Saturday, November 28, 2009


I've been reading Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. This book is full of well-planned experiments that show we do not reason as we believe we do. The book is full of entertaining surprises, and you can just read it for fun. But I think it is helpful to try to understand situations where we cannot help acting irrationally in predictable ways, and situations where we might become more rational if we knew how to try.

I noticed one of the latter situations during my vacation. I was often away from my email for days at a time, and when I finally logged in, I usually found dozens of emails waiting for me. The majority of these were ad-mails from companies I had once made a purchase from. I had no idea how many of these I got per week, but at last I realized that I value the time it takes me to scan and delete each of these dumb messages.

I realized that I was behaving in accordance with one of the principles discussed in Ariely's book: we tend to overvalue the risk of losing something. I had not unsubscribed to any of these company's ad-mails, because, one of these days, I might need to know – or to be reminded of – what they were selling.

With newly opened eyes, I have been vigilantly unsubscribing, and I'm enjoying my email more.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Organic Whatever:

I've just finished consuming a lovely gift: a Goji Berry bar. If you're not familiar with Goji berries, you need to know that they contain a certain amount of protein, which makes them very special.

Now I'm something of a party pooper with regard to protein content in foods. I consider a food to be a good source of protein if the food's cost is less than ten cents per protein gram. Goji berries do not come anywhere near this standard, but the Goji bar tasted delicious, and it did contain five grams of protein.

The bar also labeled itself "organic," and let me tell you what that means. The quite annoying contents are: Organic Peanuts, Organic Raisins, Organic Sunflower Seeds, Organic Almonds, Organic Agave Syrup, Organic Goji Berries, Organic Brown Rice Syrup, Organic Raspberries, and Organic Organics (I just threw that last one in to see if you're paying attention).

For me, the magic of this awful Organic nagging is spoiled by what it says on the packaging just after the ingredients list:

My goodness, you don't suppose they are warning us that the product may contain non-organic ingredients do you? (I don't; I assume that the laws governing these warnings do not permit them to scream ORGANIC. I hope I'm right. I consume a lot of non-organic products, but I'd never want to do that unintentionally.)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Exxon (Xonex), Boxing:

Exxon, in the 1960's (I think), developed a plan to remain a high profit company even after the world's oil supplies ran out. All they had to do was become a major player in the computer business, where profits seemed even higher than in oil. Exxon nurtured a series of computer startups between 1975 and 1985. In the early 1980's, they combined the most successful of these into Exxon Office Systems (EOS). Exxon pulled the plug on EOS early in 1985. They may have wagered as much as a billion dollars (over a decade) in computer companies. (In contrast, I've heard that AT&T lost a billion in one year of the computer business, in 1985.)

Today, computer profit margins are dwindling, although not everywhere, and the world's oil supply still has many years to run. I just want to share one brief observation with you, from my early years in Exxon's computer business.

In mid 1978, I joined Exxon's 19th computer startup. Its goal was to produce the paperless office. It was expected to rely heavily on the 20th startup, which tried and failed to develop the first practical office optical disk drive. Our startup was called “Xonex”. The name is an anagram of Exxon, and it is also a sort of spelling of 19 in roman numerals (X one X). For about a year and a half, Xonex worked in happy isolation, but then we got more and more involved with the other startups.

I believe that the majority of Exxon's startups were duds. (I could be wrong about this, but I never heard anything about most of them.) The non-duds were pretty exciting: the first cheap Fax; ink-jet technology; an intelligent typewriter; and the world's best (for a year or three) word processing system. After a while, Exxon forced them to try to work together, and then Exxon squeezed us all into one company.

In 1980, I often thanked my CEO for giving me more than to the opportunity to do cutting edge work. I told him that I also felt I was in the first row, watching a boxing match, as Exxon figured out how to deal with all its ventures. This “dealing” got more and more exciting to watch. It was a terrific education in business management for me.

But then, frankly, it got too exciting. That's when I realized: I wasn't in the front row watching a boxing match; I was in the ring!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Dink for Doink!

After seeing and hearing many of the wonderful applications that have been invented for the iPhone: I wish someone would invent a music box that can make phone calls.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Impressions of Jerusalem, Autumn, 2009:

We just spent a wonderful two weeks in Israel. Nonetheless, many impressions of this foreign culture are relatively bizarre. Here are some of my memories from the trip:

They told us the weather was unusual for the degree of rain: torrents fell in blocks of days. But there were sunny summer and fall days as well. Sometimes we let Jersusalem's presence enwrap our own presences, joyous in the clear air among the bountiful views. And sometimes we engaged in what seemed like a war to overcome this country, however briefly, to accomplish some tiny goal. Israel is too clever; Israelis are too smart for their own good.

