Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Musings: Ten things holding back tech

So this little ditty has made the rounds, but really, there doesn't seem to be much there. It's a lot of personal philosophy mixed with big picture problems and insufficient or inadequate solutions.

Ten things holding back tech - ZDNet UK

I guess the easiest way to start is to work our way from the top.

1. Microsoft's stranglehold on the desktop
Windows unified the personal-computer market, and led it into the enterprise. A good thing, surely? Yes — if unity is more important than innovation, flexibility and a free market.

This is dutifully followed by multiple European Commission references and the whole "monopolies are bad" thing. This is both an over-simplification and a philosophical imposition. Of course he segues this right into #2

2. Operator lock-in
But I want to stop it right there.

Microsoft's stranglehold on the desktop has enabled the very advances in technology that we're seeing. Having one platform has made the software process less costly and therefore more open. So in many ways this drives innovation, flexibility and the free market.

If I can make software for one or two platforms and only have to test/maintain it on those one or two platforms, then the cost to produce my software and make it competitive is significantly lower. With MS dominating the desktop market, it's easy to make new software that reaches 90%+ of the audience by just making for Windows.

If we started the whole thing again and made a world where 5 different OS vendors each had 20% of the desktop market, we'd eventually end up with 2 OS vendors again and they would either have a split market (Coke, Pepsi) or one leader and one little guy (MS, Apple) with a smattering of small budget competitors. This isn't "right or wrong", it's just the way things are, especially in the realm of "platforms" (OSes, web browsers, etc.)

Supporting multiple platforms is very expensive, it always has been: scroll back to the 80s, look at wars between Unix variants, it hasn't changed. So I fail to see why "unseating" Microsoft as the crown jewel is going to "fix" problems. If MS lost 30% of the desktop share to Apple and Linux variants, the world wouldn't magically become a "better place", if anything, small tech companies would be griping at the difficulty of making new software and reaching a big enough market to support any growth.

And I'm not saying that MS is the "good guy" here, they're not. They've cleared played very dirty for many years (but hey, that's what publicly held companies are basically required by law to do). What I am saying is that MS is not holding back the innovation front. Do a quick run of the MS research site and you'll see that they're not sitting on their laurels. If anything, they have too much going on and nobody can really keep up.

He quotes the required Vista failure lines: As Vista so readily proves, rehashing the same idea again and again does not make for progress. And unless you're a Dev, Vista was really a bust. As a dev though, I can tell you that changes are afoot for Windows desktop apps in the coming years and whether Singularity becomes the new OS of choice or everyone just skips to Windows 7, there's a lot going on under the hood that we won't see for a few years to come. But if you haven't played with WPF, then you won't know any of this, so give it some time.

3. Input methods
We haven't come far. Qwerty is 130 years old, and windows, icons, mice and pointers are 35. Both come from before the age of portable computing. So why are we reliant on these tired old methods for all our new form factors?

Hey buddy, the same Windows Vista that you're mocking in the previous point has voice recognition built in to the OS level. One of the popular Dot Net bloggers Scott Hanselman has a post about it here. He uses a microphone for much of his work. MS has also had a Tablet PC edition available for years, and again the features are built-in with all versions of Vista.

If you want a new input method, go out and buy yourself a tablet, you can get them under a $100 dollars and having used a few, they're definitely a new way of inputting. If that's not enough for you, check out Microsoft's Surface.

Point being, we're not reliant on the Keyboard and Mouse for all inputs, they're just the cheapest implementable methods available. Yes, there are tons of other things that we could be doing, but I think that it's pretty obvious that we're working on them. Supporting a "touch-based" or a "voice-driven" user interface is not an easy problem. It's a really hard problem and we're not "being held back", we're "evolving better solutions".

4. Battery Life
Yeah, you got me here, if we could triple the amount of energy stored in a Li-Ion battery, we would definitely have a different computing environment. But for anyone who knows the basic chemistry here, this is not an easy problem.

Short of a completely new battery technology, we're don't really have any more doubling room left. However, we do have the ability to get more mileage from our batteries: OLED screens promise better usage than TFT LCD we typically use and portable music players have been shown to be able to drastically extend battery life when using certain compression algorithms. And of course, we've made huge leaps in the last few years with making more efficient computer processors to help extend battery life.

5. The mania for speed
Faster processors are great. However, there is more to computing than processor speed — a point which can be easily proven by comparing a two-year-old PC running Linux with a new PC buckling under the weight of Vista. Shrinking the manufacturing process to enable greater speed has proven essential, but it's running out of magic.

