Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Review: Windows 8.1 Pro

A couple of years ago, I upgraded my desktop top Windows 8 Pro. Just a few months later, the machine corrupted its own hard drive, but I was fed up with the start screen, and so reverted back to Windows 7 from and old backup. The desktop is still running Windows 7, and my Windows 8 Pro license went unused. I was feeling a bit cheated by Microsoft, to say the least, despite the $40 I paid.

Recently, I noticed that my wife's Surface Pro with Windows 8.1 felt quite usable, and booted to the desktop while booting very fast (10s). The old X201 was taking minutes to resume from hibernate, and 30s to boot from a cold start, and being a laptop, was doing that frequently, so I thought it would be a good candidate for Windows 8.1 Pro, since my old license would get a free upgrade to it.

The installation process is fairly painless, but did take most of the day (I could use the PC most of the time while the upgrade was happening, so it wasn't too bad). And to my surprise, when I was done, the laptop did boot up in 10s, and resumed in about the same amount of time from hibernate, indicating that the improvements in performance wasn't really dependent on CPU performance.

Performance seems pretty fast most of the time as well, as UI elements pop up, and the device seemed to suck much less memory. The device even seemed to sleep more consistently than before, which I was impressed by. And of course, in the intervening 2 years, I'd gotten used to the start screen (though I do hope Windows 9 brings back the start menu), so it no longer bothered me as much. The charms bar was still annoying at times, but by and large it's been ok.

One of the most annoying things about Windows 8 was that you were forced to login using a Microsoft account, but that didn't correspond to any accounts on my beloved Windows Home Server, so effectively you lost access to it. Fortunately, Windows 8.1 fixed that using the Credentials Manager, so now I can happily use my Windows Home Server, which is still easily the best file server I've used at home.

Needless to say, I won't be going back to Windows 7 on the laptop any time soon, so I'd label this upgrade recommended. I'm impressed that Microsoft has actually fixed issues I care about in this release, though obviously, the start menu is still the much needed improvement that I'm waiting for.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Review: Gobble Dinner Service

In the past, there's  been plenty of food startups, from kitchit to gastronauts. None of them have addressed what I consider the best possible market: busy parents. We ran into Gobble and decided to give them a try, since they were promising fast meals that were done right.

The idea behind Gobble is this: you get pre-packaged, pre-prepared gourmet food delivered to your door in refrigerated packages. Each box comes with 3 meals, and you're in a subscription service, so you can cancel any time. Each meal comes with a preparation card, and it takes about 10 minutes to prepare each meal, and you'll be done. It's a nice concept, though as with all sorts of food, everything depends on the execution.

The central premise behind any kind of delivered food service like this is Sous Vide. Since the food has been already vacuum-packed while cooking, it's an easy step to simply go the next step to freeze it and then deliver it to your door. The biggest problem is that most people don't have a sous vide setup, so I was curious as to how they did the reheating.

It turned out that about only 2 out of 3 meals are done via sous vide. The fish and seafood dishes have ingredients that are so easily cooked that stir fry does it. The other sous vide meals are finished via either stir fry, or a searing step followed by an oven. This last method means that Gobble cheated on their marketing: it takes way longer than 10 minutes to pre-heat the oven and then for you to stir fry and present the meal.

The other problem I had with them was the delivery. The service uses On-Trac, which has a history of extremely late deliveries to my home. Indeed, the first delivery was so late that our Gobble meal turned into Pizza take out by the time the van driver showed up at my home. I called customer service and they apologized and gave me a $10 credit, but if I'd had hungry kids and a hungry wife, $10 wouldn't have come close to making up for it. There's also the problem of picking up the old container. I have no idea when they intend to collect them or if I'm supposed to throw them away.

As for value for money, the cost of the meal is about $12/person. This is approximately about the cost of eating out, except you don't have to tip. The variety of meals are decent, though the portion size ranges from barely adequate to substantial. It's very clear that each meal is sized not by calorie needs but by how much each ingredient costs: the chicken dishes are substantial, the beef dishes are usually supplemented by beans, and the seafood dishes would not keep a teenage boy well-fed.

The meals are decent, though everything is Americanized, so the curry tastes kinda bland and the chili is very mild. But it's all been very good, though not as good as if you went all modernist cuisine on it.

In any case, since we do have a sous vide machine, I'm not sure we'll continue after a month's trial, but I can recommend them to people without sous vide machine. It's also a nice way to get recipe ideas. In any case, if you do want a referral code for a trial e-mail me and I'll arrange for you to get one. Or you can just click through above if you're impatient and do without.

This is one of the few services that I think deserves success, and serves the South Bay quite well. Recommended.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Review: Locked In

Locked In is John Scalzi's latest novel. It's a quick fun read, and not very deep, but a good example of how a good science fiction writer can take a single topic, extrapolate it to the world around him, and then weave a decent story.

