Friday, October 31, 2003

Billing for Wasted Time 2

Back in August I ran a post titled Billing for wasted Time. The point was that companies are wasting more and more of our time, whether its making us stand in hour-long lines, or making us wait for an hour on hold for tech support, or making us jump through hoops for hours to get money we are rightfully owed. If we got reimbursed for that wasted time, this time-wasting phenomenon would stop.

This week there is an editorial in the NY Times talking about the same phenomenon: Customer-Service Cluelessness. Pogue calls it the "new American business model: passive-aggressive robbery." One of his examples is Verizon, where he calls multiple times to get a billing error corrected, and it never is corrected.

He notes: "Either there’s a plague of cluelessness sweeping the country’s customer-service systems, or a sinister, sneaky sort of thievery is going on. The worst part is that there’s no satisfaction in catching the culprits and calling them on it—because your time is worth something, too, and you don’t get any reimbursement for that."

What if we did get reimbursed for it?

The situation as it stands now is simple -- corporations know that if they put up time-wasting walls, most people will give up and the corporation can keep the money. Reimbursement for wasted time is the easiest way to take those walls down.

Sunday, October 26, 2003

You've Been Ghosted!!!

Last night around 8PM, the doorbell rang. Anytime the doorbell rings it's a big event for the kids, so they all go running toward the door yelling and laughing. Leigh was upstairs, and I was elbow-deep in a pumpkin pulling the seeds out. I wipe off my hands, wade through the kids and open the door.

There was no one there. But on the porch were two sheets of paper and a lunch bag. The lunch bag is full of cookies and candy, which the kids immediately begin devouring. One of the sheets of paper is a drawing of a happy ghost. The second sheet of paper says this:

You've Been Ghosted!!!

The Phantom Ghost has come to town,
To leave goodies you have found.
If you do not wish a curse to fall
You must continue this "Phantom" call.

First, post this Phantom where it can be seen
And leave it there till Halloween.
This will scare other visiting Phantoms away.
Be sure to participate, don't delay.

Second, make two treats,
Two Phantons, and
Two notes like this.

Deliver it to two neighbors that might have been missed.
Don't let them see you, be sneaky, no doubt...
(And make sure they put their "Phantom Ghost" out!)***

Next, you will have only one day to act, so be quick!
Leave it at the doors where the Phantom has not hit!
Deliver it at dark when there is no light...
Ring the doorbell and run, and stay out of sight!!!

And last but not least, enjoy the season.
Don't worry, be happy for all the right reasons.
Be cool, have fun and remember, don't be seen!
Share the Spirit of Halloween!!

**Tape the 'Phantom' picture on your front door or window to be easily seen.

David (age 6) is fascinated by this. We went all over the neighborhood last night trying to figure out who ghosted us, but there are no other doors in the neighborhood displaying a ghost. So it remains a mystery. David's plan tonight is to ghost 10 of his friends.

A very interesting form of viral chain letter...

Thursday, October 23, 2003


Manna Chapter 8 is available, the final chapter in the current incarnation. Click here.

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Basic Food Recipe

On Saturday, Alton Brown was in Raleigh for a food/cooking show. Alton is the host of the show "Good Eats" on the food network. I was asked to do a presentation at the show entitled "How Food Works".

One of the things I talked about was the basic food requirements of a human being. Since it was a cooking show, I then made a batch of BASIC FOOD. It breaks down like this:A 150 pound person needs 12 * 150 = 1,800 calories, 0.36 * 150 = 54 grams of protein and 600 fat calories. Therefore, the following recipe would satisfy the nutritional needs for a 150 pound person for one day.


2 1/2 cups flour (supplies 1,000 calories)
2 cans Tuna fish (supplies necessary protein and about 300 calories) (could use protein powder instead)
4 3/4 tablespoons olive oil (Supplies 600 calories as fat)
1/2 cup coarse wheat bran (25 grams of fiber to avoid plumbing problems)
RDA of vitamins and minerals (in the form of pills and supplements)
Salt to taste
Seasonings and color as desired

Dissolve vitamin and mineral supplements in a small amount of water. Add all ingredients to a mixing bowl. Add enough water to form a stiff dough. Knead. Shape into bars or balls and eat moist, or dry to form crackers. Consume the entire recipe (and nothing else but water) during the course of a day for complete nutrition.

Sunday, October 19, 2003

Drug Prices

An article in the Washington Post called U.S. Prescription Drug System Under Attack contains this interesting fact about the prescription drug system in the United States:There are about 100 million households in America. That means that each household uses, on average, 31 prescriptions per year and spends approximately $1,550 to buy them. The average cost of a prescription, therefore, is $50.