An elevator lifted us from the depths of a parking garage right up to the street. A one-way door allowed us to leave it, but there was no way for a disabled person to take the elevator back to our car.

A liberal sprinkling of traffic lights moves Jerusalem's traffic a little. Often you see many traffic lights at once (they are not masked for direct view, as in the US). Different lights, often in different colors, advise you when you can go straight or turn. Such ornament-driving demands great concentration.

Always, you must watch for 'turn-only' lanes. Near the King David Hotel, there's a tiny road that ends on a main street. You stay on the little road to turn left, but you must cross part of a gas station to find the right turn lane.

In the last twenty years, we have seen Jerusalem choke on its traffic. Despite some wonderful projects to speed traffic around the periphery, the narrow downtown streets fill with halting trucks and cars. And these winding streets have been intentionally narrowed even further: by reserving lanes for buses and taxis; and by destroying other lanes to build a light rail transport whose ongoing construction endures forever. When Israel decided they needed tunnels for some of their roads, tunnels sprang up in a year or two. But light rail construction appears to be similar to continental drift: centimeters per century.

Parking on streets is now civilized. You used to have to buy pasteboards at the post office and stick pins in holes to mark your parking allowance. As tourists, we used to park illegally, fearing that we could never deal with the P.O. Now you find machines at every parking site that sell parking rights for shekels.

Despite what you read in the news, the great day-to-day danger in Israel is car accidents. Everybody knows someone who died in one. Many of those dead are pedestrians. I kept a few of them alive myself, when – as usual – they stepped off the curb without looking.

There's a lot of negotiating in Israel, and it's fun to assume that no price is fixed. I parked in the Neviim Street Parking Lot, where the clearly posted price was a very expensive 12 shekels per hour. "For an hour and a quarter," the attendant told me, "the price is already 20. And it goes up from there. But you can pay me twenty in advance for the whole day."
I paid twenty, and the attendant carefully wrote 'all day' (in English) on my parking ticket. Maybe I could have bargained down to eighteen, who knows? But I parked there almost three hours, so I thought I had struck a great bargain, until I returned to my car. There was no attendant at the lot to collect fees! I could have parked for nothing, unless the only reason the two attendants left was that all the remaining drivers, like me, had paid in advance.

We drove half of our 960 kilometers in the West Bank territories, where friends, and children of friends, and even an express road have chosen to live. The K'far Adumim settlement, on a few hilltops in the middle of nowhere, offers stunning views. I stood on a porch where I could see both Jerusalem and Amman. "They are that close together," my host said. "Think about it."

Elaine gifted me with a special tourist treat: a 100-minute Segway ride, rolling through the parks and grounds near the Knesset. It will probably be my only Segway ride ever, and it was wonderful.

In the past, we traveled all the way to the depths of Tel Aviv to buy bitter almonds for Elaine's most special cake. They are difficult to buy, perhaps because a single bitter almond, uncooked, can kill a young child. A friend insisted that by now it must be possible to buy them in Jerusalem's great shouk, Machane Yehuda. We were doubtful, having failed in the past, but this time we succeeded. (You have to find a vendor who sells them, rather than a vendor who falsely claims to sell them and offers you ordinary almonds; the real ones taste horribly bitter.) We also discovered that Machane Yehuda has entered the 21st century, with HD TVs and a fine Italian restaurant, Topolino. (For dessert we ate chocolate-filled home-made ravioli in chocolate sauce.) In fact, fine Italian dairy dining seems to be a specialty of Jerusalem.

In Hebrew, the TV show 'Ugly Betty' is named 'Betti'.

We ate our last restaurant meal at Cafe Inbal in Ein Kerem. I made sure of the exact address before driving there: 25.

I don't know why I thought that this talismanic number would help me. Ein Kerem is a town spread out in patches along a twisting valley road. Building numbers are puzzling and rare, and signs are haphazard. Eventually I pulled up at a restaurant and inquired where I might find Cafe Inbal. They pointed to a sign behind a parked car. I was there.

At Ben Gurion Airport, I watched two workers sift a few kilos of dirt near some half-hidden ticket counters. At first it seemed that their desire was to keep (for themselves) what failed to fall through the screen, but then they took the finer dirt and mixed up some concrete. I'm sure they had a good reason; there's a reason for everything in fascinating Israel.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

My Zenclass Review (Updated twice):

The ZenClass Nirvana Seat-Back Organizer and Travel Tote is a remarkable carry-on bag for airplane flights. (It's also handy in cars, on strollers and on changing tables!) I believe it's not perfect, but it's so wonderful that I look forward to discovering how to take advantage of all it offers. Here's a wonderful video to show its versatility.

