Friday, December 23, 2016

Texting App Feature

Bundle multiple texts, selected in chain, into an email.

Even IF He Were Politically Paltable, Trump Has 2 Fatal Flaws

I think Trump is a monster. There are so many reasons to believe that. But even if his words and beliefs were reasonable, there are 2 things he does that are the hallmark of a severe problem personality, and disqualify a person from any kind of leadership position.

One: the nothing-is-ever-my-fault attitude. Never even the slightest admission of fault, mistake, or weakness. We've all worked with this person. They are all about finger-pointing, whenever anything goes wrong. Utterly poisonous to a workplace.

Two: crossing them in any way is treated as an all-out attack. Trump is utterly transparent in this regard--he doesn't even try to hide it. Any party who is in any way anti-Trump is immediately subject to a no-holds-barred, ad hominem attack. Any party who does Trump a favor, even if only by accident, is praised lavishly.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Easy-Remove Car Batteries, for Cold (Convenience Also)

Growing up, our garage was an unheated peninsula attached to the house. So it would get as cold as the outdoor temperature. During one cold snap, with lows consistently -10F (to the best of my recollection), my Dad would bring the car battery inside every night. Worked great.

With modern auto technology (fuel injection, probably better oil, maybe better batteries), this wouldn't be necessary at -10F. I have consistently been able to start modern cars around -20. But the one time in my 15 years in American Siberia that it got well below -20, I took the opportunity to do an experiment. Sure enough, at -27, vehicle did not start. (Later in the heat of the day, -13, it started fine.)

So anyway, that got me to thinking--I don't think it would be too hard, or expensive, to design car batteries to be "snap-in, snap-out". Use spring-loaded clamps on the terminals, instead of bolted lugs. Extra credit, to make sure they hold (and reduce the required spring strength)--provide an indentation on the terminal (I'm thinking groove around it), and a corresponding protrusion on the clamping contact, to mate into it. Also, a similar grooved, spring loaded clamp to hold the battery in place.

Clearly, this would be useful in the very coldest places (even MSP is only marginal). But I think it wouldn't be that hard, once auto designers put their mind to it (like flip-out windshield wipers). The thing is, besides helping the 1% of the population that wants to bring their battery in the house to keep it warm, it would make changing the battery much easier for 100% of the population.

Snow Tire Benefits

Snow tires are amazing. Yes, in many places, with the advent of front-wheel drive, you can live without them. If you have a heavy vehicle, you can even do pretty well, even in snowy climes. Our Dodge Grand Caravan plowed through snow, and did okay on ice, with all-season tires, here in American Siberia.

But snows help so much. I first re-discovered snows for our small cars: Ford Focus, Honda Civic. Terrible snow/ice performance without snows (especially with OEM low-profile plus-size tires). Add snow tires--they performed better in slick conditions than abovementioned behemoth minivan.

Our kids drive those small cars now, and Beth and I drive a Subara Forester, and Toyota Prius V, respectively. I just got snows for them, and wow, what an improvement. Yeah, the Subaru is AWD, but honestly, for most slick conditions in the flat midwest, snows are more important than AWD. AWD is great for going uphill when slick, but flat & slick is the most common challenge in MSP, and the softer rubber of snow tires is what helps with that.

Snow tires do cost, especially since you need a second set of rims. Here are my tips:

  • The price of steel rims varies widely. For small cars, $50 is fair, for plain-Jane steel rims; for mid-size, maybe $62.
  • Consumer Reports has consistently rated General Arctic Altimax snow tires highly. They are not the very best--usually those are Michelins--but they are close, for 40% less cost. I now have them on all 4 vehicles.
  • I have ordered online, from TireRack. They will ship either directly to you, or to a designated installer. Their prices are great, but the high cost of shipping does tend to eat up much of the savings. Here's the thing--if you are getting rims + tires, they will preinstall them for you, saving the cost of installation. On top of that, if you live in a major metro area, such as MSP, you may be able to pick them up at the TireRack warehouse, for no charge. That's what I did this time.
  • When evaluating the cost, you need to use lifecycle amortization techniques. In the long-term, the substantial cost of the snow tires is partially offset by the fact that you aren't wearing out your summer tires as fast. Granted, snows may cost a bit more (not that much), and wear faster (softer rubber), but that is maybe a 30% premium. I.e., if a snow tire costs $75, the true incremental cost for that tire is probably $25. The second set of rims, on the other hand, the rims, at $50-$65 per, are pure incremental cost (unless you can use them on a future vehicle).
  • A major pro tip is "minus sizing". If you have a mid-size or larger car (>16" rims), both rims and snows become very, very expensive. I was almost going to pass on snows for the Forester, for this reason. The cost was double the Prius, which has 16" rims. Then I read TireRack's recommendation for minus-sizing winter tires. It cut the cost in half.
  • Another bonus to ordering online: you can avoid the cost of TPMS (about $20 per wheel). Many states require installers to add a TPMS sensor, if the car is so equipped. But the mail-order sidesteps this. (Of course you lose the benefit of TPMS. But really, you should not rely on TPMS, you shoudl check your tire pressure at least every 3 weeks,)

A downside, beyond the obvious financial impact--you have to store the tires. We put them under our our deck. For a few years, I tried covering them with a tarp. Results were so-so. Then I thought to search Amazon, and found these--inexpensive covers forr stacks of tires. Highly recommended.

