Archive for April, 2008

Necessity Must Be Infertile

Saturday, April 26th, 2008

I bought a jar of Sanka just a few days ago.  It’s been a while since I’ve had Sanka, but I’m currently on vacation and the condo’s coffee maker looks disgusting, so I figured I’d simplify and just deal with Sanka for a bit.

Necessity 001When opening it for the first time, I noticed that the cap wasn’t your standard coffee jar / peanut butter jar plastic cap.  Instead, the grip portion of the cap was a rubberized grippy material which the marketers named EZ Grip (see left).  And indeed, it was easy to grip.  Far easier than the standard hard-plastic ribbed cap that you get in almost any other grocery jar.

This got me thinking.  How many years has the old rubber band trick been around, the one where you wrap a thick rubber band around the lid of a hard-to-open jar to give it better traction?  Sanka’s EZ Grip is essentially that same idea, but built in.

This state of affairs seems ridiculous to me.  I don’t at all fault EZ Grip’s producers for making a classic concept into a branded (and no doubt now patented) “invention.”  On the contrary, it shocks and awes me that it has taken us (meaning The Global We, the Sum of Humanity) so many decades to finally come up with EZ Grip.

If necessity is the mother of invention, I worry she’s infertile.

Let me count the ways.  Since I’ve been traveling lately, I’ll use everyday examples from recent experience:

  1. Necessity 002 Luggage with built-in wheels and handles.  Those of you born after the early 80’s may not even remember a time when luggage came without wheels and handles.  It used to be when you traveled that you would bring, in addition to all your luggage, Necessity 003 a folding luggage cart, complete with a set of bungee cords to strap your luggage onto the cart prior to wheeling the whole contraption through the airport.  Then you’d undo the bundle at the counter, fold up the cart, and check the cart in along with all your baggage at the counter.  This went on for years. Necessity 004 Never mind the phase where luggage on four wheels was towed behind you by a strap, inevitably resulting in the luggage falling over and crushing nearby kids at every turn.  Finally, after decades, someone thankfully integrated wheels and collapsible handles into luggage.  Nowadays, you can hardly find luggage without it.
  2. Integrated cup holders in cars.  Although cup “holders” had been available as early as the 1950’s (where by “holders,” we mean two shallow indentations that suggested where you might set cups down, but were by no means sufficient for you to actually drive with the cups in them), true cup holders weren’t introduced into cars until the 1980’s.  They first made it into minivans and are now pretty much ubiquitous.  It took about a century after the automobile’s invention for cup holders to be introduced into cars.
  3. Necessity 006 Necessity 005 Big Mouth Slam Can.  Your mouth might not even remember a time when all soda cans had narrow-profile lids.  For decades, the opening in the can was taller than it was wide, like the first photo to the right.  Then Mountain Dew came along and introduced the first wide-aspect can opening.  It was far easier to drink from and presumably costs no more to make than the original.  Who even knows why the original opening was made so narrow?  Mountain Dew called the new opening the Big Mouth Slam Can when it was first introduced.  Now you can hardly buy a can without it.
  4. Soda boxes that fit and dispense in the fridge.  While we’re on the subject of sodas…  For decades, twelve-packs came in cardboard boxes that were three cans high and four cans wide.  The layout was such that you’d have to lay it sideways in the fridge, such that none of the sodas would dispense.  You’d end up either reaching deeply into the box whenever you wanted a soda or unpacking the sodas prior to refrigerating them.  Only several years ago, soda boxes finally changed to be two sodas high and six sodas wide, allowing you to put the box in the fridge in a way affords easy dispensing.

Why do simple inventions take decades for us to figure out?  The inventions I mention above are all very simple and do not take any sort of serious engineering or domain expertise.  Anyone can come up with these ideas.  And yet it seems to take forever for us to do so.

The evolution of luggage is particularly abysmal.  It used to be that luggage didn’t come with wheels at all.  People traveled with trunks — literally boxes — that required two people (read: servants) to carry.  How long has humanity known about the wheel?!  Some trunks didn’t even come with handles!

There’s all this talk in business literature about “innovation,” “invention,” and “disruptive technologies,” but all I see is idiocy.  We do even very basic things in idiotic ways.  Forget all this talk about the next billion dollar breakthrough, nanotechnology, the human genome, etc.  Let’s just focus a few moments’ thought on improving everyday things.

