Sunday, July 24, 2022

Why Shopping Algorithms Are Terrible

Generally I've had very little luck with mainstream sources for men's clothing.

(it all seems to be the usual dark color range of navy/burgundy/gray and lots of plaid - By All the Great Powers Put in Their Drinks, I despise plaid - men's fashion sucks)


I've tried.  I mean I'm an √úbergeek, so I should be able to hack the system to find what I need, right?

Did you know that Amazon has all sorts of interesting code set up to prevent you from automating searches on their websites?  

Did you know they also took away the ability to exclude keywords in searches?  It used to be that you could search for "short sleeve shirt -plaid" and you wouldn't see any plaid.  The Plaid Cartel must have got to Bezos, 'cause that's long gone.

I even tried a couple of the "Personalized Stylist" shopping sites. They're maybe a tiny bit better, but that's only because they're not as impersonal about giving bad recommendations.

Something I've taken up lately is doing an image search when I'm looking for non-plaid shirts (men's fashion sucks) using pictures of shirts that I like.


Not Plaid


This works surprisingly well at finding colors and styles I like ...

Also Not Plaid

... but that's only half the battle (or maybe one-third).  I don't like the feel of synthetics, and so far I haven't figured out how to add in keywords to exclude.  Then there's the additional problem that I'm unwilling to pay $180 for a frickin' shirt.


Today I found a shirt I liked the look of (but not for $110) on an obscure website, and then I realized it didn't matter because it was out of stock ... and so were the shirts on either side of it.



In fact almost everything they have listed in the store is out of stock.




I think the only thing they actually had in stock was this one, and even though it's not plaid I still don't want it.


But all of this is somewhat aside from the point.  The question I keep coming back to is, "Why are the shopping algorithms so terrible?" ... and the answer is "Because they're designed to be terrible."

Let's say you run a shopping website with eleventy-billion visitors each day, and you program a special search thingy to help them find exactly what they want every single time.  Everybody wins, right?

Well, no.  Your marketing people come to you and show you the numbers about how some products have a higher profit margin than others.  A lot higher.  Worse, they also show the same numbers to the board of directors or the investors or whoever.

Now you could keep things the way they are, but the company would (theoretically) earn higher profits if they showed the shoppers the higher-margin items first, and not let them exclude anything they know they don't want.  That increases the odds that anyone who doesn't have gobs of time to waste scrolling through  thousands of ugly plaid shirts will give up and buy a more profitable one that's not quite as ugly as the rest before they get to what they really wanted.

... and if you don't change things to make the extra profit you'll have to explain that decision to the board and investors.  Good luck.

This is the digital equivalent of how grocery stores put the higher-margin items on the endcaps, and the lower-margin stuff on the top and bottom shelves in the middle of the aisles.

Paid advertising and recommendations on the site make the problem even worse, and this effect also shows up in the selections offered for every streaming video service.

I'm not sure what, if anything, can be done about it all though.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Iron Chef and why Alton Brown clearly doesn't get it

Real Iron Chefs - accept no substitutes

I don't remember the first time I saw the original Iron Chef, but I do remember how it felt.  Yes, there was confusion and amusement in the mix, but mostly I was filled with excitement and curiosity.  I still love the show, and am hopeful every time there's an announcement of a new version.

Of course my hopes are crushed every time.  I suspect the reason is that a large portion of the audience (along with the new shows' producers) are looking for something in the show that is very different from what I want to see.


The Real Thing

Here's the thing; in spite of the bizarre trappings, the costumes, the music, and the occasional hokey "plots", the original program was all about the food.  It focused heavily on the preparation and presentation, it emphasized the chefs' skills and specializations, and would always try to explain the "how", "what", and "why" of the chefs' decisions.


... even Sakai's failures were amazing

It was almost like they weren't even aware of the costumes or absurdity of what they were doing.  They had cooking to do!

The shows had me hooked.  I like learning about different cuisines and it routinely illustrated the differences between historical and regional cooking styles.  

I like learning about different cultures and the show provided all sorts of insights into Japanese culture (such as when the actress made a comment along the lines of, "I usually like crab brains fried, but that looks fantastic").

