Saturday, December 28, 2013

Glide Path to Retirement

From a financial, longevity demographics and keeping mentally fit standpoint, early retirement looks like a worse and worse idea. In fact, I think most people will need to work past even the current "full" retirement age of 65. What we really need is more labor-market flexibility, where people slowly ramp down. Maybe work 32 hours a week for 3-4 years after 65, then 25, 20, 15 and maybe out around 75-80.

Big(ger) Data for Hiring: Beyond Experience and Degrees

This NPR report on data-based hiring practices made a couple of important points. The correlation of a college degree in computer science, to job success, was nil. I have no doubt that applies to other fields as well. Also, the correlation between experience and success is not at all obvious. Certain kinds of experience transfers very well, but very specific experience is much less critical than you would think. I.e., for entry-to-mid-level positions, hire for aptitude, not  experience.  

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Is there a word for terms that are created for one thing and applied where they don't make sense?

Example that comes to mind “hedge fund”. It was originally a fund that pursues hedging strategies, but has come to be used nearly synonymously with "private equity".

Another example is “clipless pedals”. Bike pedals used to have toe clips (aka "rat traps") that covered the toe of your shoe, to help hold your foot against the pedal, and more importantly, provide the ability to get some power from the upstroke, not just the downstroke.

20 years ago, they were replaced with a far superior mechanism, involving a cleat on your shoe that locks in to a receptacle on the pedal. Since the new, cleated mechanism replaced toe clips, they were referred to as "clipless". Thing is, the act of locking in the cleat is very much a process of "clipping in". So when people new to cycling see clipless pedals demonstrated, they find it confusing.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Backing Up Gmail Automatically via Thunderbird (free and easy)

I've been (mostly figuratively) losing sleep for most of a decade now, not having a local backup of my cloud-based Gmail account. Now that kids are mostly grown up, I find I actually have time for stuff like this. So I spent a chunk of my Saturday night working on fixing this bad situation. 

Huge thanks to Chris Hoffman of for a great article (here). As a mid-level but not hardcore geek, I agonized over what approach to take. I finally decided to go with Thunderbird, as Chris described. Very happy, not much pain, 90 minutes later I have my 10-year-old, 7 Gb Gmail account backed up. THANK YOU, CHRIS. I actually spent more time researching and agonizing, than I did configuring--even with a couple of minor Murphy's Law incidents.

A couple of updates to Chris's article:

1. Biggest thing--if you have Gmail 2-step authentication, you will have to generate an application-specific password. Obvious to some, but not me--I only realized in a "duh" moment when I searched for help.

2. In the new version of Thunderbird, I didn't have to do any of that boolean preferences stuff. It all just worked. But took me a while to give up looking where I could set them, and try my luck. What a pleasant surprise.

3. Avast had SSL conflicts. I wound up turning off Mail monitoring. Will go back to it eventually and see if I can make it happy.

In the meantime--thanks again to Chris and!

Next stops for me: Google Takeout, and a 1 Tb external drive.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Jargonwatch: Clubbed (together)

Example: "If we wait till next week, we could just club these three changes together, in one update". "I clubbed all the complaints under the category 'poor communication'. "

The first time I heard this usage was 6 years ago. I have heard it intermittently since then, mostly at my employer. I found it very strange. "Clubbed" didn't seem to convey anything that "combined" did not already accomplish. And the denotation was unclear to me.

Although I still do not care for the term, some quick research suggests it is not simply a modern invention. Many sources give secondary definitions of "unite or combine". I think the usage goes back to the root: "1175–1225; Middle English clubbe  < Old Norse klubba  club; akin to clump".

Idiomwatch: "[That's] on you"

Example: "Nobody ever got fired for buying Microsoft Office. If it has problems, you as the IT Executive aren't held personally responsible. But if you take a chance on some small shop or open source thing, and it doesn't work out--that's on you."

Definition: an act or decision for which, if things go badly, you are going to be "held accountable" (another over-used phrase). I.e., you will be roundly blamed for the action and its outcome, and you will be viewed as a weasel if you don't accept full responsibility (because, after all, it "on" you).

Like "on line", I suspect this of being a British-ism that has crossed the ocean. Unlike "on line", which seems a case of variety for variety's sake only, I find it unobjectionable. It provides a very compact formulation, that seems to have a usefully different connotation than the conventional "that's your fault".

The closest variant that comes to my mind is "that's your doing". Difference: "that's your doing" seems to be used more for small-bore, personal actions. "That's on you" for actions that have a widespread, public effect.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Idiom Checker, as a Software Component


Next frontier for word processors and text editors of all kinds: an "idiom checker". One obvious purpose: in multi-nationality work teams, to point out to writers that they may be using idioms unfamiliar to other nationalities. Conversely, for the non-native speakers, to highlight idioms, and offer immediate, integrated translation.


Develop this as an open-source project.


Crowd-sourced library of idioms. Somewhat like Urban Dictionary, but more curated, along the lines of Wikipedia.
Ability to obtain a structured extract, for local usage and packaging.

UI Conventions

Something comparable to the now-ubiquitous red-squiggly underline that signifies a misspelling. I am thinking maybe a purple, dashed underline[3]. 

