Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Simplified Idea for Oak Flavoring in Bourbon and Wine

NPR had this story about how charred oak barrels are in high demand for aging craft bourbon. Producing them requires good wood, of course, but also skilled coopers. That takes time and money.

I have a different idea...why does the oak flavoring have to come from the container itself? Couldn't they use stainless steel containers, and obtain the oak flavoring by inserting some charred oak staves? Advantages: 1) Get both sides of a given stave (plank) to contribute to the flavoring, so roughly half the board-feet to obtain the same amount of flavoring; 2) Much less skill/time/labor required--no Coopering, just charring; 3) Lower shipping costs.

UPDATE: As my friend Bill Heymann pointed out, NPR had a story a year ago about a company implementing this kind of thinking, except far more aggressively.

Monday, December 29, 2014

First Purchase with Google Wallet

Made my first purchase with Google Pay (aka, Google Wallet) today. It was simple enough, though my first impression is as I suspected--not a whole lot easier or harder than pulling out a credit card. The need to enter your PIN kind of offsets the effort savings of not having to physically pull out and replace your credit card. (I also had to enter my zip--not sure if that was a one-off or is common.)

Still, NFC pay-by-phone does have an important advantage, specific to my personal use case. I keep my driver's license inside my phone case. That means I don't necessarily need to have my wallet with me, if I don't expect to be buying stuff. Most of the time, I bring it just in case. But if NFC payments became widely enough accepted, that might relieve me of the need to always carry my wallet. I would probably just keep it permanently in my car's glovebox.

My ideal would be for Google Wallet (and Apple Pay) to be integrated with Mint.com. Furthermore, I don't just want the transaction total, I want the transaction detail. I want the detail to be sent to my phone via NFC, and then uploaded to Mint.com. Sadly, I don't foresee this actually happening any time soon.

Good teachers learn early on to tell stories wherever possible — it’s a lot easier to remember "that time Professor Jones got $300 off on a plane ticket" than "certain goods have high elasticity of demand in the short run." We’re hard-wired to think in terms of other conscious actors, so it makes sense that anecdotes stick. The problem is that in the process of anthropomorphizing, or anecdotalizing, or allegorizing, we can impute agency where it isn’t due. When we teach kids that "electrons follow the path of least resistance" or "genes want to survive," when we insist that there’s a Mother Nature or Father Christmas, we occlude understanding.
This is a terrific essay for the layperson. I love stories as much as the next person, but I believe the human "weakness" for stories is problematic for multiple reasons. Notably, important facts that don't have stories attached tend to get ignored. Conversely, simplified stories are fabricated to enhance facts, but the story becomes the entire mental model.

I also think we would do well to educate students about the very existence of cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias and agency bias.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

More Good Mainsteam Movies Lately

This article, from someone I presume to be a cinephile, laments the shift of the movie industry to the "franchise" business model (blockbusters with mutli-sequels). I understand his point, and a few years ago, I would have wholeheartedly agreed. But as a self-described "discriminating", serious movie viewer, I have been very happy with the trend of recent years.

Sure, "good" movies are outnumbered and even more out-grossed by schlock. But its sort of like the criticism that the internet is 99% garbage--maybe it is, but that 1% of worth is plenty to fulfill the choosy consumer.

The trend, or at least me noticing it, started fall 2013. We went to see Argo in early fall, and I was stunned that probably 4-5 of 6 previews all looked really, really good. Others from that class included: Captain Phillips, Her, American Hustle, Nebraska, 12 Years A Slave, Dallas Buyers Club, The Grand Budapest Hotel.

This year is shaping up well, too. Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, Selma, Mr. Turner, Unbroken.

I still hate how 75% of the "good" movies are jammed into the Nov-Feb calendar slot. The summer is still mostly a wasteland. But then, living in MN, the last thing I want to do is spend the temperate months in a movie theater.

Guns, not Protestors, Are What Get Cops Killed

I am super-sympathetic to the danger police face every day. The large vast majority of that danger, though, comes from gun-wielding members of the public. So I would expect to hear police representatives and unions would go all-out to take on the gun lobby. Until that happens, their credibility is fatally compromised. 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Android Lollipop--Slouching the Way of Microsoft Updates?

My initial reaction to the Lollipop UI changes--eye-candy. Seems beautiful, flashy, but without enhancing usability and probably degrading it. Feels a little like some of Microsoft's efforts to freshen mature products--upsetting well-known UI conventions for sake of a cooler, more modern look.

For instance, I have lots of muscle memory for the CLEAR button top right on the notifications windowshade. But now it is at the bottom. And it doesn't say "CLEAR", it uses that weird "Dismiss" icon, that looks way too much like the stacked "hamburger" menu icon, except pushed sideways so it has the footprint of a parallelogram.

That alone would be bad, but the coup de grace is, if you have more than a screen's worth of notifications, you have to scroll down to get to the CLEAR icon. I think I get the logic behind that--you scroll down through all notifications, and then you are ready to CLEAR--but it still seems weird and less discoverable.

The bounciness of the windowshade, where if you keep scrolling down, until it bottoms out, and then causes the settings shortcuts to pull down, compressing the notifications, also is very weird and disorienting.

The rolodex-style recently-used app thumbnails from the multi-tasking button seems worse. You see a little more in the thumbnail, but I think you see fewer apps without scrolling, and scrolling is more disorienting than when every thumbnail had a fixed position.

