~ Archive for Uncategorized ~

How can a computer company lose data that it gathered only a minute earlier?


Dell has refused to accept a return of the XPS 13 2-in-1 that they sold me for $2,400 (sampling of issues: it gets stuck in “tablet mode” even when opened as a laptop, it can’t stay connected to a Bluetooth mouse, it stops listening to its touchscreen hardware, and it stops listening to the trackpad (so eventually there is no pointer at all and you’d have to remember all of the Windows keyboard shortcuts to accomplish the basics)).

On the theory that “Maybe 25 hours on the phone with these guys isn’t enough and the 26th hour will be the charm,” I called 877-907-3355 to try to get tech support. This starts with a 2-minute automated process of entering, via voice, the “service tag” (letters and numbers). The automated attendant confirms the service tag. Then it tries to transfer you to “the right department.” Once this resulted in immediate disconnection. When the call was successfully transferred to a human, the first thing that she asked was “What’s your service tag number?” (Before I could give it to her, the call was disconnected, but that’s incidental to the subject of this post.)

As a computer nerd I am always fascinated when companies have a customer service system that asks for some information and then has no way to make the typed-in stuff available to the human who ultimately answers the phone. Also, that it seems to be rare for customer service agents to have access to Caller ID. So a lot of time is wasted in asking the customer a callback number (not to mention the potential for errors).

In the case of Dell, perhaps they have an incentive to waste customer time so that people stop calling for tech support (though how many will buy a second machine from this company?). But that’s not true for a lot of other companies that answer phone calls. If they are inefficient and drop information on the floor it ends up costing them extra customer service hours as well as potentially reducing customer loyalty.

So… why can’t the computers that answer the phone talk to the computers on the agents’ desks? And why can’t they see Caller ID? How hard can that be?

[Okay, and before the Mac fans start dishing out ridicule in the comments section, let me admit in advance that I made a huge mistake by buying this machine! Obviously a MacBook (or even a $500 Acer) would have outperformed this $2,400 Dell. And if the MacBook had failed for some reason, I would be able to zip over to the Apple Store and get it fixed rather than spending hours on the phone with Dell or returning it to them for service (projected turn-around time: 2+ weeks).]

Automatic disaster area status for presidential visit?


My Facebook friends are suddenly concerned about the disruption that occurs when a U.S. President leaves the White House. Street traffic is halted, general aviation is shut down, flight schools have to turn customers away until the President leaves. There are calls for compensation (where were these folks when we suffered through 8 years of Barack Obama vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard (and therefore shutting down non-scheduled aviation in a huge part of New England during a prime season)?).

I’m wondering if a mechanism already exists for this. Suppose that an earthquake or hurricane shut down commerce in a part of the country for a few days or weeks. The President would declare that part of the country a disaster area and cash would flow. A Presidential visit, post 9/11, can be just as disruptive as a natural disaster. Why not have a rule that any time a President visits, the area visited is automatically declared to be a disaster area and thus affected businesses or individuals can apply for compensation?


Could we reenter the great age of custom coach building given a standard electric car chassis?


Tesla dealers usually have an example chassis. It seems as though everything important is contained within it. Is it possible that we could therefore go back to the great age of coach-builders? The beautiful Duesenberg that we admire in a museum probably does not have a body made by Duesenberg.

Government regulations are much more complex these days and perhaps represent an insurmountable hurdle for non-mass-production, but if a standard chassis were available could there be at least hundreds of custom road-legal cars built under kit car regulations?

Aerial video of Boston at night


Now that prime helicopter flying season is upon us, I will share a project that we helped with six months ago: Boston Skyline: A 4K Aerial Experience. Two of us from East Coast Aero Club flew a Robinson R-44, mostly sideways, while Sean Collins used a RED Dragon camera in a gimbal.

Teaching STEM to 2nd and 3rd graders


One of the hazards of being known as an MIT nerd is being tapped to teach “STEM” to kids. Here’s what I have learned about teaching 2nd and 3rd graders…

Their budget of sitting quietly and producing stuff on paper has been used up by the school system. Everything extracurricular should be hands-on.