For definition lookup, I am thinking a two-stage presentation, along the lines of Amazon Kindle. E.g., a mouseover brings up the first, short, most common definition. A right-click brings up the option to "see idiom wiki page". 

Nice-to-Have Enhancements

Some degree of "fuzziness"...e.g., identify "out of a clear blue sky" as being a trivial variant of "out of the clear blue sky".

Providing examples that replace the idiom with non-idiomatic formulations.

Rating the idiom in various dimensions: uniqueness (something will be lost in translation), triteness, ambiguity, frequency, age-group popularity, source [2].

To take the rating to the next level, define contexts: business, personal, official correspondence, journalism, general public announcements.


[2] "Sports" may be the 800-pound gorilla of categories, for frequently used business idioms.
[3] Since I can't make a purple, dashed underline with my text editor, I am substituting lavendar highlighting for the examples herein.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Blockbuster's Demise: Bad Karma from Late Fees

I have a deeply-held belief that companies which generate significant, sustained ill-will from their customer base will suffer in the long run. I both think this is true, and really want it to be true. I think Microsoft is headed there.

NPR's report on Blockbuster reminded me how greedy they were with late fees, in the VHS days. They thought they had wiped out the competition, so customer goodwill didn't matter much. Now, they are closing their last few stores, and still being sued over late fees.

What are some other companies that I think are candidates for cosmic justice?

Comcast. High fees, forcing too much bundling on consumers, offering too many short-term teaser deals, rather than solid, long-term value.

Facebook. For relentlessly testing consumers' limits on privacy. Like a 2-year old testing their parents.

Verizon, AT&T. For high rates, complicated price structures, and relentlessly sticking to the opaque business model of bundled handsets and two-year contracts. Go T-Mobile!

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Shift-F2 Zoom: Great Feature that Nobody Bothered to Copy

Shift-F2 zoom was present in the earliest versions of MS-Access, and is still there to this day. Editing a cell or field with a long text string becomes difficult, tedious and error-prone if you can only see a few lines at a time. This is an issue in long database fields, in spreadsheets, in web forms. The terrific solution that MS-Access implemented was Shift-F2, in order to zoom the field into a much bigger editing box. I use it all the time in Access.

20 years later, and nobody seems to have copied this feature. I frequently fill in forms and edit cells that don't have enough real estate to view the entirety of a paragraph or two of text. 

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Bitlock: Bluetooth Bike Lock

Bitlock, a Kickstarter project for a Bluetooth-equipped bike lock, looks like it has a lot potential. It is a nice example of one more physical thing that a mobile device can replace. More than once, I have embarked on a local bike errand, only to realize I forgot the key to the lock.

So the obvious number one benefit is--one fewer physical object in life to keep track of. Based on the video, a close second is the effortless proximity unlock. Fishing out one's key, and fiddling with it in the lock, is a bit of a hassle. Instant, effortless proximity unlock (it's not NFC, you don't have to hold your phone against the lock) is a big value-add.[1]

The video goes on to describe more esoteric use cases, mostly variations on ad-hoc bike sharing. While novel and intriguing, I suspect these are, for most people, the features that look cool in the demo, but never get used in real life. That's fine--the two core features are compelling enough.[2]

The Kickstarter price is $99, not bad. U-Locks are pricey, easily $50-70 in the bike shop, so if this works as advertised, for a frequent bike commuter, could be well worth it.

As an aside--if I were an incumbent seller of U-Locks, I would make this a Manhattan project internally. It's kind of amazing that this hasn't already come on the market. Classic example of the adage that innovation comes from startups, not incumbents.

[1] It looks like they have covered the important exception case of phone unavailable, with provision for a pre-assigned code. Nice touch.

[2] They say a 5-year battery life, and weatherproof. So assuming that is as-advertised, they have those important details covered.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Example of Doc *Not* Disabusing Patient of Placebo Belief

I'm always interested in placebo effect and in particular, the ethics of leveraging it. Here is an interesting case of a doc explicitly speaking to his approach of not warning a patient off a benign placebo:
On the other hand, Felson says he doesn't disabuse patients of the notion that the supplements are helping if patients truly believe they are, even though a month's supply can cost $30 to $50. "Far be it from me to take away either the placebo effect or an idiosyncratic reaction that might be of benefit," he says.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Changing Accepted Terms is Annoying "Inside Baseball"

Promulgating a new term, getting a name or acronym to become generally accepted, is often an important goal for an organization. Sometimes, the term in question constitutes an annoying exercise in branding or euphemism (think "gaming" for gambling), of course, but often, a generally accepted term is a useful addition to the collective vocabulary. Thus, it annoys me is when some insider constituency attempts to unilaterally alter the usage of a generally accepted term.

A couple of examples that I have noticed recently:

MEA is an abbreviation for the Minnesota Education Association. It is also shorthand for the two-day teacher's conference/fall break throughout the state of Minnesota. Everybody with school-age kids, or who went to school in the state, knows exactly what someone means when they say "Oh, I'm taking off next week for MEA". It's a great example of deep branding. So what does the Association do? They rename their conference to "Education Minnesota Professional Conference". Everybody still calls it "MEA".

