Duncan Wilcock


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Sunday, December 30, 2012

Thoughts on Paperless Billing

An Open Letter to Utilities, Cable & Phone Companies, Banks, etc.

I'm a bit of a greenie, and very much an early-adopting pro-computer sort of person. I really want to be a big user - even a proponent of online billing, but the systems I have tried over the years have been ultimately unsatisfactory for me. As a result I usually pay an extra $2 a month to have a paper statement snail-mailed to me.

I still wish to become a user - a fan even - of online billing, so I've decided to write down the top 3 items on my wish-list:

  1. Email me a PDF
  2. Let me subscribe to the electronic and printed statement at the same time
  3. I want an option to have you print and mail me a copy once ever three months
    (or every 6 months, or even every 12 months)

Email me a PDF

There are security risks to emailing PDFs, and that's likely why most companies implement the "click-to-follow-a-link" process.

Except that I don't care.

Figure out what you have to do so that emailing me a PDF is safe.  XXX out the account number and the mailing address or whatever other information you deem sensitive.  Change your company security practices so that the useful information that I want - like what the amount owing each month is no longer sensitive information.  I just want to monitor my bills on a monthly basis, without having to go to your website every time I do that.  That will always take too many clicks.

Apple emails me a PDF receipt when I visit their store, there must be a way for you to do this too.

Let me subscribe to the electronic and printed statement at the same time

Most systems I have seen present me an either or option - online only or paper only.  I appreciate that you do this as a nudge to get me off the paper option - however, poor experience with online billing systems has made me cautious - a little jaded even.

If you want me to try it out, you're going to have to let me have both options.  Nag me again in a year if you need to, but I'm not going to try your new system out unless I have the old paper based system to fall back on.

I want an option to have you print and mail me a copy once ever three months (or every 6 months, or even every 12 months)

If you don't like doing the printing runs once a month, wouldn't once a quarter be less onerous for you?  You could concatenate bills and save on some paper, as well as reduce your postage charges.  If your electronic option is solid, and allows me keep informed, then I only need printed copies for my tax records.  Just print them out and mail them to me in a bundle at tax time, and that would be a great service.  I'd even say thank you!

Who am I talking about?

The Canadian companies that I interact with and I can think I have not liked their paperless billing options are: Rogers, Telus, Koodo, Shaw, and Bell.  My banks & credit card companies, who I'd rather not reveal on my blog - but they are 4 of the major banks in Canada.

Worth offering some praise to is BC Hydro's residential billing - they do allow you to subscribe to both online and paper billing.  Commercial billing unfortunately doesn't offer this option, but here's hoping that it will in future!

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Product Recommendation: Wemo from Belkin

Belkin makes these great plug-switches as part of a new product family they are calling Wemo. You plug them into a socket, and then you can use your iPhone to turn that switch on or off and set-schedules - whether you're at home, across town, or around the world.

I found them in the Apple store, and was attracted to them from my experiences with a similar product called the Modlet.   I ran a trial over the winter for BC Hydro that included the Modlet, and was impressed when they reduced energy use by 44%, but I found their software and usability unsatisfactory.  Belkin has done a much better job on the software, set-up, and overall user-experience.

What I Like about the Belkin vs the Modlets

To sum it up in one sentence, the Belkin Wemo offers the same scheduling and controls options as the Modlet, and so should save just as much electricity -  the difference is that the Wemo just works better.

There are a number of reasons for this, all of which can be traced to better product design choices. Product design choices in the sense of "how it works" rather than in the sense of "how it looks."

The Wemo uses Wifi

One example of this is that the Wemo uses Wifi, so it doesn't require anything additional to be plugged in & turned on.  The biggest weakness of the Modlet for me was the USB key that plugs into a computer.  The USB key was needed to connect the Modlet network (over Zigbee) to the internet for data collection and control.  This was unsatisfactory for the purposes of remote control, since it would require a computer to be left turned on all the time.

