2018-11-27

More Miscellaneous Thoughts

More Miscellaneous Thoughts

This is my first post since August. It's hard to find good topics that don't step into politics (which I have carefully avoided).

I discovered a new Android "feature" yesterday. I don't know when it was added, but looking through the Settings - Sound menu I found "Shortcut to prevent ringing". This shortcut is turned on by default. The shortcut is to press the power and volume up button together. So now I understand why my ringer kept getting turned off - when fumbling to get my phone into my belt case, I often accidentally hit the buttons. It's easy to hit power and volume up together, they are right beside each other. More stupidity from the Android developers.

News feeds - why can't I screen for garbage news? Avenati, Kardashian, Bieber - I want to never see these names again. But they show up in my news feeds constantly. It's mind numbing.

I like the concept of electric power for my daily transportation, but it would to be a terrible inconvenience for long trips. A plug-in hybrid car would seem to be the answer. So I was about ready to buy a Chevrolet Volt, despite its faults. But GM just said no more Volts - they aren't selling enough. Perhaps people aren't buying them because they made a bunch of poor design choices - poor gas mileage in gas mode (too much styling over aerodynamics?), the gas tank is too small, and the ground clearance is too low for pot holed and speed bumped roads and nasty driveway to road contours.

I haven't used Windows for several years so I get to just laugh at the disastrous October 2018 release that has so many bugs. I offer three important concepts for Microsoft and the other tech companies -

  • Bug free code is far more important that new features.
  • A stable user interface is more important than new features.
  • Most new features are just useless changes or worse.

2018-08-03

Google News for Android

Google News for Android

I used the Google news app for many years on my Android phones. It is
okay, but when you choose a story from the previewed stories, it opens
the story in your web browser. When you finish the story you have to
back out of the browser and restart the app.

The app kept bothering me to try the new and improved version, so I
finally submitted. The only significant difference that I saw was huge
photos that reduced the information content on the small phone screen.

I suddenly wondered what news.google.com would look like on a web
browser - easy enough to try. I use Dolphin browser. It has couple of
nice features - the home screen is just a bunch of user selected links,
so I added news.google.com. And the tabs are just like most desktop
browser tabs - visible - not hidden like Android Chrome and Firefox. When
you open news.google.com on a phone it gives you a list of story previews.
Press on a preview and it opens a new tab with the whole story. When you
are done, press X on the tab - you are back on the preview list. This is
vastly superior to either of the apps.

And the news sources that I have hidden on my desktop computer, due to
requiring a subscription, are automatically hidden on the phone.

Google - what is the point of the app?

2018-07-30

Solving Problems with a 3D Printer

Solving Problems with a 3D Printer

A couple of years ago I purchased a 3D printer (Lulzbot Mini) to allow me to develop and produce a violin shoulder rest. Here is the second generation - I think it's great. See www.vsr.ravitz.us for more information. In addition to its primary usage, the printer has helped me solve some of the world's biggest problems. Here are four of the most important solutions.


Of course you need a 3D printer to implement these solutions - they can be purchased for a few hundred dollars or, I'm told, libraries have them. And you've got be able to design useful parts - I use a free program call OpenSCAD but you have to design the parts via programming language rather than visually.


Button Magnet

I like to use a magnet to hold my name tag button to my shirt at dances - easy to move, no holes in my shirt. I don't like using a single magnet that has a widely dispersed magnetic field and is difficult to remove (I keep short fingernails to make playing the fiddle easier). So I obtained 3/8 diameter by 1/8 height magnets and 1 inch steel washers (I could not find magnetic stainless steel washers). The magnets sit on the washer, separated slightly, with one oriented north up and the other south up. The shape makes it easy to remove. The button, washer, and magnet orientation encloses the magnetic field for a very strong bond and greatly reduced stray field. This works very well, but -

The early versions required glue to keep the magnets in place and the washers rusted. When I got the 3D printer, I designed a snap together case that holds the magnets in place without glue and prevents washer corrosion. Problems solved.




Heel Wedges

The white heel wedge in the photo is a four degree lateral wedge that helps rotate your ankles slightly, improving your step. I like this - I don't know how many others it would help.

But the wedge won't stay in place. I found a flexible, but not spongy, filament (the plastic that the printer prints with) and designed a wedge with a rim that holds it where it belongs.




Automobile Phone Holder

A good phone holder for your automobile is really useful, especially with navigator apps. But finding a good phone holder for my car was not easy. There is the questionable attachment to the car. Suction cups inevitably fall off and mounting on the windshield blocks vision. Vent vane attachments block ventilation and heat the phone when the heater is running. Cup holder mounts use up a cup holder. And there is the questionable attachment to the phone as the holders need to work with many different phone sizes.

I bought one of the cup holder devices - my car has four front cup holders so it seemed reasonable. The cup holder attachment worked well. But the phone holder was hopeless.

I designed a simple drop-in box and added leather padding (I had sticky back leather from experiments with dance shoe soles. It's handy for other things too.) It's easy to drop the phone in and take it out, with or without the charging plug. It holds the phone securely as long as the car doesn't roll over. I can press the on/off, volume, and fingerprint controls easily (only the bottom third of the phone is inside the box). Of course it only works for a small range of phone sizes, but I can print a new one if I get a new phone.




Pocket Watch

I don't like having a watch on my wrist. And pocket watches are inexplicably large. But it's easy enough to take the band off of a wristwatch and keep it in your pocket. Except that digital watches have buttons that are easily accidentally pressed by stresses in pockets. I used a nice model of watch with recessed buttons for many years. But it is no longer available.

I found a nice digital watch and designed a holder for it that protects the buttons from accidental presses. It makes the watch larger than it should be, but it works well.



2018-07-08

Miscellaneous Thoughts

Miscellaneous Thoughts

Galaxy S9 vs. Pixel 2: Which Android phone should you buy?

