Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Netflix Streaming: Too Many Choices

We have been trying out Netflix streaming. In terms of performance, it has been pretty good (we are using the Wii, out of convenience). Selection--not having recent and really popular movies--is a bit of a problem, especially for the kids. Ironically, though, another problem is too much selection--there is so much to choose from that it is very, very hard to get our family group to settle on something. Frustrating. I think we will just have to take turns letting one person pick.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Municipal Pension Woes

Municipal bankruptcies are yet another ticking time bomb. Sometimes it seems like we have so many of them!
This struggling small city on the outskirts of Mobile was warned for years that if it did nothing, its pension fund would run out of money by 2009. Right on schedule, its fund ran dry.
Then Prichard did something that pension experts say they have never seen before: it stopped sending monthly pension checks to its 150 retired workers, breaking a state law requiring it to pay its promised retirement benefits in full.
...
“Prichard is the future,” said Michael Aguirre, the former San Diego city attorney, who has called for San Diego to declare bankruptcy and restructure its own outsize pension obligations. “We’re all on the same conveyor belt. Prichard is just a little further down the road.”
...
Prichard’s pension plan was established by state law during the good times, in 1956, to supplement Social Security. By the standard of other public pension plans, and the six-figure pensions that draw outrage in places like California and New Jersey, it is not especially rich. Its biggest pension came to about $39,000 a year, for a retired fire chief with many years of service. The average retiree got around $12,000 a year. But the plan allowed workers to retire young, in their 50s. And its benefits were sweetened over time by the state legislature, which did not pay for the added benefits.
What are the lessons here?

  • Early retirement is bad news. Not economically sustainable. The big problem is that a goal of retirement income is certainty and safety. That makes sense. The problem is that the rates-of-return for an insured, lifetime, inflation-protected annuity are paltry. It's just the economics. It's not reasonable to expect that you can work for maybe 30 years, and enjoy a high retirement standard of living for 30 more. (Medical inflation of course greatly exacerbates that problem.)
  • Politicians live for the present moment. Nothing new in this insight, but it is a crushing problem. Even the best-designed, best-intentioned program is almost guaranteed to become corrupted over time. The opportunity to influence government expenditures are, to a politician, like drugs to an addict. And I don't mean that figuratively--all evidence seems to show that they simply can not resist raiding the cookie jar. All the more so at a national scale, when there is the opportunity to spend somebody else's money (ghost of Robert Byrd, are you listening?).

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Thoughts on Groupon

WSJ has a long-ish, somewhat breathless, article on Groupon. I did read it with interest, as Groupon has been slowly impinging on my awareness. I have been somewhat skeptical, though. Part of that is because my introduction to Groupon was through an article that talked about Groupon nearly bankrupting a local coffee shop. The other reason is that I have gotten to the point of bargain-hunting fatigue--I am tried of promotions, and coupons, and marketing, and deal-seeking. I still want to get things for the lowest price possible, but I want to expend the least amount of energy doing it. So I tend to prefer the Sam's Club, Wal-Mart and Amazon model: reliable, everyday low prices.

Another reason for my resistance was somewhat theoretical and ideological. I am against the "high cost of modern living" (whatever that means). So I am really only interested in commercial innovations which take cost out of the system. My initial reaction was that Groupon doesn't do this at all. However, in reading the article, I see that it does have some potential, in that it creates very, very targeted advertising. The cost-per-ad-impression is quite high, but the value per ad impression is literally orders of magnitude greater than in traditional advertising, even compares to Google's search-based advertising.

So based on the fact that is is more theoretically intriguing than I thought, my sister's success stories (note: she is much closer to core demographic than am I), and the general buzz around it, I will check it out. In the meantime, a few thoughts:
  • From a purely financial perspective, I question passing up the $6 billion from Google. To recoup that, they would have to make $100 in profit (not revenue) from 60,000,000 people. Conceivable, yes, but it is a pretty big hurdle. From a risk-reward point of view, I have my doubts. In fact, I wonder how they are funded, because I would think that if it was the typical VC route, their investors might have brought a lot of pressure to bear.
  • In light of the above point, maybe the founders should look again at all those Forbes magazine covers.
  • It is an easy model to copy. I would think a Google, Amazon of Facebook, maybe even Yahoo, could take them on, and leverage deep pockets to cut better deals with merchants.
  • I like the part about fanatical customer care.
  • Some of the Groupon 2.0 stuff--stores, non-curated, merchant-controlled Groupon pages--sounds like dilution to me.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Instapaper on Android

Ever since I got my Android phone, I have been looking for a good, instant-on app for quick, casual, time-filling reading. The browser and various Google Reader clients are okay, but a bit sluggish. The NYT app is a huge disappointment--it's absurdly sluggish. I have been pretty disappointed

I have recently re-discovered Instapaper. I dabbled with it slightly a year ago, and it seemed fine, but wasn't immediately compelling for me. Then I discovered the Evernote client for Android. It seems to finally deliver what I have been looking for: very broad selection (totally user-defined, in this case), very, very responsive, and no limit to the material to accumulate in inventory.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

"Where's My Droid" for Other Bluetooth Devices

Modern smartphones have very nice "find me" apps, that cause them to turn the volume up to max (even if on silent) and ring when you send them a special code. Very, very convenient. It would be great to have this kind of capability with other devices. The way I can envision it working is that your other small, electronic devices--car keys, wireless headsets, iPods, etc, etc--have either Bluetooth or maybe RFID. They might not actually be able to "ring" on their own, but at least they could play "hotter/colder" with your cellphone, to clue you in if they are nearby and you are getting closer.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Android Market 15 Minute Refund, Boo!

I've always thought the 24-hour refund policy of Android market is good and fair. Gives users a chance to try out an app. What's wrong with that? I tend to think it would net-net be a positive, since things that reduce risk often induce people to try them. But for whatever reason, the window has been cut to a ridiculous 15 minutes.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Credit Where Due for Samsung TouchWiz

Like most serious Android enthusiasts, I would prefer pure "stock" Android, free of any "enhancements" provided by the handset makers or carriers. This definitely applies to my Samsung Vibrant phone, with Samsung's "TouchWiz" interface. Mostly it gets in the way. It gets in the way of unlocking the phone (the ridiculous, balky, slide gesture), it gets in the way of Contacts big-time, in a way I haven't quite quantified (groups fouled up, inconsistent filing of Last Name, First Name), and we all know it gets in the way of timely updates.

The status bar has a couple of things I do like, though. One is the call-control is present in the status bar, almost like a widget. So can Mute/Un-Mute, or end the call, from there. Another is that the key buttons for toggling power-saving services--WiFi, GPS and BlueTooth--are also right there. Very, very convenient.

Directv App FAR Easier than DVR

I've written about how mediocre I have found the Directv Channel Guide and DVR software, as well as their web page. Turns out, the best way to search for a program is via the mobile app (Android in my case) . That works very well--except for the fact that it doesn't include the one features I singled out for praise--extensions for sporting events.

So I usually flag the program to record using my phone, then later (if I remember), go into the To-Do list, and add the extension (still faster than doing it all on the TV screen).

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Black Friday

Heard NPR mis-attribute the origin of term the other day, joining the NYT.. In this case, though, I can make allowances for the mistake...the folk etymology actually makes much more sense than the real one.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Newspaper Usability

Daily newspapers are struggling, perhaps even dying. There are a lot of reasons for that, related to the internet and various broadcast media alternatives. I have one more to offer, however: usability. The plain fact is that newspapers are physically inconvenient to "use". The big problems:

  1. Form factor. The "broadsheet" form is just incredibly inconvenient for today's on-the-go lifestyle. My gold standard for readably form factor is the thin, staple-bound magazine, where all page-manipulation actions can be managed one-handed. But even the "tabloid" form would be an improvement.
  2. Article continuation. Having to flip to another page within the section--and even worse, sometimes in another, physically separate section--is horrible. Of course it horribleness is severely compounded by the Form Factor problem.

The sad part? These are self-inflicted wounds. The newspapers don't have to be this way, they do it by design. In my book, that's bad karma.. Making your product deliberately worse, because it seems to serve your business interests and you think you can lead your customers around with a ring-in-their-nose. Sooner or later, it will blow up in your face.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Vanguard Scared Me

I got this email from Vanguard, in reference to Beth's IRA. Keeping in mind that we have executed ZERO TRANSACTIONS in months, look at what this email says:
  1. Confirming your recent transactions.
  2. Updated account profile
I was more confident than not that there would be an innocuous explanation, but I couldn't come up with a candidate hypothesis, so the thought of cybertheft did cross my mind. Then I logged into Vanguard's site, and my fears were quickly put to rest. They had simply converted the regular shares to "Admiral" shares. That is slightly beneficial. but essentially it is "inside baseball" within Vanguard. In the meantime, a good little scare.

