02
Oct 12

Don’t get ripped off by your body shop

It seems like every couple of days I see something like this:

A prototype of an unreleased model? No, a bad repair job.

 

This is a Lexus RX 400h, a relatively recent and high end hybrid SUV, which has clearly been rear ended and repaired because the badges have been incorrectly applied by the body shop. The badge should read “RX 400h”, instead of “400h RX”. This happens more often than you’d think, and is a sign of poor attention to detail. This hapless Lexus driver paid real money to rewrite their car’s history, only to have a poor repair job signal to the world that this car has been wrecked.

This is a particularly egregious example, but I’ve seen more subtle but telltale reminders of repaired rear ends, like badges applied to the wrong side of the car, poorly aligned badges, and even the wrong model designation.  If you ever get rear ended, make sure you have pictures of the badges before the accident, or do a Google Image Search to find the official photography showing the exact badge placement. If the car comes back with the badges in the wrong place, make the body shop fix the problem- it’s a simple matter for them to move things around.

You or your insurance company paid good money to get your car repaired properly, and a poor badge job just makes baby Nick cry.


06
Jul 12

A story about health care

 

LAWMAKER

There are big problems with health care in this country. It’s too expensive, and it seems unfair that people with preexisting conditions can’t get any form of health care.

INSURANCE INDUSTRY

Insurance only works by amortizing risk across all payers. We need enough healthy people paying into the system to pay for the sick.

LAWMAKER

Hm. Maybe the right choice is to have a single payer system run by the government. At least that’s what they’re talking about up on The Hill.

INSURANCE INDUSTRY

Look, if we eliminated preexisting conditions, everyone’s premiums would shoot up.  I have a model one of our eggheads whipped up if you want to see…

LAWMAKER

So you’re saying it’s impossible to eliminate preexisting conditions from consideration when issuing a policy?

INSURANCE INDUSTRY

I wouldn’t say impossible, but if we eliminated preexisting conditions, we would have to raise our premiums for those patients to a level that they probably can’t afford.

LAWMAKER

That seems unfair.

INSURANCE INDUSTRY

If any individual could buy insurance at a cheap price at any time, they wouldn’t ever buy insurance unless they got sick.  To keep their bills affordable, we would have to increase premiums on healthy patients to a degree that isn’t fair or sustainable. This is what we call the ‘free-rider’ problem.

LAWMAKER

OK. Well, you provide all the coverage in this country, and we want to do it without destroying the private insurance industry.  What can we do?

INSURANCE INDUSTRY

If everyone had to pay a small premium, that would spread out the risk enough that we could eliminate preexisting conditions and caps on lifetime coverage.

LAWMAKER

Everyone?

INSURANCE INDUSTRY

Yes, everyone.

A common misconception among Americans is that the popular provisions of the ACA, namely the lifting of restrictions on preexisting conditions and caps on lifetime coverage, are separable from the individual mandate that all Americans above a certain income level must buy insurance or face a tax penalty.

They’re not.  While insurance companies are for profit entities, they must also remain solvent, and removing preexisting conditions would not only encourage people to wait to buy coverage until they are sick, but also increase premiums for patients who elect to maintain coverage.

The ACA is not a move towards socialized medicine, and it is far from a government run health care program.  It is regulation of an industry that produces a product that has life or death ramifications. While regulation can seem counterproductive to many, there has been at least one example where regulation has provably saved lives- the auto industry.

In 1965, Ralph Nader wrote the book that would make him famous: Unsafe at Any Speed, which brought to light serious safety problems brought about by cost-cutting at General Motors.  While the merits of his argument can and will be debated at length, this was the first book that forced the public to really consider vehicle safety.  In response to public outcry, Congress made seat belts mandatory on all cars in 1966, saving countless lives.  In 1970, NHTSA was formed to create and enforce safety standards for modern passenger cars.  Since then, regulations from NHTSA have mandated airbags, crash testing, high mounted stop lights, side impact regulations, and more. As a result of better engineering and safety standards, you are now 4 times less likely to die in a crash in a modern car.

These regulations were initially fought by the car companies. Safety needs to be engineered into a vehicle, and it is expensive. In 1966, you could make any claim about safety you wanted to in a brochure and consumers had no crash test data to make informed decisions. From a rational business perspective, it didn’t make a lot of sense to add cost to a vehicle for crash safety, which was an abstract benefit that most drivers wouldn’t realize. Regulations leveled the field for manufacturers who could now invest in vehicle safety without sacrificing their relative competitiveness.  Crash tests make safety a selling point for cars and provide a marketing benefit to making cars safer.

Whether they intended to or not, NHTSA regulations reoriented many aspects of the automotive industry where safety became something that customers cared about. In doing so, the industry developed all sorts of technologies to improve vehicle safety, because safety started to sell. Not every regulation made sense, but most of them ultimately disappeared and were superseded by more reasonable standards.

