Monthly Archives: December 2008

Gizmodo’s Matt Buchanan Doesn’t Understand Consumer Reports

Earlier this week Matt Buchanan ranted in Gizmodo about Consumer Reports’ review of smartphones. He didn’t read the actual reviews, of course. He just saw the top five list on someone else’s blog: the Samsung Blackjack II, the T-Mobile Wing, the Motorola Q9C, the T-Mobile Shadow, and the Blackberry Pearl Flip. Then he went to town.

Ignoring for the moment that four out of the five are Windows Mobile phones, they didn’t even pick new, actually good hardware. Not one of the phones, except for the Pearl Flip—which is actually the least capable phone in RIM’s new batch of devices—is even from this year. Its top phone, the BlackJack II, doesn’t even have Wi-Fi or a touchscreen, and is loaded with Samsung’s BS proprietary ports, rather than industry standard ones. Beyond that, where the hell are the other good smartphones? If they wanna be dated, where’s the BlackBerry Curve? They could shoehorn it in by reviewing one of the newer iterations with Wi-Fi. No Symbian?

In short, based on a top five list presented without context, Matt got angry that Consumer Reports didn’t pick the most recent smartphones and don’t get that the only thing that really matters about smartphones is the software.

Unlike Matt, I’m actually interested in context, so I dug up the actual article and ratings.
They judged the phones based on things like voice quality (both talking and listening), talk time, and ease of use. The article gives further sub-divided groupings of smartphones, like their recommended ones for multimedia (the iPhone 3G and the T-Mobile G1) or office-like tasks (the Samsung Blackjack II and the Motorola MOTO Q 9c). So it’s not just a top five list; it’s a constellation of recommendations based on usage.

Also unlike Matt, I understand the difference between generalist and specialist reviewers, the difference between tech-obsessed early adopters (hi, all of Gizmodo) and more average users, and the pitfalls of trusting numbers that are generated by qualitative rather than quantitative tests (such as “ease of use”).

Look, it’s simple: a generalist review site like Consumer Reports works best when you’re using it for items you’re not geekily obsessed about. Car enthusiasts bitch about their car reviews; audiophiles bash their stereo reviews. I’m sure if I were the kind of person to subscribe to Coffee Maker Magazine I’d be annoyed about their coffee maker reviews. And it’s okay to point out flaws in their methodology and places where you disagree with their results. But whinging about a top five list when you didn’t even do your homework and read the primary source? That’s as out-of-touch as Matt accuses Consumer Reports of being.

Recent Trip to Arkansas

We had an unexpected trip to Arkansas this past week due to a death in the family (that’s for a later post), and while we were there Eli and Liza discovered the joys of ponies and make up. Luckily for me it wasn’t all at the same time.

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Click on the pony for more photos.


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Click on the lipstick for more photos.

Emogency!

Today’s neologism: emogency. When you’re so overwhelmed that only listening to Dashboard Confessional on repeat will make you feel better.

I went googling to see who else used the word, and I discovered an emogency on deviantART and one on MySpace. The MySpace Emogency is Canadian. His two songs are him singing while he plays his guitar. That’s right: Canadian folk emo!

Man, the Internet.

I Love Leverage

If ever there was a television show created specifically for me, Leverage is it. The TNT show is about a team of con artists, thieves, and one ex-insurance investigator who scam corporations and organizations who are up to no good. It’s fun, it’s got sharp writing, and it was written just for me, though I’ll let you enjoy it as well. I’m magnanimous like that.

See, when I was young, my dad had me watch The Sting, and I imprinted on it like goslings on boots. Ever since, I’ve loved movies and TV shows about cons. I have a copy of the Soderbergh remake of Ocean’s Eleven. I even watched Players back in the 1990s.

Even if you’re not quite as crazy about these kinds of shows as I am, you should still give Leverage a try. It’s way funny, as should be expected from a John Rogers show. I first found out about him when I saw the pilot for his version of Global Frequency, and I enjoyed his work on the Blue Beetle comic book, as I might have mentioned. He’s got an ear for funny dialog that’s not too contrived, and excels at tight plotting.

TNT’s got full episodes online, or you can get it through iTunes. Go see what you think.