GLBT/LGBT. Sometime in the past decade, the acronym GLBT took hold as an umbrella term, covering the overlapping concerns of Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual and Trans-gendered persons. It was actually quite an achievement to get this to become an accepted term, given both the political disagreements involved, and the lingusitic un-loveliness of the term. But it succeeded--even people with hostile to the general thrust of the GLBT "movement" would recognize, and probably even use, the term. So then, seems like a couple of years ago, those in the know suddenly starting using "LGBT". 
It's not hard to imagine this is a well-meaning nod toward equality, within a constituency that is probably extra-sensitive to anything that smacks of inequality and unfairness. But it is just too soon, and too arbitrary. What's next--BTGL? Bi-annual rotation of the letters, until all 24 permutations have been covered? This change is just too silly, and too much "inside baseball"--especially for a movement that is likely already suspected by some to be obsessed with "political correctness".
UPDATE 01/25/14: Moving toward parody, apparently the latest is "LGBTQ".
There are some techniques for evolving a publicly accepted term or brand:

  • Combine the old and new, to form a transitional compound. E.g., "MEA--Teachers' Professional Conference". 
  • Retain the initials, making them vestigal--e.g., KFC, 3M.
  • Or, if it can be pulled off, change the meaning but keep the acronym--"Minnesota Educators Annual Conference Weekend", would work as "MEA Weekend" for short..

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Obama Should Throw the Republicans a Bone, then Declare

The nature of Speaker John Boehner’s final battle with the White House on the budget crisis is now clear: It doesn’t matter what House Republicans win in exchange for raising the debt ceiling and re-opening government, as long as they win something...
...And that’s precisely why the president can’t agree to it, even though the impact would be minimal.
I'm extremely sympathetic to this argument, but I have an idea for an alternative. Obama gives the Republicans the smallest, least harmful thing that will provide the fig leaf they seek. Then, as soon a the dust settles, he explains what he has done. In plain language, explains how the Republicans sausage was made.

Fadwatch: High Intensity Workouts

a few minutes of any strenuous exercise is sufficient to improve various measures of health and fitness.
Prediction: super-high-intensity workouts will be a fad. Reminds me of the publicity, a few years back, that insinuated 30 minutes a day of puttering in the garden was about as good as a regular exercise routine.

Not to mention, the people attracted by very short, very intense workouts are not the kind of people who will want to endure the pain they involve.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Catchy Names for Products

As I've said before, a key ingredient in having a successful consumer product is finding a really catchy name. Some more examples:

  • Bit Torrent
  • Chromecast
  • Flavorizer Bars

How Concerts Have Changed

Went to my first large-scale rock concert in decades, with my daughter. The National, it was fun and pretty good. Interesting how things have changed:
  • No smoke--of any kind
  • Wide range of ages
  • Photos are allowed
  • Band endearingly thanks you for listening

Net IRR of bankrupt companies

I've always wanted to see a study of the net ROI of companies that go bankrupt, or all-but-bankrupt (e.g., Blackberry). Many other examples, such as Borland, GM. I seriously don't know whether all the paid-out dividends over the years make it okay.

The study I would like to see: if you invest 1 year after IPO, and hold till liquidation, how does the investment perform?

Auto Responder App Review: Auto SMS

Very nice app, displaced an incumbent. The basic use case for an AutoResponder is--when someone texts or calls, and you are otherwise occupied, it sends them a text with a predefined message. Various applications, including long bike rides, and when driving.

Standout features for Auto SMS:

  • 1x1 widget--very convenient
  • Expiration timer--a nice touch
  • Lots of configuration options, variable by Profile
  • Ability to read out messages
  • Unlimited or at least very high number of custom profiles
  • Other unrelated features, the most important of which is Scheduled Texts. This allowed me to delete a separate app I had for that sole purpose.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Wells Fargo's Hair-Trigger Fraud Detection

In 25 years, I've probably had half a dozen credit cards that I used regularly. Travel within the United States has never been an issue. Most of that time, I have been a light traveler, maybe 2-4 trips per year to other parts of the country.

In the past few years, we've been using a Wells Fargo 1% cash back card as our primary. That's about to end, though, because they have the most ridiculously, over-sensitive, false-positive-generating, and uncorrectible fraud detection. As best I can tell, any time we are more than one state away from Minnesota, all transactions are declined.

The first couple of times it happened, I thought it was a fluke. But it happens Every. Single. Time. The only solution is to call and explain. I've asked if they can tweak my profile. "Nope, that just how our fraud-detection works". Well can I at least notify them online? Nope, gotta call. Is there a special number I can call, and bypass IVR hell? Nope, just call the regular number.

Three strikes, you're out Wells Fargo.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

For the first time in a while, I've found a new app that is worthy of a review. The app is "Bedside (Night Clock)". The name pretty well describes the basic use case --a clock app to use on the nightstand.

