the stupidity of presidential candidates blathering on about the importance of energy independence.
If we were energy independent, the politicians imply, prices wouldn't go up. But if you're an oil-striking American dude - maybe a little naive but smart enough to know that your hot daughter Elly May is going to be better off in Beverly Hills than the Ozarks - you're going to shop your barrels to the highest bidder, not just to whiny Americans with their near-worthless dollars. More oil procured from under U.S. soil means more oil on the global market, not more oil for just us.
And let us not overlook this point:
The only smart thing I heard was Obama's advice to fully inflate your tires, although he overlooked the fact that gas stations no longer have free air pumps or even decent pay ones.
That last part is SO true! 15 years ago, many stations had these nice, dial-your-psi pumps. When you hit the desired psi, the pump would ding 3 times, and would stop pumping. In one sense it is a silly and trivial thing, but since my solution (using my bike pump) is unlikely to appeal to most people, the absence of good pumps really is an impediment to a public good. A little bit like the shortage of public restrooms in many cities is an impediment to tourism and quality of life.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Know-Nothings, Willful Ignorance

I was already planning on writing the prevous post, then I saw Krugman's article about Republican know-nothing-ism. I don't really like Krugman, and have always self-identified as a Republican conservative, but I have been thinking exactly the same thing myself. That is quite a contrast to Obama, who seems willing and able to speak to Americans as if they were competent adults.

National Inflate Your Tires Day!

Dave Winer has a great idea: National Inflate Your Tires Day. We Americans need to drop any notion that there is a "silver bullet" that will solve the energy/carbon crisis. We need to find many little things that add up. The nice part about little things is they aren't all that hard, the hard part s are paying attention, and taking the first couple of steps toward forming a new habit. After that, little things usually become pretty easy.

(The tires example struck me right away, since it was the subject of my New Year's Resolution 3 years ago. And I have found that one pretty easy to keep.)

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Static Electricity and Gas Pumps

I used to think the posted prohibition on re-entering your vehicle while fueling it was intended to make sure the customer keeps an eye on the pump, just in the very unlikely case it should jam somehow, and not auto-shutoff. But I have since learned the real peril is static electricity, (although the article touches on the auto-shutoff issue as well).
"You should never re-enter a vehicle when you're fueling," Mr. Wormser said.

That's because a person who re-enters a vehicle and slides across the seat can acquire a static charge of thousands of volts, caused by friction between two electrically dissimilar materials, such as clothing and seat upholstery, said Dr. Robert E. Nabours, an electrical engineer. If the charge is not harmlessly discharged through the person's shoes or by the person touching metal, such as part of a grounded car, an electrical arc can jump from a hand to the nozzle, igniting gas vapors and starting a fire.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


Based on the 5-day forecast, we are looking at running the air conditioner for a solid week. I think that is the first time for that, in our 6 years in Minnesota. (I have a high threshold for turning it on, typically 86 degrees.)

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Golf Considered Incompatible with Fitness

I am a true believer in, and mild evangelist for, the seemingly limitless benefits of exercise. So many people seem to use the excuse that they don't have enough time. Like most excuses, that probably would not hold up to scrutiny. Then I thought about some of the people I know who aren't so fit, but have a pretty good golf game, and I realized that if they were to trade their golf game for strenuous exercise, they could probably be competing in triathlons if they wanted to!

If you play golf once a week, that is probably a 5 hour time investment, unless you are very good. And if you are very good, and it only take you 3+ hours to play--well, that probably means you play 2-3 times per week, and maybe spend some more time at the driving range. So no matter how you slice it, even a moderate golf hobby takes up an amount of time that could account for a pretty decent starter exercise program.

I don't really have anything against golf, this is just an observation. I know, golf provides a little bit of exercise. But considering the fact that almost everybody seems to want to take a cart now, rather than walk, it really doesn't give you very much.

Carpet Is Over-Rated

Nothing feels as nice under the feet as nice, plush, clean carpet. Unfortunately, that feeling doesn't last very long, unless you have no kids, no pets, few visitors, and replace your carpet every 5 years. I have come around to thinking that it would be better to have little or no wall-to-wall carpet. Much better to have wood, fake wood, or tile flooring, all of which are much lower wear and maintenance. It's only taken me 42 years, but now I try to view every consumer decision in terms of its maintenance implications. And carpet requires maintenance, and it still degrades rather quickly. Plus it hides lots of allergens.