This is about a published comparison of two phones -

"Galaxy S9 vs. Pixel 2: Which Android phone should you buy?
...
the Pixel 2 doesn't look sleek.
...
Its (Pixel 2) thick bezels and the matte finish on the (aluminum) back feel dated and cheap, especially in contrast to the Galaxy S9's edge-to-edge curved screen and glossy (albeit fingerprint-collecting) glass casing."

The matte finish aluminum (Pixel 2) is easy to hold, does not show fingerprints, and does not crack when dropped (although the paint is readily scratched down to the aluminum). The glass back (S9) is slick and easy to drop, shows a mess of greasy fingerprints after a little usage, and cracks easily when dropped (despite its being made of Gorilla Glass). And the reviewer prefers the glass.

And of course Google wanted to add some class to the Pixel so they added an easily cracked glass area to the back, encompassing the top two corners to break the fall when dropped.

What's wrong with plastic?

Why does the reviewer prefer sleek to sturdy? Is there some need for good aerodynamics in a phone?


Ad Nauseum

Q*** electric toothbrushes has one ad on the radio. Not too offensive the first five times that you hear it. It repeats about four times per hour, whenever I am listening. If they can't afford to make another ad, how about just running it through a frequency shifter to make different versions. How about just having different people read the script? Of course the script is meant to be read by the inventor, but that doesn't stop KFC from having multiple people play Colonel Sanders in their ads.

I finally resorted to turning off the radio when the ad starts.


More Mind Numbing Radio Ads - Distilled

For all of the following ads - "Alexa pause" (I listen to the radio on an Alexa device because I don't get good radio reception at home).

"I'm an idiot and I can adopt kids" (to paraphrase).

Why doesn't my baby smile? (Autism if you haven't heard.)

"I haven't been sick since I've been on Texas Superfoods." Well how long is that - one week?

"My dog looked and smelled like he had been dead for six months, but these vitamins fixed him right up" (to paraphrase).

Stifel stock market reports - death by numbing the brain.


Verizon Wireless

I purchased Google wireless earbuds at Verizon a while ago. They were useless. Verizon traded them for Apple Airpods (no additional cost). One of the earpieces wouldn't charge. I couldn't tell if it was the case or earpiece. Verizon replaced everything. The new hardware works great. Thank you Verizon.

2018-06-19

More Good Stuff

More Good Stuff

"Always on" displays on smartphones are great. These are referred to as ...LED (different technologies of active LED screens - AMOLED for example). They have no backlight, just an array of LEDs. Power is only consumed by LEDs that are turned on. This allows them to be used to display the time (for example) whenever the screen is exposed (no need if it's in a case). Even if the phone has been sitting, untouched, for an hour, you can glance at it to see the time. My Pixel 2 lock screen also displays notifications - email, text, etc. Older phones blinked a separate LED to let you know that there was email, etc. But you had to look at the phone for a few seconds to see the blink. With the Pixel 2 the notifications do not blink, so a quick glance lets you see any notifications. This is a huge improvement in usability. Note that many phones now have always on displays - iPhone X, Samsung S9 (and some of Samsung's older models), others. This feature is worth searching for.

Apple AirPods - wireless smartphone earphones. I covered these in a previous post. They are great.

Einsky Wide Brim Sun Hat - UPF 50+, 3.7 inch stiff brim, ventilated top. Unlike the last time I looked for a good sunhat (many years ago) there are many nice sunhats listed on Amazon. This one fits my requirements and works well.

While looking at sunhats, Amazon "also viewed" (or maybe "also bought") showed sunblock t-shirts - Hanes Men's Long Sleeve Cool Dri T-Shirt - UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor) 50+ (>98% blocked). Many years ago, I got some long sleeve t-shirts for a trip to Florida. I made the mistake of getting my usual medium, cotton. These are useful in bright sun, but almost impossible to take off after sweating, and the style that I got had tight wrist cuffs. And I don't know the UPF as it isn't advertised for cotton shirts. This time I chose large, better ventilation and easier to get off. These are nice. The polyester feels nice. The wrists cuffs do not squeeze. A big improvement for a walk in the sun. And I can remove it after the walk.

Speaking of "also viewed", Amazon's product search often fails to find what I am looking for, but the "also viewed" section has it. Why didn't the original search find it? Regardless, "also viewed" is very useful.

Nimbus Microfine Toothbrush regular size (extra soft). These are great. Better than the Dr. Collins Perio Toothbrush that I was using. Look for them on Amazon.

2018-06-08

Basics vs Features

Basics vs Features

I have repeatedly screamed at software designers to get the basics right before adding features. So let's go over what's wrong with Android.

Screen brightness control - you have two choices - set the screen brightness or turn over control to Android. If you set the brightness then you have to keep resetting it depending on the ambient light - that's a pain. So you can turn over control to Android, but then it's too bright in dark places (this obviously depends on the phone and user). And the brightness makes large steps with small changes in screen angle - very annoying when reading, especially with a white background.

How about a screen brightness versus ambient light function that lets you set a baseline at typical room light and adjusts the entire curve based on this point. Then reduce the step level and average ambient light readings over a longer time.

I use Lux to control the screen brightness, which doesn't have these issues, but it has its own problems.


Audio equalizer - this is important for music enjoyability and speech recognition. Android has a built in equalizer that can be accessed by apps, but there is no built in access for users. This would be okay, there are many apps for adjusting it, but many apps don't send their audio through the equalizer. Many music players access it, but I Heart Radio doesn't. Why can't I force all audio output to go through the equalizer?


Accessibility of navigation icons and notification bar - why are apps allowed to cover the notification bar and navigation icons? Maybe that's okay for some people. Not me. Why not make it a setting?

Pointless icons on the lock screen - the lock screen with always on displays includes notifications. Good idea. But all that counts here is missed phone call, voice messages, text messages, and email. The others just clutter the screen and make the others less noticeable.

