Friday, March 18, 2011

This is what YouTube is for

Problems with my tires forced me to replace my shocks and struts yesterday.

My car has 100k miles.  The fuel filter has never been changed.  It idles low and rough, and has been losing power.  So it was time to change it.  The shop where I had my oil changed wanted $30 for the filter and $50 for the labor.

I bought a new fuel filter for $8.  After I had the rear shocks replaced I tried to pull off the old filter.  I have the Haynes repair manual that has step-by-step for stuff like this, and I followed the steps.  I fought with it for half an hour and couldn't get it disconnected.

This morning I googled it and found this YouTube video:

The voice is monotone.  But the instructions are better than the stupid Haynes manual because this guy shows the critically important fuel line disconnect tool!?!?!?!?  I can't believe that the Haynes manual missed this.

That tool is $5 at the local part store, and they have it in stock.

The shop wanted $1300 to do the shocks and struts, and $80 to do the fuel filter.  I'm going to have both done for $300 and about 5-6 hours.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

3d modeling in the near future

Microsoft provides an open interface for Kinect, which lets hackers use the Kinect camera for whatever crazy projects they can come up with.

This video is a little technical, but even non-technical folks should be able to follow the amazing new user interface.

I would expect to see more refined versions of this commercially available within the next two years.  3d CGI will faster, easier, better looking, and more accessible to amateurs.

Hopefully Microsoft will learn something from this project and open the interface for more projects.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Bankers talking about moral hazard

Bankers talking about moral hazard is something like rapists talking about chastity.

The New York Times is reporting that Bank of America is refusing to write down mortgages, as they have been paid and ordered to do by the government.  Their main argument is moral hazard.  They believe it would be bad business to reward home owners who took out larger loans than they could actually afford.  Seriously.

Tar and feather is too good for these people.  I have a strict non-violence policy, but the gall of these people is pushing my limits.

They are busy paying billions in bonuses to themselves, the crooks who wrecked the economy, and they claim to worry about the moral hazard of rewarding someone else?

Their secondary argument holds a little water.  They claim to be unable to figure out who to give how much write-down to.  This boils down to claiming that they are incompetent.  "Oh, the figures are just too hard to compute."  I've worked with the mortgage modification program people at Wells Fargo, and I would accept the argument that they are incompetent to do the math.

Well, I'll help them out.  We'll make it simple for them.  Any mortgagee who wants it gets a free re-fi, on these specific terms--regardless of their credit rating, payment history, LTV, etc.  If they currently do not pay PMI then they do not have to pay PMI on the new mortgage, either.
* Take the current principle balance and refinance that amount for 30-years at a low fixed rate.
* The rate they get depends upon the amount of their current principle balance, according to this sliding scale:
- Less than or equal to $100k -> 3%.
- Between $100k and $150k -> 3.125%
- Between $150k and $200k -> 3.25%
- Between $200k and $250k -> 3.375%
- Between $250k and $300k -> 3.5%
- Between $300k and $350k -> 3.625%
- Between $350k and $400k -> 3.75%
- Between $400k and $450k -> 3.875%
- Between $450k and $500k -> 4%
- Between $500k and $600k -> 4.25%
- Between $600k and $700k -> 4.5%
- Between $700k and $800k -> 4.75%
- Between $800k and $900k -> 5%
- Between $900k and $1M -> 5.25%
- Between $1M and $1.5M -> 5.5%
- Between $1.5M and $2M -> 5.75%
- Between $2M and $5M -> 6%

Obviously the sliding scale will be endlessly debated and negotiated, but I think that the government could cram this down the mortgage companies' throats.  And I think it would do a tremendous amount of good for the economy.

I'll take myself as an example.  We're not in the moral hazard set.  We paid down 10% and took out an 80% and a 10%.  We owe less than the market value of the property.  We have never been late on a payment.  And our credit ratings are still excellent.  We've been in our house a few years.  We would take this deal.  Based upon that sliding scale we would save about $350 per month.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A day made of glass

It's a Corning commercial.  But it is an interesting view of what the near future might look like.

Unfortunately, I expect to see lots more advertisements.

Netflix feature requests and parental controls

We get Netflix now.  The kids are loving Netflix streaming on the Wii.  We haven't watched as many big people movies as I had expected.  But, overall, it is a neat service.  And the value per entertainment dollar spent is fantastic.

But I'm a software guy.  And Netflix is a software service.  So, of course, I have ideas on how to improve it.

