Friday, March 26, 2010

eCommerce Semi-Sleaziness

I do understand that companies are in business to make money. I really do. I support that. I work for a for-profit company. Always have. But there are fair and ethical ways to make money, then there is sleaze and foolishness. I made a reservation with Budget Rental a week ago, for a rental in 2 days from the present. Got a very nice rate, 21.99 per day (before taxes of course). I just went to change the reservation, to push it out by one day, and the rate was up to $99.99 per day!

I do understand that, like airline tickets and hotel rooms, car rental rates fluctuate based on demand. I get that. But within one week, going up by 5X?! I didn't believe that was a simple reflection of "market conditions". So, instead of changing my existing reservation, I went to make a new one (no penalty for canceling). Sure enough, my original rate was still available.

So what I assume was happening is that they have some algorithm that says people changing at this late date are in a hurry, and you can fleece them. As a consumer, I just really, really resent it when companies try to pull this stuff. Do they really think consumers are that stupid?! Maybe it works, but I find it really irritating. If they weren't so greedy, it might actually have worked. If the rate had gone up by $10, I probably wouldn't have blinked.

Monday, March 22, 2010

"Superphone" Term a Poor Marketing Tactic from Google

In my consumer cosmology, the more heavily promoted an item is, the more skeptical I become about its benefits and value proposition. It is a huge warning sign when a marketer tries to subtly re-name the product or service. For instance, an OCR vendor I dealt with tried to call it "ICR"--intelligent character recognition. I, not O--different than that old, crummy, never-accurate-enough OCR that you tried before. Except it was exactly like the old OCR that never worked well. Old wine in new bottle.

So when Google tried calling it's much-anticipated smartphone a "superphone", I smelled a rat. In this case, the rat wasn't a horrible sewer rat, it was more like a domesticated pet rat. The Nexus is by all accounts (I don't own one) a very nice Android phone, possibly/probably the best on the market. But nothing, absolutely nothing, about it is revolutionary, in a qualitative or quantitative sense.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Unusual Hockey Game

I don't see much hockey, but I was lucky enough to be invited to the Wild-Flames game today. I always enjoy watching a game in person (that cliche is so true). Anwyay, it was a good game, the home team won, and there was plenty of scoring, 4-3. But the relatively plentiful scoring was not among the things that I am counting as unusual:
  1. 10 minutes of stoppage due to an injured player who was ultimately wheeled out. Apparently he is okay.
  2. Another 10 minutes of stoppage because the gate onto the rink was damaged, apparently by a hard check!
  3. Maybe I have missed it before, but I never noticed players skating stickless (because their sticks had broken). In this game, at one point first one, then two, Wild players were skating stickless. I know this is not unheard of when on defense, but I personally never noticed, it, and it lasted a while, with even the second player going stickless.
We had great seats, just above the glass line, 12 rows up, on the blue line. All in all, it was a really good outing.

Is Google's Search Quality Being Eroded by SEO?

When Google first appeared on the scene, it was almost magical. That was over a decade ago, back when the home screen was even plainer than now, back before Gmail, and it said "BETA" in big letters, but it sure didn't feel like beta. More often, now, though, all the top results I get are eCommerce sites. I really have to dig and refine to get useful information.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Resume "Botox"

I heard an NPR segment on "resume botox"--making sure you didn't sound too old in your resume. Two of the points are things I have recommended to others:
  1. Use a Gmail address.
  2. Dispense with the cover letter.

Music Collections in the Cloud

Pretty good article on access to music from the cloud.
Catch Media is building a registration, tracking and clearinghouse system to give consumers legal access to their music anytime and anywhere across a variety of devices. Mark Segall, its business development adviser, says the company will soon announce which music companies will use the technology but suggests that consumers will have to pay a “convenience fee” for streaming their music from the Web, comparable to charges at an A.T.M.
This is interesting. 20+ years ago I had a debate with my friend, Jeff, over whether it would make sense to own music in the future. I thought it wouldn't, that you would just "rent" it. Partly we were driven by differences in perspective--I was more into jazz and classical, so had more repertoire to draw from, so was less interested in listening to the same piece many, many times.

Now, Rhapsody let's you do that, for $13/month. Even for a casual music-listener, that's not too bad a price--it's equivalent to buying 1 CD. Plus, you can share the account within a family, quite easily. The only problem is that you can't get the music to the cloud, notably to your MP3 player. But Rhapsody works over the web, and they have a beta out for Android, so it seems like all that may change. To me, this seems like it has hugely disruptive potential, and could be much more appealing than these other cloud schemes.

