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.

CFL Light Quality

You read a lot of grumbling about the color/quality of compact fluorescent lights (CFLs). I think I am pickier than average about that, and I generally have been very happy with the CFLs I have throughout the house (I typically buy 6-packs of 100W-equivalent at Sam's). However, I did buy a GE Daylight 6500K at Wal-Mart that is just terrible--extreme white with maybe a tinge of blue.

Salary Info Gets Out? Really?

An athlete's worth to a college is often negotiated behind the closed door of a coach's office with the scholarship amount kept a guarded secret, like a salary in a workplace. But the figures have a way of eventually getting out, as they do in any office.
The part about salary info getting out seem like false conventional wisdom to me. I have read similar assertions many times over the years, but in my 20+ years experience, both as employee and manager, it is just not very accurate. In general nobody discusses salaries of others in the workplace, and I have known of specific cases where there were substantial outliers, in both directions, and neither the outliers nor their peers seemed aware of the situation.

Ironically, 2 hours after posting, this, I saw this article in the NYT that seems to say differently. I remember, 20 years ago, my cousin Cliff opined that this social taboo worked to the disadvantage of employees, since it preserved a condition of information asymmetry in compensation matters. Which is exactly one of the motivations cited for the move toward frankness among friends in this regard.

Onshore Customer Service

Netflix set up shop here a year ago, shunning other lower-cost places in the United States and overseas, because it thought that Oregonians would present a friendlier voice to its customers. Then in July, Netflix took an unusual step for a Web-based company: it eliminated e-mail-based customer service inquiries. Now all questions, complaints and suggestions go to the Hillsboro call center, which is open 24 hours a day. The company's toll-free number, previously buried on the Web site, is now prominently displayed.
This sounds very good, in the spirit of Joel on Software steps to excellent customer service.

I will say that I have had some good luck with email-based customer service lately, with Northwest Airlines, and BlockBuster. But I hate how hard they make it to actually get hold of a human being.

Blogger Needs A "Now" Time Feature

When you first create a posting, Blogger sets the timestamp for the posting, but it will let you manuallyl override this default time. This feature is important to me, because I tend to email myself very small snippets of ideas for postings, and then come back to them days or weeks later. So generally, I would like the timestamp of my posting to be the time I click "publish".

What I wish is that Blogger enabled this more automatically. At a minimum, with a checkbox by the time-entry box, that says "Now". Better yet, as a configuration setting, to default to "Now", unless over-ridden.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Goodbye, Cursive!

I see one of my predictions is coming true...my children barely learned cursive, and never use it.

Idea for Consumer Reports Project

Collect instances where the dealer says the reported problem "is normal", but subequent evidence conclusively shows there was a problem that should have been diagnosed.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Electronic Appliance Controls - I HATE Them

Our 15-month old dishwasher basically stopped working. It was pretty clearly the touch-sensitive control panel, since it would eratically respond to button presses. I called in a highly-recommended independent repairman. He said it was likely one of two boards--one that costs $80, the other $120. More likely the former. Oh, and they can't be returned (the downside of an independent). That made matters worse, since if it turned out to be the latter, it would require a second service call, since it had to be ordered separately. So between $140 and $320 to repair a 15-month old, $399 dishwasher!

The primary culprit here is expensive, proprietary electronic controls. Adding insult to injury, is the fact that electronic controls don't really add much value. Sure, you have a bunch of different cycles and permutations, a few more than might be feasible with electro-mechanical controls. But all those variations are overkill. Almost all we ever use is normal. Occasionally, rinse or heavy. The same settings you had 20 years ago.

At the very least, appliance equipped with these crummy electronics should have a default basic mode that will work even if the board goes ka-flooey.

The odd postscript to this is that, while putting off the decision, the dishwasher has been working. Not quite perfectly, but basically in the way I just described--normal mode works fine.

(Dishwashers have gotten better at cleaning the dishes, and quieter, but I think they are also flimsier. This Kenmore replaced a Whirlpool that the people we bought our house from had ordered only a few years before.)

Cold Willpower

This NYT article talks about how willpower can be built up, almost like a muscle. I've read that a few other places recently. Maybe that explains why I tend to view the opportunity to tolerate brief bouts of cold as a character-building exercise.

My overt rationale is that it is worth enduring a few moments of discomfort in order not to be encumbered for several hours (in the mall, or restaurant or whatever) with a bulky coat. (I live in Minnesota, so I do keep an emergency coat in the trunk.) But I must admit, the feeling is also bracing, and maybe that comes from the chance to build up some willpower!

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Music with Photos

As noted, I like seeing my home photos as a slideshow on my HDTV. With slideshows, I have noticed that even canned music which is not thematically related in any way, nor timed to the photo transitions, livens things up. So it seems like a really cool feature for slideshow software would be for the software to read a song and then create the transitions in rythym to the music. I am sure this is out there in some higher-end product, I just don't see why it hasn't migrated to the mainstream.