The show was even downright practical.  As a self-trained cook, I ended up learning some actual, useful cooking techniques while watching. 

Then along came the US food celebrities and good old American corporate marketing.


Morimoto is ok, but the other two ...

All Hat and No Cattle

Starting with Iron Chef America the focus was no longer on the food.  Instead it shifted to the chefs and their egos.  The American producers seemed to care only about the style and not the substance.

There were still plenty of camera shots of food cooking, but they were a lot shorter with lots of cuts.  Put it to some catchy, inspiring music and they'd be a perfect cooking montage for a romantic comedy set in a professional kitchen.  There was still "what" but much less "how" and "why".  We got lots of quick flashes of something flaming in a pan, some frantic chopping, stuff in a blender, and then - BAM! - there's a final dish.

I rarely, if ever, could learn anything from the chefs because I could never actually see what they were doing.

And the quality of the "Iron Chefs"?  Well ... Morimoto aside (because he's from the old show), I think it's safe to say they've been less than stellar.  Yes, Flay has a chain of restaurants, but they seem to all be hamburger joints.  Batali was forced to sell his interests in his restaurants because of his bad behavior.  Cat Cora has built a resume of unimpressive, failed restaurants.  Michael Symon's places are mostly bars that sell hamburgers.

Others on the show have had more successes and better fit the title of "Iron Chef", but compared to the chefs in the original show it starts to look like they're much more interested in stardom and business opportunities than actually cooking.

Side note:  I'd have watched "Beat Bobby Flay" with a lot more interest if it had involved baseball bats.



The Return?

Once again Iron Chef has risen anew from the cooking fires, and this time I'm feeling mostly trepidation with just a hint of hope.

There's good reason for the trepidation.  When asked about differences between the new show and the previous version, Alton Brown noted, "The second one is that because it’s streaming, people can binge the whole thing and that allows us story arcs that are longer than just one episode."

Story arcs?  [*insert sound of a forehead being slapped*] It's supposed to be a frickin' cooking show, Alton!  Any "story arcs" are supposed to be a garnish, not the main course!

I can only assume Alton sees the show as flashy entertainment - rather odd considering how he's positioned himself as doing educational food programming in the past.


Taking one for the team

The only episode of Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend that I've watched so far is Episode 4: "Battle Medieval."  I skipped ahead because of my interest in the cuisines of medieval Europe.  My opinion is ... mixed.

Let's get the most painful part out of the way first.  Whoever decided that they should have a "medieval" theme needs to be moved to a job where they're not allowed to make decisions.  It was painfully clear that none of the chefs have any amount of knowledge about medieval cuisine ... or even medieval history.

To make it simple, almost every single sentence uttered on the show that included the word "medieval" was completely and depressingly wrong. 

Yes, I could write thousands of words of explanation on why each sentence deviated from well documented reality, but there's no point.  The people who need to read those words have no interest in doing so.  All the information is already out there and a lot of it is in a form that is incredibly easy to access and understand.  You can lead a horse to water ...


There were no utensils in medieval times, hence there are
no utensils AT Medieval Times. Would you like a
refill on that Pepsi?
(this was hysterical to me until I realized people actually believe it)


There were other things about the episode that bugged me.  For example, there's still too much of the "music video" editing style, and they really need to either get rid of the "Chairman's nephew" or tell him to dial it back.  The constant mugging for the camera reminds me of some of my classmates back in 5th grade, and it was only entertaining back then because school was boring.


On the Up-Side

The cooks actually seem to know what they're doing, especially Dominique Crenn and Curtis Stone.  Kristen Kish presented herself well, but given her background she spent way too much of the show being upstaged by Alton.  He could improve his reputation significantly by admitting when he doesn't know something and letting her provide the answer rather than just making something up.

Medieval history horrors aside, I'm willing to watch at least one more episode.  The food was interesting and I didn't hate the chefs.


Saturday, May 28, 2022

On Impermanence and the Pursuit of Happiness

 

Once upon a time there was the Perfect Rum ...



It was golden-colored and not too harsh, with notes of caramel, marshmallow, and maybe a hint of orange.  It even had such a reasonable price that you wouldn't feel bad about using it in mixed drinks.