Blogger Feature: Abandoned Posts Functionality

Sometimes I start a post and decide never to finish it. Often, because I have discovered some flaw in my reasoning. Still, I hate to discard anything I have taken the time to write--as with saving all email messages, you just never know which thing you may want for some reason in the future. My work-around in Blogger is to assign such un-published items to an "Abandoned" category. But that will cause them to still accumulate and get in the way when reviewing the backlog of un-published posts (I tend to have a lot of those). I would like to see built-in system functionality for hiding posts in the "Abandoned" category.

Good Design: Blogger Handling of Links

In most apps (Word, Excel), if you paste in a link, when you click on it, it behaves just like a browser window--it launches the link. Sometimes this is the correct behavior, but other times--when you are trying to edit an Excel cell--it is not the desired behavior, and it gets in the way. I really like the way Blogger handles this, in Edit Mode.

Op-Ed Columnist - The Broken Society - NYTimes.com

Britain is always going to be more hospitable to communitarian politics than the more libertarian U.S. But people are social creatures here, too. American society has been atomized by the twin revolutions here, too. This country, too, needs a fresh political wind. America, too, is suffering a devastating crisis of authority. The only way to restore trust is from the local community on up.

Interesting from Brooks...the "crisis of authority" is a theme of great interest to me.

Fitness - Workout Distractions - Good or Bad? - NYTimes.com

Anyone who knows me well will know I am a big advocate of reading while doing exercise machines. The recumbent excercise bike, in particular, is the perfect reading machine. I know my target cadence, and glance from time-to-time to check, so I don't think reading diminishes my workout intensity hardly at all. It is true that if I didn't read, I could probably push myself past hard toward the limit a bit more--if I were so inclined--but by the same token, if I didn't read, I don't think I could stand to stay on the damn thing an hour!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Web Sites that Use Facebook, Google, etc for Identity

It can be convenient and powerful to log in to a website (e.g., to add comments) using your Facebook (or, occasionally, Google) identity. Convenient, because you don't have to sign up for anything. Powerful, because if you want it to--a big if--it is connected with your identity. It makes me nervous though.

In theory, they are connecting directly to Facebook, through a secure HTTP connection, so they never intercept your password. I see several possible problems, though:
  1. A rogue site could fake the Facebook login page, and intercept your password. Maybe they could even do this very cleverly, calling through to Facebook, so that you even get the expected results of a successful Facebook connection.
  2. A rouge site could just play on the fact that people are used to doing this, and not even offer a Facebook login page, allowing them to easily capture your password.
  3. The Facebook login page could be presented over a non-secure HTTP connection. Unless I am missing something, that seems to be what is happening in the screenshot below, from the site hothardware.com. This probably is carelessness, not an intentional attempt to steal your password. (Am I missing something?--I don't see an "httpS", and I don't see a little lock symbol in the lower right corner.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Why can't TouchPal use real spell-check?

I really like the TouchPal virtual keyboard, but its implementation of spell-check/auto-complete on the compact qwerty keyboard is really frustrating to me. Instead of looking at the whole word, it looks at the string you have typed. The moment you make a mistake that doesn't map to a word, it reverts to assuming you are using it in non-auto-complete mode, so that you get the nonsense word that is formed by the first of the two-letter pairs. In other words, it defaults to something that is wrong 100% of the time. I am probably missing something, perhaps it is a matter of computing overhead, but this implementation really mars an otherwise terrific product.

Female Pushup Standards in the Army

When the roles suitable for women in the military are discussed, pushup standards are often a point of debate. The pushup standards are quite a bit lower for women than for men. I personally think this factor is over-rated and mis-interpreted.

We should first ask ourselves--is push-up capability a Bona-Fide Occupational Qualification (aka, BFQ)? Or is it, like a college degree, more of a proxy or marker for some more general indicators of suitability? I would submit, for 90+% of military assignments, it is the latter. Being able to do a goodly number of pushups is an indicator of:
  • general physical fitness
  • discipline (maintaining one's fitness)
  • mental toughness
All of  which are important in the military environment, much more so than the absolute number of pushups a soldier can perform.

Google Android: It's time to end the fragmentation | The Toybox | ZDNet.com

Google Android: It's time to end the fragmentation | The Toybox | ZDNet.com
Android is beginning its spiral into the world of crapware, software which serves no real purpose other than to give marketing people a “differentiator” which doesn’t really meet a customer need. And just as it has on the PC, the situation will get worse before it gets better – with the unfortunate issue that crapware is even harder to get rid of on a phone than it is on a computer.
I think that is a bit dramatic, but the article is a good, comprehensive look at the growing problem of Android fragmentation and non-updates. I am moderately frustrated to still be sitting at 1.6 on my T-Mobile myTouch 3G. Updates need to come more reliably.

