Archive for the ‘rant’ Category

Odds and Ends Monday

November 21, 2013

A Few Days Late…

Since September, it seems that I have been spending more hours a week in the air than I have spent on the ground working. This is a real drag on my lifestyle and relationships. I’m not a party animal type, but I do enjoy putting a movie on my 10 ft. screen, cranking up the volume just a bit, and sipping on a glass of decent Cabernet now and then – or spending a long lunch with a good friend and catching up on their going-ons. Instead, I pull up a cheap armchair in a hotel room somewhere more often than not for the news on an HD TV before turning off the lights. It’s not really so bad, I suppose. Heck, I don’t have HD TV at home – I need one for Christmas!

So, to the tid-bits:

My research on wireless security initiatives is progressing – I have a solid use-case set for airport communications along with a comparison of the various technologies that are applied on the airport surface. The AeroMACS WiMAX profile proves a winner compared to any other wireless technology being considered by the civil aviation industry today. The only significant shortcoming for WiMAX is the susceptibility to interference in the assigned frequency spectrum. A jamming signal in the same spectrum looks a lot like a very effective denial of service attack. I think this particular threat makes a good topic to focus on.

I am reading a fascinating book by Scott Anderson, Lawrence in Arabia. This is an historical account of T.E. Lawrence’s time in the Middle East during the First World War. Lawrence’s battlefield is familiar to me after my years in Saudi Arabia. Aqaba, Wadj (Wejh), Yenbu, Rabegh, Jeddah, Tabuk, Medina, and so many more. These cities on and near the Red Sea were all familiar to me in the 1980’s. There was something wonderful about the expanse of the desert and the variety of the landscape that I really found beautiful and absorbing. The people were hospitable, and some were anxious to meet me and talk over tea in the suqs (the markets). Most people I came to know on the Red Sea coast had no significant knowledge of their history. In Tabuk, there was a very old locomotive from the Hejaz railway from the World War that was sitting in a few pieces on its side rusting away in the sand. I convinced the Mayor and the local cleric at the principle Mosque to right and reassemble the locomotive and erect a plaque to tell the story. I was happy to have paid for the plaque. I wonder if the locomotive and my plaque are still in that Tabuk city park today.

Lawrence in Arabia is captivating, and it tells the story of Lawrence’s exploits so superbly that I can almost imagine my way back in time. Anderson is a sharp scholar with a keen wit who presents the historical context masterfully. Read this book!

My quarterly excursion to Rice University in Houston over the weekend allowed me some quality time with old friends. David and I recounted a few “sordid” stories of our college days. Marta and I automatically engaged in a very European kiss cheek to cheek three times for luck. Greg and Lissa filled the empty seats at our table for brunch, Davy swooped in at the last moment, and we all thoroughly enjoyed a few casual hours walking the campus after so many years away. The campus is still a comfortable place for me to stroll about in.  Ten hours driving and one night In Houston was quality decompression time after so many trips to Europe – and to DC, Montreal, DC, Cleveland, DC, Phoenix, DC, DC, DC, DC…

Speaking of Cleveland, that City is turning around a bit. There are nice renovations in the entertainment district on the lake, and there are new affluent developments and a wonderful nature park near the airport. The city is “abuzz” about it’s music scene, and the people of Cleveland are optimistic about their future.

A rant – air travel is horrible and getting progressively worse. The airlines cast new equipment and changes in procedures as improvements. Well, new and different don’t often translate into better as far as I am concerned. I have flown in new American Airlines Airbus 319’s several times in the past few weeks. These planes are a bit noisier than Boeing equipment, and the seats are more compact. Width aside, every other seat dimension is 3-4 cm (about 1-½ inches) too small. The armrest is particularly uncomfortable for me as it is too short for my elbow to find a resting place anywhere except for directly on the seat marker that has sharp edges sticking up above the surface at the end of the armrest, and it is too low causing me to lean sharply to one side or the other. Lumbar support as far as it goes is in the wrong place, the headrest is at my shoulders, and the upright incline is set too vertical at about 8 degrees instead of a more comfortable 12 or 15. These seats are designed for children! The power and entertainment system hardware is on the floor to one side of the seat bracket, and it is a huge assembly that takes away precious room under the seat with sharp edges that really aggravate my ankles. There is no storage place at the seat for a magazine or newspaper or tablet or laptop making a drink or food incompatible with anything work or entertainment-related – worse than before, if you can imagine… The entertainment system has an awkward user interface that requires a terrific number of selections to find – to fine what? There is no content available without making a purchase. What was airbus thinking? What was American Airlines thinking? The surface looks good, but it is simply bad design when you peel back the vernier… If you spend 40 hours a week in the air, you will quickly notice these elements, and you will grimace.