It is interesting that the number of prescriptions is up 50% in just 7 years, while revenue is up by 150% during the same period of time.

According to the article:About 94% of all pharmaceutical revenue flows through these three companies -- they have a virtual lock on the marketplace. One of the problems discussed in the article is the fact that the Big Three are purchasing diverted drugs (which have been stored and transported improperly) or counterfeit drugs from suppliers other than the pharmaceutical companies.

You would like to believe that if a) we could get the Big Three to stop buying from diverters and counterfeiters and buy only from manufacturers, and if b) we could get pharmacies to buy only from the Big Three (which already happens 94% of the time), then the entire problem with counterfeit and diverted drugs would evaporate.

Once counterfeiting and diversion are solved, then the next hurdle is pricing. Anyone who has been watching the Canadian drug importing stories knows that there is a gigantic difference in price for American drugs purchased in Canada. This article states that, "Canada's system of price controls sets drug costs as much as 50 percent below American retail prices." Now that Americans are importing half-price drugs from Canada in large numbers, people are starting to notice.

According to this article, Merck, "the maker of Zocor, Vioxx and Singulair already pays shareholders 2.4% annually, or $1.44 per share. Merck has raised its dividend 16 years in a row, and is likely to keep doing so, given its strong financials." Of course Merck has strong financials -- pharmaceutical revenue is up 150% in 7 years while prescritions are up only 50%. Merck is paying $3.2 billion per year in dividends right now. In other words, about $32 flows out of every American household every year to pay dividends to Merck's shareholders. The five largest drug companies in America pay over $10 billion in dividends, or $100 per household. For comparison, Wal-Mart is the largest company in America -- about 5 times bigger than Merck and much bigger than the top five drug companies combined -- and pays only $1.3 billion in dividends.

Thursday, October 16, 2003

Tiger Facts

In the wake of three tiger attacks this month, Time magazine ran an article on tigers that contains these revealing factoids:Tigers grow to be 9 or 10 feet long and weigh something like 500 pounds. If there are 10,000 tigers in the U.S., that's 350 per state average in the states that allow them. Most states have something like 100 counties. So chances are, if you live in one of the 29 states that permit tiger ownership, there are three or four tigers being kept as pets in your county right now.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

LA Times Editorial

A new editorial on Robotic Nation is available in the Los Angeles Times - Click Here

See also this.

Monday, October 13, 2003

Getting the Message

We had a funny experience with Fedex the other day. My wife had ordered something, she had paid extra to get next day shipping because it was important, and on the next day at 4:00 it had not shown up yet. So she called Fedex to ask about it. Fedex checked and said, "Oh yes, we have delivered it."

My wife: "No you haven't. I have been here all afternoon waiting for it."

Fedex: "Yes, we have delivered it. It says so right here in the computer."

My wife: "No, you haven't. Do you have a signature from me?"

Fedex: "No, there is no signature. The driver left it at your door."

My wife: "No, he did not."

Blah blah blah.

Fedex said that they would talk to the driver and call back. My wife was fuming.

About 45 minutes later there's a knock on the door. It is a nice neighbor from around the corner. My wife's package had been left on her front porch. Our neighbor shared the same numeric address with us (106), but we live on completely different streets. So the driver had delivered the package, but he/she was two blocks off when making the delivery. If not for an honest neighbor who went out of her way to bring the package by, that package would have been gone and Fedex would have blamed us for the problem. Note that Fedex never did call back as they promised.

The same week, I sent email to an acquaintance at his request. An hour later he calls.

"Where's the email you promised?"

"I sent it an hour ago."

"No you didn't."

"Yes I did."

"Send it again, it never made it."

I send it again. An hour later he calls.

"Where's the email you promised?"

"I sent it an hour ago."

"No you didn't."

"Yes I did."

"Send it again, it never made it."

We try one more time, and then decide to send it to his wife's email account. He gets it 30 seconds later. It turns out that a spam filter was picking off my emails, so he never got them.

I got a call yesterday. Caller ID did not show the number -- it's marked "PRIVATE". Later I go to check voice mail and there are three messages in the inbox. I listen to the first voice mail, delete it, and then fat finger the next one before it plays and accidentally delete it. I have no idea who called me or why, so I won't be returning that call anytime soon...

Then there are text messages. I send a fair number of text messages, but in my experience only about 90% of them make it.