These all seem like they would be super-cool things in a hobbyist ROM. Not the stock Android experience.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

John Oliver's Breakthrough

I'm a huge fan of John Stewart and Steven Colbert. I've watched them for years, and I was a big fan of John Oliver on Stewart. After his star turn as Stewart's long-term sub, it was obvious he was ready for his own show. So now that he finally has it, I was eager to check it out. I don't have HBO, but I have watched a few segments online. I like it. I don't actually think it is as funny as Colbert and Stewart. But he has done something remarkable and unique. He is extremely funny and satirical, while at the same time being highly informative.

Ideally, one watches Stewart and Colbert with a solid, pre-existing understanding of the issues. Less than ideal, but better than nothing, a viewer clues in to an issue by watching them, and subsequently pays more attention to it. Their shows, as good as they are, aren't really a way to learn about an issue.
Oliver's show, on the other hand, has high comedic content, but less than Stewart and Colbert. The difference is, his segments provide a complete briefing on a topic, while still being quite funny.  So for many audiences, I think his show is amazing. It is like making vegetables taste as good as dessert.

Friday, November 21, 2014


Howard Gardner: "Among cognitive psychologists, there is widespread agreement that people learn best when they are actively engaged with a topic, have to actively problem solve, as we would put it 'construct meaning.' Yet, among individuals young and old, all over the world, there is a view that is incredibly difficult to dislodge. To wit: Education involves a transmission of knowledge/information from someone who is bigger and older (often called 'the sage on the stage') to someone who is shorter, younger, and lacks that knowledge/information. No matter how many constructivist examples and arguments are marshaled, this view — which I consider a misconception — bounces back. And it seems to be held equally by young and old, by individuals who succeeded in school as well as by individuals who failed miserably. Now this is not a scientific misconception in the sense of flat earth or six days of creation, but it is an example of a conception that is extraordinarily robust, even though almost no one who has studied cognition seriously believes it hold water. "

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Understanding "one in a million" in the age of big data

This is a great article for several reasons. My short version of what it says is: if you evaluate one million million-to-one propositions, it is likely enough that one of them will be "true".

First, it reinforces the idea, well-known in many quarters, that it is possible to be a superior stock-market trader. It particularly undercuts the idea of "technical analysis", something I have always doubted and dismissed.

Second, I've always thought this is one of the things that causes people to assign meaning to improbable but coincidental events in daily life. The hours and years of daily life offer so many different opportunities for patterns to emerge, everyone is bound to experience a few that seem remarkable, but are nevertheless entirely coincidental. (You may at this point call me unromantic or bloodless--I prefer the former, but I'll answer to either :) )

Third, although I'm not sure the article explicitly makes this point, it is yet another cautionary tale of the dangers of mixing correlation and causation. The most aesthetically pleasing way to discovery is to first formulate a theory, and then to prove it with data. Next best is to proceed from observational data, to formulate a well-constructed, internally-consistent theory that relies on well-known first principles. Less appealing is to find a correlation in data, and to construct a theory from it, using new principles that may amount to a post-hoc explanation, rather than time-tested principles. Worst of all is to take a statistical observation as law, without any underlying theory at all.

Friday, November 07, 2014

NFC Receipts (Apple Pay)

I've been a bit of an NFC-payments doubter. Not hardcore, but swiping a credit card is not all that hard, so the motivation to uptake is not that high. But if paying by NFC got me an NFC receipt, and that NFC receipt were automatically entered into my Mint.com account, that would be a major value-add.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Analysis of Differential Tax Rate Impacts on Timinig of Exercising SARS

Okay, the title is a bit of a joke, I am sure the quality of this analysis is nowhere near the kind of academic rigor that title suggests. (Heck, it's not even peer-reviewed, so there is always the possibility I am just outright wrong.)

Anyway, the proposition I wanted to evaluate: if one has SARS (Stock-Appreciation Rights) that are significantly above water, is there a benefit to exercising them early, for the sole purpose of ensuring all future gains are taxed as long-term capital gains (LTCG), at a rate of 15% + State? In MN, that would equate to about 22% in the typical case. As opposed to holding them as long as possible, in which case all gains will be taxed as ordinary income (OI), at a rate of 28% + State? Again, in MN that would be about 35%.

To cut to the chase, the answer is an emphatic no, do not sell prematurely for tax considerations!!!

This is what I thought going in. A general rule of investing is that tax considerations should take a back-seat to investment strategy (don't let the tax tail was the investment dog). The reason I had to work this out to convince myself, though, is because of the rate differential. I wanted to see if cashing out at some early point, and thereby subjecting all future returns to the much lower LTCG rate, would offset the benefit of deferring taxation as long as possible by holding to maturity.

I am fairly confident that cashing out early is not optimal, under any scenario, given my reasonable, simplifying assumptions. Those are:
  • No market timing. Uniform rate of return for all years. Obviously this is not what happens real-world, but over a reasonable long time-horizon, it should be a good approximation.
  • Early-exercise proceeds, net of taxes, are immediately reinvested in the same stock (with zero transaction costs).
The model pasted below uses a 6% return on capital, and a 20-year time horizon. For simplicity, it assumes a grant value of $10,000, but any grant value will illustrate the same results. I played with all the parameters, and they affected the relative penalty of early exercise, but never resulted in a scenario where early exercise was optimal.

