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.