Tuesday, January 26, 2010

iPod touch

I've had a 1st generation iPod touch for almost two years, so I guess its time to write about it. I'm not sure I would have chosen to buy it on my own. However, how was I to resist when I won it? (I actually had the choice between an iPhone and a touch. Since the iPhone would set me back at least $1440 in monthly costs, I opted for the touch.)

How is it? Well, as an mp3 player, it gets mediocre marks. Trying to quickly pause it can be a pain. First you have to push a button, then move your hand across a slider, and then locate the pause button. The last part can actually be a challenge. One 'feature' of the touch is the ability to 'rotate' the screen. On the music player, the rotated displays have different sets of options in different positions. Thus, the pause control will be in a different place depending on the rotation. Unfortunately, it is not all that great at identifying which way it is rotated. (Sometimes I have to shake it around to get it to really recognize the display.) Thus, pausing can be a challenge.

The other issue with the touch screen is that it requires human skin. Thus, in addition to the three step pause process, you also need to bear some skin. Even in Cupertino, people occasionally wear gloves. On the bright side, I have a glove with a hole in the finger that has suddenly found a new use with the iPod. I've also even been successful at using my nose.

The iPhone OS 3.0 brings in two new issues to the iPod touch as an MP3 player. The first general issue is that it has to spend time "rebuilding the library" after every time you add new songs. This can take in excess of 10 minutes, and seems to stop if you hit the 'screen off' button at the top of the iPod. Just when you get in the mood to listen to some tunes or audiobooks, it hits you with that. Ugghh.

The other new annoyance is the 'unsorting' of smart playlists. Regardless of what steps you go through, it will display the contents of automatically updating smart playlist in a random order. I like to listen to audiobooks that I set up as smart playlists. The major advantage of the smart playlists (before theupgrade) was that old tracks would go off the list after they were played, and I could easily go to the last track I was on, even if I listened to something else in between. With the upgrade, the smart playlists are in random order. You can go to a secondary 'album' display and see the playlist in the correct order. However, you have to make sure it is playing here, otherwise, you may get some random surprises. Also, the secondary display does not 'drop' tracks that have been played, so it can be a challenge to find where you left off. (There is one nice new feature in the 3.0 OS in that it remembers what you were listening to after syncing.)

These issues made me really wonder why I bothered to upgrade, especially since Apple likes to charge for the upgrades. However, on the bright side, the iPod does not seem to crash anymore. (I seemed to be getting ever-increasing 'reboots' with the previous 1.x OS.) Also, Apple gradually had been reducing the price of the upgrades, with the 3.x upgrade going for only $5. Since I had $9 left on an iTunes gift card, I thought I'd give it a shot, in hopes of reducing crashes (and getting apps.) The upgrade had its own issues, some of which I've described in my
adventures in extracting notes.db backups.

Music-wise, the one additional feature with the 3.X OS is the ability to quickly create 'on-the-fly' genius mixes from a given song. This can sometimes come in handy when you are in the mood for a certain musical fix, but haven't created a playlist for it.

What about as a PDA? Well, the iPod touch does have wireless access. The mail application is good (and even allows downloading yahoo mail.) The Safari web browser allows surfing regular web sites - as long as they don't use flash. Some youtube videos can also be watched through a tool. A big problem is the lack of a flash plugin. Apple seems to be against it, so it probably wont happen soon. Typing is not that bad, but not that great. It would be nice if you could use a stylus. However, you can get a pretty decent 'blackberry' like thumbing on the touch screen. Wifi does seem to be a bigger drain on batteries, so I often turn it off if I don't need it.

Apps? There are a huge number of apps in the app store. However, finding worthwhile ones can be a challenge. I've found some language study and ebook applications that are worthwhile. However, I tend to use the 'notes' application for jotting down notes more often than other applications. Many of the apps I've found would clearly go in the 'junk' category.