Credit to Gates for Moving On

Bill Gates recently retired from active involvement in Microsoft. Gates founded Microsoft 33 years ago, without any venture capital, and was deeply involved in and identified with the company throughout the years of meteoric growth, and well into sedate middle-aged corporate maturity. I have to give him credit for being able to let go. More significantly, he gets credit for fostering an organization that he can step away from without causing much more than a ripple of nostalgia. This is the defining characteristic of what Good to Great author Jim Collins would call a "fifth level leader".

(As an aside, I have deep doubts that Steve Jobs meets this standard, though at the moment, he seems like a helluva fourth level leader.)

Recession-Plagued Nation Demands New Bubble To Invest In | The ...

This Onion headline says it all.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Exercise Anti-Aging

I think of exercise as the silver bullet of health (first rule of silver bullets: there are none). But so did this guy, right down to bicycling avidly, and he almost suffered Tim Russert's fate.

Isn't "Steering Committee" an Oxymoron

I mean, have you ever seen a vehicle steered my two people at the same time, much less by a committee?!

Telephone Call Volume

I find it very tiring and stressful to engage in a telephone conversation in which it is difficult to hear the other party, for whatever reason (more often than not, because they are habitually speaking too softly). It would be a very, very nice feature if phones could dynamically adjust for loudness--amplifying quite voices, and muting loud ones. That would be some fairly sophisticated signal-processing, but in this day and age, it seems possible.

North Shore

After our second trip to Minnesota's north shore, I now understand why people rave about it. The first time, we focused on the shore part, enjoying our campground that backed up to the Lake Superior. That was very nice, but not quite spectacular, at least no more spectacular than other parts of the Great Lakes.

This time, we headed north, into the many, many state parks, all of which have rivers that flow into Superior. Those offered truly spectacular views and hiking, and so pristine. We get it now.

Worse Than Focus-Stealing

Most irritating thing about it is the way the trackpad works. Hesitating while positioning the cursor is interpreted as a click. This has already resulted in wrong information being transmitted to Netflix
That is quite a useability defect!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

eBay Doldrums

Slate has a good article on eBay's doldrums.

I have never been a big fan of eBay, or online auctions in general. I have found that it is waaayy too inconvenient for the buyer. Too much time and energy invested in figuring out what to buy and then waiting to see if your bid wins, which it often doesn't.

Part of the problem is that eBay's auctions do not closely enough mirror bricks and mortar auctions, where both the buyer and seller are under time pressure. In eBay's case, time works against the buyer. If you are trying to buy some item, like a $40 used MP3 player, and you lose a couple of auctions, you have now spent a week (elapsed time) trying to buy an item. It's just not worth it. There is the "Buy It Now" option, but in my experience, the prices people set for those are ridiculous--you could buy the item new, at a store, for the Buy It Now price.

I have an idea for solving this problem, by blending aspects of Buy It Now into the auction process, in order to make the element of time work more like a real auction. The seller would set a "win it now" price, but that price would be hidden from bidders (but once set, not changeable by the seller). The way it would work is that the highest bid exceeding your hidden "win it now" price would be accepted, after one hour of no subsequent bids, as the winning bid.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Terrifffic Anti-Apple Tirade from Dave Winer

Dave says:
I just don't like the smarmy marketing attitude of Apple, he's kind of like the teacher's pet in music class, pretending that he's a connoisseur -- I see flaws and bugs everywhere. Fix the bugs and STFU about how great the product is. Sorry. I want to use Apple's products the same way I use a Canon camera, as a product I respect, but if they ever start screwing around the way Apple does, I'd switch to a Nikon or whatever. Problem is there is no Nikon or whatever in PCs and iPods. All the other products suck. Hugely. Apple's just suck a bit less. Not a huge accomplishment for an industry, imho.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Gas Prices

Given the fact that oil keeps going up, and we are in the summer driving season, I am surprised that gas has stayed around the same "trading range" for the last 4 weeks (here in MN, that would be $3.85 - $3.99 / gallon).