In hindsight, I think they might have sent us a paper statement a month ago saying they would do this, but I certainly didn't recall it in the moment.

Gift Android Apps to Others

As more kids get Android phones, we need a way to let kids get apps without having full-blown access to download payware.

Facebook Beacon Functionality

A couple of years ago, Facebook got hammered for their "Beacon" program, where your purchases on certain partner websites were automatically (as in opt out) posted to your Facebook page. Really dumb.

Ironically, I think this could be useful, and very easily implemented. In fact, all that is needed is to make "Share with Facebook" an option for smartphone shopping apps, such as Google Shopper. You use the smartphone app to scan the Barcode, and it looks up the product. This is just what Google Shopper already does. All that is needed is one more button in tue UI, labeled "Share with Facebook".

The funny thing is, 1-2 click sharing is a common feature of so many smartphone apps. A bit mystifying why it is missing here (or at least in Shopper--I haven't surveyed all the other apps).

Calories In, Calories Out

A professor ate almost nothing but Twinkies and the like for several months, and wound up losing weight and improving his cholesterol. The key was that he ate a very controlled amount of Twinkies, a lower calorie intake than he had been at previously. This is totally un-surprising to me--calories in, calories out. At least in terms of weight, the total number of calories matters FAR more than the source. This is really basic science and, to me, the fact that so many people are so willing to believe in fad diets[1] is yet another example of the insidious effects of scientific illiteracy.

I tend to think the same way about exercise...for all but the most serious competitive athletes, I think the more calories burned, the better. Little to be gained by worrying about what zone you are in--other than trying to get in the highest zone you can manage, for whatever amount of time you have budgeted to exercise. Though I am somewhat more open to being wrong about this one, because there does seem to be research to support the idea of Fartlek/Interval training's benefits (fitness, more than weight loss, but that's the important thing anyway).

_____________
[1] Actually, you could just about extend this comment to "any diet at all", since the evidence is that yo-yo dieting is worse than never losing the weight in the first place.

"ASK" used on NPR as a noun

3+ years ago I logged Jargonwatch entry on the use of "ask" as a noun. The other day I heard it used this way on NPR.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Ticketmaster Must Die

Ticket fees, what a rip-off. Information technology is supposed to radically reduce transaction costs. $10 of transaction costs (ticketing fee, service charge, convenience fee, blah, blah) on a $28 ticket is insanely inefficient. I would love to see Google or Amazon attack this business. There is so much fat, as an efficient, high-volume player, they could easily take 80-90% of the cost out, cut off Ticketmaster's oxygen supply, and still make money.

Or, if Microsoft wanted to do something interesting and seize some high ground in consumer mindshare...

Friday, November 12, 2010

Online Habits Obfuscator

The linked article talks about counter-measures against web sites tracking and accumulating your personal information. One idea I had that I haven't seen mentioned is an "obfuscator", to execute fake searches, to compromise the value of your real data. A little wasteful of bandwidth, but seems like a good way to fight back.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Gartner Analyst on "Laser Interactions" of Context Awareness

I heard a Gartner analyst speaking on "context aware marketing" the other day .He described the following scenario. The store knows who you are and where you are, when you walk in with your cell phone. When you pause briefly before continuing past the display of a kind of cereal you usually buy, the in-store camera notices, and immediately (within <1 second) sends you a coupon.

I see several problems with this:
  1. All privacy issues aside, it will get intolerably annoying to constantly get pinged with coupons.
  2. Is it even a good decision to "incent" a regular buyer with a discount, deus ex machina? If you usually buy the cereal, you will probably keep buying it. Maybe you didn't but it this time because you remembered you already had enough at home?
  3. How long does it take before consumers figure out what is happening, and deliberately trigger the coupon-reward scenario (i.e., pause, fondle, replace and slowly walk on from each item they want to buy)?
I remain skeptical.

Full-Text Search for English Lit

When I was in my late teens / early twenties (20+ years ago) I thought sometimes about how computer technology would transform various activities in the future. This included dreaming of having searchable books for English compositions and term papers. The other day, my daughter, a 10th grader, came to me saying "Dad, could I find Lord of the Flies online? I really need to be able to do CTRL-F to find quotes I am searching for".


I leaned back and said "Daughter, let me tell you a story". After I "regaled" her with the observation above, I helped her find a free, online version. She was elated. I only wish I had the chance to experience that as a student.

Smartphone As Remote

Been anticipating this for a while--definitely a lot of room for improvement.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

First Use of E-Boarding Pass

I opted to have my boarding pass emailed to my phone. First chance I have had to use that option. It worked well enough, one less thing to remember.

Fwd: Airplane Creativity and Productivity

It's been a while since I traveled on business, with my laptop. I don't miss the travel. But one little thing I had forgotten--being up in the air, isolated and disconnected from the internet, but with laptop--it does lead to productivity and some creative thinking. There is time to work through the email backlog, and actually read  each email carefully, and provided a considered answer. And in working through the pile, if I have a new thought, I can go in, fish a previous email out of the outbox, and amend it.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Minimum One Physical Button for Apps

I think smartphones should have, at a minimum, one physical button that can be accessed by apps. I want to make that physical button easily configurable. This is how I think it should work:

  1. A very simple Android setting (and widget) to link the hard button to the app of your choice.
  2. For each app, the ability to select one or more default actions to be invoked by the hard button. (These only occur when in step #1, you have chosen to attach the hard button to that app.)

The cell phone is like a really big Swiss Army. It bristles with utility, but that can cause a bit of lag when trying to whip out the right function at the right time. So what I am after hear is 1-click ease of invoking the right function at the right time. Some use cases:

  • Starting the camera, and putting it in your chosen mode
  • Starting myTracks and beginning to record
  • Invoking Navigation, to the pre-defined default destination
  • Mute button
  • Starting the stopwatch
  • Texting

Here is a bonus idea for implementing this--if the physical button is invoked with a long-press, it bypasses the security screen, for that application only.

UPDATE: 10/07/16 This last thing is what double-pressing the power button does on some Android phones.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Idea to Lower Cost of Electronics in Appliances

Electronic controls for even very simple home appliances have become the norm. As noted, I am not a fan of this development, because they have several drawbacks, including adding completely unnecessary complexity, and actually reducing useability (hard to beat a big, fat, nicely-weighted dial for setting volume on a stereo; or temperature in an oven). But the biggie is that they are more failure-prone and when they fail, WAY more expensive to repair. Often, an electronics failure effectively "totals" the appliance.

It almost feels like this is a new version of the dreaded, semi-mythical concept of planned obsolescence. If that is truly the case, my idea will never work. But I'm going to assume that is it not the case. So here is my idea.

Commodity electronics and computing power are SO cheap now. It seems like there should be some reasonable way to standardize the electronics to use modular layouts and modular processing capability, so that repairs involve a relatively small numer, of relatively inexpensive,  DIY-serviceable standard components.

I guess my rough analogy would be to take the realm of electronic-control design out of the hands of manufacturers, the way Android has taken mobile OS design out of the hands of handset makers. Let the manufacturers focus on the hardware, and most of all, on reliability!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Microsoft Smartphone Strategy

I like Cringely's suggestion--much cheaper phones. But with smartphones, the TCO is what kills you--not the $199 vs $99 or even vs FREE. At $30/month and a 2-year contract, getting a smartphone for free still entails a $720 TCO commitment. Some form of lower-use plan has been long overdue.

Those are already coming--AT&T has a $15/month option, T-Mobile is rumored to have a $10/month option. But they have very low monthly usage caps (200 Mb/month). Maybe Microsoft could try to work a deal where it subsidizes the monthly rate, so that users get 500 Mb/month and a $99 Windows phone.

Another idea would be to let people trade-in the phone on a 12-month basis, instead of the usual 2 years. Not necessarily shorten the contract (carriers wouldn't like that), but give people full trade-in credit after 12 months, and extend the contract--carriers would like that.

Then turn the phone over to a used-phone market, as a FREE phone upgrade, with a re-set warranty. And let the people in the FREE/used category also get 12-month phone upgrades.

