Design bugs in everyday life: hall of fame

Revisiting the subject of design bugs in everyday life, there really ought to be a "Hall of Fame" for such things, which I hereby inaugurate.

As first inductee, I nominate the typical North American cable TV remote control, like the one from Time Warner shown here. It's design is so atrocious it defies comprehension.

What is it about this object that I find so contemptible? Consider two operations on a TV remote that you really want to be quick and effortless. One is "mute"... When you need it, you need it fast. Another is "previous channel" -- probably the most frequently used button. In any sensible design, these two buttons would be large and as distinct as possible. Here they are the exact opposite, they are the tiny gray dots below the blue and red buttons. They are in fact the least distinct buttons on the whole thing!

This leads to the type of thing we've all experienced: you are watching TV, the phone rings,  your focus shifts completely to the phone call and with the little attention that you have left ofter, you fumble with the remote, trying to find the $*@%! mute button, meanwhile the TV volume seems to get louder, the phone call becomes more urgent, stress rises.... You get the picture.

On the other hand, the two largest and most visible buttons on the remote are "list" (to access DVR), bright green one, and "on demand" (to access video on demand), the big white square. But neither of those features, by definition, requires any speed... In fact they are meant to be accessed at a leisurely pace, that's the whole point of them! Perfect candidates for attractive but discreet buttons. But no, they get to jump out the most, screaming at you.

Why does this object have exactly the opposite of what you'd want in a good design? There is not even a lock-in effect, as described in the previous post, to excuse it. Maybe there's a less naive reason. The "on demand" button generates additional revenue for the cable company, so that could be why it gets featured strongly. But really, it can't make that much difference. How many times will someone order movie just because they saw the button? Once? For that tiny bit of incremental revenue they are willing to get in the way of the most essential functionality? It's like giving limousines priority over fire trucks and ambulances on the road!

But let's apply Hanlon's razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. They probably just don't give much importance to design at all. Recall these cable TV folks are the same people who, as I've noted before on the subject of the mythical DVR+P2P, seem completely capable of suicidally stupid fear and paralysis in the face of potential innovation.

The essence of good design is to deliver functionality efficiently, and from that the aesthetic flows naturally. Form following function and all that. For committing the most egregious violation of that principle that I can find, I hereby induct the Time Warner cable remote control to the Design Bugs Hall of Fame.

While we're at it, I might as well give them the second induction as well. Just look at the program menu on your typical TV. Why doesn't it have your most frequently used channels, like bookmarks, easily accessible at all times? Most people watch a handful of channels vast majority of the time. Does it make sense to have them scroll around or enter numbers every single time to find the same few needles in the huge haystack of 500 channels, over and over again? Why not present an automatically generated list of your most frequently visited channels, like the Firefox and Chrome browsers do with web pages? It would be a huge time saver, enormous usability win, a no brainer. They haven't thought of doing that, in the decades that cable TV has existed?  Contrast that with innovation in web browsers....

Cable TV subscribers.....  which I am not one of by the way,  imagine how much more I would complain if I actually used it!  But I digress. Fortunately, Cable TV subscribers can now root for the brave new world of software-driven television. Tivo, Boxee, Apple TV, Google TV, Netflix, et al, whatever they end up becoming, let's hope they manage to wrest the user experience from the sclerotic grip of the cable TV monopolies and their business model demons.


South Africa visited


South Africa imagined

I am writing this from Johannesburg, where I arrived a few days ago. Before I get to know too much about this country, I wanted to jot down why South Africa has always loomed large in my imagination, especially poltical imagination, going back to really young age. This is a long rambling post that's more personal than usual and is  probably of interest to no one but myself. I also haven't checked the facts, this is just a raw memory dump that probably has some innacuracies. Proceed with caution or not at all.

My first consciousness of South Africa was when I saw in my passport, the words: "Valid for all countries except South Africa." I remember thinking, why? First of all, I knew Africa was a continent (I was in it), and I knew the names of several countries... This one I'd never heard of seemed kind of odd..  Second, what was this strange exception, why in the whole world, was there this one place I wasn't allowed to go? Maybe it was dangerous because it was all the way at the bottom and we might fall off the earth if we went there! Naturally I started asking questions. And I learned about apartheid. I'm not quite sure how I reacted to that at first -- I would love to think that I immediately decided it was an injustice... But the truth is, I don't remember. Maybe it became just another fact, like the fact that there were a lot of people in China, and pyramids in Egypt, etc.

