2007 Presidential $1 Dollar Coins to Debut in Houston

It’s actually a lit bit embarrassing. It sounds like the new 2007 Presidential $1 Dollar Coins are going to debut in Houston … with a George Washington impersonator. Yes, you read that right.

They are really trying to play up the educational angle on these new coins, and the impersonator is part of that.

More coverage here in the Houston Chronicle.

Some quotes from the article:

Gloria Eskridge, the mint’s associate director for sales and marketing, said millions of the coins, which will be the same size and gold color of the Sacagawea dollars now in circulation, will be produced in mints in Philadelphia and Denver. Additional coins honoring presidents, in order of their incumbency, will be issued quarterly.

Added Eskridge, “This is about giving Americans a choice. There are times when a dollar coin is easier to use. Instead of carrying around a pocketful of quarters for public transportation, for instance, it’s more convenient to use the dollar coin.”

I wonder how you end up in an executive role at the US Mint… In any case, Eskridge is missing the point here. The dollar coin will not work in the United States until they get rid of the one dollar bill. Period. They did it in Canada when they replaced the $1 bill with $1 & $2 coins recently.

You need the two-dollar coin to minimize the number of coins you get paying for a cheap item (like a candy bar) with a larger bill.

The Washington dollar will be the first such coin introduced since the debut of the Sacagawea dollar in January 2000. That coin, honoring the Shoshone woman who served as guide to Lewis and Clark, featured a gold tint to help differentiate it from the similarly sized U.S. quarter. More than a billion of the coins have been issued, the mint reports.

They talk like having a new dollar coin program launch only seven years after the last one failed is a good thing. I think I am one of the extremely few people who likes the coins, although they tarnish way too easily. I still carry them in my car ashtray, for parking and tolls, on the rare occasions I need them.

Well, I hope the Presidential $1 Dollar Coin Program generates interest. They are cool coins, but I’m afraid if they don’t solve the basic problem of the one dollar bill, these are destined to be a trivia item in 10 years.

Maybe I’ll get lucky, and no one else will buy them. Then my sets will be that much more collectible.

Launch date is February 15th.

Previous articles on the program:

Fascinating: Referring Links to This Blog (Psychohistory)

This is just a quick note on blogging, but it is just so much fun to see the list of referring URLs every day in WordPress.

WordPress tracks the list of most common source URLs for your readers, every day.  You can click them, and see how people found your blog.  Unlike the “search keywords” that people use to find your blog, these URLs are usually real articles or blogs themselves, and it can always be surprising how people are finding your site.

One day, I noticed that a common referring URL was Google Translate, English to Spanish.  That’s right, it seems that a number of people out there are reading my blog regularly, in Spanish.  How neat is that?

Here is a fun one from today.  The referring page led a lot of people to my article on Wii Damage, which has been very popular the past few months.

http://www.gay.eu/thread.html?threadid=22518&offset=30

I don’t know what they are saying (I think it’s Dutch, but I’m not sure), but it seems to be leading a lot of people to my blog.

Another referral today… Google Translate, English to Arabic:

http://translate.google.com/translate?hl=ar&sl=en&u=https://psychohistory.wordpress.com/2007/01/17/my-tivo-ate-my-24-series-premiere/&sa=X&oi=translate&resnum=10&ct=result&prev=/search%3Fq%3D24%2BSeries%26start%3D30%26hl%3Dar%26lr%3D%26rlz%3D1T4GGLH_enEG203%26sa%3DN

It’s amazing how global the web is.  I’m a little surprised that my post is worth translating, but there you go.

For those of you keeping score at home, my blog is now averaging 300-400 hits per day, a steady increase of almost 100% month to month.   More importantly, the traffic seems much more even these days, as my older posts seem to draw a steady stream of views daily.

And the number one search term leading people to my blog is still, after two months:

harry potter and the deathly hollows

Right now, it’s link number #5 on Google for that query.

The Apple TV Does Not Suck

Sorry, I had to add a quick post here about Apple TV.

I had lunch this weekend with some close friends, several of which have worked for Apple in the past. And I was surprised at how negative they were about the Apple TV.

First, check out this article on Seeking Alpha.  It looks like the Apple TV may be blowing away expectations already, with 100,000 sold.

