Meet for pupusas in Washington, D.C. on Saturday? Or Monday morning coffee?



I’m going to D.C. this weekend and propose a get-together at either or both of the following:

  • 5 pm on Saturday, December 3 at Don Juan in Mt. Pleasant for pupusas and drinks.
  • Monday morning, December 5, for coffee (maybe near the National Gallery of Art or even at the NGA)

Feel free to email ( philg at or post here.

Verizon offers me a Black Friday deal that is almost impossible to accept


I can’t figure out Black Friday. If we live in an efficient economy, in which retailers such as Amazon, Costco, and Walmart, have pushed everything to the limit, how is it possible for anyone to offer a temporarily lower price and not just bleed cash?

Verizon’s behavior is the most bizarre. Their computer systems sent me the following text:

FREE VZW MSG: This weekend only! Get one of our best phones for $100 when you trade in your device. $4.17/mo after trade and bill credits over 24 mos; 0% APR. Call 866.396.3999 or visit a Verizon Store.. Device pymt purch req’d. Reply “X” to stop msgs.

I’ve been wanting to upgrade my iPhone 6 Plus to a 7 Plus in order to take portraits with the normal lens that Apple calls a “telephoto” lens. So I called the number. After literally one hour and three minutes on hold the agent answers, looks up my number, and says “that’s a small business account so I can’t sell you a phone. Let me transfer you to the right person.” Before he transferred me he explained that to get a 7 Plus I would have to pay $200 over 24 months, or about $8/month. The person to whom I was transferred said that his job was helping people with already-placed Internet orders and he couldn’t transfer me to the small business sales people, but I could call them directly. I did that and waited on hold for about 30 minutes until the robot hung up on me (presumably because it was closing time for the humans).

Calls later in the weekend weren’t more successful. Even before calling, I had tried and failed to arrange the upgrade using their Web site. Though I was logged in and it knew everything about the phone line and the account, the server offered me the low-priced upgrade offer but then there was no way to actually purchase it (selecting a phone and then a trade-in resulted in an “internal server error” page).

This raises a whole bunch of questions:

  • Given that Verizon has computers, why wouldn’t they send me the correct phone number for my type of account in the first place?
  • Given that Verizon knows that I have an iPhone 6 Plus, the basis for the $100 offer, why didn’t the message just say “reply 1 to get an iPhone 7 Plus mailed to your billing address”? (and then walk through some color and memory choices) Why ask people to call human agents when it can be predicted in advance that they won’t be able to pick up the phone? At least get people to register that they want the upgrade and then deal with them calmly over the next week?
  • Why would Verizon want to do something that was almost guaranteed to result in hours of wasted time and frustration for a long-term customer? (landlines since the 1980s; mobile phone service continuously since about 2009)
  • Why would Verizon communicate to customers that the fair price for an upgrade to the iPhone 7 Plus is $200 when, now that the weekend is over and it is easy to buy stuff from Verizon again, they are going to try to sell people the same phone for $770?

How was this ever supposed to do anything other than annoy customers? Instead of trying to get every customer to call or come into a store during one weekend of madness, why not just offer a $150 discount on iPhones until the next Samsung comes out and then increase the discount to $250? Maybe T-Mobile grabs some customers who love to stand in line a day after eating turkey, but isn’t that better than having loyal customers who are frustrated?

I have to assume that I’m wrong about all of the above. Verizon is full of competent marketing people so they are presumably doing what is optimum (though the purchase of Yahoo suggests otherwise?). My question is therefore “Why is this artificial customer service charlie-foxtrot the optimum?”

[Note that I did finally manage to get an iPhone 7 Plus on order during the fourth phone call (Monday afternoon). It turns out to be a rather bizarre process in which first the full retail price is charged and then, three months later, after the customer goes online and jumps through some hoops and returns the trade-in phone, credits begin to be applied. The guy on the phone said that it wouldn’t be any simpler in the stores; the trade-ins have to be done via the web site.]

Long-term effects of short-term free cash (guaranteed minimum income experiments)


Americans have short memories. Implicit in nearly every proposal regarding a guaranteed minimum income that I’ve seen is that this has never been tried in the United States. “The Long-Term Effects of Cash Assistance” (Price and Song 2016), a paper by a Stanford graduate student and a Social Security Administration economist, provides a forgotten history lesson.

Are Americans able to sit on the sofa and watch TV faster than the government can print money? The answer turns out to be “yes.” The economists found that “treatment caused adults to earn an average of $1,800 less per year after the experiment ended. Treat adults were also 6.3 percentage points more likely to apply for disability benefits, but were not significant more likely to receive them, or to have died.”

