Saving my history – it’s needlessly complex

In 2004-05, my IBM colleague Sara Moulton Reger and I wrote a series of articles about “Needless Complexity” for IBM’s “Think Research” site as part of our work at Almaden Services Research.

The articles are no longer available on “Think Research”, so I’m reposting them here as a single PDF. Copyright, of course, remains with IBM.

Thanks to the Internet Archive for saving them in the Wayback Machine!

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I cut myself by ignoring Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor states that, all other things being equal, the simplest explanation is to be preferred. I wish I’d remembered that this afternoon.

We have just completed a major landscaping/hardscaping project – and as long as the driveway was being dug up, we decided to replace the 50-year-old galvanized pipe between the water meter and the house with brand new copper. The replacement went well, but after the plumber had left, I noticed that one of my toilets was refilling very slowly.

I ignored it for a couple of weeks, but finally I was irritated enough to Google the problem: “Fluidmaster 400A slow refill”. The top page in the results came from Fluidmaster, and it suggested several causes:

  • After several years of use, the seal of the 400A fill valve can become swollen, causing a slower fill.
  • The inlet of the valve or the water supply line is plugged with debris.
  • For new installations, if using a straight pipe as a water supply line, it may be extended too far inside the bottom of the valve shank.
  • For new installations, the valve cone washer may have been used with the wrong supply line.

This wasn’t a new installation, and the toilet was only a couple of years old, so I was pretty sure that debris was involved. Fluidmaster suggested removing the top cap from the valve and using the water pressure to clear debris from the valve. 30 minutes later, I’d finally managed to remove the top cap, only to discover that there wasn’t much pressure. Their explanation for that was “debris lodged deeper in the valve”, but trying to fix it would require draining the tank and getting water all over the floor, which I wanted to avoid, so I searched further.

HandymanWire gave me a great tip to replace only the top part of the valve (avoiding any need to drain the tank and get water on the floor), so I followed their procedure. 10 minutes later, I had the valve disassembled, ready to put on the top part of a new valve. But for some insane reason, I decided to test the pressure before putting the new valve’s guts on…and there was no pressure.

I drained most of the water from the tank and disconnected the hose leading to the tank. Then I cleaned up the water on the floor (oh, well) and turned on the water – still no pressure.

I disconnected the other end of the hose, right by the angle stop, and found a small pebble blocking the hose inlet. Removing the pebble solved the problem, and then I spent the next 20 minutes putting everything back together, including putting the old guts back on the valve.

In retrospect, the simplest explanation was a blockage in the water supply line – just as Fluidmaster (and Occam) suggested. If I’d tried that first, I would have been finished in 10 minutes (even with cleaning up the floor) — instead, I spent about 2 hours (including research and a couple of interruptions).

Oh, well; now I know a lot more about the insides of a Fluidmaster 400A valve than I did this morning.

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Passport Day

Diane and I are back from Passport Day in Aptos. Three wineries visited, six wines acquired:

  • Pleasant Valley Vineyards – a beautiful backyard winery (well, it’s a 5-acre backyard) with an amazing stand of redwood trees. The wines were rather pricey (mostly north of $40), but quite tasty. They specialize in Pinot Noirs, which were very drinkable, but we really liked their Syrah and Zin, both of which were on the spicy side; we bought one bottle of the 2009 “Sean Boyle” Syrah, which will go well with a well-spiced steak.
  • Nicholson Vineyards – this was a slightly larger operation than Pleasant Valley, but still small and friendly. Their wines are made for drinking fairly soon and were considerably less expensive than Pleasant Valley. I wrote my tasting notes on their order form, which I seem to have left with them, so I’ll just list the wines we chose to purchase:
  • Finally, we visited Alfaro Family Vineyards, an even larger operation than Nicholson (they sold wines under three different labels, in fact). They had seven wines available for tasting, but we decided, in the interest of safety, to skip the Chardonnays; all of the wines were interesting, but we only picked up the Corralitos 2012 Syrah, which was pleasantly spicy, with a long finish and a relatively low price (hmm, I guess I can’t bring this one to a party now that I’ve written that!).

Three wineries in the space of 2.5 hours is a pretty brisk pace, and I’m sure I didn’t do Alfaro justice – I guess we’ll have to return.

Posted in Food and Wine | 2 Comments

I need rain

We haven’t had significant rain this season, and it shows. The hills are browner than usual; the fall garden is anemic; and there’s continuing talk about drought and water rationing. We even had someone ask at Torah study whether we should put the prayer for rain into the day’s service! Yes, we need rain.

