Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Android Experience from an ex-iPhone User

I recently blogged about the Samsung Galaxy SII vs. the iPhone 4s.  I ended up choosing the Samsung phone and have been using it for almost a month now.  Enough time to share my impressions.

The Good: The Samsung has a great screen - much better than the iPhone 3GS it replaced.  From in-store comparison with the iPhone 4S, I'd judge it better than it too.  Also, the physical dimensions of both the screen and the phone itself are, in my opinion, better than the iPhone.  Another great new (for me at least) feature is the Google Map/Navigation. I can't emphasize enough how convenient it is to be able to enter an address or simply a point of interest via natural voice instead of fumbling with a keyboard.  And Google Maps' ability to understand is pretty amazing - it rarely makes a mistake when I ask for an address.  Siri it is not, but very useful, nonetheless.
At first I didn't like Android's separation between application folder and the home screens.  But now I can see the usefulness of being able to put all the "important" stuff I use every day on the home screens...and everything else in the applications bucket.
Another nice feature is the Notification area.  I use it all the time.  Apple's iOS 5 has Notifications now too, but I have no experience with it there - the Android one is done well.

The Bad: The user interface is just not as intuitive as the iPhone's.  I don't know what it is - perhaps it's all the junk apps the vendor and/or phone operator pre-installs - or perhaps it's the duplicate apps that do the same or similar things (e.g. "gmail" app and a "mail" app; "AT&T Navigation vs. Google Navigation).  Perhaps it's the lack of physical buttons for menu/home/back/search - forcing you into trial-and-error when not looking or when in the dark (how brain-dead is it anyway that those keys light up *AFTER* you press them).  By comparison, the iPhone has a physical Home button that your thumb can find by "feel" and, thus, allows for at least some rudimentary navigation without looking.
Some of the built-in applications (e.g. the alarm clock), although often more feature rich than the iPhone's equivalent, are of questionable quality and/or usability.  For instance, I use the alarm clock every day.  But a couple times, when I had to change my normal "wakeup time", have found myself oversleeping because I somehow managed (fat fingered or bug in software?) to change the hour instead of the minutes.  That never happened to me on the iPhone.
Or take the email app.  In the default view, you see your inbox arranged reverse chronologically and separated by days.  That's good.  But deleting a message without viewing it first involves 4 touches (Menu->Delete->Check the message->"Delete")....vs. the iPhone's swipe->"Delete".  Placement of on-screen buttons is also not very good.  In the mail client, "Compose", "Reply", and "Trash" are all near the top-right of the phone, making them hard to reach with the thumb on a tall phone like the Galaxy.

The Ugly: The battery life of the Galaxy S II is just horrible.  I think much of it is due to the apps in Android not being well designed - many seem to communicate with servers way too frequently (to fetch news updates, ads, etc.)  After de-installing various apps (e.g. the "Engadget" app; the "GO" keyboard; Facebook) and setting others to check for notifications much less frequently (e.g. gmail) and by turning off wi-fi or GPS when I'm not using it, I can get through a whole day without sucking the battery dry....but what's the point of having a "Smart" phone when you have to make it dumb to make it last through a day?
The keyboards on the Samsung all suck.  It's kind of funny - the iPhone had one keyboard and I hardly ever made a mistake on it.  The Galaxy S II gives you a choice of THREE built-in keyboards...and I can't even enter a simple google search without accidentally entering a period instead of the letter 'n'.  Maybe it's the dimensions of the phone - it's much taller and perhaps a little narrower than the iPhone.  The keyboard letters seem squished.  There are several third-party keyboards available for Android (I guess they sprouted because there's a definite market?) and I found one that was pretty decent - the "Go" keyboard....but seemed to be a contributor to my battery woes (I suspect it was phoning "home" for unknown reasons), so I uninstalled it again.  I now live with the crappy keyboards as best I can (I try to use voice more), but it's not easy/fun.
Finally, there are some apps that are just not available on Android (yet).  The two I hate not having are: (1) Bloomberg Radio+ and (2) the Optimum Online app.  The latter one actually exists for Android, but it's a piece of crap that requires you to have DVR before it does *anything* (meanwhile, the iPhone version not only gives you a channel guide (that can act as a remote for your cable box!), but also lets you view live TV).

The Verdict: While the Galaxy is a physically beautiful phone with an awesome screen, I wish I had gotten the iPhone 4S.  Since I didn't, my hopes are now pinned on Ice Cream Sandwich becoming available on the Galaxy SII which will, hopefully, address some of issues I mentioned.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Samsung Galaxy SII or iPhone 4S?

I have a difficult choice to make: should I get the new iPhone 4S or the Samsung Galaxy SII.  My contract expired a few months ago and had Apple followed their usual release cycle and announced the phone in the summer, I would have gotten the new iPhone for sure - as there was really no worthy competitor around at the time.  So I waited.