That would get a lot of Microsoft smartphones into the market.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Cost of Driving

Good article. I recently calculated what I thought was the cost of driving, and I didn't even stop to think about the cost of parking. While I am at it, I should include a big chunk of the cost of my suburban garage.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Verified by Visa Is Evil

Just spent 30 minutes trying to buy an airline ticket on Delta. In the final stages of the transaction, I got thrown into a "Verified by Visa" screen. It looks, for all the world, like a moderately sophisticated, man-in-the-middle phising attack. I had encountered it a few times before, but not recently, and those times I was able to click past it. This time I couldn't get past it to save my life. So I aborted and purchased through Travelocity. Did I mention that in addition to consuming 30 minutes of my life, all-told, it also delayed my purchase and the price increased by $50?

I got motivated to do some research. This is a very good blog post, and here are some comments from Bruce Schneier. It sounds like: A) A disadvantage to the consumer; B) Almost inconceivably bad security practices. Nice going, Visa, Banks and Merchants.

The Hunting Equivalent of Catch-and-Release, Except Better?

A Hunt That Even Deer Can Get Behind

Armed with shotguns that employ blanks, memory cards and digital scopes, tournament participants like Dennis Moser, above, stalk deer but not to kill them.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

"Demography and Economic Destiny"

Interesting article. This might explain the timing of the economic dynamism of Japan and then China:
Falling birthrates do not instantly damage an economy. Indeed, at first, they often do just the opposite. A first-order effect of a society's producing fewer children is that a rising share of the population occupies the prime productive years of young adulthood. Also, with fewer children around to demand attention, vast reserves of female labor are freed up, and there are more resources available to invest in each remaining child, so that, for example, literacy rates improve. Japan experienced this demographic "sweet spot” in the 1960s and 1970s, and China is experiencing it today. 
then

Perhaps there is an economic system that can preserve prosperity even in the face of an aging, stagnating population, but it has not yet been devised. It is no coincidence that modern industrial capitalism emerged amid the population explosion of late 18th-century England or that it flourished most in the rapidly growing United States. A young, growing population creates more demand for products and a larger supply of labor. By encouraging people to look for more efficient ways to provide food, energy, and other essentials, it also spurs innovation and entrepreneurism.
There are many possible reasons for this iron law. One, of course, is that aging workers and investors tend to be less flexible and more risk-averse, having more to lose and less time to recover than do their younger counterparts. Both common sense and a vast literature in finance and psychology support the claim that as we travel toward old age, we become more reluctant to take risks with our careers and more set in our ways.
It seems like countering this trend is a high priority. If people are living and working longer, so that 50 is the new 35, then maybe they can learn to be less risk averse at 50!

Too Much Glass

I mentioned that I think having too much glass on a mobile phone was not such a good thing. This article bears that out with data--iPhone 4 is 68% more likely than its less glassy predecessor to scratch or break.

Two Meanings for "If Not"

The phrase "if not" has two distinct senses, and it is not always clear which one is intended.

1) "and maybe"; "or perhaps". Extended warranties, obscenely marked-up cables and the Geek Squad constitute most, if not all, of Best Buy's profit.

2) "though not (quite)". The iPad is clearly a game-changer, if not the death of the PC, as some have asserted.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Retirement Considered Harmful

I have recently come around to thinking that retirement may not be so healthy, so I found this article interesting:
The two economists call their paper "Mental Retirement," and their argument has intrigued behavioral researchers. Data from the United States, England and 11 other European countries suggest that the earlier people retire, the more quickly their memories decline.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Sharing Stuff

But some scholars say that the Internet — by fostering collaboration on a communal, open platform — has changed the way Americans think about sharing and ownership. Collaborative habits online are beginning to find expression in the real world.
Interesting. I am a big proponent of sharing. My favorite example is lawnmowers. There is absolutely no reason every suburban family should own, and house, their own mower. Three families could share a mower without even breaking a sweat.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Use that Infrastructure!!!

Finally! A mainstream press article--by no less an eminence that Peter Orszag--that propounds the idea that we need to use our expensive healthcare infrastructure more intensively (i.e., closer to 24x7):
Doctors, like most people, don’t love to work weekends, and they probably don’t enjoy being evaluated against their peers. But their industry can no longer afford to protect them from the inevitable.
Another obvious candidate for the 24x7 treatment: colleges, whose expensive "physical plant" is all-but idle for 3+ months in the summer. (Is it a coincidence that colleges and healthcare both suffer from runaway cost increases?).

Also on my list are airports, although perhaps the decline in air travel has mitigated this need for a while.

Retirement Crisis Percolating Up Into General Awareness

For a while not it has been clear that the United States is headed toward a retirement crisis. Between the low/negative savings rate, disappearance of pensions, decline in housing values and down stock market, it seems clear that the majority of people under 50 (maybe most people working now, period) are not going to be in a good position to retire. The only silver lining to this is that I think there is a lot of evidence that retirement is not so good for people (especially men). So it might not be such a tragedy if people had to keep working into their 70s, and beyond.

There are a few tricks to making this all work. First, of course, is to have an occupation where it is viable to keep working; i.e., not a physically demanding one. Second, is to keep one's self mentally and physically fit to keep working. Third, is for the workplace to adapt, to offer subtle gradations of serious part-time work.

Anyway, NPR Marketplace had a couple of stories on the topic that made me perk up and listen. The first was about people who could easily afford to retire, but had no intention of doing so. It was definitely skewed to the upper-middle class, but it was interesting to hear. The second had more mass-market relevance, it was an interview with the CEO of TIAA-CREF, on the topic of retirement unpreparedness. He under-played it a bit, in my opinion--likely because he doesn't want to scare people into giving up--but generally painted the same picture of generations with no hope of full retirement.

Ideally, the message people would hear (I don't know who would transmit the message) would be:

  • Save as if you were trying to retire
  • Maintain your physical health, vocational skills, and adaptibility as if you were never going to retire
There are two problems with that notion, though. One, like so many other much-needed "messages", I have no idea who would actually deliver it. I.e., who would speak  to the American people, authoritatively and as if they were grown-ups. Two, there is the risk that people will hear the second part, and conveniently give up entirely on the first part.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Samsung Galaxy S Design Note

Recent 37Signals blog post talks about the trend to more and more of the real estate on mobile devices consisting of glass. That got me thinking. Obviously, glass is fragile. For the most part, that increased fragility is the tradeoff required for ever-larger display area. But I don't think it is a good idea to have any extra glass. With the Vibrant, there seems to be quite a bit of extra glass, especially in the vertical direction. Some of it provides the touch buttons, some of it seems completely unnecessary, just extended to the top and bottom edges of the device, for the sake of clean, visual uniformity.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Prediction: Vick Will be the NFL Story of the Year

My son and I have been wondering why the heck Philly hasn't been using Vick. As one sports commentator suggested last year, the guy is so talented, if you can't bring yourself to start him at QB, at least put him in at some position, like maybe wide receiver. After he came in the second game, we were ready to give him the starter job. So anyway, my prediction is that he will have a great year and that will wind up being the biggest NFL story this year.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Cluetrain Time, Wells Fargo

My wife, Beth, is traveling home to upstate NY. She does that every year so. She used her ATM card a couple of days ago, and took out the maximum $200. Taking out the max was probably a mistake. When she tried to use her card again today, it was denied by Well Fargo (with no clear explanation, of course).

Now I just got an automated fraud-prevention call from Wells Fargo. I thought, okay, that's cool, I'll accept the call, they will put on a fraud-prevention CSR, I'll confirm my wife is traveling in the Albany area, and all will be well. An ounce of prevention, etc. Silly me.

No human agent, just a series of prompts. They wanted me to confirm, IVR-style, each of 5 real or attempted transactions. I would have been on the phone for at least 5 minutes. No thanks, click.

To me, this is another case of "more security is actually less security" (like mis-guided strict password requirements). A much better approach would have been one question:
Have you or an authorized party been traveling in the Albany area, and used or tried to use your ATM card? If not, please press 2 and you will be connected to a fraud prevention specialist. Otherwise, press 1 for yes, to conclude this call.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Latest Car-Alarm Abomination

I am on record as loathing car alarms. Well maybe the deity was out to of car alarms was out to get me, and got my wife, Beth, by mistake. Because the other day, for no apparent reason, she started the car and the alarm started going off...and wouldn't stop! Removal of the fuse was required to make it cease. We never did get to the bottom of the problem (it did not reproduce itself when the fuse was re-inserted)..

