Sunday, December 20, 2009

Online obituary guestbooks

With the recent death of someone close to me, I discovered the industry of online obituary guestbooks. The industry seems at once disgusting and emotionally manipulative. Upon cursory inspection, one might also infer a network of payments between these guestbooks, online newspapers, and the "comfort industry" (flowers, giftbaskets, etc.), which makes it that much more uncomfortable, given the links between these sites. (The links below are not people I know -- they were selected for illustration purposes). is one of these services. They collect guest comments for a period of time, after which they request that family or friends pay to have access to the book. Conveniently (for them), they're linked off of some online news obituaries such as our very own I don't know whether they pay these news sites, though I suspect they do.

The guestbook remains online for some period of time (a month?). Once this period has passed, Friends and family can pay $2.95 for access for a day. This fee is called an archive activation fee, suggesting that it must be expensive to host gigabytes of text and photos.

Or you can keep the guest book online indefinitely for only $79.99.

These services become especially attractive to families once people have left comments on the service; how could you let positive comments about your loved one disappear?
By doing this, you'll be giving the loved ones of Marilyn Ann Wrobleski a place to express their feelings, and share memories any time they'd like in the months and years ahead.
Well, why not host our own guest book with these comments? Oh, snap -- the terms of use suggests that you cannot reproduce these comments on your own site:
"You may not, for example, incorporate the information, content, or other material in any database, compilation, archive or cache. You may not modify, copy, distribute, re-publish, transmit, display, perform, reproduce, publish, reuse, resell, license, create derivative works from, transfer, or sell any information, content, material, software, products or services obtained from this Site, except as specifically noted above."
These sources also provide links for you to buy flowers or gift baskets for your loved one. No question they're generating revenue through affiliate payments, by inspection of the links: I've changed "legacygift" to "legacygift2" in the link so we don't earn the site any more money than it deserves.

At least we know that's site is guaranteed to host our guestbook indefinitely, even after is gone:
"Subject to its suspension, cancellation, and termination rights and rights to remove Material,, Inc. represents that each Guest Book and Moving Tribute sponsored as "permanent" will remain on this Site for the duration of, Inc.’s existence, and that each Guest Book sponsored as "one year" will remain on this Site for one year from the date of sponsorship ..."
Well, okay. For a year. Oh, wait, maybe not even that:
"unless: (a) this Site ceases to exist in whole or in part during the relevant period ..."

In some sense, I'm happy that there exists some service like this; they are providing a service to families and friends of loved ones. At the same time, it treads an uncomfortable ground, because this service seems poised to exploit people at their most vulnerable periods, and their fees seem rather high, given the limited scope of services they provide and the rather prohibitory terms of use, when affiliate payments alone (through flowers, etc.) are probably enough to cover the costs.

"Show Us the E-Mail"

A compelling op-ed by Eliot Spitzer, Frank Partnoy, and William Black appeared in today's NYTimes.

"By [making emails and models related to AIG's counterparties publicly available] online, the government could establish a new form of “open source” investigation."

One argument is that the US is an 80% shareholder -- we should have the shareholder power to compel AIG to make decisions such as this.

An argument against this which I didn't see in the article: perhaps making such emails public, we would hurt AIG, and ultimately ourselves, since it might still be teetering on the edge of collapse. In this case we might be keeping our holding in AIG shares afloat by keeping this information private. But, on the other hand, we also might be missing out on opportunities to claw-back undeserved bonuses or payouts to AIG counterparties.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Learned how to spell two words

I usually consider myself a decent speller, but sometimes I end up writing a word for the first time (since I just never had a reason to write it before). The two words I learned today are "millennium" (note the two N's, which I'd thought was one n) and "inoculate" (I thought there were two n's).

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Priorities in Saginaw, MI

The Saginaw News published my letter here.

Here is the text, for readers' convenience:
A letter on Friday, June 26, to The Saginaw News urges readers to donate to the Saginaw fireworks display to make it better than Bay City's. Two days later, the editorial board published a story noting that 65 Saginaw County school teachers have been laid off.

With Saginaw's dismal economic outlook, we must be careful where to place our pride. Instead of spending roughly $70,000 on fireworks to compete with our neighbor, perhaps we can donate $20,000 of that to Bay City for some outstanding Tri-City fireworks, and Bay City can respond by opening up more space for Saginaw vendors.