(A copy of my model is available here.)

So in the scenario above, each row shows the NFV of the investment at 20 years, if it were subject to early exercise at the year denoted in the row. For example, if the initial grant of $10,000 were cashed in at the end of Year 4, and immediately reinvested in the same stock, the value after 20 years would be $3,756. Whereas if held to its 20-year "maturity", the value would be $14,346.

In hindsight, the explanation is blindingly obvious. Before you cash in, you have the entire $10,000 basis working for you. At the point you cash in, you only have whatever you have gained working for you. I think it is a bit analogous to killing the goose that lays the golden eggs, thinking you can invest all those unlaid eggs now, versus taking and investing the eggs as they come.

Concluding thought: The idea of  attempting "market timing"--never a good idea--is wildly inadvisable in the case of SARS (and I think much the same analysis goes for stock options).

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Practical Center-Right Social Policy?

Some excellent suggestions from David Brooks:

Relocation subsidies

I love this one. Very innovative. Instead of promising dying cities that tinkering with the economy in just the right way will bring them back (Detroit, Buffalo), instead help people escape to more promising areas. This is definitely not a magical approach, relocation is a big deal, especially for the poor, and especially if it is relocation to an area where the relocatee lacks a support network. But it is definitely seems like one useful took in the toolkit.

Bus subsidies

In the wealthy suburbs, there is starting to be a shortage of entry-level service workers. My own teens and their peers are complaining how many hours are being pushed on them in their part-time jobs. What a tragic mis-match of demand and supply. So long as housing remains highly segregated by income, getting those in need of employment out to where the jobs are is a helpful compensation.

Human Capital Investments

Less innovative than the other two, but still valid. The whole gamut here, early childhood education, intervention, better schooling, better vocational training. Still a continuing struggle to make cost-efficient progress. If I had to pick two things, I think it would be early-childhood and vocational. If I had to pick one thing, it would be vocational.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Cruz Staffer Tweet Linking Obamacare and Ebola

This is just such a massive case of dumbshittery. I do believe that even a Cruz staffer doesn't actually take the assertion seriously. But it also doesn't really work as a joke, as Nick Muzin claims. So my conclusion is a sadly typical case of instinctive, knee-jerk, relentless, ankle-biting. It just becomes a partisan reflex to immediately fling any dung at hand, any time the opportunity presents, at one's opponent. It's a terrible habit, in my worldview, it pretty much disqualifies those who engage in it from ever receiving any credence, for anything.

Deliberate, repeated sins of counter-factuality, by those fortunate enough to have public prominence, are unforgivable.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Mobile fashion trucks may be the next thing after food trucks. It's an intriguing idea. The thing I really like is how it slashes overhead. It fits my belief that we can improve society by more often doing things the cheap way. And slashing overhead is at the top of the list for making that happen.

I have an idea for an app to support this industry. Somewhat similar to the apps that alert you when a favorite performer is coming to your town.

Obviously, both the mobile stores and their "fans" register with the service.

Most simply, mobile trucks can share their location real-time (e.g., Google+, Facebook). So users can search for it. But users can also elect to be push-notified when the mobile store is stopped within X distance of them.

An obvious complication here is that you really don't want to be notified when the truck is whizzing by on the road with no intention of stopping. A partial work-around would be for the notification to occur only when the vehicle has been stationary for 10 minutes or so. There are still problems with that, though--you may wind up chasing the truck to the garage, for instance.

That's part of the reason I think a more full-blown app is needed. The app would allow the service to explicitly indicate that they are stopped and open for business. For extra-credit, they could indicate how long they intend to be there. As a value-added bonus, the app should be activated by NFC (touch a dot with your phone). Better yet, it should be connected to a simple, physical, analog piece of hardware--i.e., flip a switch when you are at your destination and ready for business.

That's the supply side. I think an app will also be useful on the demand side. It could allow users to indicate a desire for the store to come by within X distance of X location. This approach is kind of interesting within a large metro area, but it could be even more interesting out-state. In smaller cities that wouldn't be visited as often, if ever, a critical mass of requests would give the proprietor a hint that they have a receptive geographic market to go after..

I tend to think the market for mobile stores is pretty limited. If anything, it would have been a somewhat better idea pre-eCommerce. But with the ability to order anything you want--and variations thereof that you didn't even know existed, until you started online shopping--I don't see the markets extending beyond things that are perishable in some sense, or perhaps things that are really, really important to see and touch in person.
 I suppose a mobile food truck might be one remedy for the urban "food desert" problem. It also might be a way to test-market a geography--if demand is high enough, then open an outlet.

Pet Topic: The Tenuous-at-Best Link Between Mental Illness and Creativity

The shopworn notion of the tormented, suffering, often half-mad artist continues to be commonly held. This article does a very nice job surveying the scientific research on the subject and concludes the question is not completely settled, but the preponderance of the data does not favor the hypothesis. For ordinary, run-of-the-mill creativity, the link appears to be negative. For the "super-genius" (Beethoven, van Gogh, Wagner)--maybe there is something to it.

The theme I want to build on this research is: the deleterious effects of this addled notion on the young and aspiring. Notably the young people who yearn for artistic greatness that they will never possess. Such types may be drawn to mimic the dysfunctional, self-medicating behavior of the truly disturbed. The results may be a few wasted years, or occasionally, greater tragedy resulting from utterly pointless self-destructive behavior.