...smarter, not faster, will lead to both smarter and faster.

Yes we're well aware of the size limitations on the processor, but if you haven't noticed, the "mania for speed" stopped a few years ago when Intel abandoned the P4 architecture and moved towards the Core and the Core 2. At that point they joined AMD in making multi-core, more power efficient processors in an attempt to address points #4 & 5.

The cheap shots comparing Linux and Vista are just that: cheap shots. Linux and Vista are not competitive desktop OSes, Vista and Mac OS X are competitive desktop OSes, I guess he's counting on the Slashdot crowd to back him up on the Apples-to-Oranges comparison.

Point is, between various SSE and the move to 64-bit and the move to multi-core and the creation of things like physics processors, we're clearly making a lot of movement in the "not faster" category.

Ok let's skip ahead:
9. National interests
10. The current lack of global wars and/or disasters
Yeah, again, you got me... technology is being impeded by political interests. This isn't new or novel, this has gone on for as long as we've known. Galileo's pretty famous for his sacrifice, but these are pretty disingeneous arguments to make when we live in an era of relatively high freedom and access to information.

And now for more of the opinions:
8. Web 2.0
I think that I can let most of this just speak for itself:
Speaking of daft innovations that do little to better the lives of humanity, Web 2.0 has a lot to answer for...But the extremes of enthusiasm shown by financiers and business people are verging on counterproductive...It's nice to see the vanguard cashing in. But they're not really worth their valuations or the mountains of cash they have received from venture capitalists, whose money could probably find better use in other areas of technological innovation.

Yes, b/c making the web into the new target platform isn't really that significant? Oh no, you're just saying that it's a waste of money. I thought that you wanted innovation, flexibility and a free market, but I thought that it took money and competition to make these things happen. Are lots of companies going to fail, are lots of investors going to lose lots of money? Sure, but that's just par for the course, being angry at "Web 2.0" is like being angry at every major technological boom: radio, the railway, cars, they all had their big booms and their big losers.

This will be no different, of course, I can assure you that people throwing billions of dollars at technology is not "holding back tech" as the title of the article would seem to imply.

7. Skills inequalities
Applications and technology might become more intuitive and creative if more women were involved in the industry. Diversity breeds innovation...
The more IT listens to and gives power to those it has traditionally excluded, the better it will be suited to solve real problems for us all.

Yeah, yeah, if more men were involved in the nursing industry the world would be a better place, right? Just more cheap shots and more of the same "classic" problems. Take that last sentence and replace IT with any major industry: healthcare, education, engineering, public services. It's basically a straw man sentence with no supporting arguments.

The author cannot even be bothered to find a single link in this section that supports his statements, espeically the whole "if more women were involved" sentence. I just can't argue with "logic" like that.

And lastly, we'll end on a good note:
6. Intellectual property law
Here he's correct.

Laws regarding IP are not currently capable of correctly handling modern technology. This is not just for technology, this is for all of the arts. Consider that the laws regarding copyright and patents were developed before the advent of the microchip, before scanners and photocopiers and digital cameras and even affordable home cameras.

If you, faithful reader, were writing Intellectual Property laws in the 1850s, how would you have accounted for all of these things?.... yeah, I wouldn't have been able to either... so it's probably time to re-write most of this stuff, but many of the politicians responsible for making these changes are just not technically capable enough to institute the changes... kind of a shitty deal.

Of course, we'll need this intervention sooner rather than later, b/c not only was IP law not written for the current tech, it was written before the advent of computer code. So that means that all of the computer code powering all of the highly capable computers is all hovering in a giant legal gray area b/c no one's really legislated a good answer for the whole thing (again, not like the people drafting the laws have the required technical know-how).

So there we go... the "Gates on Stuff" Top 3 List of Things Holding Back Technology:
1. Battery life
2. Politics
3. IP law (read politics...)

OK, new list:
1. Battery life
2. Politics
3. Really shitty tech writers

Of course, YMMV.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

What is Your Tipping Policy?

This one is in reply to a post on Million Dollar Journey:

Ask the Readers: What is Your Tipping Policy? Million Dollar Journey

Wow man, didn't you read the MyMoneyBlog post on this thing? It was a S***storm, you've just opened a giant can of worms :)

As a guy who's never owned a car, I've taken a few cab rides in my life. I talk to all of them, most of them don't own their cab (in Winnipeg or Edmonton). It's typically closer to one guy who owns 5-10 cabs and all of the cab drivers are on for 12 hours b/c they can't make a living wage on 8 hours shifts. This may be different in TO or Montreal, but I always give a good 10-15% (sometimes more for short rides). You're trusting your life to these guys and they don't get paid very much.