Oh yeah, the other downside is spending an entire Saturday in November, and another in March, swapping tires. You can hire this out, but if you have 4-5 cars, like me, it is easier to just DIY than go back and forth to the shop.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

We Must Establish the Republican Brand

The Republicans and the Right have completely capitulated, and in many cases, cravenly embraced, Trumpism. We patriots, resolutely opposed to the Trump/Republican/right agenda, need to lay the groundwork for the day, hopefully not so far off, that Trump is reviled like Hoover (not necessarily for the same reasons, just the same result).

A tactic I propose is to relentlessly hammer home these facts, at every opportunity:

In the short-term, Repulicans/right are the party that took 10 steps backwards in health insurance, and caused millions to lose their coverage.

In the medium-term, Republicans/right are the party of Donald Trump--inseparable and indistinguishable, and wholly accountable for, any and all Trump policies, random actions, and their results.

In the long-term, Republicans/right are the party that not only ignored, but aggressively denied and dissembled about climate change, long after doing so became anything but an exercise in ideology or wishful thinking.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Why Adults Don't Learn to Like Rap

Not that I have ever tried, but I have developed zero appreciation for rap as a musical genre. Not even the odd song here or there. I have roughly the same appreciation for it that my father, born 1932, had for rock: none whatsoever.

So when I reported back to my kids that I over-the-moon LOVED the Hamilton soundtrack, they were like "Even the rap?" Yes, even the rap. Things is--I wouldn't have recognized it as rap, without prompting. I would have just said it was spoken-word material, seamlessly incorporated into an ultra-sophisticated piece of peerless musical theater. 

I think I know why I choke on any rap I encounter in the wild, while Hamilton went down like a fine aged whiskey. It's not that different than rock. Rock was the soundtrack of my adolescence, so I automatically developed an appreciation for it. But by college, I was getting tired of most rock, with its juvenile, repetitive themes of partying, young love, rebellion and--worst of all--being in a band and "rocking out". I listened to less rock, and didn't discover any new rock, beyond the college years.

So same phenomenon with rap. If not born in the rap generation, the themes and the cultural baggage are likely to prevent an older listener from developing a taste. This review gets at it:
Tesfaye’s relish for playing the bad guy in his musical theater is plumb in line with what rappers have done for decades...But as Tesfaye reaches his late 20s and the dubious ethics combine with lazy repetition and too many plays for sympathy, the immaturity starts to bore.

Saturday, December 03, 2016

The Dirty Truth About Obamacare

Obamacare is so messy and troubled, even President Obama doesn't like Obamacare. He can't admit it publicly, of course, but I'm sure it's the case. And if the man isn't proud of his signature achievement, that pretty much means he must be the worst president ever...right?

Nope. The unpleasant but inescapable fact is, politics is the art of the possible[6]. The Obama administration decided that tinkering around the edges was the most that could be accomplished. No single-payer, certainly no National Health Service[1][2]. Tinkering around the edges inherently involves what we computer nerds might call "a pile of hacks". It's a miracle it works at all, and it's certainly not pretty, and it is very fragile. That's Obamacare.

We can quibble in hindsight. On the left, many wished for something grander. On the right, many wished for nothing--though they won't admit that now. Because here is the real dirty truth. The American healthcare "system" is hardly a system. It is a Frankenstein monster that was started by accident[3], and continued to grow first because nobody recognized the danger, and then because nobody had the courage to do something. You can't find an economist or public health expert, and hardly a hospital administrator or physician, who has much good to say about it. The system is shot through with flaws, perverse incentives, inefficiencies, false premises and conflicts of interest.

It has been this way my entire adult life (I was born in 1965), and then some. And all that time, a succession of administrations, some Democratic and some Republican, came and went without trying too hard to fix it. On the Democratic side, there were sporadic efforts. The shining exception would be Medicare. It has imperfections[4], but all-in-all, it's a pretty coherent, cost-efficient system that provides effective coverage and care. And of course the Clinton administration tried something grander, but we all know how that turned out.