A few days ago, AT&T finally released the Samsung Galaxy SII, a device that had been available internationally since May and which had garnered rave reviews everywhere it was released.  Although I was psyched by the new phone's specs, I figured I'd wait a few days more - after all, the iPhone 5 was just about to be announced.  Rumors suggested it would have a larger 4" display, new body (possibly aluminium like the Mac Book Pro), faster processor, better camera, and some voice input.  Boy was I let down when the 4S was announced today: no new body, no bigger screen.  Sure, it will come with a much faster processor, voice input, and a better camera....but most Android devices out there had these features for awhile now, so nothing new.

So the decision on which way to go is much tougher now.  Below, I'm going to list a few advantages of the Galaxy SII over the iPhone 4S and then do the reverse.

Samsung Galaxy SII Advantages:

  1. Storage is expandable (using micro SDHC cards)
  2. Battery is replacable
  3. DLNA compatible - i.e. you can stream media files to any DLNA-compatible TV (even wirelessly, if the TV is wireless.  I have a Samsung TV connected to a Wifi router, so theoretically, I can send my videos to the TV from the couch).
  4. HDMI output.  The AT&T Galaxy SII supposedly comes with a mUSB->HDMI cable that will let you hook up your cellphone directly to any TV with that input (e.g. if you want to output your Netflix or Hulu streaming on your big-screen TV)
  5. Flash support.  Not much to say: Android phones can view web pages with Flash content, while iPhones cannot.
  6. Speed on AT&T Network.  The SII's theoretical top speed is 21Mbit/sec while the 4S's is 14Mbit/sec.  Not sure where those top speeds are available, however.
  7. Screen size.  At 4.3", the Galaxy has a 0.8" larger screen than the iPhone.  That may not sound like much, but when you're doing serious surfing or reading, that extra real estate helps the eye-balls quite a bit.
  8. Turn-by-turn voice navigation?  The SII has it, I'm not sure, but I think the iPhone still does not.
  9. NFC.  The Galaxy SII has the electronics for it, but according to an Engadget review I've read, AT&T has it disabled for now.  This function, when enabled, might allow for easier credit-card payments at some stores....not sure if that's a big deal.  The iPhone 4S doesn't even have the hardware for it, so you'll definitely not have that feature.
Apple iPhone 4S Advantages:
  1. Design.  Although I have not yet touched a Galaxy SII, it looks plastic in pictures.  By contrast, the iPhone 4 (and 4S) with its aluminium band and glass front/back "feel" more expensive/luxurious.  Also, I've played briefly with other Android-powered phones and the UI on these devices didn't seem as cohesive/consistent/polished as iOS.  But this may not be an issue with the Galaxy - I won't know until I try it.
  2. Screen resolution.  At 960x640, it definitely has the edge over the Galaxy SII's 800x480.  But it's benefits are arguably lost on such a small screen.
  3. Voice.  The iPhone 4S has "Siris" - a voice assistant that supposedly lets you do all sorts of things by voice that were previously done by touch.  I don't think Android devices have an analoguous technology.  However, Android does have voice input where I'd expect it to be most useful: when taking notes or sending e-mail.
  4. Integration with other iOS devices.  My wife has an iPhone and iPad.  My daughter has an iPod Touch and will probably inherit my old iPhone 3GS.  If I get the Galaxy, I'll be the "odd man out": I won't be able to "FaceTime" with them or use the new iOS-specific IM feature.
  5. Update cycle.  Apple releases updates to its iPhones fairly regularly.  Android phones seem to get updates whenever the carriers feel like it.  AT&T, specifically, has been fairly bad at providing updates to Samsung phones in the past.  Samsung would provide an update and AT&T wouldn't release it until 1/2 year later.
I'm sure I missed a bunch of things, but these are the ones that are most important to me.  The Galaxy SII, on paper, seems a better choice.  But I'm a sucker for good design - and would like bug fixes to appear on my phone fairly rapidly.

Update: I ended up buying the Samsung Galaxy SII.

Update 2: I've decided to return the Samsung :-(  Although most everything about the device is great, its battery capacity most definitely is not!  For the past 5 days, it hasn't lasted through the day a single time - and I don't even use the phone that much :-(  The other thing I could not get used to is the on-screen keyboard (yes, I've tried all three built-in ones as well as a downloaded one).  I don't know what it is about the geometry of the keys, but I constantly find myself mistyping things.  It might be the placement of the period next to the space...I constantly hit it, instead of the letter 'n'.

Final Update: I stuck with the Samsung.  I found a good keyboard in the App store - the "GO" keyboard - that helps me with the typing issues.  The battery issue was resolved by cutting back on the frequency with which I had mail checking for updates and by removing the "Engadget" app - which seemed to be updating quite frequently also - causing the GSM o Wifi radios to be used quite a bit.

I recently wrote a post on my experiences after one month of usage.

