Phone should vibrate when you’re repeating yourself?

One of the things that drives children, especially teenagers, crazy about adults is our poor memories, which lead to us repeating ourselves. The problem gets worse as we get older. Since our phones are always listening (and sending the audio back to Vladimir Putin’s office?), why not have our phones keep track of everything that we’ve ever said to everyone. The phone can then vibrate if we’re advising a younger person of something that we’ve already noted. For the fifth repetition and beyond, perhaps a Bluetooth shock band can zap us. This could reduce embarrassment for adults and improve relations between adults and teenagers.

Readers: What do you think? Useful?

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

How reliably can economists predict the effects of the proposed tax rate changes?

“What Happens if the Tax Bill Is a Revenue Disaster?” (nytimes) is a piece by Nobel laurate Paul Krugman. He uses his macro-sized brain to predict how Americans and American enterprises will react to this bill and thus what the likely impact on revenue is.

My comment:

Thanks, Professor Krugman, Your last prediction about the markets and the economy that I can recall was in November 2016: “It really does now look like President Donald J. Trump, and markets are plunging. … If the question is when markets will recover, a first-pass answer is never.”

I don’t follow the stock market closely. Was there, in fact, ever any kind of recovery for the S&P 500?

On a more serious note, why do we think it would be possible to come up with an accurate prediction? For individuals there has been a lot of research on the tendency of people to work more as rates are lowered or work fewer hours as tax rates are increased. But do we have any data or experience with corporations? Given the complexity of the tax code for business it doesn’t seem as though a simple “look at the rates” approach would work.

Was there any economist who predicted that U2 would move its songs to an offshore Netherlands trust or use corporate shells in Malta and Guernsey for property investments? (The Sun) Since it has never previously been tried, how can anyone know what would happen if it were possible to pay the IRS a straight 20 percent instead of paying armies of lawyers and accountants and offshore functionaries?

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

Why are modern browsers so bad at rendering old HTML pages? is a web page from about 15 years ago. It is barely readable with Chrome on the iPhone. The HTML is super simple: a table with two cells and a hint to the browser to give 50 percent of the screen width to the first column. The phone can do voice recognition (well, sort of). Why can’t Chrome figure out a reasonable way to render this? (There were actually a bunch of research papers back in the 1990s about how to adapt web pages to the mobile devices of the day; nobody ever said “one day we’ll be able to get SXGA resolution into a postage stamp-sized area on the screen, so let’s just scale the thing down dimensionally”.)

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

Psychotherapy in the bitcoin mania days

At a party on Sunday, an anesthesiologist friend told me that she was happy to be earning real money, finally, after ten years of training. Other folks were talking about bitcoin. Now these two scenarios can be compared with an online calculator: Bitcoin v. Medical School.

Please test it out and let us know what you think!

(Also, any HTML or design ideas would be welcome.  The OG markup for Facebook sharing links to this photo of a bitcoin investor hard at work and it would be nice to work the photo into the design somehow. Maybe add one of a doctor studying?)

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

What to do with the net neutrality bureaucrats?

The haters (i.e., the Republicans) on the FCC voted today (nytimes) to kill off the net neutrality enforcement rules.

Let’s assume that the government can’t fire anyone. What do readers want to see the bureaucrats who were enforcing net neutrality doing?

My personal suggestion: find a way to stop spam phone calls (see Set a minimum price for phone calls?)

Better ideas?

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

My congestion pricing dream coming true in Northern Virginia

For years I have dreamed that U.S. state and local governments can escape their pension-commitment and healthcare-commitment insolvency while simultaneously freeing Americans from the agony of traffic jams. It seems that my dream of congestion pricing for driving is coming true in Virginia: “A $ 40 Toll to Drive 10 Miles? It Happened on Virginia’s I-66” (nytimes).

