Free Little Pigs

Once upon a time there were three little groups of pigs. No, not those pigs, this is a slightly different world.

In this world, most pigs lived in straw houses. A few pigs had started to figure out that twig houses were an improvement but they were relatively few.

Most of the straw-house pigs were quite happy. Their houses kept them dry most of the time and rarely did the gentle winds in this valley do enough damage to the straw houses to be much of a concern. Of course, it did happen on occasion, but most of those pigs chalked it up to bad luck and re-built their straw houses, though a few did see the wisdom of the twig houses and became Twig Pigs.

The Twig Pigs could not understand how the Straw Pigs could accept their straw houses. The Twig Pigs did what they could to try to tell the straw pigs what kind of trouble could be in store for them. Some did so gently, some were more obnoxious about it. Some even tried to huff and puff on the straw houses to make their point. But alas, pigs cannot blow down houses, that’s a different story.

The Twig Pigs became more strident, warning of an impending storm that would take down all of the straw houses, yet the Straw Pigs didn’t listen and went back to their food and their games. This only frustrated the Twig Pigs, and many of the Twig Pigs eventually gave up trying.

Then one day came a strong and frightful storm. Thunder and lightning, gales and hurricane-force winds whipped the valley. Straw house after straw house was destroyed. And so were the twig houses. The Straw Pigs were too disinterested and the Twig Pigs were too busy trying to convince the Straw Pigs that they failed to notice that a few of the Twig Pigs thought long and hard about their situation and decided to build brick houses. The Brick Pigs were well-protected from the storm, and invited in all of the Straw Pigs and Twig Pigs who could make it to the brick houses.

Once the storm cleared, the valley had no more Straw Pigs and no more Twig Pigs, for they were all now Brick Pigs. The first Brick Pigs had accomplished what the Twig Pigs could not, and then some.

Letter to Paul Hodes re: IRA Withdrawls

Dear Mr. Hodes,

I’m writing to describe a problem the federal government is causing in the current economic environment, and to offer a suggested solution.

As you know, due to tough economic times, many are un- or under-employed, even if they’ve had very good jobs in the past. Those who fall into this category are likely to have amassed substantial 401(k), 403(b), or IRA savings. However, making a withdrawal against these savings can incur a 40% tax hit, that is, a penalty paid to the federal government for accessing one’s money.

Taking this kind of money from people who are struggling to meet monthly bills, keep their houses, and even buy food is immoral. What’s worse is it’s putting an additional burden on social welfare programs for people who otherwise would not need to partake. This causes a further hit to local, federal, and state budgets. The money to avoid these problems exists, but is inaccessible by federal regulation.

I’d like to see you introduce legislation that would allow individuals in this kind of situation to withdraw a portion of their retirement savings each year without penalty. By setting limits (e.g. taxable income under 2x the federal poverty limit, $20,000 per year maximum, etc.) abuse can be avoided.

Thank you for your consideration of this pressing matter.

-Bill

Car Dealerships: an Outdated Model

If I were going to start a car dealership here in the wilds of New Hampshire it would be called “The 4-Wheel Warehouse”. OK, so I’d actually spend some time thinking up a less terrible name, but I’d just sell four-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive vehicles. I won’t buy anything else living here, so why would I sell anything else?

Well, with the current model, that means I’d pretty much have to be a Subaru dealer because nobody else makes a full line of AWD vehicles. Subaru’s are great, don’t get me wrong, but not everybody wants a Subaru.

The only way this would make sense to me would be for me to carry an Impreza, an Outback, and a Forester. I don’t imagine many WRX’s sell up here, and nobody likes the Tribecca. But Mercedes also makes some good 4Matic vehicles, and Lexus makes an AWD sedan now, as well as their SUV. Honda still makes a Minivan, and Toyota has the Matrix. Honda also has the Element, which is also cheap and quirky. Maybe I don’t care for the RAV-4 or the CRV or the 4-Runner. But I definitely want to carry the Tundra, but the Ridgeline I don’t think has great market appeal.

What am I doing here? I’m thinking like any normal retail business owner, choosing to sell the products that make sense in my market. Creating a place of commerce where customers can find, review, and compare the products they’re interested in. What do I have to do now if I’m interested in getting an all-wheel vehicle? Drive all over creation and spend days test driving, talking to salesmen who know even less about the competition than I do walking in, and perhaps their own products. There’s no value-add there, and my dream car dealership would create great value in a largely undifferentiated market. Every salesguy would know alot about car traction and be able to help people pick the right car for them. I think I could even command a market premium for the service.

Pick just about any other store that’s not “an X dealer” and that’s how they work. I can walk to the tool aisle of Home Depot and compare a DeWalt to a Milwaukee to a Bosch, and yes, even a Rigid. It’s true Home Depot doesn’t handle tool repair, but every corner garage manages to repair all kinds of cars, so it doesn’t seem plausible that a dedicated dealer would have any trouble at all, unless the manufacturers purposely impede.