  • It has the basics covered--large, dimmable digital clock. It also has an extensive list of options for customization.
  • A very nice one of those custom settings is the option to have the app automatically set silent mode when the clock is activated, and turn off silent mode as soon as the app loses focus. This seems to work perfectly.
  • The absolutely compelling feature is that it allows for a whitelist of phone numbers that will ring through. This is a total must-have for any parent.
  • Regarding the has a dim setting, but as I have found with most app dimming, it does not go far enough[1]. My standard for dimming is that, if lying in bed with the clock at the edge of my peripheral vision--I should not be aware that it is on. It should be just bright enough that to read it with night vision. Unfortunately, the built-in dimming does not achieve that standard. However, by cranking down the transparency on the font, and playing with the color mix, I was able to achieve my goal perfectly.
  • Another nice touch, that every app to which it is relevant should have, is the option to override the system rotation setting. I force it to always go landscape, even though my system setting is no rotation.
  • Icing on the cake, it has a setting to brighten automatically come morning, a very thoughtful little touch.
  • Finally, as noted, it has a host of preferences, none of which seemed relevant to my use case, but may be to yours.
All in all, I think this is one of those apps I may well still be using 4 years from now.

[1] I believe that is due to a built-in Android limitation of minmum 10% brightness.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Vendor Opportunity (and Moral Imperative?)--Take Care of User's Data

In the latest episode of  Accidental Tech Podcast, the boys, mainly Siracusa, were discussing the fact that: one, devices don't automatically back up user's data, notably their precious photos; two, they should; and three, it seems like a great customer delight and vendor differentiation opportunity for Apple.

I definitely agree. But I feel like the problem is very, very close to solved. The major remaining ingredient being marketing. The obvious, and cross-platform solution, is Dropbox Camera Upload. I've been using it for about half a year on my Android phone, and it seems to work perfectly. Yes, at some point you will max out and have to buy space, but that point is reasonably high, at least if you exclude videos.

But even if you hit that point, there is the opportunity to buy a lot more space for a moderate incremental cost. It's a great freemium play, that has been very successful for Dropbox, the company. I can hear Siracusa objecting at this point, that consumers won't pay to increase their space when it maxes out. That's where the missing ingredient of marketing and partnerships comes in. On the Android side, a number of devices, including the popular Galaxy S III and IV phones, have included 50 Gb of free Dropbox space with the phone activation.

So I don't see why Apple couldn't do the same thing. The missing ingredients are really around the marketing and economic integration (no user decisions involved). It seems like both of those could be easily solvable by Apple. And I agree with Siracusa, it seems like a nice differentiation and brand-identify building opportunity for any vendor that solves it well.

Why doesn't seem interested in doing this is anyone's guess. I can see how Apple wouldn't be too excited about featuring a third-party solution, like Dropbox, prominently in its brand identity. Wait--maybe that's the answer! Apple is still miffed that Dropbox founder Drew Houston turned down Steve Jobs' offer to buy his company. Well, maybe they could work out a private-label solution with Dropbox. Or build their own service--it would be a much simpler build than Dropbox, since it wouldn't have to create the illusion of magic across all platforms.

An alternative is Google+ photo backup service. Also cross-platform. In contrast to Dropbox, it provides much more space. Admittedly it decreases resolution, but half a loaf is much better than none. Plus, if you want, there are options for preserving full resolution. Surprisingly, Google hasn't done all that much to promote this. Another lost marketing opportunity.

[1] Of passing interest, to me at least, is that Siracusa mentioned an old idea he had, from the hard drive ear, of providing better-than-nothing, transparent consumer backup via RAID-1 configuration, as an OEM-provided feature, again as a means for differentiation (his article here). I had blogged  about this very idea, including the opportunity for brand differentiation, right around the same time.

[2] This doesn't cover the no-access-to-a-data-connection edge case, admittedly. But I think that is a pretty small one. It does address the bandwidth caps problem, reasonably well, as both Dropbox and Google+ Auto-Backup have configuration options for wireless only.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Callheads Android App

Callheads is a nice app for Android that I have been using for a few days. As described by its publisher, :
Ever been interruption from an app through a call? CallHeads (beta) will give you more control on what to do with a phone call when you are concurrently using an app. Instead of a fullscreen notification popping up and interrupting your app, you will see a bubble as an overlay on your app, and you can keep using the app. For instance, if you are currently reading a text, you can first finish the current paragraph until you pickup the call, if you are playing Angry Birds, you can first finish the slingshot and then answer the phone.
So far so good. But it's pretty simple. What I would like to see:
  • First and foremost, click on Callhead to mute/unmute. This is the floating mute button I have been waiting 4 years for!  (I'm a heavy conference call user).
  • Ability to make the Callhead go away. In contrast to Chatheads, there is much less reason to have the Callhead be persistent (except when you are using it as your mute button, of course).

Monday, August 12, 2013

I hate repetition

I hate needless repetition of words. It's a waste of time, but for me it is even worse than that--it is positively mind-dulling.
  • Church services which constantly re-instruct in the minute particulars of the program, each and every service, just in case there is a new person who can't read or learn by observation.
  • Warning sections in any kind of instructions.
  • Answering machine announcements, for the first 15 years of their existence.
  • Introductions to weekly TV shows.
  • Almost any mandatory, computer-based corporate training.

Cursive is obsolete

There, I said it.

(This question is a good litmus test for someone's adaptability to changing ways...if they are shocked by the very idea, and remain completely immune to even considering the arguments for it, they are likely an all-around old-school temperament.)