Mostly, the Republicans did nothing[5]. Other than periodically resorting to the empirically false defense of claiming "America has the best healthcare in the world, [thus it must be worth the cost]". So Obamacare is terribly imperfect, but it is a SOMETHING that is better than the longstanding alternative of NOTHING.

Politics is the art of the possible. A pile of hacks. That's all Obamacare is. At least in Round 1. Because here is the other thing. Incrementalism is like compound interest or regular exercise. Its effects are imperceptible from day-to-day, but over time, it can be transformational.

Thus, I also believe that Obama, thoughtful political scientist and patient human that he is, hoped the initial Affordable Care Act was the start of something bigger. A mere opening move, a means to break the logjam of do-nothing inertia. A program that could be iteratively improved, or perhaps even completely replaced with something much more ambitious. Unfortunately, in calculating the worst case, Obama underestimated the intransigence and tribalism of the contemporary Republican Party Party of Donald Trump.

So unimproved Obamacare is all we get. Not so much, but definitely better than nothing. (To those who couldn't afford health insurance but now can, probably much, much better than nothing.)

While Obama undoubtedly recognizes, and surely deplores grieves, the imperfections of Obamacare, he can rightly take pride in it. And much more pride in the political leadership he provided in enacting it. Obama did what he could to push the the nation forward, and his reward was to incur the wrath of the Party of Donald Trump, and bitter disappointment from the left. As a passionate centrist, and an empiricist, I love Barak Obama more than any president or politician I can think of. I will miss him very much.

[1] Single-payer is not synonymous with "socialized medicine". It does not require that the government run the whole system--employer of all healthcare providers and provider of all hospitals and other facilities.

[2] Also, contrary to popular hearsay belief in the U.S., the NHS doesn't actually suck, at all.

[3] Ironically, the seeds were sown largely by misguided government tinkering (WWII wage and price controls) and tax policy (exempting employer-paid premiums from income tax).

[4] Those imperfections are mostly related to under-"reimbursement"--not paying enough for procedures. That is an effect of the coherent sub-system of Medicare trying to exist within the larger Frankenstein system. 

[5] The odd exception of George W. Bush passing Medicare Part D--prescription drug coverage. Making the most functional part of the monster much better, but doing nothing to improve the rest of the system. The political calculus probably being that this would be a very good way to court elderly votes, and since it didn't mess with the overall system, it wouldn't inflame entrenched ideologies and interests.

[6] Clear corollary: any politician who promises "no compromise" should immediately be rejected as a cynical liar, or hopelessly naive.

Emal Client Feature Idea: Address Substitution

Since the advent of Gmail, email addresses have become much more stable. For most of us, gone are the days when we switch from cable to DSL, and in doing so, have to change our email address.

Still, from time to time, acquaintances to change their email address. This is where Gmail giveth, and taketh away. The auto-complete keeps remembering the old email address. Even if you personally fix this in your Contacts, other friends in your circle (assuming you have a circle of friends) will send emails with the old address in the distribution. So when you do a Reply All, the old address is propagated.

I envision an email client feature which would fix this. I would like to be able to specify address substitution. So when I do Reply All to, my email client will replace with

The minor details--confirmation dialog, for example--are left as an exercise for the reader. :)

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Love to read that "Minneapolis math teachers trade calculators for smartphone app". I've been appalled and disgusted[1] at the ability of Texas Instruments to leverage switching costs and the fact that decision makers don't bear the costs, in order to keep selling a fabulously overpriced $100+ graphing calculator, that is all-but-mandatory for the last couple of years of high school math classes. I believe it is a moral imperative for educators and educational institutions to do everything possible to hold down costs.[2] This is a very easy target, delighted to see it happening.

[1] Just to be clear, I wouldn't call for this practice to be regulated out of existence. I don't really blame TI for their "rent-seeking" behavior--corporations are amoral. But that doesn't change the fact that I deplore the practice, and I expect and hope to see educators, institutions, and parents to rise up and overthrow an economically wasteful situation. And, ideally, for this kind of rent-seeking behavior to be recognized and called-out, so that in the future, it has a high enough reputation cost that companies shy away from it. I know, that's dreaming. :(

[2] College textbooks are another appalling example. Shout-out to UWRF for renting textbooks to students, for a reasonable cost.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Trump's Lieutenants

Trump is bad enough the worst, but one small mitigating factor is that he has no ideology or fixed beliefs. He is quite willing to completely reverse prior positions if it suits him. That works well enough for him when all that is at stake is words. 

But he despises backing down in a fight. However ill-considered the fight may be. So here is the problem. If his various lieutenants, perhaps pursuing their own agendas--I'm looking at you, Jeff Sessions--get out in front of Trump, and commit the Trump administration to a given course of action, that will take Trump past the point of no return. It won't be a matter of backing down from words, it would be reversing policies and facts on the ground. He hates that.