The guaranteed income plan lasted only 3-5 years, depending on the group, but the effect of reduced income from work lasted for decades. Also, it turns out that if you give people the freedom that comes from a guaranteed stream of government cash, one thing that they choose is increased sexual variety: “A second important set of results were that the treatment decreased marital stability. Treatment caused black and white families to be approximately 40% more likely to split up.”

Trump agreeing with four Supreme Court justices is evidence of how unhinged he is?


Donald Trump tweeted about prohibiting burning the American flag. This lit up my Facebook friends:

There is something really really wrong with trump. Why aren’t moderate republicans speaking out in this type of thing?????

It is truly unbelievable !! This guy is really sick

(former MIT professor) Flag tweet, like so many others, is pure misdirection. But it’s also true: Trump is clueless on the Constitution.

Yet in relatively recent memory four Supreme Court justices took a fairly similar position, albeit not tweeted nor expressed as succinctly. See Texas v. Johnson and United States v. Eichman. Was Sandra Day O’Connor, for example, sick and “clueless on the Constitution”?

Backyard Zen Koan


For my Buddhist readers, a backyard Zen koan:

Two haters are jumping. Are they on a Trumpoline?

Programmers then and now


From Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed (Ben Rich), regarding programmers in the early 1980s:

A year after the stealth fighter became operational, two computer wizards who worked in our threat analysis section came to me with a fascinating proposition: “Ben, why don’t we make the stealth fighter automated from takeoff to attack and return? We can plan the entire mission on computers, transfer it onto a cassette that the pilot loads into his onboard computers, that will route him to the target and back and leave all the driving to us.” To my amazement they actually developed this automated program in only 120 days and at a cost of only $2.5 million. It was so advanced over any other program that the Air Force bought it for use in all their attack airplanes. At the heart of the system were two powerful computers that detailed every aspect of a mission, upgraded with the latest satellite-acquired intelligence so that the plan routes a pilot around the most dangerous enemy radar and missile locations. When the cassette was loaded into the airplane’s system, it permitted “hands-off” flying through all turning points, altitude changes, and airspeed adjustments. Incredibly, the computer program actually turned the fighter at certain angles to maximize its stealthiness to the ground at dangerous moments during a mission, when it would be in range of enemy missiles, and got the pilot over his target after a thousand-mile trip with split-second precision.

It took us about two years to really perfect this system, aided by the nightly training flights at Tonopah. The computerized auto-system was so effective that on a typical training flight pilots were targeting particular apartments in a Cleveland high-rise or a boathouse at the edge of some remote Wisconsin lake and scoring perfect simulated strikes.

Compare the $1+ billion spent on!

Sensible Toyota Camry owners will not be buying the Tesla X


“Consumer Reports trashes Tesla’s ‘flawed’ Model X” means that Tesla won’t be getting a lot of 7-year-old Camry trade-ins!

It seems that the review is consistent with my own: “Smug, Rich Bastard for a Weekend (Tesla X review)


Nutshell by Ian McEwan


Ian McEwan is an interesting novelist and his latest, Nutshell, is worth reading. The narrator is an in-utero baby who writes about his experience:

So here I am, upside down in a woman.

In the middle of a long, quiet night I might give my mother a sharp kick. She’ll wake, become insomniac, reach for the radio. Cruel sport, I know, but we are both better informed by the morning

I like to share a glass with my mother. You may never have experienced, or you will have forgotten, a good burgundy (her favourite) or a good Sancerre (also her favourite) decanted through a healthy placenta. Even before the wine arrives—tonight, a Jean-Max Roger Sancerre—at the sound of a drawn cork, I feel it on my face like the caress of a summer breeze. I know that alcohol will lower my intelligence. It lowers everybody’s intelligence. But oh, a joyous, blushful Pinot Noir, or a gooseberried Sauvignon, sets me turning and tumbling across my secret sea, reeling off the walls of my castle, the bouncy castle that is my home. Or so it did when I had more space. Now I take my pleasures sedately, and by the second glass my speculations bloom with that licence whose name is poetry. My thoughts unspool in well-sprung pentameters, end-stopped and run-on lines in pleasing variation. But she never takes a third, and it wounds me. “I have to think of baby,” I hear her say as she covers her glass with a priggish hand. That’s when I have it in mind to reach for my oily cord, as one might a velvet rope in a well-staffed country house, and pull sharply for service. What ho! Another round here for us friends!

The mom is having sex with her husband’s brother and, under English divorce law, can’t find an obvious way to get hold of the $10 million marital home in London due to the fact that it was in her potential defendant’s family prior to the (brief) marriage.

I don’t want to spoil the novel by revealing too much more other than the mom is determined to get the cash! But I recommend that you read the book.