Over the years through adolescence and teen-age, it started getting more concrete. Now kids, in those days there was no Wikipedia... And apartheid wasn't in our school curriculum. And I was too young to tackle a serious book. But in Kenya in the 1980s, hardly a day would go by where apartheid was not in the newspaper. So what I got was articles  (I was a news junkie from an early age) that would talk about some OAU meeting or something like that, and they would mention in passing old events that the reader was assumed to be familiar with.  The African boycott of the 1976 Olympics one day. Another day, Biko. Sharpeville was big, but it was all maddeningly unclear. The information was just trickling in, it took years and years of tidbits before I felt I had a coherent narrative.   The most significant fragment was one day I read an article about the 1976 uprising. It must have been an anniversary because it was a full story just about that... I remember a picture of a dead boy, and it struck me that wow, these kids were my age! It was no longer just an accumulation of historical facts. I started feeling it viscerally.

And of course, there was Mandela.   Just a name and a photo, always the same photo it seemed. I'm not sure why but  the newspaper (usually the Daily Nation and sometimes the Standard) always used that one picture as far as I recall. The fact that the photo was ancient, and that they never said anything concrete about him except that he was in jail (of course what could they say, they probably had no information either), made Mandela very remote, he might as well have been Tutankamen, frozen in time, clearly "important" somehow, but not really significant to me.

Music was a large part of my evolving understanding. When I was 13, I had the privilege of meeting Miriam Makeba. We were in Abidjan, and she happened to be walking down a hotel corridor with a woman that my mother knew. So just like that, we stopped and said hi shook hands,  and the adults chatted for a few minutes as my sister and I just stood and stared at the famous woman.  At that time, to me she was  the singer of the song that everyone loved -- "Malaika".  Since the song was in Swahili, I had always assumed that she was from Kenya, or Tanzania. But naturally we talked about her a lot the rest of that day, and I found out about her remarkable life. A few years later, I heard her sing in person, at a Paul Simon and Lady Smith Black Mambazo's Graceland tour concert. (Major props to Paul Simon btw, what an awesome dude). Hugh Masakela was there too and sang "Bring back Nelson Mandela" and I was like "yeah, they better!" 

By 16, I was completely radically immersed.  I followed all the details of which countries imposed sanctions and which ones didn't, which companies divested from South Africa, and which ones didn't (to this day I still boycott Shell oil, for that and for their evilness in the Niger delta, and many other places --- they are really as close as you can find to evil in business).  Anyway, by that point, it's not like I was a pioneer or anyhing, the whole world was demanding the end of apartheid.

Except of course Reagan and Thatcher ("a part bien sur Madame Thatcher" comme dirait Renaud).  It really annoys me that they are considered respectable or even great historical leaders, when in fact, they were the last, the absolute last of all world leaders to continue supporting apartheid Even after the entire effin British Commonwealth wanted sanctions, Thatcher tried to help the apartheid government. Of course they didn't put it that way.... They called it "constructive engagement" .Meanwhile they were funneling billions in military aid to South Africa and their allied mass-murdering  warlords like Savimbi in Angola, and the other lunatic in Mozambique whose name I don't remember.  For this charade, Reagan employed a useless US assistant secretary of state called Chester Crocker who would periodically fly to Pretoria  to kiss P. W. Botha's ass.  All in the name of fighting communism.  (Thatcher, Botha and Reagan are featured together on the cover of Fela's "Beasts of No Nation",  an album which struck a deep chord in me at the time.) When I hear the mainstream consensus in the US about Reagan today, it makes my stomach turn. Children, don't ever forget, Reagan was a  guy who tought apartheid was ok. He also thought it was a good idea to funnel billions of dollars into trans-national Islamic fundamentalist jihad in Afghanistan, also in the name of anti-communism. How did that strategy work out? 

In those days, Mandela and the ANC were called terrorists. And Osama bin Laden and his merry band of mujaheddin were called freedom fighters. Kids,  never ever ever understimate the power of propaganda. But I digress.