The ZenClass bag zips up to form a small, light carry-on bag, about 8 by 12 inches and thin. (You'll probably keep it in your fullsize carry-on. Or you can wear it on your belt or body, in several different ways.) When you get on the plane, you unzip it and hang it over the tray that comes with your seat. The ZenClass bag has an ingenious flap for this purpose. You lock the tray in its closed position, and now all the contents of the ZenClass bag are available to you. There are three goodsize zip pockets, several see-through mesh pockets, and various special purpose holders (e.g., for a passport, for a ticket, for a pen). Depending on how you load it, you now have everything you need -- even a paperback book -- within reach for your whole flight. (You can even pop your laptop into the open bag.)

Beverage service does not require you to put your tray down; the ZenClass bag has a cupholder. When your meal comes, make sure that most of the ZenClass bag's contents are in its (closed) zip pockets. Then open the tray to eat, and the ZenClass bag will hide under the tray until you're done with your food.

I tried the ZenClass bag out on two eleven-hour flghts, and I never needed anything that was out of reach: pills, reading material, snacks, you name it.

The ZenClass bag doesn't interfere with the seat pocket below your tray, so you can fill that up too. It costs $39.99 plus shipping. I've found a few negative aspects of the ZenClass bag; perhaps some of these comments reflect my lack of experience with it:

-1: The ZenClass bag doesn't fully close when not in use. It zips three-quarters closed; the top side is "auto-closed" by magnets. I believe it's possible for small things to fall out of the top, so when the ZenClass bag is closed, I make sure that almost all its contents are zipped up in its inner pockets; a slight nuisance.

-2: It's hard to get the zipper moving when you want to close the ZenClass bag. And it gets harder, the more you fill it.

-3: Although the ZenClass bag has neat see-though pockets, your stuff will spend a lot of time zipped up out of sigtht. I think it's necessary to review what I've stuffed in all those pockets from time to time, to make sure I know what I've got.

-4: If you use a laptop on a flight, you're going to keep the tray down a lot. You'll have to get the laptop out of the way, each time you need the ZenClass bag.

Brent Hollowell (of ZenClass) wrote the following:
All of our new product has YKK zippers - the highest quality brand name zippers available. UPDATE: {I talked to Brent about the magnetic top, and found that no one has complained that they lost anything out of the top of the ZenClass bag. Thus the magnetic top appears to work just fine, although there are people like me who worry that something might fall out, when the bag is not in its normal vertical position. The magnetic top allows easy access to items in the top of the bag: passports, tickets, etc.}

In the "tray table down" position, in order to use your laptop and the organizer at the same time, try this: In the long zippered pocket that spans the entire bag, lay something fairly rigid/structured (like a couple of magazines, newspaper, book, notebook or even a laptop when not in use) across the entire inside of the pocket, horizontally, so that it spans the mid-point or folding part of the bag. This will give the bag a solid structure in the open position. You can then rest the entire unit on the metal tray table "arms"that hold the table in place (these are parallel to the floor on most current aircraft equipment).The back lip of the tray should meet the bottom edge of the organizer and hold it fairly well in position so that you can use the tray table.

It's not the most elegant solution, but unless it's insanely turbulent (or you're flying on an aircraft with the older tray tables) then you should be OK to use it in this manner as well. We did not design it for this mode, but we are working on a (hopefully) simple solution that will make it easily usable in both modes... trying to do it simply without adding quite a bit of cost, so we want to be deliberate about how we solve this one!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Fashion in “Law & Order”:

Near the beginning of almost every Law & Order TV show, the camera thoughtfully observes the first corpse. It must be someone's job to decide how to dress these corpses. I wonder if any manufacturers try to offer kickbacks to get their clothing lines on death-display.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Segway Tours!

We have just returned from a wonderful vacation in Israel, during which I took a Segway Tour in Jerusalem. If you search for Segway Tours, you'll see there are a lot of them, everywhere. There are at least two companies in Jerusalem: The Green Ride (which I took and recommend), and Segway Jerusalem (which I only know from their ad). Since riding a Segway is unintuitive, I imagine that most tours work like mine: first, they train you to use the Segway; then you start the tour on simple ground; then gradually you get a chance to zip along over hills and dips.

Touring on a Segway is great. You cover a lot of ground (I rode for 100 minutes). You see well because you are up higher. And you feel safer, because you can 'outrun' anyone if you have to. (My tour covered a lot of interesting trails where we saw absolutely no one. On the Segway I felt fine, but I might have felt uncomfortable walking in such places.)

If you're curious, here's what's unintuitive: You need to move smoothly as you step on or off it, so it doesn't try to get away from you. You control your speed by leaning forward or back at the ankles, not at the waist. You turn by sliding your handle bar right or left, not by turning the handlebar. And it's hard to keep the Segway still; you are more likely to jitter slightly back and forth when trying not to move it. After a while, some of this becomes second nature, and you just enjoy the ride.