Then there may even be a feedback loop onto the truly gifted. A young person who is genuinely artistic may be drawn to the notion of the tormented, suffering, self-destructive artist. Either because they simply think that is how they are supposed to be, or perhaps because they believe that is the necessary price to pay to grow in their art. Either way, it can lead to more unnecessary suffering.

I would love to see a popular movie explore this theme. It would be the single most likely way to start excising it from the mass psychology.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Unforgiveable Sins, Part I: Corporate Transgressions

Any corporation will make mistakes, some big, bad or especially galling ones. When they do, they deserve to suffer, in proportion to their offense, both through immediate financial impact, and reputation. This is important for society, because corporations are basically amoral. Within the very wide latitude of what is permitted by law, the Pavlovian reward-punishment of the marketplace is the only reliable check on corporate behavior. This is not a bad thing, it just is the nature of a for-profit corporation (and applies much of the time to not-for-profits as well--more on that in Part II).

Yes, corporations may claim to have fixed ethics and ideals, but over the long-term, those are quite changeable. They are a blend of how the corporation has traditionally acted, what the individuals who make up the organization believe, and what the corporate can get away with. The latter being the biggest factor, especially in the long-term. So the only real constraint on non-illegal corporate behavior is the opinion of the marketplace.

By the same token, just as all humans are flawed and will transgress, the same goes for organizations. It is unrealistic to think any organization can ever be without sin--especially when definition of "sin" will vary from consumer to consumer.

So while it is good and righteous when consumers and public opinion punish an organization that has done immoral/bad/harmful/unethical things, most of the time, punishment should be tempered by realism. Forgiveness can be extended based on a direct redress of the offense, of course (backtracking and refunding customers who purchased a lousy product, for example). It can also be extended based on the passage of time. Just like a prisoner is released from prison after they have "paid their debt" to society, so it may be that after buying a lousy product, and avoiding a corporation for half a decade, it is time for the consumer to give them another chance.

However, some organizational sins are so severe they can't be forgiven for a generation. Not until (and unless) the corporation has had a complete turnover in its "DNA".

I used to be a "fan" of Micro$osft (I didn't spell it with the $ back then). The company has done many, many things to lose my good favor. But two standout out as unforgivable. Both are sins of omission.

First is neglect and stagnation of the browser, once they achieved monopoly position. As much as we hate IE today, at least it has plenty of credible competition, to spur it on. Think how bad IE was when it had a near-absolute monopoly in the market.

Second is neglect of security. Even though they were the de facto platform vendor of effectively all consumer computing, M$ simply did not give a s*** about security. Didn't fit their strategic plan, didn't help their bottom line, traditionally an area filled by niche vendors, so they couldn't be bothered. And millions of consumers--consumers who were Micro$osft's customers--suffered substantially for it.

For these reasons, it is difficult for me to think well of any product Microsoft offers. Even ones that get very good press in the marketplace. I simply can't trust them.

(Ditching the bombastic, sales-myopic Steve Ballmer may prove, 20 years from now, to have been Microsoft's first step toward corporate redemption.)

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Feature: Google Calendar Agenda View with Categories/Labels

I live by the Google electronic calendar and advance email reminders. Of course I rely on it for the standard use cases of putting in appointments in the coming weeks of course. But I also use it for far-advance reminders. Like "plan for Spring break next year" or "set weekend to clean out garage next summer".

What I would like to be able to easily access is a filtered, list view of these kinds of things. The list view part is reasonably well-handled--the Google Calendar Agenda view. And there is a very obvious feature for handling the filter part--Labels[1]. You know, like Gmail has had for ages? Sadly, Calendar has no labels[2] .

I am afraid to say it, but I see Google going the way of Micro$oft...once they have captured a category and killed off all competition, they neglect it [3].

[1] This is a ironic, because I although I am a heavy user of Gmail, I almost never use labels. The one time I want them--they aren't there for me.

[2] Yes, I know there are hacks, like using a separate calendar for each label type. For certain situations those may be okay, but for what I want they are definitely hacks, I already a have a few different calendar types, so I would really rather not solve the problem this way.

 [3] Probably more accurately--if continuous improvements do not have any clear, immediate connection to furthering the advertising business model, they don't happen.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Nice When UI Designers Sweat the Details

I am constantly frustrated by the lack of thought and crafstmanship in web UIs. For decades now, many Microsoft products have put intelligence into text boxes, to allow them to do text validation. So, for instance, I can specify my line-spacing as "2 li" or "4 pt" or ".4 in". They all work. Same with Outlook reminders: "60 m", "0.5 d" and "12 h" are all valid entries in the combo box.

But web UI is usually the polar opposite.  Even really basic, obvious text-input flexibility is lacking. For instance, if you paste your phone number and it includes hyphens, that may be rejected. Conversely, other times it may be rejected without hyphens. Then there are all the helpful inputbox labels that tell you exactly the format required: "mm/dd/yyyy", for example.

So I was happy today when I noticed Gmail was smart enough  to fix a mistake I made. I had right-click copied an email address, and pasted it into the TO field in Gmail. Just as I pressed the SEND button, I noticed that the copied text string included the "mailto" tag. I expected some kind of error message to appear within the next 2 seconds, and was astounded when it didn't. I had to check the SENT folder to convince myself--sure enough, Gmail had parsed and stripped the mailto tag. Seamlessly--not only an error, not even a warning or dialog asking "Remove apparent 'mailto; tag?"