Have You Heard of ChaCha?

Have you heard of ChaCha? I hadn't until recently. It flies under the radar of even very tech-savvy adults. Apparently my kids have been using it for a couple of years. Although it has gone through a couple of business models, ChaCha is now known for providing very quick, free responses to queries you text it. If that sounds a lot like texting someone to Google for you--it is. Like TechCrunch, I am positively dumbfounded that this could lead to a profitable business model, but apparently it does (in no small part because many of its contracted employees do piecework for what amounts to way sub-minimum wage).

Cost of Driving

Even a modest car costs $15,000, and say lasts 150,000 miles. That is $0.10 / mile. But most people drive more expensive cars, and pay interest. So let's say $0.20 per mile. Then there is repair and maitenance--$.0.05  mile. Gas--if you have a reasonably economical vehicle, these days it would be about $0.10 / mile. Insurance varies a lot, but let's say $1000 per vehicle/driver for 15,000 miles/year, that would be another $0.07 / mile. We're already up to $0.42 / mile. And we haven't even considered the cost of infrastructure, ordinary pollution, or carbon emissions!

So if you are a two-car family and average 25,000 miles/year on those two cars (typical for the suburbs), then your annual cost of driving is over $10,000. Since you have to pay for that out of after-tax income (naturally), it probably takes close to $15,000 in earnings to pay for that mileage. Oweee. There is a school of thought that says people might drive less if the cost was on a pay-as-you-go, per-mile basis. I am inclined to agree. (Same problem--not pay-as-you-go--to a smaller degree with home utilities.

The Importance of Profit Margins

Apple sold 17 million mobile handsets [3% of the market] in the first half of 2010, compared with 400 million handsets sold by Nokia (NOK), Samsung and LG. Yet it pulled in 39% of the industry's profit during that period, more than the 32% earned by the world's three largest handset makers combined.[!]
That is a phenomenal achievement. I wrote recently about the importance of profit margins; this is a great example.

Sweet and Fattening by Any Other Name: High Fructose Corn Syrup

As we all know, high fructose corn syrup is a popular sweetener. I have noticed, over the past few years, that it was being singled out as a major contributor to the obesity epidemic. Without paying a lot of attention, I had my doubts about whether the source of dietary sugar mattered much. Now there are some studies that say it doesn't matter, and the corn people are trying to re-brand their product.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

NFL on DVR

I wrote "last night" above, but I watched most of the game on DVR over my morning coffee, with my thumb on the "skip" button. That's a big, recent change in the way a fan can experience the NFL—if you don't feel like a particular game is worth three and a half hours of your life (and you don't care whether you're experiencing the drama as it happens), the bloat and tedium that the league has packed into the broadcasts can be pared away. Without DVR, I wanted to stab someone whenever the NFL force-fed me its mandatory post-touchdown sandwich of commercial break-kickoff-commercial break.
So true, but it still amazes me how many people don't get the extent to which a DVR makes the process far more time-efficient as well as just giving it much more continuity. The other thing, related, that I don't get--why do people have such a hard time not looking up the score for an hour or two, while they are time-shifting?! Do they also open their  presents right away, when they arrive a few days before their birthday?

Working at 103

This guy is my hero:



At 103, a Judge Has One Caveat: No Lengthy Trials
Judge Wesley E. Brown of Wichita, Kan., still hears cases but no longer takes the stairs.
Judge Wesley E. Brown of Federal District Court uses an oxygen tube in his Kansas courtroom but has no plans to stop working.
Bruce Schneier quoting someone else:
...what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?
Is this thought experiment monstrous? Would it be monstrous to refer to the 40,000-plus domestic highway deaths we accept each year because the mobility and autonomy of the car are evidently worth that high price? Is monstrousness why no serious public figure now will speak of the delusory trade-off of liberty for safety that Ben Franklin warned about more than 200 years ago? What exactly has changed between Franklin's time and ours? Why now can we not have a serious national conversation about sacrifice, the inevitability of sacrifice -- either of (a) some portion of safety or (b) some portion of the rights and protections that make the American idea so incalculably precious?
There are so many hard truths that need to be considered and understood. I think this is one of them.

Aging Suburbs

Very good Star Trib article about graying suburbs. One challenge, of course, it transportation. My advice--start building really good bike paths! ;) I think they are also right about the surplus of large houses being a problem. It seems like various factors are making over-large houses less desirable--cost of utilities, cost of gas (large houses being farther out), increasing taxes, decreasing earnings, no longer prospects for rising values. Add to it an aging suburban population, I guess.

Bubble Prediction: Overbuilding by Mega-Churches

I will go on record as predicting over-expansion by large, (typically) non-denominational churches as being the next bubble. They just keep building and getting bigger. I believe they have sustained growth in large part by absorbing congregants from traditional, mid-size mainline Protestant churches. But that will eventually play itself out.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Speaking of Reminders Functionality, Ecco Set the Standard

Ecco--a PIM that was around 15 years ago--set the standard for Reminders. You could call up and review Reminders, both set in the future, and, crucially, those that had passed. This was very useful, for the common, and potentially deadly, use case where you realize you may have dismissed a reminder without actually seeing it (can happen for a number of reasons, in particular with "focus-stealing". 

Google Not Updating Their Apps?

Microsoft is notorious for not improving the applications, unless and until competitors light a fire under them. There are features in Access and Outlook that have been flawed for more than a decade. Oh sure, Microsoft releases new versions, but they mostly add new features that nobody wants, without fixing/enhancing the stuff that really needs it. I am getting a little concerned that Google is showing similar signs.

Gmail is pretty good and has gotten some updates. But Contacts is pretty bare-bones, even though it has been around for years. Calendar is more full-featured, but doesn't seem to be improving very quickly. The Calendar feature that started me thinking about this is Reminders--frankly, they are terrible. And Reminder are not a niche feature--they are core to Calendar functionality. People rely on them. At a minimum, Google needs to allow you to snooze reminders an arbitrary amount of time. Almost as important is aggregating the Reminders, like Microsoft started doing in Outlook 2003. So you don't have 12 reminders windows open--you have 1 scrolling window, displaying 12 reminders.

Here is a bonus idea for Google--include the concept of "Travel Time" with appointments. So if you have a 1-2 appt that takes 15 minutes to get to and from, your calendar would sandwich the actual appointment in between 15-minute travel blocks, formatted in a visually obvious way. That way, I would no longer confuse myself, trying to remember "Was the appointment really at 12:45, or did I add 15 minutes for travel time to a 1:00 appointment?".

And here is another one. A great feature of Google Calendars is the virtual, aggregated view, which shows  family member's appointments, each color-coded, superimposed on your own calendar. It is a very common thing to create events that involve those same people. In other words, your events show up on both your calendar, and theirs. Especially if you have a family view that involves more than 2 calendars, this creates A LOT of clutter. So a very obvious feature would be to allow, or visually depict, suppression of the redundant events on your family calendars.

Cell Phone Crapware

...the last couple of Android phones I’ve gotten as demo units from Google: the EVO 4G and the Droid 2, have been loaded up with crapware installed by the carriers (Sprint and Verizon, respectively). Apple would never let this fly on the iPhone, but the openness of Android means Google has basically no say in the matter. Consumers will get the crapware and they’ll like it. Not only that, plenty of this junk can’t even be uninstalled. How’s that for “open”?
Sadly true, and very unfortunate. This is SO parallel to a  key difference in the out-of-box-experience, between PCs and Macs. Except worse--with PCs, you can at least remove the crapware (without rooting).

Sunday, September 05, 2010

No More Housing Intervention

NYT: Some economists and analysts urge a dose of shock therapy that would shift benefits to future homeowners from current ones: Let the housing market crash.

I am in favor of this--despite being personally PO'd for being caught in a housing bubble for the second time in my 20-year career as a homeowner.
  1. Government intervention is usually undesirable. There were extraordinary circumstances in the fall of 2008, when the Bush administration started intervention, but those are past. Time to eschew economic engineering and take the medicine.
  2. Related to point #1--the best way to diminish the chance of repetition of bubble behavior is to make sure the consequences are fully felt.
  3. In the biggest of big pictures, this is probably a good thing. Excessively expensive housing cost is a heavy burden. I used to ask people, during the boom, when they were relishing their increase in paper equity, "And where do you think your children are going to be able to afford to live? Wouldn't you like them to have some possibility of living in the same town, and not having to be subject to 50-mile commutes to find something affordable?" Nobody ever had a convincing answer to that hypothetical, of course.

