Sunday, February 7, 2010

Signaling Commercial Vehicle Drivers

Yesterday, I was having dinner with two of my friends who are commercial vehicle drivers and we were talking about the signals that drivers use when passing. Read this and be a better driver.

Signal safe passing.

When you are being passed by a commercial vehicle, you can signal to that vehicle that it is safe to return to your lane by turning your headlights off (keeping your running lights on) for about a second and then turning them back on. The driver will often thank you for this by flashing his read running lights.

A word of warning: Don't signal until the commercial vehicle is completely past you, with sufficient room to pull in safely. Drivers will trust that, if you use this signal, you know what you're doing.

Signal that you're slowing down, fast.

If you need to slow down abruptly for some reason, turn your hazard lights on. This lets drivers behind you know that you have slowed down significantly. Remember that larger vehicles have a longer stopping distance and this extra warning might be the difference between them being able to stop in time or not. Also, if you are driving in hazardous conditions, significantly below normal speeds, you should turn your hazard lights on.

Be aware of something ahead.

If you see a commercial vehicle flashing its brights, that almost certainly means that there is something ahead and that it would probably be a good idea to slow down. This might be an accident, police running radar or slow-moving traffic. Drop the speed down a notch and be careful.

So, Tami and Nathan, how did I do? Is the above accurate? Any more wisdom that you would like to share?

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Loyalty Programs

I'll admit that I do have a weakness for loyalty programs. The allure of points and the promise of free airline tickets, meals, and hotel rooms is enough to get my mouth watering. During my winter cleaning today, I took an inventory of my loyalty programs and decided which stay and which go.

Delta Skymiles
United Airlines Mileage Plus
American Airlines AAdvantage

With as much travel as I do, it is no wonder that these programs provide the most useful benefits to me. Most of my travel has traditionally been with Northwest Airlines (which was recently acquired by Delta). Delta's Skymiles membership card is the only card that I carry with me consistently.

Delta Skymiles is the only loyalty program that will cause me to consciously alter my spending. Yes, the free upgrades are nice, but as a Platinum Skymiles member, I have access to better reservations support and I get accommodated first in the case of irregular operations. These benefits may not sound terribly important, but when snowstorms hit the midwest and airlines have to decide which passengers to send on the next flight and which get the privilege of staying in an airport overnight, I would much rather be Platinum on Delta than nobody on United.

Bottom Line: These are all staying around as I am actively getting some benefit from each of them.

Office Depot Worklife Rewards
Staples Rewards
Granite City Mug Club
Stomping Grounds and Z'Marik's Punch Cards
Marriott Rewards
Gold Points Plus
Priority Club Rewards
Java House JavaPerks (Iowa City)

Mostly, I am a member of the retail programs above for the periodic coupons that they send out; I can count on Office Depot and Staples to mail me a good coupon every once in a while. Staples previously gave free shipping to its rewards program members, but I don't think that's the case any more.

The Mug Club membership is a little different; it gets me into a reception whenever our local Granite City is tapping a new brew. I am not really a beer drinker (I still have the "One Free Beer" coupon that they gave me when I joined) but I enjoy spending time with my colleagues and this card has more than made up for the $10 I paid for it.

The hotel programs require almost no maintenance, don't spam me and might provide some benefit some day. I believe that Gold Points owes me a free hotel room at a 2-star hotel, so I might cash in on that some time when traveling.

Bottom Line: These programs are probably worth less than $50/year each to me, but I'll keep the membership cards around because they are so low maintenance. However, the next time I move, a lot of these will probably go away because it won't be worth it to update my address for most of them.

The stack of punch-cards gathering dust

More than anything, U Promise does a great job of promoting its benefits. I would believe that most people for whom some form of post-secondary education is in the cards have heard of it. However, for me, it's been a waste of time. Over the six years I've been enrolled in U Promise, I have accumulated exactly $2.93 in "college savings" which I can only liberate if I open a 529 account.

This housekeeping exercise has taught me that punch cards to places I only go once in a while just aren't worth it. I'm probably not going to go to Fazoli's seven times in the next year and I know that I'm not going to hit Espresso Royale in Champaign, IL another eight times so what's the point of keeping the punch cards?

Most of these cards got tossed immediately.

How about you? Which rewards programs do you participate in? Do you have a threshold for making a loyalty program worth your attention? If so, what is it?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Eliminate The Development Machine to Increase Innovation

In my quest for knowledge and insight about how great companies are managed, I've been reading "The Google Way" one of the, I'm sure, myriad of books that purports to explain all of the things that make Google amazing.

One of this weekend's insights was the following:

A lot of good ideas (and a few great ones) come from rank-and-file employees.

In a "traditional" organization, many of these ideas are overlooked. Great ideas are supposed to be generated by people tasked with dreaming up the products of the future, the select few "tinkerers" in advanced engineering or some elite department of marketing. These ideas are then evaluated in committee, picked apart, perhaps improved, and documented. The few ideas that survive this process are then given to a marketing organization to see if a business case can be made for these projects.

In an organization like Google, the leadership believes that ideas are generated everywhere. Idea generation is encouraged and expected of all employees. The most obvious way this philosophy shows up is in the policy that engineers may devote 20% of their time to working on their own projects. Some of these projects have died, but some became Google's better known products. Would gMail or Google Maps have died in committee at a traditional organization? Likely; neither has a direct connection to Google's core business of search.

In my organization, most of the good process improvements (by which I mean changes in the way code is developed, not institutionalized processes) came from rogue engineers who were spending time working with tools beneath the radar of management. Software engineering at my division is special in that the developers are given a lot more freedom than in other parts of the company and it shows; many other development centers come to us for advice and are interested in adopting our best practices. Unfortunately, the "product development process" that we use ensures that no product ideas that come from the rank-and-file engineers will see the light of day . . . and I believe that will ultimately cost us as talent goes elsewhere.

