Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Today's blog entry marks my first attempt to use my blog as a platform for when what I have to say is just way too long for a Facebook status update.

I was chatting last night with boy #2 who is now in first grade (he was in Kindergarten when I last posted here). Asher was thrilled to have had his name drawn in the daily classroom raffle for some small prize as part of a behavior incentive technique his teacher is using. Here's how it works: Children in his classroom are rewarded for good behavior with a ballot throughout the day, up to a maximum of 4 ballots. At the end of the day, the children put their names on their ballots, which then go into a draw for the daily prize. Naturally, children who are better behaved earn more ballots and consequently stand a better chance of having their names drawn.

Here's the part that made me really excited: Asher's circle of friends have an arrangement: each day, they nominate a member of their group to get all their ballots. Yesterday, Asher was the nominee, and so Asher's name went on not only his ballots, but also on the ballots submitted by three or four of his buddies. Asher had likely at least three or four times as many chances of winning compared to his classmates. Today another member of his group will get the nod. This is a method devised by a group of first graders to work the system.

These kids are going places.

Friday, October 3, 2014

So it's been a couple of years, eh?
Since I last posted, I left Chicago and my postdoc position at Northwestern, moved back to Canada to lend some neuroimaging programming help to the good folks over at the Brain and Mind Institute at my alma mater, UWO. Some other stuff happened in the background, primarily aimed at securing a non-contract job so that we could afford to raise baby Roman, who was born during this time. This lead to me finally landing a tenure track job in the Psychology Department at the University at Buffalo.

I finally arrived!

With a new job comes new computer equipment. Despite not being a Mac fanboy, pretty much all of my equipment consists of Mac computers. So I've doubled-down on the Apple ecosystem, it appears, though this ironically was out of a preference for Linux: I figured Apple Intel hardware would be able to run *any* of Windows, OS X or Linux, if I so desired. My other option, Dell, would be limited to Windows or Linux. Options, baby.

But that's not what I wanted to write about. No, this is another programming PSA. Now that I've got that iTunes bloatware as my primary media dispenser, I've got a new set of problems. In particular, I like to use a song's play count as an index of how much I like the song: the most played song in my library is probably one of my favourite songs, and a playlist of the most played songs are the ones that I would probably most want to include on my iPhone. The problem: When you first set up iTunes, the play counts for all songs are 0, and it will take some while (and likely some concerted effort) for those play counts to start to be useful for differentiating your most and least favourite songs.

Fortunately, I am also a meticulous user of meta-tags for my music. In particular, I try to make sure that my songs are rated. So I wrote a script to calculate a fake initial play count based on the ratings I gave a song in iTunes. In a nutshell, it calculates a base play count, where 0 stars = 0, 1 star = 10, ... , 5 stars = 50. Then it adds a random number from 1 to 8, just to keep things lively. Finally, it takes the average of this fake play count and whatever the current play count is, and uses that for the new play count.

I'll paste the script code below. To use, copy/paste it to a new text file and save it with some sort of informative name, like (you may have to rename the file manually if a different file extension gets added). Place it in your iTunes scripts directory. Open iTunes and you should see your script name in the menu bar. Select any or all tracks and run the script. Moments later you should find all your play counts updated to new values. I assume this only works on OS X platforms, and not for people running iTunes for Windows.

-- Start cut here

tell application "iTunes"
if selection is not {} then
set sel to selection
with timeout of 3600 seconds
set ctr to 0 as number
set this_plays to 0 as number
set old_count to 0 as number
repeat with this_track in sel
if class of this_track is file track then
tell this_track
set this_plays to (get rating / 2)
set this_plays to (this_plays + (random number from 1 to 8))
set old_count to played count
set played count to ((this_plays + old_count) / 2)
end tell
end if
end repeat
end timeout
end if

end tell
-- End cut

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Go Me! Itsyerbirthday! Go Me! Itsyerbirthday!

I'm taking the evening off from writing serious brain business (partly because I attribute last night's writing up until my bedtime to my inability to sleep). As soon as I finish here, I'm going to watch the Season 2 finale of Game of Thrones, which ties in nicely with the House of Stark themed birthday cake I had at lunch. I was delighted, though the Starks haven't had very good luck in the book series, so I hope it doesn't bode ill.

Anyways, I wrote just the other day about the iPhone 5, which connects nicely to a story I just read online. In short: Samsung hired some brain trust to come up with a social media marketing campaign. Unsurprisingly, it backfired. I suppose everyone is entitled to make a living, but the only purpose of marketing is to convince you to buy crap you actually don't really need. Seriously. If we really needed it, we would've evolved to sprout it out of our heads or something. Given that my job description basically entails trying to figure out how people think (literally), I really have to wonder what sort of qualifications you have to have to be a marketer, and what sort of training they get. In particular, the fact that these people don't seem to have an intuition that nobody wants to feel like they are being manipulated does nothing to improve the regard in which I hold them. Incidentally, I read yesterday that the Samsung phone being advertised actually has better technical specs than does the iPhone 5. Just saying. Full disclosure: I own an iPhone 4 and an android tablet running Jellybean.

Hopefully Jellybean will give me an interesting segue for my next entry. I wonder what I'll do with that?

Saturday, September 15, 2012

My summer hiatus from blogging has ended with the season. Mostly. To be sure, I was writing like a fiend. It's just that all my writing energy went to revising the academic papers that I need to get published if I am ever to get myself a job that lets me live in the same city as my wife and children. Ah, yes, and the wife and children were also with me for much of the summer. That meant that when I wasn't writing papers, I was doing stuff with my wife and children. Unfortunately, none of them blog.

So now that fall is upon us, so is the next iteration of the iPhone. The iPhone 5. Rebecca and I each got the iPhone 4 when it came out so we could take advantage of the Facetime feature. The addition of the iMessage feature, just ahead of the release of the iPhone 4S, was a welcome upgrade that didn't even require us to purchase anything. I have some friends with the 4S, and, in my opinion, it's a downgrade from the iPhone 4: the battery life is worse, and the Siri application is proof positive that a great deal of research in to natural language recognition remains to be done. Now the iPhone 5 is available for preorder, and I'm left wondering, WWJD? (what would Jobs do?) When it was first spoiled that they were messing around with the connector cable, I was nonplussed. Is this a contrivance to stimulate the economy? I cannot even imagine how many third party accessories are obsoleted by this change and will have to be replaced.  Sure, you can get an adaptor. But there's bound to be applications for which an adaptor just isn't going to work very well. For example, I just read that BMW and Mini owners will not be able to use the car's built-in iPod-Out functionality. Yeah, I know...

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

I've reached critical mass where I can tie together some otherwise disparate topics into a nice thematic bundle.

Let's start with the straw that broke the camel's back. Via rail will be cutting service. I'm going to have to side with the employee quoted in the article who noted that "We don’t see any marketing down here in the East to get more people out to travel by train." Granted, I don't currently live in Canada right now, and even if I did, I don't watch television (though I suppose I might get cable again when I reunite with the family). But when I DO watch television, I certainly never see a Via rail commercial. There was a seat sale going on right around the time I was looking at travel options for a wedding in May. By the time I found out about the seat sale, the train was sold out. But isn't that evidence of marketing success? No, not really. I had visited the Via website just over a month earlier, before the sale began, and saw no indication of it. So if it's not widely advertised, the people who got the discounted tickets were people who regularly take the train anyways. Potential new customers just saw the same old full-fare tickets, and moved on. Well played, Via. I also wanted to clarify something from the article, should you read it:
There will also be a number reductions in southwestern Ontario, where GO Transit and other services are available to commuters. London, Aldershot, Kitchener, Niagara Falls and other cities will see reduced Via service.

This suggests that the listed cities have GO Transit and other services. London and Kitchener are not on the GO Transit line, so the "other services" are, um ... Greyhound (same price for half the comfort and maybe even a beheading) or the exorbitantly-priced flights out of the London airport (four times the price for same comfort and maybe a cavity search). The price calculations are based on actual ticket prices from London to Toronto for the same dates. Look, I'm no marketer, but there's an ad campaign right there. How this particular crown corporation can't run profitably is beyond me.

As you can tell, I like the train. I was never the sort of kid that winds up as a character in the sort of book that shows up in your English lit class. You know, the book that starts off with a boy; some troubles at home; likes to pass time at the rail yard? Maybe befriends a hobo? But rail is the way to go for moving stuff and people around. The Chicago area is served by two rail systems, and I'm fortunate to live near stations for both of them. My favourite is the Metra. John and I took the Metra a couple times this past weekend. It's an interesting place to people-watch. And you know what we learned on the Metra ride to the Ravinia festival to see Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers? We learned that Steve Martin's fan-base is a fancy bunch. In contrast to the previous day where we witnessed the open and unapologetic consumption of Coors Lite on the train, people en route to the concert were instead drinking Perrier water and craft beers. And once they got to the venue:

That, incidentally, was one of the least ostentatious set-ups. We saw 10 foot dining tables set up with linens and candelabras. For a picnic at an outdoor concert.

Trust me. Click the link. It's CBC comedy.

Monday, June 18, 2012

I glimpsed a headline in an old newspaper, now being used as a tray liner. It, and the accompanying by-line, indicated that the Canadian federal government was legislating more clarity in the bills that your cable and phone companies send you every month. The problem that this legislation addresses is that these bills may span multiple pages and include an Amount Owing figure that bears little resemblance to the rate you were quoted when you first subscribed. These bills include recurring equipment rental charges, extra charges for using a touch-tone phone, and, in a move that really tickles my self-reference funny-bone, even charges for receiving a bill in the first place.

I received a text message from Telus a couple days ago. I have (for the time being) a pre-paid plan with them, which I top up every couple of months, for when I'm in Canada. The idea is to avoid paying roaming charges when I visit, thereby allowing me to actually use my phone. It seemed like a good idea in my head, but maybe I should put it to paper to see if I'm actually ahead of the game by paying $25 for 250MB of data and 200 text messages for 30 days (after which time it expires, though I am left with $5 worth of calling time which lasts another 30 days).  I used the strikethrough text decoration in the previous sentence because the text message I received was to say that, as of July 17, that same $25 will now get me just 100MB of data. If I never use even 100MB of data in a 30 day period, it really doesn't matter -- I might as well call it unlimited, because I never run in to my limit. But it's the principle of it all. Plus, it actually would make a difference if the litigants in a class action lawsuit against Bell get their way. This lawsuit alleges that prepaid service is not fundamentally different from a gift card, which is not allowed to expire.

I mention this related event because I don't know that the legislation about phone/cable/utility bill clarity is actually required. I doubt many customers are terribly puzzled by these line-item charges tacked on to their monthly statements. They know very well that they are being nickel-and-dimed in a bait-and-switch routine that suggests a monthly bill of x but winds up sending out a bill of 2x. They could probably save a bit of money and fire the marketing people tasked with coming up with benign or important-sounding charges to use on their bills. Just end the charade and give them nice utilitarian names like gouging fees 1 through 8. I think the only puzzlement that most people experience when reading their bills is how some business sectors got the privilege of printing their own money.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Old News

I'm enjoying a strawberry-banana smoothie, made with two overripe pureed bananas, some frozen strawberries and some homemade yogurt that was being made even as I blogged last Friday. After reading Kelsey's blog post about making yogurt, Rebecca and I (mostly Rebecca) became obsessed with making yogurt, and I've been trying to get it right ever since. In my attempts to create a nice, warm environment for the yogurt culture to do its thing, I overheated (and killed) the yogurt twice. I've gotten it to work on two consecutive attempts in the last week, so I guess I've mostly got it figured out. I still think I should get a heating pad for the job.

Incidentally, I made the smoothie using a blender magic-bullet hack that I read about somewhere online. If you have a conventional blender and, for whatever reason, don't want to use the blender pitcher that came with it, you will probably find that the blade, gasket and ring that screws to the base of the pitcher will also conveniently fit a standard mason jar. You can, for example, make a quart of smoothie, enjoy half of it, and refrigerate the rest. Brilliant. Just make sure the gasket doesn't fall into the jar when you attach the blade, or you will have blended rubber in your food. I did that. I was frowny-face emoticon. Fortunately, I found replacement gaskets for cheap on eBay.

The other day, I forgot to mention the topic that brought me back to the computer to blog.

I had been trying to book a trip for Rebecca and myself, involving a Robert Q shuttle to Detroit, and then a flight from Detroit to NYC. I'm not a fan of planning these sorts of things. So I tried to use a London travel agent to make the arrangements. No dice. I was calling from Chicago. They don't take credit card information over the phone. Why? Because they had recently been burned by credit card fraud over the phone. The only way to book with these people is to physically go in and hand them your credit card -- much as you would do if you wanted to pay in cash. This means that, in this situation, using a credit card is strictly worse than cash, as it had no upside (e.g., not having to physically present the payment) and several downsides (e.g., interest charges, standard 3% transaction fee and additional fees imposed by the card issuer). I sympathized with the manager, who I spoke to in order to get to the bottom of the matter. Certainly, he cannot afford to bear the cost of a fraudulent transaction, as the profit margins for travel agents has become quite slim. But I find it difficult to comprehend how, with the services and technology available to facilitate financial transactions, I could not persuade someone to take my business.

Incidentally, this blog post is effectively advertising an opportunity for anyone out there with any background in electronic commerce. I won't even ask for a cut. I just want to be able to get someone to book my damn vacation because I don't get off on bargain hunting and attending to the minutiae associated with trip planning.