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.