Rather than use Zigbee, the Belkin just uses your existing wifi network, which seems obvious except for the rather important detail of how to enter your network name and password on a device that ideally doesn't have a keyboard or screen.  I'm really impressed with their implementation  and think it is worth describing in a little detail:

What Belkin did was make the iPhone app and the Wemo devices work together in very clever way.   I think this is a really big deal, because with this method, you can add much simpler, cheaper, and smaller devices on your network very easily, since none of them need screens or more than one or two buttons.  Here is their description of how it works, which I've summarized here:
  1. You plug them in one at a time, and use an app on your phone to connect to a temporary wifi network the device starts up with - something like "Wemo-6F1"  
  2. You connect to that wifi network with your phone temporarily.
  3. Then you open the Wemo app, select the wifi network you want the device to connect to and then enter the password for it.  The app then updates the Wemo with that information and it then connects to your wireless network.  
  4. That's it, you're done.

The Wemo Software is Good

As for actually using the switch, yes it works as advertised, which is of course - good product design. The device itself has a button on it to switch it on or off manually. The app is beautiful, simple, and gives instantaneous feedback - the kind of feedback that gives you confidence that it's going to work.  Here's a great example - I've spliced 3 screen-captures together to show what happens when you activate the switch and there is a momentary delay.  I didn't notice it at first because it happens so fast, but when away from home the yellow transition lasts for half a second or so.  It's brief, but it is important that it is there. That is good, polished product design.

 The Wemo is Fun

One thing Belkin has done right is to make these Wemo devices fun.  The switch is altogether handy, and combine that with the motion sensor option and you can do some neat things, but they've also taken the trouble to integrate Wemo with a fun online service called IFTTT.com - If This Then That.  It lets you program simple actions without writing a line of code.   The most fun examples I've seen so far are:

Ring an alarm whenever your country wins a gold medal (using data from ESPN)
Turn on a siren when the stock price of your company drops below a certain price

Ways I Think the Wemo Could be Improved

The physical shape is a bit on the ugly side.  In fact, the motion-sensor option is really quite clumsy looking and results in a long cord that trails from the power outlet to wherever you position the motion sensor.   The modlet had a much more pleasing, quirky shape, and I liked how it simply covered-over your previous outlet, more like a socket replacement than a wall-wart type plug.

The Wemo also doesn't measure power consumption like the Modlet does, and the Modlet gave individual control and measurement for each of the sockets it covers.  I was amazed how valuable being able to see energy consumption data and show it to others was in my thermostat trial.  We are visual beings, and being able to see a picture is really valuable.

The Wemo also uses more power than the Modlet.  In my measurements with a Kill-a-Watt, the Wemo uses about 1 Watt of power whereas the Modlet uses only 0.2 Watts.  While neither of these is a lot of power, a factor of five difference is important if a lot of these are deployed.  Regrettably I think it may be a consequence of the Wemo using Wifi, and the Modlet using Zigbee.  Zigbee is a much lower-power networking technology, but then again - not having to set-up or add another control box in the home for a Zigbee network is probably a worthwhile design choice.



Ecobee makes a similar product that they call a Smart Plug and I have only good things to say about Ecobee from the BC Hydro trial.  The Ecobee thermostats were the run-away-stars of that trial - they were reliable, effective, and cut our heating bills by a whopping 55%.

Ecobee has an iPhone app for the thermostat that I can confirm works really well, but for the moment their smart plug appears to be only controlled through their web-portal, which isn't as much fun for a remotely controlled device.  I believe their smart plug does collect usage data, and they've got that and a history of reliability going for them.  I haven't had a chance to try it out yet, but I'll write it up if & when I get a chance to. The Ecobee connects to the smart plug over zigbee, and since the thermostat is always on, it doesn't require a computer to be left-on all the time.


The Modlet is also an alternative. I think they have the nucleus of a great product there, but they need help with their software, as well as their connection gateway - a little zigbee connection station that obviated the need for a computer is what I think the product needs, or else to team up with someone like Ecobee or Nest - since those devices are always on, have internet connections, and could serve as Zigbee gateways as well.  I did hear from a little birdie that a connection gateway is on the road-map, but for now it's more useful as a programmable timer than it is as a remotely controlled switch.

Further Speculation on the Wemo

I think the Wemo was a pet project that Belkin decided to try out to see if it got much traction.  I think they are finding that it is - because they've done the foundations of the product very well. If it continues to take off they will no doubt put more effort into it, with the potential for some very interesting additional products in future.

