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 number, 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. 

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.