I've scoured Netflix's website and I cannot find any way to submit a feature request or give unstructured feedback.  This is a mistake, both for their business model and the software itself.  Companies today have to engage clients and digest the feedback.  They have a blog, and comments are allowed.  But there is no way to contact anyone directly or engage with the company.

I'll link this blog post in the comments of their latest blog posts.  I'm also going to post it on their wall on Facebook.  But I doubt it will get noticed.

With that all said, I've got two feature requests/suggestions for Netflix.

1. A General Feedback Mechanism
Duh!  There are thousands of users out there who have ideas they would like to share.  Just listening to their ideas makes your brand more engaging and sticky.  Some percentage of those ideas are good or great.  Those ideas will genuinely make your service better.

As a baby-step you can just implement one of the general-purpose feedback websites, like  (Suggestionbox created that site for them as a teaser to try to engage Netflix.  Netflix isn't actively using it yet.  I have no affiliation with Suggestionbox.)

But you already have a platform where you are engaging with people.  So I would suggest that you build a 'Netflix feature queue' right into your service.  Give people the ability to write up feature requests (like this one) and place them in the queue.  Let others read and prioritize those features.  I'm sure that you have an agile development team (or three).  Put their scrum backlog in there and let clients interact with it.

You will have to moderate the content, obviously.  You will have tons of 'I got a DVD of Teen Wolf 2 that was scratched.'  Some of your customer service people will have to review every incoming post and filter out the stuff that doesn't fit.  And they will have to merge similar requests.

But when you build a feature that was customer-designed you should scream it from the rooftops.  Send someone out to get a picture of the person who wrote up the idea.  Give them a free month of service and a shirt.

2. Granular Parental Controls
I haven't seen anything from Netflix that suggests they want people to sign up for more than one account per household.  That means parents and children are sharing queues and streaming devices.  We have 4 kids--a large-ish family by modern American standards.  But I would suggest that our usage patterns are probably fairly typical.

In our house this means that the 'Suggested for Randy' queue is:
* Clifford
* Angelina Ballerina
* Se7en
* Salt
* Ben-10
* The Shawshank Redemption
* Blues Clues
* Dexter
* Cake Boss
* Shaun the Sheep
* The Blues Brothers
* Enter the Dragon
* Zombieland

This is disconcerting for me as a parent, because so many of my shows appear at the top of the queue when my kids are picking shows.  I don't need my kids watching even a few minutes of Se7en or Dexter while they know that I'm busy doing something else.

We have a Wii with Netflix streaming on our main TV.  We have Netflix streaming on the adult's computers, but we don't want to watch movies at our desks.  Everyone basically shares the main TV for Netflix.

We have 2 preschoolers (who can navigate the Netflix menu on the Wii and pick their shows.)  We have a 9 year old, a 13 year old, and two adults.  In a perfect world that's 5 separate instant queues on this device.  In reality, though, if each of the big kids got a personal queue then both of the little ones would demand their own queues, too.  So that's 6 separate instant queues on the Wii.

Each queue needs an optional password.

When I'm in a queue, I need to see the name of the queue at the top of the screen.  (On the Wii, the queues should each have a Mii.)

If I have several streaming devices (Wii, iPad, computer, streaming Blue-Ray player, etc.), then I should be able to pick which queues appear on which devices  The default should be for all queues to appear as options on all devices.  Some devices won't be able to handle multiple queues, especially at first, so they will have to default to just the first queue.

Each queue needs to have it's own settings for what's allowed.

There is a sticky problem on content that is not rated--old movies and TV shows.  So I would base the parental controls on a combination of Common Sense ratings and MPAA ratings.  And for the shows that are not rated by either service, I would control by genre.

So my parental control options would look like this:

Little Jenny's queue allows:
* All shows
* R and below
* PG-13 and below
* PG and below
* G and below
For shows that are not rated by the MPAA, allow:
* All shows
* Common Sense age 17 and below
* Common Sense age 14 and below
* Common Sense age 11 and below
* Common Sense age 8 and below
* Common Sense age 4 and below
* No shows not rated by the MPAA 
For shows that are not rated by the MPAA or Common Sense, allow:
# Action & Adventure
# Anime & Animation
# Children & Family
# Classics
# Comedy
# Documentary
# Drama
# Faith & Spirituality
# Foreign
# Gay & Lesbian
# Horror
# Independent
# Music & Musicals
# Romance
# Sci-Fi & Fantasy
# Special Interest
# Sports & Fitness
# Television
# Thrillers

For that last category the interface is checkboxes, not a single select.  A movie that is categorized as both 'Documentary' and 'Gay & Lesbian' would be blocked unless both categories are checked here.