Video watching is ok. However, it really only works for shorts. (It gets annoying holding up a small screen with headphones for long shows.) Video also seems to drain the battery fairly fast.

Battery-life in general is quite good. Even after nearly two years it seems to work fairly well.

Overall, its a halfway-decent mp3 player combined with a halfway-decent PDA.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Foreigners running the city

Jim Griffith has created a nice page to gather feedback from Sunnyvale "study issues" at http://www.dweeb.org/2010studyissues.html. His quick capsules are much more readable than the official city site, which is nothing more than a bunch of links to pdf files. And these are not even searchable PDFs, but simply scanned images. (The 'copyright 2003-2005' at the bottom of the page is an indicator as to how much attention is placed on the city web site. So much for being at the center of technology.)

Sunnyvale has an entrenched 'professional' staff. Some live in the city, but many live far away. Some city employees even intentionally seek out housing outside the city to avoid a potential "conflict of interest". Unfortunately, this also reduces the "shared interests" of actual residents of a city. Thus we end up with cases like the staff recommendations on study issues. Some examples:

Out of 17 public works study issues, staff was in favor of 2, "plastic bag ban" and "guided bicycle routes through neighborhoods". The city bicycle/pedestrian commission ranked 6 study issues as worthwhile. The bike routes did not make the cut. While rejecting or ignoring the preferred plans of the BPAC, staff is more than happy to favor devoting 120 hours for guided neighborhood bicycle routes. This is just three weeks work, and does actually provide some benefit (if implemented), so it is not all that bad.
The plastic bag ban is bad. It was encouraged by the county government association. Staff estimate it will take 510 staff hours for this study issue. Why there may be plenty of arguments for and against a bag ban, spending time studying it now is mere waste. San Jose is in the midst of preparing an EIR on a bag-ban ordinance that is set to start in 2011 at the earliest. Palo Alto and other bay area cities already have bans. Why spend time rushing and studying? Sunnyvale is clearly not the innovator in this issue. Trying to spend so much time "studying" it will either replicate other work, or lead to another 'different' ordinance. If you are going to be a follower, do it right. Or better yet, just wait. With a number of bay area cities already enacting bans, chain retailers will likely just follow the same policies through the region. This gives Sunnyvale the benefits with almost no cost.

While staff is interested in spending hours pioneering for plastic bags, they have no interest in pioneering for livability. With many of the BPAC requests, the response is "oh, we follow some standards. We don't see any point in making them better." One study issue simply asks staff to share its criteria with the BPAC. Staff rejected it, saying they planned on sharing. (I think the point was that they had not. Otherwise, the BPAC would not have need of a study issue.)

Staff also believes that Sunnyvale of today is exactly the same as Sunnyvale of 12 years ago. (They reject an issue to improve the Homestead bike lane because it had been studied before in 1998, back when some of those Homestead High students now using it were still in diapers.)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A few recent books