Price-Cutting

As a consumer, I am a huge fan of all forms of price-cutting and discounting. As a student of business, however, I often wonder about them. This article about Pizza Hut says that they have cut prices across-the-board, and business is up as much as 10%. But does that really pay?

Net profit margins are typically pretty thin. Gross profits margins are somewhat better, but still, if you look at the math, it is tough to see the payoff. If you have a gross margin of 50%, and you cut prices by 15% (which I think it the minimum to be really noticeable), then business has to increase by over 40% before you break even. (The narrower the gross margin, the more unfavorable the math, of course--because your price cut comes off the top.)

Just to make the picuture bleaker, that is a purely static, purely quantitative analysis. Competitors will almost invariably respond to price cuts. So unless you think you have a strong and sustainable cost advantage, and you think you can permanently claim market share from your competitors (e.g., Wal-Mart), all you are likely to do is incite a price war. From the brand-equity side, any form of discounting and price-cutting tends to sully the brand.

Like I say, as a consumer, I love this kind of competition. But when I think back to strategy books I have read, such as Michael Porter's stuff, it seems mis-guided. Something I heard in business school has always stuck with me:
 In an extended simulation exercise, CEOs would sacrifice up to half of annual profitability, in order to "win"--with winning defined in terms of market share.
I think Apple would be the ideal counter-example to this behavior.

I have searched for citations of this study, and never been able to find them. So for all I know, this is apocryphal. However, it certainly rings true to me. I have some theories to explain it...in part, I think it is tied to male over-competitiveness (most CEOs being male). I also think is an interesting question as to whether the economy and society, as a whole, are better off or not, for this behavior. Those will have to be blog posts for another day.

USB Chargers

We have 5 cell phones in the family. At times we have had almost that many different chargers. However, over the past year, we have been moving toward all USB-based phones. I thought we were on the cusp of being able to all share the same chargers. This would be especially nice in the car--where it is bad enough to have one messy, USB cable permanently dangling from the dash, let alone multiple varieities.

So I was chagrined to find, when I got my new phone (T-Mobile Vibrant), that is used a different kind of USB connector. A micro, it seems, instead of a mini. I was cursing this fact, but apparently the micro is the future standard. So maybe in another two years, my dream of common chargers will be realized. Sigh.

DropBox: Latest Opportunity for PC Makers to Seek Value-Add

I have occasionally brainstormed about ways that PC manufacturers could add value. Past ideas have included built-in hardware encryption, and built in disk redundancy. I have an update for latter idea. As noted, we recently averted catastrophe thanks to Dropbox. I can't believe that OEMs aren't paying a small fee to bundle Dropbox and selling it as a value-added feature.

Think about it--how much would the average person pay if they were reasonably guaranteed that with the latest HP/Dell/Toshiba technology, all their data* would be automatically backed up to the internet, and accessible from any other internet-connected PC? I bet that would command a $50 premium, easily. The key, I think, would be a clever name that immediately commands consumer mindshare.

An alternative would be to sell it as a pre-installed, but additional-cost, service. I still think that bundling it and building the brand is a great opportunity, though.
_________
*First 2 Gb free, additional storage can be purchased in convenient, inexpensive increments.

Creeping Bilingualism

During the last election, I noticed that at the Republican town halls, people complained constantly about immigration. But what they complained most about wasn’t the possibility of lost jobs, or crime. It was that when they called their bank, a recorded message told them to press 2 for Spanish.

Gail Brooks is onto something--though I'm not sure she realizes it. Bilingualism can become very divisive--just look at Canada. Rightly or wrongly, I think a lot of "average Joe" Americans do resent the creeping intrusion of Spanish. Some of us elites might respond "You know, it is a really good thing, both practically and intellectually, to learn a second (or even third) language" (that is definitely my viewpoint, in principle). But that argument is just not going to resonate with 90% of the population. By-and-large, Americans have never been very interested in learning foreign languages (not necessarily a laudable quality, but a fact), and I don't think feeling they are now being "forced" to learn them, in order to do business in their own country, will change things.
Michael Miller:
The Wired cover story, "The Web is Dead," has driven a lot of discussion in the tech world this week -- probably due more to the provocative title than anything else. In many ways, it's like the conversation earlier in the year sparked by Steve Jobs' comment that the tablet would eventually supplant the PC, and that the PC was dead. Note that PC sales look likely to grow by 20 percent or so this year.
I am so tired of sensational, attention-grabbing headlines. Really, sick unto death of them. Dave Winer writes about this a lot. They are such a waste of time; more often than not, if you actually read the story, it doesn't comport with the headline, and often acknowledges as much. So I don't know, maybe it is the fault of the editors. I don't know why people continue to go for them. To me, it is a cue "do not read".

There is an analogy in radio--at this point, I can't stand to listen to anything but NPR. 98% of  commercial radio is truly unbearable.

Prediction: Sony Will NOT Become a Major Player in Android Handsets

The battle for Android market share should get pretty interesting over the next year or so. SONY Ericsson CEO, Bert Nordberg stated today that the company plans on becoming the world’s biggest supplier of Android powered smartphones. SONY Ericsson’s current Android market share sits at 17% while the leader of the Android segment has 23%. Bert Nordberg did not give a time frame or specify exactly how SE is planning on leapfrogging the competition. 

I'll believe this when I see it. I actually thought this would be a great path for Sony to take, 15 months ago, when Android handsets were (in the U.S.) limited to the G1 and nothing else. But they didn't act on that, and Motorola did.

I have no confidence in Sony. I have thought, for decades, that their products were over-priced. They simply do not seem to have the DNA to compete on price (Sony is raising their e-Reader price while Amazon is making a splash by lowering theirs), and they long since lost the mantle of innovator. They are stuck in no-man's-land of slightly more "luxe" products, with no real innovation, for much higher prices, with poxy proprietary twists (such as the memory stick) occasionally thrown in.

I bet Sony will be acquired within 5 years. Maybe a smart innovator will buy them up just for their name, the way Cingular did with AT&T.

Kindle: Still Hard to Beat Free (as in Library)

NYT: Auriane and Sebastien de Halleux are at sharp odds over “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” but not about the plot. The problem is that she prefers the book version, while he reads it on his iPad. And in this literary dispute, the couple says, it’s ne’er the twain shall meet.
“She talks about the smell of the paper and the feeling of holding it in your hands,” said Mr. de Halleux, 32, who says he thinks the substance is the same regardless of medium. He added, sounding mildly piqued, “She uses the word ‘real.’ ”

It's very ironic, since college days (c. 1985) I felt sure that one day reading and research would be conducted primarily via computer. People used to argue with me that they would never want to curl up with a computer, and I said that the technology would eventually evolve to the point where it was a good facsimile for a book.[1] Now that day has arrived, and I am still a holdout.

My reason for being a holdout has nothing to do with the technology. I have experimented with a Kindle, it seems good.  But I am very much in the cheapskate, "informatiion wants to be free" camp. A $10, or even $8, book on the Kindle simply can't compete with the library, where books are really, truly free.

