Stephen Granade on the Hyperloop

My good friend Stephen has more to say about the whole Hyperloop project set, which seems to be marching forward.  He was skeptical before, but he sounds more hopeful these days, weighing in as needed on a great article by Alissa Walker at Gizmodo.  I agree, although my biggest concern is still how they’re going to maintain a credible, useful vacuum over that great of a distance.

Stephen Granade: armchair Hyperloop commentator and the guy who officiated my wedding.

OmniFocus 2 Makes Me Happy

The new job gave me a MacBook Pro!  Given the option, I wanted the Mac, and I figured that I’d get an Air, which would’ve been more than fine.  Instead, I have the 15″ Retina beast.1  They allow me to install my own software on it, which they won’t support, which is also more than fine.  Hell, they even gave me free access to the Mac App Store, which meant that I just clicked a few Install buttons and had all the apps that I really wanted on it.

The big thing that I wanted was OmniFocus.  I’ve used it for years, having migrated away from Alex King’s Tasks Pro2 to a system that was more GTD-focused.  I always sorta fought with OF1,3 but OF2 is pretty damn amazing.

live out of OmniFocus.  If I think of something that I need to do, it’s Ctrl-Option-Space, a little typing, a couple tabs, and Enter and my task is saved.  Today, I was talking with my colleague when I thought of something that I needed to capture.  I said, “Give me a second,” and eight seconds later, i was back to the conversation.  What was that task item?  I couldn’t tell you now, four hours later.  But I don’t have to know, because OmniFocus will tell me come Monday morning.

What did OF delight me by doing?  Well, I have a Folder title Geocent, the name of my company. I have projects in it: Onboarding for all of the things that I have to do to get spun up as a new employee,4 Recurring for tasks I have to do every so often,5 single-action lists for the various projects that I’m working on, and then I’ll create projects for things that have a sequence to them.6

The joy — no really, the joy — of this was Focusing on that folder and then going to Forecast.

Screen Shot 2014-07-18 at 7.29.49 PM

Normally Forecast would show everything that’s Due soon, from these work tasks to me needing to take pills tonight, reading Ezekiel, and finding my PayPal debit cards.  Nope!  Focus has me focused on exactly work things.  Can I see those things in my work OmniFocus install?  Yep!  Do I want to see them?  Nope!  I want that focus, and OF gives me a freaking laser.

In OmniFocus 1, I would’ve had to create a Perspective and filter it around, tweaking and tweaking.  I expected to have to do that.  When it worked exactly as I wanted, I was so happy — happy enough to unlock my phone and make two tweets.  ((I won’t put Tweetbot on this machine, and I’m never logging into Facebook on it, either.))

This made my day, and my day was already pretty great because, you know, I have this great job.

  1. Your tax dollars at work, America! 

  2. for obvious reasons, but in part because it’s not had any updates in seven years 

  3. but in different ways than I fought with Tasks 

  4. insurance filing, 401(k) election, badging at NASA MSFC, etc. 

  5. work journaling and time recording daily, internal and project office reporting weekly, safety and quality reporting monthly 

  6. These may be less valuable to me given that OF is still unfortunately a solo and not a groupware program, but we’ll see.  If I have solo work, like developing a complex engineering deliverable, I’ll probably use it. 

Life in the Slow Lane

TL;DR: freepress has a position demanding net neutrality, and there’s a We the People petition about net neutrality.  If you know the discussion, go sign if you are inclined.  If you’re unfamiliar, read the below and come back to sign when you’re done.  Thanks.  —GFM


In the summer of 2013, I interned at The MITRE Corporation in McLean, Virginia.  My office was actually in Tysons Corner,1 and both cities are fairly close to where the Capital Beltway crosses from Virginia into Maryland on the northwest side as it circles Washington, D.C, with Tysons on the outside and McLean inside it.

