Stop using Straws

There’s a movement to save the environment by having people stop using straws.
It is true that non-biodegradable straws will hurt the environment, but probably a lot less than those newspaper plastic bags.
A boba straw weighs about 2 grams.  A drinking straw is less.  As far as I know you need about a gram of oil to make a gram of plastic, so a gallon of oil or gasoline will make about 1700 straws.
According to the Be Straw Free Campaign,
Americans use about 500 million straws a day  (I’m not using my share!).  This takes about a quarter million gallons of fuel.  That is less than 0.1% of fuel usage for cars and trucks.
Let’s work on this, after we cut down on poor insulation and excessive driving, after we put up solar panels and wind farms.  After we restore the EPA and stop using coal.
Work on the big stuff first.  We have limited mind share for silly stuff.

Telephone Captcha

Something called during dinner yesterday.  I hung up almost immediately, but commented to the family that it is getting harder to quickly identify recorded calls.
My 16 year old Andrew remarked that I should ask for the answer to 1 plus 1.
He’s invented telephone captchas!  When you get a call and you can’t quite tell if it is a person, ask them a math question.  If you don’t get an immediate correct answer, hang up.
There’s a subset of robo callers with a recording that pauses in almost human places, and makes small talk about your expected answers.  I find this trend alarming and suspect it takes in lonely seniors pretty well.
Personally, I’ve gotten to where I don’t bother talking any more, if there is any sort of a pause after my hello, or anything recorded or that I can’t interrupt, I just hang up.  As they get better though, I’m going to use telephone captchas.

The Estate Tax

At present, the federal estate tax maxes out at 40% of the amount of an estate over 10 million dollars.  Almost no one pays it, because of the large exemption.
The best argument I’ve heard against the estate tax is that if the bulk of the estate is something that is not liquid, like a farm or a business, there may be no way to raise the money to pay the tax without selling the family farm or the family business.
For those with more liquid assets like stocks and bonds and a dozen houses, well the estate tax isn’t that big a deal.  Heres why.
Estates change hands about every 25 years, which arguably is the length of a generation.
The long term average appreciation in the stock market is around 7%.  In 25 years, a stock market investment might grow by 5x.  If you start with 20 million, in 25 years you will have about 100 million.
With the estate tax, your notional 20 million drops to only 16 millions, because 10 million is exempted and you pay 40% of the rest.
After 25 years, that 16 million would only increase to 86 million.
In this case, the estate tax cost the equivalent of about 4 years of growth.
Even if the exemption were zero, the estate tax would represent about 8 years of growth every 25 years.  The fortune just keeps growing.
Of course this analysis is true only if you just leave the money in the market.  Historically, fortunes last about three generations before being diluted and generally squandered.  However, once you get into serious money, it is kind of hard to spend enough to keep the rest from growing to infinity.
If the policy objective of the estate tax is to prevent self sustaining multigenerational fortunes, it doesn’t accomplish its purpose.  However it does kill those family farms and family businesses.  What might be done?
Idea 1: Make the estate tax payable over a generation, rather than as a lump sum.  In effect, this is a wealth tax, rather than an estate tax.  If my figuring is right, the 40% estate tax applied every 25 years is very close to a 1.3% wealth tax applied annually.  This has the same effect on cash estates, but might be managable for those family farms and businesses. Like the estate tax, this would apply only to wealth over 10 million.
Idea 2: Bump the tax rate on income for the 1% to raise the same amount of money.  Evidently, the estate tax raises about 20 billion per year. In 2014, an income of 465,000 put you in the 1% and the average income of the 1 percenters was 1.2 million, and there were about a million 1% households – that is 1.2 trillion in income, and the income tax surcharge to replace the estate tax would be . . . 1.6%
These two ideas are not that far apart.  On the whole a 1.6% income tax surcharge is easier, because  income is reported, and wealth is (a) not reported and (b) often consists of unrealized gains.
All this leaves unresolved the question about the policy goal.  Is the estate tax or a possible replacement just a way to pay for government? Or is it really intended to reduce income or wealth inequality?  If the latter, we need a much larger discussion about how to accomplish the goal, because the estate tax doesn’t do it.  Repealing the estate tax will surely make inequality worse, but keeping it only slows down increases in inequality, and not by that much.