The Kindle does have some intrinsic advantages, so it might be able to beat free, but for me, I think the price would have to be $5 or less. One of those advantages, as the article later notes, the eReader offers the ability to change the font size, which wasn't even on my young mind in 1985, but I now realize is a major plus. Searchability is another one. Also, I hate book clutter, so the ability to have books but not have them take up any space is also nice. Although the main reason for hanging onto books is to lend them to someone else, and you can't do that with the Kindle, so maybe it is not such a big advantage.
This crisis began decades ago when a new wave of technology — things like satellite communications, container ships, computers and eventually the Internet — made it cheaper for American employers to use low-wage labor abroad or labor-replacing software here at home than to continue paying the typical worker a middle-class wage. Even though the American economy kept growing, hourly wages flattened. The median male worker earns less today, adjusted for inflation, than he did 30 years ago.
But for years American families kept spending as if their incomes were keeping pace with overall economic growth. And their spending fueled continued growth. How did families manage this trick? First, women streamed into the paid work force. By the late 1990s, more than 60 percent of mothers with young children worked outside the home (in 1966, only 24 percent did).
Second, everyone put in more hours. What families didn’t receive in wage increases they made up for in work increases. By the mid-2000s, the typical male worker was putting in roughly 100 hours more each year than two decades before, and the typical female worker about 200 hours more.
When American families couldn’t squeeze any more income out of these two coping mechanisms, they embarked on a third: going ever deeper into debt. This seemed painless — as long as home prices were soaring. From 2002 to 2007, American households extracted $2.3 trillion from their homes.
Eventually, of course, the debt bubble burst — and with it, the last coping mechanism. Now we’re left to deal with the underlying problem that we’ve avoided for decades. Even if nearly everyone was employed, the vast middle class still wouldn’t have enough money to buy what the economy is capable of producing.
I don't know if Reich is right about the cause, but I do agree with his three-phase analysis of why the problem has been submerged. You don't see this discussed so often--the enormous increase in GDP from two-income families.
Another step: workers who lose their jobs and have to settle for positions that pay less could qualify for “earnings insurance” that would pay half the salary difference for two years; such a program would probably prove less expensive than extended unemployment benefits.
This is also a very thoughtful idea. I think there is a pretty well-established conclusion that a strong side-effect of unemployment benefits is that people resist--right up until their benefits run out--making career changes that involve lower pay. Even if such a change is all-but-inevitable. This alternative approach might improve that "structural" problem.

Dropbox Saved the Bacon

Beth's new laptop experienced a catasrophic video failure. By catastrophic, I mean the screen displayed nothing, and output to an external monitor did not work, either. My recent investment of effort in setting up Dropbox paid huge dividends, as Dropbox worked flawlessly, allowing Beth to platoon between shaky backup laptop, and desktop, while waiting for the 2-week turn-around for the warranty repair..

$329 Laptop - Did I Get What I Paid For?

I was very happy with the out-of-box experience with our $329 Toshiba laptop. But then the video display went bust 8 weeks later--under warranty, fortunately, but we are without the machine for 2 weeks. Of course we are also left wondering about its overall quality. After all, the previous cheap laptop I bought experienced a motherboard failure at 6 months, and went on to be a big disappointment: overheating--due to poor fan placement I think; losing keycaps; and experiencing a hinge crack (for no obvious reason).

My philosophy has been that, with the occasional exception of very off-brands, the durability of laptops is not correlated to the price. I know, though, others of the "you always get what you pay for" school of thought feel differently. Now I have to wonder a little bit...
...Apple TV’s second remote control is the Apple-made mobile device that Apple TV customers probably already own...Seriously — what are the chances of someone buying Apple TV who doesn’t have an iPod, iPad or iPhone?...
I have been hoping for this for a while. Now we just have to move from it being an Apple-exclusive thing, to becoming standard in consumer electronics. I really think smartphone as remote, if taken to "the next level", by also providing superior guide-search and DVR programming capabilities (it wouldn't be hard to improve on them)

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Net Neutrality Is Important, and Pay-Per-View is NOT Analagous

The complications notwithstanding, net neutrality, broadly speaking, is what exists now. Among the many benefits net neutrality brings is that it fosters innovation. The great fear of the net neutrality purists, however, is that without federal rules, the Internet providers will begin cutting deals with content providers to give certain traffic priority over other traffic. For instance, Verizon could cut a deal with YouTube that allowed its videos to stream faster than, say, a Hulu video. Or it could even block Hulu. Or it could begin charging consumers extra for Netflix movies that were of better quality than ordinary streaming. As Harold Feld, Public Knowledge’s legal director, puts it: “Companies do what companies do.”
(Which brings up one of the true oddities about the fervor over net neutrality. Cable television distributors make decisions all the time about what people can see and how much they have to pay for it. If special sports-only tiers aren’t an example of placing some content over other content, I don’t know what is. Yet because it is merely television, and not the sacred Internet, nobody seems to view this practice as a crime against humanity. But I digress.) [my italics]
The first paragraph is a good explanation of net neutrality, but the immediate following aside is completely irrelevant. The huge flaw in the second paragraph is that it confuses arrangements between content provider and consumer with the role of the traffic carrier in the middle. Nobody is saying YouTube can't charge more for streaming high-definition content, for example. The point is that it is not the business of the man-in-the-middle, the internet carrier, to get involved in that (or any other arrangement). Packets are packets; if you want to charge more for the volume of packets, that's fine, but make no distinctions about the content of a packet.

I have always been a free-market, low-regulation kind of guy (you might call that a traditional regulatory conservative) . But traditional conservatives would  generally recognize the need for a level of regulation in natural monopolies, and most particularly in utilities. The internet backbone is very much a utility--it carries a commodity that most people use on a daily basis. It is very appropriate that is be subjected to a minimal level of regulation

All the more so in the case of the internet, where most of the development costs were borne by the DoD and universities, not by the private carriers that now benefit from this wonderful invention of the "commons".

It's frustrating that elite professional journalists, and their editors (New York Times) could make such elementary mistakes.

Student Debt Insanity

Nobody likes unpleasant surprises, but when Allison Brooke Eastman’s fiancĂ© found out four months ago just how high her student loan debt was, he had a particularly strong reaction: he broke off the engagement within three days.
Ms. Eastman said she had told him early on in their relationship that she had over $100,000 of debt. But, she said, even she didn’t know what the true balance was; like a car buyer who focuses on only the monthly payment, she wrote 12 checks a year for about $1,100 each, the minimum possible. She didn’t focus on the bottom line, she said, because it was so profoundly depressing.
But as the couple got closer to their wedding day, she took out all the paperwork and it became clear that her total debt was actually about $170,000. “He accused me of lying,” said Ms. Eastman, 31, a San Francisco X-ray technician and part-time photographer who had run up much of the balance studying for a bachelor’s degree in photography. “But if I was lying, I was lying to myself, not to him. I didn’t really want to know the full amount.
Sad, but probably a sign of the times. Another example of the craziness of sky-high college costs, the folly of expecting 18-year olds to make judicious decisions about their future debt-load, and the overall insidious effect of the educational-financial complex.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Citizen Journalism

There is a lot of talk about the future of journalism, weblogs and citizen journalism. In reading today's Pioneer Press, I came across two opinion pieces that to me exemplify how much better citizen experts can be, than the pros.

The first was by a retired local economics professor, Edward Lotterman. He gave what is really a pretty simple lesson, explaining the difference between cyclical economic problems, versus structural economic downturns. He went on to describe how our current situation is structural, and discussed the fact that solving it: 1) Has political implications; 2) Would be expected to take 6-8 years; 3) Absent political will (and intelligence) is not guaranteed. It wasn't overly long or detailed, but this kind of grown-up explanation is generally absent in the work of mainstream professional journalists, who seem much more caught up in reporting day-to-day things--some newly released statistic, some attention-grabbing claim, or random anecdotal happenings.

The second was by Amy Lindgren, a local job-search counselor. She took issue with various articles of conventional wisdom:

  • The consequences of extending unemployment benefits
  • Whether job-seeking is a full-time job
  • Job prospects for older workers
  • How to assess the "discouraged worker" statistics
Like Lotterman's article, it wasn't overly long or technical, but it took time to examine the conventional wisdom, instead of mindlessly propounding it.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Android Lock Screen Alternative Wanted

Even before I saw the below analysis of "smudge attacks" on Bruce Schneier's site, I have wanted an alternative to the stock, dot-pattern-based Android screen lock component. What I have in mind is using the Dialpad for entering your PIN. Then, when you succeed, the Dialpad is right there for quick phone calls. Of course, the driving "use case" for this is phone-call-centric, which immediately places me in a minority of smartphone users.

Another key feature would be automatically assigning speed dial numbers. My phone of 5 years ago did this. It was really convenient for every entry to have a speed dial. The assignment occurred as the contact was entered. The invocation occurred by long-pressing the last digit. So if you were calling contact 163, you dial 1-6-long-press-3.

I can already hear people saying "but I can barely remember 10 speed dials, let alone hundreds". That's not exactly the point. Your top 10 speed dials are pretty constant, but others can be very episodic. I don't call my insurance company often, for example, except when I have a claim, and then I may call them several times a day for a week.

The smudge attack suggests an additional feature--the keypad numbers should be randomly scrambled each time presented.