One glitch from my point of view: the toll is $ 0 for a car containing two people, which will generate just as much congestion as a car containing one person. (Do carpool lanes actually encourage significant numbers of people to carpool? I myself end up in them sometimes, but invariably because my passenger is someone with whom I would be sharing the trip anyway.)

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

Under-exercised dogs on Prozac?

A neighbor has a boisterous young adult 80-lb. Golden-Poodle mix who is kept confined to the kitchen (so that he doesn’t mess up the house/shed) and walked for about one hour per day. I ran into her in the woods the other day. Her dog was beyond excited to see and play with Mindy the Crippler and, of course, knocked over our 2-year-old a couple of times (he also tried to pull down said 2-year-old by his hood). She said that the beast was barking at night and she was going to put him on Prozac, at the vet’s recommendation, to calm him down at home and also for an upcoming kennel stay while the family goes to Europe.

This got me wondering if Medication Nation has reached our canines. Kids that are energetic and don’t want to sit still for six hours per day in school are put on meds, right? Now we’re doing the same thing to dogs? I wonder if this dog would be fine if he had 2-3 hours of daily exercise and full access to the house/family.

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

A good machine-readable free source of stock quotes?

The Bill Gates Personal Wealth Clock, described in the “Sites that are really programs” chapter of my 1990s book on web development, is broken because the attempt to grab a price from Yahoo Finance now results in “It has come to our attention that this service is being used in violation of the Yahoo Terms of Service. As such, the service is being discontinued. For all future markets and equities data research, please refer to” (they paid Marissa Mayer that they couldn’t afford to respond to a few quote requests per day anymore?)

What’s a good source for getting stock quotes in a simple format designed to be read by a computer program? I would want at least MSFT and BTC-USD.

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

Free college education for anyone willing to identify as “undocumented”?

Harvard puts up signs in the Yard apparently welcoming anyone who can pay $ 73,600/year:

[“Wherever you are from… You are home.” — lifted from Burning Man?]

Actually the offer is more generous than initially apparent because Harvard promises free tuition, room, and board for children from any family earning less than $ 65,000 year (source).

Is there a clear path for almost anyone to get a free ride through Harvard? Harvard doesn’t ask for a birth certificate, right? There is no public record of who has a U.S. passport, right? So anyone who is admitted to Harvard can say “I am an undocumented immigrant.” At that point Harvard cannot ask for any authoritative financial forms. The applicant can simply say “I don’t know what my parents’ immigration status is and I would feel uncomfortable asking for their IRS 1040 returns.” says

If you are undocumented you are eligible for financial aid from Harvard. Harvard makes no distinction based on citizenship in the financial aid process or in the amount of aid for which students are eligible. Undocumented students do not need to file a FAFSA since they are not eligible to apply for federal aid.

Readers: What do you think? There are procedures for proving that one is documented, e.g., producing a passport. But there is no procedure for proving that someone is undocumented. Is there then a clear path to free tuition, room, and board?




Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

Dating Tips

From a Facebook friend: a helpful list of 10 things to talk about on a first date. Some excerpts:

  • How do you work to dismantle sexism and misogyny in your life?
  • What is your understanding of settler colonialism and indigenous rights?
  • Do you think capitalism is exploitative?
  • Can any human be illegal?
  • Does your allyship include disabled folks? (pro tip: don’t ridicule the wheelchair-bound diner at the adjacent table, though it might be okay to condemn wheelchair-bound sex criminals)

The good news is that there is a correct answer to each of these questions!

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

How was the immigration of Akayed Ullah supposed to benefit native-born Americans?

According to “New York attack: What do we know about Akayed Ullah?” (BBC):

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said Ullah entered the US on an F43 visa.

This means he was the child of someone with an F41 visa, which is available to people who are the “brother or sister of a US citizen at least 21 years old”.

The New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission told CNN that Ullah held a taxi driver’s licence from March 2012 to March 2015.

The Inspector General of Police in Bangladesh, AKM Shahidul Haque, said Ullah had no criminal record in Bangladesh.