Friday, September 23, 2011

A Danger In the Cloud

I recently cancelled my subscription to Netflix.  After the deed was done, I realized that I had just lost years of ratings I had input into Netflix to let the service help me choose future movies.  My opinion on 1000+ movies gone - poof!  That's when the thought struck me: in the cloud, we don't really own anything!  We input our personal data into these cloud-based services but are not allowed to retrieve it upon cancellation of the service or, god forbid,when  the service goes out of business.  Think about it: does Facebook give you a way to retrieve all the photos, videos, chats, etc. you've uploaded?  Does youtube let you easily download all the videos you've put there?  Does LinkedIn let you download all your contacts?  Does Pandora let you export your radio stations?

Of course not.  By not allowing you to export your data, these services make it inconvenient for you to move to a competitor.  A formidable weapon against competitors.

Something to consider as we parachute head-first into a cloud-based future.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Top 4 Problems (for me) with Mac OS X Lion

I updated my 2010 MBP (8GB RAM, i7, 80GB SSD) to Lion the day it became available and, overall, I'm reasonably happy.  However, there are a couple annoyances (bugs or just poor design choices) that I feel are worth mentioning:

1) Mission Control.  For heavy users of Spaces and Expose, Mission Control is just a very poor substitute because it loses previously available functionality: (a) you can no longer move windows directly from one desktop to another; there is a "workaround" that requires making the source desktop the active one and then  dragging the window to the destination desktop....but even this doesn't work if you want to drag the window to the secondary monitor.  (b) you can no longer rotate from the last space to the first one.  I know Apple is not targeting people like me (software developers) for its OS, but - common - you can't just take away capabilities without telling people!  The Mission Control feature was advertised as combining Spaces & Expose into one elegant, integrated interface - nobody said that it did so at the cost of losing functionality.

2) Choppy scrolling in Safari.  Recently - since I started using my MBP's "sleep" mode when moving between home and office rather than shutting down/powering up - Safari "stutters" when scrolling using the touchpad.

3) iPhoto hangs temporarily on startup.  Whenever I start iPhoto, there's a 20 second "hang" - the cursor changes to the color wheel and the app is unusable. After the delay, everything works as before.  This simply didn't happen before.  Very annoying.

4) I have yet to be able to get into my work's VPN again.  The Mac OSX built-in VPN for Cisco IPSec never worked for me in Snow Leopard, but there was a free client from Cisco that did.  With Lion this client no longer works - and the built-in VPN still doesn't work with our Cisco VPN Concentrator.  An Apple engineer contacted me when I posted my troubles in this forum (thanks!).  He let me try and log into their VPN (a Cicso ASA) and that worked.  We guessed that perhaps we could make our Cisco box work if its firmware was upgraded...an unforeseen expense.  If that doesn't work, I'll be forced to buy Cisco's ConnectAnywhere client since that will work on Lion....another unforeseen cost.

I hope this list is useful to people - especially those who have not yet upgraded from Snow Leopard.  The discovery of (4) certainly helped my boss who was getting ready to upgrade when I told him.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Cost Of Your Privacy - Not Even 30 Silver Coins

Most people don't like to think about it - privacy that is.  They hope (or pretend) that it still exists in this electronic age.  But every day companies and governments learn more about us - often with us willingly supplying the information.

How did it happen that we so freely give up our most private details?  Although we've always given up bits and pieces of it whenever we applied for credit or purchased something online, large scale harvesting of private data didn't begin until Google offered Gmail to the public.  I bet most people, when they signed up for a gmail account, didn't realize that they made a pact with the devil: in exchange for free use of its service, they gave Google permission to rifle through all received or sent emails - ostensibly only to present "targeted" advertising in the margins of a personalized gmail web page.  Subsequently, Google went a step further and developed "Chrome" - a free browser whose use is predicated on its users agreeing to let Google snoop on the user's browsing habits.  Again, most people just hear from their friends how fast Chrome is...they don't know that they're agreeing to have Google harvest certain browsing-related information.  But who cares, right?  After all, Google promises to "do no evil".

Google's successes and the continued commoditization of computer hardware have led other software & hardware companies to join the bandwagon.  Foremost among them being Apple.  The company that, in 1984, made a big marketing splash by warning us of an Orwellian future where "Big Brother" is watching everything we do - has now morphed into what it warned us against.  Its iTunes store has always held our music related preferences and credit card information, but with the advent of the iPhone and iPad, Apple's wealth of information about us has increased exponentially: it now knows what types of applications we like, what books and magazines we read, how much time we spend on the web - heck, it even knows where we are at every moment in time (see the recent revelation that the iPhone and Google's Android kept the phone's latitude/longitude information in a local cache that was occasionally forwarded to their company's respective servers).  And now Apple wants you to keep your emails, calendars, contacts, and all other manner of data on its "iCloud" servers.  I'm guessing that you won't get an option to encrypt that data either.  After all, that would make it difficult for Apple to provide you with the benefits of "targeted advertisement".

The vast majority of the population (including some technically savvy people I count as friends) doesn't know of this data harvesting - those that know either don't care about this loss of privacy or gain from it.