Saturday, August 30, 2014

What Causes Friction?

As an engineering undergrad, I've always wondered, in the back of my mind--what actually causes friction? Curiously, unless my memory is utterly failing me, this topic was not covered, even cursorily, in any of my classes. Friction is introduced as a given, like gravity. Anyway, for some reason--which may have to do with greater free time, as my brood enters Young Adulthood--I finally bothered to research the topic.

It is surprisingly esoteric and unsettled.

What seems like the most obvious idea--microscopic surface irregularities--seems to have been largely discarded (except that surface irregularities seem to be cited as contributing to the adhesion theory). Some of the different theories I came across:

Someday, maybe in the long winter of American Siberia, I will muster the energy and ambition for a Part 2 on this.

On Narrow Networks in Healthcare

Interesting article on Narrow Networks, I agree with the reasoning. My theory of narrow networks is, for the most part, restricting people’s choice of physicians does not hurt, and can help, their health, at the same time taking cost out of the system. Consumers are notoriously poorly equipped to assess the quality of their physician.

If you told me tomorrow I had to switch PCPs and it would cut my premium share 10%, and I wouldn't have to travel any farther for my new PCP, I’d say “bring it on”. I know there are exceptions, people with complex conditions, or seeing a physician who has a rare specialization—those people are poor candidates for narrow networks. I’m talking the 90% mainstream.

The one big gotcha to find a way to avoid, with Narrow Networks—or at least make sure the buyer is aware of what they are getting--is geographic inconvenience. So while I would switch PCPs In a heartbeat, I would be more unhappy if I had to drive 5-10 miles out of the way to see the nearest provider. 

There is a movement in healthcare to create tools to compare and estimate consumer medical expenses. My personal experience with these is that they aren't that useful, for various reasons, notably statistically insufficient input data. But I do think these tools could be very useful for informing a consumer before they commit to a Narrow Network. 

It would be awesome if a tool could mine my family’s last 3 years’ worth of medical visits, and calculate the impact on distance to narrow network providers. E.g., “we estimate that if you had been in the narrow network, you would have had to travel the following distances to find the nearest network provider”…then list them out and total them up.

Location sharing

Almost as soon as I got a smartphone, equipped with Google Latitude opt-in location-sharing (long-since subsumed into Google+), I have believed that smartphone-based location-sharing will eventually have some significant effect on relationships. How could a person conduct an illicit affair, if their partner can track their location? Conversely, how could one explain refusing one's partner's location request?

In the ensuing 4 years, I have been surprised how slow adoption has been. As far as I can tell from my very young adult children, there is little to no location-sharing practiced. Not even that ad-hoc kind, enabled by Glympse. So maybe I am wrong, but I still believe this will slowly but surely come to pass.

There may be an intervening period of location-cheating apps, but then the discovery of one of those by your partner would be highly incriminating.

Candid Camera Scenario: Pressing the Button Repeatedly Actually Works!

You know how people press the elevator button repeatedly, as if they believe that will summon the machine faster? It would make a great Candid Camera scenario to rig an elevator actually respond. Of course, in classic Candid Camera fashion, there would have to be variations and wrinkles, to flesh out a full segment.

First, cue the frustrated would-be passenger (Passenger A)--the elevator never seems to arrive. New passenger walks up, presses button 5 times in succession. Elevator arrives in seconds--going in the opposite direction. So Passenger A tries the same thing--no results. Maybe tries again after 30 second pass. Meanwhile, another passenger (C) walks up as A is hammering the button. C wryly comments that "you know it doesn't make it work, to press the button more times". C presses button in opposite direction of A, elevator arrives in average time.

Rinse, repeat with small variations.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

What Is the Contribution of Gun Ownership to Police Shooting Unarmed Incidents?

I write this as the protests in Ferguson, MO continue. The proximate cause of the upheaval in Ferguson is that an unarmed, black teen was fatally shot (many times) by white police officers.

This is a huge story, with many layers and facets. This blog post is addressing only the phenomenon of unarmed civilian suspects being fatally--in hindsight, entirely unnecessarily--shot by police officers. My intent is not to excuse or even comment highly specifically on Ferguson, or any one incident. But there is a more general issue, well worth considering.

As much as anybody else, I deplore an unnecessary death. I also believe that being young, male and black unfairly raises one's chances of being the victim by an order of magnitude.

But other countries have racial prejudice within their police forces. There is something different in the U.S. That something is the significant possibility that the suspect may have a gun. It seems very obvious that this fact is going to push police to err on the side of shooting. In fact, police in the U.K. do not routinely carry firearms!!! And yes, it is true: In 2013, U.K. police in total fired fewer shots then one officer fired into Michael Brown.

Trigger-happy, indeed.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Removable Batteries Are A Must

I've said it before--removable batteries in mobile devices are a must. The very slight thinness and sleekness benefit provided by a sealed device is so not worth it.

The latest evidence in my personal life--Beth's Galaxy S3 has a bad port (not sure why). No problem, we have a couple of options. One is wireless charging. Just add a $15 Qi adapter--which I actually already did, just for convenience. It fits snugly with the existing, backplate.