The American criminal justice bureaucracy in action


Worth reading: a New Yorker story about a guy named Edward Garry who was convicted of killing a retired NYPD detective.

Some excerpts:

The murder of a former cop electrified the Forty-seventh Precinct. The next morning, phones rang constantly as Potter’s former colleagues called in for updates. The N.Y.P.D. threw all its resources behind the investigation, putting some forty officers, including Forcelli, on the case. (For most murders, two was the norm.)

Eyewitnesses’ descriptions of the perpetrators varied: two male Hispanics; two male Hispanics and a woman with bleached-blond hair; two male Hispanics and a black male; four male Hispanics; two black males. Descriptions of the getaway car included a dark-blue Oldsmobile Delta 88, a black van, a light-blue four-door, and a black Ford Escort hatchback.

At around sixteen, [Edward Garry] dropped out of high school, joined a gang, and began selling drugs to pay for Dr. Martens and nights at Manhattan clubs. He was arrested a few times and spent a year on Rikers Island. Because of these arrests, Garry’s mug shot was in police files, and it was among those shown to Vargas and Garcia because Garry matched their descriptions of a Hispanic man (his mother is Puerto Rican).

Garcia and Vargas both picked him again. The officers were relieved to have solved a high-profile case so quickly, though they didn’t have a confession, any physical evidence connecting Garry to the crime, or any information placing him near Irene’s the night of the murder. “Back then, identification was like the gold standard,” Forcelli told me. “If you could get a non-crackhead, non-prostitute witness to I.D., it’s, like, whoa.”

The jury found Garry guilty of second-degree murder, and he received a sentence of twenty-five years to life.

Forcelli had begun to have serious doubts about the work he was doing at the N.Y.P.D. He hated having to abandon an investigation the moment an arrest was made. “A lot of facts come out after the arrest,” he told me. He preferred the methods of federal agents, who didn’t consider their cases closed until pleas were entered or trials took place, and applied to join the A.T.F.

[about another case] He alerted the prosecutors, and was shocked to find them uninterested. “We’re telling the Bronx D.A.’s office this, and it’s ‘Too fucking bad,’ ” he said. He interviewed Glynn, who was in prison for another crime, and succeeded in getting him to admit that he was the killer. He arrested him on the spot—an unorthodox move, given that prosecutors were planning to put another man on trial. As a result of Forcelli’s action, prosecutors dropped the case against Little, but Forcelli was outraged at the carelessness with which the case had been handled. A simple records search showed that an eyewitness who had given crucial testimony against Little had been in prison at the time of the murder. “You wonder how hard some people really look,” Forcelli said.

post-conviction claims mostly fail, because courts usually limit appeals to those arising from procedural mistakes, and make it hard to introduce new exonerating evidence.

Thanksgiving Microaggressions


My Thanksgiving debrief, based on hosting dinners for about 12 adults on both Thursday and Saturday (two different groups!).

The path to turkey perfection proved to be spatchcocking the 13 lb. turkey, arranging it sort of flat sideways on a regular roasting pan. Then use the “AutoSteam” mode on the Kitchenaid oven at 350 degrees for about 1.75 hours. It turned out that the thighs cooked faster than the (thicker) breast and the turkey was ready (no microwaving required!) when the thermometer plunged deep into the breast read 165. Thanks to the kitchen sink hookup (“steam”), there was no dryness.

The first microaggression was committed against me by a young Chinese-American guest on Thursday. She said that her family likes to have Chinese hot pot on Thanksgiving. Then, apparently acting on the assumption that a stupid white man wouldn’t know what this was, she proceed to explain the concept of Chinese hot pot. Presumably she was emboldened by the Donald Trump victory.

The second microaggression was committed by me on Saturday. I asked a guest to carve the turkey due to the fact that she is a medical doctor and would therefore have had to go through a surgery rotation. She happens to be Korean-American. When reaching into the knife block I bypassed the traditional French chef knife shapes and said “Perhaps you’d be more comfortable with the Santoku knife.”

We were concerned about having one table big enough for everyone. The children are a little too young for a grown-up/kid split. It occurred to me to divide up the group along political lines, e.g., have a table for Hillary supporters and one for the haters. It was quickly pointed out that nobody in the Boston area would be willing to incur social ostracism by going on record as a Trump supporter and therefore the tables should be marked “Deep Despair Over Hillary’s Loss” and “Merely Heartbroken.”

In an apparently misguided attempt at humor I noted that we were going to be serving bagels and suggested that, if people wanted to bring something, they could bring turkey to put on the bagels. An MIT graduate took this literally and she showed up with a Tupperware-style container of leftover turkey.

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