Eventually, both communism and apartheid ended. One thing I am eternally grateful for is that I was there and old enough to understand when those things happened. Every generation should have at least one such supposedly impossible completely unthinkable thing happen in world history. It really helps you understand that most political power is based on illusion, fear and propaganda, which seem inevitable and invicible until suddenly they crumble and you wonder how they could have lasted. Such events teach us that we don't ever need to support or even tolerate the bad guys just because that's the "reasonable" or "realistic" thing to do. (of course if  bad guys can actually get you, well it might be ok to keep a low profile if you have to, but my point is, don't buy into their justifications.)

And of course, there was Mandela.  He was a fantastic symbol when in jail, but now... this old broken martyr three decades removed from reality, what could he possibly do? I remember staring at the TV, live mesmerized waiting for him to appear on that first day. And suddenly there he was this strange man, very different from that old picture. As he walked, you could almost feel the hundreds of millions of eyeballs on him. And what a sight. Nelson Mandela walking side-by-side with Winnie Mandela. Just like Masakela sang.  (Sadly it later turned out that Winnie was a less-than-worthy companion... ). He gave a short speech.  he seemed fit, graceful, ... But he spoke very slowly like a primary school teacher, and it was a little weird.

Then things began to unfold. First, I feared a power struggle with the existing leadership of the ANC under Oliver Tambo. But no, Mandela said Tambo is the president of the ANC period. Wow. This guy is really different, not just another power-hungry pol. Then  came the famous  Ted Koppel interview. At one point, Koppel asked him what he thought about Castro, Arafat and Ghadafi. We were like:  Damn! It's a trap! In that split second, I imagined America turning against Mandela, the disaster was imminent. I hoped he'd been watching American politics in his short time since coming out and that he would figure out how to  doublespeak his way out of it like a candidate in an election. Instead, Mandela said something like: those were our friends when no one else supported us, they helped us, and I will not deny them now.   My jaw dropped. Shock. Who talks like that?!!  After a couple of seconds, we realized that Koppel also had been silent. No follow-up question, no gotcha, nothing. Just an awkward silence with 100 million people watching. Then Mandela said: "Mr Koppel, have I paralyzed you?" BOOM!  Minds exploded. The audience erupted. Like Alexander facing the Gordian knot, Madiba had just taken out his sword, and sliced through decades and decades of bullshit, in one swoop.  The simplicity, the honor, the integrity ... he just set it straight. We had just witnessed leadership of a quality that I didn't even know existed.

There is one other thing I remember from that same interview. Some douchebag member of the apartheid parliament from the Conservative party (which was worse than the National party that invented apartheid) was video conferenced in to present the "other side"... I forget what he said but he addressed him as "Nelson, you ...." The tone was familiar to anyone who has lived in Africa. That special mix of familiarity and condescension that the "master" would use to address his servant. The kind of tone people use to call  a 70-year old man by his first name and ask him to go fetch something. Anyway MP Douchebag went on for a few minutes, smug in his belief that he could show America that this old kaffir was just a kaffir. I was ready to punch the TV. My blood was boiling. Mandela quietly waited for him to finish, and then responded in a polite tone in Afrikaans. He then turned around and translated what he had just said into English for the audience, and it was the most magnanimous response possible.  Audience erupts again. Game, set and match. Then I knew this is really a  Great Man.

But let us not forget, even Ghandi ultimately failed to accomplish what he wanted above all. He died by the hand of his own co-religionist for not being  anti- the other religion.  India and Pakistan partitioned, muslim and hindus killed each other by the millions. Six decades later, it's still not over, now they have nuclear weapons aimed at each other. Would that same fate befall Madiba?

What happened over the following couple of years is the true miracle for me. I was disappointed that the recent movie "Invictus" chose to focus on the 1995 rugby world cup story. (Particularly since Clint Eastwood is one of my favorite directors and in "Bird" for example he didn't shy away from the hard parts of the story).  Yes it's a great inspirational story... And for anyone else it would be a great hommage. Or if there had already been great films about Mandela then this would be a nice interesting story to add. But for that to be the first major hollywood movie about Mandela is like making the first major movie about George Washington and not mentioning the dark days of the revolutionary war, the famous crossing of the Delaware river, Valley Forge, and things like that.