Pause in Maps - I often pause when taking a road trip, food, rest, gas, bathroom. I would bet that most people do. Why doesn't Google Maps have a pause button? The moment I leave the highway my phone starts chattering at me how to get back on my route. Grr. Maybe, on a car based route, automatically pause when I'm going less that five miles per hour.

Meanwhile (June 6, 2018) a Yahoo Technology headline reads "Android P Beta 2 brings updated system images and 157 new emojis". I don't know - maybe the new emojis will solve the world's problems. Meanwhile my head has been boggled.

2018-06-03

Wireless Earphones for Smartphones

Wireless Earphones for Smartphones

I was skeptical about adopting wireless/Bluetooth earphones for my phone. My past experience with Bluetooth was clunky startup - slow or no connection. Plus it is expensive to get multiple sets so I've got to keep the one pair with me.

After my Google Nexus 5 died unexpectedly, I got a Google Pixel 2, which has no headphone jack. So I jumped back into the Bluetooth world.

First I eliminated all of the products with flexible ear seals - I find these very uncomfortable. I thought that just left Google Pixel Buds, so I got a set. These are GARBAGE. I didn't even get to pairing them. They don't fit in my ears. It looks like they would fit if I cut the cord (a cord connects the two earpieces). They also look like the weight distribution will cause them to fall out if they fit in. The recharging box is clunky and big compared to the AirPods case (I didn't know this until I replaced them with AirPods).

I looked for more options and discovered that Apple AirPods are just Bluetooth earphones with some extra function that only works with Apple phones. Verizon made the trade from Pixel Buds easy - no paperwork, two cents credit to my account, and I walked out with them.

WHAT A DIFFERENCE! AirPods fit in my ear, are comfortable, and do not fall out. They feel just like Apple's old corded earphones, which have always worked well for me. After a little problem pairing them with my phone (I had to reboot), they are now paired and whenever I take them out of their recharging case, they are connected to my phone in a few seconds. You can can use either one or both. They sound fine. I don't care about any missing function dealing with digital assistants. The case is nice and includes a battery, so it can recharge the ear pieces even when it's not plugged in. It looks a lot like a dental floss case, so there could be an identity crisis on the horizon.

Apple - please keep your hands off of this superb design. I can't think of a design change that will make it better - it can only get worse.

A note from days later - rebooting the phone kills the pairing. Pairing is not hard, but requires the case. So not as convenient as I thought, but then I don't reboot the phone very often.

Google - you need to fire the people that designed Pixel Buds and everyone in your organization that approved the design.

2018-05-20

Roku and Other Streaming Entertainment

Roku and Other Streaming Entertainment

The controls on my Roku stick, at least when used with Amazon Prime are awful.

Hit the circular go back button (again - how do you talk about icons when they don't have an obvious name?) and the show backs up 10 seconds. Sounds very useful. Hit again quickly and the show goes back to the start. If I want to back up 30 seconds, I generally end up at the start, with no easy way to get back to where I was. Grr.

There is no stop button. There is a pause button. But if you pause, go back to antenna TV, then return a few hours later, you are likely to find that you have played several episodes of the show and lost your position in what you were watching and lost your position in the episode tracking.

The left arrow button (the straight go back button?) often takes you back to where you came from. But if you are watching a show, you have to hit it three times to make the show truly stop.

But what really annoys me applies to all of the the entertainment services that I have used, Hulu, Amazon, Netflix, I Heart Radio - PLEASE STOP with the idiotic recommendations for what I will like. You don't have a clue.

You have no idea why I like the shows that I watch. When I watch an entire series it probably means that I like a watching a certain character or maybe I like the plots or the writing. It doesn't mean that I will like anything else of that genre.

When I accidentally start a show because your control lag is so bad, then stop it almost immediately, that does NOT mean that I like the show.

When I start watching one episode of a show and stop halfway through, that does NOT mean that I like the show.

When I watch one episode of a show and then never watch another episode, that does NOT mean that I like the show.

I Heart Radio - when I delete a music theme from your recommended themes, that means I don't want to hear it. It does NOT mean that you should keep recommending it.

When you recommend a number of shows and I don't watch them, that's a clue. You are NOT getting it right. Give up and STOP ANNOYING ME.

2018-05-08

Smartphones Revisited

Smartphones Revisited

Janet got a Google Pixel 2 recently. It has an aluminum back, but the top inch is glass. I think that is for wireless battery charging or maybe an internal antenna. It wasn't long before the glass was broken and the paint was chipped to reveal the aluminum (due to impact against the floor). Why was this piece glass? Do people hate plastic so much that they would rather deal with broken glass than have a plastic piece on their phone? Does almost blue paint with aluminum spots look better than plastic? My current phone has a plastic back (Nexus 5X) that does it's job and has survived repeated falls.

Groupthink is the enemy of inovation and it abounds in smartphones - must make the bezel smaller, must get rid of the headphone jack, must round the edges, metal and glass - no plastic, must have an "intelligent" assistant, must have gesture shortcuts. I don't like any of these "must haves".

No matter how much you hype Gorilla Glass, for opaque surfaces, you can find a better thermoplastic.

I haven't figured out what is the big deal about paying via phone. It just doesn't seem that hard to take my credit card out of my wallet. Don't want to carry a wallet? What about your driver's license, passport card, health insurance card, cash for places that only take cash?

EBooks and EBook Reader Apps

EBooks and EBook Reader Apps

I have not read paper books in years now. I started ebooks with a second generation Kindle, reading The Hunger Games trilogy. Then I tried it on my phone and never used the Kindle again. I always have my phone with me. It is small and light. And it has very sharp text. At the time, Amazon's Android Kindle app was very good.

I almost never know the title of the book that I am reading. I never see the cover and the title never appears on the pages that I am reading.

