Saturday, December 29, 2012

Screw Frisco!

Slate article: "San Francisco can become a world capital. First it needs to get over itself". What would make me happier is if the tech sector would wise up to all the drawbacks of California, and start looking for new pastures (Minneapolis-St. Paul for a larger metro, Bloomington, IN for small city).

I don't want to buy ANYTHING by sending a text

"Android Malware Creeps Into Cellphone Bill". The root cause of this one is easy to diagnose: it's a terrible idea to spend money simply by sending a text.

Liberal best intentions?

This article on NYC's findings on which buildings use the most energy seems rife with erroneous conclusions based on gross statistical over-simplification. Sounds like they must be using the most simplistic measurements of energy per square foot or energy per head count.

I view this as an example of (presumably) liberal good intentions, not anchored in solid science, that are likely to lead to waste, disillusionment and cynicism.  Deeply flawed data is much more harmful than no data. #Innumeracy

Combine all forms of textual messaging

I have always thought the distinctions between email, IM and texts were artificial. I would like to see them all integrated under one wrapper, with distinctions that preserve the conventions of the current usage. 
  • Text is an "immediate priority" email (more than ordinary "high priority" like in Outlook). Optionally, your client or email service can let you require a PIN or white-list relationship to accept incoming as immediate priority.
  • IM is exchanged in real-time, and optionally saved as email. 

"No One Uses Smart TV Internet Because It Sucks"

Got to agree with this article, but I would go further. The useability, even for the primary purpose of TV-and DVR-watching, of Comcast and DirecTV software is wretched. This is another industry that is ripe for disruption by Google or, more likely, Apple.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Corporate Punishment and Deterrence

Corporations are indispensable and vital in a modern economy, but let's not kid ourselves, they are utterly  amoral. Given the circumstances, almost any publicly-held company will eventually morph into a self-serving, competition-destroying, self-dealing monster. There is an old saying--every business person is champion of free market competition--except in their own industry, where they are more than happy to engage in special pleading, if that advances their interests by securing subsidies, tax breaks or best of all, regulatory barriers to competition.
So it is useful to think about the mechanisms for disciplining corporate excesses. Sometimes, the market and consumer behavior works. Certainly for routine matters such as incremental price increases, the market reaction is the best determinant, much better than any sort regulatory control. But in other situations, especially where uniquely defended market positions exist, such as created by network effects, the issues are more complex, and aren't addressed by a simple vote-with-your-wallet incremental buying decision.
So it is especially heartening to me to read about the backlash against Facebook-Instagram, for their recent gross over-reach. (Even if the NY Post report that "Instagram "may have shed nearly a quarter of its daily active users in the wake of the debacle" is likely way overstated.) 
For every one high-profile consumer-backlash issue, there are hundreds of cases of corporate bullying and self-dealing that go un-sanctioned. Therefore, we must hope that for the few cases that achieve a high profile to serve as effective deterrents, the punishment has to quite severe. If the transgressing companies don't pay a high enough price, on the rare occasion where they are tried in the court of public opinion, then there is little deterrence effect.
Hence, for a severe serial offender like Facebook-Instagram, netizens should all be rooting for major blowback. And hoping that even if (when) Instagram backtracks a little bit, users still stay away.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Gamification Skepticism

I want to go on record as being a skeptic of gamification for consumer products companies. 

I find this NYT article pretty accurately leaning skeptical. Just to be clear, I'm not saying gamification never works, I just think that the cases where it works will more likely be the exceptions that the promoters wish would be the rule, but aren't. Here's a choice quote:
"It's a concept being invented and mastered by speakers, conference organizers and business consultants in order to provide them with a short-lived burst of success," said Dr. Bogost, who last year wrote an essay that, in its off-color title, bluntly dismissed gamification. 
One mild example of gamification that I have been offered, and have no interest in, is riding against a virtual competitor when doing the exercise bike. It's artificial and dull, and I don't see other people doing it, either.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

eBook Search is great, but dangerous

When I was a student, I used to fantasize how powerful it would be to have online, searchable texts, especially when doing literature essays or term papers. You know: instead of spending 10 minutes hunting for that quote that you can remember in your mind's eye--just search for it.

Online books arrived too late for the above use case to apply to me, but I have been enjoying a small version of that. When reading a novel, sometimes I will forget some detail--most often, who the heck some minor character is. In such cases, it is very nice to be able to search, and usually go back to the first mention of said character.

My son, however, just encountered a glitch with that approach--his search inadvertently revealed key upcoming plot information. So I think the Kindle, etc, need a "no spoiler" option: a checkbox "don't show me any search results beyond my current place in the book".

(In general, I think everything about content needs to give thought to the "no spoiler" factor...)

Solution to deal with alarms in silent mode

Alarms in Android override the silent setting on your phone. 95% of the time, this is just as it should be. For instance, I use my phone as my alarm clock. I don't want notifications disturbing me at night, so I silence my phone when I go to bed. But obviously, I wouldn't want that to override the morning alarm.

Where this can become a problem is when, like me, you rely on alarms for reminders. For instance, I might set twice-daily alarms to remind me to take a dosage of an antibiotic. The problem arises when I silence my phone, as at a movie or, worse yet, a NYC Philharmonic concert, you go to silence , and don't realize I still have that reminder alarm set to go off mid-way through.

So what's the solution? I think it lies with an extension of the functionality of an un-silencer app (e.g., SilenceModeTimer). When you set your phone to silent, this app triggers a dialog that asks you how long to keep your phone silent. The app will then automatically un-silence your phone at the end of that period.

So the extension of that functionality would be:
  1. Un-silencer app looks to see if there are any alarms scheduled for the silent period you have selected.
  2. If there are any, it warns you.
It's as simple as that. I can think of more elaborate functionality--bringing up the alarm window, letting you choose whether to suppress the alarms, make them only vibrate, etc--but I don't think it is necessary. In fact, the warning could even be static text ("you have alarms scheduled, that will sound during the silent period").

Friday, November 23, 2012

Replacing a 21 year old stadium

The NFL commissioner says that HDTV is hurting live attendance. Maybe it is, but I have an alternate candidate for the biggest problem: excessive ticket prices. Make it cheaper to attend live games, more people will attend, including me. How to make it cheaper? So many ways, but let's start by not throwing away perfectly good, multi-100-million dollar investments that are barely two decades old.

Flood Insurance: Case Study for Real Conservatism

In this era of Tea Party "conservatism", social-issues "conservatism" and generally fact-averse "conservatism", my kids have trouble understanding that it wasn't always this way on the political right. Conservatives used to pride themselves on being tough-minded, evidence-based and dispassionate. Flood Insurance and federal flood policy in general, as this article outlines, provide a nice case study.

Why does federal flood insurance exist in the first place? Isn't insurance usually the province of private enterprise? Well apparently the national flood insurance program had to be created to respond to a "failure of the market". I.e., insurers wouldn't (couldn't) provide flood insurance at an affordable price.

Now for anyone with even vaguely conservative leanings, the above statement should ring a loud alarm. Companies don't make money by not selling a product. The reasonable conclusion would be that there is something about the market that is preventing them from offering a product for sale. It could be that there is no demand, at an actually sustainable cost. Or maybe there is a regulatory problem. Whatever the reason, it sure sounds like a case where foolish regulators should not rush in, where commercial businesses fear to tread.

So a traditional conservative would oppose national flood insurance for mutually reinforcing reasons of both pragmatism, principle and ethics.  
  • The program is objectionable on pragmatic grounds, for the very strong fear that the program will amount to an expensive subsidy for those who choose to live (or choose to rebuild and continue living) in flood-prone areas.  
  • It is objectionable as a matter a principle, because there is no reason the government should be stepping into an arena that political economists expect should be appropriately and adequately served by private industry.
  • It is un-ethical, because misguided government incentives actively encourage people to undertake a course of action that may well be dangerous.
So when I tell my kids I used to consider myself a conservative, they are flummoxed,
because they can't reconcile the beliefs and attitudes of this person they know very well, with the beliefs and attitudes they see widely advertised by the overwhelming majority of prominent "movement" conservatives.

Other examples I hope to explore in the future: farm aid, and special economic zones.

Alarm Clock Plus Feature Suggestions

Text of an email I sent to the makers of Alarm Clock Plus:
Hi. I use the no-ad version of Alarm Clock Plus. I've tried a number of Android alarm clock apps, this is my favorite. I do have some feature suggestions, though. Thanks for listening, thanks for a good app, and best of luck.