Last night’s Rice Alumni event was quite interesting. What lead up to the Cuban Missile Crisis? Well, we heard all about it in the Texas Theatre where Oswald was apprehended. What a neat venue for this event! The missile crisis was bluster and bluff by Niki, and plugging the military-industrial complex by Jack. When backed into a corner, Niki pushed missiles into Cuba to retaliate for US missile installations in Turkey that the president may not even have known about, and we had a real stand-off. “Want a war?” Khrushchev  asked, and Kennedy said, “No, but there are a few terms and conditions in that contract…” Cooler heads prevailed, and it was a good thing they did.

I am finally home for awhile. Good!

A Healthcare Rant from Me…

November 14, 2013

Aren’t you all tired of this healthcare wrangling  in Congress? Tired of the website disaster? Tired of the monthly insurance bills? Tired of the letters from your insurance companies that are saying “you don’t have to do anything.” and then describing all the things you should do or consider doing? It just goes on and on…

I have opinions. Anyone who knows me thinks I have an opinion on just about anything (and I do)! Disagree with me if you like, but here is what I think:

Change is difficult for the average person. You get used to a process, you budget for the expenses, you have relationships, and then, “Wham!” Things change, and you have to figure it all out. Bummer. Most people don’t like changes to important things in their lives, and most changes come with a wrinkle or two. People don’t like change. Maybe we all just need to “get over it, and get with the program”.

Healthcare is important, and healthcare is expensive. It should be less expensive. Healthcare is complicated. As one gets older, the decisions seem to become even more important and more complicated. This needs to get easier as you get older and not harder. Are you helping a parent make healthcare decisions? It is daunting, even for me!

Obama-care establishes a minimum insurance “quality” and coverage benchmark. I say”Good!” I know that some people are so encumbered by health insurance expenses that they buy poor quality insurance because that is all they can afford. This is a problem, but I think that the healthcare credits fix much of this affordability problem. We need to get rid of the garbage policies in this industry.

The website didn’t work very well out of the gate. I say “Bad…” It should have worked. It should have. When I am disappointed by the quality of a service I am paying for, I refuse to pay the bill. I am a taxpayer, for crying out loud, and I would like Congress to stop payment on that check to the website contractor. The good news here is that it will eventually work like it should.

The law is the law. All this wrangling by the Republicans in Congress should have taken place years ago. Now that Obamacare is law, Congress can fix what is broken in the law, change what proves not to work, streamline what doesn’t work well enough, and improve this horrible law over time. I read this law as it went through its many iterations. It started out as a sensible, noble effort to make the poor and middle class healthier and make healthcare more affordable, and the draft law got worse and worse as the politics unfolded and edits and amendments piled up. In the end, it was a really messy law. There is a lot of room for improvement. Congress – get to work on this!

I am struck by the fact that we in the US spend about twice as much per capita for healthcare than any other industrialized country in the world. But we do not live longer – we are kind of in the middle of the pack for that statistic. Infant mortality is shockingly high in the US. Our doctors are skilled, and our hospitals are modern and well equipped. There are obviously big and bad problems with the “system” – with the processes that healthcare providers are following. AMA – let’s fix that!

When I am not satisfied with my healthcare, I don’t have any real recourse except to seek a new provider, and if I am ticked off enough, I guess I can sue. If I am dissatisfied, I don’t have the latitude to refuse payment (or they will sue Me). I, as the consumer, don’t have any significant power in this market. That issue is still unaddressed. I want a consumer “Bill of Rights” for healthcare.

When things are broken, and they are, my friend, a good manager sets objectives and delegates tasks. Here is what I would do:

  • Describe the scope of the problem and justify the incentive to repair what is broken. US healthcare costs twice as much as it should, and care outcomes are just average compared to the rest of the world. A healthy population is simply more productive and happier.
  • Heed the 80-20 rule. Don’t “upset the applecart” for the 80%… If that is what needs to be done, then move a little more incrementally with a Phase1 and a Phase 2 and so on to limit impact to the 20%.
  • Set a burden level for the healthcare  industry in the economy – 10% of GDP would be in line with the rest of the industrialized world. “Right-size” this sector of the economy.
  • Set coverage targets: a 1-sigma, 2-sigma, 3-sigma approach. 68% should be covered by insurance from the private marketplace without any government assistance; 95% should be covered with the benefit of credits if necessary for the additional 27% of the population; provide indigent care (medicaid) for 4.3% of the population so that 99.7% of the population receive healthcare.
  • Set performance goals: Infant Mortality down to less than 2% after five years of improvement programs – down from more than 6% today, for example.
  • Set a participation transition timeframe that is realistic. Six months is really a short period of time for people to change something so fundamental. Make it a year. I see that President Obama has essentially just done this. Give every business and every individual the entire year of 2014 to make the necessary changes.
  • Pay for performance improvement. Audit the hell out of poor performers – poor hospitals, bad nursing homes, incompetent doctors, etc. Challenge poor performers with incentives to improve – or go out of business.
  • Address the “tall pole” expenses. The last two-months of life problem is a “tall pole”. This is the most costly category of healthcare to provide. It has ethical considerations, quality of life considerations, and total scope of care considerations. This is complicated, but it is a crucial component of care to address.
  • Focus more on prevention. Focus more on lifestyle. Make chronic illness management more effective and efficient.