Differentiation Opportunity: Photos on HDTV

Growing up, my father was a big fan of slides. He took a lot of pretty-good photos, using an 35mm SLR camera, and had them all converted to slides. Once a month or so, we would have family slde night and look at the pictures on the big screen. It was a great way to look at them, and to collectively re-live family memories. MUCH more participative than leafing through a photo album.

I see the big, brilliant HDTVs that have been populating America's living rooms in the last few years as the obvious, and much more accessible, succesor to the home slide show. RSS inventor and inveterate software tinkerer Dave Winer is pushing this concept with FlickrFan (Mac-only, unfortunately). It is just such a great way to see your pictures--think of your HDTV as a really big monitor, and your rolling slideshow of pictures as the photo-screensaver, that plays whenever you aren't using your TV for something else.

I have been doing this, sporadically, with our HDTV. Unfortunately, our HDTV does not have an SD slot, so my easiest means of getting photos to TV is using the SD slot in my son's Wii. That works pretty well, but the built-in slide show functionality on the Wii is pretty limited.

So given the very fevered competition in the HDTV world, I think the top-tier manufacturers (e.g., Sony) could create some differentiation and value-add if they worked really hard at positioning and marketing their displays as platforms for displaying digital photos.

I think key ingredients would be:
  1. Ease of use.
  2. SD slot built in (more slots would be better, but SD at a minimum).
  3. USB port (so you can hook up a card reader, or a USB drive, of a laptop).
  4. Good built-in slideshow software.
  5. Screensaver mode option--show photos automagically, when the TV is not being used.
  6. Ease of use.
Other more advanced offerings might include;
  1. Internet connectivity and downloding from Flickr, etc (basically what Dave Winer is doing.
  2. Pre-integrated bundling with a streaming media device. Have to be careful, because without exquisite execution, this could trash ease of use. This is where Apple will probably make inroads.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Light notebooks over-rated?

I think lightness is over-rates in notebook computers, for many home and business users. The reviewers tend to emphasize this factor heavily, I imagine because they are big travelers. And I agree--if you are carrying your notebook a lot, weight would really matter.

But for the typical, non-traveling business user, like myself, toting a 6-7 lb. notebook is not a big deal. For most business users, the notebook stays docked through much of the day. Even if you un-dock frequently to bring it to meetings, as I do, the distance you are traveling is so short that weight doesn't matter too much.

I un-dock at the end of the day, put it in my backpack, and walk the few hundred feet to my car. (The backpack may be a differentiator right there--I could see how a small woman, using a crummy, shoulde-slung laptop bag, might find the weight burdensome.) Drive home, park in the gargage, carry the laptop into my home office. Done. Reverse in morning.

Again, if a significant part of your commute involved walking, then weight would matter more. Including perhaps walking up flights of stairs to get to your domicile (for those few buildings left that don't have elevators). Still, I think that is a minority of laptop-equipped office workers.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Mis-Guided HSA Users Experience Disillusionment

HSAs do offer some long-term potential for helping restrain runaway health-care costs. But as the linked story shows, the empahsis here is long-term. In the short-term, if employees have a chance of HSA or traditional indemnity, they are going to self-select. HSAs will be selected mostly by low-utilizers. Furthermore, in some circumstances, HSAs may be cheaper for very high utilizers as well (because once the deductible is met, typically 100% of costs are covered, no co-pays, including drugs). The middle-to-medium-high users will stick with traditional plans.

So in the short-term, employees and individuals will optimize, by selecting HSAs if they think there is a direct savings to them, so that if anything, upon introduction of HSAs, employers will actually see their costs increase.

The strategic value of HSAs to the system only is realized over time, if they truly work
to cause individuals to be wiser, more efficient consumers of healthcare.

TurboTax Rip-Off Attempt

Talk about unethical. When you got to use TurboTax to e-file, they offer you the option to pay by credit card, or pay by deducting from your refund. That might be a nice convenience, if it didn't nick you for 2x the cost of the filing, just to have that convenience. I think a convenience charge of this magnitude is indefensible, and constitutes an ethical offense. Compounded by the fact that they make that choice the default. I'm sure they trick a fair number of people, and that is an irresistible profit-margin, I suppose.

Shrinking Half-Gallon Cartons

About 5 years ago, Edy's/Dreyer's sneakily started selling 1.75 quart containers of ice cream, for the old half-gallon (2.0 quart) price. Others followed suit. Well tonight, I just noticed that Breyers cartons are down to 1.5 quarts! Probably in part a response to pressure on raw materials, so trying to maintain the same price but provide less product at that familiar price. The container's design seemed intend to diguise the change--flared out from the base. Borderline unethical.

Study Gives High Marks to U.S. Internet

I have been skeptical of the steady parade of articles discussing how far behind the U.S. lags in internet infrastructure and speeds.

Why Isn't Anonymous Web-Surfing More Popular?

There are various services and programs that will let you web-surf without leaving very obvious tracks. I'm surprised they are so little-used. I think many people don't even know that they exist.

Also, I wonder what the impact would be on the business model of the various companies working very hard to aggregate digital user data, if this were to take hold in a big way?