"If X, they will leave"

In my experience managers worry too much about what would cause employees to out-and-out leave, and too little about what slowly causes employees to remain but become disenchanted and disengaged. (AC if you are reading this, no it is not personal commentary, came up recently comparing notes with a friend. :) )

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Tired of Songs of Love, Loss and Longing

The love-song genre has been done to death. Squared. I am beyond bored by them in pop music. I like songs that have some more original subject. A few random samples:
  • Saturday Night Special, by Lynyrd Skynyrd
  • Downeaster Alexa, by Bill Joel
  • I Don't Like Monday, by Boomtown Rats
  • Tale of the Edmund Fitzgerald, by Gordon Lightfoot
  • Space Oddity (aka, Major Tom), by David Bowie
  • My Name is Luca, by Suzanne Vega

Often the songs that like thematically this way would be classified as ballads, I suppose. Though I think only two of the above would meet that definition.

Nurse practitioners at lower pay

No, no, no. The point of authorizing Nurse Practitioners to take on more scope, stuff traditionally done by MDs, is not to start paying the NPs the same as MDs. The point is to use the right, cost-effective resource for the work. If it doesn't require an MD, then it shouldn't command MD pay rates. NOT the other way around. (Most especially since American MDs are generally considered much better-paid that counterparts in other advanced countries.)

Saturday, July 13, 2013

It Is SO Easy to Donate Blood

Within the United States, an ever-growing number of people are ineligible to donate blood, due to medications and travel restrictions. Of those who are eligible to donate, only 5% do so. It's really easy, for many eligible donors, I think inertia and inconvenience are the main barriers. Herewith are my guidelines for painless blood donation:

PRO TIP: It is a great excuse to indulge yourself in a big meal. The first two times I gave, it was in the morning on an empty stomach. I almost passed out. I didn't give for the next 5 years. When I finally tried again, it was an afternoon appointment. I had happened to go to an all-you-can-eat buffet beforehand. I gave, and felt totally, perfectly fine after. So--use donation as an excuse to treat yourself to a big meal.

Find a time that works for you. You shouldn't exercise after giving blood, so as an evening exerciser, that used to be a deterrent for me. But by donating at the local blood center, rather than a blood drive, I can schedule a late, 7pm appointment, leaving time to hit the gym after work.

Make it convenient. Here in town, there is a collection center 2 miles from me. And as noted above, it offers a greater time range than the typical on-site blood drive. So that works for me. By the same token, if you don't live near a collection center, then find a blood drive convenient to you. But don't wait for the semi-annual drive at work. Go to the Red Cross or other agency website, and seek one out.

To utterly crush any possibility of inertia setting in, take a page from the dentist. Schedule your next appointment as soon as you have completed your current one. If you are at the collection center, you can probably do it on the spot. If you are donating at a drive, come right home and find the next convenient drive, any time after 8 weeks, and sign up.

PRO TIP: Yes, it involves a needle, and yes, it involves your blood flowing out of your body. That is a little bit quease-inducing and gross. I realize those personally acquainted with me may be thinking, giving may be easy for you, as a strapping exemplar of robust, middle-aged masculinity. Trust me, I am right up there with the corseted 19th-century ladies and their fainting divans, when  it comes to getting easily grossed out. The yech factor in donating blood really is not such a big deal. I have found the best approach is total distraction. I read happily throughout the procedure. Do what works for you--watch video on your phone if that is to your taste.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

I Hate Crank-Out Windows

Why oh why Orrin Thompson did you see fit to equip our house with so many crank-out windows?! Let me count the ways the suck:
  1. Can't open window part-way when raining.
  2. Cranking is a pain. Especially at full-open, when you have zero leverage.
  3. Cranks interfere with shades. 
  4. Depending on the prevailing wind, may block breeze.
  5. Does not fold down for easy cleaning.
The only legit scenario that comes to mind is if you have a small window. Unlike typical sliding windows, where only 50% of the window area can be opened, you do get 100% open.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Hezbollah Shows Its True Colors?

NYT: In his most direct embrace yet of a fight in Syria, Hassan Nasrallah ordered his followers to engage in an all-out battle to salvage the rule of President Bashar al-Assad. 
Okay, they are really just showing their well-known colors, particularly vividly. This should be a major PR blunder--defending a monstrous regime that has killed hundreds of thousands of its own people. They are defending the patently indefensible.

Friday, May 24, 2013

When It Comes to Dictionaries, I Am A Prescriptivist

A prescriptive dictionary ennobles--it instructs on the correct or preferred usage. This is in contrast to descriptive dictionaries, which merely document usage--no matter how ugly, sloppy or illogical. So a prescriptivist would say "I could care less" absolutely is not interchangeable with "I couldn't care less". A descriptivist would say that, even though the latter means almost the opposite of the former, since it is used to mean the same thing, then it does mean the same thing. A prescriptivist would say this is disgusting linguistic moral relativism, and should not be countenanced. Prescriptivists are like Apple under Steve Jobs--they have taste. Descriptivists are like Microsoft under Steve Ballmer--all they care about is going with the volume of users.