And one more issue, in general, why does it take so long to open the app and get started reading? Even if the book has been downloaded to the phone the app appears to be contacting the cloud. Fear of cheating is more important than giving me a good experience, I guess.

Through the years, the Kindle app has gotten worse and worse as they added useless features and bugs.

The current version fails to start up on the page that I last displayed. I have to be sure to bookmark my page before exiting.

Touching the upper right corner of the screen sometimes produces a bookmark, sometimes does nothing, and sometimes displays the next page. Very annoying.

Touching a word marks the word and brings up the first line of the definition of the word. Huh? It used to display the whole definition.

These aren't transient bugs. I reported them months ago. I believe that Amazon doesn't consider them to be bugs.

I tried Nook. When I stopped reading at the start of a new chapter, when I returned, the page would be blank. To get it back I had to do something like change the font size and then change it back. I couldn't detect any attempt to fix the problem.

Next I tried Google Play Books. I haven't found any bugs, but there are two annoying features. First, there is some gesture that is easy to invoke, although I don't know exactly how, that dramatically increases the font size. I can't find any way to turn it off. And there is no setting to leave the Android status and action lines (at the top and bottom) visible. So I have to back out of reading mode to see the time or hit the home button.

I tried Kobo too. As I recall, it had an option to always display the Android status line, but the option didn't work. I stuck with Google.

I wonder what plans the self driving automobile developers have to avoid bugs like these and to not introduce new bugs in software updates.

2018-05-01

Things that Should Be

Things That Should Be

Mice (the ones used to control a computer) - often I want to go only horizontal, or only vertical, or very high resolution. Maybe just two buttons - horizontal or vertical only and high resolution. Instead we get 100 different mouse shapes and sizes and "programmable" extra buttons - why can't they add something truly useful?

Google Maps during navigation - how about a pause button? Let me get food, gasoline, etc. without being constantly told how to get back to my route.

Car signals - we have left turn, right turn, get out of my way, and emergency. What about U turn? How about "sorry" - imagine how much road rage could be reduced with a simple sorry signal. How about "thank you" - imagine how much nicer drivers might be if they were occasionally acknowledged for being nice. How about "the light is green" - just a short horn tap would do, but most horns are very hard to tap, they are either silent for full blast. These could all be color coded lights on the front and back or the car.

Cookies (the kind that you eat) - mandatory labels for cookies - crispy, soft, chewy, maybe others like crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside. All of these cookie types are completely different things. Why are they commingled on the grocery shelf? Why aren't they labeled when displayed without packaging.

Same thing with chewy versus soft caramel. I don't like soft caramel. "Turtles" - caramel, pecan, chocolate are wonderful with chewy caramel, garbage with soft caramel. LABEL your product please.

My current car has four cup holders in front and four in back. I don't generally need all of those, but they make handy, if very small, trash containers. But why is there no good place to put my phone? I tried a number of addons phone holders - all deficient. They block views, put the phone in places with poor visibility, are a pain to get the phone in and out of, put the phone in front an air vent. Why don't we have phone holders built into the dash - just a small padded slot to hold the phone upright, in a good viewing position, with a cutout to attach a charging cable? Of course the new bezel-less phones would have trouble with the slot suggestion - maybe someone could offer a half inch extension for the bottom of these stupid designs.

2018-04-20

Things that Should NOT Be

Things that Should NOT Be

Manufactured scents are gross - laundry detergents, dishwasher detergents, dish soap, shampoo, hand soap, and maybe worst of all air "fresheners". They stink. They provoke allergic reactions in some people. They have no redeeming attributes.

Manufactured trans-fats, also known as (partially) hydrogenated oils, have been shown to be very unhealthy, associated with heart disease and strokes. There have been some trans-fat bans and a lot of companies have reduced or eliminated trans-fats in their products. It's time to make them illegal.

Touch screens in cars are a menace. They divert attention from driving. They are ergonomically horrible because you must look at the screen to operate it and transient vibration from the car can easily cause you to miss the desired button. There is no physical feedback and no good way to anchor your hand in preparation for a button press.

Air blower hand dryers are viciously loud and dry leaving whatever was in the water on your skin. Why do people use these? If there are no paper towels available or if I feel guilty about using them, I just use my shirt (cotton), the water is clean and evaporates quickly.

Tanning beds - no redeeming value and a significant health risk. Why do these exist? Why are they allowed to be used?

Shower control that only controls the hot/cold ratio. It is such a waste to not be able to control the amount of water.

Colgate toothpaste - have you ever tried to buy Colgate toothpaste? How did you choose which type? Ignoring kid's stuff and sensitivity reducing toothpastes we have - Baking Soda and Peroxide Whitening Bubbles, Baking Soda Whitening, Cavity Protection Enamel Health Whitening, Fluoride, MaxClean Smartfoam, MaxFresh Knockout, MaxFresh with Mini Breath Strips, Optic Express White, Optic White, Optic White High Impact White, Optic White Radiant, Optic White Stain Fighter, Optic White Stain-Less White, Sparkling White, Tartar Protection with Whitening, Total Advanced Deep Clean, Total Advanced Whitening, Total Clean in Between, Total Clean Mint, Total Daily Repair Toothpaste, Total Whitening, Triple Action and I'm sure that I missed a few. Do they want you to buy one of each and evaluate for yourself? If I want the whitest teeth possible, one of these should do - Optic White Radiant, Optic White High Impact White, or Sparkling White. But which one?

Thankfully the car makers have quit putting "wings" on family sedans. But they are now in a hotly contested race to see who can make the ugliest grill. Nissan, Honda, and Lexus, are currently tied for second and Toyota has taken the lead with two equally horrible grills for the regular and sport version of the Camry.

I'm sure that I have missed a few other things that should not be. Oh - SNOW IN APRIL.