Second, the Apple TV does not suck. Here’s why I’m excited about it:

  1. Tivo Home Media Option 2.0. It feels like Tivo stopped innovating with the home media option once it got into trouble with it’s future as a company and a product. Right out of the box, the Apple TV takes the best things that I love about the Tivo interface, and brings them to my iTunes content. Tivo handles my iTunes playlists & iPhoto libraries just fine, but Apple TV takes support to the next level with support for iTunes Store content and TV/Movies/Music Videos. High definition is a plus, although I’m still living in the stone age of 480p.
  2. Media Server Heavy, TV Interface Light. I think this is the right model. You want a big, brawny server with loads of storage, and a lightweight client with smart caching to receive content. I honestly see my house with an Apple TV on every set instead of a DVD player. I know the first TV that’s getting one is the one in the kitchen, where my young son is just destroying DVDs left and right. No need for that – he can just pick from a menu.
  3. Goodbye AVI. Hello, MP4. I’m very excited about MP4 files, ripped with the H.264 codec. High quality, smaller files. A 2 hour movie seems to fit in about 1 GB. My friend John was very caught up with the lack of AVI support, and maybe he knows something I don’t. But to me, this just sounds like complaints that the iPod doesn’t support WMA. My prediction – the lack of support of AVI is going to turn out to be bad for Microsoft, and not hurt Apple TV.

Now, there are plenty of features I’d like to see on the Apple TV. I’d like to see a concept of “libraries” of content, so I could make a library of kid-friendly content for my son. Maybe some sort of enforced filter or protection would be sufficient. I’m also worried about 802.11N scaling across my house, especially with multiple TVs going.

I’m also concerned with the grey areas around ripping DVDs, versus the clear availability and accessibility of ripping CDs. Normal people need to be able to convert their DVD libraries to digital content easily, the same way that iTunes lets people convert their CD libraries.

The wild card here is YouTube and other ventures. Depending on how much unique content avoids the MP4 format, the more inclusive Apple may have to be. With Google & Apple linked at the board level, however, don’t be surprised to see the Apple TV support YouTube at some point, in some form.

I still would love a way to automate the conversion of my recorded Tivo programming into iTunes content. What I really would like to see is a Tivo Series 3 where the hard drive in the box is really considered cache storage – the real file store would be my media server, and the Tivo would archive all recordings to the server when it wasn’t busy.

All sources would lead to the media server, my digital content receiver. And all paths out of the media server lead to devices like the iPod, iPhone, and Apple TV.

But if that vision doesn’t work, maybe I need to rethink my $100/month DirecTV bill.  Maybe with basic programming, I could save $40/month and put that money into acquiring content in other ways.

Apple TV is definitely a 1.0, but it does not suck. 😛

Microsoft Caught with a Bad Case of Mac OS Envy

There is a new blog on WordPress called Graceful Flavor, and they tend to focus on Apple news. They had a post yesterday that immediately caught my eye, entitled:

New Microsoft Email Shows Panic Over OS X Tiger Features

Now, everyone these days expects Microsoft to have iPod-envy, iTunes-envy, even iPhone-envy. But given that the OS wars were largely fought and won in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, it’s a bit surprising to see a dominant giant like Microsoft caught with not only acknowledging the strengths of Mac OS X, but almost despairing at them.

A snippet here, from an email from Lenn Pryor, the former Director of Platform Evangelism:

Tonight I got on corpnet, hooked up Mail.app to my Exchange server and then downloaded all of my mail into the local file store. I did system wide queries against docs, contacts, apps, photos, music, and … my Microsoft email on a Mac. It was fucking amazing. It is like I just got a free pass to Longhorn land today.

What about this one?

Here’s my take on this:

  1. Big suprise, Mac OS X is a strong product.  Let’s face it – the dominance of Windows over Mac OS had everything to do with x86 and DOS compatibility, and very little to do with the overall design of the 100s of features that make up modern operating systems.    At minimum, it’s fair to say that Mac OS X is an extremely strong product in many areas, and it’s not surprising to see Microsoft clearly interested in learning from its competition.  I know that within Apple, we spent plenty of time discussing new and planned Microsoft features.
  2. Microsoft is a huge company, these quotes didn’t come from Bill Gates.  Is it really so shocking that there are Apple fans within Microsoft?  Come on.  It’s a huge company, and it’s not surprising that several people in middle management are Apple fans.  Sometimes your best people are the ones who can look outside your four walls and see the world differently.  I don’t know if these people are considered thought leaders or pariahs within Microsoft, but either way, these emails aren’t really surprising.
  3. The grass is always greener…  When I was at Apple, while most people were convinced of Apple’s superiority in design, innovation and approach, there was always an inherent sense of insecurity and envy of Microsoft’s ability to reach the broadest audience.  There was envy of their resources, their ability to fund money-losers for years on end in long term markets.  But this wasn’t unique to Apple.  Or Microsoft.  All companies who compete ferociously in technology develop an appreciation, which can quickly turn to envy, for the unique advantages of their competition.  The trick is to remember that strategy is about unique differentiation – what makes your company, your products, your services and your brand unique in the market.  Trying to match your competitors feature-for-feature is a death spiral towards commoditization and lack of identity.