Allow setting an alarm for an arbitrary date. If I make a critical early-morning appointment on Dec 1, for Dec 16, I want to be able to set the early morning alarm right then and there, for that date 16 days in the future.

Suppress all pop-ups. I'm not completely sure if this is technically do-able, but I my SMS app has the pop-up notification option. This causes the nice, dim display to get all bright, to the point it occasionally wakes me up.

Speaking of dim display--I would like to make it dimmer. Again, not sure, maybe this is beyond your control. With my Vibrant, it was super-dim when using hardware dimming. With my Galaxy S3, it is only moderately dim.

In addition to "skip next" have a "skip until" option. Use case: I have a weekday alarm. Over Thanksgiving weekend, I want to skip it both Thursday and Friday. Same principle would apply on vacation.

I think it would be more useful for the landing screen to be the alarms screen, not the desk clock screen. Most often this is where you want to go. (I know there is a widget for this, and that's what I use. But it took me a while to discover that--it would be better, IMO, for that to be the default behavior.)

"I don't want the government telling me what kind of light bulbs to use!"

While stringing up Christmas lights, I had a brief conversation with my neighbor. She explained to me that they weren't going to use LED lights for the same reason they don't use CFLs in their house: they don't want the government telling them what kind of lightbulbs to use.

I saved my breath at the time, but I can only shake my head. What's the operative theory at work here? It feels like a vague sense of conspiracy, without an actual theory behind it. I.e., the government must have some sinister reason for advocating energy-efficient CFLs, so even if neighbor can't get as far as formulating an actual theory of why that is, they will, on first principles, resist.

It's crazy, people. Get educated, get facts, use your brain. CFLs use 75% less energy. They replace wildly inefficient incandescents, which are a 100-year-old technology. That is one heck of a savings. I first heard of CFLs 23 years ago, back when they cost $15 per, and utilities were pushing them with rebates. I have been using them, in increasing quantities, ever since.

(P.S. I know some people don't like the color cast of CFLs. That is a completely different argument. Maybe not such a compelling one--given the huge savings, and have you tried high-quality CFLs lately?--but a very different and at least legitimate one.)

T-Mobile Marketing vs Verizon

6 years ago, both Tmo and Verizon had big corporate-image ad campaigns. Those are the kind of ads that don't sell a specific product as much as they sell the company. Verizon had their memorable "Verizon network" ads, that trumpeted the reliability of the nationwide Verizon network, and showed an army of technicians prepared to stand behind it. T-Mobile had somewhat goofy commercials explaining their "Faves" feature, which was unique at the time.

6 years later, Verizon is still reaping the rewards of those memorable, well-targeted ads. Of course, it does help that they really do have superior network coverage, if not necessarily superior reliability.

And what of Tmo? Not 2 years later, they abruptly discontinued the Faves program. They still have no consistent corporate them, other than, maybe a vague sense that they are cheaper. The coulda been the Android carrier.


I heard one industry analyst speculate that the future of retailing may be in a deliberate form of "showrooming"-- have brick and mortar to allow people to see the product if they wish, but expect most people to buy online. 

I'm not completely sure how that works, for many products. If I can go see it in person, and I like it, why not just buy it then and there? But there is one product this makes perfect sense for: the automobile. I have been advocating this approach for years. It's just so much leaner.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Idea: New Twist on the Mystery

Mysteries are fun, but they can get rather stale, due to being so formulaic. Here are a couple of ideas that might freshen up the genre:

  • One: the case is solved, but still have the perpetrator go free. NOT as Act 1 of a to be continued, but as the end-state.
  • Two: Let the audience see the solution to the case, but the detective never is able to solve it.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Pocket vs Instapaper (on Android)

I've been a long-time Pocket fan. I think I downloaded the paid version (back when it was named Read It Later, and before it went free) within the first week of it being released on Android. I've heard a lot about Instapaper over the years, but since it was iOS only, had no first-hand experience. That changed recently, one, because they finally released an Android version. I still hadn't tried it--no reason to, really since I loved Pocket so much, and it was not free--until a few weeks ago. Then, an update to Pocket had major problems on Asus tablets. So I decided that was my cue to try Instapaper. Here are all the things I missed:

If you have a URL copied to your clipboard, and activate Pocket, Pocket will sense this immediately and offer you a one-click option of saving for alter. Very nice, especially since Android Chrome browser doesn't support long-click to Share.

The swipe to scroll feature is very nice on phones (Kindle tap margin is still better).

Pocket has better interaction for standard usages. I hate how Instapaper starts by showing you the folders, whereas Pocket starts where you want to be--your reading list. I also really dislike the fact that it is two clicks to archive in Instapaper.

Pocket's download best view seems to result in a higher success rate than Instapaper.

Pocket's built in, floating rotation lock control is a very nice touch.

Pocket has the TTL Listen option built in. Surprisingly tolerable form of roll-your-own audio magazine.

Pocket implements long-press in list view, to let you mark or share an article. Minor, but a very elegant touch. As is the batch actions option.

Pocket's list view is single column, much cleaner than Instapaper's dual column.

How is Instapaper better?

I really can't find much in Instapaper that I find superior. That being said, it is still an excellent app, which I could be perfectly happy with. It's just that Pocket is even better.
  • It might be a smidge snappier.
  • It has the labels option--I don't use it, but some people seem to like it.
  • Oh here is one--I am clear on Instapaper's business model. I have no idea what Pocket's is, and that does worry me.
P.S. Although the Asus bug was inconvenient, it was apparently Asus-only, so probably not a black mark against Pocket. And, happily, Pocket's active development cycle delivered a fix a few days ago, so I will be back to Pocket full-time, once I have drained my Instapaper queue.

First Japan now China

I was in my mid-20s when the "Japan is conquering us economically" fever peaked. Shortly to be followed by Japan's "Lost Decade" and subsequent stagnation. I claim no deep expertise, but the conventional wisdom in regard to China feels eerily similar. Of course the growth China has achieved is a stunning national achievement--as was Japan's meteoric rise from the ashes of World War II. But China has many problems: endemic corruption chief among them, a fragile authoritarian regime with no alternative organizing forces, the crazy gender imbalance due to female infanticide, fear but no love from its neighbors...I am going on record that I bet we are within 5 years of China's high-water mark in terms of being considered an emerging superpower.

How Many Computers Does a House Need?

When my kids were just starting to use a computer (circa 4th grade) with some regularity, I wondered how long it would take till we got to the point of having one computer per member of the house. Well, we are there, and then some. Current inventory:
  • 3 regular laptops
  • 1 netbook
  • 1 old desktop that works but never gets used
  • 1.5 tablets (Kindle Fire counts as 1/2)
  • 5 Android phones
It has surprised me how little interest our teens have in the tablet. None of them are into gaming, so I guess that is part of it. They are happy to haul the laptop onto their lap and flop on the couch with it.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Argo: Very Good, but Even Better if More Faithful

Beth and I just saw Argo. I found it very involving, especially since the Iran Hostage crisis was, right up there with Watergate, one of the most memorable national events of my childhood. Very well done, extremely encouraging that such a serious movie could enjoy strong box-office success.

Of course I could not resist truth-squadding the movie afterwards. After a little Googling, I found this very apropos Slate article.  It seems like it was somewhere in the C+/B- range for fidelity. But not all transgressions are equal--even a reductive apologist for realism such as myself will admit the need for dramatic license.

To me, the damning offense was the climacitc getaway sequence. The Slate article confirms its substantial falsity, while drawing the wrong conclusion [my italics]:
Affleck’s version involves every conceivable complication—each one of them, as it happens, invented purely to make the movie more exciting. (And it works! The finale is thrilling.)
I didn't think it worked, at all. The whole down-to-the-wire finish got worse for me by the minute, and collapsed under its own weight with the utterly ridiculous runway chase. I kept whispering to Beth about my doubts that the whole getaway was nearly so fraught as portrayed, but the runway scene triggered an insta-fail on my built-in realism-O-meter.

I can, reluctantly, accept that a smooth-as-silk final sequence in the airport just would not cut it for a fictional movie. So it would have been fine to have the revolutionary guards sweat the escapees for a while in the airport, in the service of dramatic interest. Heck, I could rationalize that, even if said sweating did not actually happen, to the escapees it might have felt that way.