But none of those reasons are why I need rain – I need rain so that I’ll stay inside and play work. When I look at my office, I realize that spending an hour or two reorganizing it would pay dividends – but that hour could be spent walking or hitting golf balls, and that’s what I do instead.

In fact, it’s a lovely day out right now. Bye!

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It’s not about the arms

I was at the driving range Friday afternoon. Just before I was ready to leave, I noticed that my coach was practicing, so I watched him hit a few balls. I noticed that he looked relaxed, especially from the waist up – it seemed as though he was letting his lower body provide most of the force and using his upper body to steer.

I only had a few balls left in my bucket, and no time for more, but I decided to experiment and concentrate on my lower body instead of my arms for the rest of my shots. When I kept that thought in mind, I made more solid contact and the ball went further and was better aligned with my intention.

Maybe I’ve been doing it wrong all along?

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How should I start my morning?

My morning routine has only changed a bit over the years.

When I was at IBM, I’d read the paper with breakfast, check my email (work and personal), and then rush to work, where I’d once more deal with my email (personal and work, usually in that order – I guess I can admit that now), be on conference calls, and, if I was really lucky, get something done before lunch. Sometimes, of course, I’d have a conference call (or two) early enough in the morning that I had to call in from home; on those days, I’d never get anything accomplished before lunch.

Now, I get up, read the paper with breakfast, check my email (personal only!), check Facebook, read blogs, and on good days, get a walk in before sitting down at the computer to check my email and Facebook and blogs again. I only need to leave the house early for Toastmasters meetings or when I’ve got an appointment with my trainer, so often I sit at the computer until lunch. And I almost never get anything accomplished before lunch.

Very little in my email is time-critical; perhaps I should get something accomplished before I look at the email. Perhaps a blog posting would be a start….

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I am my mother’s child

My mother used to do something which drove me crazy – she lied to her checkbook. If she wrote a check for, say, $12.67, she’d enter it as $15 in the check register; similarly, if she deposited $280, she’d enter $250 in the register. When I asked her “why?”, she said she liked having a “cushion” in her account.

I keep my check register as accurate as I can – but I lie to MyFitnessPal, and for the same reason. As an example, I went to the gym this morning and spent 35 minutes on the elliptical trainer. My Wahoo heartrate monitor claims I burned about 500 calories, but it’s not integrated with MyFitnessPal; my Fitbit is, but it can’t tell how hard I worked, so it only credited me with 200 calories during that time, and that’s all I show in MyFitnessPal. I also try to overestimate serving sizes by a little bit. Why? To have a little “cushion” in case I forget to log something I eat during the day.

I don’t know if my mother ever got her checkbook in sync with reality, but I’ve lost 10 pounds and 2 inches from my waistline since starting to use MyFitnessPal this summer. Maybe lying isn’t always so bad!

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Things I learned practicing golf today

I am consistently hitting the ground too soon, and therefore hitting up on the ball instead of down on it. I do this when I’m practicing without a ball (I ground the club behind where I’m aiming), and even more so when there’s a ball to hit. The result is thin hits and no consistency in aim.

I also noticed that I still don’t always finish my follow-through, especially when taking a practice swing; I have a better chance of hitting the ground later when I do finish completely, so I need to make finishing a stronger habit.

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Proust had madelines; I have signs

A long time ago, I had to use TSO on a daily basis. One of the parts of the login process was being told the last time you logged in – you were supposed to check the last login time and make sure no one was using your account covertly, but I never bothered, partially because the date in the login message was presented as a so-called Julian date (yy.ddd). It was easy enough to figure out the human-friendly date in January, and even in February or March (especially in a leap year), but by the time April started, my interest in converting day 103 into the 12th or 13th of April (depending on whether it was a leap year) was zero. I’m sure someone made the decision to use the Julian date for a reason, but it never made any sense to me.

I was reminded of this today when I saw that the restroom cleanliness form at the place we had lunch had “1–14” as the date; I wonder if the person who set it up had been a mainframe user at one point.

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Communication Matters

I recently got a Facebook message from a friend who’s about to go on a two-week trip to Ireland and Croatia and wondered if I had any advice for him on staying connected while he was there. As it happens, I got that message while sitting in Edinburgh Airport, waiting to get on the first of three flights which, with any luck, will get me home today after a sixteen-day vacation in France, Ireland, and the UK, where connectivity was a constant concern. And as I write this post, I’m sitting on BA 297, currently at 38,000 feet over Greenland, completely (and happily) disconnected. So I am more than willing to give advice about connectivity in Europe.