No matter the bravado, I guarantee you that there are people at Apple writing memos about the inspiration they have gotten from Vista.  Sure, they’ll say, there’s a “better way” to do some of these things.  But they’ll have a note of envy for DirectX 10.  They’ll be jealous of how quickly third parties come in to fix holes in the Vista feature set.  And Mac OS 10.6 will likely end up stronger for it.

Are We Over-Saving for Retirement?

There was an article in the Saturday New York Times (1/27/2007) that really got me thinking. It was called:

A Contrarian View: Save Less and Still Retire with Enough

I must admit, my initial reaction to the title was extremely negative. In a country where private pensions are quickly becoming a thing of the past, and Social Security continues to float in a bizarre state of political denial, telling Americans that they need to “save less” seemed irresponsible, bordering on criminally negligent.

The article didn’t initially endear me either with its analysis. Witness the third paragraph:

Nevertheless, a small band of economists from universities, research institutions and the government are clearly expressing the blasphemy that many Americans could be saving less than they are being told to by the financial services industry — and spending more — while they are younger. The negative savings rate, they say, is wildly distorted.

A small band of economists from universities, you say? No names, of course, of either the economists or the universities. But it’s good to know they are in a band, albeit a small one. Maybe they work with Robin Hood, and his merry band of thieves.

Of course, it’s rare for the New York Times to be this shoddy with reporting, so I move on through the article.  And it turns out, the article does have a point.  Look at the graph that was included with the article:

0127-biz-webmoney.gif

Aha!  Real sources, real numbers, and credible analysis.  It turns out, this is a legitimate piece, just written in a fluffy, air-headed style.  There is real financial analysis here to this question, and there are some issues raised by it which are worth considering.

One of the biggest innovations in personal finance in the last decade has been quick and easy access for individuals to sophisticated planning tools that previously were only available to professionals.   For example, many people used to just take a basic percentage of return, like 8%, and then project what their savings might be by the time they are 65.  (In fact, many people still do.)

Now people have access to tools, like at Financial Engines,  that do Monte Carlo analysis.  Monte Carlo analysis, like it’s name-sake city, is focused on risk & gambling. With Monte Carlo analysis, the computer will run through thousands, if not millions, of randomized versions of the future, based on the historical performance of different asset classes like stocks, bonds, and cash.  These simulators don’t tell you how many dollars you’ll end up with when you turn 65.  Instead, they give you probabilities you’ll end up with “enough money”, however you define that.

This New York Times article didn’t go into too much detail, but based on the tidbits in the piece, my guess is that the “band of economists” are focusing on a few ways that these models could demand “over-saving”:

  1. 1929-1937.  All Monte Carlo simulators worth their salt include, as part of their randomization programming, historical extremes, like the Great Depression.  In fact, the book I read by Ben Stein constantly refers to this period as the ultimate measure of a good strategy.  However, is it prudent to base your planning on what seems to be more and more of a historical outlier?
  2. Social Security. Almost all calculators that I’ve seen tend to evaluate your portfolio with no assumption of Social Security.  Now, I’m personally pretty negative on the idea that I’ll be collecting anything resembling the currently promised Social Security benefit, but in fairness, if you took the US Government at face value, that promise is worth a significant chunk of change.  Roughly $812,000, if you buy my earlier analysis.
  3. 85% of Income Needed.  Almost all planning tools tend to estimate your needed income in retirement as 85% of your pre-retirement income.  This assumption is actually based on the idea that normally you save 15% of your income, so when you retire and you stop saving, you don’t need that 15%.  Fine.  But this assumption is likely faulty in two regards – first, it likely differs based on your expected lifestyle in retirement (travel, health), and second, it’s unlikely to be a flat 85% through the rest of your life.

So, there are points to be made here, and it is something to think about.  I personally have been faced with difficult choices for saving that don’t have immediate, obvious answers.  What do you prioritize – saving money for a larger house & family, for retirement, for college, or travel & family fun?  What’s the right balance?  There is some truth to the fact that you could, in fact, over-save for retirement, and miss out on your life with your family while you are young.  You could live to 125, but you also could also die tomorrow.  I’ve had close friends and mentors who have died before ever seeing retirement, so these aren’t just theoretical questions.

In the end, I probably agree more with critics that say that the last message Americans in general need to hear is anything that sounds like save less.  No, in general, Americans are already getting an A+ in that class.  They are getting a D right now in save more, so while their are nuances that are worth discussion here, this article was the wrong way to present them.

As personal finance tools grow more sophisticated, however, it is also worth noting that in the end, they are just tools.  Garbage in, garbage out.  If you put in bad assumptions about the market or your goals and values, you will get bad answers out.  Sure, they’ll look pretty.  But they won’t steer you toward happiness.

Thoughts on My First 24 Hours with a Nintendo Wii

So, I actually did get a Nintendo Wii for my birthday. And yesterday, for the first time, I actually had a free moment or two to hook it up and play with it. Since then, I’ve probably played a total of 60 minutes of Wii Sports, and I thought I’d capture some of my first thoughts.