But the action-movie climax undid some of the great storytelling. When you have a story that unbelievable yet true, it doesn't need embellishment. But I suppose if a dollop of excessive drama at the end of a very good movie is an acceptable price, for a high-grade movie to enjoy commerical success.

Full disclosure on the one point, I leaned over and whispered to Beth "I don't believe they were putting together the shredded photos". But apparently they were--sort of. They did have people re-assembling shredded documents--but there doesn't seem to be any indication that they were focused on any particular photos or had an inkling that there were unaccounted-for staff.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Speaking of Manning Up on Vasectomies...

(per previous post) In fact, this would have worked very well in the recent Modern Family episode, where Jay takes Phil to get a vasectomy, and Phil is chickening out.

I really didn't like that ending. Phil is waiting in pre-op, having finally ginned up his courage, only for Claire to waltz in and talk him out of it--because she's "not sure" she doesn't want any more children! This is Claire, mother of three, one college-aged, who is herself--how old? In the show, she looks like an extremely attractive 34 or so. But let's do the math. If she were 22 when Haley was born, she'd be at least 40. That's probably the best case, she could be older. Sure, not out of the question for conceiving, but really, she is not in the "just in case we change our mind in a few years" camp. If there were ANY QUESTION of having another baby--which, to be clear, I think is a ridiculous proposition--she should have already been on it.

Then there is the question of Phil's age. He looks even older, pushing 50. Yes, I'm aware that plenty of men don't have children till well into their forties and beyond. But that is usually men who have no kids, or are on their second family. Very few American men of 45 with three kids are raring to have a baby. The reason it usually happens is carelessness! Which brings me full foolishly avoid vasectomies enough as it is, without any encouragement from pop culture. The show could have handled it so much better.

"Man Up" - Sexist Usage

I really do not care for the phrase "man up". As in "don't take that from a girl--man up and show her you're the boss!"Although it is no doubt used sometimes to exhort to noble actions--"man up and pay your child support"--it has, to me, an unmistakeable air of schoolyard masculinity and machismo. I find it to be rather sexist, especially when used by women.

In researching this blog post, I came across this NYT article, which I think covers the term quite nicely (though in the non-judgmental approach common to both journalism and descriptive dictionaries). I do think the military usage, with a different meaning, is likely the origin of the term.

Final many edgy terms, it may be acceptable in certain situations, especially when used between in-group members...I think the perfect situation would be for one buddy to exhort another to "Man up and get a vasectomy!".

Monday, October 15, 2012

A Different Kind of "Lean" Needed at the Doctor's Office

I had an ophthalmologist appointment today. I arrived on time. It was a good 70 minutes before I was seen by the doc. And the worst part? Neither by word or manner did the doc betray any indication that he was aware of running late. This was clearly business as usual.

I am aware, of course, of the primary motivation for running their practice that way--the doc's time is infinitely precious, the patient's utterly expendable. Could the situation be improved? I think so.

Even if we accept the proposition that the scale will be heavily tilted toward optimizing physician time, I bet there is a lot of room for improvement--if only there were a will.

First of all, I wonder how much of the backlog is non-optimized, sheer waste? Could the backlog be halved, and still achieve the same level of physician utilization?

Following close after that is the question of sharply diminishing benefits. What is a reasonable tradeoff between wasting patient time and doctor time? 10-to-1? 50-to-1?

Okay so those considerations are the low hanging fruit. Next comes simple process improvement. Could the practice take a page from appliance deliverymenpeeps, and book you for a large window (e.g., 9-11), but let you call in beforehand to get a refined estimate? Obviously, even better would be an automated, real-time system with web lookups and notification texts.

Of course, the cynic in me has to wonder--is part of it image? Does a long wait at a specialist's office serve as a signal that their time is hard to come by, and you are lucky to get an appointment at all?

All I can say is--thank goodness for smartphones. Wait time == reading time.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Early Voting False Analogy

Although I am not a fan of early voting, this is a very broken analogy:
Francis Wilkinson, a journalist who became a Democratic campaign consultant and is now a member of the editorial board of Bloomberg News, says, "You don't have a jury decide a court case when it's just three-quarters of the way through. New information arrives every day."
 The big difference is that serving as a juror is an inherently closed-ended process. There is a most definite end. The date of an election is rather arbitrary. There is no process or science behind the length of the campaign. So 3 weeks more campaign exposure might randomly change a few minds either way, but there is no particular reason to identify those 3 weeks as crucial. 
In a different system, 3 weeks might be a material portion of the campaign. I have heard it said that British elections typically involve about 6 weeks of campaigning..But in campaign seasons whose length is measured not in weeks, or even months, but in years, it is silly to think an arbitrary 3 weeks more matters in terms of the additional time.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

T-Mobile, can you do anything right?

I really want to like T-Mobile. They are low-cost, and relatively less evil than the likes of Verizon when it comes to screwing with their smartphones and doing generally annoying things to their customers. But honestly, they screw up so much. 2 rebates in a row, they gave me the wrong form, I had to call in to get it fixed. A couple of different promos, they told me I wasn't eligible, I had to get the store reps to escalate to convince themselves I was. Then when I got the free Father's Day Data promo, I had to call every single month to get them to give me the credit. Each time, the rep swore up and down they had fixed the problem, but they never did.

Then there was the time I upgraded 2 lines to unlimited minutes, but they put it on the wrong 2 lines, resulting in the classic shock-inducing $2000 phone bill (of course they fixed it, but another call, another story to the CSR). Or screwing with my grandfathered data plan when I upgraded the line...they switched it back when I complained, so now that I think about it, that is probably deliberate corporate evilness (let's see if customer notices), rather than CSR mess-up.

Here's the latest...just received a new Galaxy S3 for Beth. But it takes the new micro-SIM, so I can't just swap her old SIM into this phone. I have to call to activate the SIM they sent. Okay, that's a bit inconvenient, but reasonable and no alternative. I call, get through quickly, rep understands my request, and after the perfunctory attempt to up-sell my data plan, he puts it through. Except...

Except what he did was transfer my line to the new SIM card. Doh! I assume this happened just because my line is primary. He saw that we had a Family Plan, wouldn't it have been a good idea to be sure he know which line to move?!

Okay, so that's annoying, but I figured a call back should solve it. After explaining the situation about 3 times to the polite but somewhat clueless rep, and waiting on hold while she asked her supervisor, they asked if it would be okay if I went to a Tmo retail store to get a free replacement micro SIM. Well actually, no, it's not okay. Of course, that was just CSR-speak for "I can't help you you're gonna have to go pick up that micro-SIM". Not happy.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

How to Make WWF Better

I like playing Words with Friends a lot, but I have an idea to improve it: There should be a scoring rule, per turn, of a maximum of 8 times the number of letters used (e.g, 2 letters max 16, 5 letters max 40).

This would have the following benefits:
  • Generally encourage longer words that open up the board, versus defensive play that can be tactically very advantageous, but often makes for a cramped, boring game
  • Eliminate very high-scoring turns that are the result of very little skill (dropping the X on a double to spell "XI" both ways, for 38 points).
  • Eliminate super-high-scoring turns that are somewhat lucky but can create an insurmountable lead
  • Helps equalize the playing field between veterans and newer players (who won't have memorized all the silly 2-letter words)
Also, to get the 7-letter bonus, you should have to do it without a blank and without using an "S" to make a plural.

I Dislike Repetition

In general I do not like repetition. It's a waste of precious time, but even worse, it induces boredom. Boredom, in my experience, deadens the mind.

Various institutions make this mistake. I am thinking at the moment of a church I know. Every week they devote the first 3 minutes of the service to repeating the same dull reminders:
  • Fill out the Communications Card. Even if you attend every week. (Which nobody feels like doing.)
  • Explaining the service.
  • Explaining how they love kids, but yes sometimes kids get restless, so if they do, here are the various options you have to accomodate them (padded cell, kids program, etc).
  • (I will give them a little credit--lately they have been omitting the silence your cell phone PSA.)
The fact that the precious first minutes are devoted to this tedious repetition compounds the problem, magnifying it from a tactical mistake to a strategic one. People have limited, flawed attention spans. Their powers of attention are strongest at the outset, and wane from there. Devoting the first 3 minutes to deliberately boring your audience, turns an asset into a liability.