2018-03-11

Life as a Customer

Life as a Customer

A number of businesses have apparently decided that they don't want my business.

It appears that Google would prefer that I use Apple smartphones. Android 8, months into distribution is a mess. Poor feature decisions and apparent bugs keep making me wish for a return to Android 7. And the future direction (stupid features, more bugs, more change for the sake of change) is not to my tastes. Now, can I get my MP3s from Linux to an iPhone? Will Apple offend me more than Google? Or should I just go back to a flip phone?

I drove a Volvo S40 (compact based on the Ford Focus, from when Ford owned Volvo) for many years, happily. But no more small Volvo sedan for the US. I switched to Toyota.

Volkswagen - no more Scirocco in the US. Honda - no more CRX. Acura - no more Integra.

Near the end of a long trip in the Volvo, I stopped in a Shell gas station and tried to fill my gas tank. The pump produced no gasoline, so I went next door to Chevron and filled it. The next day my car started hesitating and was very low on power. Coincidence? I don't think so. I called and wrote letters to Shell and Chevron. They both refused to do any serious investigation or make any compensation. I spent about $800 for a new gas tank. I haven't purchased gasoline from Shell or Chevron since and I don't expect that I ever will.

Asics, New Balance, Nike, Saucony - all of these companies have a very bad habit of making a good shoe then replacing it with a vastly inferior shoe. They have all lost my business.

I wore Lee regular cut jeans for many years, maybe thirty. Then they changed the cut. No more Lee jeans.

I wanted a sofa with an external wood frame (like a futon) with a flat (not tilted) seat, replaceable cushions. And no folding mechanism - this always compromises rigidity. The wood frame is to reduce volume - the sofa sits in the middle of the small room and I don't want it to look huge. What did I find - NOTHING. Everyone sells the same designs. I gave up and made the sofa that I wanted. Along the way I smashed my arthritic toe by dropping the frame on it - missed the joint by about a half inch. And ruined three pairs of pants with varnish/stain.

I bought a BMW 328i, 2000. I was very happy with it for a couple of months. Then someone bashed the wing mirror. While replacing it the moisture barrier in the door was replaced improperly. The interior carpet became damp, without me noticing it. Then it started to smell of mildew. I finally noticed the water and took it in to be serviced. I think they fixed it. But a couple of years later, the window lift mechanism broke - they all eventually broke in this model. Again the moisture barrier replacement failed to keep out water. Repeated attempts at sealing were a failure. I blame BMW. Cars should be designed to be repaired. BMW - never again.

2018-02-26

How to Choose a Mutual Fund

How to Choose a Mutual Fund

I have defined, in previous posts, various measures of mutual fund strategy and performance - yield, turnover, etc. This post is to get you to think about how to use these measures to choose a fund.

Turnover - I want low turnover. This indicates investing in a company rather than trading stocks. In addition, high turnover increases hidden trading costs. I try for less than 25%, i.e. on average each asset is held for four years.

Expense ratio - higher expense ratio does not buy you anything. If Vanguard can run a great fund like Wellington for .25%, it looks to me like anything above this is just profit for the mutual fund company. If you limit yourself to .25%, that will be Vanguard funds and index funds. If you want more choice, Dodge and Cox funds are close to .5%. Funds under 1% are common. Certainly do not accept anything above 1%, or maybe 1.5% for international funds.

Yield - this tells you how much dividend income the held stocks and bonds produce. I prefer companies that distribute dividends because that indicates to me that they are a money making enterprise. A lot of companies make no money and their stock price is based on speculation of future earnings - you can make or lose a lot of money on these.

Total assets - if a fund is too big, it is can be difficult to manage. This depends on the strategy. If a fund trades constantly, big is a disadvantage. If the pool of stocks in the fund's strategy is limited, big is a disadvantage. Large cap, balanced, worldwide, size is not generally a problem.

Past performance - I look at past performance, especially performance in down markets. This shows how well the chosen stocks and the fund strategy handles these situations. I do not care much about short term out-performance - this is likely luck. When looking at past performance, some web pages include reinvested distributions and some do not. Morningstar does. Yahoo does not, they only report share price. Beware.

And beyond measures - I prefer funds that are run by stable companies, with a management replacement strategy. Small mutual fund companies may have very good funds. But they may be bought by other companies looking to feed on their reputation or past performance. And their management replacement system may be sub par.

I like allocation (balanced) funds. They make life easier by keeping the stock/bond ratio constant (or as the management sees fit). And they have less volatility than pure stock funds. And I like global funds. There is a big economy outside the US and exposure to other currencies sounds good.

Yahoo does a good summary with expense ratio, turnover, yield, total assets. Morningstar has this buried in a sea of information that I don't care much about. Mutual Fund Observer ( www.mutualfundobserver.com ) has a good forum.

Some bond and balanced funds to look at (I no longer follow pure stock funds) -
  • US bond - dodix, lsbrx, vcorx
  • US balanced - dodbx, mapox, prwcx, vwelx, vwinx
  • global bond - lsglx
  • global balanced - rpgax, vgwix, vgwlx

Some stable, well run mutual fund companies -
  • Vanguard
  • Dodge and Cox
  • T. Rowe Price

On a related topic - don't take security lightly with your investments.

I once saw a financial knowledge test question - is it better to have all of your money in one brokerage or have it split in two at different brokerages? The answer was - makes no difference, but the second brokerage is a waste of effort, your assets are insured. I think that this is WRONG. If someone uses identity fraud to steal your money, having it at two different places with two different access methods can thwart half of the theft. You might recover the stolen money. But it might take months. If I see my money disappear from one brokerage, I will be on the phone to the other saying "LOCK MY ACCOUNT. NOW".

2018-02-15

Android 8

Android 8

I upgraded my Google Nexus 5X to Android 8 a while ago. It now includes several updates and is at 8.1. What a mess.