I personally would stay the heck away from any custom software on top of Android, such as Motoblur or Sense. I can see how that complicates updating Android versions. Cold-comfort for people who bought those phones. But I am much more frustrated about non-updates for vanilla Android on recent Google Experience phones, such as the MT3G.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Smartphones and Farsightedness

I am starting to get hit by farsightedness. Most of the time I do without reading glasses, but more and more I am noticing I dislike small type. I especially notice it when trying to read on my Android phone. Although there are some options for changing font size, they are limited, not so easily accessed, and not nearly granular enough. Normal is too small, but Large is too big. That is disappointing, although probably not too surprising, given the perceived demographics of Android users. I am curious whether BlackBerry is better, since it appeals to an older demographic.

Well-designed software takes advantage of the medium--software is soft--to allow the user to easily alter the type size to their liking. Firefox, with its CTRL-PLUS and CTRL-MINUS font-incrementing, sets the standard. This is an example of Bruce Tognazzini's teaching that, when designing products to be accessible (to people with handicaps or physical limitations), you actually make a product that is better for all users.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

From Israel, a Radical Way to Boost Organ Donation - NYTimes.com

From Israel, a Radical Way to Boost Organ Donation - NYTimes.com. Israel is launching a potentially trailblazing experiment in organ donation: Sign a donor card, and you and your family move up in line for a transplant if one is needed.

Great idea. Seems so obvious.

Inefficiences of Companies Relocations

This article talks about the threats of United Technologies to move out of its longtime headquarters state of Connecticut (I worked at Otis, a UTC company, for the first 12 years of my career).

Rell's office issued a general statement calling for the state to lower business costs, but offered no specific plans on how to accomplish that.

"The comments by the UTC executives today reinforce Governor Rell's message that we must improve our business climate," the statement said. "More taxes, more mandates and more costs for employers are not the answers. Given the current budget deficit, the legislature needs to make some tough choices — but it cannot do so at the expense of our businesses and our employers."

The budget deficits Rell described may limit the state's ability to give millions of dollars in grants and tax breaks, as it has done in the past. [my italics]
Doling out all those tax breaks and incentives is part of the problem.  It is the economic policy version of social engineering. It leads to behavior that is macro-inefficient:
First of all, having companies relocate is often a huge, disruptive inefficiency. People typically make long-term decisions regarding where they live and work in part based on commuting distance. So a relocation of any significant distance--let alone out of state--will have a huge disruption effect on the workforce.[1]

Second, the doling out of tax breaks is inherently inefficient. We all learn in business school that it is one-tenth as expensive to retain an existing customer, versus attracting a new customer. The tax breaks start with luring new companies to the state. But then the existing companies want the same thing, so they threaten to leave. All of that activity employing non-value added state policy officials, lobbyists and lawyers. W-A-S-T-E.
__________________
[1] I recognize that in this case, disrupting the workforce may be a feature, not a bug, because the real desire is to out-source to a cheaper location.
 

Friday, March 12, 2010

Cut the Up-Selling, Waitress!

I hate being marketed to. My patience is often tried in restaurants. I am more or less reconciled to waiters and waitresses making a pass at "up-selling" the high-profit items of appetizers, drinks and desserts. But sometimes they cross the line. It's one thing for them to chirpily ask if they can bring me an appetizer, it's easy enough to say "no" to that. The next level is to make the request more specific, and more suggestive, like "how about if I bring you an order of our brand new sizzling spicy fruitcake?" The tactic there is to simplfiy the request, to remove the "cognitive load" so that all you the patron need to say is "yes". I always say "no".

At a recent group dinner, with 5 couples, the level of sell really crossed the line. The waitress, clearly experienced, tried to take advantage of the ambiguity present in the group setting. In a social group, there is generally no clear leader, and everybody is trying to be polite. She took advantage of that dynamic to try to insert herself as the decision-maker: "Would you all like some appetizers?" When no immediate answer was forthcoming--because nobody wanted appetizers, but nobody was going to speak for the entire group--she followed up with "How about I bring you a couple of our sampler platters?". Happily, this group was having none of it.

Would more general education and awareness help?

My bubbles post ...another example would be psychological behavior. If people were aware of agency bias and confirmation bias, would they be just a little less prone to conspiracy thinking?

Part of this ties into my wish that some person of figure of authority would urge the American people to reconsider how they spending their time. Instead of consuming quite so much vapid reality TV and sports, Continuous education. I know, this is about as likely to happen as getting people to exercise.

Olympian Attitudes

This article about the spirit of the Winter Olympics athletes was good. It pulls together a few thoughts.

1. During the self-esteem boom, I remember hearing a few voices in the wilderness pointing out that self-esteem comes not from being told one is successful or talented, but from being successful or talented, and having it recognized. So the key part is the AND. It is important to help kids find things they can be good at, and then to recognize their success. Especially for kids who aren't academically or athletically talented, they may need help finding something. But it does have to be something real.

2. Happiness--I think wisdom tells us that the paradox is those who seek a happy life are not so likely to achieve it, while those who seek a purposeful or moral life will more likely gain happiness as a byproduct.