Credit Freezes

It is possible to place a “credit freeze” on one’s account at the credit reporting companies.  The major ones are TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian.
A freeze prevents other companies from doing credit checks on you, which generally prevents them from opening accounts in your name.  This is important because the way that identity thieves monetize their theft is to open credit and bank accounts in your name, that you don’t even know about.
At present, credit freezes are governed by individual state laws, that range all over the map.  In Massachusetts, a victim of identity theft with a police report can get a credit freeze for free, but everyone else must pay $5 to each agency to place a freeze and another $5 to lift it, even temporarily, to apply for credit.
In view of the recent Equifax breach which revealed the private information of millions of Americans, it it clear that the credit reporting industry itself cannot be trusted to keep personal information secure.
I propose that credit freezes and credit monitoring be made free for everyone.  I would go further and suggest that a credit freeze should be the default state, but I suspect that would just destroy the whole industry (is that a bad thing?)
Since companies cannot keep private information secure, the alternative seems to be to devalue the information.  Credit freezes help do that.
This will require state by state or federal legislation.  I have just contacted my state representative and senator here in Massachusetts, as well as my representative in congress and both senators, requesting that they sponsor and support such legislation.
I recommend that you do the same.
Here’s what I sent Representative Clark:

I am Lawrence Stewart, of XXX.
In view of the recent Equifax breach which revealed the private information of millions of Americans, including 3 million Massachusetts residents, it is clear that the credit reporting industry cannot be trusted to keep personal information secure.
At present, the best defense against identity theft is a credit freeze, which prevents companies from doing credit checks without your permission.  This stops identity thieves from opening accounts in your name.
Credit freezes are governed by a conflicting mess of state laws.  Generally someone who has been a victim of identity theft can request a freeze for free, but the rest of us have to pay for the privilege of protecting our credit to the very companies that caused the problem through their negligence.
I urge you to introduce or support legislation to make credit freezes free for everyone. It is the best way to hold industry accountable for their actions and the best way to protect the citizens from identity theft.

Etiquette question

Our town library has a heavy wooden door that opens outward.  When I come up to it from the outside, I pull it open and hold it for anyone about to exit.
My confusion is about what to do when I approach the door from the inside.  Today I could see an older lady approaching from the outside, and my inclination is to open the door for her, but how?  I would either have to try to awkwardly hold the door open from the inside so the lady could pass or awkwardly go out first so I could hold the door from the outside.
Both approaches are, well, awkward.  If I try to hold the door from the inside, I’ll be in the doorway, pretty much blocking it.  If I go through first I force the lady to back up.
I think the best approach may be to pretend I am heading downstairs to the childrens’ room and not trying to leave at all.

Email customer service

May I rant?
Many organizations offer email customer service.  The problem is that the service is generally crap. Here’s why.
Slow response.  Most places respond immediately to an email, with “we received it, but we’ll deal with it later.”  For example, Express-scripts says

All inquiries are handled on a first-come,first-served basis and most are responded to within 24 – 72hours.

Useless answers.  Yesterday I tried to use the secure email at UBS.COM.  The service has no way to originate a message and no apparent way to reply to a document.  (I had to print and sign something and send it back.)  The eventual reply was Windows specific and told me to use the new online signing feature of Acrobat, which I don’t have.
The useless answer problem is really a symptom of email being open loop.  With a telephone call or online chat you can have an exchange to zero in on the actual problem and any constraints.  With email this usually doesn’t work.
When offered, I try to use online chat these days.  You don’t have to actively listen to badly designed telephone hold systems, the exchange is interactive, and best of all, you can get a written record of what happened, when any promises are made.

Notifications – unclear on the concept

Tthis is a post about organizations trying communicating with their customers but getting it wrong.
I have signed up for various notifications, typically by text or email.  Tragically, sometimes organizations manage to use these in a way that makes me think they are idiots.

  • I just received a text from my local library that a book I’ve had on hold forever has come in.  The problem is that I picked it up last night.
  • I got an email from my Honda dealer that my minivan is due for service – two days after the service was done, by them.
  • I get both emails and texts from Target that my store credit card payment due date is coming up — even though my balance is zero.

To me these seem like violations of a  simple and obvious design principle:  don’t send a notification that is moot.  All it does it point out to your customer that your systems are broken.  And that means that your organization is clueless and really should not  be trusted with my business.
Delay is also important.  I have my Bank of America profile set so that I get texts notifying me of ATM withdrawls.  I should get them when I do a withdrawl, but never at other times.  Often, these arrive within minutes, but sometimes, they take 6 hours or so to arrive.  The immediate feedback ratchets up my confidence that I would find out immediately if fraudulent activity were to occur.  The delayed feedback?  They are having the opposite effect.  I obviously cannot trust BofA systems to notify me of activity in a timely way.  Should I trust them for anything else?

Baking Bread

Cathy has been experimenting with gluten free bread recipes.  She has all manner of different flours and ingredients now: rice, potato, tapioca, corn, amaranth, sorghum, xanthan gum, etc.
Yesterday the power went off here in Wayland, probably because a tree branch fell on the lines due to the heavy, wet snow.  We got about 8 inches of the stuff, and I broke the drive belt on the snowblower again.
Anyway, the power goes off, and Cathy says “The bread has finished rising. We need to bake it now.”  Well, the oven is not on one of the transfer switch circuits, so we can’t run it off the generator.
Not a problem!  We recently got a new oven at the Boston Building Resource Center, and we saved the old one, because, well, you never know.  I already took the front trim glass off the old one to replace the glass of the new one, which shattered one day.  (The Gaggenau EB984 is an awesome oven, but they don’t make them any more, and parts are getting expensive.)
I wired the old oven onto the generator output and we baked the bread with the oven on the floor of the mudroom.  Yes I know the generator should be more outside than shown below.  I had to move the car first, which I did a few minutes after this photo.
Win says “That’s sort of crazy, you know.”
I will get an extra L14-30 plug so this will be easier next time.
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Old photo comes in handy