Alarms go off late sometimes (I think mostly when the phone is in sleep mode).

SSHelper, a very useful app that runs a secure server, doesn't work. Apparently Android 8 aggressively shuts down background tasks to save battery power. Why doesn't it let me exempt programs?

And battery usage doesn't appear any different than with Android 7.

Sometimes, when I turn on my phone, it comes up in Google Play. Why?

Insets are a useless gimmick. It was so annoying with Maps that I had to disable it. (I do appreciate the disable option.)

I haven't found a good use for split screen, so that's a waste.

Dolphin browser, often leaves the keyboard on top of web pages, about 50% transparent. You can't get rid of it. I don't know if this is related to Android 8, but that's when it started doing this. I was using Dolphin because was dramatically faster than a previous version of Firefox. Chrome incorrectly renders some tables, making it useless for some web pages. Now it's back to Firefox.

I finally gave up waiting for Android Chrome to be fixed. The problem is multiple lines separated by line breaks in a table cell - these caused the font size to go crazy. I replaced the multiple lines with a single column table. Problem fixed. What a pain. I was set to start using Chrome. It has a new feature - a news feed on the home page. And an annoying tab menu. So I'm using Firefox, but my contra dance links work with Chrome now!

Of course they still haven't fixed the problem that when you use an app to turn off the screen, the fingerprint reader won't turn the phone back on. That started with Android 7.

There is no reasonable way to go back to 7.

I suggest another "law" related to computers (including phones, probably tablets but I have found no use for tablets), along the line of Moore's law about computer processing power. Every year, consumer operating systems add features and bugs/incompatibilities at about the same rate. This makes them less and less useful. Eventually they will all degrade to the point of being unable to handle basic features - screen, phone, internet. Then it's back to dedicated devices - flip phone, calculator, music player, ...

2018-01-25

More Fun with Investing

More Fun with Investing

For an introduction, see my post on investing, from last week. This post will just be useful terms and concepts. It will not be an organized lesson in investing. Having just read and edited it, I must say it's pretty boring. But your financial future is at stake, so read on.

Annuities

I hate to spend time on annuities because they are generally not good. But financial advisers will push them, so you might want to understand them.

An annuity is a contract where you give a big chunk of money to a financial firm and they promise to make regular payments to you until you die. This is like buying a pension.

There are different types of annuities -

  • "Fixed" these pay a fixed rate on the contract value.
  • "Variable" - the contract value is based on a basket of mutual funds chosen by the user.
  • "Indexed" - the contract value rises with, but not as fast as, a rising stock market.
  • "Immediate" - the payments start immediately.
  • "Deferred" - the contract starts as a pure investment and the payments begin when the user "annuitizes".

Sounds good, but you will generally hear these issues - the fees are high and obscure, you give up control over your investment, your money vanishes when you die (not that you will care, but others might).

If I've said anything that is incorrect, it is because I have no experience with annuities. Buy only from a fiduciary and read any contract carefully.

Bonds

Types of bonds -

  • "Municipal" - issued by state and local governments, the interest is generally tax free, some are subject to the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT).
  • "Government" -  issued by the federal government, the interest is generally tax free at the state and local level, but taxed by the IRS.
  • "Corporate" - issued by corporations, which may fail. Bond holders have first rights to corporate assets on corporate failure (unless our leaders decide to change the law retroactively, such as the General Motors failure during the housing crisis). The interest is taxed.
  • "Junk" - bonds from companies that have a questionable future, you get high interest rates in return for relatively high possibility of failure. Taxed interest.

If you have a lot of money, such that the income from AMT-free municipal bonds is all that you need, you can live tax free. A lot of people get upset when they hear that these rich people don't pay taxes. But in return, they are getting very low interest rates, and they are supporting government borrowing (which I get upset about).

Interest rates have been dropping since about 1980. This has given a nice boost to bond fund performance. But they can't go much lower and they are starting to creep up. Rising interest rates will hit bonds. See "duration" in my previous post. If you are looking for a safe place for money, THERE ISN'T ONE.

Mutual Funds

Mutual fund fees include a sales fee, called a load, (front end for type A shares, etc.), a management fee, and a 12b-1 fee (advertising fee). The 12b-1 fee and the management fee are included in the total expense ratio (ER). Earnings are reported after expenses have been deducted.

For load funds, the front end loads are absurd, usually 5% of your initial investment - avoid these funds. They are sold at full service brokerages, banks, and directly from some mutual fund companies. You will NOT get better fund management by paying a sales fee.

No load funds are available at discount brokerages (Fidelity, Schwab, etc.) and directly from some mutual fund companies. Discount brokerages charge a transaction fee on some no load funds, but this is about $50 for a purchase or sale. No transaction fee (NTF) funds at discount brokerages usually have higher expense ratios to help pay brokerage management costs.

Total expense ratios (ER) range from about .25% to 1.5%. That's how much of your fund is taken from you every year. There are two way to look at this fee - as a fraction of the total value of your investment it seem inocuous, but as a fraction of your earnings it can be very high. If a fund has a 1% ER and reports a 4% gain (after expenses are taken) in a given year, management has taken 20% (1/(4+1)) of the earnings. Another fund might have a .5% ER and make 4%. Here management has taken only 11% (.5/(4+.5)) of the earnings. But net to you it's the same 4% - earnings are reported after expenses are deducted. But the first fund has to earn 5% to report 4% earnings, the second fund just 4.5%. A lower expense ratio gives a better chance of making better earnings. And since you would ask if this were question and answer - higher expense ratios do not buy better management.

Vanguard has become the biggest mutual fund company in the US by offering very low ER index funds and actively managed funds. It is owned by its own mutual funds, so any profit goes back to the fund holders. If Vanguard has a fund that meets your needs, it is likely the lowest cost choice (for some index funds, maybe not, but very close).