Should we be worried?  I think so.  When I signed up for my gmail account, I was fully aware of the implications.  I optimistically bought into Google's "Do No Evil" mantra.  I think maybe I was naive.  Google is a corporation - its only obligation is to make money for its shareholders.  "Do No Evil" is no assurance that some day the needs/desires of the investors won't be put before the need for privacy of its customers.  More disturbingly yet, Apple is now hoping that we keep our entire digital life on their servers.  The company will make it easy and cheap.  It'll extol the convenience of the service; it'll offer much of the service for free - all in an effort to become *the* hub for our online information...the harvesting of this data can't be far behind.

Big Brother Is Watching

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Will Smartphones Destroy the Web?

I started writing this blog early last year and never finished it.  Today I saw the draft and thought it was even more appropriate today than last year...

Today's smartphones are amazing devices: aside from making phone calls and texting, they let us play games and surf the web at ever increasing speeds. So, what's not to love?

The danger appears in a feature that is becoming ubiquitous in smartphones: apps and app stores. Huh? How could those tremendously useful little applications found on the iPhone, Droid, etc. threaten the web? Quite simply: by existing.

Before the arrival of the iPhone, the Web blossomed into an indispensable information tool to which everyone with a Web browser had access. During this incredibly fruitful time, Web standards ruled and they became more and more sophisticated as the needs of the users of the Web and the applications they desired grew more demanding. Since standards underpinned everything, browsers continued to be able to support users. The Web ecosystem was flourishing.

But now more and more developers are foregoing developing their applications for the web.  Lured by the highly sophisticated but platform-specific APIs offered by cellphone manufacturers, they are spending their time and resources developing "apps".  Since apps do not work across platforms, mobile phone vendors achieve greater and greater "lock-in" as their app stores (and user dependence on them) grow.  Balkanization.  Suddenly only Apple users can access some information - information that used to be accessible to anyone with a Web browser.

Ergo: apps destroy the promise of the Web: access to information by all.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Does Technology Make Us Blind To News?

On my way home yesterday, I caught the tail end of a radio piece on the demise of the physical newspaper: online news was to eclipse the traditional format.  An interesting comment was made: online news providers have begun customizing their news towards what they think their audience wants to read.  At first blush one might think "well, that's great!  More of what interests me and less of what doesn't!".  The interviewee in the radio piece, who worked for a physical newspaper, pointed out how this can lead to an under-informed public.  I thought that was a very good point!  Think about it: if you're just interested in sports and technology and your online news provider knows that about you (either directly via forms you filled out or indirectly via your click-through pattern on previous visits to the site), then the news provider might begin to show you just those types of stories - since it leads to you spending more time at the site...which leads to more advertising dollars.  The downside is that you may begin to miss out on other important news or cultural events.  In a physical paper, being totally "uncustomized", you get to see everything - even if it doesn't interest you: so even if you're just interested in the sports section, you might still catch a glimpse of the latest political wrangling or invasion or....

This problem isn't unique to the Web.  It's not just the evil corporations who are withholding news from us in order to maximize their profits - we, ourselves are using technology to isolate ourselves from the 'unpleasantness' of the real world.  On cable we have hundreds of channels to choose from - we usually surf to the ones that entertain us the most; on the web most of us have customized home pages on yahoo or google - what do we customize them with?  Maybe a sports section, a technology section, the weather?  How many of us include multiple sections on world or US news?  The arts, etc.?

In essence, technology is making us all into something akin to idiot savants: our depth of knowledge in the areas that interest us is becoming ever greater - while our knowledge of other areas is becoming ever more shallow.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Super Heroes - East and West

As a kid, I was a big comic book fan.  Although I read Superman, Spiderman, The Green Lantern, and The Fantastic Four, my favorite was always Batman.  I guess I could identify better with this "normal" guy who made himself a super hero through wit and hard work rather than via a gift from nature or accident.

In adulthood, I didn't continue this hobby.  Taking their place were science fiction & fantasy movies,super hero films...and Kung Fu flicks.  Aside from Batman, the martial arts movies became - and still are - some of my favorites.  Recently I wondered why.  I came to the conclusion that I liked to watch Kung Fu movies for the same reason I enjoyed Batman: the heroes in all cases were men (or women) who, through years of training and hard work, became masters - heroes.  They achieved great things entirely on their own.

As far as I know, in the West (e.g. the US) there is far more interest in super heroes of the "accidental/environmental" kind than there is in the "hard working but human" kind - at least judging by the available movie and TV shows.  In Asia  (e.g. China), there appears to be far more interest in the "hard working but human" kind - at least judging by the movies that come from there, the few I've seen on TV while visiting China, and my wife's disinterest in movies involving the other kind of heroes.

Does this difference in preference say something about the two cultures?  Does the idea that Westerners prefer super heroes who got their powers through accident (e.g. "Hulk", "Spiderman", etc.) or by nature ("Superman", "Heroes", etc.) suggest that Westerners believe that everything is possible (a good quality) or that they expect/hope things to happen "for free" (not needing to work for things - a bad quality).  Conversely, do Chinese believe that everything is possible with enough hard work (a great attitude) or do they lack the confidence to say "everything is possible"?  I don't have an answer - but I think it's a neat lens through which to view the two cultures.