It came in a cool, hand-blown glass bottle with a real cork cork and a Hoti Buddha medallion ... I'm still not clear on the reasoning behind the medallion, but it was cool so I didn't care much.

It was bottled in Anguilla by a little company that bought rum from distillers, blended it, aged it, and put it into the cool bottles.  They even hand-numbered each bottle.

Sadly, all good things must end, and the Perfect Rum was no exception.  The original owner of the company liked Anguilla and wanted to provide jobs there, but when he died the new owners decided to move production to Guyana in order to cut costs and increase profits.

The rum that had been my default for years no longer tasted as good.  It was still a bit better tasting than Bacardi, but so is most shaving cream.  After a couple of disappointing months I realized I needed to let go of the Perfect Rum that no longer was, and try to find a new one.

I haven't found it yet, but this one is close.

Don Q Reserva isn't bad.  It's golden colored and has a nice flavor of caramel, not too much of a bite (though more than Pyrat used to have), has a cork (though not a real cork), and comes in a nice bottle (though nowhere near as cool as the Pyrat bottle).  It also is reasonably priced.

It's not the Perfect Rum, but that no longer exists.  It's good enough for until I find the New Perfect Rum.


Monday, April 4, 2022

The Scam of US Medical Pricing



If you want some fascinating reading, do a web search on the "real" cost of x-rays.  You won't get any good answer, but you will spend however much time you can stomach reading case after case involving the wildly different prices being charged by various care providers for something that is surprisingly cheap anywhere in the civilized world. 

Of course some will point out that "No one really pays that much for an x-ray".  That's true, but only kind of ... sort of ... maybe not.

Let's go with a hypothetical example based on someone else's misfortune:

For whatever reason, J. Schmoe needs a chest x-ray.  Being blessed with endless patience and time, they call ahead of time to determine what the price will be, and after being repeatedly told, "We don't know what the price will be.  Come in and have it done and we'll find out after you're billed," they eventually find the one person who will quote a price:  $517.

Thinking:  Ya know, given how much I've had to shell out for testing and surgery and all in the past few years, that really doesn't sound all that bad.  Wait ... no.  It's total crap.

In some states or at some providers there's a discount you can ask for if you're paying cash rather than going through insurance.  If that happens to be the case the amount instantly drops to something like $310.

Think about this.  You know the provider isn't going to be losing money by charging you $310 for the x-ray, so the real cost is somewhere below that, and the $517 is some kind of magic markup they send to the insurers.  Why would they do that?  Let's see ...

Since J. Schmoe has health insurance the super-secret discount won't work.  They go ahead and get the x-ray, pay something like $36 as a "co-pay", and then wait for the bill.  This is where it starts getting really weird.

The care provider and insurance company have a chat among themselves.  The length of the discussion, and who wins it, largely depends on; 1. how big the provider is, and 2. how big the insurer is.  The loser of the discussion is always going to be the patient.  To add insult to injury, this part of the system involves a heck of a lot of people and time, and in itself significantly adds to the cost of healthcare - which is why a cash discount exists.

Eventually J. Schmoe gets a statement/explanation of benefits/bill that looks like one of the pictures below.  

Explanation of Explanation

Service:  The thing done.  Usually this will include an insurance code, which if you go down that particular rabbit-hole can lead to some amusingly specific insurance diagnostic codes which create more questions than they answer.

Provider Charged:  The number the provider came up with for the total bill.  Note that this might be different from what was quoted because of odd little fees added in.  There may also be situations where the amount quoted was for the procedure itself, but there was a separate bill for some other part that the patient couldn't avoid.  For example a single operation can involve separate bills from the hospital, the surgeon, the anesthesiologist, and the hospital's pharmacy.  This really ticks me off too but it's a whole separate rant.

Allowed Amount:  This number is essentially a "screw you" from the insurance company to everyone else.  They're saying, "I don't care what the provider charged, we're going to pretend the bill they sent only said this number."  I wish I could get away with that.  More on it below.

Insurer Discount:  This amount is really just showing who won the dick-measuring contest between the provider and insurer.  If the discount is high then the insurer won, otherwise the provider won.  The fact it exists at all is bad for everyone else.