My bottom line here is that a healthy population is a more productive population and a happier population – you aren’t working when you are ill in the doctor’s office, and you aren’t happy to be there, and you don’t want to be still paying that bill when you return to the doctors office the next time you need healthcare…

I believe that the Government has a vested interest to enable a productive economy to the greatest extent possible in part by putting a comprehensive healthcare system in place – healthy people are more productive. I believe that every person in the country has a natural desire to be as happy in their lives as they possibly can be day to day, and everyone should have a desire for the most effective healthcare possible when they are ill or injured. A comprehensive National system gives everyone the same vested interest and an organization that is accountable to you and me for system performance if “done right”… And it hasn’t been done right.

There is a lot to fix.

President Obama Poses the Wrong Case for Immigration Reform

January 30, 2013

I was listening to the Rachael Maddow show on MSNBC the other evening. She was playing the President’s speeches on immigration reform from May, 2011 and from earlier this month – they were almost the same – almost word for word. The President is pitching the wrong case for immigration reform, though.

The President ponders – (paraphrasing) “what if the next Google or Intel is not founded here by an immigrant – what if the next Google or Intel is founded in another country because of our immigration policy?” Throughout his speech – before and following this “wonderment”, the President is primarily discussing the undocumented worker. The founders of these tech companies were not undocumented – this is wrong parallelism to cite…

The issue is this, and it was correctly captured by Bill Gates in an interview from the Davos World Economic Forum on CNN today: US immigration policy today tends to drive immigrants educated in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) out of the country. Many of these valuable people must leave the US and contribute to other countries’ economies instead of being welcome to remain in the US to contribute to our economy here – that’s the impact of the current immigration policy, and it must change.

My own company can testify to this problem. Last year, I was unable to afford to assist an Indian employee to stay here in the US to continue to work at my company. I could not work with my attorneys to convert an F1 visa that had been extended with an OPT extension into an H1B or E1 visa in the timeframe allowed. I had to let this Ph. D. employee go at the expiration of her OPT. She was fortunate (we all are fortunate) and remains here in the US working legally at a nearby university.

The priority case for immigration reform is to let skilled people stay here with a minimum of administrative burden on the person or the employer so that our economy benefits. The political debate mires this rational priority with the dilemma of how to address the issue of the undocumented worker.

None of the immigrant of funders of Google, Intel and many other tech firms here in the US that the President refers to in context were undocumented. All of these immigrant corporate founders are valuable to our economy, and we need more of the likes of them!

How to handle the undocumented worker? Well, I really don’t know the best answer to that, but it is not the most important consideration – it is just the most highlighted political consideration that is getting in the way of addressing the more significant elements of reform.

My humble opinion.

Privacy, ID Theft and Junk Mail

January 28, 2013

I have a bone to pick – Citi, AmEx, AAA, AARP, DirecTV – all you other guys doing mass mailings – ARE YOU ALL LISTENING?

We get a ton of mass mailings, here. We shred a ton of mail, here.  Every credit card application we receive is pre-completed. Envelops are addressed on the paper envelop, and our address appears again inside the letter. We try to shred anything with a name and address – or even more information. We try to preserve privacy and fight ID theft. We try!

You mass mailers make that mission terribly difficult.

Here is what you can do to make my life easier:

1) Address my mass mailing to “Neighbor” at my address.

2) Use a glassine window and place my name and address on only one sheet of paper in the letter.

3) STOP sending me pre-completer credit card applications – I get several a week – sometimes several a day! CITI, doesn’t my silence over the many years send you a message? I try and try to stop your wasteful mailings to no avail – I phone, and I write. I know that you are obliged to stop this harassing marketing practice if I ask you, but I have to go through precisely the right channel, and I guess I have not found it, yet. Just STOP. You have wasted more than a hundred dollars in postage and who knows how much in printing and assembly to send me trash through the mail over the years trying to entice me with your credit card offers. Please, just STOP. I am not going to do business with you!

4) On the credit card applications – if you are just compelled to send me something to appease a manager somewhere looking over your shoulder to be sure that you left no stone unturned, have a box to check to STOP the wasteful flow of paper from your place to mine!