Perhaps good ideas don’t surface for several reasons:

  1. We don’t expect more.  Carry my luggage?  Fine.  Use a separate folding cart?  Sure.  Unpack my sodas every time?  Ok.  Struggle with opening jars?  Who hasn’t?
  2. Everyday inventors aren’t empowered to realize their inventions.  Suppose you think of the Big Mouth Slam Can before Mountain Dew does.  What are you going to do about it?  Write them?  The people who read those mails don’t care.  Patent it? Most people with a good idea aren’t going to put hundreds of dollars and several years’ time into patenting it.  Most times, when an idea occurs to you, you just want a company who is actually in that line of business to take the idea and run with it.  You just want to drink your soda more easily.
  3. Companies don’t care.  They truly don’t.  Sure, they talk about how innovative they are all the time.  But they really don’t care about everyday usability.  They’re too busy making money from the status quo.  This is the only explanation I have for why things continue to be so unusable when they can often be improved so easily.

We so often do things half way.  Once things seem good enough, we stop demanding better.  Take soda boxes.  Now they fit in a fridge — great.  But the last few sodas in the box still require you to reach into the box since it sits completely level in the fridge.  Why do inventors leave these loose ends?  To solve the “last few cans” problem, couldn’t they just wrap a cardboard strap behind the last few cans which you tug on to release the final few?  Or couldn’t they provide a fold-out that inclines the box in the fridge?

Somebody please tell me why this happens.  Why are products continually made in substandard, unusable ways?

A Day in the Sun

Thursday, April 24th, 2008

MoveHawaii 006 We left Seattle during several days of freak snow in the middle of April.  That must be some sort of record, snowing as late as it did, for three days nonetheless.  We are now in Kauai, where the temperature and the amount of sun is vastly different!

The only previous trip we had made to Hawaii was for three hours.  We rented a car in Oahu on the way back from Japan to the US and drove around the island in record time.  “Diamond Head — got it!  Airport — got it!”  It was rapid-fire tourism at its best.

MoveHawaii 012So what’s interesting about Kauai?  Sure, the scenery is beautiful and  the weather is great.  But perhaps the thing of most interest is the wild chickens everywhere.  Rumor has it that at some point a farm’s chickens got loose.  Now they’re just everywhere.  And the roosters crow all day long.  Parking lots seem to be a perennial favorite hang-out for these chickens, which come right up to you as soon as you park.  No doubt many hands have fed them before.

MoveHawaii 013 On the south side of the island is Spouting Horn, a hole in a rock on the shore that spouts water, just like a whale’s blowhole, every once in a while.  It’s a neat site.  However, perhaps more interesting is that there used to be a nearby blowhole that was far more powerful than MoveHawaii 014Spouting Horn, sometimes shooting water 200 feet into the air.  A local sugar cane farmer quickly fixed that “national treasure” by dynamiting it apart, since it was messing up his sugar crop.

Many movies were filmed here, so you’ll see things that look familiar, from Jurassic Park all the way Vietnam War movies.  Waimea Canyon is often compared to the Grand Canyon, but I think a better comparison would actually be to Canyon de Chelly on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona.  The vegetation growing throughout the canyon is much more like the latter.

MoveHawaii 010MoveHawaii 011

MoveHawaii 015 MoveHawaii 008

MoveHawaii 017 MoveHawaii 016

MoveHawaii 009 Lastly, a local treat is “shave ice” [sic].  That’s right, not “shaved” ice, but “shave” ice.  It’s, well, shaved ice.  Served on top of a scoop of ice cream.  I frankly don’t know what the hoopla is about.  It tastes pretty much like fake sugar syrup poured on top of ice shavings, much like snow cones in the US.  But don’t tell the locals that — they’ll get upset.  Jo Jo’s, pictured left, is supposedly one of the best shave ice stands in Kauai.  I had a shave ice there, one of their self-described “best bets.”  I shudder to think what the shave ice from less-renowned shops would be like, if what I tried here was the specimen of perfection.