I think I do understand, the church wants to be friendly to newcomers. But there is probably a better balance to strike that doesn't involve wasting the prime minutes of the service. A few ideas:
  • Rotate the PSAs--don't try to cram them all in every single week.
  • Use the video to deliver the PSAs. Run them continuously before the service begins and devote one screen to them during the opening music.
  • Let the PSAs wait till a little later in the service. (This may or may not work, depending on the arrangement of the service.)
Nobody else seems to complain about this, so it may be just me. I experience objectionable repetition with work stuff, too, and nobody else complains very much.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Apple Manufactuing Hype

From Apple's own website: Never before has this degree of fit and finish been applied to a phone. Take the glass inlays on the back of iPhone 5, for instance. During manufacturing, each iPhone 5 aluminum housing is photographed by two high-powered 29MP cameras. A machine then examines the images and compares them against 725 unique inlays to find the most precise match for every single iPhone.

It does sound ingenious (though if they really had their tolerances down, there wouldn't be any upside to painstakingly searching out mating parts with optimally compatible dimensional variation). It also sounds like it might e marketing BS. I bet they did this just to have something to talk about. People always fall for this kind of impressive, great-cocktail-party chatter that they don't necessarily understand, or know the importance of.

It wouldn't surprise me if this has minimal benefit, and Apple quits even doing it, after a decent interval has passed.
Lots of tweets and articles about how Apple's replacement for Google Maps is a self-inflicted fail. While on the subject of dumb Apple decisions--I can't believe they didn't take much flack for making the making the back of the iPhone 4s out of glass. Yeah, sure, let's go out of our way to deliberately make it extremely fragile.

iPhone 5: More Fetishizing "Build Quality"

John Gruber goes on, and on and on:
Is it worth devoting the first 750 or so words of this piece to the iPhone 5’s surface appeal? I don’t know how else to convey the niceness of this thing. This iPhone 5 review unit is the single nicest object in my possession. I own things that cost and remain worth more (e.g. my car). But I own nothing this nice. It sounds hyperbolic to put it that way, but I offer this observation with no exaggeration.
I think this is absolutely ridiculous. It's just a phone, people.

Data-Only Plans: Wishful Thinking

For all intents and purposes, T-Mobile's $30 Prepaid Plan (no handset subsidy) that provides 5 Gb of data per month *is* a data-only plan. I agree, it is more the exception than the rule at this point, but it definitely is a sign of things to come.
To an extent, though, the idea that a non-voice-user could save a lot of money with a data-only plan may be wishful thinking. The carriers have fixed costs and need a certain ARPU. They are going to try to get it one way or the other.

It is sort of analogous to how everybody wants cable TV stations to be un-bundled. Their reasonsing is that they only use 4 out of 50 channels. If they could just pick the 4 they want, then their monthly bill should plummet (ideally, to 4/50s of its current level). It's not gonna work this way. If it ever comes, it will be something like: (1) channel costs 1/2 of the full-fare, and each additional channel costs another 1/10. So (5) would be break-even.

Oh, and if they do that, most likely the cost of the bundle will go up.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Way to Implement State Variation

The PPACA healthcare regs (aka, Obamacare)  generally give a lot of leeway for states to "do their own thing". I understand why this was probably necessary, politically, to get anything passed, but it sure is inefficient.

In purely clinical terms, I think the United States is so homogeneous that there is negligible justification for variation. What is going to be different--cover frostbite in Minnesota? Sunburn in Florida? Our diseases are not very particular to geographic regions. So any justification for variation is likely to be based not on local idiosyncrasies and "facts on the ground", but rather on local politics.

One oft-repeated justification for delegating power, and incurring the variation that comes with it, is that the states serve as "the laboratories of democracy".  I think I get that, and generally I support anything that leads to rational experimentation and improvement. But I can't help wondering if "the juice is worth the squeeze" here.

I have an idea for a compromise. Instead of a free-for-all, where every state has great latitude to alter the baseline, require that 5 states band together to define a common variant. One advantage is that it reduces the max number of variants from 50 to 10. But a much more important effect is that by requiring some broad consensus, this arrangement (hopefully) eliminates meaningless variation and catering to special interests.

Declared Non-Precedent

It always pains me when someone or some institution doesn't want to do A Good Thing because "it might create a precedent". I like the concept of the "declared non-precedent". The application for this is when you are going out on a limb to try something, but if it doesn't work, or causes an unsustainable rush of "me too" requests, you reserve the right to disclaim any precedent.

I've tried this at work a couple of times, it has worked okay. In those cases, I have been in the position of supplicant--not decider--and have assured the powers-that-be that in no way would my request be construed as precedent.

Word Processing Needs Tabs

It always surprises me how often people use Excel for word processing tasks. There are a number of  reasons for this, many of them good.

One of the reasons is being able to organize your work in tabs. Interestingly, OneNote, Microsoft's note-taking app, has this feature. To me, that is the biggest draw of OneNote (I know there are others, and my resistance to using it probably keeps me ignorant of them ;) .)

I think other word-processing apps, such as MS-Word and Google Docs, would also benefit from having tabs. Just as with tabbed browsing, it gives you that one extra level of hierarchy to organize your work.

P.S. If outlining, a la Dave Winer, were more widely and better-implemented, then this feature would be less important.

P.P.S. One complementary feature needed: consolidate all tabs into one.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Live-Blogging Over-Rated

I just heard a commentator speaking of how Live-Blogging is a new form of writing skill. I suppose he is right. But for me, live-blogging holds very little interest. We all know that news stories are more informative once there has been time for a careful examination and verification of facts--so why rush to get it so fast? Even in the pre-digital era, for long-running stories, I preferred newsmagazines over newspapers, since newspapers necessarily had to contain a lot of repetition in each day's article.

Likewise, we all know that writing is better with editing...why bypass this process?

I think it is all false excitement...there aren't that many stories that we need to read about in actual real-time.

eBooks--What's the Big Deal???

All this blather about eBooks and intangible artifacts and emotional attachment to physical books...I totally don't get it. Don't judge a book by its cover, right? I have always been a fan of libraries...when you get a book from a library, it is impermanent, right?

There are some interesting possibilities if every book you ever read was an eBook. Imagine your child is reading Moby could look up your copy and see what you highlighted. I know, that is a long long way off and probably mostly a dream, but it speaks to the possibilities of digital, which I think in many ways are so much greater than dead-tree.

Mostly, though, the words are what is important. I always used this thought experiment to frame the problem...suppose you have a hypothetical choice. You can preserve all of Shakespeare's works, in accurate but completely plain printed volumes. Or, you could have half of Shakespeare's works in their original versions (Folios or whatever), but the other half would be completely lost. Seems like an easy choice for the former, right? So what that tells me is the format is of secondary importance, at best. So why fuss over it so much?

Okay, this is a first...

...Walgreen's called with an automated reminder, and they pronounced our name (Neu) as it would be in German: "noy".

Staples "Market Basket"

Reports in NYT and elsewhere on the web say that Staples employees will try to get rid of a customer looking to purchase a PC, if they don't show an interest in the extended warranty. If this is true, I am going to predict right now: Staples will be the next Office Depot or Circuit City--out of business within 5 years.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Facebook IPO - Not a Debacle, Exactly

The reader's comments in this article are much more insightful than that of the author. Investors are unhappy because they paid too much for Facebook stock in the recent IPO. I get why the investors are disappointed, but for everybody inside Facebook at the IPO, they executed a brilliant financial transaction. They maximized the return for the current stakeholders, and they didn't do anything illegal in the process.

The irony of this kind of a deal, of course, is that one second after the transaction, the people who overpaid you now become your stakeholders. In this way, CFO Ebersman finds himself in a tricky, uncomfortable position. But still, he totally did the right thing and got outstanding results.

Reminds me of the brilliant move Steve Case made, well over a decade ago, locking in much of AOLs excessive valuation by selling to the Washing Post company. I'm pretty sure he knew they were grossly over-paying, but that was hardly his fault or problem.

Like I said, many of the readers seem to get this quite clearly, unlike the author of the article.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Pay for Performance at the Bottom of the Workforce

My daughter works at McDonald's. Her store seems to have a terrible absenteeism problem. Workers apparently think nothing of "calling in". It happens routinely, not unusual for 5 workers per shift to do this.