This would strengthen bonds with Bay City, and we can then donate the remaining $50,000 to our public schools to keep more of our talented teachers' jobs or help attract even more talent to the area.

Nobody will move to Saginaw because it has the best fireworks one night of the year. But with small compromises like this, we can compete to have the best schools in the area 365 days of the year - something that would actually encourage smart families to stay in Saginaw.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Covert Operations Against Iran

With the recent election in Iran, you have to admit that the widespread protests were a bit of a surprise. It seems safe to say that the US has a much greater interest in the outcome -- and a much greater role in the events -- than they are letting on.

The official line (CBS News) is basically that we expect that Iran recognizes that

"the world is watching... I want to repeat it that we stand with those who would look to peaceful resolution of conflict, and we believe that the voices of people have to be heard, that that's a universal value that the American people stand for and this administration stands for.

Obama continues,
"But the last point I want to make on this - this is not an issue of the United States or the West versus Iran. This is an issue of the Iranian people. The fact that they are on the streets under pretty severe duress, at great risk to themselves, is a sign that there's something in that society that wants to open up.

So the US is emphatically and conspicuously not taking sides.

On the other hand, by late 2007, Congress had agreed to fund a major escalation of covert operations against Iran (last year, I'd made a quick note about these operations). These operations
"are designed to destabilize the country’s religious leadership. The covert activities involve support of the minority Ahwazi Arab and Baluchi groups and other dissident organizations

Indeed, these minority groups are involved in the protests.
Granted, these covert operations were initiated under a very different administration than the Obama administration; but a Counterpunch article by Paul C. Roberts, assistant secretary of the treasury in the Reagan administration, seems to put these doubts to rest.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

New Mars Candybar

Mars has come out with a new candybar aimed at women called the "Fling", according to this article by All Things Considered on NPR.

The marketing includes "Pleasure yourself" postcards and refers to the 10 included candybars as "fingers".

At first I thought that the Fling's marketing (as depicted in this article) would not succeed; an initial marketing campaign with risque overtones might be one thing, but to make the connection explicit for the life of the product (on the packaging) seemed commercially risky, since the connection between sex and chocolate is flimsy. Then I realized that we've had cereals with monster (and leprechaun) themes stick around for over three (four) decades. No connection between fantastic creatures and cereal as far as I can see, and yet somehow it has worked.

The company is running an experiment in California for now, and it appears to be running well. That said, I am betting that the Fling will not be around for longer than 3 years -- not because of the content (they have a right to market however they want), but because it's not clear which void it's filling in the current marketplace. It appears that they're trying to create a market, something I'm not convinced will work too well in this case.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The factory warranty on your car is about to expire

A little while ago I posted on these calls and letters I've been getting about the factory warranty on my car being about to expire.

This company was
finally hit by the FTC।

Their tactics were aggressive: they called people indiscriminately and misled people on the phone. Nate Anderson writes:

They didn't bother targeting people who had recently purchased vehicles; in fact, they did no targeting at all... [One telemarketer's training manual states: ] "Transcontinental’s training manual states that if asked the question, "Who Are You?," telemarketers are to respond: "We are the Warranty Service Center. We provide warranty services for ______ (Ford, GMC, Honda, Toyota, Nissan, etc.) throughout the United States and Canada."

I thought for a while that they were legitimate, since I'd bought used 2005 car a few years ago, and it seemed feasible that there really was a warranty about to expire. Then I learned that everyone else, even people without cars, were getting these calls too.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The State Department and dissent

Today I saw the UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon speak at Princeton.  I became curious about how people generally enter foreign service jobs and poked around a bit on the State department's web page.  I found this FAQ, which had an interesting (but reasonable) tidbit about dissent in such positions:

25. Does the system tolerate dissent?

As public servants, Foreign Service Officers must publicly defend U.S. government policy, despite personal reservations. There is an internal channel through which an employee may present dissenting views on specific foreign policy issues. If an officer cannot publicly defend official U.S. policy, he or she has the option to resign.

I'm curious about what this internal channel for presenting dissenting views is.

Update: this public state department dissent guide details this channel.  