There are three parts to this rather long post:

I hope this helps you stay as connected as you want to be on your next trip to Europe.

My general recommendations

There is no single best answer for everyone – you have to weigh cost, convenience, and reachability. But here’s my advice anyway.

  • If you don’t need voice or text, just data, and are OK with intermittent connectivity, put your phone in Airplane Mode, turn wifi on, and use hotspots (McDonalds and Burger King are both good choices for this, if not for food). (Thanks, Lisa Strand.)

  • Using your carrier’s international bundle plan is by far the easiest way to go, both for you and for people who want to call you. Estimate your usage and buy the appropriate package – find out what will happen if you go over the package limits (you don’t want a $20/megabyte surprise). Forward your phone to a US voicemail number before you leave if you don’t want people to call you.

  • If you only plan to use your phone in an emergency, go with your carrier’s default plan. Forward your phone to a US voicemail number and turn off data roaming (or all cellular data) – you do not want to pay $20/megabyte.

  • If you are only going to one country and have an unlocked phone, a local SIM can save you money (but realize that there can be considerable hassle involved, depending on the country, and that you’ll have to give your contacts the foreign number if you want to be reached). Do the research to see how much pain is involved for the particular country you’re visiting.

  • If you’re going to more than one country, the hassle of local SIMs is multiplied, and the savings are reduced because of breakage.

Plans and Realities

Our trip this year was complicated. We started with six nights in Paris at an apartment with excellent wifi (thanks, Airbnb!), followed by eight days on a cruise ship:

  • Two days in France
  • One day at sea
  • One day in Dublin
  • One day in Wales
  • Three days on small Scottish islands

The Plan

I intended to pick up a Lebara SIM for France at the airport and a UK SIM in Wales. I expected to be disconnected at sea (the ship offered slow, pricey wifi via satellite) and was willing to take my chances in Dublin.

The Reality

In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is. And there was.

In France

I didn’t see anywhere to get the SIM before I left the airport, and when I asked for Lebara SIMs at shops in my neighborhood in Paris, no one carried them.

Our apartment had great wifi, and I had a Paris tour app with a good offline map; I was also able to find wifi at various stores and restaurants in Paris. I kept looking for the Lebara SIM without success – on our fourth morning, I found a cellphone shop in Les Halles which might have had one, but they only spoke enough English to point me to the Orange shop down the hall.

Orange sold me a “mobicarte” SIM for 10 Euros plus another 10 Euros for 500MB of data which took care of my communications needs (voice, text, and data) for the rest of our time in France (including the time on the cruise ship). If I’d bought that SIM on the first day, I probably would have had to add another 10 Euros to get another 500MB of data – as it was, I used over 400 MB of data in the time I had it.

In Dublin

I found free wifi at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Guinness Storehouse, and outside a Burger King. That was all I needed that day.

In the UK

I never even looked for a UK SIM – we did have a little time in shopping districts, but looking for a SIM was much lower priority than looking for other things. I found free WiFi at the port in Holyhead, Wales, and in Tobermory, Scotland, but was basically disconnected most of the time until I got to Edinburgh Airport this morning. If someone had really needed to reach me, they could have called the French phone number – voice coverage was OK.

So it all worked out, just not as I’d expected.

The Option Game

There are many ways to stay connected while traveling out of the US. I’m going to look at several of them in some detail, and I’m sure there are even more choices.

Your Cellphone Carrier’s Default Plan

If all you need is a few minutes of voice and a few texts, your cellphone carrier’s default plan may be just fine. They charge something like $1.50/minute for calls (incoming and outgoing), and about $0.30/text (outgoing), with incoming texts probably being free. Data is prohibitively expensive, though – AT&T would have charged me over $20 per megabyte, so you’ll need some other way to get to the Internet.

Advantages

  • Your US phone number works – anyone who has it can call or text you as if you were at home. They pay nothing extra.
  • You don’t need an unlocked phone.

Disadvantages

  • Anyone can call or text you as if you were at home. This includes junk callers.
  • Callers probably won’t realize that you are many timezones away.
  • You can’t afford to use cellular data. Really. $20/megabyte is $20,000/gigabyte.

Variations on the theme

  • Forward your cellphone to your home phone (if you have one) or a Google Voice number; that way, people can leave voicemail and you can retrieve it when you have a data connection and reply at your convenience.

Conclusion

Go this route only if you don’t plan to use your phone on your trip unless there’s an emergency.