So my point is, to the extent that Trump has been not quite worst-case since the election--not prosecuting Hillary, for example--that willingness to back away from the brink of madness may disappear, once the administration is actually in power and doing things.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Hedge Fund Skepticism

I'm a major skeptic of hedge funds. Actually that is an understatement. I'm highly skeptical they could beat the market before fees. Taking their outsize fees into account, I'm certain they are a losing proposition. Glad Calpers is waking up to this.

Standardized XML Recipe Format

I think it is pretty much time to give up on XML formats or microformats taking hold, for anything like standard consumer use. If we can't get our act together for resumes, we'll never apply it to recipes.

Too bad, though, I think it would be nice to have recipes more standardized. There could be various optional sections, such as Prep in Advance. I would like to be able to search by that--when I'm in a hurry, I don't want recipes that require marinading for 4 hours.

Millenials Who Stay on Their Parents' Cell Phone Plans

It's a kind of meme to criticize millenials' lack of independence, by citing as an example that they stay on their parents' cell phone plan years after entering the workforce. For the most part, the analysis behind this is wanting. There are 3 basic scenarios to consider, and the slacker label only applies to one of them.

First, if the adult child is paying nothing, then yes, that may be slacking. But the fact is, a family plan is a much better deal, on a per-person basis, than a single-subscriber plan. T-Mobile, for instance, has plans that give you decent data, unlimited minutes and text for $10 per additional line beyond 2. Imagine that a family of 4 has a $100 bill, where the first 2 lines cost $80, and the next 2 cost $10 each. If the child pays $10, then they aren't really free-riding. Their folks are break-even, and the child is getting a good discount--because a stand-alone plan would cost at least $30 for a single subscriber.

The third approach is where the child pays more than their incremental cost--they pay their apportioned cost. In the above example, that would be one-fourth of $100, or $25. Not as good a deal as $10, but still a savings. Of course there are shades of gray, where the child pays more than their incremental cost, but less than their apportioned cost--e.g., $20/month.

Sunday, November 06, 2016


Decades ago, I remember some commentator, pretty far to the left, decrying use of the term "tribal" to refer to politics in some less developed countries. They noted that it carried an implicitly pejorative connotation of primitivism, and was never used for the developed west, where we used terms like "partisanship" or "factionalism". At the time it felt like political correctness in search of a target. I am happy to report that feeling has been validated. It is now entirely appropriate to refer to politics in many western countries as often having "tribal" characteristics. (the U.S. where I live, but I listen to enough NPR to know it is prevalent in many other places, too--note Brexit).

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Jargonwatch: Net New

Not sure if this one will blossom into full-blown office jargon, but I am occasionally hearing the term "net new". As in "we brought 3 net new sources into the data warehouse this quarter".

What I am unclear about is what "net" adds to the meaning of new. Urban Dictionary has a couple of  definitions:

1. What is new if you don't count what was already there or done before.
2. Very new, as if it just appeared on the Internet.

I think #1 points to the original usage. I believe it likely has its roots in sales commission accounting as these articles suggest. In that sense, it is probably a legitimate, domain-specialized usage. It seems to mean “after running the nominally new business through the rules that define new business for purposes of commission, what remains" (i.e., the "net"). In other words, “truly” new business, net of incremental extensions to existing business.

#2 explains how I am hearing it used. As is often the case with specialized qualifiers that roll off the tongue nicely (like "net new"--short, punchy, alliterative), all-too-quickly the specialized use morphs into a unthinking, generalized intensifier (see "literally" for the canonical example).

Monday, August 08, 2016

Democratic and Republican Parties Have Inverted

Much of my life, I considered myself a Republican and moderate conservative. There were various reasons, but 3 important ones for leaning right were:
  1. Anti-Communist, anti-totalitarian stance.
  2. Valuing facts over feelings.
  3. Not resorting to gloom-and-doom, America-is-a-disaster politics.
  4. Stupid, self-indulgent threats and hyperbole.
25 years later, the parties have flipped. There is no global Communism, thankfully. But the American right is more authoritarian in sentiment than the left. And that was before Trump's love affair with Putin.

Facts over feelings? Watch this John Oliver clip. (Also, climate change, anyone?)

Glood-and-doom? Just contrast the two conventions. David Brooks (moderate conservative) goes into detail.

Threats and hyperbole? I used to choke when lefties would threaten to move to Canada if Reagan/Bush I/ Bush II were elected. Now the dishonorable right, the likes of Paul Ryan, defends blank-checkbook support of Drumpf with the justification that anything is better than Hillary. That's just a crock, whether you agree with her politics, or find her personally likeable, Hillary is centrist, safe hands. She may not inspire, but she won't crash the car.

