Friday, March 30, 2012

People Want Transit-Accessible Housing, But Will They Be Able To Afford It?

People Want Transit-Accessible Housing, But Will They Be Able To Afford It?
Good short article. I think the last sentence nails it: If you build the [transit] lines but don't allow the density, you've really just created a private benefit for people who happen to live near the stations. 

Speaking of Healthcare Reform: Protect Employees of Self-Insured Companies

If you have health coverage through your employer, and your employer self-insures and goes bankrupt, you could wind up being for the bill. I'm not an expert here, I think the intent of ERISA is to prevent this from happening, but it doesn't always do that (you can't get blood from a bankrupt stone).

This strikes me as unfair and wrong. The employee has absolutely no control over this, it is completely arbitrary, and if it happened at the wrong time, could be a complete disaster. I think employees of self-insured companies should be indemnified or insulated in some way. Either the self-insured employer should have to buy backup reinsurance, or the providers that accept the insurance plan should be required to indemnify patients.

Nothing Beats a Parts Washer

I would love to have access to an industrial parts washer. Lacking that, though, I try to make use of my dishwasher. A dishwasher is almost always the most convenient way to clean something--as opposed to manually scrubbing. But if the something in question has lots of acute angles and recessed areas--as so many molded plastic parts do--the dishwasher is more than a convenience, it is the best way to get the job done.

So my wish is that manufactured items would be designed to be dishwasher-friendly. For instance, my microwave has a grille for the air intake. Pretty standard stuff. Unsurprisingly, it collects a lot of grease, and needs to be rinsed and scrubbed at least quarterly. More often would be better, but it is such a nuisance, it has to get to the point where it is very noticeable before we tackle the chore.

The problem is that it runs the length of the over-stove microwave, so is too long to fit in the dishwasher. But if it were of two-piece construction, instead, it would easily fit in the dishwasher. We would probably wash it every week, and it would be almost effortless!


I have been introduced to Wegman's through my visits to my parents and sister in NoVA. It is amazing. I have been threatening to write a feelance article on them. I thought the Slate article and the one it linked to might be the article I have been threatening to write, but they weren't. Too cursory, and also they had a major fallacy--which many commenters pointed out. The really amazing thing about Wegman's isn't how pleasant it is, or what great products, or polite employees. My boutique neighborhood grocery store has those things, albeit on a smaller scale. But I avoid that store if at all possible, because it is so bloody expensive. That is the miracle of Wegman's--it is cheaper than the average grocery store, while delivering high-end in terms of quality, selection and shopping experience.

That, my friends, is a business miracle. And that is why I want to research and write an extended-length article on Wegman's. It seems to me they could march out of Rochester--just as Wal-Mart did from Benton--and conquer the grocery world.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Wireless Charging: Apple Is Missing A Lock-In Opportunity

A big component of Apple's strategy is lock-in. Apple's version of lock-in is somewhat subtler than some--the average Apple customer probably doesn't think "damn, I'm locked in", they just think "hmmm, might be interesting to try Google Music/Android Phone, but I've already got this big investment in iTunes/iOS Apps".

So I'm surprised Apple hasn't targeted wireless charging as a high-potential avenue for lock-in. Wireless charging has been around for a few years, it seems like a clear crowd-pleaser to me. There is a consortium trying to create an industry-standard (Qi), but it seems to be moving very slowly.

I think Apple could swoop in, and make all their devices wireless-chargeable--using a proprietary approach, of course. The wireless-capable batteries would be standard, the profit would come from the external chargers. With their economies of scale and power to move markets, Apple could make it all more affordable than anyone else. Overnight, the huge iOS ecosystem would be committed to Apple's proprietary charging technology, creating one more barrier to Apple users even trying non-Apple products.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

"This American Life", Mike Daisey and the Human "Weakness" for A Good Story

In a previous post, I wrote about the human "weakness" for a good story. The core idea was that we humans are very much disposed to welcome, accept and internalize a "good" story. In that post, I didn't spend much time defining the characteristics of a "good" story.