The standard McPolicy is that tips go in the charity bin. The only exception is when the patron insists, then you can take the tip just to get rid of them.

Me I don't tip my Starbucks baristas, but when I go to the Gourmet Cup across the street, the one that charges me a buck less for my latte and always has top-notch fresh-baked goodies and is clearly run by the guy who serves me... well he and his staff will get a tip. Often I'll just give them the buck they saved me :)

Delivery Drivers
Are intentionally underpaid, so I throw them a couple of bucks. Around here, the pizza place tacks on like $2 for delivery which is clearly not paying the driver very well, so I throw him a few extra. If the delivery charge were $5, then he'd get nothing.

Waitresses are like the annoying black hole of tipping. My sister's a waitress and she makes great money (her best gigs made more per hour than I did as a computer consultant!), of course, I've watched her work and she's amazing... most waitresses don't meet that quality bar. But I'm still iffy on the tipping thing.

What annoys me at a deep level, is that I don't really go to a restaurant just to be waited on, I go there to talk and to eat great food. For my night to be good, I don't really need a good waitress, I just need one that isn't inept. Heck, if I could replace the waitress with a computer ordering system and just have someone drop off drinks, that would be just fine.

Personally, what makes my night is great food, and if anyone deserves the tip for great food, it's the cooks. At least around here, the people I know working the kitchens don't make great money. Unless they're independent or "high end", they're pushing just above 30k and they're working weekends and holidays and all kinds of crappy shifts. If anything, these are the people that make my night, why don't they get the tip?

And (400 words in) this is where things get really complicated. Different restaurants and chains have different procedures for tips and tip distribution. Now to start, if it were up to me, everyone involved in the services industry would make a fair working wage and the managers would simply be responsible for paying more money to good waitresses (just like everyone else does in every other industry). But barring legislation, that's pretty much just a pipe dream, so here are the details.

Waitresses at most places are required to "tip-out" based on their total receipts. Cooks will get 2% and the bar will get 2% and hostesses will get 1% at like a typical Earl's, Montana's, Boston Pizza, etc. This may or may not be after total receipts after taxes based on who's calling the shots (of course including the taxes just dilutes the tip even more and it's pretty shady). So the passive-aggressive 1-cent tip is not just insulting, it's financially damaging (yet somehow legal).

And that's where things get funny: financially damaging. Where I live in Edmonton, there is no minimum wage (or at least nobody works for it) as we have a massive boom and a big people shortage. So even with a 10% tip, the waitress can still take home $2.50 on my $50 order and she makes $11/hr (base) + $2.50 * number of tables which can easily push her into $25 range for handling like 6 tables (of which $14 is marginally taxed). Now that's just an average joint, even in Winnipeg, renowned for its cheapness (not frugality, just outright cheapness), a quality waitress can make $23+ / hour even with a base wage of $7.

Of course, once you factor in that $16+ of those hourly dollars are cash tips and are mostly untaxed, then your waitresses end up making the equivalent salary in the $30+ range. That's $30+ dollars / hour for an entry-level job with a small amount of responsibility. A lot of waitresses are making more than the guys who prep and cook the food.

So we come back to my previous thought, don't the guys cooking the food deserve most of the money? I mean, isn't their job just a little bit harder? So here's the math:
  • Your meal cost: $100
  • Waitress salary: $7
  • Cook salary: $15

If you tip 15%, the waitress keeps 10% and ends up with $17, the cook gets 2% and ends up with the same number. As you add money to the cost of the meal, the waitress makes more and more relative to the cook. In fact, the only salvo here is that the cook should be able to cook more tables than the waitress is waiting and will therefore catch up (a little). But you're still throwing a lot of money at the person who didn't really do much that you couldn't have done yourself...

If you're like one of the crazy MSN writers and you figure that 20% is the new 15%, then the waitress ends up with $22 and the cook is still stuck at $17. (Of course, she's writing from the US where the minimum wage for wait staff is typically 50% of the regular minimum wage)


After this whole bit, I basically don't want to starve anybody, so when I'm tipping for a night out, I tip 12-15% and that's it. If I get really good food (better than expected for the price), then I'll add tip money specifically for the cooking staff (as written on the receipt), but this seems to happen pretty rarely.