Truth is, I felt this way before the Trump nomination. Just listening to Lindsey Graham or Mitch McConnell speak used to be enough to make me gag. And I thought putting Palin a heartbeat away from the Presidency was unforgivable for a generation. How ironic that they are the relative voice of reason in the party now, and a heartbeat away looks like a comfortable distance.

The Presidency is not a sporting event. Winning today, at all costs, is not worth any price. 

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Jargonwatch: Resonate

Usage: That example didn't resonate with me.

Translation: I hated it.

Assessment: I first remember hearing this usage about 20 years ago (c.1996). I kind of liked it, since it seemed to be based on the scientific principle of constructive interference. But it is way over-used, mostly euphemistically, in the same way we say "issues" rather than "problems". So it should be avoided.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Probably Best to Pass on the Lump Sum Pension Offer

I served spent the first 12 years of my career at Otis Elevator, back in the waning days of when defined benefit pensions where still "a thing". So happily I crossed the magic 10-year-mark and am vested, though between the short time of service and low early-career salary basis, it is really a pretty small amount. Material to one's retirement calcs, but only just.

Anyway, I just received advance notice of a forthcoming optional pension lump sum distribution offer from UTC/Otis.  I.e., rather than receive a small monthly payment for the rest of my life starting age 65, I could receive a chunk of cash now, to invest as I see fit (taxable if not rolled into an IRA of course). Without even researching it, my immediate assumption was--almost certainly disadvantageous. It's a classic information asymmetry problem. Other than the minor effect of transaction costs, it is a zero-sum game, so if it were a good deal for me, why would they be making the offer? (One article even likens it to the famous "marshmallow test" of willpower in children.)

I did a little generic research, and it supported my bias and explained the timing:  First, the Internal Revenue Code allows plans to use a higher interest rate in calculating the lump sum than is used by insurance companies in pricing annuities. Second, the Code allows companies to use less conservative mortality tables than those used by insurers.

So I'll probably go to the effort to run a fuller quantiative analysis, but I'm pretty sure I know that the resulting decision will be to pass on the lump sum.

(I realize there are special cases, such as you are age 45 and diagnosed with a terminal illness. Please let's not get into those, they are important for the small number of people to whom they apply, but they utterly distract from the general discussion. :) )

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

A shark can smell blood from a mile away....Just how does that work??

We've all heard that a shark's sense of smell is so acute that it can smell a drop of blood from a mile away in the ocean (or a quarter-mile, or whatever--some vast distance, the specific number hardly matters). But how does that work? How can a drop of blood, physically present at point X[1] be detected by a shark nostril at point Y, one mile away?

The answer is--it can't.

It's not like smell is transmitted as a fast-moving wave. It is based on parts per million. The key bit--parts. Molecules have to make their way to the shark nostrils. A molecule a mile away is, by definition, not being detected by a shark's nostrils.

So where does this myth come from? And is it a myth, or just a crude misconstruing of the actual facts?

I strongly suspect it's the latter (with the "a mile" part being a convenient exaggeration...I get the say "a kilometer" in the rest of the world). I think a correct illustration of the sensitivity of shark-smell would to say that a drop of blood, as it diffuses through the ocean, generates enough ppm that a shark can detect blood, at a much later time, after diffusion has spread it out a quarter-mile[2] distant from its origin.

That's not the same thing as saying that when you cut your foot on a rock, you risk summoning all the sharks within a quarter-mile radius.

[1] More technically, diffusing slowly out from point X.
[2] Without researching it too heavily, it sounds like 1/4 mile, not a full mile, is the correct distance.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Peter Thiel Tactic for Gun Control

While I deplore Peter Thiel's billionaire bullying of Gawker into near-bankruptcy, I do think his tactic is worth emulating for better causes. Namely, I think the gun-control movement should be aggressively, relentlessly funding lawsuits against gunmakers. Maybe it is just starting to happen organically, but I think this would be a great tactic for well-known anti-gun billionaire Michael Bloomberg to fund.

How Long Till Driverless Cars?

The barrier to the promised land of total, hands-off driverless cars is high, but progress has been rapid--without all that much research effort being focused on it. A couple of considerations make me even more bullish on the realization of the driverless dream.

Driverless cars are making great leaps on existing roads. Imagine if roads started to be modified to help driverless cars. Sensors in the roadway might be expensive and take a long time, but I have to think there are much simpler things that could be done, optically, without digging, to make driverless cars better.

The other consideration is cars themselves. If cars were built to inter-communicate, that would also go a long way to making driverless work better. I am thinking even before 100% of cars are driverless, existing cars could be retrofitted with some sensors and communications devices, to help them interact with driverless cars. I do think this would have to become a regulatory mandate. One hopes that the decrease in insurance costs could self-fund it.

