Sunday, September 23, 2012

How to Make WWF Better

I like playing Words with Friends a lot, but I have an idea to improve it: There should be a scoring rule, per turn, of a maximum of 8 times the number of letters used (e.g, 2 letters max 16, 5 letters max 40).

This would have the following benefits:
  • Generally encourage longer words that open up the board, versus defensive play that can be tactically very advantageous, but often makes for a cramped, boring game
  • Eliminate very high-scoring turns that are the result of very little skill (dropping the X on a double to spell "XI" both ways, for 38 points).
  • Eliminate super-high-scoring turns that are somewhat lucky but can create an insurmountable lead
  • Helps equalize the playing field between veterans and newer players (who won't have memorized all the silly 2-letter words)
Also, to get the 7-letter bonus, you should have to do it without a blank and without using an "S" to make a plural.

I Dislike Repetition

In general I do not like repetition. It's a waste of precious time, but even worse, it induces boredom. Boredom, in my experience, deadens the mind.

Various institutions make this mistake. I am thinking at the moment of a church I know. Every week they devote the first 3 minutes of the service to repeating the same dull reminders:
  • Fill out the Communications Card. Even if you attend every week. (Which nobody feels like doing.)
  • Explaining the service.
  • Explaining how they love kids, but yes sometimes kids get restless, so if they do, here are the various options you have to accomodate them (padded cell, kids program, etc).
  • (I will give them a little credit--lately they have been omitting the silence your cell phone PSA.)
The fact that the precious first minutes are devoted to this tedious repetition compounds the problem, magnifying it from a tactical mistake to a strategic one. People have limited, flawed attention spans. Their powers of attention are strongest at the outset, and wane from there. Devoting the first 3 minutes to deliberately boring your audience, turns an asset into a liability.

I think I do understand, the church wants to be friendly to newcomers. But there is probably a better balance to strike that doesn't involve wasting the prime minutes of the service. A few ideas:
  • Rotate the PSAs--don't try to cram them all in every single week.
  • Use the video to deliver the PSAs. Run them continuously before the service begins and devote one screen to them during the opening music.
  • Let the PSAs wait till a little later in the service. (This may or may not work, depending on the arrangement of the service.)
Nobody else seems to complain about this, so it may be just me. I experience objectionable repetition with work stuff, too, and nobody else complains very much.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Apple Manufactuing Hype

From Apple's own website: Never before has this degree of fit and finish been applied to a phone. Take the glass inlays on the back of iPhone 5, for instance. During manufacturing, each iPhone 5 aluminum housing is photographed by two high-powered 29MP cameras. A machine then examines the images and compares them against 725 unique inlays to find the most precise match for every single iPhone.

It does sound ingenious (though if they really had their tolerances down, there wouldn't be any upside to painstakingly searching out mating parts with optimally compatible dimensional variation). It also sounds like it might e marketing BS. I bet they did this just to have something to talk about. People always fall for this kind of impressive, great-cocktail-party chatter that they don't necessarily understand, or know the importance of.

It wouldn't surprise me if this has minimal benefit, and Apple quits even doing it, after a decent interval has passed.
Lots of tweets and articles about how Apple's replacement for Google Maps is a self-inflicted fail. While on the subject of dumb Apple decisions--I can't believe they didn't take much flack for making the making the back of the iPhone 4s out of glass. Yeah, sure, let's go out of our way to deliberately make it extremely fragile.

iPhone 5: More Fetishizing "Build Quality"

John Gruber goes on, and on and on:
Is it worth devoting the first 750 or so words of this piece to the iPhone 5’s surface appeal? I don’t know how else to convey the niceness of this thing. This iPhone 5 review unit is the single nicest object in my possession. I own things that cost and remain worth more (e.g. my car). But I own nothing this nice. It sounds hyperbolic to put it that way, but I offer this observation with no exaggeration.
I think this is absolutely ridiculous. It's just a phone, people.

Data-Only Plans: Wishful Thinking

For all intents and purposes, T-Mobile's $30 Prepaid Plan (no handset subsidy) that provides 5 Gb of data per month *is* a data-only plan. I agree, it is more the exception than the rule at this point, but it definitely is a sign of things to come.
To an extent, though, the idea that a non-voice-user could save a lot of money with a data-only plan may be wishful thinking. The carriers have fixed costs and need a certain ARPU. They are going to try to get it one way or the other.

It is sort of analogous to how everybody wants cable TV stations to be un-bundled. Their reasonsing is that they only use 4 out of 50 channels. If they could just pick the 4 they want, then their monthly bill should plummet (ideally, to 4/50s of its current level). It's not gonna work this way. If it ever comes, it will be something like: (1) channel costs 1/2 of the full-fare, and each additional channel costs another 1/10. So (5) would be break-even.

Oh, and if they do that, most likely the cost of the bundle will go up.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Way to Implement State Variation

The PPACA healthcare regs (aka, Obamacare)  generally give a lot of leeway for states to "do their own thing". I understand why this was probably necessary, politically, to get anything passed, but it sure is inefficient.