UPDATE: I just implemented the most basic part of this, the Auto-Load, in Tasker.
Abstract
Touch screens are an increasingly common feature on
personal computing devices, especially smartphones,
where size and user interface advantages accrue from
consolidating multiple hardware components (keyboard,
number pad, etc.) into a single software definable user
interface. Oily residues, or smudges, on the touch screen
surface, are one side effect of touches from which frequently
used patterns such as a graphical password might
be inferred.
In this paper we examine the feasibility of such smudge
attacks on touch screens for smartphones, and focus our
analysis on the Android password pattern.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Better "Genius" Button

The MT3G Slide has a "genius" button, but it seems to get lackluster reviews (perhaps another example that having a really slick name is half the battle in marketing). I have an idea for Genius Button 2.0. Every smartphone should have at least one, configurable, hard button. The specific configurations would be user-settable by app context, but a good starting set of defaults would include:
Camera: shutter button.
Stopwatch: start/stop button (soft buttons are particularly ill-suited for this application)
Reader, browser: Page Down[1]
Home screen: this will vary, but for me it would be to bring up the dialer.
Phone conversation: Mute toggle
 Of course, this button should be placed where it is very easy to activate while holding the phone one-handed. 
___________
[1] Of course an even better implementation for PageUp/PageDown would be the volume rocker, but that is out of scope for a single button. PageDown would be at least 75% better.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Google Calendar Feature: Visually Merge Duplicate Shared Events

Virtual merged calendars is great. But when you are viewing your merged calendards for a family of 5, and you all have "Family Movie Night" Friday at 9, it becomes a bit distracting, because that appointment is replicated 5 times. It would be nice if the visual representation could, in some way, visually (not physically) merge those redundant instances of the same event.

Android-Pad by New Year's

I am WAY too frugal to splurge on an iPad. My primary use case for a tablet would be online reading, but from comfortable spots of my own choosing--deck, front porch, bed, comfy chair. I think a modest Android-based tablet would do just fine. As a bonus, there is a Kindle reader for Android, so books would not be out of the question (I know, the Kindle reader with e-ink is much easier on the eyes).

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Scott McNealy: “We are spending $8 billion to $15 billion per year on textbooks” in the United States, Mr. McNealy says. “It seems to me we could put that all online for free.”

This is a great idea. One modest step in bringing down the cost of education. Go Scott!

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Controlling Cell Phone Bills

A couple of years ago some of the cell phone companies came out with some rudimentary "parental controls". One example was T-Mobile's Family Allowances. They have not been marketed, and do not seem to have caught on.

Now I am seeing more and more kids with Android phones, and soon the Android marketplace will allow charging to your phone bill (instead of Google Checkout). More and more kids are getting Android phones, so this brings back the old concern about your kids running up the family mobile bill. I imagine there may be some, highly un-publicized way to shut off the ability to charge apps, if you take the initiative to call T-Mobile customer service. I hope I am wrong, and they build this right in. They really should. People need reasonable protections against excessive, unexpected charges.

On that note, I hate the idea of being able to spend (often, donate) money by texting a special number. I know the causes are often good, but I just do not like money flowing automagically out of my account, just by pressing a few buttons. It actually seems RIPE for a phishing scam.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Huge Missing Feature in Google Calendar: Snooze

There appears to be no snooze whatsoever in the browser. There is a rudimentary snooze in Android, but it has all the functionality of an $8 alarm clock (hard-coded 5 minutes). This is really a big miss.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Lawyers and "Confidentiality"

Another good "(many) lawyers are evil" (my interpretation) article.
Lawyers, in short, have carved out a role for themselves as the privileged keepers of much information that is important to the public interest. Historically, lawyers have liked to think of themselves as defenders of individual liberty against an overbearing state, primarily through traditional advocacy—that is, persuasively asserting a client's rights. Today, however, lawyers' typical efforts to mediate between clients and the state rely less on advocacy and more on information control. This is a disturbing development; lawyers have brought to their new role as information guardians a powerful predisposition toward needless secrecy that suppresses and distorts information about many matters of public importance.
In a world that increasingly seeks transparency in government and business, the legal profession stands out for its frankly uncompromising commitment to opacity.  Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis's principle that "sunlight" is the "best of disinfectants" is a major influence on contemporary public policy nearly everywhere except in his own profession.
Lawyers can give clients something that other professionals, with the exception of doctors and priests, cannot: strong confidentiality rights. Although the legal system routinely requires accountants, bankers, and business consultants to disclose ostensibly private communications with their clients, attorney-client privilege protects most communication between lawyers and their clients from involuntary revelation.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Teach Confirmation Bias

In this age of internet memes and cable news, is there any more important concept that should be taught in the schools than confirmation bias?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Review of Rental Cottage at 671 Bosma, Holland, Michigan

We just got back from a great week at the Atlantic Ocean of the midwest, Lake Michigan. It is a jewel of "flyover" country. With temperate summer waters, white sandy beaches and water as far as the eye can see, it is every bit as good as the ocean. The cottage we stayed in was terrific, here is a short review:

The very short review is that everything about the cottage exceeded expectations. It is newly and delightfully decorated. The proximity is superb--less than 10 minutes for a very pleasant walk to an un-crowded, private beach. The physical location is great, too--in a cute little neighborhood, just north of Lake Macatawa and east of Lake Michigan. The yard is spacious, and there is good privacy on the lovely patio. The cottage is really a recently re-modeled, very-well-kept and well-decorated house. It has everything you would want, including extended cable, wi-fi, laundry, air-conditioning, a gas grill, and a handy outdoor shower for rinsing off the sand. Everything, without exception, was in excellent working order.

The cottage is advertised as sleeping 8, but we asked the owner, Mike, if two families totaling 9 persons would be okay. He candidly replied that the sleeping arrangements would work fine, but we should be aware that there is only one bathroom. We said we could make that work, and it was not a problem at all. As to sleeping, there are 3 spacious bedrooms. Two equipped with double beds, and one with 2 pairs of bunks. So if you, like us, are vacationing with another family, you can turn a good deal into a great deal, by splitting the cost, very easily and very comfortably.. The rooms of the cottage are also very large, so there is plenty of room for 8-9 people, even on an unlucky rainy day.

The greater Holland location was also very good. There are all kinds of stores and restaurants within an easy 10 minutes' drive, if you want them. As for us, we hardly go in the car at all. Kayak rental is a 3-minute walk. Boat rentals on Lake Macatawah are just 1 mile down the road. There was just hardly any reason at all to leave the immediate vicinity. Bottom line--this is a great cottage rental, and at unbeatable price.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Chrome-to-Phone (Android)

...One Froyo benfit that has been somewhat overlooked is the Chrome to Phone application and Chrome extension. Chrome to Phone  is one of the most useful Android features I have come across, and it’s a really simple idea that provides the ability to have a continuous stream of information no matter where we happen to go.

Chrome to Phone is a simple combination of a Chrome extension and Android application that allows you to click one button in your browser, and sync what you were viewing right to your Android phone to be check out at a later time.
Reading a news article but need to head out the door to drive to work? Simply click the Chrome to Phone button on your Chrome browser, launch the Chrome to Phone application on your Android device at work, and it immediately takes you to the webpage you were viewing at home so you can pick up right where you left off.
This sounds good. In keeping with my desire to do as little inputting on the phone as possible.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Kindle for Android

I downloaded Kindle for Android a week ago, and have been dabbling with it. My first impression is about what I expected--a nice option, but the phone is really not a very pleasant platform for reading a book! High points:
  1. Works very well, and is pretty quick.
  2. Well-integrated with the Amazon website--allows my preferred smartphone paradigm of doing as little data-entry as possible on the phone.
  3. Has a very broad selection of font sizes.
The single biggest disappointment? Does not enable one-handed reading by providing a good Page Down option. The Dolphin browser remains the only Android app I have found that implements this very obvious feature, which provides parity with the Palm Pilot c. 2000!

I Like Dropbox

I have known about Dropbox for over a year, but haven't gotten around to trying it until we bought a new laptop. Part of the reason I hadn't tried Dropbox was I didn't see a real need for it in my own computing life. My work computing of course is taken care of by the corporate infrastructure, including nightly backup. I use a Shared Drive to store ALL my work, so everything gets backed up regularly. (I am a big fan off Windows Offline Files, which, come to think of it, is very comparable to Dropbox functionality, within the context of corporate-managed IT assets.) For personal use, I have become enamored of Google Docs and cloud computing, so I just don't generate many local files to worry about.