3. Olympians' attitudes--it really shows in the sportsmanship .So many of them showed such extraordinary sportsmanship and good attitude, even when falling short of the ideal goal.

Intermittent, Mysterious Laptop Problems Due to Overheating

Our Acer laptop, an Extensa 4420, was exhibiting strange behavior. It would spontaneously shut off, almost as if it was out of power (but it wasn't). Then when I would try to re-start it, it would begin boot sequence, but then shut off. I could repeat this a dozen times, and finally, it would boot, and after that it would be fine.

It took quite a while, but I finally diagnosed the problem--overheating. The unit runs pretty darn hot, and the cooling vents are on the bottom. That works okay if it is on a table, but my family members tend to use it on their laps, and worse, to lay it on the soft couch.

Quite coincidentally, a co-worker was mentioning similar laptop problems. She thought her machine might have a virus, because it shut off in the middle of running her virus scan program. I mentioned our over-heating experience, and sure enough, when she tried making sure it had enough ventiliation, the problem disappeared.

What I wonder is--what are the chances tech support or the Geek Squad would troubleshoot that problem successfully? I have a feeling Geek Squad would happily default to the "Occam's Razor" solution of replacing the cooling fan.

Dealing with Specialists

A theme for me is how poor specialists are in discussing their specialty with "lay" people. Even when those lay people are their customers! I'm in IT, an area notorious for this problem. But it is pervasive. I've had a plumber or electrician do work, and when they try to explain the problem to me, I feel like answering "if I understood that, I wouldn't have to hire an electrician, I would already be one!" Now, because I have a moderately technical background, and because I am a generalist, I can usually back them up, do some paraphrasing, and coax a comprehensible explanation out of them. But not everyone can or will do that.

The other extreme is when the specialist goes for the absolute lowest common denominator. They read right from the rulebook, speaking slowly and loudly, to make sure their dimwitted audience follows along. This, too, is very trying. So I think there are two sides to the coin:
  1. How can specialists get better at interacting with lay people? This would involve developing a good "bedside manner", learning to read body language and custom-calibrating, in real-time, their explanation to to their audience's exhibited level of understanding.
  2. How can lay people get better interacting with specailists? Lay people will aid their cause by accumulating a good base of general knowledge, and trying to engage in more structured thinking and posing of questions.

Male Android Cheapskates To Dominate Mobile Market | Android Phone Fans

Male Android Cheapskates To Dominate Mobile Market | Android Phone Fans

And this is exactly what Android’s detractors would say – Android is for geeky guys and penny pinchers. Instead, I’d say it suggests the success of the Open Source mentality and the Laissez-faire approach on market regulation. Google has provided an arena where free solutions that are equal or close to paid solutions are widely available. That doesn’t mean developers can’t make bank – go ahead and support your apps with advertising and sponsorships – if I’m getting an app for free I have no problem seeing ads, knowing that it’s what compensates the devs.
I love this. "Cheap" (aka, cost-sensitive) consumers are exactly what the economy needs more of. In my humble opinion, too many companies have expensive cost models that are unsustainable.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Friday, March 05, 2010

NYT: China’s spectacular real estate boom may be a bubble that threatens the global economy.

Bubbles again--so frustrating. Like rubber-necking at crash sites, they cause immense systemic problems, even though they seem like they should be completely avoidable. Many economists firmly maintain the bubbles are inherent to the system (though specific policies, such as easy credit, can make them worse). I have this belief (foolish, vain wish?) that modern society is a little bit over-specialized, and that if people were a bit more well-informed as generalists, many things might run better.
Avoiding economic Bubbles is one of the things I think might be in this category. If people were much more aware of economic bubbles--including the fact that in every single bubble, some new reason is offered why "this is not a bubble"--would we be less likely to engage in this kind of mass foolishness?

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Fwd: Even More Reasons to Get a Move On

Really good article on the almost endless benefits of exercise. I think maybe the only way to get people's attention is through their wallets. It could be complex, cumbersome and meddlesome, but I think there needs to be a significant premium penalty for not exercising. I think it would have to be at least equivalent to the penalty now assessed to smokers--maybe more. Obviously the upper limit should be the real, actuarial health costs associated with inactivity--if people choose to incur that cost, it is ultimately their free choice.

I say this warily. As a 100 mile/week cyclist, I have my doubts about ever getting credit  for my exercise regime. Hard to monitor, as opposed to the credit for getting through the gym doors 12 times/week.



First Bike Ride of the Season!

I hit the road for the inaugural ride, after work today. It was in the low 40s, very sunny, not too windy. Reasonably comfortable, all-in-all. So I logged almost 20 miles before dinner.

This was, by far, the most snow I on the ground when I have ridden. However due to the warm temps and very sunny days, the roads were clean and dry.