Sadly, the vast majority of dictionaries today are descriptivist. This includes the famous OED which, in the popular imagination, is the final arbiter of meaning for the English language. For prescripvists, it may be the dictionary of record, but certainly no arbiter. I am a life-long prescriptivist.

Not that I am completely without appreciation for descriptivist dictionaries. In fact I think Urban Dictionary is one of the finest of its type. But for professionally curated dictionaries, I will always lean prescriptivist.

I was quite amused by this article, which explains how courts of law are starting to refer to Urban Dictionary. But when I came to this quote, I laughed out loud:
Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large for the Oxford English Dictionary, points out, however, that popular does not mean accurate. “People may like a word because it was posted by their friend or because it was funny,” he said.
Oh, the irony of it! An editor of the OED pointing out that descriptive does not mean accurate. While I acknowledge the hypothetical point that Urban Dictionary may be on the under-curated side, and some entries may be outright bogus, this still has a very strong flavor of a professional in a discipline that has allowed its standards to be undermined by modernism suddenly lurching traditionalist, when challenged from below. A bit like the deconstructionist English professor who bemoans the fading influence of serious literature in popular culture.

Monday, May 06, 2013

NPR, I Love You. But do something about your wretched Android app.

I love NPR. I have spent a big chunk of my life, perhaps averaging 40 minutes a day, for more than 20 years, listening. I was a born news junkie, born into a news junkie family. Once I discovered NPR news in my late twenties (c. 1992), I couldn't listen to anything else. Both because NPR is that good, and because the alternatives are that bad. Other than the BBC, there is really no broadcast news worth listening to. For a serious person. NPR is the only game in town country.

Like many people, I did most of my listening during commute time. So for a brief period, when I first switched to telecommuting in 2010, my NPR listening declined dramatically. Then I discovered the Android NPR app. That, along with a super-comfortable bluetooth headset, led to sustained and improved NPR news consumption. When I do menial chores--clean kitchen, my laundry, tidying, shaving--and when I life weights, NPR news is my go-to genre. With the ability to skip the stories that don't interest me (maybe 25%), my devotion to NPR news is greater than ever.

So this is obviously a bit of a love letter. But I really do wish NPR would get its act together with its Android app. I have been using it for 3+ years, on 4 different Android phones, and it is BUGGY as all get-out! It is an amazing paradox--may favorite app is also my most hated app. The problems:
  1. Frequently locks up. Not a full-blown crash, just an inexplicable lock-up that may last 20 seconds, or 3 minutes, or forever. I frequently resort to task-killing the app, just to re-start it.
  2. When it isn't locking up, it even more frequently starts segments mid-way through the segment. I think this happens at least 25% of the time.
  3. Amazingly, the app is going backwards by losing features! Functionality that has disappeared:
  • Ability to share any given story in your playlist by long-pressing.
  • "Clear played segments" option
  • Ability to re-arrange sequence of stories
I am almost completely baffled by this state of affairs. I am an NPR contributor, of course, but I would happily contribute more or pay significant $ for an Android app that works. I grope for an explanation. This old NPR blog post indicates that the app was developed as a hobby. That might have been okay for first release in 2009, but something so important really deserves more attention.

The only other explanation I can think of is conspiratorial...NPR is owned by its member stations. From my perspective, the idea of a local NPR station in every district is very outmoded and inefficient. Like the U.S military or auto dealer networks, there are way more outlets than justified by modern conditions. In fact, I tried to find out if I could give directly to NPR, rather than through my local affiliate, and I couldn't find a way to do it. So part of me has to wonder if the app is being crippled, either deliberately or back-handedly, by affiliate pressure.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Disappointed in NPR for furthering the cult of Hunter Thompson

I really don't care for the cult of Hunter Thompson. In my view, he was a somewhat talented writer who quickly became a prisoner of his own persona. His drug-addicted life and sad end, at his own hand, seem like ample testimony to the emptiness of the gonzo way. So I was most disappointed today when NPR had a long, fawning story on his original Kentucky Derby "reporting".

Although it can be occasionally amusing to read some of his way-over-the-top prose, I associate Hunter Thompson with a couple of very negative things. One is a variation on the suffering artist myth, a pop-culture notion even more over-worked than the Thompson cult. In his case, the suffering was expressed not in terms of years of material sacrifice for his muse, but rather the fact that he lost his personhood, as he became a persona (a more highbrow version of Michael Jackson). Second is a relentlessly cynical and reductive view of life. Corrosive skepticism has its place, but completely undiluted it is a little too potent.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

April Fool's "Journalism" Considered Harmful?

There seems a bit of a meme in twitter-land this year on the subject of April Fool's fake stories being A Bad Thing. I think I am generally sympathetic to the arguments, notably undermining trust. I can think of one beneficial side-effect, at least: it may help train people to detect Urban Legends. In my cosmology, this is a very important skill.

Erik's Rule of Grammar Checkers

Grammar-checkers are certainly A Good Thing. But for the most part, they serve only to alert, not to educate. Because the people in need of grammatical guidance are unlikely to understand the advice being offered. Conversely, the people who understand the guidance likely don't need it.