Patient Liability:  The amount the patient ends up paying.  Sometimes it can be appealed and brought down, but the odds of that aren't good.  Of course it's still worth trying because a lot of crappy insurers automatically deny everything in hopes the patient will just give up and let them keep the money.


Low Suckage



This is likely the best possible outcome for the patient because the insurer paid for everything other than the co-pay.  This is also the least likely outcome, even for people who have good insurance.  Why?  Well if you were an insurance company would you want to pay anything if you could figure out a way to avoid it?

Moderate Suckage



This is like the Low Suckage results, except the patient probably has an unmet deductible.  Once that's met the insurer would (hopefully) pay more.

Major Suckage



Here something interesting is going on.  The insurer is insisting the bill is only $360, that they have a deal with the insurer to cut $150 off of that, and then they're paying the rest.  But they're going on to say that the patient's part of the bill is really based on the full amount charged by the provider rather than the numbers they were playing with.

This is called "Balance Billing" and is illegal in some states/situations.  Sometimes insurers actually pay attention to those laws, but of course "mistakes" occur.

Ok, here's the "fun" part (and by fun I mean totally infuriating):  the patient liability at this level of suckage is actually more than it would have been if they had payed in cash with a cash discount and skipped the insurance altogether.  The insurance company would have preferred that too as it means the patient is paying for insurance they're not using.

But wait ...

Remember how I said the provider was certainly still making a profit when they gave patients a cash discount price of $310?  You can also be reasonably sure they're making a profit from the $174 payment after all the shenanigans are done with.

You know who pays the full amount?  Anyone who doesn't have insurance and can't afford to pay in cash.  For a "small" bill, say a once-per-year urgent care visit for a strep test that totals $150, they can pay it off over time.  For the big stuff though, the obscene overcharging gets added in as real numbers for the big providers to play financial games with (e.g. written off as bad debt for a tax deduction or to bolster tax-exempt status, or folded into overhead costs to justify increasing prices).

And then it all gets worse when it's noted that a free-standing private office provides that same x-ray with the same quality of service for a total of $73 ... in cash.  Pity J. Schmoe didn't know about that beforehand.

Oh, and if someone can't pay the odds are they'll just not have it done at all.  This means they're more likely to end up with more expensive medical issues, or just plain die.  But of course we're not talking about anyone important, right?  It's not like those are real people.  Yes, in case you missed it, that last bit was loaded with sarcasm.

Solution?

I'm not going to pretend to have all the answers, and I'm not going to say that government-run universal healthcare is the only option (though it is an effective option).  But I think a good starting point is to level the playing field between insurers, providers, and patients. 

The "Allowed Amount" and "Insurer Discount" parts need to go.  The cost for a frickin' chest x-ray from a provider should be the same regardless of who is paying for it.  Providers should be legally required to charge a consistent for a given service (they've got all those codes, after all), and insurers should be legally obligated to base benefits on that amount.

Thinking:  I'm still kind of curious if I can start using those tactics though  ...  Sorry, Fredonia Gas & Electric.  The Allowed Amount for my monthly utility bill is $120, but you'll be happy to know I'm paying that amount in full!

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Nuclear Power ... [Insert blank stare here]



Way back when I was shorter, I thought nuclear power was the future.  Then I learned more and I realized it had serious problems and I jumped on the anti-nuke bandwagon.


But then I learned more about nuclear energy and radiation and pollution and ecology and, believe it or not, became hesitantly pro-nuke.

That however was many years ago, and since then I've not only learned more about nuclear energy and radiation and pollution and ecology, but I've also learned a lot about human behavior, economics, business, and politics.  There have also been two big nuclear accidents in that time.

Now when I hear someone say "We need nuclear power to take up the slack while we transition to renewables to stop global warming," ... and I don't know about you but I've heard this a lot over the past few years ... I'm liable to stare at them and wonder about what they've been smoking.

If I feel like making the effort, my answer to them would be along the lines of, "No.  We really don't."


The Problem

Odds are I don't have any information off the top of my head and can't google and read fast enough to counter the gallop that would follow, most of which seems to be the "everyone knows" kind of stuff that sounds suspiciously like it was written by the National Atomic Boosters or some such group.