Maass - Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil. Good analysis of the the negative impacts of oil production in the world. How did the US avoid the "oil curse"? Perhaps they just got a very different version of it in the form of suburbia.
Vise - The Google Story. A history of Google, without much content. Some of the anecdotes from "Google users" seem funny. (What next, a history of Xerox, with interviews with xerox users?)
Bernstein - Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World. Great world history book from the viewpoint of trade. It is interesting to see Venice actually take its place as an important player in world history. The Arabs actually get a big chunk of the coverage earlier in the book, for they were the ones that were doing most of the international trading.
Tom McNichol - AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War. The author wants to display electricty as a brutal standards war, but seems to build things up more than his facts justify. The experiments down by Brown, however do seem to justify the "savage" title. Now I'm interested in reading more about Edison and Tesla. What would have happened if the car started was not invented? Would we have had battery cars and dense cities instead of suburbia?
Ehrman - Misquoting Jesus. An introduction to "Textual Criticism" for analyzing ancient texts. It seemed a lot like a lecture at Stanford. Hmm.. Same author, same title. I get it now. Anyway, it has some interesting bits on the ancient history of the New Testament and how it has been passed won through the ages. However, the primary focus is on explaining how researches look at texts rather than explaining details.
McCaughrean - The Kite Rider. This is a fairly entertaining novel with a bunch of modern people hanging out with Kublai Khan. Alright, they are all supposed to be leaving a thousand years ago, but they seem more like modern characters with a few tidbits of ancient China thrown in. Luckily, that does not district too much from an entertaining novel.
Nancy Cartwright - My Life as a 10 year old Boy. The voice of Bart Simpson. Light reading.
Fromkim - Europe's Last Summer. So it may have been a little more than the funny that Started World War I. The author shows a bureaucratic Austria-Hungary that was itching for any excuse to attack Serbia, along with a Germany that was looking for any excuse to attack France. And what do they end up with? A war with Russia.
Neal Bascomb - Red Mutiny. A compelling history of the Battleship Potemkin. Brings about a few "What Ifs?" that could have significantly changed Russian History.
Sachs - The End of Poverty Economics. He is gung-ho on using foreign aid to bootstrap 3rd world countries in to the modern age. However, is it a wise move to saddle them with the 1st world's problems as well?
Rowling - Harry Potter. The first few books are fast paced adventures. The middle books bog down and could really use some editing. Then the last two books get back on track again.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Gift Cards Are Evil

Gift cards are great for retailers. However, they are lousy for gift recipients.

When you give a gift, you can spend time buying or creating a gift that you think somebody will enjoy. With gifts, the value cash value is typically hidden. An alternate is to give cash. This approach gives the giftee flexibility to purchase what they desire. However, it also gives them the burden of shopping to obtain the gift. It also puts the value out front. The receiver of the gift is free to buy what they choose, or simply use the money for everyday purchases.

Then there is the third way. Gift Cards. This combines the worst of both types of gifts. Like a cash gift, it says "I didn't want to pick something for you, so I'll just give you money to buy something yourself." However, as with a gift, it locks somebody in to something particular. (In this case, a specific store, or even a specific card.) A gift card is also something else for somebody to keep track of.

The perceived advantage of a gift card is that it "shows" some thought by picking somebody's favorite store, while letting them buy what they want. However, if this is the desire, why not actually buy something at the store and give a gift receipt? If the store has a good return policy, they an return it and get the item of their choice (or even cash). If they actually like what they received, then you have saved them the effort of buying something themselves. If they don't like it, they end up making the same trip they would have made anyway. [ok, online is different - but many places also allow easy online returns.]

There are also the negative aspects of gift cards themselves. Some gift cards have fees and expiration dates. Luckily, these are becoming more rare. Gift cards also have amounts that rarely exactly match actual costs of goods. Thus, a recipient maximizing value is often stuck forking over some of their own money or leaving money on the card (unless they get close enough to the value.) Gift cards require recipients to actually keep track of the card and keep it with them when they shop. Even 'credit card' gift cards have to be kept track of. What good does a wallet full of gift cards do?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

College Admissions Selectivity Challenge

A Stanford professor determined that, despite perceptions, US colleges are actually much less selective now than they were 50 years ago. The evidence given includes a rise in 'college opportunities' that significantly exceeds the number of high school graduates. However, the top 10% of universities are acknowledged to be much more selective.

What does it mean?

Not much.

A few hundred years ago, a degree from Harvard was probably about as valuable as it is today. Back then, it indicated you were one of the few that actually had a college education (in a day when even a high school education was rare.) Today, the degree indicates you were able to attend one of the most selective colleges in the nation. Having the equivalent of an associates degree in 1810 would have been quite an accomplishment. Today, it might be the difference between upper lower class and lower middle class.

An explosion of post high school opportunities simply means that more education has become a 'requirement' for gainful employment. A few hundred years ago, an illiterate farmer could be 'middle class'. Fifty years ago, you would need at least a high school diploma. Now, some college level education is all but required.