I carpooled with Brad, a law student at Vanderbilt.  We figured that two professional guys who have gone to graduate school would have more in common with random undergraduate interns.  We stayed in the same dorm apartment — the details of that are a whole other matter — at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, which is a good chunk from the Beltway.  The layout was something like this:

Geof's Commute to MITRE from GMU
Geof’s Commute to MITRE from GMU

You can see that there’s a lot of red there.  It took us about 25 minutes in the morning.  The evening commute was different.  I think that our best in the first two weeks was 35 minutes.  We came down the middle of those three route lines, exiting the Beltway for US 50.  We’d head west from there, cutting down to the southwest, as you can see.  GMU is just outside Fairfax on the southern limits, so getting there required going through Fairfax traffic after going through all the major thoroughfares.

On the Thursday of our second week of the internship, I decided to look into the 495 Express Lanes.  That night, it took us 65 minutes to get back to campus.  As we sat stacked up on Lee Highway, I brought up the express lane.  Brad told me to do it if the money made sense.  I ran the numbers, and they did.  I picked one up at lunch on Friday, and we gave it a test that evening.

We got home in 28 minutes.

We had enough flexibility in our commute to give our friend Siggy — who had been taking the bus from Annandale to Tysons, walking a couple of miles on either side — a ride to Annandale, which you can see was out of our way, but not by much given that the Express Lane exit we used turned left for Annandale and right for Fairfax.  Dropping Siggy off put us coming back into Fairfax on VA-236, which was a better road to campus than the one that the express lanes give you.  It cost us maybe five minutes to save him an hour on the bus, and it was worth it to be kind to our friend and have a third person in the car for conversational purposes.  (I love and miss you, Siggy!)

None of this happens Brad and I weren’t degreed professionals making north of $30/hr.  We could afford to cut the lines.  Hell, I used to half-heartedly laugh at the people stuck in traffic between VA-7 and I-66.  “Those poor bastards.  I’ve been there,” I thought.  Because I had the money to pay for the privilege of driving on a controlled-access road, I had more free time available to do as I wished.

If I’d been making $20/hr, I would’ve been sitting in traffic.  One of those days, as we were zipping down the road at 55 mph2 , we heard an NPR story about priority queueing all across the country, from theme parks to emergency rooms to, yes, vehicle express lanes.  We really didn’t say very much.

Jumping the queue has become a part of the American Way, and I think that’s a dangerous thing.  Waiting in line is the most democratic thing there is: we’re served one-at-a-time based on our arrival.  It doesn’t matter if we’re a CEO or a postman; single, married, or divorced; pretty or ugly; fat or fit; kind or unpleasant: we just wait.  None of us like to wait — just ask anyone about the DMV, or wait, just check Twitter and Facebook — but we all have to.  Frankly, it’s pretty crazy that line-jumping should become a profit center for a service provider, but it’s 2014, and we’re there.

So let’s jump into net equality — or what some people call net neutrality.  I like the former term, because it democratizes the Internet: every packet gets its turn.  Neutrality implies belligerence. Anyway, the EFF has a good primer on net neutrality equality, and I think that you should read it if you’re not up to speed.

“These aren’t alike at all!” you’re saying.  “Paying to go faster on the road isn’t the same as paying for better Internet access.”  And yes, you’re right, in a way.  There’s a fundamental difference.

With vehicle express lanes, the people paying for higher-priority access are the people directly benefitting from the service: the people able to get to and from locations faster than they once did.  With net inequality, Netflix is going to be able to pay for priority, but Netflix doesn’t get the benefit — its customers do.  No family was going to pay Brad and I more to get home from MITRE faster, and MITRE sure wasn’t going to pay us more if we could sleep in 15 more minutes.  But Netflix can sell better access to their customers, and not just from a quality-of-service issue, which customers have always thought (rightly) was Netflix’s problem and not theirs.

