Great KickStarter Project!

I just backed this project on KickStarter – I really hope it gets fully funded.

It’s the next chapter of the PhD Movie, from the same guys that created the PhD comics (which helped many of us get through grad school). I just remember how relieving and encouraging it was to find that other grad students are going through the same challenges, struggles and joys. Plus, it’s just plain funny. =)

I hope you like it and decide to contribute to it!

How to turn off Amber alerts on your iPhone

I was just startled when my iPhone started blaring at me.. the sound was a mix between a bombing raid siren and a fire alarm.. not pleasant.

Turns out that an Amber alert was issued in California (mind you.. far far away from me), and it’s a “feature” in the phone to let you know. While I certainly do hope that the missing children are found, and I can see only the best intentions in passing this alert on.. I assume many folks would like to turns this off.

Here’s a quick guide:

1) Go to the “Settings” option in your iPhone Home Screen

2) Go to the “Notifications” section

3) Scroll all the way down

4) Under “Government Alerts” you can toggle on/off the Amber and Emergency alerts.

I have left the emergency alerts on.. who knows maybe it will save me one day if I’m in a flood zone, and don’t realize it’s raining.. or if there’s a tsunami coming…

iPhone Notifications screen shot

iPhone Notifications screen shot

Safety Around Power Lines

I just did some safety training and would like to share a few highlights. This has to do with safety around power lines.

If you see a downed power line:

  1. Stay Clear of the area! Don’t touch anything, assume the line and anything touching it is energized. 
  2. Call 9-1-1! The dispatchers will alert appropriate authorities.
  3. Do not try a rescue! By coming in contact with a person or animal that is energized, you can get hurt as well!

I would say that # 1 & 2 are common sense. While the curiousity can often can get the best of us, I assume most folks have the right instinct to stay away. (Of course, assuming that they realize there is a downed line.). The hard one is the # 3, especially when we see a loved one in trouble. It is a natural instinct to jump in and try and save them, however this can turn tragic: a few months ago 3 members of a family died in their backyard, two of them trying to save the first one.

It is really important to not try a rescue unless we are qualified to do so. While we may have best intentions in mind, we can easily get in trouble ourselves, and not do anything to help.

My recommendation is to do a walk-around your residence, and identify any potential hazards on a clear sunny day when everything is visible. Take note on where the power and gas lines are, and anything else that could turn into a hazard. Then, if there is a wind storm, earthquake or a similar event, you’ll know what areas to avoid until they can be safely inspected.

For more info, check with your local utility.

Save Time: Avoid Left Turns!

Here’s my simple energy saving, traffic congestion and stress reducing piece of advice for the day: avoid left turns! Unless the road is empty, there is always a wait to make it – and in more congested areas it may even take several light cycles to get through.  It’s also a safety issue – you avoid crossing the oncoming traffic, and being tempted to run that “orange” light.

Of course, the opposite advice applies in England and other countries driving on the left side. =)

I wish the GPS devices would account for this left-turn time lag when calculating your directions. Most of them will allow you to pick the shortest or quickest route, but when calculating the latter, I doubt they put in a proper left turn penalty factor. Of course, they can’t just make up a delay to use (say 30 seconds) and would have to collect and analyze traffic data to be able to do so – but maybe it could be a custom setting? Another option could be to provide you with alternate routes? Google maps already does it, although I don’t think they’re specifically addressing the left turn issue.

Speaking of technology – a few years ago UPS implemented software that allows them to efficiently plan their routes, and big part of it includes not making left turns in commercial areas.

For the record, there are some neat apps that will plan and optimize routes for you (i.e. MapQuest Route Planner) – I wish they included a left turn time delay / penalty in their calculations.

PS: If you find an app that does this, please let me know!

A Simple Rule for Lottery Pools

A few weeks back I wrote about buying lottery tickets and whether it was a good investment or not. Well, turns out that low odds are not the only thing working against you!

In the historic Mega Million jackpot last month, over $600 million was awarded to lucky folks, although not without any controversy. One of the alleged winners was actually part of an office pool, however she claimed that she bought the winning ticket separately, and therefore the winnings were all her’s!

I’ve read a few blogs and articles discussing this, and whether she should have been a part of the pool if she was buying her own tickets (or vice-versa), whether she should share the $$ with the pool, etc.