Another difference between east and west is the depiction of the super heroes' personality.  Whereas the Eastern kung fu master is almost always serene and wise, western super heroes are often just like you or I - they have complex lives that they cannot always cope with.  Having to constantly hide their identities (another difference with heroes from the east) definitely causes them stress.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Where Is The Cool Video Eyewear?

The cell phone is increasingly becoming the center of our digital universe: we use it not only to communicate with one another, but also to surf the web and consume audio and, increasingly, video media.  We appear to be accepting and working around its inherent physical limitations: screen size and poor audio.  But do we have to?

Even a few decades ago, researchers played with the notion of head-mounted displays (HMD) - displays that were mounted on the head (initially via ugly helmets, later with less bulky visors/glasses) and which could project images directly in front of its user's eyes.  Despite gigantic leaps in miniaturization elsewhere in the electronic industry, HMDs seemed to have never come into vogue.  I have always wondered why - because the idea, to me, is the path to the cell phone's future!

Imagine wearing a cool set of shades which wirelessly communicate (wireless HDMI, anyone?) with the cellphone in your pocket to provide either an augmented- or totally virtual-reality to your eyes - at an eye-popping resolution that could never be attained within the tiny physical dimensions of a cell phone screen.

One company, Vuzix, has been selling pretty good looking eyewear for a few years.  But it doesn't seem like it's terribly successful at it - the glasses haven't progressed much from when I last looked at them 5 years ago: the resolution has become reasonably acceptable (their high-end model provides 1024x768), but it still relies on unsightly wires to communicate with its video/audio source.  Has the industry progressed so little because of lack of demand?  Do people think such eyewear would just look too geeky or do they simply not see the potential?

Have you guys ever seen Layar?  It's an augmented reality application that I first encountered a couple years ago - it's pretty amazing: it uses your cell phone's built-in GPS and camera to show you, through the cell phone's screen a reality that has been "enhanced" with the information you'd like to see.  For example, one day I was standing in the middle of a street in Philadelphia when my daughter whined about being hungry.  I took out my iPhone and brought up the Layar application and asked it point out restaurants around me.  I simply held up the phone and looked at the screen.  As I swept in a 360-circle, the street scene in the phone showed little bubbles indicating where the restaurants were.  Very cool.  Layar can be configured with all sorts of location-based information.

Now imagine how cool it would be if you didn't have to pull out your cell phone?  If you were wearing glasses that always superimposed interesting information (where you configure what's interesting) in your field of view?  Initially, this could be Layar-style location-based information.  But in the not-to-distant future, this information could include facial recognition (no more embarrassing silence because you forgot the name of the person in front of you).  This is not science fiction stuff we're talking about - the technology is all there (the iPhoto application on the Mac can already go through my photo collection and connect it to previously identified faces).

I just wonder when someone will come up with the eyewear to enable all of this.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Longer School Year - A Followup With Links

I did a bit of searching and found an extensive study on the subject by the National Center for Time and Learning:
The study tracked 650 schools (both charter and public/district) that offered an expanded school day or year (on average these schools offered 25% more school time than the national average of 178 days/1100hrs) and found a statistically significant correlation between an expanded school time and student performance.  The full report, including detailed results can be found here:

My daughter (she's a 7th grader in Millstone) also found a news article about Obama proposing a longer school year.  What's most interesting about the article is the table that lists the school years of other countries.

My daughter and I are now independently researching  states who have mandated a longer school year.  So far, she's found Kansas and Ohio.  Our goal is to look into whether these states have standardized tests and whether test scores show improvement after they have moved to the longer school year.  This might take a bit longer.  We'll let you know what we find.

An expanded school year may mean an increase in teacher salaries (the above report states that, on average, teacher salaries rose 14%; but the report also mentions that the proportion of schools in the study that were in economically depressed areas were higher than the national average.  To me, this means that teacher pay in those areas were also depressed - so the 14% pay increases seen in these schools may not reflect the increase a suburban school district such as ours would face).  But, again, our BOE just gave our teachers a 6% raise for really no reason I can discern other than a feeling by the union that teachers 'deserved it after not getting any increase the previous year' (never mind that inflation was near zero and there were no measured student performance improvements in the school district).  So if we decided to move towards an expanded school year, there should be significant wiggle room in salary negotiations.

On a related front, the Millstone Examiner published what I thought was an interesting letter by a teacher of 46 years.  The author's main thrust was that teachers should not solely be graded on the results of standardized tests as Christie seems to propose.  I actually agree with this teacher!  A better empirical way to assess a teacher's effectiveness is to measure the *progress* his students make relative to their academic history.  For instance, student A takes a test both at the beginning and end of 7th grade and improves his math score by 10%.  But in 5th and 6th grade math, his score improved 20% each year.  This is an indication that the 7th grade teacher is not teaching this student as well as expected.  If the other students in his class also show reduced improvements, the lack of effectiveness on the part of the teacher is confirmed.  This method of assessing teacher performance is beginning to be used in some schools across the country.