Gerrymandering Must End

Gerrymandering to create safe seats and pack minorities into a minority-majority district is an abomination. It may be the one thing I consistently agree with the WSJ editorial page on. For a long time, I thought maybe the answer would be to create districts algorithmically. But 15 years ago, that seemed to abstract to have any mass appeal. Now that even liberal arts majors have a solid grasp of what an algorithm is and does, though, maybe it is time?

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Diamonds Vastly Overrated

I've never been a big fan of diamonds. I resent the whole industry, starting with the DeBeers cartel, and continuing through to the wretched social expectations, and the utter BS sales line about setting aside 4-6 months' salary for your engagement ring. All for a pretty, shiny, perhaps scintillating--when recently cleaned--but ultimately not all that interesting chunk of carbon.

So for decades I have cherished this thought experiment. Knowing that there are industrial processes to produce gem-grade diamonds, but that they have not been cost-effective, I liked to think--what if someday a top, gem-grade 1-carat diamond could be produced for $100? It would still be as beautiful. Would it still be cherished? Obviously I doubt it would be. It's all scarcity thinking--something else I generally dislike.

Well, it sounds like that day is getting closer. Not $100/carat, but 40% cheaper. Just give it time. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Idiosyncratic Prius V Review

We bought a 2104 Prius V (the wagon-ish large version) 16 months ago. There are plenty of comprehensive review elsewhere, this is my idiosyncratic review.

First thing to understand--this is a "V", the BIG Prius. It is every bit a mid-size car. 6" longer, 3" taller, 1" wider than the standard, compact Prius. I am 6-1, and very comfortable in the rear seats.


Prius V is a great value. No hybrid premium at all--if anything, maybe a bit cheaper than much of the competition. A little fun-challenged, though.

The Good

  • Price & trimlines. There are only 3 trimlines. We bought the base, which had almost everything we wanted. No heated seats, but those are easily available aftermarket. Sunroof might have been nice. Otherwise, not regrets.
  • Huge shout-out for all 4 windows both having auto-down AND auto-up. This on the base trimeline!
  • The proximity key is very convenient. Walk up to the car, it unlocks itself.
  • Click once on the fob unlocks all doors--not just driver . I've always thought it was a dumb "because we can" feature that you have to double-click to unlock all doors. (I wish proximity did the same)
  • Locking the car with the gob elicits a mild chirp, doesn't beep the dang horn.
  • Acceleration is fine. Nothing to write home about. It is tuned to be mild. But if you need acceleration, stomp on the pedal, you will be fine.
  • Both driver and passenger makeup mirrors have sensors--turn light on and off automatically.
  • Rear-seat space is excellent. What takes it to the next level is fold-back rear seats. Very nice that this is in the base model--the Subaru Forester we recently purchased only includes this simple, but invaluable feature in the +1 trimline.
  • Storage is excellent--2 glove boxes, plus a capacious center console that can accommodate a "boutique" size box of tissue.
  • Low-maintenance. Especially the brakes.
  • The confirmation that doors are locked is a mild beep--not an obnoxious honk.
  • Can fold the passenger seat flat--infrequently needed, but very nice when you do need it.

The Bad

  • Display is U-G-L-Y
  • Pushbutton start is convenient, but the flip side is it messes with longstanding habits. E.g., if you are driving with someone else, it is quite possible to exit the car, key in your pocket, and not realize it.
  • More complicated to jump-start.
  • Copying the proximity key is horrdily expensive.
  • Cup holders are inconvenient--the passenger cup-holder is way over on the right, and doesn't accommodate large sizes.
  • USB port is only for data, does not charge.
  • Center display is kind of goofy.


Republican Leaders Are This Generation's Confederates

It is hard for a modern American to grasp the devotion to one's state that many of the founders held (the glorious Hamilton musical provides good reminders of this). This attitude persisted through the Civil War: Robert Lee famously was offered, and turned down, command of the Union Army, and although perhaps not eagerly, served in the same capacity in the Confederate Army.

Without indulging too much in 20/20 hindsight, I think it is fair to say that contemporary Americans are largely dumbfounded by this "my state over my country" attitude. It was the wrong side of history.

I think Republicans leaders who support Trump are a contemporary equivalent of the state-loving Virginians*, except with much less in the way of principles to mitigate their historically abhorrent position. Supporting Trump has been indefensible at least from the date of his outrageous defamation of Mexican illegal immigrants. But after nonstop Trump outrages since, numerous Republican leaders have baldly exposed their morally doomed position: "I wouldn't trust him with the nuclear codes...but I support my party"; "that is the textbook definition of racism...[but I have to support my party]".