Please, Sir, I Want Some More

We had driven from Grayton Beach all the way to Montgomery, with a several hour stopover in Brewton to see my grandmother and aunt. It was past dinnertime and Eli and Liza were hungry and tired, vibrating at frequencies that make experienced parents nervous. There was a Red Robin next to our Montgomery hotel, so we all piled into the restaurant.

Red Robin is an upscale burger joint, which means it piles all kinds of toppings on hamburgers. It’s very kid-friendly, with balloons at the front and waitstaff who know to bring fries out early so your children don’t melt into a puddle of distress. Liza got a balloon and squeezed it until it popped in her face. She looked up to see if the balloon had floated away, looked down to see if it had fallen to the floor, and then burst into tears because her toy had vanished. Fortunately, Red Robin has a lot of balloons.

To distract Eli and his cousin Sam until the fries appeared, my brother and I took them to the front of the restaurant, where the video games and gumball- and toy-dispensing machines are.

Eli is obsessed with those machines. His greatest joy is to feed quarters into a machine, turn the knob, and have a small toy in a plastic capsule fall out. Quarters are the highest currency known to man, and the little green aliens and small grey robots that come from those machines are loved and played with for weeks. Whenever he loses one, he mopes and sighs as if he’d lost the one thing that gave his life meaning. He has a lot of those little toys, and he has my ability to put things down and forget where they are, so there’s a lot of moping and sighing to be had in any given week.

He’s also in love with the claw machines. He would happily feed $100 into one of those machines one quarter at a time while he tried unsuccessfully to nab a toy. We don’t let him play with those machines, since they’re the kid equivalent of Vegas slots. He’s been known to cadge quarters off of innocent bystanders after we told him we wouldn’t give him a quarter for the machine. I worry that, if we let him play with it, ten minutes later he’d be slumped next to it, dark circles under his eyes, dirt smeared like beard stubble on his face, sipping from a root beer bottle wrapped in a paper bag.

So there in Red Robin he gazed longingly at all of the machines and punched buttons and twisted knobs. One of the machines involved shooting small rubber balls at targets. If you hit enough targets, you got a prize. If you didn’t, you got a small rubber ball.

At one point I turned around and he had one of those balls. “Where did you get that?” I said. He pointed at the machine. I blinked. “Okay, how did you get that?”

He promptly opened the flap that covered the place where the prizes fell, reached his small arm in up to the elbow, and triumphantly pulled out another ball. “See? My hand fits back in there and I can get one!”

We let him keep the balls, but we quickly ushered Sam and Eli back to the table before an employee discovered his larceny. It’s a little disturbing how well Eli lifted those balls, but given the state of the economy, it’s comforting to know that he can be Oliver to my Fagin if I need.

Ten Tips and Tricks I’ve Learned About the iPhone

Yes, I’m still enjoying my iPhone. Yes, I’ve been using it a lot — probably more than is healthy. I’m going to end up with thumbs that look like Popeye’s forearms at the rate I’m going. There were a number of things I had to learn about by experimenting or looking on the web. Here’s ten that you can make fun of me for not knowing.

Delete mail by swiping your finger across it. Right-to-left or left-to-right works. Other apps use this same approach — the iPhone app for the task-management site Remember the Milk lets you swipe tasks to mark them complete.

Hold down the .com key to pop up a list of other top-level domains such as .net and .org. This has made typing URLs in Safari much easier for me.

On keyboards where there is no .com button, you can hold down the period to get a list of top-level domains. That’s especially useful in Mail when you’re typing an email address.

When typing a single number, punctuation mark or symbol, press and hold the 123 button, then slide your finger to the number or symbol you need. The keyboard will then reset to letters automatically.

Double-tap a column or image in Safari to make it resize to fill the screen. Yeah, yeah, I know, they showed this in the iPhone commercials. Bite me.

Use two fingers to scroll list or entry fields in Safari. One finger scrolls the whole page, but two fingers scroll just the field.

Scroll to the top of any page by tapping the top bar.

Take a screenshot by holding the home button and then pressing the sleep button.

You can change what double-clicking the home button does. Look under Settings/General/Home Button. I set mine so that double-clicking the home button takes me to the iPod app.