Outlook Message Recall

Probably more than you want to know about recalling a message in Outlook. All in all, it is almost too dangerous and unpredictable and probably the world would be a better place if it were removed as a feature.
Recall Message functionality was designed with a passive rather than aggressive system in mind and is dependent on the Outlook clients' background "sniffer" idle process to remove the recalled message from the recipient's inbox. In order for this message to be recalled automatically, the specified criteria must be met. In addition, Outlook clients must also have the Tools, Options, Preferences, E-Mail Options, Tracking Options, "Process requests and responses on arrival" selected. This feature enables the background "sniffer" to run. When it detects an Outlook idle time (generally anywhere from 60-500 seconds) then it will run and process all unread items in the Inbox to see if any of them require its attention such as Meeting Requests, Read Receipt responses, or Message Recalls.

Bitly implements my anti-linkrot feature

We automatically mirror each page, never know when you might need a backup.
This is what I was thinking of several years ago, when suggesting a feature like this for blogging software.

Zippers Are the Weak Link

So often, one finds that the zipper is the weak link in an otherwise expensive garment. I have had to toss perfectly good jackets because the zipper was trashed. I don't think it has to be that way. I have a 10-year old L.L. Bean knapsack in which the zippers (and everything else, for that matter) are holding up splendidly. And that is considering I haven't always treated them with kid gloves--I sometimes get lazy, and pick them up by the zipper tab. I hasten to add, this was a very modestly-priced purchase.

Long Story Short

In the last year or so, I have noticed a trend of shortening the well-established phrase "to make a long story short" as simply "long story short". As in "Long story short, by the time I retrieved my car from the New York City impound lot, it was 3 AM, I was $300 poorer, and felt lucky just to be done with the entire ordeal".

Surprisingly, this usage doesn't grate on me. In fact, I find it oddly charming.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Dave Winer

Dave Winer: I saw the story about the librarian who wasn't allowed to wait for a McCain event because she held a sign with a political message, a subtle one, a thought-provoker...When you put on your plastic lapel pin, you should think about the Government of the People, by the People and for the People ...McCain could give a speech about that librarian, that would be truly impressive. Here's something he can fix right now. Tell the people who watch the people lining up to let people express their political thoughts, esp those who do it legally and peacefully.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

CT Scans

This NYT article suggests that CT scans for heart patients are over-used, because the machines cost $1 million each, so one a practice commits to buying one, they have to use it a lot to amortize that high cost.

Without addressing whether CT scans for heart disease are effective, I do have an observation. Similar to airports, this is very expensive equipment, and it should be utilized on a 24x7 schedule. What this would mean is fewer machines purchased, shared between more or larger practices, and some inducement needed to compensate patients for taking the "graveyard shift". Still, it seems do-able. If not fully 24x7, the something close, like maybe 18x7. Having it un-utilized all day Saturday and Sunday certainly seems unjustifiable.

Of course, in implementing this kind of factory-like, high-utilization model, we have to be wary of law of unintended consequences. The one I can see coming, a mile away, is that insurers will set their reasonable & customary based on the midnight rate, and pretty soon, everybody will be trying to book the off-peak hours, and the appointments during peak hours will go begging!

Monday, July 07, 2008

Viacom/YouTube Privacy Problem: Another Reason to Use Anonymous Browsing

In all the words I have read about the Viacom suit against YouTube, the possibility of anonymous browsing to remove the problem of preserving one's privacy has been thoroughly overlooked.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

A Catchy Name Is Indispensable

I think a significant chunk of the success of a product or marketing campaign is often attributable to catchy naming. I've noticed several very mudane business processes that are made to sound much more exciting and sophisticated via a cool-sounding name:

Sky-hooking: back in the 80s, when insurance claims still arrived as paper, and before off-shoring was in the dictionary, an insurance company sent boxes of claims, air-freight, to Ireland, to take advantage of lower-wage, English speaking labor to process them. The sky part obviously came from the airflight aspect of the process. I really don't know what, if anything, hooking derived from, unless perhaps it was some kind of pre-existing claims-processing lingo.