Option 2--buy some extra batteries. Dirt cheap--OEM-quality batteries are $10 on Amazon. I got an external charger for all of $3--shipping included (it also has a USB port, nice bonus). So convenient.

If I were a handset manufacturer (are you listening, HTC?), I would suck up the extra $5 bill-of-material cost and bundle the battery charger and a spare battery with every phone, Then I would advertise "double the battery life".


One of the subtle reasons spare batteries are so useful is the safety blanket factor. They are so small, you don't even notice them in a purse, pocket, backpack or even bike saddlebag. So instead of lugging a heavy external charger, whenever you are concerned about running out of juice, you slip a spare battery in your pocket. 4 times out of 5, you may not even use it, but it is there that one time you need it.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Re: NPR.org - The Confounding, Enigmatic 'Ode To Billie Joe'

Love this song. It fits in my favorite genre--non-love-song ballads (depending on your definition of ballad). American Pie, Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald are two classics. Downeaster Alexa, while nowhere close to that league, is a somewhat more recent example. Fancy by the same singer is also a good example.

Bobbie Gentry rarely gave interviews and disappeared from public life in the mid-1970s.

(why on earth do they have her posed next to a Victrola, or whatever you call that ancient record player?)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Goldfinch vs Downton Abbey

I really enjoy the great BBC miniseries, such as Downton Abbey and Selfridge. I know many people accept that fact that they are really just extremely high-class soap operas, but I don't. I think they could do better.

A characteristic of the soap opera genre is a huge number of plot twists. That is a big part, I guess, of what keeps people hooked on daily dramas, for months and years on end. And while sprawling, multi-character stories such as Downton Abbey will always have lots of plotlines and subplots to work with, I think fewer would be better..The surprises cease to be surprising--while the audience may not be able to guess exactly what direction the twist takes, they can usually predict the twist well before it arrives.

Closely related to the high number of plot twists is the implausibility. There are so many, and they come so fast, that most of the time, there is not enough set-up done. "Hand of God"appears with annoying frequency, to sweep the story in the necessary direction. Very unfulfilling, to me.

I recently read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. In the exposition of the book, she spends more than 20 pages, painstakingly fleshing out the improbable, so that is it no longer implausible. She spends many more pages setting up that incident, and then connecting it seamlessly with the rest of the plot.

Now I'll agree that the genre of a traditional novel is much different than a multi-year miniseries. The former will be much more linear. My only point is that if the miniseries cut the plot twists by half, and spent more time refining those that remain, the result would be much more satisfying, in the long-term.

Internet of Things: Security for Cars (and other critical stuff)

Security is a major concern regarding the internet of things. If your car's software can be updated remotely, what kind of risks does that create for malicious tampering? Or to take a less dire example, if your thermostat can be set remotely, what if a hacker tries to alter your setting? I have a couple of thoughts on safeguards. 

For less acute risks, such as the thermostat, every device should have a physical disconnect switch. So the person with physical control of the device, can instantly, indefinitely disconnect it from the internet. For more serious risks, such as autos, the ability to perform a remote update needs to be controlled. No wireless--software updates should only be installable via a physical port.

Inherited income regression to the mean?

NYT: "According to a recent study, if your income is at the 98th percentile of the income distribution — that is, you earn more than 98 percent of the population — the best guess is that your children, when they are adults, will be in the 65th percentile."

Seems much more of a regression than I would have thought.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Feature Idea: Turbo-Warm-Up Mode for Stovetop Burners

Is there any point to the top 40% of the range on an oven burner, if you aren't trying to boil water? For a burner that has positions 1-10, rarely so I cook above 5, maybe 6 if I have peanut oil. The only reason I turn it higher is if I am heating a pot of water, or to rapidly bring the burner up to speed. The latter occasionally causes problems, such as when I get distracted and don't turn it down soon enough to the desired, steady-state cooking temp.

So the feature I want is for the stovetop to automatically reduce the burner temp. This could be done one of two ways. Super-ideal, the burner would sense the temperature, or some proxy for it, such as electricity flow, and turn itself down when the desired setting was reached. Really, same as an oven works, when you think about it. Challenges to that are, first, the sensing technology, integrated into the burner/stove-top, probably involves additional cost. Second, the mechanical burner position will no longer correspond to reality. Not sure how to get around that, other than electronic controls--which are not necessarily a plus.

The variant would be timer-based. When you turn the burner to the very highest setting, only, that is turbo-heat-up mode, and only stays on a preset time, maybe 2 minutes, after which time it assumes you want an "average" medium-high temp. This avoids the need for the burner-integrated sensor, and it kind of solves the dial-setting issue, too.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Alarm Calendar; Best Android Alarm Clock App

In my seemingly endless quest to find the perfect Android Alarm app, I have a new champion: Alarm Clock Calendar. I won't provide a full review, that ground is pretty well-plowed. It has almost all the expected features that make smartphone alarm so superior to dedicated alarm clocks[1]. In addition, it has one vital missing feature: the ability to set an alarm, well in advance, for one specific, arbitrary calendar date. This is what I have been looking for.

NOTE: I am a feature maximalist when it comes to alarm clocks. Not everybody will want the complexity. If you don't find yourself wishing for missing features, stick with whatever alarm clock you have--perhaps the one pre-installed on the phone.