The only reliable form of communication left today is a phone call, but the person on the receiving end has to actually answer the phone so you get to speak to him or her directly. On just about every other form of communication, you don't know if your message actually arrived until you receive confirmation. Which begs three questions:It will be interesting to see how technology evolves to make communication reliable again...

Friday, October 10, 2003

Robotic Nation Update

A very interesting post on robots in education is now available here.

Flash in Advertising

This site for the Ford F150 shows just how far advertising on the Web has come since the "banner ad" and the "Web brochure". This is more like an interactive TV infomercial. You need the Flash 6 plugin for it to work (get it here). A little man will appear in the upper right corner of the page and ask you to select a connection speed. In the broadband mode, the presentation is seamless, interactive and demonstrates just about every technique that a Flash designer can use to create a presentation.

Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Child Alone

On Sunday I was riding my bike with my father in law. It was an absolutely stunning Fall day -- perfect temperature, perfect humidity, no wind, and not a cloud in the sky. The sort of day where you are thankful simply to be alive to enjoy it.

We were on our way home, riding along a new bike trail in Raleigh, NC that runs along Crabtree Creek. This trail has only been paved and open for a couple of months, and meanders a couple miles up the creek from Crabtree Valley Mall. This segment connects into the larger Raleigh Greenway system, which contains miles and miles of paved trails running along creeks and beside lakes throughout north Raleigh.

We had passed a father and daughter at the wooden footbridge about half a mile back. The father was on roller blades and apparently just learning how to use them. He did not look too stable. The daughter was on her pink Barbie bicycle, complete with training wheels. As we went by, she turned too quickly going down a small incline and fell off. She was uninjured and we had stopped briefly to help her up. She was perhaps 6 years old, with long, curly blonde hair.

We rode across the bridge, down the trail, around a bend, and had started down a long straight stretch. As we rode along, we looked ahead. There was a boy, perhaps 4 or 5 years old. He was also on a bicycle with training wheels. He was making great time. He too was enjoying the weather, enjoying the incredible freedom of riding fast with the wind in his hair, and he had not a care in the world. However, there was not another soul on the trail near him, neither a half mile behind us because we had just been there, nor looking forward a good distance ahead.

A 4 year old boy riding alone on a trail like this made sense in only one scenario -- that was dad and sister about half a mile back. The boy also had curly blonde hair, so it added up. At his current pace, the boy would be a mile away from his father in just three or four minutes.

A little shiver went down my back. I have four kids, and imagining one of my kids in this situation is a terrifying little vignette. It has never happened to me -- I have yet to lose track of any of the kids -- but it is very easy to imagine it happening.

This is a nice, well-kept trail system, but it is somewhat isolated. And on many of our rides, my father in law and I see people who I would not pick as the first string team for interacting with 4 year olds. Teenagers dressed all in black carrying nunchucks, groups of two or three men smoking and carrying on beside the trail, vagrants, etc. In all the years of riding these trails, on the other hand, I've never seen a cop.

We pull along side the boy. He is doing about 10 miles an hour and is as happy as can be until he notices us. He looks at us with a "don't talk to strangers" face, instantly distrusting.

"Hi, how are you doing? Are your parents out here riding with you today?"

Nothing. He keeps riding.

"Is your father wearing roller skates today?"

He looks up at me, "yes."

"Maybe you should turn around and go find him."

He looks at me again.

He thinks about it.

He coasts to a stop. He gets off his bike and turns it around slowly. He gets back on and starts pedaling.

My father in law and I have stopped to watch the boy. I wish my son David could ride this fast -- David and I could be riding together. Way off in the distance we can hear the man and girl hollering. After a minute of watching the boy ride away, the man comes around the bend on his skates, waving his arms and seeing his son riding back.

Sunday, October 05, 2003

Manna Chapter 7

Chapter 7 of the book Manna is now available -- Click Here.

Saturday, October 04, 2003

A little too intimate

I was on a number of airplanes this past week. Airplanes haven't changed much in the last several decades. What has changed is the number of people using cell phones on planes either before or after the flight.

On one flight, I was seated next to a businessman. He was probably in his 50s and dressed like he belonged in first class rather than in row 17. I greeted him when he sat down beside me, but he ignored me, pulled out his cell phone and dialed a number.

"Yes, Fort Wayne, Indiana. I need the number for the St. Mary's nursing home. OK, 123-555-1234. Thank you." He wrote the number on a small pad.

He dials the number he wrote down. "Hello. Yes, this is Bob Smith. I am calling to inquire about the condition of Ann Smith. Yes, thank you."