In light of the Port Authority bombing that he perpetrated, it seems safe to say Mr. Ullah’s life in the U.S. didn’t turn out well either for him or for us, but what was the best case scenario for native-born Americans? Mr. Ullah’s education and skills were presumably appropriate to the taxi-driving job that we expect to be eliminated by robots. Mr. Ullah settled in a city that most Americans regarded as already overcrowded when he immigrated.

[Mr. Ullah was a law-abiding citizen in Bangladesh, according to the BBC, so he likely would have been better off staying there.]

Readers: What is the theory that drove us to welcome Mr. Ullah?


Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

Microprocessors ruining our lives

What could be more awesome than Jack Kilby’s 1958 integrated circuit, which led to the microprocessors in our desktop computers and smartphones?

Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked says that our Silicon Age is not, in fact, awesome for humans:

Addictive behaviors have existed for a long time, but in recent decades they’ve become more common, harder to resist, and more mainstream.

Millions of recovering alcoholics manage to avoid bars altogether, but recovering Internet addicts are forced to use email. You can’t apply for a travel visa or a job, or begin working, without an email address. Fewer and fewer modern jobs allow you to avoid using computers and smartphones. Addictive tech is part of the mainstream in a way that addictive substances never will be.

Smartphones rob us of time, but even their mere presence is damaging. In 2013, two psychologists invited pairs of strangers into a small room and asked them to engage in conversation. To smooth the process, the psychologists suggested a topic: why not discuss an interesting event that happened to you over the past month? Some of the pairs talked while a smartphone sat idle nearby, while for others the phone was replaced by a paper notebook. Every pair bonded to some extent, but those who grew acquainted in the presence of the smartphone struggled to connect. They described the relationships that formed as lower in quality, and their partners as less empathetic and trustworthy. Phones are disruptive by their mere existence, even when they aren’t in active use. They’re distracting because they remind us of the world beyond the immediate conversation, and the only solution, the researchers wrote, is to remove them completely.

In 2000, Microsoft Canada reported that the average human had an attention span of twelve seconds; by 2013 that number had fallen to eight seconds. (According to Microsoft, a goldfish, by comparison, has an average attention span of nine seconds.) “Human attention is dwindling,” the report declared. Seventy-seven percent of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds claimed that they reached for their phones before doing anything else when nothing is happening. Eighty-seven percent said they often zoned out, watching TV episodes back-to-back. More worrying, still, Microsoft asked two thousand young adults to focus their attention on a string of numbers and letters that appeared on a computer screen. Those who spent less time on social media were far better at the task.

What are we doing with our short attention spans?

How long do you think the average office email goes unread? I guessed ten minutes. The truth is just six seconds. In reality, 70 percent of office emails are read within six seconds of arriving. Six seconds is less time than it’s taken you to read this paragraph so far, but it’s long enough for the average worker to disrupt whatever he’s doing to open his email program and click on the incoming email. This is hugely disruptive: by one estimate, it takes up to twenty-five minutes to become re-immersed in an interrupted task. If you open just twenty-five emails a day, evenly spaced across the day, you’ll spend literally no time in the zone of maximum productivity.

… the average schoolchild aged between eight and eighteen years spends a third of her life sleeping, a third at school, and a third engrossed in new media, from smartphones and tablets to TVs and laptops. She spends more time communicating through screens than she does with other people directly, face-to-face. Since the turn of the new millennium, the rate of non-screen playtime fell 20 percent, while the rate of screen playtime increased by a similar amount.

Children are especially vulnerable to addiction, because they lack the self-control that prevents many adults from developing addictive habits. Regulated societies respond by refusing to sell alcohol and cigarettes to children—but very few societies regulate behavioral addictions. Kids can still play with interactive tech for hours at a time, and they can still play video games as long as their parents will allow. (Korea and China have flirted with so-called Cinderella laws, which prohibit children from playing games between midnight and six in the morning.)