The problem here is simple: it’ll be a race to the top of the heap.  The obvious players — Google (for YouTube primarily), Facebook, Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, ESPN, the sports streaming sites, etc.3 — are going to pay.  Where are they going to get that money?  You will be the ones paying a premium for an improvement on service that was, quite likely, adequate in the first place.  But I’d be very surprised if there’s Netflix and Netflix Premium, with the former on the Beltway and the latter in the Express Lanes.  No, I expect that everyone’s going to get to pay the freight for the better access, and that will mean:

  • Higher fees
  • More ads in our faces
  • More creepy data mining assented to in inscrutable Terms of Service that no one really reads anyway

… among others.  In other words, we’re going to pay for this access either by being a great customer or the product itself.  As someone who is on the record about not trusting free Internet services, I worry about the last two.  In the first case, I’m not sure that higher fees are going to excite me.

But I’m following the line of argument that everyone follows, and it’s worth discussing, but there’s another thing to consider here.

The people that are making these decisions to allow for priority pricing — for net inequality — are the very people who have the financial resources to skip any damn line that they want. They think that people will be attracted to priority pricing because the world that they know is priority pricing.  These decisions are made by people who either pay for priority lines or pay someone to stand in line for them.  Of course this seems like an attractive proposition to them, because they’ve grown accustomed to it.  I’m not arguing that any of the people making these decisions are bad people.4 But I am arguing that you’re going to be okay with inequality and for the “winners” retrenching their gains with legislation and regulation.

Let’s be honest: the services that have the resources to pay for priority pricing are the ones already running a profit or bilking money from investors.  But many of those that would be paying for priority pricing are actors that wouldn’t have been able to reach these dizzying heights with an unequal Internet.  It’s classic retrenching: garner success and then build walls around it to keep contenders out.  While that’s a classic American business practice, we shouldn’t let our Internet — the one that our tax dollars, cable bills, and phone bills — have paid for to suddenly become unequal.  The amazing disruption that is the Internet should be allowed to retain its disruptive power.

If net inequality were possible in 2006, just after NewsCorp bought them, Myspace could’ve built a wall around its part of the Internet that would’ve made it impossible for Facebook to supplant them.  Whether or not you feel that we upgraded when we got Facebook — as a former GeoCities user, I think that we did — we couldn’t have gotten there if Rupert Murdoch had been able to outspend Facebook’s investors.

The Internet should be an amazing, chaotic, wonderful place, one that keeps participating providers honest and vigilant to interlopers.  Net inequality allows the current winners to stay winners while sending us the bill.  I won’t sit still for that.

[ETA: The New York Times‘s editorial is worth reading.]

  1. I still want to put the apostrophe in there 

  2. The speed limit increase to 70MPH happened while we were there — I dropped the hammer in the WRX to celebrate. 

  3. This list is not exhaustive.  I’m running up at 1000 words here. 

  4. Their judgment is questionable, but I’m not going to get into their moral fiber. 

Cable Ties

Since I had to send my iMac off to get checked out, I took the opportunity to re-do my workspace.  I have previously used Belkin’s cable ties for cable management, mainly because they’re big and colorful.  I read good reviews of Velcro’s ties, and the price was right, so I bought some.

2014-04-20 20.32.35

This isn’t the best photo in the work, but the Belkin is at top and the Velcro at bottom.  Note that the Belkin has that big flag to help you identify cables and remove the ties.  Removing ties is not what I want to do.  I looped both ties around my left pinky for this image, and handling the Velcro unit was much easier, as you loop the tail end of the tie through a loop at the head, which you can then Velcro to the outside of the tail.  After that, you just start making loops.  They’re easier to handle, cheaper, and I feel like they hold things more securely.  Add in the cost factor and it’s a no-brainer.

Finale of the Tip Jar Experiment

Well, I’m done with the tip jar experiment, and the changes that I made in Round 2 really didn’t matter very much.  I got a very mixed result.  In the first round, tip jar size and the time of day dominated the effects.  In making each day an experimental run, I controlled for that some, but the response I got was that size was statistically significant — but only after dropping out insignificant terms from the model, and the result was 180 degrees off of the previous result: smaller was now better.

There was no statistical significance to seeding or opacity, meaning that my main hypothesis is thoroughly shattered.  Oh well, that’s why you run experiments!  That there was no significance for either in 16 experimental runs tells me that it doesn’t matter.