They are soliciting and revealing some product plans on this user forum, and I'm pleased to report that they do include power measurement, and I think they will expand into other devices for around the home like light-bulb dimmers, light switches, bathroom ventilation fan schedulers, and perhaps remote door locks and security cameras - the whole raft of gear that the home automation crowd has been hobbying away at for years.  As a result of their system only requiring one or two buttons and Wifi, it could also be suitable for time-delayed dishwashing machines, clothes-dryers, and scheduling your hot-water heater for example.

I think something is starting to happen in this product space - call it Home Automation, Home Energy Management Systems, or I think I prefer simply - Home Controls.  Between EcobeeNestModlet, and Wemo, there are some decent products coming into the market at the moment - all of them made more attractive by that computer-in-your-pocket called a smartphone. 

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Another Good Book: Thinking Fast & Slow

Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist and founder of the field of behavioral economics. His latest book is Thinking Fast and Slow and it has been well lauded by The Economist, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and more - with good reason.

It's another book that has changed the way I think - it's a new framework for thinking about how we make decisions, and gone into detail on some of the concepts I've been reading about lately in books like How Risky is it Really and Liars and Outliers.  

Kahneman and his late colleague Amos Tversky were the first psychologists to win a noble prize in economics for their experiments to discover "cognitive traps" such as the availability heuristic, the base rate fallacy, loss aversion, and more. Their theory is that we fall into these traps because thinking and reasoning are actually pretty hard work, so instead our brains often unknowingly substitute the answers to one question for another. This is why tall people get promoted more often, for instance.

It's really well written and an enjoyable read.  One of the features I liked best were the summary sentences that encapsulated key concepts at the end of each chapter.  Some good examples I took the time to write down are:
The acquisition of skills requires a regular environment, an adequate opportunity to practice, and rapid & unequivocal feedback about the correctness of thoughts and actions.
Cognitive ease: Familiarity breeds liking. This is a mere exposure effect.
We must be inclined to believe it  because it has been repeated so often, but let's think it through again.
Norms & causes: She can't accept that she was just unlucky. She needs a causal story.  She will end up thinking that someone intentionally sabotaged her work.
Substitutions: Do we still remember the question we are trying to answer? Or have we substituted an easier one.

Here's him giving an overview of some of these concepts in a TED talk:

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Another Great Book: The Annapolis Book of Seamanship

This is probably the best how-to manual all about sailing that there is out there.

My dad was a great sailor - he used to race for his university when he was at Cambridge in the UK - and we used to do quite a bit of sailing when we were kids.  My mom tells me he bought this book for us back in 1985 or so, but sadly I don't remember seeing it.

Anyway - it's an excellent book.  Great diagrams and great text.  The kind of book you read once, go sailing, and then come back to read it again and again and pick up new details each time.

It covers topics from the absolute basics - naming all the parts of the boat - to hull types, to the aerodynamics of sails.  It caters to small dingy-type sailing as well as bigger sailing yachts.  Of course there are the knots you need to know, but also man-overboard drills, and how to set an anchor.  Invaluable, and just the book I wanted to read.  Thanks Pops!

I have the 1985 version, but there is an updated (1998) version on Amazon.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Book Recommendation: Liars & Outliers

A new book from Bruce Schneier - the man who coined the term security theatre that has since made it's way into the mainstream lexicon.

In short - Liars & Outliers is good - really good.  Schneier comes from a computer security background, but he has gone much bigger picture with this book.  Fundamentally it's a book about trust -  why we trust each other, what mechanisms we have in society to ensure that we do trust each other, and how these fail sometimes.

It's a book that introduces a new framework - paradigm even - for thinking about why we trust each other and what security measures we want or need in our society.

Bruce's arch enemy Kip Hawley of the TSA even recommends this book.

www.schneier.com is one of the top three blogs I read on a daily basis.  Here's how he describes the big idea of Liars and Outliers.
My big idea is a big question. Every cooperative system contains parasites. How do we ensure that society's parasites don't destroy society's systems?
Get yourself a copy, it really is excellent.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Three Great Articles from my Trip

On my extended vacation in south-east Asia, I spent quite a bit of time reading long form articles using Instapaper.  Three of them stood out and I wanted to highlight each of them here:

This article is about chemicals that can help erase the emotions that make some memories painful.  It's fascinating in-and-of-itself, but the background explanations on the neuroscience of memory were really interesting - in particular the section that contained this conclusion:
... every time we think about the past we are delicately transforming its cellular representation in the brain, changing its underlying neural circuitry. It was a stunning discovery: Memories are not formed and then pristinely maintained, as neuroscientists thought; they are formed and then rebuilt every time they’re accessed.