Blow-back to paper: 5 years ago, the idea of receiving mortgage documents via DVD was somewhat cutting-edge. So cutting-edge, in fact, that we had no processes for internally processing them as images. Our vendor, Xerox, helpfully explained to us that was no problem, there imaging workflow included the option to "blow back to paper". Translation: mass-print the entire contents of the DVD, for further processing 100% unchanged from the past generation of dead-tree-oriented workflow.

Skip-tracing: in the debt-servicing industry, this refers to the process of methodically filling in gaps in address records.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Finally, the Perfect Use for Texting

This has been a very rainy spring here in Minnesota. I have 3 kids in practices, and am coordinator for one of their teams. More than once, it has been touch-and-go as to whether weather would cause a practice to be canceled. When storms threaten, several things happen, all bad:
  • Parents call the coaches cell phone all afternoon.
  • Some parents don't get cancellation emails in time, and make the trip for nothing
  • Other parents assume practice is canceled, when it isn't
While email is very convenient, it is often not timely enough. One, because not everyone carries a BlackBerry; two, because many people use the work email address.

It finally dawned on me that texting was the solution. Everybody carries cell phones, all the time, and texting is very near-real-time.

But I didn't want to solicit and hand-enter 40 or more cell phone numbers (2-3 per athlete). And I wanted all 3 coaches to be able to send the cancellation (or non-cancellation) message.

I looked around the web a little bit, and found a site called It's basically a newsgroup for texting. Ad-supported. It has the key features I need:
  1. Self-service registering for the members (parents).
  2. Ability to designate administrators--the only people who can send messages to the group.
  3. Ability to send texts to the group from a computer.
I put out the word to the parents only two days ago, expecting to have low participation. I figured maybe after the next time it was a rainout, that would motivate more people to sign up. But this spring being the wet, unpredictable season it has been, 48 hours later we had our first opportunity to use it. When I logged in, I was surprised to see 23 members registered.

It seemed to work well, one of the parents even replied (by email) thanking me for setting it up, and another replied by text. To be honest, I am surprised this hasn't caught on more. This seems like a very obvious area for Google to move into.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Environmentalism Issue Strategy Memo, Part III

In Parts I and II, we looked at how hard it is to get consumers to focus, in a deep and sustained way, on the stuff that really matters in improving the environment. In Part III, I put forth an idea that seems like it might, just might, in some small way, work.

We need a solution that measures and displays electrical consumption in real-time. The solution I envision would involve wirelessly transmitting power consumption data for appliances to a small screen, conveniently mounted in the kitchen or family room. Ideally, major appliances would each have a built-in transmitter. In the meantime, X10-style plug in modules for major appliances would go a long way.

Clever graphical representation of the data would be the other piece of the puzzle. Showing people how much more $ and carbon they consumed the day they kept their thermostat at 72, versus when they set it at 65, etc.

Postscript 2008-05-14

This city-sized, accidental experiment in Juneau is interesting:
“People are suddenly interested in talking about their water heaters,” said Maria Gladziszewski, who handles special projects for the city manager’s office. “As they say, it’s a teachable moment.”

Postscript 2008-01-25

This experiment demonstrates the potential:
The results of the research project...suggest that if households have digital tools to set temperature and price preferences, the peak loads on utility grids could be trimmed by up to 15 percent a year.

MS just does not get user experience

In addition to letting their OEM partners load the machines with crapware/trialware, they are now going to force us to take a lousy OS, Vista, whether we want it or not. I think Apple will slowly eat their lunch. What an irony that MS is reknowned for its senior management being cognizant of the fact that tech supremacy rarely lasts.

You would think MS-Access would be smart enough

to recognize its own auto-assigned PKs, and not try to auto-link them when you add tables with them to the query pane.

Facebook / LinkedIn feature idea

LinkedIn has checkboxes for you to indicate what you are interested in (keeping in touch, career opportunities, etc). I don't find them to be very useful, though. Especially for potential job seekers, I would like a rating of 1-5 to indicate interest level in job opportunities:
  • 1 = Very Motivated (i.e., unemployed)
  • 2 = Motivated (i.e., worried about losing job or hate job)
  • 3 = Interested (i.e., looking for a better opportunity, but in no hurry)
  • 4 = Would Consider the Right Opportunity (i.e., it would have to be my dream job)
  • 5 = Not Interested
I know that when I have been looking to fill positions, I would have found this very, very useful in mining my network.