I took this photo on June 12, 1999 when the house was being built.  This was an HP C40 digital camera, with an awesome 576 × 436 0.3 Megapixels.  It seemed high-tech at the time. Today the insulation people showed up, as followup to an energy survey, to add insulation inside the floor under a luggage storage nook we have.  It is insulated, but unheated, and they recommended adding additional air sealing to keep the cold air from spreading out through the between-floors space.
This photo is looking up from the front porch.  In the lower left, you can see the upstairs radiant heating tubes under the living space, but NOT under the unheated storage area.  In order to add air sealing, the workers were going to drill into the floor from above, and I needed to check whether they would risk drilling into the tubing.  By looking at this old photo, I could tell where it was safe to drill.
You can also see that the floor joists are open trusses, with 2×4 plates and zigzag webs. This mean the entire floor space is open, so it is important to have an air barrier between heated and unheated space.
Unfortunately, this justifies my pack-rat instincts, to save 16 year old photos, but sometimes it is useful.  I took video (analog!), film photos, and digitial photos of walls and ceilings, in case I ever needed to know what was in there and where.
Veranda roof outside study

Hotel Internet – Hyatt French Quarter

I write from my room at the Hyatt French Quarter.
Your hotel internet service stinks.
I would rather stay in a Hampton Inn or like that than a Hyatt.  You know why?  The internet service in cheap hotels just works.  Yours does not.
You advertise “free internet”, but it costs rather a lot in the inconvenience and irritation of your customers, who are paying you quite a lot of money for a nice experience.
I have three devices with me.  A laptop, a tablet, and a phone.  On each one, every day of my stay, at (apparently) a random time, each one stops working and I have to connect again.
Here is what that takes:

  • Try to use my email.  Doesn’t work
  • Remember that I have to FIRST use a web browser.
  • Connect to hotel WiFi (ok, this step is expected, once)
  • Get browser intercept screen
  • Type in my name and room number
  • Wait
  • Read offer to pay $5 extra for “good” internet service, rather than crappy. The text says this offer “lasts as long as your current package”  is that per day? Per stay? What?
  • Click “continue with current package”
  • Wait
  • Get connected to FACEBOOK.

Why?  I can’t explain it.  People my age think Facebook is something kids use
to share selfies.  The kids think Facebook is for, I don’t know, old people, they
are all on Twitter.
Then I have to remember what I wanted to do.
Are you serious?  Do you think this process, repeated for my three devices, EVERY DAY, is going to make me recommend your hotel?
Now let us talk about privacy.
It irritates me that you want my name and room number. I do not agree that you can track my activities online.  It is none of your business.  I run an encrypted proxy server back home.  So all your logs will show is that I set up one encrypted connection to the cloud for my web access.  My email connections are all encrypted.  My remote logins to the office are all encrypted.  My IMs are encrypted.
I read the terms and conditions, by the way.  They are linked off the sign on page.   They are poorly written legalese, and there are a number of ways to read them.  One way says that you track all my connections to websites but only link them to my personally identifiable information if you need to “to enforce our terms and conditions”.  They also say that you have no obligation to keep my activities confidential.  And who or what is Roomlynx?
Even if your terms said otherwise, I wouldn’t believe you.  I don’t trust you OR your service providers.
Here’s my suggestion:
I think all this effort you’ve gone to is a waste of time, effort, and money. You do not have the technical means to monitor or control how I use the net anyway, so why make your customers jump through hoops?
If your lawyers tell you these steps are necessary, get different lawyers who have a clue.  If you still think it is necessary, have the terms and conditions be attached to the room contract!
If you seriously have a problem with non-guests soaking up your bandwidth, then by all means add a WiFi password, and hand it out at checkin.
If you seriously have a problem with bandwidth hogs, then slow down the connections of actual offenders.
Basically, try your best to make the Internet work as well as the electricity you supply to my room.  I turn on the switch, the lights go on. Done.
By the way, modern OS’s like Apples MacOS Yosemite, frequently change the MAC address they use. This will likely break your login system, raising the frustration of your guests even more.  They will not blame Apple for trying to protect their privacy.  They will blame you.  I already do.
PS  I don’t like to help you debug a system that is fundamentally broken, but:

  • The hotel website still says Internet costs $9.95 per day.  Update that maybe?
  • There is no way to go back and pay the extra $5 for better service one you’ve found out how crappy the regular stuff is.
  • After you connect, you can no longer find the terms and conditions page
  • I accidently tried to play a video, and your freaking login screen showed up in the video pane.  That just makes you look even sillier.