In purely clinical terms, I think the United States is so homogeneous that there is negligible justification for variation. What is going to be different--cover frostbite in Minnesota? Sunburn in Florida? Our diseases are not very particular to geographic regions. So any justification for variation is likely to be based not on local idiosyncrasies and "facts on the ground", but rather on local politics.

One oft-repeated justification for delegating power, and incurring the variation that comes with it, is that the states serve as "the laboratories of democracy".  I think I get that, and generally I support anything that leads to rational experimentation and improvement. But I can't help wondering if "the juice is worth the squeeze" here.

I have an idea for a compromise. Instead of a free-for-all, where every state has great latitude to alter the baseline, require that 5 states band together to define a common variant. One advantage is that it reduces the max number of variants from 50 to 10. But a much more important effect is that by requiring some broad consensus, this arrangement (hopefully) eliminates meaningless variation and catering to special interests.

Declared Non-Precedent

It always pains me when someone or some institution doesn't want to do A Good Thing because "it might create a precedent". I like the concept of the "declared non-precedent". The application for this is when you are going out on a limb to try something, but if it doesn't work, or causes an unsustainable rush of "me too" requests, you reserve the right to disclaim any precedent.

I've tried this at work a couple of times, it has worked okay. In those cases, I have been in the position of supplicant--not decider--and have assured the powers-that-be that in no way would my request be construed as precedent.

Word Processing Needs Tabs

It always surprises me how often people use Excel for word processing tasks. There are a number of  reasons for this, many of them good.

One of the reasons is being able to organize your work in tabs. Interestingly, OneNote, Microsoft's note-taking app, has this feature. To me, that is the biggest draw of OneNote (I know there are others, and my resistance to using it probably keeps me ignorant of them ;) .)

I think other word-processing apps, such as MS-Word and Google Docs, would also benefit from having tabs. Just as with tabbed browsing, it gives you that one extra level of hierarchy to organize your work.

P.S. If outlining, a la Dave Winer, were more widely and better-implemented, then this feature would be less important.

P.P.S. One complementary feature needed: consolidate all tabs into one.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Live-Blogging Over-Rated

I just heard a commentator speaking of how Live-Blogging is a new form of writing skill. I suppose he is right. But for me, live-blogging holds very little interest. We all know that news stories are more informative once there has been time for a careful examination and verification of facts--so why rush to get it so fast? Even in the pre-digital era, for long-running stories, I preferred newsmagazines over newspapers, since newspapers necessarily had to contain a lot of repetition in each day's article.

Likewise, we all know that writing is better with editing...why bypass this process?

I think it is all false excitement...there aren't that many stories that we need to read about in actual real-time.

eBooks--What's the Big Deal???

All this blather about eBooks and intangible artifacts and emotional attachment to physical books...I totally don't get it. Don't judge a book by its cover, right? I have always been a fan of libraries...when you get a book from a library, it is impermanent, right?

There are some interesting possibilities if every book you ever read was an eBook. Imagine your child is reading Moby could look up your copy and see what you highlighted. I know, that is a long long way off and probably mostly a dream, but it speaks to the possibilities of digital, which I think in many ways are so much greater than dead-tree.

Mostly, though, the words are what is important. I always used this thought experiment to frame the problem...suppose you have a hypothetical choice. You can preserve all of Shakespeare's works, in accurate but completely plain printed volumes. Or, you could have half of Shakespeare's works in their original versions (Folios or whatever), but the other half would be completely lost. Seems like an easy choice for the former, right? So what that tells me is the format is of secondary importance, at best. So why fuss over it so much?

Okay, this is a first...

...Walgreen's called with an automated reminder, and they pronounced our name (Neu) as it would be in German: "noy".

Staples "Market Basket"

Reports in NYT and elsewhere on the web say that Staples employees will try to get rid of a customer looking to purchase a PC, if they don't show an interest in the extended warranty. If this is true, I am going to predict right now: Staples will be the next Office Depot or Circuit City--out of business within 5 years.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Facebook IPO - Not a Debacle, Exactly

The reader's comments in this article are much more insightful than that of the author. Investors are unhappy because they paid too much for Facebook stock in the recent IPO. I get why the investors are disappointed, but for everybody inside Facebook at the IPO, they executed a brilliant financial transaction. They maximized the return for the current stakeholders, and they didn't do anything illegal in the process.

The irony of this kind of a deal, of course, is that one second after the transaction, the people who overpaid you now become your stakeholders. In this way, CFO Ebersman finds himself in a tricky, uncomfortable position. But still, he totally did the right thing and got outstanding results.

Reminds me of the brilliant move Steve Case made, well over a decade ago, locking in much of AOLs excessive valuation by selling to the Washing Post company. I'm pretty sure he knew they were grossly over-paying, but that was hardly his fault or problem.

Like I said, many of the readers seem to get this quite clearly, unlike the author of the article.