Every time my name, address, phone number and birthdate (or some significant date) and other information such as current insurer appears on the same sheet of paper, well, you are aiding and abetting the ID thieves that somewhere in your company you are surely spending money to defeat.

If I get the RoboCaller award, I swear I am going to invest some of it in a mighty hefty shredder just for your nuisance trash you send to me.

So, all kidding aside, the mass mailers assist identity thieves who do dumpster diving by putting a lot of information in one place. A big offender is AARP that sends me something once or twice a week, and older people have a lot to lose, and many haven’t a good idea of the risks of ID theft – that does them a great disservice in my opinion.

AARP – are you listening?

If I get this robocaller prize, I swear I’ll take up a battle against junk mail, next! Watch Out – HERE I COME!

Stop those Dang Robocallers!

January 18, 2013

I am fed up with robocallers – FED UP! There are entire days when the only telephone calls I get are from robocallers, and the only cellphone SMS messages I get are from mass e-mailers.

The Federal Trade Commission has a “challenge” to the public to stop the illegal robocaller:

It is a public competition for the best overall solution to this nuisance, and I entered with a proposal.  On the final day of editimg my proposal, I received five robocalls, so you can bet that I was “all fired up”!

Here is my 15-page proposal – Robocaller Blocker  I call it the “RoboBlaster”.

The FTC makes their decision on the most promising response to their challenge on April 1st – on APRIL FOOL’S DAY, of all days…

Stay tuned…

Priority 1.A.i.a…

December 30, 2012

Listening to the “Meet the Press” interview of President Obama this morning brought back a few memories from working at Alcatel/Rockwell International/Collins Radio Company.

The interviewer was asking a multitude of questions about priorities – questions were coined in the sense that something was important, and another thing was important, and another, and another, too… The President discussed his highest four priorities in his administration, and the interviewer asked, “What about gun control?” The President hadn’t included gun control in his top priorities, and begged off by explaining that he needed input, and that there needed to be a “conversation” about this topic in light of the Connecticut tragedy before his priorities could change. Yes, a political answer… There are priorities, and there are PRIORITIES.

I recall my boss almost thirty years ago coming to my office to tell me that a particular something was my highest priority. An hour later, he returned to tell me to drop everything and get on something new – that something new was now my top priority. I explained with some frustration in my voice at the time that “…without staff resources, I could only do a few things at once.” He explained that there were no resources he could bring to me – that I was the only qualified person to work on these problems. “When are the tasks due?” His answer was, “As soon as possible.”

This behavior repeated itself over the course of the week until on Friday, the boss returned to ask what progress had been made on the first task. I explained that I was working on the new task given to me the just the day before when I was asked to “drop everything”. I asked, “Which task is really my top-most priority?” My boss answered, “Well, they all are.” I followed up with another question that I hoped would clarify his direction, “Which one is genuinely the number one top priority – Priority 1.A.i.a?”

His answer was dumbfounding, “They are all Top Priority 1. There is no second priority, and they are all due today.” So, I realized at that moment that my boss had been put in an impossible position by his boss. By the end of the day on Friday, I had completed the last task given to me the day before to the degree that I could in 24 hours, and the first task given to me on Monday. In my judgement, it was better to finish something than half finish everything (and finish nothing at all).

Before getting back to the President’s conundrum, I want to remark about how my boss came to me with direction – there were few boundaries to frame the deliverable – worse, there were few details to express the pertinent elements in the problem – just a conversation with someone who did not comprehend the problem at hand very well, nor the shape of the possible solutions. I had an epiphany that Friday – my boss was genuinely clueless about my work, and so was his boss (and his boss and so on). And none of these tasks were critical to the success of the company, or they would have come with resources beside my own time. Worse, I realized that the leadership directly above me was strictly focussed on the politics of the problems I was working on, and not on the business impact of the solutions I was asked to provide.

I realized then – in that week, that it was not only critically important to define complex problems properly, but also the deliverable, and also the business impact of the forthcoming solution. Without this detail, it is impossible to prioritize a problem in a field of problems demanding time and resources, and it is impossible to justify the resources necessary to solve a problem, and it is impossible to judge the adequacy or completeness – the quality of a solution. My boss gave me none of this critical information, and I failed to fully accomplish what his boss was demanding of him (and me). Over that weekend, I recall completing the second task given me during the week, and I estimated the business impact of the remaining five tasks given me that week along with other standing tasks in process awaiting completion, and the business impact estimates set the priority of all the remaining tasks I was working on.

That week was a significant lesson in leadership for me:

  • Describe a problem with some detail – eek out nuances of the problem. People must know that YOU understand the problem even if they do not.
  • Estimate the impact of the problem – if left unsolved, and if solved – the opportunity cost and also the return on the investment. You need numbers, and not just subjective language. Combined, this is the total impact. Make it clear that problems are attacked in order of their total impact.
  • Issue a deadline and define the deliverable. Set out critical elements of the solution necessary to gauge its quality.
  • Monitor the progress in a visible way. Your boss needs to see clearly that something is a priority, and also that there is progress being made.