The author of the Examiner article also makes the point that fostering a 'culture of learning' is just as important, if not more so, than the teacher: if kids are around parents who don't place much importance on academics or if kids hang out with other kids who don't value education, then they themselves will value education less.  The author also found and admits that it's definitely true that K-12 schools don't adequately prepare kids for college: he found that almost 2/3 of the students who attend community college need to take remedial courses to bring them up to a college level!  If true, that's pathetic.  Parents wake up!  You're basically paying for your child's education twice: once through property taxes into the ineffective K-12 system, and then again in the form of an extra year or so of college tuition on remedial courses!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

How About A Longer School Year?

Taking a step back from the budget, I want to return to the topic of how to improve the education of our children: have the various BOEs ever considered lengthening the school year?  I don't know if it's the panacea for all that ails our educational system, but we might want to consider it.  As you are no doubt aware, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) found that for 2009 the US once again ranks in the lower middle of the pack when it comes to reading and below average in math and science (for complete PISA results, see 2009 PISA Results).  And this is despite the US continuing to spend more per pupil than nearly any country on earth (secondary school per pupil spending) and despite the fact that US teachers are the highest paid on earth (for teacher average salaries by country see: Teacher Salaries By Country).

Given that many of the countries who outscore us on PISA appear to have longer school years, perhaps that is something that should be looked into?  Extending it to something like 200 days (as in Australia) or 220 days (as in Germany) should be possible without much additional cost to the township (in my simple view, teacher and most administrative positions are already paid for, so the main additional costs would be running the buses and keeping the building open).

Of course, in my mind, accountability and performance based pay should stand first and foremost in improving our children's education.  I find it pretty strange that a society which preaches capitalism and the power of the free market, should shield the members of the educational institution from its power.  In a free market, only the best teachers would educate our children - and at the lowest possible cost.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A UPS For Your Home - Your Car!

A couple years ago I heard some University wonk talk about the future of the electric grid, and the dude had a couple amazing ideas that I was just reminded of as I read about the latest electric cars being shown at the Detroit Auto Show.

Imagine you had a plugin hybrid or electric vehicle.  Every night when you get home, you plug it in so it is fully charged for the following day.  Now imagine that your car was plugged into your house in such a way that when there's a blackout, your home's electricity could temporarily come from the battery in your car!  Sort of like the UPS' we attach our computers to in order to insulate them from the instabilities in our electrical grid.  Neat, eh?

It gets better.  Imagine your car was a hybrid and its engine could keep the battery charged while it's supplying the house.  Now you can avoid the dark for at least as long as your car has gas!  And, if you so chose, you could even feed ("sell") any excess power back into the public grid, potentially also helping your neighbor keep the lights on.

Now, let's scale the idea.  Imagine that lots and lots of your neighbors had the same setup and imagine that you all have some deal with the power company that they can, during a severe power shortage, automatically start your engines (or at least start drawing power from your batteries) to help avoid brownouts.  The grid becomes a self-healing distributed network of energy producers!

Having one's car battery act as a store of energy is also very enticing to those folks who simply want to become independent from the grid.  I've, on several occasions, investigated adding solar power to my home.  Since solar power is obviously time-of-day dependent (just like wind), most solar home owners can't really go "off-grid" because they need a way to keep the lights on at night and adding batteries to a solar installation is a large added cost.  In most states, the power company is required to buy your daytime excess electricity, effectively becoming one large-ass battery for your solar installation.  So that is fine - most of the time.  If there happens to be a blackout during the night, you're out of luck.  Electric/hybrid car batteries can provide this grid independence!

The above can all be done today - all the technologies exist.  Neat, eh?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Most Honorable Professions?

I grew up thinking that the most honorable and desirable professions  were those which contributed the most to society.  To me, this included artist, doctor, engineer, lawyer, police officer, scientist, and teacher.  Many of these careers required years of often expensive education, so I thought the high pay in these professions was justified.  I thought everyone around me believed the same things.

It was this belief - and an intense interest in computers - that led me into an engineering career.

Fast-forward 20 years.  I still think that the most honorable careers are those who give back the most to society.  But my list has changed.  While I still think highly of artists, doctors, engineers, and scientists, my list now excludes lawyer, police officer, and...teacher.  Why?

Growing up in Germany, I thought of attorneys as people dedicated to protecting the rights of individuals accused of committing crimes.  Civil law suits (where individuals sued one another over some perceived wrong) were a rare thing.  So, there weren't that many lawyers - it was a pretty "exotic" profession which required *many* years of learning beyond high school.  Then I came to America - home of 95% of the world's lawyers with only 5% of the world's population.