So ... this post is for future me to point them to.


Two of the biggest and most common arguments for why we need nuclear power are:

1.  We don't have enough space for all the solar panels and wind generators.

2.  We need extra, reliable power for when the wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine.


The short answers for these are:

1.  Bunk.

2.  Bunk.


Of course that won't go over very well as it's uninformative and not very friendly.


1. How much do we need?

That's a tough question, and I'm sure if you ask a dozen politicians you'll get five hundred answers.

A quick search got me a number for 400GWh for the annual power consumption in the US.  That's a lot.

It got me thinking about where would be a good place to put solar panels that wouldn't be adding to negative environmental impacts (a lot of pro-nuke people bring this up like it's some kind of "gotcha" and like somehow nuclear energy has no effect on the environment).

You know what we have a heck of a lot of here in the US?  Roads.  Specifically, the Interstate Highway system.

So, look up some numbers, do some math.  Not trying to solve problems, mind you.  I just want to make sure I'm thinking on the right scale.

We've got 46,876 miles of Interstate Highway (an oddly specific number, eh?).  A 3' x 6' solar panel on average puts out around 250W.  That means if we put a row of solar panels in the median, in both directions, [ math math math probably got some stuff wrong math ] it comes up to around 40GWh.  Yes, that's about 10% of what we need, but it includes using zero new land and would be pretty easy to tie into the existing grid because all roads lead to the grid.  That's a new saying I just made up.  Feel free to use it.

What that really means is the scale is right.  We might not want to actually do it but we've got a lot of other options as well so I'm very sure 100% renewable is both possible and feasible.

Is there anyone else out there that says it's possible and backs it up with better numbers?  Turns out, yes.  An article was published in Nature last year saying 100% could be met using just rooftop solar alone.  Do I understand all the math in it?  Hell no.  Did I look for articles to the contrary?  No, but to be fair I really didn't look hard for this article either.


2. How much do we need?

This line of thought is much less about the numbers and more about just plain easy.

"Yes, we need X units of power per day, but demand isn't evenly spread out.  So with the variability of renewables how are we going to fill the gaps?  We don't have any way to store sunlight or wind for when we need it."  Notice how they've wrapped two arguments up into one?

Well first, we don't have to limit ourselves to X units of production.  Here's a really neat chart I found.  It shows that for the cost of nuclear power we can build a heck of a lot more renewables.  




So instead of developing enough sources to generate X units of power, we make it 2X, or maybe 1.5X, or whatever.  We end up with plenty of power and it's still a hell of a lot cheaper than building new nuke plants.

And storing the extra power?  We don't have to try and keep sunshine and wind in our pockets.  We can actually use electricity generated by renewables to make hydrogen, which I suspect can be stored in ways similar to natural gas, and can be burned on demand to generate electricity in ways similar to natural gas ... and if you're going to complain about efficiency for that step just bump the factor up for X a bit and all is good.

We need nuclear power?   No. We really don't.

Disagree with me?  Cool.  Show me the consensus of experts in the field and I will change my position.

Want to just call me a poopyhead?  Fine.  Do it somewhere else though.  I don't have time for that.


Monday, March 7, 2022

Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Immigration

Continuing my recent theme of stating positions that I know a heck of a lot of people aren't going to like, today I thought I'd alienate people by talking about immigration.

As with all of my viewpoints, I'm happy to entertain the possibility that I am wrong, and if presented with a cogent argument supported by the real world there's a good chance I will admit my mistakes and change my position (it's happened before, and I hope it will again because that would mean I'm still learning and growing).

With that said, here we go ...




Background

Way back when, before any of us were alive (specifically before 1875) , the immigration policy of the US was pretty much, "Welcome to the United States."  There were some vague requirements about being "of good moral character," and non-whites only got the right to citizenship five years earlier, but that was pretty much it.  If they found their way to the US, they could become "one of us."

Of course we all know such a state couldn't last long, and a steady stream of restrictions were added to just who could and couldn't immigrate.  Some of these seem reasonable on the surface, such as the bans on criminals or people carrying contagious diseases, but others start to edge into the category of "keeping out undesirables".  Polygamists, anarchists, and beggars quickly made the list.