Few parents are going to select 'Gay & Lesbian' or 'Horror', but the control settings should simply include all genres for simplicity's sake.  Any new genre that gets added to the system should show up here, and be unchecked for everyone who has already set up their parental controls.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

What's in a name?

I thought I coined the term "Democracy 2.0".  That was in early 2004, according to a quick search through my old notes.  I didn't write that term on the internet until September 11, 2005.

I've run across the term in lots of places recently.  A Google search returns hundreds of hits--I got to page 20 without ever finding this blog.  A quick scan through those hits indicates that there is not one agreed-upon meaning of the term--beyond the most general idea that it is an upgrade of the process of Democracy.

I recently read Accelerando, by Charlie Stross.  He used the term late in the book.  The book was written as short stories, and that particular section was published in December of 2003.

Stross's "Democracy 2.0" was very innovative.  It was in a very different future where money was nonexistent.  Everything you wanted was free, because technology had progressed to the point that everything was so cheap to make that it wasn't worth the overhead burden of doing the accounting.  The only traded currencies were bandwidth and reputations futures--a futures market that traded reputations.

Control of the government was handled through the reputations futures market.  Everyone who wanted to be the president registered their candidacy.  A separate pool was created in the futures market for the reputations of the various candidates.  Anyone who wished to participate would buy or sell any of the candidates' futures.  And at a certain time the candidate with the highest-trading reputation future was declared the winner.

That's not what I was thinking of when I started using the term.

When I started using the term it was the title for a book I was writing.  The book was addressed to people who live under dictatorships.  The point of the book was to explain why we were waiting for them to free themselves, and to give them a vision for doing Democracy on their own terms.  Learn from our successes.  Don't repeat our mistakes.

I've since figured out that someone beat me to the whole "this is why we are waiting for you to free yourself, and this is how you can do it" book.  That book is Dictatorship to Democracy by Gene Sharp.  It's a free PDF that has been translated into dozens of languages and sneaked into just about every country in the world.  Every underground rebel faction has a well-worn copy.

When the dust clears Gene Sharp is going to win a Nobel Peace Prize for that book.

Dictatorship to Democracy is 93 pages.  The first 72 pages are dedicated to nonviolently overthrowing a dictator.  The last chapter covers establishing a democratic government that can last--4.5 pages.  The rest of the book is appendix and endnotes--14 pages.

I think that building a democratic government is harder than that.  These people are going to need more than 4.5 pages.

I wrote a long blog post the other day that had a reasonable outline of what I think a democratic government needs.  The central ideas are:
* equality under the law
* freedom
* capitalism
* goal-oriented
* measure your success
* experiment and innovate

Those last three points are unique to me.  I don't see anyone else out there, including the whole Democracy 2.0 crowd, talking about experimentation, adaption, and learning.  I call that evolution.  So I've started calling my particular brand of democracy "Evolving Democracy."

I'm coming back around to my original book idea.  Now I know that the first half of the battle is covered, I am free to focus on the second half:
* What are the key features of a democracy?
* How do you keep the people in control?
* What goals should you set?
* What should you teach your people?
* How should your government services operate?
* Who writes the laws?
* Who enforces the laws?

So much of what we do has evolved, and we don't ever think about things like why or how the judges and the police are kept separate.  You can't observe life in the US (or UK, or wherever) and figure out the first principles that democracy is built upon.

That's the book that I'm going to write.  I just need a name for it.

Monday, March 7, 2011


The Independent is reporting that the Obama administration is asking King Saud to arm the Libyan rebels.  It seems that the Obama administration isn't reading my blog.  If they were reading my blog they would know that King Saud is opposed to the rebels in all of the countries of his region.  Arming Libyan rebels provides moral support to the rebels in his own borders.

If this report is true--and I'm assuming that it is--then this signifies a new low for the administration.  They are hopelessly out of touch.  They do not understand which way the wind blows for their allies or their enemies.  King Saud has surely dismissed the administration as clueless imbeciles.

The administration has failed to form a coherent strategy for dealing with the uprisings.  Do we support them?  Do we support them within the borders of our allies?  Do we support them when the likely new government will be less friendly than the existing government?  And how do we express our support or opposition?

This series of uprisings is the most important event of this administration, and they have utterly failed.