Why are there so many lawyers in this country?  Americans don't appear criminally more inclined than folks in the rest of the world.  The answer is obvious: a system of law that encourages litigation.  In the U.S. there is no risk to suing someone: if you feel wronged by your neighbor or, more likely, by some corporation, simply hire a lawyer on "contingency" - if the lawyer convinces a jury (which can be swayed by emotional appellations rather than facts), he gets 30% of the damage awards; if he does not, you walk away with no costs.  Such a system encourageed a new breed of greedy lawyer: the "ambulance chaser" - an individual who finds citizens that have been bodily (or mentally) harmed and convinces them that another individual or, more profitably, a company is to blame and needs to be sued to compensate "the victim" for the incurred damage.

Why do we have such a system of law?  I have not researched the subject, but I suspect the answer lies somewhere in Americans' individualism.  We have always prided ourselves on our ability to succeed on our own and have always had a healthy apprehension towards "the man".  Initially, "the man" was the British Empire.  Then it was the government (maybe because it taxed us excessively) and companies (because it took advantage of its workers).  A system of law developed which was geared towards protecting individuals' rights.  For instance, unlike most other european courts, where cases where decided (and damage awards given) by one or more judges, in America, we're allowed to be judged by a jury of our peers.  I imagine this was deemed a good idea in the early days of the nation because judges were likely to side with or be bought by "the man".  This solution was a decent one in the early days of our nation, when the laws themselves were simple and the types of cases brought in front of juries were as well.  But today, the jury system no longer works well: although jury members still try to be just in their determination of guilt, they're too often swayed by emotional appeals and their traditional dislike of "rich corporations" when deciding damage awards.  So why haven't we changed the system?  Well, because the folks that decide these things, congress, is swayed by a very large, very-well connected lobby: lawyers.

And that is why the law profession, at least in this country,  has become a dishonorable one: instead of helping to improve society, it is slowly destroying it.

Police Officers
Unlike the law profession, my view of the police had taken on a negative slant before I ever set foot on American soil.  As a young lad, I saw the honor in police officers protecting the citizens from criminals - I saw them as the catchers of the bad guys.  As a teenager, I began to see other sides: police officers as blind tools of government (e.g. to squash - sometimes violently - peaceful demonstrations) as well as uneducated/racist police officers abusing their power.

But my view of the profession was not cemented until I came to the U.S.  It is here that I experienced police officers' "selective" administration of the law: whoever said "justice is blind" obviously has never been a resident of New Jersey, where police officers regularly cite civilians for traffic violations that they, themselves, violate (ever experienced a NJ State Trooper passing you at 90-100mph without siren or lights - obviously in pursuit of a donut, rather than a bad guy?); where police officers rack up "overtime" while during their regular work hours they sit parked in parking lots, texting and chatting it up with their friends; where most police officers somehow arranged themselves six-figure incomes (276 out of 316 police officers in Edison, NJ, make over $100k base salary!); where police officers stuff their last year before retirement with overtime because their pension is based on their last year's salary (there are many cases of police officers with six-figure pensions when during their careers, they never earned more than half that!); where police officers are found to have committed crimes with the knowledge of their colleagues (the "Blue Wall of Silence").

While I totally understand that most police officers began their careers with the same noble goals for which I admired them as a child, the level of corruption within today's police departments convinced me to take the profession off my "most honorable" list.

This is probably the saddest case of all, because I still very much admire the profession.  How can I not: teachers have prepared me for life and I still greatly admire most of them.  But I just don't respect the profession anymore. And I'm not even sure why!

When I grew up, teachers were deeply respected people.  Not only did they seem to have great knowledge in their respective fields, but they also exuded professionalism and authority.  I remember several of my early teachers always caming to work with a shirt and tie.  And I remember several teachers disciplining misbehaving kids - and parents apologizing to the teachers for their child's infraction.

Again, fast forward 20 years.  The teaching profession is not very respected.  Why?  There are many reasons: under educated and/or under-motivated and/or over-paid and/or corrupt teachers, parents who have abdicated their parentel  responsibilites, forcing teachers to spend time parenting rather than teaching.  But, most of the blame, I think, belongs with the "business" of education:  administrators, unions, and politicians who, through their corruptness, made the educational system a bloated, inefficient mess.

Under-educated teachers.  It is difficult to respect an English teacher who can't spell or write a grammatically correct sentence or a science teacher who espouses outdated theories.  I have encountered such teachers - and not just once.

Under-motivated teachers.  I think everyone has experienced the occasional teacher who just seems to be biding their time until retirement.  The kind of teacher that prefers to show videos and self-study activities over actively teaching.  The problem is that these types of teachers are no longer rare. Due to tenure rules, it has become next to impossible to fire even grossly under-motivated or ineffective teachers.  They just stay on the payroll, under-educating our children.

Overpaid teachers.  Although over-compensation is much more prevalent on the administrative side of the education system, the allocation of pay among teachers is grossly unjust.  Instead of rewarding good teachers and punishing bad ones, pay is allocated purely by seniority: the longer you stay in the system, the higher your pay - even if you're a lousy teacher. Worse yet, when there is an occasional layoff due to budget issues, tenure rules dictate that the least senior teachers are let go before the more senior ones - again, without regard to teaching performance.  The result is an inefficient school system: too many highly paid teachers and too few good ones.