I can't believe they put up with it. But if they seemingly can't solve it with sticks, then I think they should consider some carrots. How about a contingent $0.25 raise for 1 month without calling in, another $0.25 the next 2 months, up to 3 months. Reward those who don't call in.

Calendar Remind Type of "Alarm"

Google Calendar (Android and web) has two reminder types: Notification and Email. So far so good, but they need a third: Alarm. Alarms on Android typically work the way you would expect an alarm clock to--they go off, no matter what state the phone is in, including muted for the night.

I would like to be able to create an event, set a reminder type of alarm, and have that result in my Alarm app ringing for the set time. My main use case is for unusually early meetings; the current work-around is to set the alarm manually.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Like Not Drafting Michael Jordan...

Actually, PRI might not exist at all had it not been for a monumental NPR gaffe: in 1983, the network turned down the opportunity to syndicate Garrison Keillor's ''Prairie Home Companion.'' ''NPR declined to pick up Keillor because there was an attitude that they had plenty of producers and plenty of talent back in Washington,'' says Stephen Salyer, PRI's president and C.E.O.They didn't want to be spending resources in the hinterlands.''

GMaps Usability: Secondary Streets, and Label Type Size

I'm a big fan of Google Maps, on all devices. But I have two long-standing complaints. One--the secondary streets are white against a light tan background. It makes them almost invisible. This is true on the PC and even worse on tablets in daylight or printouts.

Two--the labels on street names are too small. This even after invoking the Labs option to make them bigger. This is just another example of the larger, long-standing theme that smartphones need to be more farsighted-friendly.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Why Do Some People Claim Vinyl LPs Are Superior?

Almost since the dawn of CDs, there has been a minority contingent that claims vinyl is superior. They tend to throw around adjectives like "warmer". Although I don't claim to be an audiophile, I don't think it is true. I do have a theory to explain the attitude.

Back in the days of vinyl LPs, you could easily discern who was serious about good sound. A vinyl LP, if not handled very carefully and played on good equipment, degraded steadily. So most people's LPs, if played often, were somewhere between moderately degraded to horribly scratched.

Only if you carefully handled your LPs, cleaned them every time before playing  with an expensive brush like this, and maintained a high-quality turntable--only then would you have good sound. Then CDs hit, and every slob who didn't even put the media back in its container could enjoy the same fine sound that you, the audiophile, felt is your birthright.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Cheesecake Factory Pretty Good

This article, though it is not primarily about the Cheesecake Factory, makes the same point that I have been struck by. The Cheesecake Factory food tastes surprisingly good and fresh, given the collossal extent of its menu.

Google's Second Best Bet in Social Networking

It's been a year or so since Google rolled out Google+. I never use it, I don't really know anyone who does. No buzz. But they should probably still keep it alive. I think their second best bet for succeeding in social networking Google's second best bet in social networking is to wait for Facebook to stumble. I believe the pressure to deliver short-term profits, given the poor stock performance, ironically increases the chance they may do something really dumb. Google should be prepared for that day.

(So what is the best bet? They should buy LinkedIn.)

Finding Your Car in Parking Garage

I like how some parking garages are starting to have fliers that you pick up at the door, to remind you at least what level you parked on. I think NFC tags would be a nice way to take this a step further.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Twitter Customer Service

I have read some articles on how companies use Twitter for customer service. The crux of the article is that they try to respond to each Tweet. I sort of get this, and I sort of don't.

The don't get part is--what is unique about Twitter? And, assuming that the vast majority of the issues are negative, why encourage a medium that is public? My point is that Twitter doesn't really allow companies to do anything that they couldn't have been doing all along via email, if they had wanted to make the same kind of investment. I.e., rather than responding to emails with robot-generated messages, if they had actually taken the same time to field emails as they do Twitter, the result would be the same.

So how to explain the difference? I think it is the sum of a few things. One, the fact that Twitter is public cuts two ways. First, it increases a company's motivation to respond. The second way the public nature of Twitter differentiates it from email is that it may, just may, temper the extent to which people complain irrationally and unreasonably, as compared to email. This is probably a sustainable difference, even though people could, if they catch on, create a different Twitter account for their corporate complaints.

Two, the way Twitter has grown is relatively fast but somewhat linear. So the volume of Tweets has probably been much more manageable than email might be. I am curious to see how long that lasts, because as more people catch on to the fact that the way to get a company's attention it to call them out on Twitter, the volume may become overwhelming, just like email would be.

Three, the Twitter audience may be a self-selecting audience worth paying special  attention to. Higher-income, which is important for obvious reasons. More sophisticated, which is important because: one, the feedback may be more discerning and useful; two, because they may be influencers.

Okay, so as I assess what I have written so far, I think that I have answered my own question. Clearly the question that follows is--how long will Twitter remain a privileged avenue for customer service? My prediction is 2-5 years. Either it will become clogged, or it will decline in popularity.

NYT: Secret E-Scores Chart Consumers' Buying Power

These digital scores, known broadly as consumer valuation or buying-power scores, measure our potential value as customers. What's your e-score? You'll probably never know. That's because they are largely invisible to the public. But they are highly valuable to companies that want - or in some cases, don't want - to have you as their customer.
Very interesting stuff. I have long been intrigued by the thought that companies should be better at knowing who the profitable customers are, and aren't. Banks in particular I think have been going in this direction for over a decade.

Lately, Tires Plus has quit trying to upsell me on unnecessary maintenance...I wonder if their system has figured out is a waste of time?

Likewise, the last time I bought a cheap laptop at Best Buy, they didn't try to upsell me on anything--no extended warranty, no performance optimiazation, nothing.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Solution To Empty Seats at Olympics

Article describing the problem of too many no-shows for seats reserved for "the Olympics family--sponsors, organizers, athletes. Part of the problem is "that which is free is of no value" mindset. One solution I have heard used is to reverse the usual nature of goods and payment. You require the recipients of the free tickets to provide a credit card deposit. If the ticket is not used, then their card is charged. If the complimentary ticket is used, then the deposit is canceled.

Another idea would be to take a page from the airlines' playbook, and overbook on a statistically-driven basis, and start bumping the no-shows. This would require selling some of the late standby seats on a non-reserved basis.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

This is exactly the Android opportunity HTC missed

Marco Arment: First of all, geeks are a very large and influential market. As one big example, if not for geeks, Firefox would never have started to catch on in 2004 and broken Internet Explorer’s reign. We installed Firefox on every non-geek’s computer we could find. And while we were there, we set everyone’s search engine to Google instead of Yahoo or MSN, and we made fun of their AOL email addresses until they switched to Gmail. Our preferences matter.

Marco is writing about the Apple App store, but the core point--that capturing the hearts and minds of geeks can lead market-share success--could equally apply to Android. If a manufacturer (HTC would be the most obvious choice) or maybe carrier (T-Mobile) had courted the vanilla-craving geek market from the outset, they could have established a Firefox-like "recommended by the leading geeks" reputation.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Tone down the material arms race

If all male elk could decide to, say, halve the size of their antlers it would benefit the species as a whole. Those with the largest antlers would still maintain their advantage in fighting for mates, but the species as a whole would be less vulnerable to predators. Of course, Frank realises that elk are not in a position to make such decisions, but he believes humans can learn from the paradox. For instance, Americans often feel obliged to organise expensive and lavish wedding celebrations as a result of social pressure. If everyone agreed to scale down their weddings then the whole


Sunday, July 15, 2012

Did Ice-T Really Rob Banks?

The rapper/entertainer Ice-T was, improbably, the guest of the week for "Not My Job" on the brilliant NPR show "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" a couple of years ago. I heard the segment the first time, and then I heard it yesterday in a re-broadcast. It was quite funny, and he came off as reasonably likeable (a feat in istelf, since certainly anything about "gangsta rappa" is about 10 strikes in my book of taste, temperament and sensibility).

In keeping with how that segment of the show is set up, he talked about his personal biography. No surprise, this included a troubled youth and young adulthood: "You know, I was out on the streets doing everything. I mean, I robbed banks. I did all kinds of things." The part about "robbed banks" seriously set off my BS detector. It's just not that easy to rob banks--plural--and not get caught. Does not happen very often. I don't believe it is true, at most I think he might have considered a bank robbery. Maybe.

So anyway I decided to see what I could find on the internet. I didn't put a whole lot of time into it, but I didn't readily find any authoritative sources. I did, however, find this article from The Guardian, where he goes into more detail about  his criminal youth. And I find it even more unconvincing.