People forget that South Africa did erupt. People (at least outside of South Africa) seems to think he came out of jail, and it was all hugs and peace and love forever  after. No, a while, it was  mayhem. Day after day, killings, burnings. Post-apartheid had failed. The western media as they always do, portrayed it as an ethnic conflict between Zulus and Xhosas. Repeatedly hammering stereotypes of "age-old tribal conflict" just like they did in Yugoslavia or Iraq. Of course that's not what it really was, the true story is that there are other motives which sometimes invent ethnic hatred  to serve a concrete purpose e.g. to get someone in power, or to exploit some resources through. And  unfortunately is always easy to do even from scratch because people really are  baboons. Given two religions or ethnic groups, even if they have lived side by side in peace forever, coming up with a reason to make a few of them hate each other and start a war is the easiest thing in politics.  Oh and no I don't believe that international media are in some giant conspiracy with bad guys around the world. They are just incompetent, often unwitting, tools. See Gell-Mann amnesia.

Anyway,  that period is when I finally got to see the Great Man in person. That whole year I was traveling around killing time between undergrad and grad school. He was traveling around for very different reasons than killing time. Several times our paths almost crossed but not quite. I was in Senegal at a Mandela concert where he was supposed to show up but had to cancel because of the shit hitting the fan back in South Africa.  Finally, I was at another concert in Rio de Janeiro of all places.  It looked like 100,000 people came out to see Mandela.  And this time he showed up. He came on, but there were probably 50 other people on stage and you could barely see him..  the sound quality was poor and his speech was not translated into Portuguese so most people didn't even know what he was saying. But I remember being scared, very scared. His speech had zero "feel good" in it, he talked briefly about the problems going on, that he was thankful for all the support and so on but that the situation was very very dire. He said the whole thing was about to fail and mentioned some very specific things about what various parties should do.  It was strange most of the folks were still cheering, they didn't get it. And for me, it was a downer: when I finally see my hero, he's all somber and talking about dark practical details that I can't even hear..  His voice seemed weak, his body frail from a distance. I was worried and scared. I started thinking he would die and things would  fall apart (to borrow a phrase from Chinuah Achebe).

What was going then is now  well documented, people have confessed etc.  There was indeed a real effort by elements of the apartheid secret police and Inkatha who were deliberately planning that apparently spontaneous violence. Powerful organized forces were working to create a civil war so post-apartheid would fail.  But it didn't.  The greatest achievement of Mandela to me is not the fact that he survived three decades in jail, nor that he inspired a rugby team. It is that after he came out of jail, against enormous forces, he snatched peace from the jaws of virtually certain civil war. Many others deserve credit too, but there's no question that without him it would have exploded. I don't know anyone else who has played such a momentous role in recent history ...  most of the other "leaders" are people who happen to be at the right time at the right place, and then screw it up, like Yeltsin or Meles. But with Mandela, it's as if Ghandi  had managed to avoid the partition of India and Pakistan, entered elective  politics, succesfully governed and retired in peace. Can you imagine? Well Madiba did it. And then,  at the height of his power, when he could have been king if he wanted, he stepped down and set the example of peaceful transition out of power, for his country and his continent.  No other leader even comes close to that level of wisdom, unselfishness and greatness.
Simply the best.

As much as I am enjoying the world cup, that's what's on my mind all the time as I walk around enjoying all of this that is his legacy.


La cigale et la fourmi: CNY/USD revisited

Time to revisit the "Yin and yang of the greenback" theory.  The theory, regarding the relative value of Chinese and US currencies, is basically "La cigale et la fourmi", not as a moral story but as basic economics. China, the ant  in our parable, has spent the last 25 years working hard and, thanks to government policies that amount to forced savings, not consuming that much.  Meanwhile, the US, the cricket, has spent the last 25 years living off  its charm and beauty as the most advanced economy in the world. Its currency's status as world reserve currency gives it a free lunch in terms of being able to borrow.

At some point, the ant will be tempted  to start "cashing in", converting all that past hard work into a higher standard of living.  How? Well there are several ways the government can convert those savings it has accumulated in USD into benefits for consumers. It could subsidize imported goods like fuel for example. Or more generally, it could let the exchange rate of CNY/USD rise, which would make all foreign goods cheaper in China.  So that's the fundamental thesis, which is not at all an original point of view.  The question was (and still is) when will this play out?

The financial crisis of 2008 looked to me like it was going to be the perfect opportunity for them.  Because it added a couple of other factors (increased US deficit, and the rich world's reduced ability to import from China due to a recession) that added more pressure for the Chinese currency to rise. As it turned out,  rather than shift gears into the next phase of development, one with less reliance on exports and  increased domestic consumption, they decided to stay in the same gear and press on the accelerator instead: they maintained the exchange rate quasi-frozen and stimulated exports even more.  So the big jump in CNY/USD has been postponed.