The goal of the class was for them to understand how helicopters worked. So they needed to learn about Newton’s Laws, the Bernoulli Principle, how a wing works (combination of Bernoulli and Newton’s Third Law), how spinning a wing guarantees airspeed even when the fuselage isn’t moving (hovering!), and why you need a tail rotor if there is just one main rotor (Newton’s Third Law again).

It turned out that discussion around a table, drawings, and making posters on these topics wasn’t that interesting to the young scholars. However, getting some foam gliders and learning that they stall and spin without the supplied nose weight was quite compelling, as were a couple of trips to the airport to see real aircraft and finally actually fly in a real helicopter (we waited for a day without the 30-knot gusts that typically plague Boston in the spring).

If I were doing it again I would change the class to “How airports work” because the airport is concrete and there is lots of stuff to see and understand. The aerodynamics of planes and helicopters can be learned in this context. Models can be made. The control tower and fire department can be visited (if it is a big airport).

Trump’s proposed 15 percent corporate tax rate


What do readers think about Donald Trump’s proposed 15 percent corporate tax rate? Personally I think the Federales would end up collecting more taxes in the long run. As far as I can tell, the threshold where individuals and companies get serious about restructuring (usually in unproductive ways) to avoid taxes is a 20 percent rate. Below 20 percent and people will pay. Above 20 percent and people will devote time and attention that they could have spent growing the GDP instead toward the goal of paying less taxes.

“GE Transfers Bulk of Tax Team to PwC” (2017) is interesting because it reveals that our Boston neighbor GE had roughly 900 lawyers and certified public accountants at the end of 2016. These folks were effective at reducing GE’s tax rate to 0 percent (Boston Globe).

I think that there will be a lot more productive business activity in the U.S. if Americans don’t devote their best hours and best minds to figuring out how to keep more of what they have earned. Maybe the actual corporate tax paid will be a little lower due to the lower rate, but the extra business productivity will lead to more tax collected via payroll taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, etc.

I’m not sure if anyone has tried to measure how much the GDP has been shrunk by American enterprises setting up tax-avoidance vehicles offshore, Americans going to law school instead of engineering school, etc. (something like this aggregate analysis of the effects of U.S. family law would be nice)

Readers: What do you think? Presumably Congress won’t enact this into law (my theory is that any significant law that could be passed already has been), but what would happen if they did? (And what kind of vote is required to drop the tax rate? A simple majority? Could Republicans do this if they were unified? (which of course they aren’t!))

Thoughtful perspective on family matters


Woman behind counter at Blick Art Supplies in Ft. Lauderdale, when I said that I needed directions to the part of the store selling items to keep a 1.5-year-old and a 3-year-old busy:

Having children is like getting a tattoo on your face. You have to really want it because you’re going to be looking at it every day.

Louis Zamperini, in Devil at My Heels:

The mayor asked, “Did anything good come out of your two and a half years as a prisoner of war?”

“Yes,” I said. “It prepared me for fifty-three years of married life.”

Readers: What’s your best quote along these lines?

Mankiw on business taxation


Gregory Mankiw, despite being a professor of economics at Harvard, tends to be interesting. His “I Can Afford Higher Taxes. But They’ll Make Me Work Less.” (2010) may explain our lack of economic growth (the most productive workers in our society face a 90 percent marginal tax rate).

Now he’s written another nytimes piece: “How Best to Tax Business.” Let’s look at this…

Mr. Hassett finds that corporate taxes depress wages for manufacturing workers. In a world where capital is mobile and labor is not, capital escapes from high-tax nations, leaving workers behind to bear the burden of lower productivity and reduced incomes.

Most nations aim to impose taxes on economic activity that takes place within their borders. Such a system is called territorial. By contrast, the United States has a worldwide corporate tax. If a company based in the United States produces a product abroad and then sells it abroad, our Treasury takes a cut of the profits when they are brought back home. The House tax bill would move our system toward international norms. American companies would be able to compete abroad on a level playing field with companies based in other nations. The tax incentive for corporate inversions would be eliminated.

Consumption taxes would do less to discourage saving and investment and would thus be more favorable to economic growth. In addition, consumption taxes are arguably fairer: They tax the standard of living people enjoy rather than the value of what they produce. The House plan moves toward a consumption tax by allowing businesses to deduct their investment spending immediately, rather than depreciating it slowly over time. By exempting the income that businesses reinvest, the government would essentially be taxing consumed profits.