The story involves Hadens. Much like a movie, the world that Scalzi wants to move in is so complex that it has to have a prologue. Basically, a virus has left a large population of people locked into their bodies, so they can only interact with the world through remote-drones (called threeps), or an integrator, which is a human who's set up to receive remote control just like a threep would be. The intricacies around the plot revolve around what it's possible or not possible to do with an integrator, so Scalzi ensures that you get all that information up front. That's the science fiction part.

The main character, Chris Shane, is a Haden who's a rookie FBI agent. On his first day of work, he and his partner are assigned to a mysterious murder, and as they unravel the plot, we see that it's not just a simple murder, but also implicates that big changes are coming to the world that Scalzi has set his plot in.

The plot is by far the weakest part of the story. Not only is the villain's intentions rather far fetched and unbelievable, the means by which he aims to achieve his goals seem rather amateurish. Certainly, that a rookie agent seems to have had such an easy time unravel-ling the shenanigans makes everything seem very pat.

Nevertheless, it's a fun read and quite compelling. A worthy airplane novel. Mildly recommended.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Siren Song of Real Estate

I'm constantly astounded by how frequently people tout real estate as a great investment. Take a look at this example from Quora, for instance:
Buy a single-family, 3 bedroom rental for $180,000. Rent = $1,200/month. That's about 7% rate of return on your investment. Here's the good news: after depreciation, you net income is practically zero (on paper).
Where do I begin? First of all, don't forget maintenance, insurance, and taxes on the home!  If there's a HOA, add that monthly fee in there as well. On average maintenance costs about 1% a year, and property taxes eat another 1%. Add to that insurance, which is another 2.5%. Now that's $4,500 / year.

There's also costs of acquiring a renter, as well as the possibility of not being able to rent out a house for a while. (If your 3 bedroom house rents for $1200/month, it's not in a strong market like the Bay Area) John T Reed uses a 95% vacancy rate as standard, which means that you lose about 2 weeks of rental income a year due to moving people in and out.

So now your numbers look like this: $13,846 in revenue, $4500 in costs, which is $9346, or a 5% return, give or take a bit. But you also paid a real estate agent about $5400 to buy the home, and you'd have to pay the same to sell it, assuming no appreciation. (Typically real estate appreciates 0.4% a year after inflation, and if you're getting a house for $180,000, it's not in a high growth area like the San Francisco Area)

Note that the above numbers from Quora are doctor'd! In other words, good luck buying a house for $180,000 that can rent for $1,200/month, which would imply a price to rent ratio of 12.5. In most parts of the country, price to rent ratio is 15, which means that you'd have to pay $216,000 for that same house. Your property taxes, insurance, and maintenance costs go up proportionately, and you're down to less than 4% return, even assuming you didn't pay brokerage fees for buying the house.

What about depreciation? Well, if you depreciate the property, you have to back that out when you sell, so your capital gains would register that much higher.

(Just in case you were wondering, the price to rent ratio in the Bay Area is currently at least 20, probably approaching 25: it really isn't a good place to buy a property to rent)

Are there any mitigating factors? Yes. If you live in the house for 3 out of the past 5 years, capital gains are exempt from taxes. So if you moved every 4 years and bought a new house each time, and real estate kept going up, you could come out ahead with respect to housing versus saying, buying an indexed fund. But you hardly see any one except John T Reed telling you to do that. Most people, especially families, don't like moving that often.

If you can do exchanges, then trading up is essentially tax free, enabling you to defer paying taxes. That's also nice. But you'd be tying up your wealth in increasingly large amounts of real estate as you do so.

The big reason why most people think real estate makes a huge amount of money is because of personal experience. They put 20% down on a house, watch the house go up in value, and walk out with a ton of money due to the use of leverage. As folks found out when the housing bubble crashes, leverage hurts you a lot as well when the market goes down.

There's no free lunch in investing. Unfortunately, there are lots of people who like to tell you that there is, and they'll make money selling you books, seminars, and other content doing so. Real estate investing has just as many people like that as the financial services industry, so if something you hear (or read) sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Friday, September 19, 2014

School vaccination rates

When I was touring pre-schools, I was concerned about the levels of immunization in California. Every time I asked a school principal about it, however, I got the brush-off. What I didn't know until Arturo pointed it out was that I didn't have to ask the school, I could get the data directly from the California government web-site.

The data is extremely comprehensive, covering every licensed child-care facility in California as well as public and private schools K-12. Note that while it doesn't tell you what percentage of parents opt out of immunizing their kids, it lists what percentage of parents submit PBEs (Personal Belief Exemptions) in lieu of immunization records, which you can use as a proxy for people who don't vaccinate.

You need a vaccination of 95% to achieve herd immunity, so PBE levels above 5% should be considered dangerous. You might think that only poor schools with uneducated parents would get to that level, but several expensive and exclusive private schools including Waldorf in Los Altos have very high PBEs. (Waldorf is at 44%!)

This lets you screen schools easily and quickly, and eliminate schools without even a visit.