Your Cellphone Carrier’s International Bundle Plan

Your carrier probably will sell you a bundle of data (or data and calls) at a more reasonable price than the default plan. AT&T, for example, offered me 120MB for $30, 300MB for $60, or 800MB for $120, and I know they have packages which include voice and text for a bit more money. This can be a good deal if you’re going to be in more than one country.

Advantages

  • Your US phone number works (as above)
  • You can use your bundled data (and calls) in more than one country
  • You don’t need an unlocked phone

Disadvantages

  • Anyone can call you and won’t be aware of the time zone issues (as above)

Variations on the theme

  • Forward your incoming calls (as above)

Conclusion

This is probably the best choice if you want to be easily reachable from the US (if not, forward your calls to a voicemail service), especially if you’re going to be in more than one country. In hindsight, this is what I should have done.

Get a local SIM

If you have an unlocked phone, you can get a Pay-as-You-Go (PAYG) SIM from a local provider. I did this in France on this trip, and have done it in the UK on previous trips. If you’re really clever, you can get the SIM in advance (I wasn’t that clever).

Advantages

  • This is the lowest-cost route (well, other than going without a phone). I paid 20 Euros (about $27) for an Orange PAYG SIM in France, which got me a local phone number, 500 MB of data and 5 Euros of credit for calls and texts. Incoming calls and texts were free. Outgoing calls in France were about 40 cents/minute, calls to the US (if I’d needed them) about $1/minute, and outgoing texts were pretty cheap, too. If I’d run through my credit, it would have been easy to recharge the SIM, either over-the-air or at almost any grocery store or tabac.
  • I gave my French number to those who I wanted to be able to reach me. Anyone calling my US phone got voicemail.
  • I could use my phone for calls and texts in other European countries for a reasonable price (50 cents/minute for outgoing calls, 15 cents/minute incoming calls or outgoing texts, incoming texts free). Data while roaming would be expensive, but packages were available.

Disadvantages

  • I didn’t have my French phone number until I bought the SIM, and it will expire in a few weeks.
  • I had to find an Orange shop. Fortunately, there was someone there who spoke English, knew the plan I needed (mobicarte) and was able to set me up so that I had voice and data before I left the shop (hint: bring an ID – a driver’s license was fine). I had tried an SFR shop but no one there that day knew English, and my French was definitely not up to this task.
  • If you’re going to more than one country, you will have to repeat the process in each country. And it will be different in each country.
  • You need an unlocked phone.
  • Your US phone number goes dead when you swap SIMs. You can forward voice calls (as above), but I don’t think there’s any way to forward texts.
  • The local plans may have interesting wrinkles; as an example, the plan I used in France disallowed VOIP (Skype), Usenet, and POP3 access to mail (but the Gmail app worked fine).

Variations on the theme

  • In some countries, there are vendors who specialize in catering to travelers (for example, Lycamobile or Toggle in the UK, and Lebara in France). If you can get their SIM at the airport (or even order it in advance), that could be a big win.
  • If you don’t have an unlocked phone, you could buy a new PAYG phone instead of just getting a SIM.

Conclusion

  • If you’re going to spend most (or all) of your time in one country, this is a very cost-effective solution.
  • If you’re going to make repeated trips to the same country, you can probably buy enough credit to keep your local number active between trips.
  • This is much easier if you speak the local language!

International SIMs

There are companies who will sell SIMs which charge more-than-local but less-than-roaming rates all over the world; I think they’re primarily intended for voice and text, not data. I didn’t research this for my trip, since I cared more about data. If you want more information, Google is your friend.

See Ron Woan’s comment for more info on Telestial’s International SIM.

iPhoneTrip.com

If all you need is data, this company offers a variety of plans ranging from $8-$16/day for “unlimited” data (they seem to have a 500MB/day soft cap, though). The price varies depending on whether you need one country, one continent, or the whole world. I used them last year for our trip to the Netherlands and Belgium.

Advantages

  • You set the whole thing up before you leave the US.
  • You pay a fixed price per day.

Disadvantages

  • You need lead time – they send you a special SIM, and if you need it in less than a week, the shipping is expensive.
  • You need to figure out what countries/regions and dates you need because you have to set it up in advance.
  • You need an unlocked phone; last year, they supported AT&T-locked phones, but this year, such phones seem to need their “world” plan (at the highest price per day, of course).
  • They only support data, not voice (although they do allow VoIP). And when you put their SIM in your phone, your US phone number goes dead (as above).

Conclusion

I used them in 2012 and was happy. Enough had changed in 2013 to make me go elsewhere. Check their website and talk with their help desk before making a decision.

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