He talks about robbing jewelry stores and getting away with it as easily as pick-pocketing might be (and I'm not sure how easy that is). And then the topper: "I never been to prison. I never been caught". Just. Too. Improbable.

I see this as just another variation on the human weakness for a story. In this case, Ice-T needs (or needed) a story to establish his "street cred"[1]. The fact that he has never been to prison is actually a problem. So he invents a back-story that gives him the cred and explains away the fact that he lacks the "badge of cred" of doing prison time. Yech.

[1] I loathe this term, but I'll use it here because it seems to fit.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Next Issue Experiment

How Next Issue can rescue magazine publishing

Very interesting i have thought for a long time that subscriptions are the way to go.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Jargonwatch: Early Days

My trained ears detect that "early days" is starting to catch on. I can definitely remember hearing it twice in the past week, once during the Tour de France. That was from Phil Liggett, so I thought it might be a Britishism. Just now I heard it on NPR.

Definition: Too early in an undertaking to make a definitive judgment.

Example: The breakaway has an 8 minute lead, but of course it's early days in this 200 km stage, and the Peleton will almost surely overtake them before the finsish.

Assessment: A nice, colorful expression with clear meaning. Fine for occasional use, but it will quickly become tiresome with frequent use.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Genesis of an Urban Legend - Rare

It is rare to be able to trace an urban legend back to its undisputed origin. This Radiolab story on the origin of the High Five accomplishes that.  As soon as I heard the urban legend version, even before it was revealed as a UL, I was pretty sure that was the case. What gives it away? First, the story just has too many moving parts. Second, the ending is so pat, like the punch-line to a 6th-grade joke. Taken together, it has the feel of an elaborate build-up to a simplistic punchline, intended to obscure the improbable simplicity of the punchline in excessive detail.
Sleets grew up in Campbellsburg, KY and starred on the basketball team at Eminence High School.  When he was young, his father, Lamont Sleets, Sr. would frequently entertain visits from his old army buddies.  Sleets Sr. served in Vietnam, in the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry regiment.  "It was the Bobcat division," Mont said, "but my dad and his friends always called it 'The Five.'"  Sleets Sr. and his army friends started an informal greeting between them while serving in Vietnam.  It consisted of extending their arm straight up in the air with all five fingers parted and saying the name of their division: "Five."  Sleets thinks that when he was around 2 or three years old, it was only natural to want to emulate the old army men that gathered in his house.  Since it was tough for a youngster to keep track of all the different names of the visitors, the saying of "Five" became young Mont Sleets' universal salutation for his fathers friends.  Sleets recalls the story with the weariness of anybody recounting the family stories they heard over and over while growing up, but not without telltale signs of enthusiasm throughout: "They'd walk in the door, and a three year old kid, he doesn't know the difference between all these grown-ups.  But they're all sayin' 'Five' with their hand up like this, so I just start saying to them, 'Hi, Five!' like it was their name."

Article: Power Tools: The Libraries of the Future

I really like the idea of libraries as centers of sharing things, not just books (my prior post on the general idea). If we could learn to better share infrequently used implements, we would save money, save resources, feel more connected band just maybe, long-long-term, have more leisure time without even sacrificing material standard of living!

Data Is Like Evidence

I have always preferred data in the singular, but long ago grew tired of the linguistic debate. For whatever reason, the other day I was thinking that data is a lot like evidence, which of course is well-established as a mass, uncountable noun.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Idea for small businesses to game Yelp

Include a QR code link to your enterprise on Yelp, with the check or receipt. Except instruct your staff to do it very sparingly--only for 10% of customers who are clearly delighted with your enterprise.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

I plead guilty to holding this view and not having read him

: "Hunter had such a brilliantly flashy narrative style that a lot of people were fooled into thinking that’s all he was—a wacky, drug-addled literary party animal with a gift for memorable insults and profanity-laden one-liners. The people who understood him the least (and a lot of these sorry individuals came out of the woodwork, bleating their complaints on right-wing talk shows and websites, when Thompson died) had this idea that he was just the journalistic version of a rock star, an abject hedonist with a gift for the catchy tune who was popular with kids because he stood for Letting Loose and Getting Off without consequence."

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Criticality of Macr Resurgence vs iPod

This point is overlooked a lot in discussions of Apple...I remember what a watershed it was when they moved, seemingly effortlessly, from traditional proprietary, Mac OS base to BSD Unix. It was like I woke up one day and all the geeks who were not interested in the Mac were suddenly in love with it.
And during that decade, almost every such developer I knew switched to the Mac if they weren’t already there, partly because it was better for developing web apps.That’s one of the biggest reasons there was so much pent-up developer interest in the iPhone before the App Store opened: these consumer-product developers were all using Macs already. As the dominant consumer platform shifted from the web to apps over the last four years, most talented consumer-product developers built products for their app platform of choice during that time: the Apple ecosystem.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Example of why Io mistrust Samsung

To add to the fun, Samsung have some strange ideas about my willingness to buy into their hardware ecosystem. Apple's products use the now-familiar dock connector instead of regular micro-USB. This is annoying, but (a) you can buy a tiny dock connector to micro-USB dongle for about £5 if it irritates you sufficiently, and (b) there are lots of cheap third-party cables. Lots of third party kit out there uses the dock connector, which has been stable for about 8 years: the evidence is in the shape of all those alarm clock radios and speaker docks. Samsung, in contrast, invented a wholly new and incompatible dock connector for the Galaxy S II tablet. One that is not compatible with earlier Galaxy tablets released as recently as late 2010. The cable sells separately for $20 (so if you lose the cable for your tablet you're stiffed paying nearly 10% of the total price for a replacement wire to the wall wart).

Friday, June 22, 2012

Hate Facebook Apps that Insist on Posting on your Behalf

I DO NOT need apps to post on my behalf. The world simply does NOT need to know that I just played a turn in one of my half-dozen concurrent WWF games. I reject all apps that ask for this permission. Unfortunately, there appears to be no "line-item" veto on that, so I have to reject the whole app.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

IVRs have gotten a lot better

Both actual wait times, and the fact that the systems have gotten pretty good about telling you the average wait time. Bonus points for: 
  • Offering to call you back
  • Advice about best time to call
  • Friendly, on-shore CSRs

Black marks for
  • Making it very hard to break out to a rep

Focus-Stealing: Just one example of why people like new, mobile UIs

Focus-stealing is a very old problem, but Webex is a terrible offender. Worst part--it does it when the meeting is being closed! So, the use case:

1. Webex meeting occupies your attention
2. Meeting winds down
3. Jump over to whatever you urgently need to do
4. Webex grabs the scope

Solution...Windows should have some kind of notification bar/window, where an app can tell you if it is doing stuff and maybe you want to check it out.

In fact, the whole notification metaphor is a problem. A lot of people live and die by their Outlook calendar reminders. But if your reminder happens to activate while you are away from your desk, it is very easy to not see it. Contrast this with the Android notification bar, which is low-key but nicely persistent.

These are old, crufty problems. Perhaps they could be solved in legacy UIs, but there is so much resistance to doing so. Then a fresh, new UI paradigm comes along, simpler, cleaner and without these problems, and it feels so good.

(While we are on the subject of the Android Notification Bar, it is not gets way too cluttered with unimportant notifications. It seems like more and more apps want to put their icon into the notification bar. That is more analogous to the Windows system tray (status) than a true notification (something happened, pay attention).)

Employers: Qualified Workers Aren't In Jobs Pool

This is a pretty good report, discussing the fact that even though unemployment is high, employers have trouble filling certain jobs.
One thing we know is that if employers were willing to do a little more training, and maybe there was some way the government could give them an incentive to do that, they might be able to take people who are capable of doing jobs but don't have exactly the right skills. And the thing is, the software needs to be redone so it's not so picky and it flags, for consideration, by a human being - an applicant who doesn't quite fit the bill but could do the job
I do not believe HR is very data-driven. For instance, do they track data that tells them how good their screening is?

James Traficant, Worst Congressman in Recent Memory?