Double-click the home button while the phone is locked to bring up iPod controls. I’ve set my phone to lock after a minute or so, and when I’m using the iPhone to play music, it’s nice not to have to fully wake it up to change songs.

Any tips I’ve missed, fellow iPhone users?

Our Little Cruise Director

I suspect this will surprise my friends, but when I was in middle school and high school, I was very reserved. When I was young I was gregarious and outgoing, but between those two points I folded on myself like a Venus Flytrap. I had trouble dealing with people, and mostly avoided them.

I say this may be a surprise because the pendulum has swung back the other way. I’m now very outgoing, and given a choice, I gravitate to where there are people, and I’m often one of the last people leaving a party.

When Eli was born, I wondered how he’d deal with others. I’d had such a rollercoaster ride; would he?

Last weekend I took Eli to Pump It Up, a warehouse filled with inflatable trampolines and slides that wisely has yet to partner with either Elvis Costello or Missy Elliott. One of his friends was having a birthday, and the place was filled with Eli’s four- and five-year-old friends. I had to pull him aside at one point for breaking the place’s rules and climbing over the walls of the inflatable obstacle course.

“Dad,” he said, sniffling, “it’s no fun out there without me.”

“Oh?” I said. “But are you having fun?”

“Yeah. But not when I’m alone.”

If he goes all emo on me when he’s a teenager, at least I’ll know that that phase won’t necessarily last.

Book Review: The Trouble with Boys

Peg Tyre’s publisher solicited me to read this book for the site, and I was intrigued enough by the book to say “yes.” I remember being fascinated by the Newsweek article she wrote a few years ago, but it was published while my son was fairly small. I wasn’t thinking about him going to kindergarten or how the educational system might treat him. Her book came to my attention while Eli’s debut at school is looming large on my horizon. The book couldn’t have come at a better time for me because of that.

Tyre’s book is an incredibly readable look at what children–and most especially boys–are facing in the educational system as it is now. With little unstructured play time and the ever-increasing pressures of No Child Left Behind testing, our boys are indeed getting left in the dust. She details where we do a disservice to our boys starting in preschool, and suggests things for us as parents to do to start helping them get back on track.

This book is a must read for parents of boys and all educators. I’ll definitely be asking Eli’s teacher next year if she’s read it and suggesting it to her if she hasn’t. I feel like it has shown what to watch for as Eli is in school. This book is the first thing I’ve read that has ever made me potentially contemplate home schooling for my kids if they aren’t getting the educational experience that I think they need. That is powerful stuff indeed, as I have pretty much always been a vocal supporter of public education.

Tyre’s site has other good info about The Trouble with Boys and other articles she’s published. I highly recommend checking out the site as well as the book.

Historical Perspective on the November 2008 US Job Losses

Note: I’ve updated this article with more current information.

Well, that’s not good. The Department of Labor announced that there are 533,000 fewer US jobs in November than in October, which is the largest one-month drop since December of 1974, when the job numbers dropped by some 602,000.

The BusinessWeek article offers this perspective:

How bad are these numbers? Worse than in the 1990-91 recession, whose worst month saw 306,000 lost jobs, or the 2001 recession, whose worst month was a loss of 325,000 jobs. The U.S. economy lost 431,000 jobs in May 1980, which was the worst month of the back-to-back recessions of 1980-82. If it’s any comfort, though, November’s showing was better than the recession month of December 1974, when the economy lost a staggering 602,000 jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

I don’t think that’s true. We’re not as bad off yet as during the 2001 recession, and we’re on par with the 1990-91 recession. Sure, this is a terrible month, but how bad have the last few months been compared to other similar runs of job losses? What if you look at job losses as a percentage of the total number of jobs? To answer those questions, I downloaded seasonally-adjusted non-farm payroll employment data from the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is where the 533,000 job loss number came from, and did some number crunching. Feel free to check my work as I go.

One other thing, though: statistics are cold comfort to those who have lost their jobs. I’m going to argue that, percentage-wise, this run of job losses isn’t that bad when compared historically. And yet, 533,000 is a lot of people. It’s equivalent to the entire town where I was born losing their jobs 50 times over. It’s everyone who lives in the Huntsville and Decatur, AL area, including me. Don’t lose sight of the people behind the numbers.