One of the baristas told me on the first or second day that she didn’t think that I’d get good results given that “some baristas just get more tips than others”.  Even that didn’t necessarily hold true, as one barista got 3x the response today as she did a day earlier this week, and she always works opening shifts at that store.

What this tells me is that there are nuisance factors at play — things that you can’t control for.  The key nuisance factor is the amount of traffic the store does.  I could control for this by indexing the tips to that day’s sales.  Does that give me a perfect answer?  No.  Does that give me a better answer?  Yes.  However, I decided that situation was out of my control and that information was beyond what I could expect to be given.

Another nuisance factors is indeed what my friend suggested: some baristas just get more tips than others, for whatever reasons.  Now you could do some observations and see why that is, but you can also block for operators and say, “We’ll have Geof do all of these variations on his shifts, run the analysis, and see what turns up.”  Frankly, what may work for one barista may not for another one, but it could also be that isolating by blocking would help to reduce that noise factor.  Also, baristas tend to work the same shifts over time, so you’d be going back toward the time-of-day factor that I controlled for with this second run.

I really did think that I’d get conclusive results on this, but I estimated the main effects yesterday and realized that the small-jar days had three of the four highest responses; when I got a low response for the larger jar yesterday, I knew how this would come out.  It’s a little disappointing, because I’d like to be able to go back to the women and say, “Here’s your answer!”  I can’t.

Heartbleed Hell

Like a lot of people, I’ve been affected by the Heartbleed bug.  Most frustrating to me is that I got to spend a couple of hours on Tuesday afternoon futzing about with SSL certificates to make sure that I wasn’t vulnerable to the attack.

I’m taking a little free time on Friday afternoon to do an audit of my password data using 1Password, which I am on the record as using and really liking.  After de-duplicating a bunch of items where I had a stored password and a stored login for an account, I still have 600+ login items.  I’ve been doing a very good job of using good, hard passwords that are unique to sites.  A good password manager is worth having, even if you’re like my dad and just keep it in an encrypted Excel spreadsheet.

But my main frustration right now are the sites that won’t let you change your password unless you use the lost-password function.  How dumb do you have to be as a developer to miss that step?  This is not fucking rocket surgery.

My Tipping Jar Experiment, Round 2

So the first round of the tipping jar experiment went well.  There were two dominant factors: time of day and size of the jar.  I was not surprised that morning tipping was better than evening tipping, as the store is busier early than late.  I was surprised by the degree to which it dominated the results.  You use fractional factorial experiments to screen for results.  Normally, I would reduce this to a 23 experiment1 by dropping an insignificant factor; instead, I have changed how I collect my data and am re-running with the other three factors.  Instead of morning and night shifts allowing me to collect the data in 5-6 days, I’m using each full day as an experimental run, which will take me eight days.

I fully expect that tip jar size — larger was better, which surprised me — will continue to be a key player, but I want to know if opacity and seeding have main effects, and I want to know if any interactions occur.2  With a full factorial — even with a single replicate — I’ll be able to create a good reduced model once I see which main effects and interactions have any meaning.  It may be that tip jar size is the only factor that matters, but I won’t know until I take data.

I start in the morning and finish next Friday, which gives me 11 days to pull the data and plots together to write a paper.  It’s going to be a furious finish to the semester.  The big thing is that I now have to be there at least some of the time every single day for the next week-ish.  I’m there most every day, but now I have to make a concerted effort.

For future work, we’re going to refine the testing a bit.  Weekdays and weekends have different clienteles.  My tentative plan is to take data M-Th and F-Su, using those as blocks.  That really slows down my time to get results, but I won’t be on a schedule.  The baristas seem really interested in the results of this, which probably doesn’t surprise you.  They have ideas, too, and I’m the man that knows how to make the data happen.  It may take us all summer, but I bet we’ll be getting a good result at the end of it.  I’m already making plans!