Today, this is all just a matter of common sense for me, but at the time, it was an epiphany.

So, on to the President. What is his Priority 1? I don’t think it is simply the “Fiscal Cliff” – that is far too short-sighted a priority for a president – far too limited in scope and total impact. I think President Obama’s Priority 1 is improving the employment rate and the overall prosperity of the middle class – so that we can all spend our money in our economy – more money than we are spending today. The positive impact of improving the real prosperity of the middle class by more than 2% is about the same as the negative impact to the middle class of “going over the cliff” (also about 2%). No one has put that nuance in public view – only the impact of going over the cliff has been explained to the American people. It is so disappointing that the fiscal cliff seems to be the Priority 1 of Media and Congress, and not the prosperity of the people.

I give barely passing marks to our politicians for explaining the problem, failing marks for presenting the total impact, passing marks for setting a deadline (but for the wrong problem), and failing marks for visibly monitoring progress. Our leaders in Congress don’t  seem to be very good leaders on the whole…

And this past week, Federal employees got a pay raise of sorts when all Federal salaries were “unfrozen”. As unpalatable as this action might be to the average American, it will increase the prosperity of the middle class employees of the largest employer in the country by more than 2%… That might be pretty smart in the grand scheme of things, but it does’t look that way when middle class families are struggling to make ends meet and put dinner on the table, and no one has explained the total impact very well, much less the real problem and its real priority.

Done rambling!

The Future – It is ALL about Education

December 24, 2012

My recent trip to Taiwan was an eye-opener. Ever been to Taiwan? No? Well, you should go! There are two passions obvious in Taiwan that I don’t see here in the US to nearly the same degree:

  1. Children – children are everything in this society. Children are the future. Children are every parent’s future – after all, when the parents are retired and in their old age, they will be living with one of their children, and the more successful those children are, the more comfortable the parents will be in their old age!
  2. Money – after the child, money is everything in this society. If you aren’t earning money, you are wasting your time. If you aren’t making as much money as your neighbor, well, you must be doing something wrong. In two generations, Taiwan has progressed from 3rd-world to 1st-world, and money is the most tangible element of comparative success. Money – Money – Money…

Getting there… It is a long flight… Take EVA Air across the ocean. EVA Air is an excellent airline with high standards.

Getting around… Taiwan’s mass transit is efficient – the bus, subway, MRT train, HSR high speed rail. Where ever you go, it is inexpensive and efficient. Signs and ticketing systems are in Chinese and English. Most signs throughout the country are in Chinese and English. You’ll have no problem getting around. GO – have a good time there!


In Taiwan, every school ranks students in every subject. Go to a school, and you will find the student rankings on a bulletin board somewhere near the main entrance. Parents cluster around these lists looking for their children to be near the top of the list.

During the top grade of every public school, a National standardized test ranks students nationwide. Coming out of Middle school, this ranking determines which high school you can attend, and every parent hopes for the best high school for their child. Coming out of high school, and the next National test ranking determines which college you can get into. And again, every parent hopes – and hopes – for the best college for their child. The better the school, the better the job, and the more money. It is ALL about education!

We had dinner with a number of friends while in Taiwan. The children came to dinner with school books in hand, and they studied seriously while we ate and talked among ourselves. When a child asked for help, conversation stopped until the child’s question was answered and they were back studying.

As this post title says, it is all about education in Taiwan. It was clear as a bell. Walk out on the street in any large city, and you will see test prep centers on many street corners: “CRAM” Center, Math Skills Institute, Tutor Center, English Coach, etc. Taipei had an entire street dedicated to test prep centers near the central train station. Schooling is a national industry in Taiwan. EVA Airlines even owns a franchise of test prep schools.

Where were we taken by our friends when they showed us around? Their best local schools and universities were among the destinations. The schools and universities were busy on every Saturday with extra classes and competitions.

What favor was I asked at dinner? “Could you help my child with his English?” “Sure,” I said. I was glad to.

There are 165 universities in Taiwan at last count.

It is ALL about education in Taiwan, because education is the key to a good future with security and prosperity and some prestige. Education is The common thread for children and money – those two passions I mentioned above.

Compared to the commitment to education in the US where budgets are being slashed, hours are being cut back, school years shortened, activities are being cancelled, children are tuned out by parents who decline to help with homework, entertainment (TV and video games) takes precedence over homework, and critical thinking is all but missing not only at school but also at home, Taiwan is leagues ahead. I would place my bets for the future on Taiwan and not the US.