Tips for international moves into Shanghai

Saturday, April 19th, 2008

Several tips related to international moves into Shanghai:

  1. The movers may be overeager in what they include.  Many people have told us tales of movers packing their trash bins, complete with trash, right into their shipment.  If you don’t have things clearly labeled, it’s quite possible that something will be packed accidentally.  You should be present during packing so that only the right things get moved.
  2. Zero food is allowed.  In addition to the obvious things (e.g. beef, fruit, live lobster), Shanghai prohibits pretty much anything that counts as food.  Canned goods, baby formula, and even spices aren’t allowed.
  3. Customs can take a long time.  Sea shipments can take 6-8 weeks to arrive and clear customs.  Even air shipments can take 4-8 weeks (yes, weeks, not days).  In our case, the air and sea shipments are forecasted to pretty much arrive and clear customs at the same time, begging the question of why air shipments exist at all.
  4. Writeable media invites customs delays.  In a twist of irony, China’s customs inspectors are particularly sensitive to the transport of writeable computer media (e.g. writeable DVDs and CDs).  Having these disks, even if they’re blank, will incrcease the chances of your shipment being delayed in customs.  So leave the stack of 100 CD-R’s behind.  They’ll probably be tempted to look through every last one of them.

Move Part One completed

Friday, April 18th, 2008

Move 010Move 005Our belongings are now bound for Shanghai.

Over the past few weeks, and especially in the past few days, we’ve been intensely packing in preparation for our move to Shanghai.  Our packing strategy was easy.  Since most apartments are fully furnished in Shanghai, we didn’t need to pack any furniture.  We only packed personal belongings and a variety of things related to the baby.   We made the moving process easier for the movers by separating things into three types of piles:  things to send by air, things to send by ship, and things we’d carry in our luggage.

Move 003 Move 004

By the early afternoon today, an unusually cold day in Seattle, our goods were driven away in a Graebel moving van towards warmer climes.

Move 007Move 006

Move 008Move 009 

Car insurance while you’re gone

Thursday, April 17th, 2008

So you’d think that maintaining car insurance for the cars you leave in the US would be an easy thing.  It took me no less than seven phone calls in order to sort this out.

What you need to do depends on whether you’ll be selling your cars, storing them, or loaning them to friends.

Selling

If you plan on selling your car, most people say to leave a few weeks’ buffer.  I ended up selling our Honda Accord in two days using Craigslist.  Here are more tips on how to sell your car fast at a good price.  Remember to call your insurance company immediately after selling the vehicle so that you don’t keep paying to insure it.

Storing

If you’re going to store your car, insurance gets tricky.  Several insurance companies have storage plans, where you only pay comprehensive (e.g. in case your car is stolen, or your house collapses on it, etc).  However, requirements differ between companies.

I was told by one agent that I needed to take a photo of the odometer before and after storing it to prove that the car hadn’t moved.  Never mind how fishy that sounds, given that I could in theory just take two digital photos right now and submit one as the “after” photo.  Not that I’d do anything as shifty as that, nor do I recommend it.  I just mean that the rules make no sense, like the one where the TSA now requires you to take off your shoes because one guy tried to bomb a plane with his shoes, as if you’d take a page from that well-worn book.  Thank goodness no one has tried to bomb a plane with their underwear yet.

Storage plans end up cheaper by a wide margin since you’re only paying comprehensive coverage.  However, the companies I called all required that the vehicle be stored at your home.

When storing a car, you’ll need to do a variety of preparation, like emptying the gas tank, prepping the engine, etc.  The web has a variety of resources outlining what you’ll need to do.  The other route is to have a friend start up the car once a week or so for 10-15 minutes.  Although this isn’t as good for the car as driving it around, it at least keeps the engine cycling.  If you go this route, you should probably remind your friend that reversing the car doesn’t reverse the odometer, if your friend hasn’t seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Loaning

If you loan your car out to a friend, you may need to get them put on the title as the registered owner in order to get insurance.  The companies I called would not insure a friend for the long term (e.g. one year) if they weren’t listed as the registered owner of the car.

There’s a big difference between the registered owner and the legal owner on a title.  The legal owner is the one who really owns the car.  In cases where there’s a car loan, the legal owner is usually the bank.  The registered owner is the one actually driving the car, paying tab renewal fees, and getting insurance.  In the case where you’re loaning the car to a friend, you should remain the legal owner.  Your friend, as the registered owner, can get his own insurance on the car.