What is addiction anyway?

Addiction originally meant a different kind of strong connection: in ancient Rome, being addicted meant you had just been sentenced to slavery. If you owed someone money and couldn’t repay the debt, a judge would sentence you to addiction. You’d be forced to work as a slave until you’d repaid your debt [see some of the material within Post-Divorce Litigation for the modern equivalent!]. This was the first use of the word addiction, but it evolved to describe any bond that was difficult to break. If you liked to drink wine, you were a wine addict; if you liked to read books, you were a book addict. There was nothing fundamentally wrong with being an addict; many addicts were just people who really liked eating or drinking or playing cards or reading. To be an addict was to be passionate about something, and the word addiction became diluted over the centuries.

Inbox Zero also explains why workers spend a quarter of their days dealing with emails, and why they check their accounts, on average, thirty-six times every hour. In one study, researchers found that 45 percent of respondents associated email with “a loss of control.” This from a mode of communication that barely existed until the twenty-first century.

Fortunately America is packed with psychologists who can treat us, right? Hilarie Cash, a PhD clinical psychologist, started a  treatment center for game-addicted young people and then was surprised at their behavior:

“Our guys get sidetracked, and they develop intimacy disorders. They don’t have the skills to bring sexuality and intimacy together. Many of them turn to pornography instead of forming real relationships, and they never seem to understand true intimacy.” Cash referred to “our guys” because the center no longer admits women. “For four years we admitted women, but we had to revise our policy after a number of patients ignored the ‘no physical intimacy’ rule. We had many more male applicants in those days, so we decided to stop taking women. Now, with the rise of non-violent casual and social gaming, there are almost as many female applicants. We may have to reconsider our policy.”

What can a parent do?

It’s far easier to prevent people from developing addictions in the first place than it is to correct existing bad habits, so these changes should begin not with adults, but with young kids. Parents have always taught their children how to eat, when to sleep, and how to interact with other people, but parenting today is incomplete without lessons on how to interact with technology, and for how long each day.

How about a company?

[Daimler]’s one hundred thousand employees can set incoming emails to delete automatically when they’re on vacation. A so-called mail on holiday assistant automatically emails the sender to explain that the email wasn’t delivered, and suggests another Daimler employee who will step in if the email is urgent. Workers come back from their vacations to an inbox that looks exactly as it did when they left several weeks ago.

More: read  Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked


Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

Why Facebook is so addictive: the Like button

How did Facebook destroy the audience for the public Internet? Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked is a good place to start looking for answers:

Thirty-seven years after Zeiler published his results [on pigeons, in 1971], a team of Facebook web developers prepared to unleash a similar feedback experiment on hundreds of millions of humans. Facebook has the power to run human experiments on an unprecedented scale. The site already had two hundred million users at the time—a number that would triple over the next three years. The experiment took the form of a deceptively simple new feature called a “like” button. Anyone who has used Facebook knows how the button works: instead of wondering what other people think of your photos and status updates, you get real-time feedback as they click (or don’t click) a little blue-and-white thumbs-up button beneath whatever you post. (Facebook has since introduced other feedback buttons, so you’re able to communicate more complex emotions than simple liking.) It’s hard to exaggerate how much the “like” button changed the psychology of Facebook use. What had begun as a passive way to track your friends’ lives was now deeply interactive, and with exactly the sort of unpredictable feedback that motivated Zeiler’s pigeons. Users were gambling every time they shared a photo, web link, or status update. A post with zero likes wasn’t just privately painful, but also a kind of public condemnation: either you didn’t have enough online friends, or, worse still, your online friends weren’t impressed. Like pigeons, we’re more driven to seek feedback when it isn’t guaranteed.

Facebook was a great idea (from the Winklevoss twins, now Bitcoin billionaires), but it didn’t become a super-addictive idea until the Like button, according to the author of this book. Why do people love this so much?