Dumbest Feature (Not) in MS Office

There is absolutely no incremental versioning. One wrong click and everything is lost. Whereas Google docs automagically gives you many, many versions.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Eat for Exercise Recovery

Not that I am by any stretch a talented athlete, but the way people complain about soreness, I've just never understood it. I get a little sore, but it just doesn't feel that bad. However, I do like to eat, a lot, and I really, really like protein. So that might explain a lot.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Excess marketing email

It is galling how a company, if you ever order even one single thing from them, will assume you want to receive thrice-weekly email offers from them. Of course I never give out my main email address for commercial purposes, but other people do. I have to wonder, if they could just restrain themselves and only send monthly messages, if they might find "less is more"?

I'm also tempted to punish the offenders by clicking the "report as spam" option in Google. I wonder what Google does if I report Home Depot email, for example, as spam?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Reactions to Ads

I have watched very nearly zero television since about the time I could drive, and the only radio I have listened to is NPR. So basically I took a generation off from exposure to TV and radio ads. Now that I have pre-teenage children, though, I am exposed to a modest amount of incidental advertising.

TV ads have gotten much, much better. Many of them are visually compelling, at least on the first or second viewing. Quite a contrast to the repetitive, jingle-based stuff I remember from my childhood. Radio, on the other hand, seems relatively unchanged. It's pretty intolerable, I find--once you have developed the NPR temperament, I don't see how you could tolerate the grating ads, even if the content were compelling.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Regarding IT As A Profession

A pair of terrific columns by Cringely. He hits the high points in some inter-related themes that I have been thinking about:

1. IT as a profession isn't all that fun any more.
2. IT if factionalized and balkanized.
3. Outsourcing and off-shoring have lots of problems, including quite possibly not saving money, just buying a much higher volume of labor at lower prices.

Choice quotes for each:

One of the real miracles of the PC revolution was that it often was led by super-users -- enthusiasts who had a PC at home before they had one at work and who led their co-workers as much through example as skill. Well those days of the 1970s and '80s are long gone and IT is today as entrenched and isolated as it was during the mainframe era of the 1960s.

in most organizations power ultimately manifests itself in head count, so IT organizations grow like crazy, becoming ever less efficient in the process. The typical power structure of corporate (which includes government) IT tends to discourage efficiency while encouraging factionalization. Except in the rare instance where the IT director rises from the ranks of super-users, there is a prideful disconnect between the IT culture and the user culture.

Outsourcing, while a very popular recommendation to improve IT, is treating the symptom and not the problem. The problem is IT applications require lots of ongoing maintenance and that costs labor, meaning REAL MONEY. Rather than make applications more reliable and reduce problems, IT managers seem to prefer shopping for cheaper labor. The problems are still there. It is cheaper to fix them with offshoring and outsourcing, true, but it often takes longer. If the end users -- the people who actually make MONEY for the company (IT doesn't, Lord knows) -- are unable to work from time to time, this is okay because IT is spending less money.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Behaviorism Health Care

So Express Scripts surveyed thousands of customers to understand better their concerns about generics. It learned some were uncomfortable with how to tell their doctors they wanted to switch, or felt it wasn't their role as patients to bring up the topic. Others found the whole topic too complicated to bother with.

With those concerns in mind, Express Scripts made several changes to how customers were informed about simvastatin, such as shortening the text in its literature and changing its color and including a letter that patients could just hand to their doctor requesting a switch.

The company also framed the message to focus not merely on cost savings, but on how generics can be the better value -- explaining that drugs that cost more but don't do more aren't a better value. People often believe branded or costlier drugs simply are better, says Dr. Nease, whereas Express Scripts' new message stated that the "best buys" are drugs that cost less and do the same thing.

Generic statin use among its customers soared to 53% as of March of this year, Express Scripts is expected to say at a conference Tuesday.

Interesting. I wonder if there could ever be a "tipping point" effect, whereby the idea becomes "socialized" that, like recycling, seeking healthcare cost savings is A Good Thing.