So, yes, you could argue that it is much easier to access a college education now than it was 50 years ago. But, that is comparing apples to oranges. A more appropriate comparison would be between a high school education 50 years ago and a college education today. After all, both could get you to the 'median income'.

Another flaw comes in attempting to compare selectivity of colleges over a large time frame. A large University may have been a small junior college 50 years ago. Is there any relevance in comparing admissions across two totally different institutions?

Today, the most selective colleges tend to produce the highest paid and most influential graduates. The increasing selectivity is thus a significant concern. Arbitrary decisions by an admissions office could have significant impact on students' futures. Looking at overall access to education is of little use without looking at the value of this education.

Stanford Daily Article:

Monday, January 04, 2010

Grading the Mountain West and WAC bowls

In its bowl games, the Mountain West made a strong case for the conference depth, with the fourth and fifth place teams etching out impressive victories over quality teams. BYU and Utah proved they could handle the Pac-10 just fine. The winning streak, alas, came to an end when TCU lost to Boise State. However, the 4-1 record is one of the best of any conferences.
The WAC, on the other hand, would be best off sticking to the state of Idaho. Both Idaho and Boise State had nice victories, almost compensating for the ugly losses by Nevada and Fresno State.

Wyoming: A+ (35-28 vs. Fresno State )
Fresno State: D-
An overtime thriller by a 5th place Mountain West team - a team that barely squeaked in to a bowl game. Fresno State is a quality team that almost always has a winning season in spite of one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country. Wyoming? During the regular season, they were outscored 193-327. The only team with a winning record they beat was 7-5 Weber State (a I-AA team). This is the type of team you'd expect to be happy to get blown away at a bowl game. Instead, they manage to fight out a win. This is perhaps the best statement for depth that the Mountain West can make.

Air Force: A+ (47-20 vs. Houston) Houston has 10 wins, including victories over three BCS conference teams. Houston's victories were not over cupcakes: four of the teams they beat were playing in bowls. The three loses were all close. Air Force had only managed to beat one bowl team (Wyoming). Houston and Air Force had met two times last season (including the Armed Forces bowl last season.) Both teams were familiar with each other and familiar with the bowl. It seemed that Houston would have cake walk. Instead, Air Force blew them away. The Mountain West has four power teams.

BYU: A (44-20 vs. Oregon State) Perhaps BYU should sell Las Vegas bowl tickets as part of the season ticket package. It seems that no matter where they finish in the conference, they end up in Vegas. Oregon State was probably disappointed to miss out on the rose bowl and a little unfamiliar with Vegas in December. However, that is not an excuse for getting blown away. BYU showed that it is a power school.

Utah: A (37-27 vs Cal) Due to television-induced scheduling weirdness, Cal played Washington the week after the "Big Game" with Stanford. Thus they followed up a great rivalry victory with an ugly loss. Utah also ended the season with a rivalry loss. After last season's Sugar Bowl victory, Utah had high hopes, until the early season loss to Oregon smashed them. After starting out strong this season, Cal also had high hopes - until an early season loss to Oregon smashed them. In the end Utah was able to stay a little more focused and continue their nine game bowl victory streak (tying them with USC for most in a row)

Boise State: B+ (17-10)
Neither team looked great on the big stage. Boise State now matched Utah's two wins in BCS bowls. TCU goes home with yet another "might have been" season. It's unfortunate that they didn't get a chance to take on Florida and Cincinnati. I guess the powers that be figured Boise State would be the best way to stop the Mountain West bowl streak. These were two closely matched teams, with a close score,so it is hard to penalize either too much. However, TCU was the strong favorite. Perhaps this will be the impetus to add Boise to the Mountain West. The Fiesta bowl may also think twice about inviting two non-BCS schools.