The health care industry is 15% of US GDP and growing.  The health insurance companies are profitable and thriving, and acting in a rational way given the laws and regulations that are in place. Just like with the auto industry, the government should strive to align public interest with private enterprise, and the ACA is a set of regulations to improve public safety by ensuring that access to quality, affordable health care is available to all. The ACA can’t be perfect in its first iteration- but, like NHTSA, I would like to see it grow as a partnership between government and industry in a way that benefits patients.


16
Feb 12

Poop Strong

 

When I was in high school, one of my closest friends was Sourav Guha, a smart, funny, and cynical kid- much like myself. I remembe his younger brother, Arjit, as an optimistic kid who admired my knowledge of Star Trek, forever cementing my high regard for him.  I’ve been out of high school for almost 20 years, and in the intervening years Arjit went to school, got married, traveled the world, and enrolled in a PhD program. Then, at barely 30 years of age, Arjit was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer.

Since that diagnosis, Arjit’s been through an array of operations and chemotherapy, and he will continue to require expensive treatments for the foreseeable future.  His $300K of insurance was consumed within a year, and he now has a short but expensive period of treatment where he’ll be uninsured until August. Until then, he’s looking for some help, and in exchange for making a donation on poopstrong.org,  you can get a beautifully rendered t-shirt of a human colon.

Check out Poop Strong and make a donation- you’ll be helping out a nice guy who deserves to have a long life ahead of him.


09
Feb 12

True assholes

True assholes care more about how they’re regarded by their strangers than they care about how they’re regarded by their friends.

True assholes constantly talk about others behind their back.

True assholes are not honest about what they believe, and avoid any controversy.

True assholes try to blend in by not sticking out too far.

True assholes care more about themselves than they care about you.

True assholes punish you for the favors they do for you.

We call lots of people ‘assholes’, but there’s a difference between someone with poor social skills and an asshole.

A pedant values details and wants to infect you with what they believe is a virtue.

Brutal honesty is practiced by people who value honesty in kind.

These are not true assholes, and they deserve kindness and friendship.

I am truly fortunate to lead an asshole-free life, and I urge you to strive to do the same.

 


27
Sep 11

Why the Facebook Timeline doesn’t suck

Facebook Timeline is much more than just a redesign.  After using Timeline since the F8 announcement, I’ve had a great time getting to understand this product and what it means for Facebook users.  Here’s why I think it’s so great:

It takes your current data and makes it beautiful

The out-of-box experience for Timeline is great, because it takes data you already have in Facebook and instantly transforms it into something much more compelling.  Nick Felton, the designer behind Timeline, made his name creating beautiful visualizations of his personal data, and Timeline doesn’t disappoint.  Instead of prompting users to add more content, Timeline creates the right incentive to be more active on Facebook- making your content look awesome.

Your data is less ephemeral

Most Facebook users have been on the site for years, accumulating countless photos, status updates, and check-ins.  The current feed only exposes the tip of this data to users, relying on an infinite scrollback to view history.  You can see the problem- while there are widgets for things like Photos, it’s hard to rewind your life more than a couple of months, and the most active profiles are penalized by being the hardest to navigate.  With Timeline, it takes a few seconds to jump to a specific month, and simple to jog back and forth a month at a time.  Compare this to Flickr, where navigating older photos is unwieldy and annoying, especially if you forget to organize your photo into a set for easy access.

Friction matters

For Jig, it was important that we got out of the way of our users.  For instance, unregistered users can do virtually everything on the site, and we don’t ask for a login or registration until after you submit something.  With Timeline, new classes of apps will be able to automatically publish interesting data to a Timeline in an easily consumed morsel of data.  Humans are lazy, and great products act as agents for their users, quietly doing good things as their masters go about living their lives.  “Frictionless Sharing” is not without its perils, so it will be very important for Facebook and the app ecosystem to provide easily understandable privacy settings.  In a world of Nike+ and Fitbit, it would be awesome if my 25 mile mountain hike got published to Facebook, but not as awesome if my 14 hour power nap was put there as well.  Still, personal metrics are a growing industry, and people enjoy showing off how active and interesting they really are.

A stalker’s paradise?  No.

Critics have dubbed Timeline a “stalker’s paradise”, because it makes it that much easier to view specific dates in the past.  To those people, I’d say this- Timeline doesn’t expose additional data about a user, it just makes it easier to navigate.  I’d argue that the criticism of Timeline is a semi-dangerous position to take, because it makes people believe that the old profile is safer than the new one, even though any motivated creeper can use ‘show older posts’ to view another user’s entire Facebook history.  The ease of use of Timeline can also make it much easier for users to find content that they don’t want around anymore and delete it, so this argument goes both ways.  In the future, Facebook could even launch a feature that allows users to block content for specific time periods, now that there’s a UI that makes it easy to navigate.  The moral of the story is this: any tool can be used as a weapon, but that’s hardly a reason to ban it from existence.