  1. Three factors, each with two possible states. 

  2. E.g., how jar size and seeding interact 

I Still Use (and Love and Recommend) Fastmail

It doesn’t matter that Microsoft has reconsidered its right to read your email if they’re doing things that they don’t like.  Seriously, that they did so quickly was great:

Effective immediately, if we receive information indicating that someone is using our services to traffic in stolen intellectual or physical property from Microsoft, we will not inspect a customer’s private content ourselves. Instead, we will refer the matter to law enforcement if further action is required.

This is a far cry from:

As part of the investigation, we undertook a limited review of this third party’s Microsoft operated accounts. While Microsoft’s terms of service make clear our permission for this type of review, this happens only in the most exceptional circumstances. We applied a rigorous process before reviewing such content. In this case, there was a thorough review by a legal team separate from the investigating team and strong evidence of a criminal act that met a standard comparable to that required to obtain a legal order to search other sites. In fact, as noted above, such a court order was issued in other aspects of the investigation.

They were well within their right to do as they did, but what they did was “wrong” in the moral sense of how the general public feels that they should handle things.  Going from a “we’ll police this” to a “let’s let law enforcement police this” position in a week or so is a great result from a huge company like Microsoft.  If this kind of agility is something that will be a characteristic going forward, I’m optimistic about their chances for relevance in 3-5 years.

But I’m writing today not to excoriate/praise Microsoft but to again champion Fastmail (note: referral link).  I fully stand behind my rant stating that I don’t trust Internet services that I don’t pay for.  Here’s why I use Fastmail.  Marco Arment uses Fastmail, and Michael Lopp is clearly thinking about it.  For something as important as email is, don’t use a provider that treats you as the product.  Your email is the product, and they have a responsibility to have as great of an uptime as possible.  You get what you pay for.  I’ve been using Fastmail for nearly eight years, and I’m very happy with it.

My Tip Jar Experiment

One of the two classes that I’m taking this semester is in design of experiments, which is more fun that it might sound.  I’ve done these before, and I think that the one that I’m doing now is pretty cool.

I ran an OFAT1 experiment back in middle school using paper airplanes and a contraption that ensured that they’d be propelled with the same force each time. Dad and I built a wooden box, entrapped a rubber band inside of a staple on the front of the box, and placed a clothespin at the back of the box that would hold the tail of the plane such that the nose of the plane a standard length from the front edge of the box.  Opening the clothespin launches the plane.  I ran five trials for each plane, averaged them, found the variance, and tabulated my standings.  I didn’t get first place,2 but I did have fun.

This experiment is more interesting and advanced.  I’m running a fractional factorial experiment, which means that I can test four factors in just eight runs without losing anything but higher-order interactions that aren’t likely to matter very much.  I’m using the coffeeshop that I spend a lot of time in, largely because I have the trust of the baristas that I’m not going to screw them over.  I have four factors:

  1. Time of day of the shift.  There are two shifts each day.
  2. The size of the tip jar.
  3. The opacity of the tip jar.  These two factors require that we have four tip jars.
  4. Whether the tip jar is seeded or not.

My premise is this: tipping baristas is a social phenomenon.  “Do I tip her?  All she did was make me a latté,” is a valid question.  Anything that we can do to shake up the social norm and show that, yes, people tip baristas is a good thing.  But I have no idea what factors will work.  That’s why you experiment, people.

I’m sitting here waiting on the end of the third shift under experiment.  #4 and #5 happen tomorrow, and the rest will conclude by Thursday.  I’m having fun, and so are the baristas, especially since I’m giving them money to participate.  I got some very interesting results yesterday, and I’m getting some predictable ones today.  Data!  I want more data!

I’ll get to do this one more time, either as a full 2^3 factorial that would test every factor combination, or by doing the alternate fraction of this 2^(4-1), which would test the other eight combinations.  I’d get to do the former if I have an obvious factor that has no value in the analysis of the first experimental run; if I don’t have conclusive data, I’ll do the latter.  I could also run another fractional factorial by dropping a factor and adding another one.

The ladies already want me to run more experiments.  I guess that I know what I’m going to be doing on my own time this summer.

  1. One Factor at A Time. In this case, it was the plane itself that changed. 

  2. Assholes!