While I don’t have the answer to these questions, I do have a simple rule to avoid getting into this type of situation in first place: Scan the lottery tickets, and e-mail them to all pool participants! Ok, some folks may not have a scanner ready – but there’s plenty of options here. Photocopiers are everywhere, digital cameras are very common, and let’s not even mention camera phones and smart phones.

Just like with any potentially important transaction, make a record of it, and keep it just in case.


Check Your Number!

I was really excited to see State of California launch their check your number campaign – raising driver awareness that you don’t need to change engine oil every 3,000 miles! The campaign

“… urges Californians to check the recommended oil change interval for their car in their owner’s manual. They’ll likely save time and money in service costs and do the environment a big favor — without hurting their car or compromising auto performance in the least.

The old standard of 3,000 miles is woefully out of date and no longer applies to most cars. Many cars, even older models, can be driven up to 5,000, 7,500, 10,000, and even 15,000 miles before needing an oil change.”

This is one of those win-win propositions – it’s actually more convenient for the driver (less maintenance related chores), save you money, and also greatly helps the environment!

“Drivers can do their part to help the environment by simply looking up the recommended oil change intervals for their cars and changing their habits accordingly. Advances in modern engines and improved oil formulas have made the 3,000-mile oil change obsolete. Under normal driving conditions, cutting back to the automaker’s recommended intervals will not affect your car’s engine, its performance, or your warranty.”

I have always been a vocal proponent of this, and I am glad to hear the state bringing it up! Don’t listen to what the oil change shops are telling you, ignore that 3,000 mile reminder sticker on your window (i just peel them and throw them away), and simply follow the owners manual. For most cars, a light will come on or blink when you need the oil change, so you don’t even have to think about it.

It’s my personal opinion that most folks could wait even longer between oil changes – but you don’t want to risk putting any warranties at risk. As a Mechanical Engineering professor specializing in engine testing once said – the most important thing for your engine is that there is oil! (if it’s a lil’ old, it’s not a big deal.)

As a side note, I wish I still had access to all the cool lab testing equipment as I used to. The reason you change the oil is that with age and cycling (use) it slowly decays and its properties decline – which is something I could easily test for. I am assuming that your filter is doing it’s job, and there isn’t much gunk flowing around.

So, save some $$$, relax, and save the environment too! Check your number!

Saving on Auto Insurance

Every time I hear one of those Insurance ads claiming “people who switch to [..] on average save $x” I chuckle a little bit. Of course that people that do switch insurers save money – that’s why most people switch in first place! The statistic they provide is useless to most people, as you have no idea what your actual saving, if any, would be. What they’re telling you is that of all those people that get a quote from them, some (maybe a majority, maybe a small minority) will switch insurers, and on average save x amount of money. The only valuable piece of information that a consumer is getting here is that shopping around, be it for insurance or any other service or product, is usually a good idea, and you may find a cheaper provider.

I just find it funny how numbers are used in advertising to suggest things. The message that they are trying to imply is that if YOU switch to THEIR company, YOU will save money. Now, they can’t say this outright, as there will be some percentage of folks who won’t save by switching. What would be useful is if they provided a statistic, saying “20% of folks who call us switch, and save $400 on average”. Now I know that my expected “ROI” for calling them to get a quote, and spending 10-15 minutes with their agent is 20% x $400 = $80 / year. Assuming I don’t earn more than $320 / hour, this is now a valuable use of my time (for simplicity, I’m ignoring future years’ savings). However, if only 5% of people save the quoted amount, and I expect to spend 30 minutes for the quote, my expected ROI is only $20 / year – so $40 / hour of my time, ignoring future years’ savings. Not bad, especially if you assume future year savings, but not nearly as attractive as the first scenario.

Now, while the premium paid is likely the top concern to most folks when choosing an insurance company, I am almost concerned switching to a lower cost provider. While there is no guarantee that a higher cost company will provide me with a better service or value, I am curious to know how they can afford to charge me less. Where is it that they’re saving money on? They could have better actuaries, or at least be able to better assess your “risk level”. That said, they could also be undervaluing your risk level, and giving you a break by mistake. (This works for the individual consumer, as long as it’s not a widespread problem which would cause the insurer to default.) What I’m concerned with thought is that you just may be getting a worse value – and get short changed when an accident happens. How will the insurer treat you when you need them is just as important as what you pay upfront!