(And yes, Bowen attends Villa Montessori in Cupertino, which has 0% PBEs)

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Exploitation

Google, Intel and Apple are appealing Lucy Koh's rejection of their settlement about the anti-poaching case. It's very hard to get sides that don't want to sue each other to sue each other, so my expectations are that the court of appeals will reject Koh's decision.

Many of my former colleagues have said something like "I wasn't really exploited. I'm going to donate my money from the settlement anyway, so it doesn't matter how much it is." This tears me up.  It tears me up especially since the kind of people who say that tend to be white, privileged, and have never really had to struggle to make a living.

When I was 20 and a struggling student (yes, I actually did receive Pell grants), I had to work 2 jobs simultaneously while carrying a full time load to avoid having to take out crushing amounts of student loans. I had a deep aversion to carrying debt at that time and I still do now. I worked for a tiny company in Berkeley called Geoworks over the summer full time as an intern. Geoworks was your prototypical technology startup, and had lots of cool projects, including the idea that you could work on whatever you want and no manager would stop you provided you got your main job time. Of course, that meant that many of us worked 80-100 hour weeks for fun. (Google called this 20% time, Geoworks called it "anarchy time") In fact, the predecessor for gtags was a tool I wrote during anarchy time for Geoworks to browse and navigate the multi-million lines of assembly that encompassed GEOS. For all that, I was getting paid a nominal $15 an hour, but working way more than the 40 hours a week. I think I might have clocked 80 hours a week normally.

At the end of the summer, I was due to go back to school. The management team at Geoworks took me aside and said, "You'll be working fewer hours, and so as a result, we're going to cut your hourly rate because you will not be as focused on your work as you were when you were full time." They proposed to cut my pay to $12 an hour, in addition to giving me only 20 hours a week. I was by no means someone they were trying to get rid of, since they would try to hire me again next year as a full time engineer after I graduated. I was hopping mad. I quit and worked as an undergraduate TA at school instead, reasoning that if I was going to be exploited (Berkeley only paid $10/hour), I'd rather be exploited by a non-profit and help my fellow students and avoid the walk to downtown Berkeley and stay on campus instead.

Years later, other former interns from Geoworks would thank me for my actions, because after seeing someone they thought was loyal walk out over that 20% hourly rate cut, management at Geoworks backed off on that policy.

What relevance does this have today? Back then, tech workers were plentiful and companies didn't need as many. There wasn't as much competition back then as there are now for workers. You'd think that, but you'd be wrong. Just a few years back, one of Google's early SREs left Google and joined Facebook, based on something very similar to my story above. After that event, Google gave everyone on his team a raise. Was that competition helping out? Or was it simply because Facebook refused to join the cartel that Google, Intel, Apple, Adobe, and several others put together? Regardless of how you feel about Facebook as an employer or product, engineers in the valley owe a huge favor to Facebook walking in and breaking the cartel and raising wages as a result.

Here's the thing: Google and Apple have engineers that are the strongest in the industry. You would think that it would be impossible to exploit such an incredibly valued bunch of folks, yet these large corporations got together and did it, and successfully got away with it, getting a slap-on-the-wrist settlement from the government. If these companies get away with murder when it comes to Google-class engineers, what do you think happens to the women and minority in the profession who aren't in the top tier? That marginal worker on average discovers that the low pay and long hours common in the profession does not pay enough to keep him or her working in software development. As a result, the average software career is much shorter than careers in other engineering professions, allowing the industry to claim a shortage.

I don't care if you personally don't need the money from the settlement (I don't, either). But when exploitation of workers happen, call it out. Don't sit back and behave like a spectator: let everyone knows how unfair it is, and how it shouldn't be allowed to happen. By doing so you're not just helping yourself, you're also helping engineers that aren't working at your tier. Otherwise, all the noise about trying to get more women and minorities into the profession is just noise; until you can get fairness in the workplace for the top tier workers, you don't have a prayer of making it attractive for the marginal tech worker or helping those who aren't in the 1%.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Review: Airscape Coffee container

I'm too lazy to grind coffee, so tend to buy Costco's Peet's pre-ground coffee at 36 ounces for $13. But I don't drink more than one cup a day, so I need a way to keep it fresh. I bought an Airscape 64oz container hoping to be able to just drop the entire bag in there and keep it fresh.

To my horror, Costco's coffee is sold by weight, while Airscape's containers are measured by volume. So I actually needed more than 2 Airscape containers if I wanted to store that much, though if I opened the bag and made a few cups of coffee I could get away with just 2.

The coffee container comes in various different colors, and 2 lids. An inner lid pushes down and has a one-way valve eliminating all the air from inside the container, and the outer lid keeps everything inside while still letting you see how much coffee you have left. As a design it looks great. In practice, when you push down on the inner lid, the valve let's some of the coffee grind out along with the air, so if you push down too quickly you can get a fine mist of coffee around the can.

As far as freshness goes, it's great. I'd keep looking for a better solution, however, since I think the inability to let air out without also letting coffee out is a problem. In practice, I think people actually just use these to store beans, which would have that problem. But I'm still too lazy to grind my own coffee. Do people actually think it's worth it to do so?