The Future – It is ALL about Education! We can look to Taiwan for a success story with a few take-aways for us to learn from here in the US. Parents – you can do much, much more to participate in your child’s education.

A Good Engineer can Simplify the World in Time

November 30, 2012

Engineering is the challenge of making something complicated actually work the way you expect it to every time for everyone. This might sound simple – maybe even trivial – it’s not at all. Most people take it for granted that pushing a button has the result you expect every time you do it – on your phone, microwave oven, television, automobile, etc. But, it is a complicated world, and between you, me and the fencepost, well, maybe you shouldn’t take those things for granted…

Two events prompted this post:

American Airlines records for personal information were updated today again and again (and again) until successful.

Apple iTunes 11 was released – more than a facelift – a redesign…

These two events today were meaningful for me as an engineer.  I’ll tell you why:


American Airlines – they need a good engineer to tweak their website. Type a number from a card into a blank – push SUBMIT – should be done and over with…  Nope.

Type in a three field number separated by dashes literally from the official card in hand. Press SUBMIT. Get a “success” confirmation. Log out, log in again, and no change was actually made.

Type the number in again. Press SUMBIT. Get an “error – not a valid number” message, and I am scratching my head… The number on my Government card looks precisely like the number I typed.

Type the number again – without dashes. Press SUBMIT. Get a “success” confirmation. Log out, log in again, and the change was made this time successfully. Were the dashes the problem? Or will I be plagued with issues because the dashes are necessary, and they aren’t there even though the entry was submitted successfully?

This should have been such a simple thing to do. But a false success status, then an error without any hints. And finally a true success status on the third try… BAD American Airlines needs a good engineer to make the website work the way you expect it to every time for everyone. I’ll volunteer – for a fee! It would be a simple matter to say, “Do Not Include Dashes” next to the field – if, in fact that was the problem. Frankly, I am not confident that the dashes were the problem, but they probably were…

The American Airlines website issues are deeper than this one issue. Make changes in your profile, and they do not “ripple through” to your reservations, and vice versa. There will be occasions when your profile information and reservation information differ, and the engineering challenge is to accommodate that. There will be occasions when the “ripple through” will require you to revisit some kind of resubmission or confirmation of something you did previously, and those steps must be presented to the user reliably and only when necessary – yup, challenging to do correctly. When a credential expires – a passport, for example, the website does not prompt you to update the stale record, and it should. Instead, every customer stumbles on these details in the website, and we all fume about it.

A good engineer could simplify greatly. It just takes time an money…


iTunes – it was starting to look clunky in version 10 with all the sidebar stuff and then the cloud stuff. I was a little frustrated with this application. It worked quite differently on my Mac and iPhone. The iCloud features were sometime a little mysterious. It was becoming a complicated media application. And it was really two applications – one for the Mac and one for the iPhone. Yesterday, I was accustomed to its idiosyncrasies. Today, well, frankly, I am not sure what I think. Most people do not like change – change requires relearning, and many people don’t do that very well. Apple tasked a bunch of engineers to make this complicated clunker a much simpler application.

I’m relearning right this minute! The new iTunes tries to be more “contextual” – it tries to do what you want it to do in the most convenient manner possible for the task you are performing. It may display the same information to you several different ways depending on what you are actually doing. Browsing? Browsing to see “what’s around the next corner”? Or browsing to find something that is right on the tip of your tongue. Or browsing to find something specific. Browsing music? Movies? Podcasts? The new iTunes tries to present your library to you in the best way possible depending on just exactly what you are doing.

My take right now is that the new iTunes only halfway succeeds in using context to present your library. You can’t “train” it very well. You can set some preferences – many on the fly to sharpen its behavior, but there are not enough cues to the user, and there are not enough injection points for preferences. I can see what Apple is trying to do, and they will do better over time.

For now, I can’t find any way to turn on the old iTunes cover flow display of album covers, and I liked that feature…  Maybe it is gone. Maybe I haven’t discovered how to turn it on. Instead, there is a nifty array of covers like what you might see in the iTunes Store, and any cover can be “exploded” to show the songs. Nifty, but I liked the cover flow and the comprehensive songs list right below. Well, maybe I can “relearn”! But, maybe I don’t have to – maybe there is a way to do what I want, and I don’t know how, yet… iTunes gets a “thumbs up” – it is simpler (it IS simpler where it can be), and it seems to work just fine. Done by good engineers!


Here is what we will see new in iTunes in the future, and I think that Apple will establish some challenging expectations for PC and phone application and website behavior in the near term:

Contextual features – subtle, intuitive differences in behavior for the same functionality depending on what you are actually trying to do at the moment:

Make it simpler when it can probably be simpler.

Say less when you probably just want to know the summary.