But the current model makes selling cars the way my market would prefer impossible, or next to it. Maybe there are too many car dealers out there, but perhaps our countryside is just littered with inefficient, irrelevant car dealerships that are relics of a time gone by. Instead of bemoaning the loss in quantity, perhaps it’s time to start addressing quality.

A Model for Better, More Competitive Newspapers

A comment I left on Bob Cringely’s WAAS Up article:

Whenever I’ve been interviewed for a newspaper, words and facts have been twisted and/or just gotten wrong. Whenever I read a popular press article in an area where I have in-depth knowledge, it’s wrong, at least in the details.

So, I just assume that’s true all the time and go to specialists for real news reporting. I haven’t checked, but I’d assume a place like Jane’s would have a good article on this GPS thing.

How about this business model: be a journalist who’s a bona-fide expert on GPS. Write completely accurate, insightful, and helpful news articles on GPS happenings. Charge alot for them.

The last part is the trick of course. But how many GPS journalists does the world need? No more than a handful. With the Internet it should be possible to greatly reduce the number of generalist journalists and start making ‘newspapers’ much better with experts. There’s probably too much inertia at established papers but a disruptive model seems possible.

It’s not ‘mere blog aggregation’ because most bloggers aren’t writing in the form or quality required, but some scheme with writers, aggregators, and integrators could get it done. I don’t see the value in local newspapers doing anything but inserting their local stories into layout and selling ads these days – find an integrator that matches your editorial values and outsource it.

Blog Sub-Title Change

This blog used to be called, “Resigned to the Bittersweet Truth”. Now it’s called “Untrain Your Mind”.

I’m feeling less resigned lately, so the title ought to reflect that. I’m learning that much of what I’ve been taught over the years simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. So, the new title reflects that.

I was surprised to not find the phrase in use by any blogs to date, though there is one other use as a proper phrase (in the World According to Google), to which I must give credit: an album by Erin Wood who was at Longwood University as of 2006. Our inventions were independent, but obviously she has a knack for the phrase. 🙂

How Up to Date is Your Autopilot?

It appears now that the plane that went down over Buffalo was covered in ice and on autopilot. The FAA warned against this in 1994, and it was since airline policy not to do so.

A bit of research quickly finds the Smart Icing Systems Project from the

Aerodynamics and Flight Mechanics Group at UIUC, which has been studying this problem since 1996, and in 2003 developed a set of algorithms to allow autopilot systems to handle icing conditions.

So, that leads then to the following lines of questioning:

  • when was that airplane’s autopilot system last updated?

  • is it updatable?

  • does the airline do updates, if it is?

  • has the manufacturer implemented ice-condition algorithms?

  • how is icing reliably detected?

  • how can I know, as a customer of an airline, if the plane I’m going to be on has the best possible autopilot? (without market demand the tendency is towards cost minimization)

  • should incorporating best practices into air flight software be mandated by certification bodies or governments?

In general, automatic systems do better than human pilots. The navy has automated landing systems for aircraft carriers that can hit the cable on the deck under full steam in high seas. They do better than the Navy’s human pilots do, so I think I’d rather have that system landing me at O’Hare than a human. Collisions often happen when pilots ignore warning systems. The latest fighter jets can’t even fly without computer control. However, problems like the one in Buffalo will only tarnish public perception of automated aircraft systems.

It appears this incident actually proves that we can’t rely on human judgment in dangerous conditions, but I expect it’ll be spun the opposite way.

NH: Compulsory Drug Testing for all Drivers

A bill has been introduced before the New Hampshire House of Representatives, called HB 575-FN – AN ACT prohibiting driving with any amount of certain controlled drugs or metabolites in the blood or urine which slips this little gem into our laws:

II. Any person who drives, operates, or attempts to operate an OHRV, drives or attempts to drive a vehicle upon the ways of this state, or operates or attempts to operate a boat on the public waters of this state shall be deemed to have given consent to chemical, infrared molecular absorption, or gas chromatograph test or tests of his or her blood or urine for the presence of any schedule I controlled substance, as defined in RSA 318-B:1-b, or its metabolites.

Read that again if it didn’t sink in. If you’re going for a gallon of milk, you’ve implicitly given your consent to have to pee in a cup or be stuck for a blood draw just by pulling out of your driveway. No commission of a crime is required, no reasonable suspicion need be raised. You’ve implicitly consented, just by driving, or riding your ATV or snowmobile, or piloting your boat. If you’re out fishing on the lake, you cannot refuse a random blood draw. Well, you can, but you’ll be found guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to arrest. I’m sure you’ll be eventually vindicated on fourth amendment grounds, if you can afford to fight it, but any way you cut it this is outrageous and demeaning.

This bill is sponsored by Reps. J. Flanders and Welch, of Rockingham District 8. The committee members contact info can be found here and you can find contact information for your legislators here.

A hearing is scheduled at the Legislative Office Building in Concord on 02/05/2009 at 11:00 AM, Room 204. Everybody needs to be there.