Allocation to different market segments can be useful to diversify investments - large cap, medium cap, small cap - growth stocks, value stocks, - US, foreign - short term bonds, intermediate term bonds, long term bonds, junk bonds - stocks, bonds, real estate, precious metals. "Allocation" or "balanced" funds can help with this.

If you have decided on a balance of investments, stock to bonds or value to growth for example, you should maintain that balance by "rebalancing" regularly. This requires moving money from more successful investments to less successful investments. Not easy, but remember that may be moving money from volatile investments (stocks) to steady investments (bonds), or maybe from segments that have grown to segments that are poised for growth. Balanced or allocation funds handle this without intervention.

Mutual fund names - sometimes the names describe the fund, sometimes they don't. Be careful.

For actively managed mutual funds - past performance is not a good predictor of future performance. If the performance was due to strategy, structure, low fees, maybe. If it was due to a genius manager, maybe - the difference between genius and luck is hard to determine. If it was due to a genius manager who has been replaced - no. If it was due to cherry picked time frames - no. If it was due to fund merging with selective reporting - no.

Past analysis will tell you that you cannot successfully time investments in the stock market. You can put new money in the market immediately or "dollar cost average" it in, that is, put money in a little at a time, to prevent immediate loss due to a crash. Statistics show that the former method works better, but may be more psychologically stressful.

My suggestion - balanced/allocation mutual funds, US (DODBX, MAPOX, PRWCX, VWELX, VWINX for example) and global (RPGAX, VGWIX, VGWLX). Buy and hold - let the fund manager worry about navigating the financial markets. This is a conservative approach. If you are young, or need to build savings fast, or like to take risk, there are other approaches.

Stupid Stuff

Stock market changes are generally quoted in dollars. This is STUPID. What counts is percent change. The news keeps exclaiming how fast the $1000 marks keep coming for the Dow Jones Industrial 30 index. About ten years ago it was at $10000, a $1000 increase was 10%. Now it's at $25000, a $1000 increase is 4%.

2018-01-18

Investing

Investing

The world of retirement has changed dramatically since I started my first job, at IBM. The plan in 1980 was spend a career at IBM and you will have a pension that will support you until you die. It turns out that that was not reality.

Defined benefit plans, also known as pensions, have given way to tax advantaged personal savings plans with employer assisted contributions (401K, 403B). A lot of people are unhappy with the loss of pensions but there are problems with pensions.

If you are in a pension plan - DO NOT count on it. The money is not in your hands - it is debt to you. And only part of this debt has been funded - the rest is just a promise. If your employer has money problems, your pension may not be there. Companies die, and that includes big companies that people thought would last forever. Companies and state and city governments over-promise, under-fund, and can't necessarily fulfill their obligations. If you are counting on the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, it's nowhere near a 100% guarantee, and an economic crisis could wipe it out quickly.

If you are in a personal savings plan, you have advantages and disadvantages compared to a pension. The big advantage is that the money is in your hands, you own it, you have control (well, some control). The big disadvantage is you must take PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY for it.

So what should you do? Save and invest. Mutual funds, pooled money investments in stocks, bonds, "precious" metals, are widely used and a moderately easy way to manage a diversified portfolio. But they are easily abused by financial advisers. You must understand them and take personal responsibility in their use.

At a MINIMUM, you need to understand the terms and concepts below. This will get you started, just barely. Look them up on Wikipedia or a book about investing. If learning about this stuff is abhorrent to you, just look up one term every week.
  • fiduciary - an adviser who puts your interests first - if you need an adviser, this is CRITICAL
  • stock - a share in ownership of a corporation
    • dividends - money paid to a company's shareholders, generally yearly
    • growth stock - growth stocks typically appreciate mostly by appreciation of the market share price
    • value stock - value stocks typically pay dividends that support their market share price and can be reinvested
  • bond - a debt note from a company that is generally paid at the date of maturity (can be traded like stocks at any time up to maturity)
    • duration - the time to maturity of a bond  (roughly the percent loss in value of a bond for a 1% rise in interest rates)
    • bond price versus yield - if interest rates go up the value of held bonds go down, so that similar bonds have essentially the same interest rate
  • mutual fund - pooled money invested in stocks, bonds, etc. - regulated by the US Securities and Exchange Commission
    • index fund - a mutual fund that tracks an index (as opposed to active management)
    • exchange traded fund - a mutual fund that trades on a stock market exchange
    • load - a sales fee on a mutual fund, in general AVOID these
    • no load mutual fund - a mutual fund that has no sales fee
    • expense ratio - the percentage of your mutual fund value that is charged as managing fee
    • turnover - the percentage of mutual fund assets that is sold and replaced each year (relates to how a fund is managed, tax efficiency)
    • assets - the total value of a mutual fund (relates to effective management)
    • capital gains - the appreciation in value of a mutual fund
    • distributions - monthly, quarterly, or yearly money paid from a mutual fund due to appreciation in value or dividends
    • reinvested distributions - distributions that are used to purchase more shares in the fund
    • average duration - the effective average time to maturity of the bonds in a fund  (roughly the percent loss in value of a bond fund for a 1% rise in interest rates)
Tax Advantaged Accounts
  • IRA - a retirement savings account funded generally with untaxed money, invested and appreciated money is not taxed until it is withdrawn
  • 401K - similar to an IRA but managed by an employer, often with some matching funds
  • 403B - similar to a 401K but managed by an public sector employer, but there are significant differences that need your attention
  • Roth versions of IRA, 401K, 403B - a retirement savings account funded with after-tax money, appreciated money is tax free
Investment Sectors
  • Dow Jones index - 30 huge US companies
  • S&P 500 index - 500 big US companies
  • Nasdaq index - tech companies
  • Russel 2000 index - small companies
  • AGG - aggregate bond exchange traded fund
  • EFA - Europe, Far East, Australia exchange traded fund
  • ICF - real estate exchange traded fund
  • GLD - gold exchange traded fund
There is free money to be claimed via employer matching contributions. There are efficient and inefficient tax strategies for your savings. There are severe penalties for not taking required minimum distributions from an IRA. There are multiple ways to give away money to advisers, money managers, stock brokers, and scam artists (this is not a desirable thing to do with your money).