To the tl;dr crowd, just watch this video:

 


06
Jul 11

Cool Used Car #3: 1990-1997 Mazda MX-5 Miata

My 1996 Mazda MX-5 Miata

In the 1980’s, a few employees of Mazda of North America convinced their Japanese overlords that there was a market for a small convertible sports car that combined British and Italian panache with Japanese reliability.  This was no small feat, especially since Mazda would have to invest nearly a decade of development into designing and building a rear wheel drive sports car when most of their models were front wheel drive econoboxes.  Making things even harder was their price target: $13,800.

It is one thing to design a sports car with a high price point, because buyers of expensive sports cars do not expect their sports cars to have any sort of practicality, economy, or reliability.  It is another thing entirely to design a desirable sports car at a price that is comparable to a family sedan.  Mazda achieved their goal with flying colors, and management in Japan was more than relieved when the car turned out to be a success.  With the exception of the heavily revised engine, virtually every other component, from the exterior door handles to the double-wishbone suspension, were unique to the MX-5 Miata.

There’s a reason that the Mazda Miata is the most raced production car in the world.   While it is straightforward to add power to any car, it is much harder to create a world class chassis with a sophisticated independent suspension at all four corners.  With the Miata, Mazda engineered a double wishbone suspension at all four corners of the car, which is the optimal layout for race cars but is expensive and complex to implement in a production car.  Combined with the bespoke powerplant frame adding rigidity to the car, the Miata’s chassis is essentially that of a small race car.  Thousands of Miatas are raced in various club races all over the world, and they make fantastic race cars with minor modifications.

Miatas are simple to maintain and parts are inexpensive.  The first generation is the most desirable, as it was a clean sheet design with many charming details that were lost in subsequent generations, like the one finger door handles and headrest mounted speakers for better top-down audio.  The 1999-2004 model is essentially the same car with minor improvements, but most purists prefer the first generation model.  I say that both are fine cars, but at the end of the day, I bought a first generation 1996 Miata.

When shopping for your Miata, try to find a 1994-1997 model.  The 1994 models are the first year for the more powerful 1.8L engine, and there are a host of improvements, including dual airbags and additional chassis stiffening.  Manual transmission is the way to go, and for better traction in all conditions, you want the optional Torsen differential.  All manual transmission Miatas in this era with power windows have the Torsen diff.  ABS is also an option, and is hard to find, so make a decision on whether you want it before you go shopping.  ABS cars can be identified by the control module on the passenger side of the firewall replacing the stock washer fluid bottle location.

All Miatas have a VIN sticker on every body panel that indicates whether or not the panel is original.  These are located on the hood and trunk lid, both front fenders in the rain channel on the top, and on the rear fenders on the door jamb.  A car with original stickers all around has never had any major bodywork done.  Hardtops are very desirable and are worth $900-$1000.  Replacement softtops can run from $500-$1000 installed.  If you want to track your car, a roll bar is required, and cost around $500.  Clean cars that require nothing start at around $4000, depending on options.

If you have any interest in learning to be a better driver, buy a Miata.  It is the quintessential “momentum car” that can go very fast as long as you don’t slow down too much.  The car has a weak engine by modern standards but despite this, they are very fast in the right hands.  Since I’ve become an amateur endurance racer, I bought myself a Miata to improve my driving.  It also turns out that it’s a sweet car to drive to work every day with the top down.  I didn’t really fully grok why Miata owners loved their cars so much, but now I do.


03
Jul 11

I’ll be fine

Anyone who knows me personally knows that I’ve been dealing with some heavy stuff right now.  Over the last few months, I’ve been balancing the excitement and challenge of starting a company with the end of my marriage.  While things have been hard at times, my friends have really stood by and supported me when I’ve been down.

I’m really lucky to have the friends that I have, and I know that my future is one of promise and not one of uncertainty.


02
Jun 11

Facebook rejection

Yesterday I received a letter from a Facebook recruiter that was quite nice and professional, but I am clearly not on the market for a new job right now.  I responded with a rejection letter:

 

Thanks for the connection request.  While I was impressed with your credentials, at this time I do not see an opportunity for me to leave my company to consider a position with Facebook.  Best of luck with your future endeavors.

-n.
 

I’m pretty much screwed now if the startup fails and I end up at Facebook’s door with my hat in hand.


27
Apr 11

Cool Used Car #2: 1995-1998 Honda Odyssey

In the early 1990’s, minivans were everywhere.  However most Japanese minivans were adapted from commercial vans in Japan, which happened to be smaller than their American counterparts.  These vans were oddly configured, with the driver’s front legs hanging awkwardly and precariously in the front of the car, and the engines tended to be under the front seats.