Social confirmation, or seeing the world as others see it, is a marker that you belong to a group of like-minded people. In evolutionary terms, group members tended to survive while loners were picked off, one by one, so discovering that you’re a lot like other people is deeply reassuring. When people are deprived of these bonds, they experience a form of pain so severe that it’s sometimes called “the social death penalty.”

How can people break free of Facebook addiction? The authors suggest saying “I don’t use Facebook” rather than “I can’t use Facebook,” but mostly putting a dog’s shock collar on yourself: Pavlok. Another idea is to use Facebook through an interface that hides all of the metrics: a Demetricator.

How powerful is gamification?

[Ian] Bogost demonstrated the power of gamification with a social media game called Cow Clicker. He designed Cow Clicker to mimic similar games, like FarmVille, which had dominated Facebook for many months. The game’s objective was simple: click your cow during critical periods and you’ll earn virtual currency known as mooney. Cow Clicker was supposed to satirize gamification, but it was a smash hit. Tens of thousands of users downloaded the game, and instead of playing once or twice, they played for days on end. At one point, a computer science professor sat atop the leaderboard with a hundred thousand mooney. Bogost updated the game with new features, adding awards for reaching certain milestones (such as the Golden Cowbell for one hundred thousand clicks), and introducing an oil-coated cow to commemorate the BP oil spill. He claimed that Cow Clicker’s success was a surprise, but really it embodied many of the traits that made other games addictive: Werbach and Hunter’s points, badges, and levels.

… and it will only get worse:

Behavioral addiction is still in its infancy, and there’s a good chance we’re still at base camp, far below the peak. Truly immersive experiences, like virtual reality devices, have not yet gone mainstream. In ten years, when all of us own a pair of virtual reality goggles, what’s to keep us tethered to the real world? If human relationships suffer in the face of smartphones and tablets, how are they going to withstand the tide of immersive virtual reality experiences? Facebook is barely a decade old, and Instagram is half that; in ten years, a host of new platforms will make Facebook and Instagram seem like ancient curiosities.

More: read  Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

New York Times discourages women from working

“My Generation Thought Women Were Empowered. Did We Deceive Ourselves?” (nytimes) is a 71-year-old woman’s tale of suffering at the hands of men in the workplace:

When I started out in journalism in the 1970s, … My first job was at the London bureau of a prominent international wire service. When I walked in the newsroom, the all-male staff gaped at me as if I were an oasis in a desert. … I felt lonely, in need of a friend. I suppose this is why I responded when one reporter began to engage me in conversation. My hopes rose — until I felt the hand slowly sneaking up my thigh. I dispatched him with an elbow in the torso. And the guy who grabbed my butt the next day got a swift back kick into the kneecap and a couple of four-letter words.

When you get older, gender discrimination gets easier, somewhat predictable and sometimes even funny. But it doesn’t stop — even if you’ve published four books and had a long journalism career. When my last book came out, I was interviewed by a certain talk show host, before he was stripped of his job because of gross sexual misconduct charges. I had hardly opened my mouth before he fell asleep. During the rest of the interview, he kept nodding off while the camera judiciously avoided him. When I left the studio, he had popped awake for his new guests. I saw him waving his hands enthusiastically while speaking with two high-powered male journalists.

I herald this latest female generation for their courage in revealing their humiliations for the chance to change society. We, the earliest female newswomen, were tough, ambitious, even cocky about our talent, but over the years, our self-confidence was often irreparably harmed. Our generation might have been smart, but there was much we just didn’t get. Grateful to win a place in the hierarchy of power, we didn’t understand the ways that gender degradation still shaped our work lives.

Suppose that young female readers of the New York Times assume that this story is representative of women’s experiences in the workforce, i.e., humiliation, groping, and irreparable harm. Why would a rational woman then choose to enter the workforce?

Now that everyone can agree that “news” is more about promoting an agenda of some kind, can we infer that the NYT’s agenda is to discourage American women from working?

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog