Saturday, September 12, 2009

Make Them Walk

We just got back from a wonderful trip to a couple of national parks in southern Utah, and the way each ran things got me thinking. Zion and Bryce Canyon both receive millions of visitors each year, and both provide a shuttle bus into the park's attractions. However, there are differences:
  • Zion simply bans private vehicles during the summer peak season. Bryce Canyon's shuttles are not mandatory.
  • Zion's shuttles run until about 11:00pm. Bryce Canyon's end at about 6:00pm, which during the summer is before sunset, a most popular time to see the park.
  • Zion's shuttles pull up right next to attractions. Bryce Canyon's park farther than the private vehicles.
Riding a shuttle bus has inescapable disadvantages over driving. I can bring more things (water, food, change of clothes, etc.) in my own car that I would have to carry around in a backpack for the bus. Even though buses are 6 or 8 minutes apart, that's still longer than just getting in the car and driving off. That's why it's important to offset these disadvantages, in order for people to use the shuttle.

Zion's mandatory policy is obviously the easiest way to achieve this, and a ranger told us they saw more wildlife just three days after the mandatory shuttle service was instituted in 2000. However, even if you don't want to force people to take shuttles, you should make it advantageous to take the shuttle. For example, the shuttle should take you closer to attractions than cars can. Make them walk. Run the shuttle through sunset, because you actually have a view point called "Sunset Point"!

We saw the same thing flying back to Oakland. The ground transportation roads to the airport are separated into three lanes, the closest one for private car drop-offs and pick-ups, the second for taxis, and the third for buses (including the AirBART bus that connects to the BART rail system). This is completely backwards, if you're trying to encourage the use of more efficient public transportation. The AirBART and other public buses should take me closest to the door, right off the curb. Private shuttles can take the next lane, and private cars and taxis should be farthest.

Now, this is not about punishing private cars. This is about allocating a scarce resource (walking distance) in a way that encourages desirable behavior. As long as it's more convenient to drive, people will do so.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

On Gay Marriage

The issue of gay marriage is really quite simple, and I don't really understand why so many people have hang-ups over it.

Imagine, if you will, that somebody establishes the Church of Gay People, which is entirely legal under our Freedom of Religion. The CGP institutes for itself a sacrament of marriage, which is also legal because nobody owns those words. Their marriage, of course, is only between two men or two women. So far, this probably falls under most people's idea of "none of my business".

Now here's where the CGP gets frisky. It begins to lobby the government to make its definition the only legal one! Heterosexual marriages would no longer be recognized if they are successful. Now, straight people don't really need to worry, because we probably outnumber gay people greatly. However, the point is that the CGP's claim is logically no stronger nor weaker than that of any other religion, differing only in the number of believers. Why should the government be in the business of deciding which religion's marriage is the proper one? Put another way, if you don't want your definition of marriage to ever be nullified by government (which you probably already do not trust, given the demographics), you shouldn't oppose a gay person's definition of it either.

The sanctity of your marriage stems from your love and faith, not in the least bit because a government bureaucrat stamped your paper. In fact, I dare say that even if the government got entirely out of the business of marriage (strike "married" from the tax forms, etc), your marriage could still be sacred and happy.

Which means what the opponents of gay marriage are trying to do is to use the government as a tool to force non-believers to conform to their religious views. Stop that.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Not Holding My Breath

Apparently some quixotic soul is trying to pass a reproductive health bill in the Philippines, and I just spent a few minutes reading through the arguments on a Facebook group opposing the measure.

The one big thing that so many people miss is that the government is not the keeper of morality. It has practical problems and must use practical solutions, or things break. Under this umbrella there are a few sub-points:
  • The Philippines may be a "Catholic country", but not all Filipinos are Catholic. Thus, any attempt to write Catholic beliefs into law must be done with the utmost care.
  • Many modern laws may well derive from biblical teachings or law, but not all. For example, most of the Ten Commandments are not law. The first three definitely aren't, and would grossly violate the separation of Church and State. Depending on the country, adultery may be a crime or just a reason to allow divorce. The two last ones about coveting do not generally break laws. In other words, at least half of the Ten Commandments are not civil law! Catholic (and other religious) laws form a higher requirement for human behavior, but is not necessarily appropriate as civil law.
  • The government itself does not follow biblical laws. It does not stone gays to death as prescribed, for instance. It maintains a military whose sole purpose is to kill people. Some countries also have the death penalty.
Thus, it should be quite clear that while Catholic beliefs on key definitions (such as when "life" begins) form an important basis for discussion, they should not be unquestionably accepted. Just because a law doesn't force somebody to become a good Catholic doesn't mean it's a bad law.

The second big thing is letting perfection become the enemy of good. Yes, I think everybody would like a world where all pregnancies are planned and eagerly anticipated by able parents. I don't think even the staunchest defenders of women's rights enjoys hearing about an abortion. The problem is, if not contraception (or abortion), what is the alternative? This is where many "pro-life" people end their discussion and avoid looking you in the eye.

(I particularly enjoyed a certain Charles Francis Decangchon's insane litany, concluding that the woman must have been either too "promiscuous" and deserves the child, or should've turned her husband in for marital rape. The utter idiocy of this view point is actually hard to believe. In the first case, it's almost saying that becoming pregnant is punishment for "promiscuity", which totally ignores what might happen to this poor unwanted child served up as punishment. In the second case, he's suggesting a poor pregnant woman get her husband sent to jail in a country that doesn't even allow divorce. What if the husband is the sole breadwinner? How many women have actually been able to use this legal protection? These are transparently the thoughts of an out-of-touch and decidedly upper-middle-class mind, in which dogma can afford to overlook the actual problems on the ground. A real government can have no such luxury.)

Clearly, what the Philippines or any other real country needs are imperfect laws that strike a balance between the problems it solves and problems it creates, not head-in-the-sand arguments that end up doing nothing. However, only when everybody in the debate is willing to accept these two points above can there really be a discussion on the finer points.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Tax Scare

Somehow I manage to scare myself every year by counting my stock options income twice while doing taxes, which I did again minutes ago. So let this be a reminder to former co-workers: Apple already includes your stock options income complete with withholdings, right on your W-2 form.

In other news, I'm starting to wear incredibly expensive shoe insoles in the hopes of correcting my slightly flat feet. My feet had been limiting me to about 5 miles per hike, and I start compensating for the soreness underfoot by somehow stressing my calves out, too. It's not bad in daily life, but I certainly won't mind being less tired at the end of the day. It'll take some breaking-in as it remolds my feet, so we'll see how well this works in a few weeks.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Challenging the iPhone

Shortly after the iPhone burst onto the scene, there was a rush to copy its innovations. However, these had mainly been superficial imitations, such as adding a touch screen onto software that doesn't really support touching, or simply ripping off the Springboard user interface. Some of the worst copycats couldn't even scroll a photograph smoothly across the screen.

Obviously, it's not easy to compete with the iPhone in 2007 or early 2008. The thing is a technical marvel, cramming what is essentially a ~500 MHz processor computer into a thin box the size of a palm. This power in turn allowed it to run desktop-class software like the game-changing Mobile Safari.

But it's no longer 2007, and we're beginning to see real competition arrive. Unlike the first wave of copycats, these are big, thoughful competitors who had the chance to analyze the iPhone's hardware and software, as well as observe the market's reaction to it. They are definitely not to be laughed off like the initial bunch of wannabes.

Google struck first with the G1. I've played with it a bit, and my impression is that it is more of a prototype board than a production phone. It has a keyboard, a touch screen, and a trackball. Unfortunately, this means that the Android developer would probably have to deal with a variety of different input devices when phones with different hardware arrive. The software seems a bit less responsive than the iPhone. However, Google has very good people who know everything I know and then some, so a "1.1" software release in six months or a year would be well worth watching for.

Palm - which I considered working for after Apple - threw its hat into the ring last week. The Pre looks like a nice device, but not being actually market-ready suggests they have some serious work left to do. I'll probably try hard to get my hands on one to play with. Less obviously than Google, Palm also has very good people right now, and they're actually in charge.

One advantage that Apple continues to hold is the App Store. While third party applications for phones is no news, most of them are painful endeavors. (To borrow an expression from JBQ, you know you're in embedded systems when the tools are lousy.) I've dabbled in Symbian, Windows Mobile, looked briefly at BREW, and of course Geos-SC, and they were all just annoying for various reasons. Although Objective-C is an unfamiliar programming language for many, it is a real desktop-class development environment, and there are some serious apps being released for the iPhone.

Android's allure to third parties is theoretically better than Apple's. Google opened up everything, in stark contrast to Apple's annoying secretive stance. However, if Google is not able to restrain its device manufacturers to produce common handsets that Android programmers can target broadly, then Android may in reality fragment into multiple platforms because some Android software would not work on various Android phones. Apple has internal discipline to enforce this, Google doesn't actually make the phones.

Palm's problem as Number Three is to convince people to develop software for it. The iPhone OS and Android are both good development environments, but making big software is still no picnic. Palm's chicken-and-egg problem is that you can't sell phones without apps, and you can't get the apps unless you sell lots of phones. The iPhone overcame this awkward stage in a time when the PalmOS and Windows Mobile were both dated and stagnant. Palm would have to do it against an attentive Apple and Google...

...which brings us to Microsoft. There's no question in my mind that Microsoft is developing an answer to the iPhone OS, if not directly to the iPhone. They have some internal experience in small mobile systems with the Zune, but it wouldn't surprise me if a separate team was assembled to meet this challenge. I think the question is whether they try to improve the Zune platform, or dig out the old source code of Windows NT 4.0.

I don't know much about BlackBerries, but I get the impression that they are stuck with a software or hardware platform that will not be able to run something like Safari smoothly. If so, they're in trouble. Rebuilding your platform at this important juncture is very dangerous, just as Netscape proved by ditching their version 4.7 code base. Not biting the bullet, on the other hand, would make them just like the PalmOS that was used well past its prime.

At this point, I don't think that 2009 will be a year of serious threats to the iPhone. However, 2010 might be very interesting.