So yes, grammar checkers are useful, but only in an inspect-quality-into-the-product sense. Writers with strong grammar will be alerted to their occasional copy-edit-style mistake. Writers with weak grammar, but still conscientious enough to want to eliminate outright mistakes, will at least see they have a problem, and engage in trial-and-error reformulation, to eliminate the mistake.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Reviews need to differentiate core product versus purchasing experience

Amazon reviews, and any others for that matter, really need to differentiate whether the scoring refers to the core product or something related to the buying experience. For instance, if you are buying and Asus monitor, and the monitor is great but you are upset because it took 3 months for the $20 rebate to arrive, it is really very useful to distinguish that in the review. For people buying the monitor and not eligible for the rebate, for instance, the delay is completely irrelevant.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Karmic punishment for Google

When a company commits a major transgression, I always root for them to receive karmic punishment. By that, I mean punishment that goes beyond short-term, incremental damage related to their crime du jour. I want them to suffer, extensive, lasting damage to their brand.

I'm not talking about cases where companies are merely annoying--like raising prices more than I would wish, or discontinuing my favorite color. I am talking about egregious cases that involve a breach of faith, or abusing a monopoly position. Like when Micro$oft briefly tried to make licenses for Office non-portable.

Is this vindicitve of me? I don't think so. Companies are a bit like toddlers. They are mostly amoral, and if they don't suffer a sufficient consequence for a transgression, they will keep pushing the boundary, every time they see an opportunity to gain by doing so. If they suffer mild, limited, ordinary punishment, that won't be enough deterrent. They will conclude the upside is worth the risk.

Google has been eating away at a reservoir of user goodwill with its long string of failed/canceled projects. Perhaps some are justifiable, in that there was never much uptake (Google Wave). But Google Reader was pretty important to a large number of people. And Google owned the market, and drove out all the competition. So the fact that they are willing to abandon it with short notice makes them worthy of karmic justice they are experiencing, as one journalist or blogger after another takes advantage of the recent announcement of the Google Keep note-taking app to and the Reader cancellation and concludes "why should I make an investment? Evernote is fine".

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Airlines should offer a free ticket exchange

As compensation for being bumped. It would be very useful, potentially more useful than a $200 voucher. Maybe throw in a free companion one.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Remember when cell phones were banned in gyms?

This article talks about a bar that has preemptively banned Google Glass. Made me think of the progression of cell phones...sometime around 2002, when cell phones had become very common, the YMCA I go to "banned" using them on the exercise floor. That rule was more or less respected. Then a couple of years later, as cell phone cameras became the norm, the rule didn't change, but the level of posting was increased, including the locker rooms.

Here's the funny that phones have gotten more powerful, and cameras, even video, could easily be used surreptitiously, respect for the rule has fallen by the wayside. Phones are so mutli-purpose, that people use them everywhere, including the locker room for listenting to music, answering texts, who knows what else, maybe using exercise tracker apps.

Anyway, assuming Google Glass or something like it catches on, I predict a similar cycle of resistance then surrender.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

University naming rights for prison controversy--how it will end

A university sells stadium naming rights to a for-profit prison operator, now dealing with fallout.

This feels like an easy one to predict. Tactics of the university president Mary Jane Saunders--who comes across as under-informed, bought and paid for: brush the whole thing off as a done deal. Let me go on record spelling out the predictable "I've seen this movie" outcome: 
  • Continued controversy
  • Further "revelations" that cast the prison operator, GEO Group, in an unfavorable light
  • Not guaranteed, but likely, additional revelations about how cozy the university president and/or administration is with GEO Group
  • Writing on the wall for all to read, and the parties mutually agree to cancel the contract
  • In canceling, Saunders misses the opportunity for a full-throated apology
  • Calls for president's resignation
  • President does not resign as an immediate outcome (unless a true smoking gun is found), but her tenure is substantially foreshortened

It all seems so obvious. If Saunders could just bring herself to do the right thing and reverse course, she could easily survive this. The fact that she seems to be sticking it out suggests to me that either there is more to implicate her, or she is just very tight with GEO Group and their president, and can't bring herself to ditch a friend. Ironically, though, she would be doing both parties in the friendship a huge favor if she did just that. We are dealing with students here. Even if they weren't in the right--which I think they are--this is just the kind of thing youth protest thrives on. It is a no-win for the university to try to tough it out.

(PS this brouhaha highlights two deplorable trends: The phenomenon of "naming rights", and the outrageous cost of higher education.)

Saturday, February 23, 2013

More Examples of Mis-Guided Social Engineering

That last post got me warmed up. Some more examples of mis-guided, government-sponsored social engineering that spring to mind:

  • Locations of the campuses of the State University of New York (aka, SUNY), So many of them are in godforsaken corners of the state: Fredonia, Oswego, Oneonta. I don't know for sure, but it sure feels like that was someone's (Rockefeller-era?) idea of a way to spread the wealth.
  • There is a trend to putting prisons in rural areas. Yes, there is some justification, in that land and labor is probably cheaper. But separating prisoners from family members seems very much at odds with any hope of rehabilitation.
  • Special economic zones for depressed areas. This is really just the general case of the last post. State governments will commonly provide tax incentives for companies to relocate to depressed areas within the state. The tax incentives don't last forever, of course. So most likely, what you get for a 5-year tax incentive is creation of some job, a number of which are filled by people who relocate to the depressed area. Then when the 5 years are up, nothing about the area is any more intrinsically appealing than it was before, so the employer shuts down. But now they have dragged even a few more people to the depressed area, actually making the local unemployment problem worse.