Steven Rosefielde describes this pathway cynically in Russia in the 21st Century:

Dissent Channel, a product of the Vietnam War era, is an established vehicle for the submission of dissenting views on important policy issues.  Messages in this channel are not subject to clearance procedures and are distributed to the top policy officials of the State Department, but not to other parts of the government.  Dissent Channel rarely changes policy, but is a venting mechanism (and a way of identifying troublemakers).  It has been used more often than one might think...

Are these messages available to Freedom of Information Act requests?  Rosefielde's attempt failed; he received this message in response to a FIA request for one of his own dissents in this channel:

release and public circulation of Dissent Channel messages, even as in your case to the drafter of the message, would inhibit the willingness of Department personnel to avail themselves of the Dissent Channel to express their views freely

Friday, April 03, 2009

Teflon leader nicked by slump

So I haven't even read the article yet, but the headline and photo are great.

Amazon Mechanical Turk suggests uses of Amazon Mechanical Turk

It seems that Amazon Mechanical Turk is suddenly becoming very widely used (or perhaps my recent change of scenery and my surroundings just make it seem that way).  My research group uses it to label examples for machine learning applications, for example, but I was wondering what other sorts of original, interesting things we could learn from this tool... So I asked MTurk for an anwer to this question.  Asking 50 mturk workers for their two cents' worth (literally), I found some interesting user-suggested results.  Here are some of the most interesting.
  1. Ask people to tweak recipes, perhaps restrict it to people who can understand recipes. Give a general outline for a food recipe and have people submit ideas for changes to it [...]
  2. I think Amazon Mechanical Turk would be a great tool for allowing others to review and comment on a draft of an e-mail. Sometimes you write something and don't know how it will be perceived and Mechanical Turk would be a fast way to get feedback and understand how your message will be viewed by the recipient.
  3. You could ask people what motivates them to work on the Mechanical Turk. That should get some interesting responses. :)
  4. Many people have security cameras they are not monitoring. You could have a selection of images periodically taken by these video cameras sent to Amazon Mturk for review. Have a selection of "is there a person here" or "no person" or "it is an animal". If a human, then the home owner is notified and the owner receives the image and the option to call police. This could also be tied into a home security system [...]
  5. As a former teacher, I know how time consuming grading test papers is. Wouldn't be great if teachers could electronically post a test, the answer key and the test papers from students? They would be corrected by many people at once and it would take minutes instead of hours.
  6. Locate the best real estate buys in the USA.
  7. Research several cell phone service plans (AT&T, Verizon, T-Moble, Sprint) etc.) and tell me which is the best value for a family plan for 4 people. The plan should have 1400 minutes, free nights & weekends, & unlimited texts.
A couple were philosophical:
  1. well first start with what do you really need out of life?
  2. You can answer in your words the meaning of life. Furtheremore, create a book upon yours and others responses.
Then there were some more bizarre, illegible, or simply useless bits of information some workers would seek:
  1. do you want to be a actor and why ?  (Female, India)
  2. what is the highest number which can be made by using five 3......... (Male, India)
  3. I always wondered if someone could ask for lotto numbers, and if the number win, the requester share the prize with the AMT workers who participate in the task. (Male, Uruguay)
Other results included finding out ways to make mturk better for users (workers mostly), ways to learn about peoples' feelings on saving and the economy, and more standard, obvious existing uses of MTurk (getting feedback for your company's product or website, labeling data, etc.)

Things I didn't see, which I expect happens on mturk:
  • Answers to homework problems
Things I would like to do which I didn't see in these suggestions:
  • Have users review legislative bills or provide feedback on political events to understand which aspects of the public forum should be discussed more. 
I also was curious about whether many of the users might be English speakers in sweatshops in third-world countries. Here's a demographic breakdown of the users, based on the information they've provided.

The question was posed late on a Friday night/Saturday morning (Eastern), so we got the weekend night owl and Saturday morning demographic in the US, along with daybirds in other countries.  Users ranged in age from high teens to 59, mean 30, median 26 (although one user suggesting real estate buys claimed to be 5).  Twenty four of fifty were female, although the females tended to be a bit older than the males.  About 36 were from the US, 9 from India, and the rest from various and sundry other places.