How does your organization work? Do you feel like you are encouraged to explore newer and better ways of working? Have any new products come out of your rank-and-file?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Debunking Myths about Public Healthcare - Part 1

I had originally planned for one huge blog post about public healthcare, but have since decided to split it up into a number of smaller posts, owing to me being quite busy this time of year. I think that it is shameful that we are one of the few (if not the only) developed nations that does not have universal healthcare. The majority of the country wants a public healthcare option (75% according to a recent NBC/WSJ poll . . . Google it). These posts are part of my contribution to the public discussion.

Objection: Countries with universal healthcare make people wait in line for services.

This has been used as a scare tactic for many years. Yes, Canada and other countries that have universal healthcare do ration care. If you need to have an elective procedure, you wait in line until your turn come up. This is not really different than in the United States . . . for a routine physical, I need to schedule an appointment with my doctor at least eight months in advance. My dentist requires six months. I've never had to have non-emergency surgery, but I'm sure that I can't just walk into my local hospital and demand to be serviced that day.

We ration care in the United States, but we don't ration it in a way that promotes the overall health of our population; we ration it based on who can pay the most. That means that, if a millionaire wants a nose job, s/he can and will get care before a poor person who needs cancer screening. Under our system, doctors who do elective plastic surgery make more than primary care physicians who work with patients to keep them healthy. I can't imagine any framework in which this makes sense.

Care should be prioritized/rationed based on what is most effective at keeping people healthy. Countries with a public healthcare system can do this because, under a public system, there is no incentive to chase after a profit.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Oh, Delta (Rant)

I'm taking a trip out to Seattle to see my cousin, Cody, get married. I'm flying Northwest Airlines, but some of my flights were operated by Delta. Today, the flight (Delta) from DSM to SLC got canceled and my itinerary was replace with the following:

Fri  4SEP Delta 6151*          LV Des Moines, IA    (DSM)  730A Coach
AR Cincinnati, OH (CVG) 1014A
*operated by Freedom Airlines Inc
Fri 4SEP Delta 1424 LV Salt Lake City, U (SLC) 830A Coach
AR Portland, OR (PDX) 922A
Fri 4SEP Delta 1419 LV Cincinnati, OH (CVG) 1225P Coach
AR Salt Lake City, U (SLC) 212P
Fri 4SEP Alaska Airlines 2142 LV Portland, OR (PDX) 1030A Coach
AR Seattle, WA (SEA) 1120A

At first glance, I was happy that they still had me getting into Seattle at 11:20am, as I have plans for that afternoon. But, upon closer inspection, they had me getting into Salt Lake City at 2:12pm and leaving at 8:30am.

My question is: How do things like this happen?

Fortunately, Northwest Airlines was able to fix my itinerary with a phone call, but, seriously . . . if this is what I should expect from Delta, I'm not excited.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Travel Deals

Okay, many people following this blog (surprisingly, there are actually quite a few more than I expected there to be) have expressed an interest in learning how I score awesome travel deals.

This year, I have been on a bit of a travel binge, venturing to Asia twice, Virginia, Seattle, California, Germany, Oregon and (in the coming months) Tokyo, Michigan and Australia.

One of the secrets to traveling cheaply is traveling where the cheap fares lead you. It sounds much less glamorous when put that way, but that's essentially how I travel. Most of the time, I haven't said that I wanted to visit X in Y, but have taken the opportunities to visit my friends when there have been reasonable fares available. (When I do decide to visit a specific person in a specific location, I cash in some frequent flyer miles.)

One of the tools that can help you find cheap travel deals is's "Top Deals From" tool.

Simply enter your origin airport and FareCompare will tell you where you can go (including internationally) for cheap.

Later this summer, I will be doing a bit more blogging on my experiences in certain airports . . . stay tuned.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Back in Germany

Note: This was originally written on April 25th, on a train from Zweibr├╝cken to M├╝nchen.

Well, I’m back in Germany, for the first time in several years. Since I’ve been travelling all over Asia, some of my German friends had felt that I had abandoned them . . . well, no longer. As I’m writing this, I’m currently sitting on an ICE Train (German Bullet-Train) to Munich, in complete comfort, but without an internet connection.

I’ve missed Germany . . . the food, the trains, the scenery, but above all, the people. Since I’ve been working all week (almost 10 hours/day, plus social outings with my colleagues), I haven’t had much time to think about that . . . and it hit me for the first time when I was on a train to Saarbruecken. There’s something about riding a train that makes me realize that I am actually here . . . in Germany . . . and quite a bit at home.

When traveling internationally, even in a country as safe as Germany, it’s important to do basic things like lock the car when you leave. This is a lesson my colleagues found out the hard way. To make a long story short, this resulted in a trip to the police station on Friday afternoon, with me feeling out a police report. Earlier in the week, I had asserted that the German police were both friendly and professional. Fortunately, this was the case. An experience which might have tainted my colleague’s perception of Germany was turned into a pleasant experience with the German police and disaster was averted. (I even got to sign my name to the police report that I translated it.

One of the things that I need to put on my to-do list is to re-learn how to drive a stick-shift. It’s kind of embarrassing that I am a bit afraid of the things, but, you lose any skill you have if you fall out of practice. Some weekend, I’ll rent a stick-shift car and practice. If I’m going to destroy someone’s transmission, it can be Hertz’s. Then, next time when we go to Germany, I can feel comfortable driving.

Now, it’s off to Munich to see Katha and Nowy.