Honda, having long marched to the beat of their own drummer, did what they did best- a front wheel drive van based on the Accord parts bin.  This van, known as the Odyssey, was originally built for the Japanese market.  As a result, it was barely longer and wider than an Accord, yet incredibly space efficient with room for up to seven passengers.  The car also had conventional rear doors with power windows at a time when a single sliding door on the right side of the car was the norm.  Second-row captains chairs were standard on the EX and the third row retracted easily into the floor, which had never been done before.  When the third row was up, a handy compartment was available for valuables under the seat.  All models sold in the US had a standard rear AC unit, so everyone traveled in comfort.  Not only was the Odyssey versatile, but it was a fun car to drive.

With its sports-car like double wishbones at all four corners, the Odyssey had great handling for a van.  Then again, it wasn’t really a van, but a tall wagon, and had the handling and fuel economy to match.  With standard ABS and dual airbags, this tall wagon had a full complement of safety features.

The one to get is any 1998 model year Odyssey.  The 1998 model got the updated engine from the 1998 Accord, and a revised instrument panel with a tach.  Get an EX if you want Captain’s Chairs and can live with room for six, the LX if you need more human carrying capacity. Prices range from $2-5K, a bargain given the reliability and versatility of these cars.

For the 1999 model year, the Odyssey was redesigned and forked for the North American market.  It was a conventional minivan, not charming in any way, and a runaway success.


22
Dec 10

Cool Used Car #1: Mark II Toyota Supra

There have been four Toyota Supras in the annals of automotive history, ending with the vaunted 4th generation (Mark IV) Supra of 1993-2002.  This car is recognized as a legend for its performance and durability and today pristine examples fetch upwards of $50K.  But that’s not the car I’m going to write about.  Instead, I’m going to write about its little known antecedent, the Mark II Supra of 1982-1986.

In the early 1980’s, there was a full-on war between Toyota and Nissan for near luxury sports cars with inline six cylinder engines and a wealth of luxury features.  Toyota brought all their guns to bear with the second generation Supra, with a fully independent suspension and a distinct body from the Celica, which continued with an anemic four cylinder engine and a solid rear axle.  If you’re a fan of the 80’s, the Supra’s crisp and creased lines are a great example of the mores of the era, with pop up headlights, fender flares, and that fastback design that we all loved back then.

Back then, Japan had a booming economy and cheap currency that resulted in an unbeatable level of engineering and craftsmanship in their cars for your USD.  The Supra is no exception with a powerful and smooth 160 hp 2.8L inline six engine in a sub 3000 pound chassis.  By today’s standards, a featherweight, but a bloated luxo cruiser in the 1980’s.  These cars had the best technology, from a digital dashboard to 14-way adjustable sport seats, and the later models had a suspension tuned by Lotus, who had started a partnership with Toyota for parts in exchange for some engineering expertise.

The Supra makes my list because it’s a rear wheel drive car with plenty of power, a sophisticated-enough chassis, and enough creature comforts to be usable as an everyday car.  This was a car designed to be the best Japan could offer, and corners that are cut in today’s cars were left on in the Supra.  Lifting the carpet in the cargo compartment reveals a full size spare on an alloy wheel, something few cars have today.  Interior plastics, while blessed with the sheen of the 1980’s, are not susceptible to the cracking of European contemporaries like the Porsche 944.

There are two models, the L-Type and the P-Type.  The L-Type has a digital dashboard, while the P-Type has fender flares and a limited slip differential.  The P-Types are more desirable, especially since the digital displays on the dashboards can fail after almost 30 years and are expensive to replace.  From 1984 onwards, the engines produced 160 hp, and the best models are the 1985-1986 P-Types.  Of course, manual transmission is the way to go; automatic transmissions still had a way to go in the early 1980’s.  Forget about airbags and ABS in cars of this era, they were simply not available.

The cars are not perfect- because these cars are light and torquey, they can have tricky handling, especially with the stock 14 inch tires.  Power-off oversteer is something to be aware of, and my Supra had an unfortunate encounter with a tree in the hands of a friend.  Be extra careful, especially in the wet.  Cars with updated wheels and tires (up to 16″) are potentially safer.

Thanks to Initial-D, the AE86 Corolla GT-S has become a cult classic for its rwd handling and drifting prowess, but I think the less loved Supra is the car to have, with more power, a similar size, and an independent rear suspension.  A good example should be between $2,000 and $3,000 with extra special examples with more powerful engines approaching $5,000, or a little bit more than half the price of a similar Corolla GT-S with less power.

Of the four generations of Supras out there, the Mark II is unloved and yet deserving of love.  Therefore, it is worthy of my Cool Used Car list, as a car that is both special and inexpensive to buy.