*(Sorry, the "my state over my country" attitude wasn't exclusive to Virginians, but that is the most prominent example.)

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Good Regulation (Standards) vs Bad (Dictates)

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer wants to require the Federal Aviation Administration to establish seat-size standards for commercial airlines, which he says now force passengers to sit on planes "like sardines."
As a tall male, I am definitely sympathetic to the motivation behind Schumer's comments. But it isn't the government's place to mandate seat size/spacing--unless there is a compelling safety concern. That level of descriptiveness is excessive (bad) regulation.
Where I am more sympathetic is standards that compensate for information asymmetry. Companies will generally exploit their superior command of details, versus their customers, to hide, mis-direct and deceive. For instance, banks will vigorously trumpet their interest rate, but will never compete on overdraft charges.
In airlines, the accepted wisdom is that price is the only thing that matters. There is a lot of truth in that, but even if a consumer wanted to evaluate an airline on seat spacing, they lack an easy way to do it.
This is where good regulation can potentially come into play. If some regulatory body--could be the government, but doesn't have to be--establishes standards for seat sizes, then companies will feel pressure to meet those standards. They may even decide to compete on that basis, and advertise "exceeds federal seat-spacing standards by 20%". And just to be clear--they will be free to space their seats below standard--but they have to clearly identify that they are providing "sub-standard" services.

Monday, April 25, 2016


Startrib: From eyelash extensions to breastfeeding consultants, Minnesota looks at new licenses.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Bought a Desktop Computer

I just bought a desktop computer, for the first time in over a decade. When I left desktops, my rationale for going laptop-only was that you pay a relatively small price premium for the great virtue of mobility. The thing that has changed since then, of course, is that phones and tablets generally scratch the mobility itch. For casual email, web surfing or social medial phone is fine--I have a 7" tablet, but I hardly even use it. Anything serious enough to send me to a full PC will also benefit from a good keyboard and, most of all, a nice, big, high-res monitor.

So far, it's really nice. Blazingly fast, almost perfectly silent--it takes a lot to get the fan to come on.

My one complaint--and it is not trivial--NO BUILT-IN WIRELESS!! I couldn't believe it. Did not even occur to me to check if this was an included feature. I happened to have an Edimax multi-use router/range-extender/access point lying around, so the problem was easily overcome, but this was a major disappointment.

I will be interested to see how this machine ages. I future-proofed it as much as possible by insisting on 16 Gb of RAM, and an SSD (the latter is a no-brainer, I even required that for the most recent family laptops). I am hoping to get at least 4 good years out of it. By that I mean 4 years where I never think "I wish my computer were faster"--not just 4 years of "works ok".

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Sharing photos by link

Sharing Photos by link, a la Google Photos, is so the way to go. Emailing is the worst. But having to create an album just to share a photo or two is way too cumbersome. Much better to be able to share an arbitrary selection of photos by link.

Friday, February 26, 2016

I don't get why Obama would nominate a Republican to SCOTUS

This NPR story suggests Obama is thinking of testing/tweaking the Republicans regarding their determination not to consider anyone who would nominate as a Scalia successor. By appointing a Republican to the vacancy. I am totally sympathetic to the motivation, but I just don't get the politics of it.

It would give the Republicans the opportunity to demonstrate equal-opportunity refusal to consider, and point to that consistency as evidence they are acting out of principle, not for political advantage.

The political gift wouldn't have to end there, either. If the Democrats do win the election, when President Clinton II then nominates a more liberal candidate, the Republicans can attack that person as an extreme choice, and point to the sweet moderation exhibited by her predecessor.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

UI Paradigms: Basic/Advanced, Toggle Defaults/Retain Settings


Advanced features create a User Interface challenge. Some great, feature-rich programs (looking at you, Sparx EA) are really hard to learn in part because the common UI commands are totally interspersed with advanced, obscure ones.

I like a UI approach that tries to work the 80/20 rule. The 20% main, common features are super-discoverable, front-and-center. The 80% complex, advanced, and obscure features are segregated in a pen labeled "Advanced". Of course this is an ideal, sometimes the problem is that while most users only require 20% of the feature set, everybody has a different 20%.

Toggle Defaults

Often in troubleshooting software, the surest, simplest thing is to return to a known state. Often, this means something along the lines of "reset to factory default". Much software, though far from all, incorporates this feature. The feature I would like to see coupled to factory reset is "store all current settings". Effectively, allow the user to toggle between factory-fresh, and their current, sometimes painstakingly configured state.

Auto Insurance Cards - Non-Overlapping Effectivity Annoying

Credit cards get replaced every 3 years or so. When I get a replacement credit card, it is effective immediately--I can simply discard the old card, even though technically it may be a month or so away from its expiration.