But will it occur? I still think so. The reserves are still accumulating. Here's the picture I cited last time, Foreign Holdings of U.S. Securities

Country or category
Long-term debt
China (Mainland)1
United Kingdom
Cayman Islands

And here is what we have two years later, in the latest report just released last month:

Country or category
          Long-term debt


China (Mainland)1


United Kingdom

Cayman Islands


Even more of the same! The pressure keeps building....

Moreover, the rumours are that China might have stimulated itself into a bubble of it's own. How does that affect our theory? You face a bubble, and you had a pile of foreign reserves.... Well that's like being in the kitchen with toast almost burning and a huge reserve of nutella. Pop the toaster and enjoy the sandwich, China!

Update: Note that in the above tables, the amount of Chinese holdings of US securities increased a lot both in absolute and relative terms. Also, I should point out one more argument in the same direction: that western policy makers are increasingly calling on China to strengthen CNY.


Airline fees and the unbelievable worthlessness of CNN

Earlier this week I stumbled upon a mini-editorial on CNN, wherein the anchor "Campbell" (not sure if it's his first or last name, I think they try to market them like that) went off on the topic of the airline industry charging extra fees. That is, charges that are not part of the ticket price, like the fees for luggage, or food, extra leg room etc. He was all up in arms because new data showed it was EIGHT BILLION dollars last year. He said that airlines are profiting from your discomfort, his face running the gamut of expressions from mocking to outraged. Basically he painted a picture of an industry conspiring to deceptively price gouge.

But here's the thing. In the entire piece, he failed to mention a) whether overall cost of air travel has gone up or down; b) whether the airline industry as a whole was profitable or not. Without those two additional data points, his conclusions are entirely unsupported!

What is definitely happening is a shift to more granular pricing. For example, let's say 50% of travelers have luggage and 50% don't. Say previously everyone paid $400 for a ticket and now it's $350 for the seat + $100 for luggage. Why is that bad? You can argue that it it's annoying to have the cost broken down in pieces, or you can argue that it's great to have more flexibility. I, for one, am very happy to trade a luggage quota I don't use for more leg room! Whatever your opinion, in our example, since the average cost is still $400, you can't say that they are "profiting at your expense". Yet that's exactly what CNN did, without presenting any evidence that the total cost is higher! As a matter of fact, the cost of air travel has been going down for decades and as far as I can tell that trend hasn't reversed recently.

Second, is there price gouging, i.e. excessive profits due to collusion in the industry?Actually, the airline industry "as a whole has made a cumulative loss during its 100-year history". So while it's possible for price gouging to exist in on routes without competition, it's impossible that it is occurring on the industry as a whole. Yet that is what CNN is claiming without any qualifiers.

Wow! You couldn't design a more logically flawed editorial if you tried.

This would be a perfect opportunity for a warning against Gell-Man amnesia, if I didn't already believe that CNN is completely worthless. The only time I see it is accidentally while looking for sports.



Known unknowns and unknown unknowns

A lot of people made fun of poor Donald Rumsfeld for his infamous quote..

"Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know."

But actually, he had a very good point. There are things that have uncertainty but we know the shape of the uncertainty. For example, I don't know who will the lottery tomorrow, but we do know the probability of any one person winning, or the distribution of winning amounts. And by the way from that we do know that playing the lottery is one of the dumbest activities known to man, though it is a kind of stupidity that we can harness for good perhaps... but I digress. My point is the outcome of the lottery is a known unknown. Which is different type of ignorance than say, not knowing if God exists. There you don't even have a probability space to support a distribution. Once someone asked to me: What's the probability that God exists? Obviously it was a rhetorical question, and it assumed the answer is "very low" (the question came from an atheist). But then I was like: it could be 0.01% or 99.99% or anything. If you have to choose, it might as well be 42.


Zen for my domain

After procrastinating about it for years I've finally switched this blog to be on my personal domain name (in case you're curious, here's how).. so adios nemozen.blogspot.com and hello nemozen.semret.org!
How long did I procrastinate? Suffice it to say, I've had that domain name since before blogger/blogspot or even the term "blogging" existed... Now maybe in another 3-4 years I will customize the templates! In the meantime, I hope this doesn't break the feedopology.