However, this laptop will be my wife's primary computer, in her role as an independent contractor. And in my role as her Tier 1, 2 and 3 tech support person, I worry a lot about the reliability of her data. So, I thought it was time to fire up Dropbox, and so far I have not been disappointed. A secondary benefit will be the kids, who also insist on using M$ Office, even though I beg them to go the Google Docs route, so that if they have some kind of emergency (forgetting a printed paper, for instance), they can access their docs from schol.

Toshiba Satellite L455-5000, First Impression: Worth Every Penny of $329

As noted, last week I purchased Beth a Toshiba Satellite L455-5000 laptop, running Windows 7.0 Hope Premium, for the shockingly cheap price of $329. Early impressions are extremely favorable. For starters, there was no crapware to remove. I think it was all rolled into the Best Buy Software Installer, which I simply removed.

It is an utterly un-sexy machine, but it seems very solid. Keyboard is not bad, at all. Performance out-of-box seems excellent. We haven't experimented deeply yet, but it seems capable of supporting at least 3 simultaneously-logged-in users. Startup, logoff and user-switching all seem very snappy. All the infrastructure stuff, such as logging into the home network, and mapping to the shared printers, went well.

A Shock - Best Buy Price Beats Amazon

I have just about written off Best Buy for consumer electronics purchases. Their price if usually not even close to the online price. So I was quite surprised when I went to price a new, super-cheap laptop for Beth. Best Buy had the lowest prices, by a wide margin. I wound up getting a Toshiba Satellite L455-5000 for the shockingly low price of $329. The best price on Amazon was $385 (a partner price, not Amazon's, so also no option for free Super-Saver shipping).

As is often the case, in retrospect I have a theory. I think the laptop is a loss-leader. I think Best Buy hopes to sell you highly profitable extras, such as Extended Warranty coverage, ridiculously over-priced cables, and outrageous services such as crapware-removal, to make their profit. Needless to say, they get no such business from me.

Major Facebook Fail: Logging on from Unfamiliar Location

I don't use Facebook often. Maybe 1-2 times/month. While on vacation tonight, I thought I would do a quick status update. After entering my correct User ID and Password, I was dumbfounded to be greeted with a message that said I was logging on from an unfamiliar location, and I had to answer a bunch of questions to authenticate myself. That was bad. Worse, were the questions--they pertained to a bunch of photos of people I didn't recognize. They seemed to be photos of random of my "friends", some of whom are high school people I haven't seen in 25 years, others of which were children of passing acquaintances. I literally couldn't answer ANY of the 7 photo-identification questions.

I am surprised I have not read about this phenomenon. It is unlike anything else I have encountered. I did a little research. Maybe my search-savvy was not tuned in, but this is the only first-30 result I found that was somewhat useful--but no comments or follow-up.

What gives, FB?

Friday, July 02, 2010

Soccer Improvement Idea: Deter Exaggerated Falls

The theatrics surrounding faked and grossly exaggerated fouls in soccer has been a topic of significant discussion during this year's World Cup. Occasionally, the referee will penalize the actor, and instead give them a yellow card. But it doesn't happen often.

I have an idea. Why not use replay to assign those exaggeration yellows, after-the-fact? They wouldn't necessarily have to affect the current game at all--the deterrence factor would come in with the fact that a player receiving 2 yellow cards in a stage must sit out the next game.

The beauty of this approach is that it would leverage the power of replay, without disrupting the prized flow of the game. And it does seem like it would have a lot of deterrent power. When all the Actor has to worry about is the position of the on-field ref, they can make a calculation that their exaggeration will be undetectable. But with TV cameras at all angles, there is no calculating that you can get away with it.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Office 2007 UI - Capricious Changes

I have used MS-Word for Windows since the pre-Win 3.0 days, going back to 1989. For all that time, the icon to "reveal formatting" has been the paragraph marker. I could find it in my sleep. A couple of months ago, my daughter was having formattting problems with Office 2007. I told her to turn on formatting marks. She responded "Huh?" I told her "Click the Paragraph Marker". "I don't see one". I came over, searched high and low and didn't find it. I finally gave up, and went to the dialog box to accomplish my purpose, of turning on the formatting marks.

Just now, I stumbled.across the "new and improved" icon. To me, it doesn't at all suggest what the function is, if anything, it looks like a font-size or color picker. Argh!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

DropBox and My Documents

I've spent a big chunk of the day setting up a new Windows 7 laptop. Primarily to be used by my wife, Beth, but needing also to be accessible by me and our 3 kids. I thought I would take time to set up Dropbox, something I have read about but never actually used. I think I have it up and running, but there was a key modification I had to make. I really want Dropbox to be the default, like MyDocuments. But for the most part, Dropbox acts just like a folder in the file system; the key is that any file or folder placed within it will be synched to the cloud.

So what I really wanted to do was replace "My Documents" with "My Dropbox". Fortunately, in Windows "My Documents" is really just a label, that is applied by default to a folder User/Documents. So if you go into the Users list in Windows Explorer, and right-click on My Documents, you get a dialog which includes a Location tab. Within that Location tab, you can specify any arbitrary folder you want. So, change it to User/My Dropbox, and you are all set. (Note: This also requires not letting Dropbox default the location of My Dropbox--you have to tell it to put it as an immediate child of User.)

08/25/13 UPDATE: Unfortunately, this seems to break the built-in 1Password-Dropbox integration. 1Password is essentially "hard-coded" to expect Dropbox to be in the default location. Or at least it did a few months ago--I haven't checked since then.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Software and Consulting Vendors Are All the Same

They start by telling you about their company origin, its core values, its locations. Like I care. I know what they are doing. They are following the rule that the first and last things in a presentation tend to be what people remember. So, naturally, they want their commercial to be first. The problem is, they put the commercial before the content. The result is that people just tune out, right from the beginning. This is even worse with webinars, where people can multi-task at will.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Google TV

I am not paying much attention to Google TV announcements at the moment. However, given Directv's wretched useability and search, I would advise them to watch out. Ignoring the basics in those areas was the opening that M$, Yahoo and others gave to Google in the first place.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Student Debt Trap

Good article in this subject. To me this is a sad commentary on the decay of institutional ethics. Viewed in this light, colleges look no better than any profit-hungry, self-interested enterprise, and worse than many.

She recently received a raise and now makes $22 an hour working for a photographer. It’s the highest salary she’s earned since graduating with an interdisciplinary degree in religious and women’s studies...She may finally be earning enough to barely scrape by while still making the payments for the first time since she graduated, at least until interest rates rise and the payments on her loans with variable rates spiral up. And while her job requires her to work nights and weekends sometimes, she probably should find a flexible second job to try to bring in a few extra hundred dollars a month.
Ms. Munna understands this tough love, buck up, buckle-down advice. But she also badly wants to call a do-over on the last decade. “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life slaving away to pay for an education I got for four years and would happily give back,” she said. “It feels wrong to me.”
I think this phenomenon will likely have some significant reverberations. People will have fewer kids, and people will have kids later in life. The latter is not such a great trend, in my opinion.

(Aside--the article didn't even comment on the dubious degree choice--religious and women's studies?!)

Grabber/Dragger Functionality

Canonical example is the "hand" cursor in PDF fiiles. Why isn't this universal in apps where you use more than the full screen? And why aren't there more ways to change w/o accessing the menu? e.g., CTRL-Click, ALT-Click.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Readability Bookmarklet

I just installed the Readability Bookmarklet. Quick review--I like it. Now how about an Android version? :)

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Tool Needed to Diagnose Android Apps Causing Laggy-ness

For the most part I like my MT3G Android phone, but I have occasionally experienced some problems with laggy-ness. After months of no major problems, it cropped up big-time recently. Really big-time--so much that even a re-boot only cured it for a few minutes. I could not think ot any obvious cause, but I figured it must correlate it to an app installation event--either a new app, or perhaps an update. The problem was, I couldn't think of any likely suspects.

This persisted for several days. I was very, very close to doing a master re-set, out of desperation. But then I had some time on my hands today, and I was poking around with Wing Tseng's terriffic Task Manager app, and I think I may have found the offending application (no naming names, at least not yet, because I'm not sure).

So anyway, that got me thinking...it is really a showstopper when your phone gets hit with that degree of lagginess. We really need a tool to help troubleshoot where the lag may be coming from. This is what I have in mind--an app that:
  1. Keeps a log of date/time for all installs and updates of apps.
  2. Tool also monitors CPU usage, and reports by date/time.
These 2 pieces of information could be very helpful in diagnosing the likely offending application. Extra credit if the app itself provides suggestions.