I'm not saying that learning all of this is fun. I'm saying that if you don't handle your savings well, you will end up with much less savings. And I hate to see people throw away money that would make life easier.

2018-01-12

Creativity

Creativity

Random thoughts about creativity, art, and invention.

Thinking outside the box - that's a nice phrase. If the box is well defined, it's probably there for a good reason, and thinking outside of it is not particularly useful.

Often, it's from the box that you don't recognize that you need to escape. You are limited by paradigms that are so internalized that you don't know that they are limiting you. Paradigms are very useful to help you manage in the world. But when you are trying to find new ways of doing things, they get in the way.

There are twelve tones in the even tempered Euclidean musical scales - A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#. These correspond to frequencies ratios 2^(n/12). So the interval from one note to the same note, one octave up, is a double the frequency. A lot of the other tones work out to be close to a simple ratio of frequency, for example A-E, an interval know as a fifth has the ratio 2^(7/12) ~= 3/2. Tempering - adjusting the frequencies slightly - can improve the musicality. Using these twelve tones, you can construct many seven note scales that sound good, for example C,D,E,F,G,A,B is the "C major" scale. This is a paradigm that western music is built on. When more limited scales are used - five note scales (pentatonic), chosen from the seven - there is some nice music. When all twelve tones are used together, the "atonal" composers escape from the box, the music sounds TERRIBLE. There are other scale paradigms, I'm not familiar with them, I assume they can sound good or bad. The point is that paradigms/rules are there to limit bad things, but they sometimes limit good things too.


I have no love for visual art. I think that is because I haven't seen anything of human creation that is as good to look at as what is on display in nature. But I can respect visual art that shows creativity AND craftsmanship. Have an idea that you want to express, assemble a bunch of objects that other people have created? No thanks. Show some skill in creating the objects so that there is more to look at than the idea. Yes. Why? Because a multitude of people have already expressed that idea. To get my attention, you need to let me see originality in creating your expression of the idea.


Sometimes, brilliant ideas are a failure. That doesn't make the ideas worthless.

I first read about the Rolomite in Popular Science magazine maybe fifty years ago. Some considered it a new basic mechanical invention. Really neat idea. I'm not aware that it was ever used.

The Wankel, rotary internal combustion engine. No valves, no reciprocating pistons, compact, smooth. It worked well enough in real life for Mazda automobiles, until its odd combustion chamber with poor sealing caused it to lose to well developed piston engines for efficiency and emissions. Maybe future developments will fix these problems, but for now it can't compete. But it was a brilliant idea.


I watched The Apprentice on TV a lot (not the celebrity version, which is totally stupid). One of the contestants had an idea for the competition. No one else in the group offered anything. The group went forward with the idea. It failed. Trump fired the person who had the idea - "bad idea - you're fired" (to paraphrase). HUH? You fired the only one on the team that had an idea?


I hate the concept that being different is more important than beauty. That's the overwhelming trend in automobile styling. The result is overwhelming ugly. Maybe that's the concept behind atonal music too.


I can't remember where this conversation about new contra dances came from, but it went something like this - "95% of new dances are crap" response "95% of everything new is crap". Be thankful for the other five percent and keep trying.

2018-01-04

Noise

Noise

Back to the negative. It is very cold - I must be in a bad mood.

Noise pollution made a few headlines many years ago, maybe the 70s, I'm not sure. But apparently now no one gives a damn.

Cooking alarms in fast food restaurants are nasty. How can you enjoy food when interminable beeps are piercing your head? Long John Silvers is the worst of these that I have experienced. (But their fried fish with malt vinegar is delicious. I'm not sure if this is related to the noise).

Air blower hand driers are one of the worst offenders. I don't understand how people can use them. I have to cover my ears if I'm in the room when they start. They are not all terrible, but most of them are, in my experience.

Buzzing lights - that's really buzzing ballasts that drive fluorescent and  mercury vapor lights. They are not extremely loud but they are very annoying.

Gas powered leaf blowers, string trimmers, and lawn mowers should be banned. The people using them can use earplugs, but the people walking by are not prepared.

Helicopters - why is it legal to fly a helicopter over my house and disturb me. I can't hear the phone, stereo, or television for 30 seconds.

Air conditioner, heat pump outdoor units. These are loud when functioning properly. When they get old they often switch to screeching. One time, a unit about 25 feet from my front door went into screech mode. I called the police who determined that they couldn't do anything about it because the owners didn't intend to be making that much noise. I had to wait until the unit finally died to get relief.

Big trucks and buses are a huge noise headache. Motorcycles can be LOUD. Even on the highway it can be a headache to be within 100 feet of one. Electric buses are a huge improvement over older buses.

Public events, concerts, movies are typically far too loud. Fortunately they are easy to avoid or prepare for.

It is my understanding that big power generator windmills are very loud. I have never been near one.

Ticking clocks make very little sound but it is VERY annoying. I've been kept awake for hours by them. WHY do electric analog clocks tick?

Earplugs are not a good solution. They are uncomfortable and sweaty in a hot environment. Ear muffs also are not a good solution. They are bulky and limit what you can do.

WHY DO WE NOT CARE?

OFFENSIVE SUBJECT ALERT - If you love kids or dogs, it's probably best to stop reading now.

Dogs have the capacity and often desire to bark continuously for hours on end. Why aren't barking marathons part of dog show competitions?

Screaming kids in public places are agonizing. I assume that new parents are gifted with temporary deafness - that's the only explanation that I can think of that - I better stop writing now.