Idaho (43-32 vs. Bowling Green): A. Coming from the dregs of the WAC to pull off their second bowl win ever. Perhaps the Pac-10 will invite Idaho back. Well, at least the on-off rivalry with Washington State will no longer look like a high school game. This looked like the feel-good season turn around bowl victory - until it was eclipsed by another game involving a WAC team.

Nevada (10-45 vs SMU): F. Nevada was supposed to be a good team. SMU managed a great turn-around, going from two victories in the last two seasons to a bowl game this season. However, they also managed to lose to Washington State. Nobody loses to Washington State. But, they managed to bask in the sun in Hawaii. Perhaps the Hawaii band-members that Nevada recruited were really June Jones turncoats. Or maybe we can just blame injuries. Regardless of the blame, Nevada simply embarrassed itself.

Grading the Pac-10 bowl performances.

The Pac-10 had a great regular season, but then managed to stink it up during the bowl season. This is not the type of grade to be repeated.

UCLA: A. (30-21 vs. Temple) The Pac-10 was arguable one of the top two BCS conferences during the regular season. Temple finished second in their division in the non-BCS Conference USA and hasn't been to a bowl in 30 years. How can this be the best win of the PAC-10? Well, UCLA hasn't been to a bowl in a few years. And they were playing in a cold east coast stadium, just down the road from Temple. But most important of all, UCLA won.

USC: B. (24-13 vs. Boston College) USC won a bowl game. Yep, they did. They played in California, and beat some team that traveled a few thousand miles to get there. The difference was that they played an ACC team in San Francisco instead of a Big-10 in Pasadena. They didn't look great, but a win is a win.

Stanford: C (27-31 vs. Oklahoma) Stanford kept it close. Unfortunately, Stanford hasn't exactly been good in close games. Other than Notre Dame, all games decided by less than a touchdown ended up loses for the Cardinal. Oklahoma and Stanford were both missing their star quarterbacks. However, Oklahoma had at least had a season to deal with it. Stanford has just had the past few weeks to adapt to the replacement. Would Luck have allowed them to score an extra touchdown? Probably.

California: C- (27-37 vs. Utah) Cal has been hit or miss all season. (And as pretty during the entire Tedford era.) Utah was ranked higher, but they have beaten pretty much nobody. Both teams lost to Oregon. Both are coming of nasty loses to end the season. (Though Cal did manage to win the rivalry Big Game in the penultimate game.) It looked like the 'good Cal' was there during the first quarter. Unfortunately, the Bad Cal showed up for the rest of the game.

Oregon State: D (20-44 vs. BYU) Both teams were in the top-20. BYU was one spot ahead of OSU. However, OSU was, for some reason, favored to win. Perhaps oddsmakers did not realize that BYU has played in the Las Vegas bowl for the last five seasons, and thus has a little experience dealing with the horrid late December weather in Las Vegas. Perhaps they didn't realize that OSU would be coming off a downer after missing out on the Rose bowl by less than a touchdown. Regardless, Oregon State looked bad in the loss.

Arizona: F (0-33 vs. Nebraska). Nebraska was ranked a couple of spots higher. That should imply a close game, not a blowout. Unfortunately, it seemed as if Arizona simply forgot to show up. The Nebraska offense only scored more points against the likes of Arkansas State, Louisiana -Lafayette and Florida Atlantic. Even three-win Colorado managed a much closer game. Maybe San Diego was a little too exciting for the Wildcats.

Oregon: F (17-26 vs. Ohio State). The Big 10 always loses the Rose Bowl. Ohio State always loses its bowl games. Oregon and Ohio State had two common opponents. Oregon beat Purdue by two and USC by 27. Ohio State lost to Purdue by eight and USC by three. Both teams had not been to the Rose Bowl in a while, but playing in BSC bowls is routine for Ohio State, while Oregon is much more hungry for a big bowl. All signs should point to an easy Oregon win. They deserve in F for the faceplant on the big stage.