Historical Job Losses

What do job gains and losses from 1960 until now look like?

Monthly change in the number of jobs as a function of time from 1960 to 2006

The graph shows that November’s drop is the largest next to December 1974, as well as our continuing slide this year. May 1980 and October 1970 come next in the one-month-loss list. (But September 1983 kicked ass, adding over a million new jobs.) Now let’s look at the top ten greatest monthly losses.

Year Month Difference
1974 Dec -602,000
2008 Nov -533,000
1980 May -431,000
1970 Oct -430,000
2008 Sep -403,000
1975 Feb -378,000
1974 Nov -368,000
1975 Jan -360,000
1982 Jul -343,000
1960 May -340,000

November was bad, but so was September — it comes in at #5 on this top-ten list.

But what happens if you look at job loss as a percentage of the jobs that could be lost? That is, if you take the number of jobs lost in a given month and divide that number by the jobs you started out with in the previous month, does that change things?

Percent change in number of US jobs from 1960 to 2008

The shape of the graph is about the same, but the fluctuations are now larger earlier in time. The US economy has grown tremendously since 1960. The number of jobs went from about 54 million in January 1960 to 136 million in November 2008. Think of it as job inflation. Any single job doesn’t make as much of a difference to the total now as it did in 1960.

Our top ten list changes noticeably.

Year Month Difference % Diff
1974 Dec -602,000 -0.77%
1960 May -340,000 -0.62%
1970 Oct -430,000 -0.61%
1975 Feb -378,000 -0.49%
1980 May -431,000 -0.47%
1974 Nov -368,000 -0.47%
1975 Jan -360,000 -0.46%
1960 Dec -219,000 -0.41%
2008 Nov -533,000 -0.39%
1982 Jul -343,000 -0.38%

All of a sudden, November 2008 drops to 9th place, and September 2008 is gone from the list. December 1960 has taken its place.

But these are still all one-month drops, and the data shows a lot of single-month drops that are surrounded by gains. How does 2008 compare to other runs of job losses? Between 1960 and now there have been seven times that we’ve lost jobs for four or more months in a row.

Period Months Difference
Aug 1981 – Dec 1982 17 -2,838,000
Mar 2001 – May 2002 15 -2,202,000
Nov 1974 – Apr 1975 6 -2,164,000
Jan 2008 – Nov 2008 11 -1,911,000
Jul 1990 – May 1991 11 -1,621,000
May 1960 – Feb 1961 10 -1,256,000
Apr 1980 – Jul 1980 4 -1,159,000

The current run of job losses started back in January 2008. We haven’t yet lost as many jobs as we did from November 1974 to April 1975, and those job losses happened in half the time as our current ones. The August 1981 to December 1982 run holds the top spot. Based on this list, we’re barely worse off than the 1990-91 recession, and much better off than the 2001 recession. What about job losses as a percentage of the number of jobs that existed before the losses?

Period Months Difference % Diff
Aug 1981 – Dec 1982 17 -2,838,000 -3.10%
Nov 1974 – Apr 1975 6 -2,164,000 -2.75%
May 1960 – Feb 1961 10 -1,256,000 -2.29%
Mar 2001 – May 2002 15 -2,202,000 -1.66%
Jul 1990 – May 1991 11 -1,621,000 -1.48%
Jan 2008 – Nov 2008 11 -1,911,000 -1.38%
Apr 1980 – Jul 1980 4 -1,159,000 -1.27%

Percentage-wise, our current run doesn’t look that bad. The early 1980s recession was harsh, and these numbers bear out how bad it was. The 1974-1975 recession was also bad, again as is shown by the percent of jobs lost. But even the 1990-91 recession was worse.

So, yeah, November’s one-month drop worries me, but it’s not as bad as other historical losses. Of course, the US economy is still headed down. While we’ve experienced worse recessions, given another four or five months of this and we could move into the top spot across the board.

Where I Got My Data

All of my data are from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, specifically their data page. Under their “Employment, Hours, and Earnings – National” database I searched for “All Employees, Thousands” under the “Total Nonfarm” super sector. All data were seasonally adjusted. You can get a graph like my first one directly from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.