I stumbled across this interesting article about Jim Traficant and the Youngstown, OH area on Longform. I remember seeing an excerpt of a Traficant speech, years ago (when respect for Congresspeople was a bit higher) and being positively dumbfounded that the ill-groomed, blustering jackass I on the screen was, in fact, a U.S. Congressman. This article told the rest of the story--and it was even worse than I had imagined. #iHatePopulism #AndiHateCorruptionEvenMore

Why I returned my HTC One S

I just returned my HTC One S under buyer's remorse for a number of reasons. I am going to opt instead for the Samsung Galaxy S3. I am really a bit disappointed about this. We need strong competitors to Samsung--HTC is the most likely candidate. And I have been mis-treated by Samsung before (Galaxy S/Vibrant). So I really wanted HTC to have a winner here. Alas, it was not to be.

Severely Broken Multi-Tasking

As has been more publicized for the HTC One X, the memory management is so aggressive that you can barely multi-task at all. It's like the Generation 1 iPhone. Especially a killer, since one of my main uses cases is to listen to streaming NPR.

Signal Fluctuation Issues

I think the signal fluctuation issue was largely fixed by the recent update. Pre-update, sometimes I would spontaneously have no signal at all. Post-update, sometimes the signal drops precipitously for no reason at all, but hasn't gotten to the point of "X for no signal".

Bluetooth Spontaneously Disconnecting/Crashing

The bluetooth would spontaneously disconnect, pretty frequently--probably once every 2-3 hours of use. A couple of times I think it even caused the phone to re-boot. Again, since my #1 use case for my phone is voice calls for work (I know, who would have though, voice a primary usage for a smartphone! :) ), and my #2 is streaming NPR, this is a big problem.

Screen Size

I knew what I was getting, but I had really wanted a 4.6" widescreen (like GS2). I was willing to compromise on this, but it was a factor. Had I known T-Mobile would get the GS3 so promptly, I probably would have held out from Day 1.

App Association (Probably Intentional) Bug

In Android, you can set a default app association for various "Intents", such as Contacts, Messages, Home Button. The first time the Intent occurs, it will list all the available "Intent Receivers" (Apps), and let you choose if you want one to be the default. From then on, you don't have to choose, you get the default. In HTC ICS, it seems like this is broken--I set the default, but it is never remembered. This gets very, very annoying. Especially for a Launcher app that replaces the Home Screen.

Menu Button

For the many apps not updated to ICS, you lose quite a bit of space in portrait mode, due to the on-screen menu button. I know this isn't HTC's fault, they are following the Google spec, but it was a real bummer (and compounds the screen size compromise). I am thinking Samsung made a much better choice with the GS3 by going against Google's intent and including the menu button. Surprised this hasn't been discussed more, it is a real bummer.

Monday, June 11, 2012

eBay Scam Prevention Idea

I previously wrote about my first attempt to sell an expensive, extra cell phone on eBay, and attracting overseas scammers both times. After the second time I called eBay, and they promised to add "filters" to my account that would prevent it happening again. Well, all the filters accomplished was to raise the bar and attract a (slightly) more sophisticated scammer. (Hint: any buyer email with a plea and a gratuitous "God bless" thrown in is probably an overseas scammer ;) )

Stipulated that I am an eBay newb, but I can think of an approach that seems like it would fend off such scammers. Have an option--recommended for all newb sellers--to require the bidder to have a PayPal account with a $20 balance. Upon winning the bid, PayPal places a hold on that balance, until the full payment is received. If a scam, the $20 is forfeited, of course. Not likely that will happen, scammers won't leave a money trail with real money in the first place. The point is deterrence.

The money doesn't have to go to the seller, it can go to eBay. Don't want to create any incentive for sellers to invent scammers for their own profit.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

"Playback" does not prove that multi-taskers can absorb external information

With few exceptions, I don't believe that humans are generally effective at multi-tasking. It is totally a myth that the upcoming generations will be great multi-taskers[1]. Here is another myth to be aware of: I call it the "playback fallacy".

I will say something to my kids, notice they are absorbed with the screen, and ask them to pay attention. They will claim that they are paying attention, and will offer as evidence the ability to "play back", verbatim, what I have just said.

The problem is that they played back from "cache". Very analogous to the small amount of cache memory on a CPU. Information can be quickly stored and accessed there, but it is very volatile. It only becomes data when it is actively processed and stored to a less volatile location. So, if I hadn't said anything, the cache would have either been over-written by the next small stream of information, or decayed quickly within a few minutes, and the info would never have been absorbed.
[1] Multi-tasking means actively processing more than one activity, concurrently. It should not be confused with "context-switching", which means being able to juggle and switch between multiple activities. I think humans have fewer absolute biological limitations on the ability to context-switch, though it is still problematic. One, it imposes the overhead necessary to manage the contexts. Two, there is risk of contexts over-writing each other's memory. It seems possible, though not proven, that today's youth will be better context-switchers.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

eBay Scam Anatomy

I've only sold something on eBay once or twice before, and it was low value. This time I had an unopened, $400+ HTC One S cutting-edge smartphone to unload (it was part of a Buy One, Get One deal from T-Mobile).

So with the help of my son, who has more eBay experience by far than I do, I listed it with a $375 minimum bid and a $450 Buy It Now. Based on other selling prices, I was pretty confident of clearing $400.

The phone was only listed 1 day, when I got an email that it had been purchased via Buy It Now. Shortly after that, I got an email from the buyer, who was in the U,K., asking for my email address so that he could pay me via PayPal.

That seemed fishy to me, I know you can pay someone, for anything, if you have their PayPal email, but I didn't see why he couldn't just click "Pay" within eBay. It also didn't help that he had been an eBay member since...earlier the same day. So I called eBay Customer Service.

I got a bad vibe right away. The person on the other end seemed possibly competent, but tired and uninterested. But they assured me that the request for an email address seemed valid, and in any event, I would be protected as a seller. Somewhat skeptically, I sent the buyer my email address.

My skepticism was rewarded. Hours later, I received an email from the buyer's PayPal account, telling me the payment had been made, but couldn't be released until I provided a shipping number. Oh, and would I mind shipping it to his son in Lagos, Nigeria?--it was to be a birthday present. At that point, the tell-tale fractured English wasn't even necessary to convince me that this was a scam, and a closer inspection revealed that it was a phishing email with a spoofed, pay-pal-like email address[1].

So now I have to go through the whole eBay complaint process, who knows how long that will take. Basically, this has supported my skepticism about whether eBay is worth the hassle. (Oh, did I mention the phone was actually listed before this, and eBay sent me an email telling me it had been won by a fraudulent buyer, and canceled the transaction?)

I know it is hard for eBay to eliminate scammers, but the inattentiveness of the Customer Service person is inexcusable. There were so many clues.

Also, it seems like eBay's defaults leave a lot to be desired. After about 10 minutes research, I concluded I should have only accepted domestic shipments and, much more importantly, should have required immediate payment, which would require the person have an existing PayPal account. So my point is, with all the Big Data that eBay has, can't they connect the dots:

  • I'm a newb seller
  • Selling a pricey electronics item

...and advise me as to the safest defaults to use? I'm not sure if they fail in this way because they are lazy, or because they don't want to scare people.

[1] As spoofed emails go, it was somewhat realistic, until you got to the actual content. If they would hire a competent Enligh-language writer, they might actually fool a few people.

P.S. I feel really, really sorry for anyone who lives in Nigeria and actually wants to buy stuff off of eBay! :(

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Early game intentional fouls

Stipulated that I am no student of the game, but...I think fouling in basketball to avoid a near-certain score is often a bad idea. Especially early in the game.

In last night's game 7 Celtics vs Sixers, Rajon Rondo committed a foul on the offensive player who had a pretty open path to the basket, early in the first quarter.  By late first quarter, he found himself benched to avoid foul trouble[1]. Then later in the game, he again was flirting with foul trouble and spent some extra time sitting down.

Rondo is a key starter on the Celtics. Losing his services is a big deal. He traded an important early foul to save, on average, about 0.5 pts. Seems like a bad deal to me.

How does the math on that work? Here's ordinary field goal is worth 2 points. NBA players shoot 75% on average, meaning the "expected value" of a trip to the line is 1.5 pts. 2.0 minus 1.5 = 0.5. Seems like a pretty poor return to me, and that is the best-case. Most significantly, it doesn't quantify the risk of putting the opposition into the bonus earlier.[2]

[1] Whether you should bench a key player for being in foul trouble, so readily, is the subject for another blog post.