Maintaining yourself as the legal owner also helps you to avoid any sales and use taxes.  For instance, in Washington state, every time a car changes hands (legal owners), there’s a hefty 9% tax on the market value of the vehicle.  Changing just the registered owner costs you just a minor fee ($15) instead of having to pay the huge sales and use tax, and is perfectly legit as long as you plan to remain the legal owner of the vehicle.

One car sold, two more to take care of

Thursday, April 17th, 2008

DSC_0114 In preparation for our relocation, we wanted to sell the `98 Honda Accord (the same one referred to as “too fast, too furious” in this article on Microsoft’s site).  It was my first car so it had sentimental value.  But alas, we weren’t driving it much, and the insurance alone cost over $500 a year.

I considered selling it on eBay and on craigslist, and in the end went with craigslist because it was free.  The whole transaction took all of two days to complete, from listing the ad all the way to signing the title over to the new owners.

Tips for a quick, well-priced sale:

  1. DSC_0111 Get the car detailed.  I spent $200 at Derek’s Detail in Seattle,  and even met Derek himself.  The important part is to get absolutely everything cleaned.  I got not only a wash and wax, but alsoDSC_0106 the interior shampooed and the engine touched up.  This makes a ten-year-old car show like new.  Remember that most people in the used market are seeing several cars a weekend, all about theDSC_0109 same age (and perhaps even the same make and model) as your own.  Appearances make a huge difference.
  2. List with additional high-res photos.  Craigslist only DSC_0107 supports four very low resolution, low quality images with each ad.  It continually surprises me that such a poor user experience can become the dominant classifieds site on the Internet, but never mind.  I uploaded nine DSC_0112 high-res photos to another hosting site, and linked to it directly from the ad.  This no doubt set my listing apart from the many other Accords being sold at the same time.  I was contacted by at least six people within 24 hours.
  3. Pay your loan off.  Buyers don’t want to deal with the bank.  If you still have a loan on your car, you won’t be able to complete the sale directly with a buyer.  Instead, the bank has to get involved in order to get the title transferred.  You can lose a buyer this way.  The guy who ended up buying my Accord came straight from dropping out of a deal where the seller still had an outstanding loan on the car.
  4. Check your competition.  There are probably several similar or nearly identical cars to yours being sold at around the same time.  You should price yours accordingly.  People seem to espouse one of two strategies when your car is nearly identical to others being listed:  price low, or price high.  The Price Low camp believes that by doing so, you’ll generate more initial interest and close the sale faster.  The Price High camp believes that Craigslist is full of low-ballers, such that you should start your price high in order to be in a better negotiating position.  I’m in the Price High camp.  By standing out above the competition with a great listing (including photos) as well as a detailed car that showed a lot better, I made a sale at a price that was better than I expected.  Since you can always adjust your price down later, I think it can’t hurt to start high.
  5. List strategically.  Say enough (like the critical points), but don’t say too much.  You want a chance to interact with potential buyers, to form a connection and to get them to feel invested in the transaction.  For this reason, someone recommended omitting the VIN from my listing, which turned out to be a great way to start a conversation with potential buyers.  If you are the first and only owner, definitely state that.  Many buyers find that appealing.
  6. Maintain a strong bargaining position.  If you’re in a rush to sell, the best thing is to have both the cleanest car and the best listing in the bunch.  Don’t let your time crunch negatively impact your bargaining position.  You always want to maintain more than one live lead so that you can let potential buyers know that others are in line.  Schedule aggressively by being available to show the car, but also by stacking up potential buyers on the same day so that you’re in a position to walk away from a bad deal.
  7. State all known issues.  Here’s where I’d differ from many sellers.  I believe that a 100% disclosure policy actually sells better and faster.  When showing the car to a potential buyer, I point out absolutely everything:  tiny dings on the door, a small crack that’s been patched in the windshield, low tire treads, etc.  By doing so, you’re not only being high-integrity, you’re also quickly building trust with the buyer.  That trust is what closes a sale quickly and at a good price.

Remember that certified check fraud is becoming more common.  So a bubble-jetted check that looks like it’s from Wells Fargo doesn’t actually mean anything.  I’d recommend cash, PayPal, or going with the buyer to his bank to witness the certified check being withdrawn.

Lastly, once the car is sold, you’ll need to register the sale with your department of motor vehicles as well as with your insurance.