A Little Supporting Evidence for My Alternative Employer Health Insurance Tactic

Among employers, the hardest pressed may be small businesses. Their insurance premiums tend to be proportionately higher than ones paid by large employers, because small companies have little bargaining clout with insurers.

Health costs are "burying small business," said Mike Roach, who owns a small clothing store in Portland, Ore.
So, another reason for small business to find different rules to play by.

Apple Profit

For a long, long time, my mental model of "Bill Gates vs. Steve Jobs" was that they were playing different games. For Gates, it was all about winning, as measured by profit, and as Cringely has observed, "a graceless win is still a win". Everything else--style, innovation, originality--was completely secondary to winning.

Apple, on the other hand, was all about style, elegance, Steve Jobs' vision. What made Jobs happy was having the coolest products, good profit margins, if not the biggest total profits, and getting to boss people around. It was like Wal-Mart and Nordstrom's--same industry, but totally different approaches.

Now, however, Cringely observes that Apple has become a "lean and mean profit machine". So it seems that, finally, Jobs even matching Gates at his own game--winning in volume.

Google Should Buy LinkedIn

I know Google had some foray into social networking, but they somehow missed the boat. I wasn't paying a lot of attention at the time. But LinkedIn has a solid, professionally-oriented user base.
One strategic beneft would be to get a whole lot more people to have a Google login. I would like to use newsgroups and member-only weblogs for organizing various teams my children are on, but the high number of parents who need a Google login is a barrier.

LinkedIn doesn't have the cachet Facebook had, I bet they could buy it for a reasonable price.

Al Franken Tax Imbroglio

I think it is probably much ado about nothing. If conservatives didn't hate him so much, they would be sympathetic with the compliance burden of having to report any pay tax in 30 different states.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Ugly NFL Neon Sets

Is it just me, or are the modern NFL "sets", with all their unnatural, neon-ish gleam and glisten, simply garish? I'm pretty sure they are computer-generated, and not only do I find them extremely ugly--like the Las Vegas strip in miniature--but also very distracting.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Proton Beam Therapy

But critics say that the technique's advantage over X-rays has not been proved, except in certain rare tumors, and that proton therapy might not be worth the substantial extra cost. They say hospitals are engaged in a wasteful "arms race" for the prestige and profits that come from having a proton center.
I have read for years about this kind of hospital "arms race". When the administrators for each hospital are interviewed, they predictably all say "Yes, there should only be one of these--but OUR hospital is clearly the best place for it". I hope the government-mandated collaboration works out...


A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds

This has long been one of my favorite quotes.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Eczema Treatment--Hydration Then Moisturizers

This NYT article talks about a new theory of what causes at least some cases of eczema. It also talks about the fact that, while that may ultimately lead to new medications, in the short-term, the treatment is still the same--keep the skin hydrated.

Our son had moderately bad eczema on his feet and legs till he was 6. We saw a few doctors, the last of whom was a double-specialist in pediatric dermatology and pharmacology. He recommended a low-tech but surprisingly effective treatment. Rather than just slather on a lotion periodically during the day, he recommended first a soaking bath, to thoroughly hydrate the skin, then only a quick blot-dry, followed by a heavy dose of heavy-duty sealant, like petroleum jelly. Finally, the coup de grace was to encase the poor kid in damp, cotton pajamas for several hours, or the whole night!

We did this for over a year, and Seth was a surprisingly good sport (can you imagine wearing damp pajamas to bed?!). The effects were remarkable. It steadily mitigated, then eliminated his eczema. And since eczema to some extent tends to be self-reinforcing, I think if you can get rid of it for a while, you have a much better chance of getting rid of it permanently. We discontinued the wet pajamas treatment after about 15 months, and there was no relapse.

I have since used a similar approach to my own moderately dry skin, especially my hands. I hydrate, either by a shower or running my hands under water, then apply the moisturizer. What surprises me is that this hydrate-then-seal approach is not more well-known. Probably fits the classic saying--if this treatment could be bottled, it would cost a pretty penny and be heavily promoted.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Windows Battery Remaining Readout

35:17 hours?! What algorithm are they using? More often, it goes from half-to-nothing almost instantly. Windows power management in general leaves a whole lot to be desired, in my experience.