First, I wrote in a post about the Nintendo Wii a while back that I thought the new Wii Remote was a gimmick. Well, while I still think it’s a bit of a gimmick, it’s a well executed one. The thing works. It’s very easy to pick up and play, and there is something very engaging about interacting with video games this way.

In fact, my two year old son, Jacob, thinks it is absolutely hysterical to watch people play with the Wii. I think he loves seeing people jump around, and then have it be mirrored on screen. I don’t know, but when my brother Daniel was playing Wii Tennis, we could not get him to stop laughing.

It’s great. More importantly, it is well designed. The wireless detection and motion measurement is good enough to work and not be frustrating.  My faded, scarred memories of the Nintendo Power Glove have now been put to rest.  This is what motion detection should be in a gaming environment, with very little setup.  I’ve have found some sports more “realistic” than others. Tennis and Baseball seem to map well (there is something very rewarding about hitting a home run with the Wii Remote). Bowling is OK, but has some kinks. Golf and Boxing are really not designed to reward people with realistic motion.

From a product design standpoint, the way the remote fits in the hand, the placement of the buttons seems excellent. The affordances of the Wii remote seem to match the intended motions well.

Now, since I’m a nitpicker, here are my design suggestions for Nintendo:

  • Learn by example. It’s clear that the Wii remote is measuring some types of movements and not others when you play certain games. It would be nice to have a standardized “visual feedback screen”, where you could make sample motions, and the Wii would “diagnose” what it actually detected.  When is it looking for lateral motion, up/down, twisting.  It would be a big help to avoid frustration if you actually knew what the game was looking for. It took me 5 frustrating minutes to figure out the motions that the boxing game really cared about. Another idea here would be a “demo” mode where the Wii showed you how it expected you to work the remote for that game.
  • Ship with Two Controllers. It’s a bit lame to get the machine, and then realize that most of the games are more fun with two people. You can’t find extra controllers anywhere – Nintendo should have launched the 1.0 package with two controllers. It would have highlighted the social aspect of the Wii.
  • Expand to the Feet. It seems like there should be something, like the Nike+iPod insert, that you could add to your feet for these games. Since it’s only looking at the motion of the hand controllers, games that need foot motion are left out, or end up somewhat awkwardly implemented (like Boxing). This interface could really scale to having multiple on-body measures – maybe eventually motion points in multiple places (like arms, legs, torso).
  • Wii Elbow? Wii Shoulder? After playing for an hour, I hate to say it, but you can really feel it. It’s not tiring, per se, but I could feel a little bit of tennis elbow coming on, and my rotator cuff was feeling a little strained. Maybe there needs to be a stretching routine for the Wii? I know this sounds goofy, but I’m expecting to see more engineers walking around rubbing their elbows & shoulders as 2007 goes on.

It’s not surprising to me that the Wii is selling as well as it is. What is suprising is that the Wii is almost outselling the Xb0x 360, even though the Xbox is a high definition box with more games and with ample supply. I agree with this article – I’m going to be checking out Nintendo stock a little more closely.

I’m going to play a bit more now. My “Wii Age”, according to Wii Sports, started at 50 when I first played, and is now down to 33. I’m going to have to work hard to get down into the 20s.

In the meantime, watch out for Wii damage (my most popular post on the topic), and tighten your straps.

What Would You Do for an eBay Star?

I have a confession to make:

I am addicted to eBay User ID badges.  You know, the little icons that appear next to your User ID on eBay.

It all starts with that innocuous feedback star.  You get that yellow star at 10.  It’s great, and now all of a sudden you can use Buy It Now!  But it’s really just temptation.  Temptation to get 40 more feedback to get the blue star.  Fifty more to get the turquoise star at 100.

One of my big moments in 2006 was definitely crossing the chasm of the next 400 to get my purple star, at 500.  Will I stop?  How can I when the red star is just an quick shot over to 1000…

But it’s not just feedback.  The train of icons began with my eBay Store, giving me a little Stores logo next to my name.   Then I dicovered eBay Reviews & Guides.  With a 100 helpfulness votes, I got the pencil.  I’m now a “Top 5000” reviewer, which also follows my name.

And now, today, after three months of heavy selling, I have earned, perhaps temporarily, the ultimate logo – PowerSeller.

There is a lesson in all this madness for people creating products & services based on community driven activity & content.  Badges sell.  People love to acquire them, to have a little scorecard, to reach the next level of recognition.  Tiering works in all sorts of consumer products, and eBay has it in spades.

I have seen lot of new sites and services that keep score, a record of achievement.  But I think scores are somehow too clinical, too cold.   A number.  A score.  It just doesn’t resonate as strongly as a badge.

Well, I’m still working my way to that red star… only 400 more unique positives to go until I hit 1000.