It's not a perfect system and I have to vary slightly for specific places (i.e.: family-owned joints), or for when I'm sucking up a table for a long time (i.e.: watching a football game at the Boston Pizza). However, I think that it correctly accounts for the way services staff are paid and the amount that I feel they should be paid.

Of course, YMMV.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A reply: Why Isn’t There Universal Personal Financial Education?

Why Isn’t There Universal Personal Financial Education?

I think that there's something else here to consider Tim. And I think that it's the fact that we can't all save 10% or 20% of our income.

Picture a world where everyone saved just 10% of what they made and lived completely within their means. And I mean everyone. What happens?

Nothing... in a literal sense. If everyone has money and nobody needs it (b/c they don't borrow, they live within their means), then who pays out the interest? I mean, maybe a mortgage or an education might be funded in the first generation, but after that, everyone would just be able to gift their money down, so who's paying interest in a world where nobody is borrowing money...

So have I got you thinking here?

So what do you do to get ahead in this world? Well you run out and borrow tons of money, then you start building businesses and paying it back. Of course, so do other people, so the interest rates move up, but only to some equilibrium point.

Of course, now these high-rollers either go broke or make it big and at some point they stop, b/c they need to do something with their money. So the wealth gets shifted down or around and everyone but the businessmen are saving their pennies and living "risk-free". Well at some point, people in the middle (not broke or rich) are bound to say "Heck, I want a bigger car, so I'm just going to save 5% instead of 10% what do I need all of this money for."

And this is where we get "keeping up with the Joneses". Eventually the people in the middle all fight to be like the rich guys and the other people in the middle and then everything just churns at a higher rate.

Is it good or bad? Well short-term we produce more (don't know that this holds longer term), but people living check to check are definitely the lifeblood of the economy. These are the grunts who need to show up each day or they won't make the rent, these are the producers. For the rich to be "independently" wealthy, they need to leverage all of these grunts. Our stock dividends are built on the back of these people.

If the grunts all had enough money that they didn't need to go back to work, then they probably wouldn't. And of course, stuff would stop. The economy, to some extent, is driven by consumables. Now admitedly, we've created a lot of consumables in our "disposable society", but even under the cruft, we still need food and new shelters and medecines and condoms and tools and replacement parts, etc.

We PF bloggers are wrecking the curve, we're trying to to break the paycheque to paycheque lifestyle. But what we do simply does not scale infinitely.

So this:
in the end we need stupid people to make money off of so you and I are the reason there is no universal financial education
is basically correct, but it ignores two "big-picture" issues.

#1. More knowledgeable citizens are capable of making more fiscally responsible decisions. If the populace in general had a better understanding of monetary issues, our government would be held to a much higher standard. As it stands right now, I can't trust most people to understand an RRSP let alone understand the vast implications of inflation, the central banking system and just government spending in general.

#2. Productivity Lost to Overhead
If you consider many banks, insurance cos and mutual fund salesmen as useless overhead, then increased financial knowledge would lead to overall increases in productivity. Instead of selling unnecessary contract, these people could build more roads or research new products.

End of the day, I figure that Canadian Dream would agree with me that it would be nice to provide more people with the personal finance knowledge that they need. Of course, the very people suffering from this lack of knowledge are the people that don't know what they're missing. And of course, it will never become part of the public school system, b/c the voters don't know that it should be there.

Of course, as always, YMMV.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Save big on a tiny income ???

So maybe I'm just an eternal critic, but I caught this one off the wire and I had a good laugh, though there are few gems here too:

Save big on a tiny income - Savings & Debt Insight - Sympatico / MSN Finance

FTA: When I wrote an article describing how some of us could save more, I got an earful from frustrated readers, many of whom don't earn as much as the rest of us.

"If I had that kind of income I could save easily. Try (saving) on the incomes of most of us working, single moms, which is more like $2,500 a month! Cut our expenses? How???"
Carrie Bowers, 29, of Colorado, added: "How would the average service worker go about saving for retirement, a child's education (or even (her) own in hopes of moving up in the world) on less than $18,000 a year? Some financial advice for the public-transit set would be appreciated more than you know."

Now I read the original Dunleavy article for which she received the "earful" and it was pretty prissy. Of course, now she tackles a far more complex issue and basically fails to satisfy needs. I mean, imagine that you are making $18,000 / year. That's less than $9.40 / hour, that's $1500 / month to feed you and a kid (and pay taxes).