So it appears that it's mostly just bored American adults who answered my query, willing to work for $0.64 / hour.  Judging by their responses, I think most were probably being honest about their ages and locations.

The full CSV is available here.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Honda warranties

Judging by how hard Honda has been trying to get me to renew my car's warranty, I'm guessing it must be a huge profit machine for them.

I've gotten calls from them roughly about once every three weeks for about 6-10 months, and I've just gotten another FINAL NOTICE from them in the mail warning me about the factory warranty.  The notice warns on its cover that tampering with it could result in a $2000 fine or 5 years' imprisonment.

I don't believe in insurance, so I'm not renewing.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Being forced to remove a headscarf

In a recent Canadian sexual assault case, a Muslim woman was forced to remove her headscarf while being questioned by the defense counsel.

The judge writes,

In investigating just how important a belief this was, it came down to her candid admissions that it was a matter of her being `more comfortable' and to me that really is not strong enough to fetter the accused's rights to make full answer and defence

The judge should be suspended, and the defense attorney should be debarred.

Even if it's not a purely religious belief, it's still very disturbing that a woman in such an uncomfortable situation would be forced to bear it in an even more uncomfortable manner. The judge was failing to observe that religion is not what the law is really designed to protect; it's customs and personal convictions. The defense attorney should have known better than to put a witness in this position.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Living Prodigies

I was chatting with some friends today about a few wartime prodigies such as Turing, Einstein, von Neumann, etc. and was curious about what broader society recognizes as its current (or soon-to-be) scientific legends. I did a Google search and found this one:

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

To Kill a Mockingbird

I recently finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird. It's understandably a classic, as it was well written and evokes a vivid story.

The story depicts a family in a small Alabama town in the 1930's. The story is narrated by a sharp young girl who, despite her age, struggles to grasp what she is experiencing: she is able to sense that (even if she does not understand why) there are very core absurdities such as arbitrary social norms and widespread prejudice.

This character, Jean-Marie Finch, clearly grows more mature as she comes to terms with these ideas, which are made concrete by the story.

The title To Kill a Mockingbird refers to a quote by Jean-Marie's father, Atticus Finch, roughly halfway through the book; he tells his children,
"I'd rather you shoot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you'll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."
(Spoiler alert)

The meaning of the quote lingers unsettled in the reader's mind for most of the book, never quite clear: it becomes evident that it symbolizes a young black man falsely charged with assaulting a trashy white girl, but the symbolism is not entirely clear. In the last few paragraphs of the story, its full meaning becomes clear not only to Jean Marie, but also her father (who, despite his good character, is shown to have this blindspot). The children are saved by their insular but good neighbor (also symbolizing the mockingbird), who kills the sociopathic father of the trashy girl (symbolizing much, but not everything, bad in the story) attempting to kill the kids. The sheriff covering the case decides to save this neighbor by reporting that the sociopath fell on his knife, to the moderate confusion of Atticus. The story ends with the reader aware that Jean-Marie's wisdom has finally reached a level comparable to her father and brother.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


"Snarge" is the word of the week. It basically means bird goo from an airplane engine.

This is noteworthy because US Airways flight 1549 is suspected to have hit a flock of birds, possibly geese, and researchers have been collecting data about snarge for years according to this NYTimes article.

Of course, birds aren't the only thing that airplanes hit in the air. An old Wired article reports:

"... We've had frogs, turtles, snakes. We had a cat once that was struck at some high altitude," said the Smithsonian's [Carla] Dove. She says birds like hawks and herons will occasionally drop their quarries into oncoming planes. "The other day we had a bird strike. We sent the sample to the DNA lab and it came back as rabbit. How do you explain to the FAA that we had a rabbit strike at 1,800 feet?

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The R Statistical Package

R is getting quite a bit of attention lately (which is good!). Daryl and Hal (both quoted, and both of whom I was fortunate to get to know when I was at the company) also have very highly-respected analysis-fu at Google.

There's also funny quote from a director at SAS which doesn't reflect highly on their understanding of open source:

“I think it addresses a niche market for high-end data analysts that want free, readily available code," said Anne H. Milley, director of technology product marketing at SAS. She adds, “We have customers who build engines for aircraft. I am happy they are not using freeware when I get on a jet.”