Then in the early 1920s, as the sources of immigration shifted from northern Europe to other regions, all sorts of caps and quotas were implemented.

From that point on it's pretty much all down hill.  Whether intended or not, US immigration policy was (and essentially still is) geared towards maintaining a degree of whiteness.

There have been attempts to reform the policies with the stated aim to "help reunite families" or improve "border control," but unsurprisingly they haven't been that successful.

My viewpoint is that the reason attempts at reforming the process have failed is that they're like trying to repair a broken clock by changing when you have lunch.




Yes, the current system is expensive, problematic, and somewhat ineffective.  It's also unnecessary.

If you do a web search on "economic impact of immigration" ... heck, I'll even make it easy on you, go ahead and click the link ... you get references to countless studies (well, I'm not going to count them) all saying the same thing: immigration is great for the economy.

Not to surprising really if you take a moment to think about it.  If you bring in more people then there are more people who need food, clothing, housing, etc.  With more consumers you get more business, and that means more employment, and more more more more more.  Life is good, right?

Whaddabout ... ?

What about crime?  Searching for "crime and immigration" (I'm so helpful!) returns heaps of studies showing no causal link between the two (thought I've seen some that show recent immigrants are more likely to be the victims of crime).

Ok, how about protecting our vaguely defined "Cultural Identity"?  Ugh!  Setting aside that this is usually used as a euphemism for "whiteness," just what kind of identity are we talking about here?  The US is a bunch of people from all over the world living on land taken by force from those who lived there before.  A lot of the people sent over from Europe were criminals, exiles, debtors, religious nutcases, and people who were just trying to get away from where they used to live.


The only real cultural identity we have as a nation is that of the scrappy, mixed breed dog that will continue to chase huge trucks because one day it's certain it will catch one and win.


Why isn't anyone concerned that
we're all being boiled alive?


Our national language?  No.  Just don't.  Remember that Benjamin Franklin wanted the national language to be German?  If we're going to pick one single language for everyone in the US, I would propose either a language that originated on the frickin' contenent, like maybe Zuni, or one that's completely made up and isn't anyone's native language.  But really, no.  Just no.  We don't need to declare an official language or keep people out who speak something else.

The "Solution"

When you find yourself doing something that is both counterproductive and incredibly stupid, most often the solution is to cut it out.  In this case that would probably work.

1.  No more quotas, limits, or restrictions.  The officer at the border looks at your papers, runs a quick check to make sure you're not on a terrorist or most-wanted criminal list or whatever, takes a photo, gives you a green-card number, and sends you on your way.

If you're not a terrorist or wanted criminal, why wouldn't we want you to come in and spend money? 

If you're going to be in the US, why wouldn't we want you to be allowed to work and pay taxes on your income?  (and no, they're not taking jobs away from hard-working real Americans.  It doesn't work that way.  Go back and read all the stuff at the economics link above)

2.  Um ... actually that's it.  There is no step 2.

Bonus

The part that really gets me is what this saves us.  I mean, aside from all the good brought about by the economic boost immigrants bring, and ignoring the really cool cultural stuff like great restaurants that serve something other than cheeseburgers (which I love, by the way!  Cheeseburgers are awesome!  But have you ever had Thibetan food?  ZOMG that stuff is awesome!).

As a bonus our government doesn't have to spend money looking for "illegal immigrants" to deport.  We don't have to keep a small, permanent, specialized military force to have roam the country, busting down doors, breaking up families, and in general being horrible people.

We also don't have the absurd humanitarian crisis of people camped out on our boarders because they're fleeing war, crime, persecution or anything else, but we want to be sure they're really deserving of asylum and not really just trying to sneak into the country to build a better life.

It would even speed up things for citizens coming back from abroad.  Right now they look at everyone's documents to make sure you're really you and not someone trying to sneak into the country to build a better life.  Instead it would be "Yup, the picture looks like you, and you're not on the bad list. Reason for visit?  Who the heck cares!  Have a nice day.  Next!"


Do I really believe this is what should be done?  Pretty much, yes.

Do I think it has a snowball's chance in hell at actually happening?  Nope.  It would let too many brown people into the country.