This was an eye-opening expose on some pretty horrible working conditions at a big internet shopping company in the American mid-west.  Demoralizing, devoid of job security, and likely to cause long term injury, I had no idea that these jobs could be this unpleasant.

This was the most disturbing of the articles I read, but perhaps the most important. Here is the crux of it:
Crime has not fallen in the United States—it’s been shifted. ... The statistics touting the country’s crime-reduction miracle, when juxtaposed with those documenting the quantity of rape and assault that takes place each year within the correctional system, are exposed as not merely a lie, or even a damn lie—but as the single most shameful lie in American life.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

COPE Centre - Laos, South-East Asia

Attribution: Asia-Pacific Journal
I'm in South-East Asia right now, on an extended holiday. As I write this we're in Laos, an interesting low income country situated in the mountains between Thailand and Vietnam, with the Mekong river as a substantial border.

There are a bunch of interesting things about Laos of course, but I wanted to highlight the work of the COPE Centre - a health centre here that aides the many people disabled by the unexploded bombs and mines left over from the extensive secret bombing of Laos undertaken by the US during the Vietnam war.

The informed among you may know all about the secret bombings of Laos and Cambodia, and I think I had heard something of them, but one of the pleasures of traveling is the time and context to see some subjects in detail. In this case the detail is horrific - huge areas of this country effectively polluted by all the UXO (unexploded ordinance) that remains from the 60's and 70's. The COPE Centre has an excellent visitor centre and exhibit on the problem, as well as what they are doing to help those disabled by UXO.

The map is an overview of areas in Laos that were carpet bombed with cluster bombs.  Cluster bombs are giant capsules - 1000lbs or so that dispense tennis-ball sized submunitions that scattered over a wide area.  Apparently around 30% of the ones dropped on Laos didn't explode on impact, and so constitute a hazard with blast and shrapnel killing radius of around 30 metres. I'm not going to do the subject justice in a short post, and there are many more informed on the subject than I, so I have included the carpet bombing and cluster bomb links above.  This 2007 interview with Noam Chomsky was also quite informative.

Some details about the situation that stood out for me:

  • Many of the injuries sustained by UXO are when people are searching through the bomb detritus for scrap metal.  With scrap metal prices reaching higher & higher in recent years, and the low-income levels of many Laotians, the risk-reward ratio has been worth it to a substantial number of people.

  • We really liked this pedal-less trike.  We saw a few people using them around town, and they were able to get up quite a head of speed without much apparent effort.  To my eye they seemed more effortless than a conventional wheelchair arrangement.

The COPE Centre accepts donations through their buy a leg campaign.

I'm pleased to report that Canada has signed, although not yet ratified (hurry it up Harper!) the international Convention on Cluster Munitions.

Monday, January 02, 2012

How I Solved the Tupperware Problem

I like to use reusable containers a lot because it's greener than saran wrap & ziploc bags for storing left-overs and taking my lunch to work. One thing that can drive me a bit nuts however is trying to figure out what lids go with what container in a drawer of mismatched tupperware. A few years ago I hit upon a solution that works well for me and I thought it was worth sharing.

It's not complicated nor rocket science, but I think that is one of the strengths of my approach.  Basically I buy only 3 types of container, 2 of which share a common lid type.  At right is a picture of my set of tupperware.

Where it takes a bit of work is in the discipline.  I refuse to buy variety packs with 10 different container sizes with a different lid type for each - in fact I would regift them if I were given one.

When I wind up with an unclaimed container that isn't mine, I refuse to include it my set - it can get used for something completely different or better - I have a greater incentive to return it to the original owner.  I know it sounds a little pedantic, but for me - it's worth it to not have to waste time and brain-cycles searching for lids.

That's it - I hope you find that useful. Let me know in the comments if you choose to adopt this approach too.