Corrupt Teachers.  The fact that tenured teachers are next to impossible to let go, gives the teacher power.  Some become corrupted by it.  I have heard many horror stories, but a recent one sticks out as particularly egregious: there's a tenured math teacher in one NJ township who somehow managed to get her recently-graduated son hired as a substitute math teacher in her school.  To help her son out, she regularly calls in "sick" or takes days off in order to give her son an opportunity to substitute for her!  There are so many levels to this corruption it's hard to comprehend.  There was nepotism getting the son hired; there the total lack of morals on the teacher herself; and there's the continued consent of this activity by the school's administration.

Parents, too self-absorbed with their careers and wealth-accumulation or fighting for financial survival (because taxes are high when you have to provide for the salaries of 25-30% of the population in public employ),
have too little time left to be parents for their kids. Children who aren't taught respect, values,  and discipline by their parents need to now be taught these things exclusively at school.  This, of course, means less time is spent on academics.  The parents, of all people, then blame the teachers for not teaching enough.

Finally, the whole educational system in this country is bloated and fraught with corruption, nepotism, an cronyism.  I won't go into the gory details here as I have blogged about it in my April 2010 blog and the corruption is well documented in the film "The Cartel: Education + Politics = $", but suffice it to say that through "guilt by association", this corrupt and overbloated system reflects extremely poorly on the teaching profession.

I still respect and admire individual teachers, but the corrupt nature of New Jersey's educational system has left me wondering how honorable the overall profession is.  Even if most of the misdeeds outlined here are perpetrated not by teachers but by the administrators in the educational system and politicians, how can truly honorable teachers stand by and allow them to happen?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


Yesterday I was driving home, listening to NPR and Bloomberg (listening to NPR marks me by some as a liberal and listening to Bloomberg, I suppose, as a conservative...or at least a capitalist :-), when I came across a segment on notable deaths of 2010.  Among them, Alexander Haig, former secretary of state under the Reagan administration.  Now, normally, I would have not paid it much heed - since I'm not a fan of Ronald Reagan (I guess another mark in the "liberal" column) - but NPR played an excerpt from an interview with Haig in 2002, in which Haig said something very interesting and unexpected regarding the fall of the Soviet Union and Marxism:
To declare the Cold War over, and declare democracy has won out over totalitarianism, is a measure of arrogance and wrong-headedness. And if you look back at a lot of our problems today, it's the direct product of that baloney about the new world order and why Marxism collapsed. It wasn't that their values were defeated by our values; it was our system that defeated theirs, the market economy.

I thought this was particularly insightful: he separates the values inherent in the two ideologies (socialism vs. capitalism) from the economic systems that grew out of those ideologies.  The "free market" (put in quotes, since the recent government bailouts make it abundantly clear that our markets aren't that "free" after all) just happened to be more efficient than the state-run system the Soviets created in their Marxist pursuit.  It says nothing about the values underlying the two ideologies.  Haig, himself, said that the jury is very much still out on that.

So what exactly are our values today?  What do we stand for?  I don't know.  Do you?  A likely answer might include some of the values enshrined in our Bill of Rights - e.g. the freedom (to do various things).  Everybody remembers values that "give".  It is much less likely that the answer might include Constitutionally enshrined values that involve personal responsibility: e.g. the responsibility to vote - i.e. the responsibility to be involved in the democracy that gives us those freedoms.

Today, the U.S. (and, to a lesser extent, most capitalist economies in the world) has become an economically divided country: the "haves" own more than ever and the "have nots" own less than ever before (the statistic I heard is that 5% of the people own 80+% of all the wealth & property in this country - staggering, isn't it?)  And things are getting worse, rather than better: the politicians who make our laws increasingly ignore the "have nots" - since they don't make campaign "contributions" or have lobbyists wining and dining them or offering high-paying jobs after their political careers are over; the "have-nots" also don't vote much (they're either busy holding down two jobs or are just content to be entertained by TV or the latest techno gadgets - if I were of a paranoid bend (ok, so I am), I might suggest that TV/sports/entertainment/the lottery are a tool of the elite to keep the masses docile).

What is the root cause of these problems?  It's greed.  Although greed is great as a motivator (thus the success of the "free market"), unfettered it can be limitless and, ultimately, lead to corruption.  So, unless you're a communist or socialist, we need to find a balance that takes advantage of the motivating aspects of greed but, at the same time, holds it at bay at the extremes.  How much wealth should a society bestow on a minority without harming the majority - to incentivize the majority to join the minority?  Unfortunately, nobody in the US (and, to a lesser extent, in the rest of the world) seems interested in achieving a healthy balance.

So is the only real value we can demonstrate today greed?

Think about it the next time you admire a baseball player "earning" hundreds of millions of dollars or a CEO who gets a multi-million dollar bonus for "right-sizing" his company; the next time a banker gets rich while getting bailed out with tax payer money; the next time you decide to watch a TV show rather than investigate or vote on the issues facing your government; the next time you hear a politician lie through his teeth to get re-elected.

Think about it.