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Showing posts from 2008

Change or Die

Every New Year’s people make resolutions to change.  Few resolutions last.

In fact, research has shown that even if someone knows 100% for sure that their actions are endangering their life, only 10% would actually change their behaviour.

Yes, you read that correctly -- in the face of death, 90% of people will choose to die, rather than change their long-term habits.

Just about everyone in Western society knows that eating too much fat, salt, and sugar will kill them.  They know that smoking and heavy drinking will kill them.  This doesn’t seem to matter.

As a result, 80% or more of the health care budget is spent on diseases that are completely preventable.  Have a look at the top five causes of death for developed countries:

Heart disease
Stroke
Respiratory infection
Lung cancer
Car accident

All of these are primarily behavioural.  Meanwhile, they are draining critical resources from our health care system that could be focused on emergencies and other unavoidable issues.

So next time you’re c…

The economics of selling everything you own

In the process of selling all of my furniture for the move to a furnished condo in Texas, I’ve learned something very interesting about pricing.  I had read about the effect before, but never experienced it so clearly.

It seems that for a lot of items, their demand curve looks almost like a cliff, where demand is near zero until you cross a certain threshold, then increases quickly to infinite.

For instance, I first posted some items on Kijiji at a high price since I wanted to continue using them right up until I moved.  I then dropped the price, bit by bit to gauge demand.  In every case, the first few drops did nothing and I had zero inquiries

Then, all of the sudden, I would cross a threshold where the emails started flooding in -- sometimes only a few minutes after I posted.

This is a really important lesson for anyone who sells a product or service.  If you price it just slightly too expensive you might sell nothing, whereas only a small price drop could sell out your entire inventor…

Thinking about the big picture

Dan Roam, aka. "the napkin guy" has a great recent post about proactive thinking about the big picture, instead of having simple knee-jerk reactions.  Why do all of the "solutions" to the various economic problems seem like band-aid approaches doomed to fail?
"Wait a minute folks. What happens if we take just a couple minutes and look at the bigger picture? I'll bet a better set of solutions will appear." ... "It seems to me there is a lot more that makes sense when the pieces are looked at in concert rather than alone. All the sudden potential solutions that have a long-term impact emerge."
See the full article at: http://digitalroam.typepad.com/digital_roam/2008/12/fixing-the-usa-or-tilting-at-windmills.html

Ontario considering cellphone driving ban

Ontario is consider a ban on "electronic communication devices" for anyone driving a vehicle. As much as I appreciate the convenience of being able to make a quick call to a friend, numerous studies have shown that the risk of driving while talking on a cellphone is close to that of drinking and driving.

Car accidents are the #1 non-medical cause of death in developed nations, so it only makes sense to try to make driving safer. Based on the statistics, and what I've seen on the road, I'd have to support a ban like this.

Reported various places, including a detailed article in the Globe and Mail.

Will the real jhanley please stand up?

I signed up for Google's Gmail service in the early beta and was very happy to receive the nice, easy to remember jhanley alias. This has turned out to be a bit of a mixed blessing.

As Gmail has become more popular, I've started receiving frequent emails for John Hanley, Jessica Hanley, Jane Hanley, Joe Hanley, and many more. And for the most part, these people are entering the wrong email address themselves!

I've received funeral condolences, "pen pal" letters, very personal family information, personal financial information, login information for test scores, scads of logins for commercial sites. You name it, I've seen it.

I try my best to contact someone to let them know they have the wrong address, but sometimes there's no return address. In that case, the best I can do is cancel the account/subscription and hope they'll get a clue.

Please -- everyone -- take some time to learn what your email address is and try to enter it correctly! Otherwise, …

Canada: A failure of democracy

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The election is over. Here are the results:

$300 million was spent to bring us “democracy”, but nobody is happy with the results. Because of our antiquated electoral system:

The Bloc received 20 more seats than they deserved
The NDP received 18 less seats than they deserved
The Conservatives received 28 more seats than they deserved
The Greens received no seats at all -- 21 less than they deserved
People had to resort to strategic voting instead of voting for what they actually believed in
More people didn’t vote at all than the combined sum of Liberal and Conservative votes

If the Left had united, as the Right did in 2003, they would have formed a majority government. Unless reformed, our electoral system will eventually devolve into something even worse -- a dysfunctional two-party system like the United States.

Before the next federal election, we need to adopt a proportional, progressive system, like most modern nations already have.

Want to find out more? Check out http://www.fairvote.…

Gas Price Conspiracies

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Now that gas prices are on the decline again, everyone has forgotten about them and moved on to the new crisis du jour.

However, we are in an election, and politicians love to fan the flames of the whole gas price conspiracy fire, alleging price fixing/gouging and the like.

I'm no fan of the big energy companies, but I've always known that retail gasoline prices were strongly correlated with crude oil prices. The constant rantings about gas prices over the summer made me curious about the nature of the correlation.

I plotted the last 10 years of gas vs. crude oil. (real dollars, both adjusted to an index of 100 in 1997, Weekly data from here, Oil is blue, Gas is red)

The prices are highly correlated, but the gas price fluctuations are actually "smoother" than the oil prices. You can see in the late 90s gas failed to fall as quickly as oil, and over the past year, how gas has not risen as quickly as oil.

The general trend, however, is strong correlation. As I can tell, t…

What is ROWE?

I read a nice little example of ROWE*-based thinking in a recent blog posting. (link to the full article below)
...
Pre-ROWE

Manager: “We’ve been working on this strategy for awhile, and I really want you to crack the nut this year.”

Employee: “Got it. I’ll do my best.” ["I have no idea what you're asking for, but if I show up every day, stay late, and come to you next year with something that I think you might like, I should be okay."]

Post-ROWE

Manager: “We’ve been working on this strategy for awhile, and I really want you to crack the nut this year.”

Employee: “Let’s define ‘the nut’. How will we know if I’ve cracked it? How will it be measured? What’s ‘meets expectations’ and ‘exceeds expectations’ on cracking the nut?” ["If I can get clear on how to exceed expectations on cracking this nut, I can figure out the activities that will get me there and also plan how I'll volunteer at my child's school, coach her basketball team, and take a vacation to Miami.…

Efficiency through simplicity

Tim Ferris recently posted about a Dutch ROWE office implementation. It was a good read, but I was more interested by the bit at the end about his own home office and techniques for simplifying life.
"I limit misbehavior by limiting options. Notice that I have no shelves. This discourages accumulating papers and encourages both elimination and immediate digital note-taking." ... "Don’t want to eat too much chocolate? Don’t put it in your house."
...
"Constraints — a precursor to simplicity — aren’t always a bad thing. In fact, they’re often better than increasing options."
This reminded me of some simple "tweaks" I use in my own life to achieve optimal results. For instance, there are certain types of junk food that I just can't resist if they're in my cupboard, but at the grocery store, I have the discipline to simply not buy them. I buy healthy food instead. Then, when I'm at home looking for a snack, I end up eating cottage chee…

Management vs. Leadership

Robert X. Cringely wrote a nice little post about Leadership recently. Everybody has lots to say on this topic -- most of which is meaningless blubber -- but I was particularly impressed with these little gems (emphasis added):
"Management is telling people what to do, which is a vital part of any industrial economy. Leadership is figuring out what ought to be done then getting people to do it, which is very different. It is a vital part of any successful post-industrial economy, too, but most managers don't know that.

...

In contrast to the military, most businesses do a lot less explaining and pondering and a lot more laying down edicts. That's management, which works fine on an assembly line, but not at all well building a big software application or winning a war."

You can read the full article here: http://www.pbs.org/cringely/pulpit/2008/pulpit_20080917_005420.html

Green Party leading Facebook "polls"

The Green Party seems to be using media and technology well so far in this campaign. I was surprised to see how quickly and effectively they were able to mobilize Canadians to help them secure a spot in the public debates.

Far from scientific, I've taken a quick "poll" of the official party pages on Facebook, a few days into the campaign. Currently they look like:

Green: 2,417 fans, 142 wall posts, 24 discussion topics
Liberal: 969 fans, 83 wall posts, 3 discussion topics
Conservative: 654 fans, 75 wall posts, 5 discussion topics
NDP: 437 fans, 19 wall posts, 2 discussion topics

I wonder if these numbers actually reflect the voting preferences of the "Facebook demographic". Someone should do a more scientific study. Any volunteers?

Green Party ahead of its time. Too far ahead.

I just read the following press release from the Green Party: http://www.greenparty.ca/en/releases/08.09.2008

This shows one of the reasons the Greens have had such a hard time breaking into the mainstream. They have intelligent people and great ideas, but people don't understand them, and aren't ready for them yet.

They talk about the "Guaranteed Livable Income" concept, which basically enforces a minimum standard of living in terms of food, shelter, health, etc. for everyone.

Poverty is a complex issue that can't be solved with a "silver bullet" policy like this alone. But one would hope with all of our knowledge and technology, the least we'd be able to do by now is provide the basic necessities to everyone. This sounds like a progressive step towards a better society overall.

The problem is that nobody is ready for radical changes like this yet. The Greens are making it too easy for other parties to prey on people's ignorance and fear of cha…

Banks need your money

As the credit crunch expands, some banks are now finding themselves in short supply of their primary asset -- money!

Expect more offers like the one I received from RBC today:

"As an RBC Direct Investing client, you’re probably already enjoying lower commissions on trades and top-notch research and investing tools. Now we’re offering a 1% cash bonus as well.

Transfer $25,000 or more into an existing or new RBC Direct Investing account from an account held at an investment dealer outside of RBC by November 28, 2008, and you may be eligible for a cash bonus worth 1% of the transfer, to a maximum of $2,500 per account type. As an added incentive, we’ll also cover up to $125 in transfer fees."

Perhaps they'll even get a clue and stop charging such ridiculous "maintenance fees" on their regular accounts.

Sleep apparently necessary

I try my best to get 7+ hours of sleep per day. I've noticed my ability to focus and concentrate on tough problems tends to decrease when I have 6 or less hours. Despite controversy and claims by some to be able to function "fine" on very little sleep, studies keep telling us adequate sleep is quite necessary.

CNN Money Small Business reports:

"The researchers were startled to find that subjects' mental acuity declined markedly after just one night and kept dropping with each successive night of four hours' sleep. Even more worrying: The study's volunteers were unaware of their impairment. One woman, so fatigued that she could barely say her name, was nonetheless certain she was able to drive home.

Says David Dinges, who ran the project: "Like people who have had too much to drink, the chronically sleep-deprived have no sense of their limitations." The consequences can be dire - Dinges believes inadequate sleep was a factor in some of the world&…

Why is banking so expensive in Canada?

We have two major oligopolies in Canada -- the communication companies (Bell, Rogers, Shaw, and Telus) and the major banks (BMO, RBC, CIBC, and TD).

I'm routinely annoyed by both, but today I'm going to complain about the banks. In the US, banks compete with one another, and routinely offer no-fee, no-limit chequing accounts. The major banks here do not.*

I recently learned that the bank I deal with, RBC, offers their $10.95/month unlimited chequing account FOR FREE in the States. Have a look: US RBC Free Checking Account

Meanwhile, their Canadian division charges more than $130 a year for the same product!

Why do they do this? Because they can. They're colluding with the other major banks to keep fees artificially high, and nobody has challenged them.

Aren't these guys supposed to keep watch for this sort of thing?

* Yes, I know some of the "fringe" banks like PC Financial do, but there are a lot of drawbacks to these accounts. They have deposit wait times, …

I.O.U.S.A. - A movie about the debt crisis

I just found out today that there's a movie all about the debt/credit/finance crisis in the States. I think just about everyone knows that something bad is going on, but relatively few understand the size and scope of the problem. Hopefully this will help explain it to the masses.

Even here in Canada, where the federal government has been balancing the budget, and we have a trade surplus, our consumers are buried in debt. And things will likely get worse before they get better.

From the trailer: "This is America. We don't do anything until something reaches a crisis."

Check their website at: http://www.iousathemovie.com/

Service Failure

Today I experienced something I learned about in a Services Marketing course while doing my MBA at Laurier. It’s what’s called “Service Failure.” I’m sure you’ve all experienced it one time or another.

This is when a service business promises you a certain experience, then fails to deliver.

In this case, it was a not-to-be named local haircutting salon I’ve been going to for a year or so. I always make an appointment, arrive on time, and typically wait 10-15 minutes before being started on.

Anyone who knows me is aware of my strict adherence to deadlines and schedules and my general annoyance at people who don’t.

To me, making an appointment with someone is a promise that they will be available at the specified time, barring an unforeseen calamity.

Nonetheless, I put up with the 10-15 minute wait because most places aren’t much better.

Well, today I came in on time, as usual, and was told, “Just finishing up here. Have a seat and I’ll be with you shortly.” I sat down, texted a bit, wat…

Reducing the Risk of Fixed-Price Projects

Scott Ambler has posted a follow-up on his previous article about fixed price software projects at http://www.ddj.com/architect/209602001.

As a quick summary, he gives five recommendations:

Give a ranged estimate (+/- a certain percentage or amount)
Do some upfront agile modeling (using people who will actually do the work)
If the customer still insists on a "precise" estimate, pad the number as much as possible to account for the risks
Fix the price, flex the scope (anything added requires removing something of equal effort)
Stage the funding, based on real deliverables (working software)

More to come on this topic...

Fixed-Price Software Development

I had been putting together some notes to write a short article about the difficulties with fixed-price software development, but Scott Ambler beat me to it. I just read his excellent piece, entitled "Is Fixed-Price Software Development Unethical?"

It's sure to spark some controversy. As he mentions, both academia and industry have been trying to figure out how to do this for decades now, and haven't had much success.

The important thing to note is that he is talking about projects where the scope, schedule and cost are all determined upfront. To the inexperienced, this seems completely reasonable, but anyone who's done software development for long enough (10+ years) understands the problems with this approach:

It is impossible to define a 100% precise scope upfront.
The scope always changes. Frequently.
Even with a 100% precise, fixed scope, your estimate will likely only have order of magnitude accuracy.
Starting with a good estimate, the resources you assign to…

HOT HOT HOT and URGENT

It's getting more and more difficult to differentiate between the different types of spam. Just glancing at the last part of subject line, it looked like porn spam.

Subject: Linux bash/perl programmer..........HOT HOT HOT and URGENT

Turns out it was actually recruiter spam.

Body: This is *** from ***.. Please let me know your comfortability ASAP.... I need a guy he must have at least 2 years of experience that his primary job is to write bash or perl script on linux machine.

Training Video: The Learn PHP Tutorial

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After several months of development, I’m proud to announce that the Syllogistic Software team has completed its latest product – the Learn PHP Tutorial Video, found at http://www.LearnPHPTutorial.com/

“That’s great,” you say, “but what is PHP?” Glad you asked! PHP is a web programming language. In fact, it’s a web programming language I’ve been using since version 3 was released in 1998. Hard to believe it’s been around for 10 years now.

Since we use PHP on a daily basis to create dynamic web applications for clients, it was only natural for us to produce a training video to help others do the same.

So have a look at the two free sample chapters we’ve posted, and don’t hesitate to pass our link on to anyone you think might find it useful.

If you have any comments, suggestions or questions about the videos, try out the Support feature on the website. Look forward to hearing what you think!

Gmail SPAM: Update

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SPAM email. Everyone hates it. Company and individuals alike have built various systems for dealing with it, but from what I hear, most solutions are sub-optimal.

I currently receive about 365 spam emails per day. 290 in my personal account, and 75 in my work account.