It has a couple of other notable features. One is really more than a mere feature, it is a new category of functionality: it shows you a calendar view, that highlights all your upcoming alarms. This strikes me as a thoughtful innovation. For me it is a nice-to-have, but I can see it being even more useful to some people.

The other nice feature is not only can you set an alarm for an arbitrary date, you can also create exceptions to repeating alarms. Again, can be very useful--for instance, to not sound on the Monday holiday. Then the integration between this feature and the calendar view provides some further value-add: instead of not showing alarms for the skipped repeating dates, it shows them highlighted in red, to call your attention to the fact that the alarm will be skipped.

The free version works fine, has minimally intrusive ads. But if you try this and like it, you should definitely support the developer by purchasing the $1.99 paid version

UPDATE 07/25/14: I still like it a a lot, but I have discovered two super-nice features from Alarm Clock Plus that I really miss. One is the ability to change the length of snooze, on-the-fly. I don't use this so much for morning wake-ups--too much effort, too dangerous--but more for reminder alarms. The other is to set "skip next occurrence". While Alarm Clock Calendar has a fine-grained way to set an arbitrarily complicated schedule of skips, it lacks this quick, super-simple way to set a one-off skip, for the very common use case of "tomorrow is an exception".

[1] One notable missing feature--no "math to snooze/dismiss" option. For some people this will be a deal-breaker, but I never use it. It also doesn't have a quick nap mode, and the UI isn't quite as nice as Alarm Clock Plus.

Community Library as Forerunner and Exemplar in "Sharing Economy"

I've started tutoring one night at Rondo public library in St. Paul. Rondo is a terrific, large library that is buzzing with activity. In my brief time there, I have seen that in addition to tutoring, it hosts ESL lessons, they have a drop-in legal clinic, and all kinds of other community stuff. It seems to be a center of community life and activity that suburban libraries, such as our local R.H. Stafford, however nice, will never be.

I kind of think that the community library was part of the "sharing economy" before that was "a thing".

I See Trouble Brewing for District 833 High School Boundaries

After a lull from the Great Recession, housing construction is picking up in the Woodbury area. Most of it is concentrated in the large expanses of open area in south Woodbury and north Cottage Grove. 

Much of the new development is roughly equidistant between East Ridge and Park high schools.  I think most people, and especially those building the new houses, would rank desirability of the 3 district High Schools, in descending order, as East Ridge - Woodbury - Park, with a marked drop-off from Woodbury to Park. Unfortunately, the order of capacity between the high schools is the reverse--Park has significant capacity, East Ridge does not.

So I foresee disappointment, complaining and special-pleading in the coming years, from some of those neighborhoods that get districted to Park. Maybe even lobbying for a fourth district high school.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Google Calendar Reminder As Smartphone Alarm

For a long time, I've wanted the Google Calendar to offer a third Reminder type. The two existing types are Email, and Notification. The notification pops up, but is not super-urgent and can be overlooked; and it will be muted if your phone is on silent mode. That's all fine and as it should be.

But there are times, mainly when I have an early-morning appointment, where I want my calendar event to also serve as my morning alarm (this is predicated on use of smartphone as your alarm clock, or at least having it in your bedroom). It needs to be treated as a first-class Alarm, primarily meaning that it will override silent mode, secondarily, that it provides the various features related to modern smartphone alarm clocks (snooze, gentle wake, math to dismiss, etc etc).

The primary benefit of this feature is that it would save me the trouble of double-entry: once for the calendar event, again for the alarm. Another important benefit is that most of the Alarm apps don't support setting alarms for arbitrary dates. So you still have to remember to set the alarm the night before--a critical opportunity for error. Finally, related to the above--if the event time changes, you have to remember to go change the alarm (as a night-person, I find it especially disappointing when an early morning event is canceled, and I forget to cancel the alarm).

For the first time in a while, I took some time to search Google Play store for such an app. Finally, I found something that comes close: the wonderful Calendar Event Reminder (CER) app. What this app does is convert every Notification Reminder into an Alarm. It also provides a wealth of configuration features, pretty much everything I would expect, and more. I've been using it for a week, and am so far very satisfied.

Note that while this is probably the best a third-party app can do, it is not quite the full realization of my ideal solution. Instead of adding a third reminder type of Alarm, it effectively transforms the Reminder notification type into the desired Alarm notification type. This has a few important implications.

First of all, obviously, all Notifications  are transformed from mild reminder pings, into urgent reminder alarms. If you use a lot of Notifications, this would get really annoying and is likely a deal-breaker. Fortunately, for my personal use cases, I mostly prefer email notifications anyway, so I can work around that side-effect.

Assuming then that you can live without the traditional Notification reminder functionality, you will want to update any of your recurring reminders that do use it. Otherwise, you will be getting intrusive alarms when you really don't want them.

The last compromise is that it doesn't integrate with Android Alarm Clock apps (a direct outcome of the fact that it isn't implementing the Alarm type, per se). So the alarms will be raised using CER's UI, not that of your favorite alarm clock. The UI is pretty good, so this isn't a big drawback, but it is an adjustment.

This is a $2.79 paid app. Well worth it, a more than fair price for those who crave this functionality. I am happy to pay such a small price to have this long-standing itch scratched away. Much preferable to ad-supported or, heaven forfend, in-app purchases.