Say more when you want to know all the dirty details.

Know to do that all without the application asking or you telling.

Adaptive features – learn what you want to do and how you want to do it from what you just did. If you change a preference or setting, method or workflow, the computer will do one of four things depending on context and obtrusiveness and usage patterns:

Ask if this is “how you want to do it the next time, too?”

Or, ask the next time you do it if you “want to do it the same way you did it the last time?”

Or, just let the change “stick” or persist without a confirmation.

Or, revert back to the previous behavior without a confirmation.

You can imagine that contextual and adaptive features are rather “fuzzy”. Some shaaarp programmers and revolutionary new programming tools are required before software tries to do more than the new iTunes. It will take a couple of good engineers and some time for the next “spin” of iTunes.

My point here is that it takes a good engineer – maybe an exceptional engineer to truly simplify something complicated. As I work in this world day to day, I am convinced that money-making objectives tend to cast the exceptional engineer aside and opt for the mediocre instead of the refined from someone less talented and passionate. I have been told directly on more than one occasion, “Brian, we don’t need it to be as good as you want to make it.”

Well, a good engineer with enough time can be certain to simplify the world in some meaningful way and do something tremendous – and virtually unnoticed – because it just works the way it should every time for everybody.

So, “Stay tuned!”  Um, ah, “Stay iTuned!”

The Short Sightedness of US Energy Policy

October 17, 2012

When was the last time you lost electricity in your home or office? Our household power is “bumped” about once a month and lost for more than an hour about three or four times a year. It should be 3-9’s reliable – on for 99.9% of the time – that allows about 8 hours and 45 minutes of outage time per year. I’ll tolerate about 8 hours of outage a year and a power “bump” about monthly, but not much more. Currently, my power meets my minimum expectations, but it is getting less reliable when the forward march of technological innovation should make it more reliable. Some locations around the country suffer brownouts and blackouts dozens of times during the summer months and outages with winter storms that last days or weeks. The US Government is relatively unconcerned about reliable electricity today. More broadly, I think that the US Government is relatively unconcerned about energy policy today.

I have been looking at fuel cells for my home – not solar panels, and not a windmill, but fuel cells. There are only a few companies in the US that are trying to manufacture affordable fuel cells for residential applications. Fuel cells have been used in highly specialized applications such as space vehicles since the ’60’s. Fuel cells are just now being used on a massive scale by Apple and Google to power data centers, for example. But I am looking at fuel cell applications on a “micro” scale for a home – or, perhaps my car!

The classic approach to fuel cells combines hydrogen and oxygen at a minimum temperature under a minimum pressure in a anode-electrolyte-cathode assembly to produce electricity (the desired output) and water (a byproduct) through a process that is the reverse of electrolysis.

One contemporary approach to fuel cell design passes a hydrocarbon such as natural gas or methane through a catalytic membrane to separate out the hydrogen and produce heat. Oxygen from the normal atmosphere is utilized in the cell to produce electricity. This modern cell yields water and carbon as byproducts, and the carbon accumulation may require periodic removal from the catalytic membrane depending on the cell design.

To make a fuel cell useful for my home, the electricity produced must be “converted” to AC, “conditioned”  to steady the voltage under dynamic power demands, and combined with the electric power infrastructure to sell excess power generated by the cell to other consumers on the “grid” during my low usage conditions and supplement power generated by the cell with power from the “grid” during my high usage conditions.

I am looking for a fuel cell that generates 3KW continuously and accommodates demand spikes as high as 5KW from my home. It would be fed by natural gas, should be about the size a microwave oven, should not be a fire hazard, should pass the water byproduct to a reservoir for household use, and use the waste heat to heat my water and even my home in the winter.

So, why am I even thinking about this? I am concerned that this country’s current energy policy is limited in scope today and likely to become even foolish in the future. The day may come in the not too distant future when the conventional electricity infrastructure (the grid) is so unreliable and so costly that my quality of life will decline. My concern is much broader than electricity – it extends to gasoline, coal, natural gas, nuclear materials, wind, solar, thermal and water – it includes efficiencies – it includes the components to convert and condition electricity to make it useful – it includes how energy is used by society at home, at work, for transportation of goods and people, etc. Energy is critical to our lifestyle here in the US, and it is costly – it will surely become more costly in the future. Today, and in the near term, it is my opinion that natural gas is not only sold through a more reliable residential infrastructure compared to the “grid”, but it may be a generally more efficient energy source for the home, and it is likely to be a less costly energy source to heat and cool my home in the future.

Current US energy policy relies on tax credits to encourage generation diversity and consumption efficiencies, and investments in alternative generation and consumption techniques through grants and loans. On a more global scale, energy policy relies on a “cap and trade” strategy to encourage reduction in emissions (but not necessarily to make better use of energy). I fail to see much attention paid by the US Government to future objectives other than gas mileage for cars, and that disturbs me.