But I hardly ever have to think about this!

That's because I use hosted Gmail for both my personal and work accounts. Every time a spam email makes it through. I simply check it, and hit the "Report Spam" button. Hundreds of thousands of others do this every day. Then, the Google algorithm goes through and figures out which emails are spam based on this aggregate result.
It ends up being extremely accurate. I've only had 2 or 3 false positives* over the past 3 years I've used Gmail.

Because of this, I can confidently ignore the spam/junk folder. Gmail saves these messages for 30 days -- just in case.

Yet another reason to use hosted Google services... :)

*A false positive is a legitimate email tha…

Rising gas prices are good!

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Warning: This blog posting will probably make you mad. If your blood pressure rises in correlation with gas prices, stop reading now!

Gas prices have been increasing over the years, and I personally think it’s great! Don’t get me wrong. I have a car, and I love driving, but I also think people (including me) drive way too much.

Why do we drive so much? Because it’s still too cheap! Even with the price more than doubling in the past five years, there are more cars on the road, more drivers, and people driving further distances each day.

Obviously people need to do a certain amount of driving, but it’s the long distance commuters that really confuse me. Apparently they think it’s more economical to travel hundreds of kilometers and spend 3-6 hours in a car every day than to move closer to their workplace.

I think if you added up all of the costs very carefully (including car ownership and lost productivity due to travel time) you’d find this type of commute is actually way more expens…

Phone vs. Email

In the business world, there are phone people, and there are email people. I'll admit right upfront that I'm an email person. There are situations when phone or face-to-face meetings are necessary or more appropriate, but for most day to day issues, I think email is great.

Consider this scenario: I send an email checking on the status of something. The other person gets the email, and realizes they need to ask me something that basically requires a yes or no answer.

Instead of emailing, they phone me. Naturally, I miss the call and they leave me a long message re-explaining the entire situation, asking me the question, and leaving their contact information and the times they can be reached.

I have to log into my voicemail, retrieve the message, listen to it (possibly more than once) and take down the contact info. Then I call them back -- and, you guessed it -- they're not available. By the time I finally get them tracked down and give them their answer, I've probabl…

The Great Food Divide

I just read an interesting article in the Star entitled, "North Americans become obese while foreign children starve."

An interesting figure from the article: "Right now, there are one billion people who are malnourished and nearly one billion who are overweight."

So basically there's lots of food for everyone, it's just being distributed very unevenly.

Raj Patel has been documenting this phenomenon for quite some time over at Stuffed and Starved.

Spell checkers should check for obscure words

Here's an idea for word processors and spell checkers. They already underline words in red that they don't find in their dictionary.

How about if obscure words were underlined in yellow? For instance, I have a habit of typing "manger" instead of "manager" when I'm typing too fast. The word "manger" is probably not used much except around Christmas. It'd be nice if it were flagged in yellow and I could right-click to get a list of more common words with a similar spelling.

Have any spell checkers already implemented something like this? Let me know if you've seen it anywhere.

RIM COO notes lack of competition in Canada mobile data

I recently came across this article from July in the Financial Post stating that RIM "... blasted Canadian cellphone companies ... for their high data rates and for not competing against each other strongly enough."

This has been a problem in Canada for more then 5 years, and I'm glad to hear that people are starting to make some noise about it.

High-tech companies can't and won't develop innovative mobile services in Canada until the current wireless cartel is broken up.

Communication: No news is bad news

It's been my experience that, most of the time, delayed responses are bad. If I ask a question, and don't hear back from someone soon, it usually means the answer is negative.
In various psychology classes, I remember learning that people tend to give positive answers quickly, but are reluctant to say "no". This was noted as especially true in Asian and Indian cultures.
That said, there are a few exceptions: People going on vacation, not getting the message, emergencies coming up, etc.
In general, if I send a request and don't hear back within 1-2 business days, I assume about a 90% chance of some sort of negative response.
Does anyone know of any empirical research on this subject? If so, please post it as a comment.