The corporate tax system is now origin-based. It levies taxes on the profit from goods produced in the United States, regardless of where they end up. An alternative, proposed in the House bill, would be to tax all goods consumed in the United States, regardless of where they are made. This destination-based approach would tax imports and exempt exports, which is sometimes called a border adjustment. In this way, the business tax would resemble many of the value-added taxes used in Europe. … The main advantage of destination-based taxation is that it is easier to determine where a good is consumed than where it is produced. In a world where multinationals produce goods using parts from around the world, origin-based taxes invite firms to game the system with transfer pricing schemes. Destination-based taxation is less easily gamed.

Now, firms can deduct interest payments to bondholders, but they cannot deduct dividend payments to equity holders. This treatment encourages firms to rely on debt rather than equity, making them more financially fragile than they would otherwise be. The House plan fixes this asymmetric treatment of debt and equity by no longer allowing firms to deduct interest payments. A business’s taxes would be based on its cash flow: revenue minus wage payments and investment spending. How this cash flow is then paid out to equity and debt holders would be irrelevant.

There are a lot of weighty issues above, but Professor Mankiw doesn’t come down strongly on any side. The summary is even more wishy-washy:

While I like the policy choices proposed by the House bill, not all economists agree. Some view the bill as too radical, risking too many unintended consequences. Others worry that transitioning from the old system to a new one is not worth the cost, even if the new one is better. Without a doubt, the coming debate will involve immense politicking. Any large tax change creates winners and losers, and the losers are sure to make their voices heard. But what matters most is whether the changes are better for the United States over all, not for special-interest groups. The more voters understand, the better off we all will be.

Mankiw says that economists can’t agree on whether these proposed changes are good or bad, presumably because they can’t understand all of the implications. Then Mankiw pins his hopes on the average voter understanding all of the implications.

From this I infer that we are screwed.

Readers: What do you think? How does a country with $20 trillion in debt squeeze cash out of companies that have the ability to move most operations to more efficient and less indebted nations?

Tell your kids to work for the government!


One of my Facebook friends linked to “EPA staffer leaves with a bang, blasting agency policies under Trump” (Washington Post):

When Mike Cox quit, he did so with gusto. After 25 years, he retired last week from the Environmental Protection Agency with a tough message for the boss, Administrator Scott Pruitt.

What was this guy’s job?

Cox was a climate change adviser for EPA’s Region 10, covering Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

In other words, if watching grass grow is too much excitement for you, the federal government will pay you to watch a process that proceeds on a geological time scale!

How tough is this job?

he’s been very involved in Bainbridge, Wash., coaching youth sports and serving on local boards and commissions. For two decades, the fit 60-year-old rode his bike eight miles to the ferry, then uphill to his Seattle office.

The Bainbridge ferry takes 35 minutes to cross. If there is 10 minutes of waiting/boarding/unloading time that’s 45 minutes per trip or 90 minutes per day on the ferry. Plus he had to bike 16 miles round-trip on the Bainbridge side and also do some biking in Seattle. Assume 3 hours per day of commuting? If he started from his house at 0700 and had to be back to coach “youth sports” at 3 pm, that’s a solid 5-hour work day.

Item 1 in Mr. Cox’s  speaking truth to power is a complaint that the Trumpenfuhrer is “denying fundamental climate science.” What kind of educational background is necessary to start a debate regarding atmospheric physics on a planetary scale? Mr. Cox “holds a BS from Huxley College at Western Washington University” (source).

After 25 years of work, he’s retiring with a full pension at age 60. Having done at most 5 hours of desk-work per day (sitting is the new smoking!) and biked 100 miles per week, let’s assume Mr. Cox lives to be 100. So the taxpayers will be paying him for 40 years.

America’s greatest minds on display


“What ‘Snowflakes’ Get Right About Free Speech” (nytimes) is interesting because it shows how one of America’s greatest minds (a professor of comparative literature at NYU who has been selected by peers to be “vice provost for faculty, arts, humanities, and diversity”) restates the sentence “Everyone who disagrees with me is wrong and I don’t want to hear from them.”

[The sheer length of the piece is fascinating, as though the professor had entered a contest for who could use the most words to restate “Everyone who disagrees with me is wrong and I don’t want to hear from them.”]

Log in