Bottom line, this is a great app, one I have been awaiting over four years. 2/3 of a loaf is better than none!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Mao Worship Is A Festering Cancer That Will Prevent China...

...and many of its people, from reaching anything close to their potential. It's enduring "appeal", such as it is, is really incomprehensible to this westerner.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Please Don't Plan a Group Hotel Based on Where You Have Points

I am a big proponent of keeping costs down, in regard to life's activities. Especially if they involve groups of people, who may have differing incomes and financial situations. I don't like it when enthusiastic parents jack up the price of kids sports--everybody has to have matching Adidas warmups, that sort of thing.

Also, if you are the one organizing the hotel for an out-of-town tournament, do not choose a relatively expensive hotel, such as Marriott, just because you can stay there for free on points. That is just not thoughtful.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Neu's Law of Idiotic Analogies

With apologies to Godwin's Law...The first party in an argument to resort to a patently idiotic analogy is considered to have lost the debate, and the discussion is terminated.

(This one isn't as good as my other one, and of course neither approaches the originality and brilliance of Godwin. Still, I have been hearing so many really stupid analogies lately, I felt compelled.)

Neu's Law of Sloganeering

With apologies to Godwin's Law...The first party in an argument to resort to sloganeering is considered to have lost the debate, and the discussion is terminated.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

The Bergdahl Release from Taliban Will Be the Next Benghazi of U.S. Politics (but better-justified)

I thought trading 5 Taliban prisoners for captured U.S. Private Bowe Bergdahl was a bad idea when I first heard about it. I have always been hard-line on resisting the temptation to cave, because it will only induce more of the behavior in question.

Usually, a government following this course feels pressure to do so from the public, and expects to be likewise rewarded in the court of public opinion. As I learn more about this particular case, I think no such rewards will be reaped. Rather, the administration has committed a major blunder.

First of all, right or wrong, there has been zero public outcry for Bergdahl's release. (Probably wrong, but that's another story). Political pressure to make a bad deal has been non-existent.

Now it turns out there is strong evidence that Bergdahl may be a deserter!

I have to believe Obama's opponents will make political hay from this blunder. And in this case, unlike, say, Benghazi, I think they have quite a lot of justification.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Basketball Statistic: Points per Attempt

I do not understand why Points per Attempt is not the key offensive basketball statistic, rather than Field Goal Percentage. First of all, it would correct for the major distortion of under-weighting the increasingly important 3-point field goal. Second, it would fine-tune for players who are good at both drawing fouls, and sinking free throws.

A Scholarly Response to ‘Tiger Mom’: Happiness Matters, Too

I won't recap the Amy Chua "Battle-Hynm of the Tiger Mother"story, if you are not up on it, it is easily Googled. I do think the hardcore "Tiger" style is unappealing, and often a mistake. As with so many things, the best course lies in blending best practices. The extreme discipline, the rote-ness, the un-Christian "scarcity principle" that underlies the idea that nothing short of being the top student, is all terribly misguided, IMO.

Much, much better to inculcate emotional intelligence and above all, a love of life-long learning. Not learning and scholarship for the sake of top grades or clearing admissions hurdles, but simply because it is: A) enriching; B) ultimately, temporally rewarding in unpredictable ways. More of Confucian view, perhaps?

Here are a couple of good responses: Brooks, Tatlow.

Digital Natives - more conventional wisdom than truth, I think

There is a school of thought that thinks applications of information technology and the digital world continue to be a "young person's game". One expression of this school of thought is the label "digital native". I don't agree.

I think it is reasonable to believe there continues to be some statistical correlation to "digital fluency" and age, but it is increasingly weaker. The average 18-year-old does not "get" digital technology in some qualitatively different way than the average, 40-year-old knowledge worker. By virtue of their age, and the free time and lack of installed base of digital commitments that comes with it, they are undoubtedly more likely to adopt and experiment. But I don't think using 5 social-media tools, versus the 1 their parents likely use (Facebook), represents a major qualitative difference in experience.

Something that particularly surprises me is the lack of adoption of person-to-person electronic payments by the millenials. Judging by my 3 older teens, this generation is as likely to rely on IOUs and cash to settle debts as we were at their age. None of them seem to use the very convenient PayPal app, or its competitors.

Then there is the tendency to conflate comfort with "digital lifestyle", and technical understanding of information technology. In the latter area, I think there is even less difference between digital natives and their parents. In my experience, the typical, non-STEM teen has a very shaky understanding of the Windows file system, for instance.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

How Long Till Location-Sharing Makes Cheating Impossible?

Frictionless, always-on location-sharing has been possible at least since the earliest days of Android (2008). I have been surprised that it hasn't become more common, but I have to think it will. The Google+ implementation is very nice, and there are other options as well.

From the time I first discovered it, I wondered what impact this would have on relationship cheaters. The analogy would be the surge in spouse-installed PC spyware--such as Who, What, When--in the early, pre-cloud, pre-social network days of home computers.

While I doubted by generation would embrace location-sharing, I figured "digital natives" would. Hasn't happened as fast as I would have thought. But still, I have to think it will happen. And once always-on location-sharing becomes normative, how do you refuse or temporarily suspend your significant other? That alone would obviously be the proverbial "red flag".

(I suppose I can also foresee partially-effective countermeasures, apps that interfere with or false-report location. But if you are using something like the built in Google+, that could be hard.)