I don't have time and motivation to fully define the term now, either, but I'll flesh it out a bit more. Characteristics that make a story "good" (and, sometimes, "too good to be true") include:
  • Linear--the story arc is smooth, steady and in a consistent direction.
  • Dense--the critical events occur in a very compressed time or narrative space, typically much richer than you could ever expect (or tolerate!) in real life.
  • Drama--the story contains the ingredients--timing, character involvement, utterances--that heighten dramatic effect. Often these involve multiple improbable coincidences.
The NPR show This American Life just broadcast a remarkable episode. It is a program-length retraction of the Mike Daisey episode on work conditions in factories of Apple's China-based suppliers[1]. The episode was based on an adaptation of Daisey's one-man monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.

How does this relate to my theme of humans-and-stories? Two ways. First and most obvious--it is a textbook example of the weakness part. Rightly or wrongly, Daisey seemed to believe that to command the audience's attention, he needed to make the story really good. Ira Glass takes issue with that--he seems to say, "no, just tell the story, no need to embellish".

I'm not so sure. Before I explain, let me make a couple of things clear. First--I hugely respect and enjoy Ira Glass. I don't know that much about him, but from my experience as a listener, he is an amazingly talented storyteller and a journalist with the highest integrity. He comes across as a pretty darn likeable and admirable human being, too. Second--no matter what, the ends don't justify the means. Even if it were provably the case that the only way for Daisey to get audience attention is through embellishment--I still don't approve. No good comes from falsification.

So back to my point. Really good stories, and claims of first-hand personal experience are, unfortunately, excessively arresting. One case in point--James Frey and A Million Little Pieces. It was rejected 17 times when submitted as fiction, before being accepted as a memoir[2].

So if Mike Daisey wanted to stay on safe ground, he would have had to eliminate at least one of the two things that made his story so compelling:
  • Remove the claim of first-hand experience.
  • Keep the story truthful, at the cost of diluting the qualities that made it such a good story.
In my opinion, when working as a dramatist he should opt for the former--admit that many parts are composite, but stick the the spirit of the truth. On the other hand, when (if) working as a journalist, the latter is preferable. Ultimately, I think the two are not fully compatible. It is too much of a stretch for Daisey, a dramatist, to wear the journalists hat. What would have worked much, much better would be for This American Life to have created the report using their in-house journalists, and heavily featured Daisey's work, acknowledging it as drama.

Okay, that's enough for one blog post. In Part 2, I will look more at the role of This American Life in the incident.
[1] I am writing this having listened to the episode, but without having read about it, other than a few pre-broadcast news items, which alerted me to it in the first place. I added this link after-the fact.

[2] The linked Salon article also does a good job explaining why writers such a Frey or dramatists such as Daisey may be sorely tempted to take liberties.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Time-Zone Awareness: Advanced Calendar Feature

I was on vacation, in a different time zone, and a friend from home asked me to drive them to the airport at 2:45. No problemo, I put it in my calendar right then and there--pick up at 2:45 Wednesday. Only problem--I entered that appointment when I was on EDT, so when I got back home to CDT, that appeared as 3:45. I happened to catch the mistake, but I easily could have blown it.

So what's the solution? I think the best general-purpose short-term solution would be a Calendar program Setting to let users set a home time zone, and then be prompted any time they enter an appointment when not on their home time. The prompt would say "Use Local Time (2:45) or Home Time (3:45)?".

The long-term solution is that we all need to start quoting time in GMT offsets. That's a joke...sort of.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Don't Like Frictionless Sharing

I got a Facebook notification, asking me to validate that I worked with a former colleague at a former employer. Fine, no big deal, I clicked yes. But Facebook--without so much as a "by your leave"--frictionlessly decided that meant that I desired to add my experience at that employer to my own status.

I use Facebook strictly for personal stuff, and segregate professional stuff to LinkedIn. So I don't really have any burning desire to list my employment details on Facebook. I don't really have any objection, so I'm not freaked out, but this is an example of being way too frictionless for my liking. At a minimum, Facebook should have asked me if I wanted to post that.