Now here's the advice that you're given:
- Stash a dollar in a jar every time you do the laundry
- Save all your $5 bills in a coffee can.
- Create bank errors in your favour. "If I spend $2.16 on a coffee, I deduct $3 (in my check register),"
-Switch from paper to plastic

Because you somehow have these "extra" dollars sitting around with 18k / year, right. And I doubt that the plastic will be necessary (if the 29-year old making 18k actually qualifies), the truth is, she probably makes like 8 purchases / month: 4 grocery runs, 1 rent cheque, 1 "bills run", 1 bus pass, 1 misc shop. She doesn't need a credit card to control spending, she doesn't have any money to spend! ($3*20 on coffee = 4% of pre-tax income!)

This one sounds like a great idea:
-"Don't forget gardening as a money-saving venture,"
Until you realize that single Moms making 25k/year don't exactly have houses with gardens. At the least she could suggest some public programs that offer free "gardening space" for families in need (and yes these do exist).

And spoken like a true "rich kid":
-"Look at the Pottery Barn catalogue, shop at Goodwill,"
-Buy generic instead of brand-name products.
-Buy non-perishables in bulk

Like anyone living on less that $400/week hasn't figured this out already. I'm pretty sure this strategy is part and parcel with keeping our two commenters off the street. Of course, when you can't afford a car (and on 18k, you can't), buying bulk goods is really a pain unless you're really lucky and the bus happens to go to your local Costco (which doesn't tend to happen b/c buses and warehouse districts don't tend to cross paths). The only saver here is this:
-Share the savings. ... buy toiletries and such at a warehouse store and divvy the spoils up with friends.

Which can at least mitigate the transportation and storage issues ('cause you don't have a lot of square footage when your monthly rent budget is under $600).

Am I being overly critical? Well OK, I'll throw out a couple of bouquets: "Make your savings automatic". is a good, if standard piece of advice. I guess if you pretend that you only have $1400 instead of $1500 each month that you may be able to parlay that $1200/ year into both a retirement fund and a university education (but good luck). She also suggests making "trades" (i.e.: bartering your time: cleaning for daycare time), which actually has useful applications but obviously doesn't scale.

Ok, so I can hear the readers now bored with my criticism: What would you do, oh GatesVP the smarty-pants???

Simple answer? Find a way to make more money.

What? What kind of answer is that?

It's a realistic answer, if you're 29 & single, with a kid and you haven't cracked $10/hour then the only way you're going to get ahead is to find a better paying job or move up in the job you're working. You can try all of Dunleavy's silly tricks, but all you're going to be doing is cutting more corners. You're not putting your kid through expensive American college, you're not "quitting work at 65".

At some point you have to figure that you're not going to make ends meet, and I think that 18k has hit that point. I mean really, even a 30k single mom with multiple kids has probably hit that point.

I know a guy who started managing his own McDonald's at 23, making 30k+. In fact corporate McDonald's stores have good family health coverage, good training, good benefits plans and managers even get a car after a few years. Now 23 is young, but I have met tons of McManagers under 30 (even some with kids) and I've even met a district manager under 30 (50k+ bigger car).

These are not prestigious positions, these are entry-level, show-up-to-work-and-we'll-train-you positions. These aren't kids with university degrees (those ones are working elsewhere), these are the ones who put in their 40 hours, go to paid McSchool and work their way up the chain is 5 years or less.

So at some point you have to ask yourself when are you going to start running your own McDonald's (insert career here) and build yourself a future?

Yeah I know you can't save for your own education, but if haven't noticed, we have tons of government programs and funding for single mothers in just this situation. Maybe it's just a Canadian thing, but you certainly don't have to starve to get an education, you just have to put in the time and pass your courses. And we also have nearly draconian laws when it comes to child support, so hearing about mothers not getting child support, while others are receiving money they're not supposed to (yes I've heard both), just burns my bacon.

Now I want to be clear here... I make 54k/year (18k * 3) and I don't own a car and I don't own a place (I rent an apartment with my fiancé) and that's how I (we) get ahead. I live close to work and do all of my grocery shopping on foot. We bus to the mall on weekends for "stuff" runs, but we've mostly cut that out now that we're done furnishing the apartment.

I'm cutting a bunch of big corners to help me get ahead, but at 18k / year, you're just not cutting it. There's simply not enough money there to live a healthy lifestyle and save.

It's cute that Dunleavy tries to help, but I think she missed the point of what it means to feed multiple mouths on 30k/year. It has nothing to do with cutting corners b/c you're already cutting tons of corners. It has everything to do with making enough money to support your needs and then making a little bit more.