Social Engineering Is and Ever WIll Be A Big Fat Fail

In President Obama's State of the Union this month, he proposed the creation of hubs for manufacturing research. It seems the idea is to revitalize decimated cities and geographies, such as  Detroit and Youngstown, OH, by setting up research hubs dedicated to developing super-high-tech manufacturing. This kind of thing just doesn't work. Government incentives can't make people--especially the kind of upwardly mobile people who are likely to invent the future of anything--live in places they don't want to live. It's a waste and a boondoggle.

Opposing wishful thinking like this is the job of true conservatives.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Jargonwatch: Stink Eye

I don't really like this phrase...for one thing, it doesn't really make sense: "stink" does not go with "eye". Here is the Urban Dictionary take on it.

Church music

Barbara Nicolosi: "The idea of beautiful as something that we should aspire to every time we sit down to create – that’s gone. I go to the 10 o’clock Mass in my parish watching 1,500 people groaning because it’s such bad music. It’s not that they’re not doing music anymore, it’s just they’re doing it badly...A lot of church drama, skits, what passes for literature intended for the Christian audience, is banal at best."

Amazon needs to do some advertising

I think Amazon needs a mass-media ad campaign. In particular, they should promote the more mundane items that they carry--packaged foods, health & beauty aids, stuff you normally might get at Wal-Mart. I buy a lot of this kind of stuff at Amazon. Not strictly for price, though it is usually very competitive. But also for convenience. Instead of having to put it on my Wal-Mart list, then hope I remember when I got there for my monthly shopping spree--I just put it in my car, now. It gets ordered as soon as I hit the low, low $25 threshold for Super Saver Shipping.

Another thing they can promote are the benefits of their reviews. Never buy a consumer durable without getting a virtual test-drive, courtesy of the reviews.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Domestication of Monkeys

I was really intrigued by the National Geographic article on domesticated foxes. It suggests a business opportunity. Monkeys seem like they would be a great pet, but apparently they are hell-raisers. But why couldn't the same approach be taken to domesticating them?

Android Multi-Tasking Button is Over-Rated...

...On tablets, especially, I find it just as easy to press Home-App versus multi-tasking, possibly scroll, then App. On phones it is slightly more useful--because there is a lower chance that the first home screen has the app you need--but only slightly. So is the functionality at all useful? Sure, but I think the legacy implementation of long-press Home button was fine.

I think the Algerian government did the right thing

This may well seem harsh, but I think the Algerian government did the right thing, in refusing to negotiate with the hostage takers, and instead rapidly bringing the episode to a close. Rewarding a thing can only encourage it.

Same goes for the Somali pirates. I really think the best response would be to fire on and sink the ship. Zero negotiations, zero reward, zero incentive to keep up the piracy. In the end, it will save far more lives.

Arab Spring: Too Much, Too Fast

I wrote the below over a year ago and never posted it. Now we have the bloodbath of Syria, the spillover in Mali, and scary instability in Egypt. It gives me absolutely no joy to be right, but too much, too soon.

Again on the subject of the Arab spring in general, and Libya in particular. So we got rid of a strongman--we did that with Saddam, it didn't necessarily make things so much better. And Gaddafi, while a vile, despicable tyrant, had ceased to be a source of international terrorism. ...I just think sometimes slow is better. I am thinking of cases like South Korea, Taiwan, India. Now I don't want the U.S. to enforce slowness in any way, that would be going far too far, but maybe we shouldn't be so keen to accelerate, especially when that means military involvement?

Brooks on Inequality and Meritocracy

I really thought this hit the nail on the is what I have believed for a long time.

Smart high school students from rural Nebraska, small-town Ohio and urban Newark get to go to good universities. ...In the dorms, classrooms, summer internships and early jobs they learn how to behave the way successful people do in the highly educated hubs. There's no economic reason to return home, and maybe it's not even socially possible anymore. 

The highly educated cluster around a few small nodes. Decade after decade, smart and educated people flock away from Merced, Calif., Yuma, Ariz., Flint, Mich., and Vineland, N.J. In those places, less than 15 percent of the residents have college degrees. They flock to Washington, Boston, San Jose, Raleigh-Durham and San Francisco. In those places, nearly 50 percent of the residents have college degrees. 
As Enrico Moretti writes in "The New Geography of Jobs," the magnet places have positive ecologies that multiply innovation, creativity and wealth. The abandoned places have negative ecologies and fall further behind. This sorting is self-reinforcing, and it seems to grow more unforgiving every year.
The second problem is the focus on income redistribution. Recently, there's been far more talk about tax increases than any other subject. But the income disparities are a downstream effect of the human capital and geographic disparities. Pumping a few dollars into San Joaquin, Calif., where 2.9 percent of the residents have bachelor's degrees and 20.6 percent have high school degrees, may ease suffering, but it won't alter the dynamic.