Current political forces I see focus on production strategies – to become less reliant on foreign oil production and more reliant on domestic natural gas and coal production. Coal and petro-deposits are like a savings account in a bank – consume it today, and it is gone forever – you may need it in the future more than you need it today. If its value appreciates over time, it has more value in the future – consume it today, and you sacrifice the future appreciation in value, too. Coal and petro-deposits are nonrenewable – they become scarce goods – when it is all consumed, there is nothing left to put in that “savings account” in the future. When it is all gone or no longer accessible, you are at the mercy of someone else who has the natural resource for sale – you are hostage to the terms and conditions imposed by the other party, and they may not be generous T’s and C’s. The political forces today are encouraging us to “eat our seed corn”, so to speak, to consume our own natural resources today rather than someone else’s, and that is likely to make the future even more uncertain, and that disturbs me.

Me? I am all for using up the petro-deposits in Saudi Arabia and Iraq and Venezuela rather than our own deposits here in the US. On that course, when it comes to “crunch time” for global oil supplies to feed the US, European and Asian economies – when supply fails to meet demand, the US would have the advantage of being the most independent country in the world in that respect, rather than the most dependent one. I am all for keeping as much US coal, oil and gas in the ground as possible today by consuming someone else’s for as long as possible to secure our future security. I am afraid that the present course secures a future disadvantage for the US for the sake of a more comfortable present, and that disturbs me.

For now, I like foreign oil in lieu of American oil, but there is much more to the energy equation. So, I am looking at a fuel cell for my home – and perhaps for my car! And I am hopeful that someone more intelligent than I will implement a prudent comprehensive  US energy policy soon.

A Conversation about the Weather

October 11, 2012

I pulled up to a table at a local Starbucks – I shared a largish table with a stranger who kindly offered to share in the completely full Starbucks with a sea of laptops adjacent to empty coffee cups… I was glad to share this fellow’s table, and he was happy to strike up a conversation about the weather.

“Strange weather out,” he said.

“Yup,” I replied.  “The western storm system is pushing moisture into our region of the country, and a cold front is whizzing through the plains right into Texas.  Strange weather,,,”

“This isn’t global warming, though. That’s nonsense,” he said. “This is just strange weather.”

“You think that global warming is nonsense,” I asked?

“Yes, of course it is,” He said. “Just a conspiracy for someone to get rich off of carbon taxes. Just an excuse to justify more and more Government regulation. People don’t understand that we have bastards all around us who want power and money. They can all go to hell for all I care.”

“Sometime it does seem that we are surrounded by greedy, power hungry people who want all my money – and yours, too.” I retorted.

I am smiling on the inside. I don’t want to offend this gentleman.

“Who is the real expert on global warming,” I ask?

“Well, it’s not Al Gore. Rush Limbaugh says it is all nonsense. So does Glenn Beck,” he pronounced.

I guess that I shifted visibly in my chair.

“You think that global warming is real? Heck, they say the ocean is a half degree warmer than it was fifty years ago. A half of a degree – that’s nothing,” he says. “A half of a degree doesn’t matter at all. The ocean is just absorbing more sunlight, is all.

“Maybe so,” I said. “Maybe so.”

I am thinking to myself that a half degree warmer ocean is pretty significant, and that this fellow should be somewhat alarmed about that if that is indeed the case. But the reality is that a warmer ocean is disputed in scientific circles because the data is largely inconclusive considering other factors such as ocean currents and salinity.

My brain was busy preparing a slew of questions to put this fellow in a corner so he would realize the degree of ignorance he was displaying, but I refrained.

I asked, “What do you think the weather will be like tomorrow?”

This conversation brings me to the point I really want to make: Our society as a whole is terribly ignorant about science. This fellow I was having a cup of coffee with was turning to Limbaugh and Beck for scientific confirmation – two gentlemen who are none too credible in my book for scientific reporting.

More to the point, when a person is ignorant, they are easily manipulated. Extend ignorance to an entire society, and important decisions about policy and priority are easily swayed by a measure of “razzle-dazzle” and a convincing face. Give me facts that I have the knowledge to comprehend, and I will apply them to a relevant context, and I will make better decisions. So will the public – if the public can in fact comprehend the most basic of facts.

My observation is that much of the public is held in ignorance about most things scientific. The average person seems to want the “convincing face” to tell them the answer they want to hear so that they don’t have to think about something they are ignorant about – someone with a good haircut can do a fairly good job as the “convincing face”! I just want the facts (and they can be hard to come by) – and I wish that society as a whole was better educated, particularly in the sciences, than we seem to be.

Oh well… The weather tomorrow will be a little cooler!