Not Auto ID cards (at least not mine). I get an ID card every 6 months. So if the old one expires Feb 28, I receive a new one 5 weeks before that, but the new one isn't effective until March 01. I don't want to wait and hope I remember, on Feb 28, to make the switch. So I go ahead and "install" the new ID card in my glovebox, but I can't remove the old one yet.

Not a big thing, but a minor, seemingly stupid, thoughtless and unnecessary annoyance.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

True Value of 15% ESPP Discount

Disclaimer: I am an amateur. I did spend a few hours researching and modeling this. But there is always the possibility I used bad information or, more likely, made a mistake.

My current employer is the first with an Employee Stock Purchase Plan (ESPP). As is typical with such plans, it offers a 15% discount, and up to 10% of one's base salary can be directed to the ESPP. So even if you are generally disinclined to invest in specific stocks, as opposed to broadly diversified mutual funds, this is too good a deal to pass up.

However, what I didn't realize until recently, when I had reason to sell some of the stock, was that it is better than a 15% discount. Considerably better, for several reasons.

First, getting to allocate 10% of your base salary to stock, and buying it at a 15% discount, sounds like a 1.5% bonus. But the benefit is actually the reciprocal of 1.00 - 0.85, or 17.6%. So noticeably better than a straight 15%.

Then there are the tax effects. Two considerations here. First, Qualified ESPPs are not subject to payroll taxes[1]. So no 7.65% FICA. Second, so long as you hold the stock long enough[2], that discount is taxed as long-term capital gains, rather than ordinary income. Your mileage will vary, depending on tax bracket, but a typical scenario would be a 15% rate, rather than 28%. The state's bite, in my state of MN, is unchanged at about 8%. So instead of a total FICA + Fed income tax + State income tax bite of 42%, your rate is only 23%. That means your take home is .77/.58, or 32.7% greater.

So the 17.6% discount, multiplied by a 32.7% benefit from the tax treatment, gives you an effective benefit of 2.34% of your total income, assuming you invest the max 10%. More than a 50% increase in the apparent 1.5% benefit. Most 401k matching is 3%, so one way to view that 2.34% gift is that is almost doubles your 401k match.

But Wait, There's More!

There is more to that 401k parallel. Just as a 401k gives you the opportunity for tax-deferred compounding, so does ESPP compensation--so long as you hold the stock. (That does have a downside, though. Over time, you will accumulate a very large position in a single stock--the non-diversified anti-pattern. Worse yet, it is the stock of your own employer. So my preference is to flip the stock. Hold it long enough to get favorable tax treatment, but then sell it--even as you continue to buy more to get that discount on the new purchase.

One More Thing

Some ESPPs have a "look-back" provision. This establishes the purchase price as the lower of the price at the first day of the period or the last day of the period. This has a couple of benefits versus the last day of the period. In ordinary circumstances, the first day price would be a few percent lower than the last day price. So getting the first day price is more than ample compensation for having your contributions tied up for 6 months, earning no interest. Moreover, if the stock does particularly well, the value of the lookback is greatly increased. On the other hand, in the event of a downturn, you are still protected, receiving the last day price.


[1] I'm pretty sure this is true. I found websites that say this, but I had to look really hard, and some seemed to suggest that this might change.

[2] The holding period is tricky. Many people will know there is a 1-year holding period to receive the very favorable long-term capital gains rate. But it turns out there is a 2-year-from-grant-date for the discount to be treated as a capital gain, rather than ordinary income.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Home Printer Anti-Pattern: After Running Out of Paper

Even though nobody seems to talk about it, I have to believe my household is not the only one this happens to...remote wireless printer runs out of paper or goes offline for some other reason. Various family members discover this only by accident, after sending the same print job like 4 times in a row. But it's 2015, paper is always optional (e.g., it would be convenient to have a printed recipe, but you can also just work off your smartphone), so nobody does anything about it for hours or even for days.

Finally, paper is restored, usually by whoever is really motivated and possibly in hurry for hard copy. What is their reward?--pages and pages of spooled print jobs spitting out.

It feels like there should be a better way. I propose this guardedly, since it is easy to dream up "smart" solutions, only to find they add too much user complexity and sometimes behavior the user finds unpredictable.

Okay, that disclaimer done with, here is what I think might work....If a printer is offline for more than an hour (and remember, nowadays the OS knows when that happens), I would like to see a pop-up that asks the user:
Printer back online. Print jobs were spooled while printer was offline. Would you like to: 1) Print all pending print jobs? 2) Cancel all pending print jobs? 3) Select which jobs to print?

Then, just one more touch to allow sophisticated users with specialized uses case to avoid OS-nag: a checkbox on the dialog that says "Do not ask me this in the future".