[2] It also assumes a 100% chance the offensive player would have scored. Even with breakaway dunks, you do see a few misses. And this wasn't a breakaway--it was just an open lane to the basket. I would guesstimate an 85-90% chance it would have been converted.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Let's Spike the Tired Old Notion of the Suffering Artist

Sometimes I would like to be a novelist. A micro reason is novelists get to explore  ideas that might be verboten or just never come up on ordinary conversation. A macro reason is to explore a major idea or theme. The latter purpose is the occasion for this post.

I think a great theme for a novel would be the bankruptcy of the notion of the suffering artist. While I might concede that some great artists have suffered quite a bit, and perhaps their suffering was to some extent related to their greatness as artists, I have two observations:
  1. My belief is that they would have suffered no matter what, due to problems of temperament or mental conditions. I reject the idea that it was a choice they made, as a sacrifice for their art.
  2. In the meantime, that mythology of suffering misleads so many young, talented but insufficiently gifted, would-be artists, at a substantial cost in lost happiness.
I stumbled onto an article that thoroughly explores this territory (my italics):
One can see why the cursed poets believed they had been chosen for so terrible and sublime a fate. Their mythology of genius born in suffering helped make their hard lot endurable, as countless adolescents who have read J. D. Salinger can testify. But it also drove them deeper into misery—drove them to seek out misery, to cherish drunkenness, madness, ordeal, as a source of poetic inspiration. That wisdom comes of suffering, at least for prophets and tragic heroes, is an ancient truth; but is it wisdom to chase after suffering, as though the evil of the day were insufficient?
There is something perverse about these poets and their view of their calling. Their loneliness, drunkenness, disease, the early deaths of or abandonment by their fathers, the tauntings and beatings they took from their schoolmates: These and other blows became the fundamental truths about the world and the stuff of their poetry. They did not imitate Christ’s selfless suffering. Instead, with a poet’s vanity, each relished in his own way his martyrdom, championed it, flaunted it.
Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud: They were remarkable artists, yes, among the greatest of their time. But the perversity of unhappiness cherished and cultivated constricts their excellence: The pursuit of unhappiness assumed too large a place in their souls.

Angry Birds Is Boring

Definitely agree with his characterization of stupid games. Casual gamers are missing outon one of fhe very best uses of smartphomes--reading devices.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Advice to Grads: Industry Matters

Advice I would give to young people charting their careers--all things being equal, seek an employer in a large, well-recognized industry (doesn't have to be a large employer, but a large industry). Example industries would be healthcare, finance, insurance, retail, pharmaceuticals, petroleum..

For the first 12 years of my career, I worked in the elevator industry. A very small, insular industry. My lack of obviously transferable industry experience was a real handicap in trying to change jobs.

(Eventually I did make the change, and it was no problem at all. The sad truth is that most recruiters and even hiring managers are terrible at being able to evaluate talent . So they way overrate nominal industry experience, and way underrate aptitude.)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

In-App Purchases Are Evil

Okay, I don't know if they are entirely evil. But I don't like them. People never like the "getting nickeled and dimed" feeling, and nothing feels more like that than getting hit up for in-app purchases in the middle of using an app you already paid for.

Mostly this occurs in the games world, which means nothing to me since I don't waste time on them play them. But I ran into it for the first time on an app I already paid for--Words With Friends. And for a very basic feature that really should be built-in: computing the score of your candidate play.

Like I say, I recognize that app developers need to make a living, and don't always find that easy on Android. I hated the advertising in WWF, so I happily sprung for the paid version. I think it was $2.99. Maybe the publisher would argue that $5 or more is a fair price, so I'm still getting a good deal even if I pay $2 for the in-app feature. Could be, but like I said, I instinctively resist getting nickeled-and-dimed. Too much of a slippery slope.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Facebook IPO illustrates widespread misconceptions

Facebook IPO'd yesterday, and there was a lot of ink spilled about how little "pop" the stock experienced on its first day of trading. It closed up just a fraction over its IPO price. Many people greeted this a sign that Facebook or the IPO had problems. That's nonsense. It shows that the stock was priced almost perfectly (from Facebook's perspective).

The perfect price for an initial offering is very, very near the end-of-day equilibrium price. Anything less is leaving money on the table. That's what the brokerage house managing the offering, and their favorite customers, want, but there is no reason for the company going public to do them any special favors. The price needs to go up, just a little, to ensure that the offering is fully subscribed. But that's all.

Then today the stock was down 12%, on a day the overall market was up. My interpretation--the lack of an obvious bubble was enough to torpedo the stock. It reminds me of the sadly funny Onion headline from a few years back: "Recession-Plagued Nation Demands New Bubble To Invest In".

Friday, May 11, 2012

Everything you always wanted to know about PUNCH LIST

I used the term "punch list" at work, and someone asked me what it meant. While I was confident that I knew the common usage of the expression, I realized that I had no idea where it came from. Here is the answer...the full Wikipedia entry is here, but the punch line (pun intended) is this:
      A punch list is generally a list of tasks or "to-do" items. In the U.S. construction industry, a punch list is the name of a contract document used in the architecture and building trades to organize the completion of a construction project. In other places, it is also commonly known as "snag list".
      The phrase takes its name from the historical process of punching a hole in the margin of the document, next to one of the items on the list. This indicated that the work was completed for that particular construction task. Two copies of the list were punched at the same time to provide an identical record for the architect and contractor.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Family plans are great for smartphone upgrades

I have 5 people on a family plan. Is that ruinously expensive? No, because it is our beloved, low-cost TMo. I am on 2 Gb, everybody else is 200 Mb (grandfathered with no overages), for a grand total of $60 in data charges. That gives me 5 upgrades every 22 months, or an upgrade every 4.5 months. I take the latest and greatest, and the family gets my hand-me-downs.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Jargonwatch: Hands Down

I can't remember the first time I heard the use of the phrase "hands down" to denote a clear or easy victory. As in "Wilt Chamberlain was, hands down, the most dominant NBA player in any era". It's been at least 4 years. But recently I have noticed a major increase in usage--I seem to hear it more than once per week, including from my teens.

I'm sure nobody who uses it knows the origin. That would have included me, until I looked it up:
Jockeys need to keep a tight rein in order to encourage their horse to run. Anyone who is so far ahead that he can afford to slacken off and still win he can drop his hands and loosen the reins - hence winning 'hands down'. This is recorded from the mid 19th century; for example, 'Pips' Lyrics & Lays, 1867: 
"There were good horses in those days, as he can well recall, But Barker upon Elepoo, hands down, shot by them all."
 It began to be used in a figurative sense, to denote an easy win in other contexts, from the early 20th century.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Why fiction is good for you

I thought this article was an especially good case for what I have always believed--reading fiction is good for you in many ways, including morally/spiritually. I am always surprised by how many people say they never read fiction.

Dave Winer: Politics Is Not War

Dave Winer puts it very well:

Many people see politics as I see sports. There are two teams, and my team is going to beat yours, and nothing else matters. Winning is everything. And that's a bad mistake. Because as we noted yesterday, while sports is a simulation of war -- it's harmless to project tribalism on the symbols of basketball or baseball -- it's not harmless to do that with politics. We're not manipuating symbols there. There are real armies and economies at stake. Nuclear weapons. The viability of the planet. The future of our species. If we see this as war, then it is war. How much do you know about war, and do you really want to usher it in so quickly, without thinking.

One More Routine Altered by InfoTech

Add to the list of old routines altered by InfoTech: Listening to the news (for me, that is synonmous with "NPR"). This is an example of technology takes away, and technology gives.

Like so many, I did almost all of my NPR-listening in the car. Morning + afternoon commutes, that added up to an hour each weekday. But now I telecommute. Time-in-car is drastically reduced--some days to zero. But streaming allows me to listen even more than before. Basically, when performing any mundane chore--kitchen cleanup, laundry, yardwork--I walk around with my wireless headset and consume the news. Not only do I listen more, I listen better--I get to skip the long hour of  Minnesota news, and all the music stories.

I am actually trying to find a way to donate directly to NPR, and bypass my local station, which I have little use for. (Now if only they would clean up the buggy-as-heck Android app.)

Game Giant Forced To Play Catch Up

I like to hear that Electronic Arts, purveyor of expensive video games, is struggling to compete with producers of low-cost video games (i.e., Zynga). Not because I play, let alone, buy the things, because I don't. I like it because it is a nice triumph for Doing Things the Cheap Way.