He is on hold, and after about a minute he is apparently talking to a doctor or a case worker, because I get a complete dump of Ann Smith's condition as questions and answers and clarifications go back and forth. When he switches the phone to his left ear, I can actually hear both parts of the conversation at times. Finally a flight attendant tells him to hang up so we can leave the gate, and he disconnects.

So.... Now what? I know his name, how he's doing with the impending loss of Ann Smith, and most of the major details of her illness along with her prognosis. I haven't really had a choice in receiving all this data. On an airplane he is sitting literally three inches away from me, so I get to listen in whether I like it or not.

What do I now say to him? "How's Ann?" We end up not saying a word to each other the entire flight.

If I was mischievous, I could publish all of the data here. I suppose I could call the nursing home up, impersonate Bob and talk directly to Ann, or her doctor. Obviously I am not going to do that, but it would be easy for anyone overhearing his call to do it. On the flip side, I could send Ann flowers and a note expressing my sympathy. She's definitely deserving of my sympathy given what I now know, but how weird would it be to get flowers from a total stranger?

Given a choice, I really would prefer to have never met Bob, or Ann, in this much intimate detail. What's strange is that this experience is becoming more and more common.

Ann in Fort Wayne, you are in my prayers.

* All names and details changed

J-B Weld

When we moved into the new house, there was a large brass valve outside. The inspector failed to look at this valve, and apparently the prior owner had let it freeze over the winter. The first time I turned it on, water shot out in a huge fan in every direction from a hundred long thin cracks caused by the frozen water.

I went to Home Depot, and it was going to cost about $100 to buy a new valve. That didn't sound too exciting, so I sauntered over to the glue aisle -- maybe modern science could offer some sort of epoxy to solve this problem. Home Depot sells about 50 different kinds of glue, and the one that looked most promising (at least according to the packaging) was something called J-B Weld, "the World's Finest Cold Weld".

The packaging claims this glue to be, "indispensable for mechanics, farmers, homemakers and almost everyone!" I fit into the general category of "almost everyone." It claims to be able to fix things like transmissions, crankshaft pulleys, engine blocks, axles, hubs, etc. Then there are the testimonials on the back. For example:At that point I was sold, and I bought a package.

It is an epoxy, so you mix two tubes of glue together to form an opaque gray syrup. If you let it set for 20 minutes it becomes more like a putty. I slathered this putty on the outside of the brass fitting, covering every crack I could find. I let it set for the day. It dries to form a grey rock-like material that is never going to come off. I turned on the value and the leaks were gone. The glue is probably stronger than the brass -- there is no way it is ever going to leak again. I can foresee myself using it again.

Commentary on Manna

For an interesting commentary on the Manna system from a normal Target shopper, click here

See also this post.

It is interesting to see Manna spreading out and people talking about it...

Friday, October 03, 2003

Robotic Nation News

Several good posts added to the Robotic Nation Blog today.


I've been trying to convince Leigh to let me buy David a DraganFlyer IV for his birthday. The one with the wireless video camera looks like a particularly good gift idea for him. So far I have been unsuccessful, but the videos on this page have been fun to watch...

Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Google user rankings

I started using the Google toolbar because of a friend of mine. He called it one of the most useful pieces of software he's ever tried. It has 3 features that I use constantly:The toolbar is always there, and I use it many times every day.

When you download the Google toolbar, there is an information dialog that pops up during the installation process. This dialog is named "Choose your configuration", and your choice is to enable or disable the "advanced features" of the toolbar. The dialog says, "In order to show you more information about a site, the Google toolbar has to tell us what site you're visiting, which it does by sending us the URL. This does NOT tell us who YOU are (your name or email address), but does tell us that a user has requested the PageRank for a given site."

Let's assume that several million people are using the Google toolbar. I would imagine that many of them have the advanced features turned on, because the PageRank information is useful. This would imply that Google has a sample set of millions of people sending in all the URLs they look at every single day.

It would be fascinating if Google would grind through all of this URL information and produce rankings. These rankings would be identical to the book rankings on Amazon. Each page, as well as each domain, could have a rank based on the number of people visiting it each day. Google could do several different things with this information:In theory, Google would be able to provide other statistics. For example, where does a site's traffic come from? Since Google gathers the URL information per user and in chronological order, Google would know how much of Site X's traffic comes from Site Y and could publish that.

All of this information would be a valuable public service that is similar to the PageRank information that Google already provides. Counting the number of hits that a page or domain gets does not seem like it would be computationally expensive. It would give Google users another measure of the value of a page.

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