June 29th, 2011

(no subject)

Tamara Glenny has a pretty good rant about Google Maps directions (and by extension, others of their type):
What makes for good directions? Bad ones are pretty easy to identify. When we got into the car and headed for D.C., my boyfriend handed me the Google instructions he’d downloaded, using the basic method of inputting our address in Brooklyn at one end and that of the hotel in Washington at the other. This produces a list of indicators (“I-95/New Jersey Turnpike to exit 1,” or whatever), with each stage annotated with varying distances (“0.3 miles”) and times (“93 minutes”). The semi-uselessness of this style is fairly obvious—the main one being the impossibility of knowing whether Google’s 93 minutes is remotely close to one’s own, especially allowing for traffic interference (or the lack thereof). Besides, only anal-compulsive types who endanger their lives by looking more at their odometers than the road can keep on counting the 0.3 and 1.6 mile chunks you’re supposed to monitor.

We also got the distinct feeling that the Google Map algorithm tends to go for highways and straight lines—whether or not they really get you there any quicker. When we told our hotel receptionist downtown that the map had sent us via Silver Spring, he just laughed, rather pityingly.

I find that when you’re driving in New York City it’s important to know, say, that you stay on a street until it passes under a railroad bridge, after which you take the next possible sharp right turn. That way, you’re alert, you’re ready for the turn, and you’re looking at the road and what’s around it, not at the bloody odometer waiting to see it click from 0.2 to 0.3.

There’s nothing in a Google Map instruction to let you know that when you get on the Long Island Expressway at a certain spot in Queens intending to take the next turnoff for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE), you have to do an instant zero-to-60 dash from a left-hand ramp to a right-hand exit across four lanes of traffic. If you delay, you either miss the exit or you’re dead (or both). So the instructions I write for such situations have a lot of detail. If you’re being told to take the Fort Hamilton Parkway exit off the Prospect Parkway, it helps to know that you’re going to pass a completely different Fort Hamilton Parkway exit several miles earlier on the aforementioned BQE and that’s not the one you want. Think Google Maps is ever going to tell you that?
Now that you've pointed that out, they might.

A billion dollar coins sitting around in vaults, with more being minted every day.

There have been a number of articles recently, like this one from NPR's Planet Money about the billion or so dollar coins that are being held in government vaults around the country. In the ones I've seen there's only oblique reference to the fact that the objections to withdrawing the dollar bill--which is just about the only proven way to make the transition from paper to coin happen--was blocked last time around by Senator Kennedy from Massachusetts and Senator Lott from Mississippi. Nicely bipartisan, that.

Kennedy objected because Crane & Co., the only source of the cotton-based paper for American paper money, did not want to lose the half of its currency paper business represented by dollar bills. Lott objected because the cotton that goes into that paper is from Mississippi.

That explains why the paper dollar is still around, but why is the Mint cranking out more dollar coins if there's no demand for the ones that exist? That is also because of legislators. Planet Money:
In 2005, Congress decided that a new series of dollar coins should be minted to engage the public. These coins would bear the likeness of every former president, starting with George Washington. There would be a new one every quarter. So, far, the Mint has produced coins through the 18th president, Ulysses S. Grant.

Members of Congress reasoned that a coin series that changed frequently and had educational appeal would make dollar coins more popular. The idea came from the successful program that put each of the 50 states on the backs of quarters.

But as the new presidential dollar coins rolled out, the greenback lost none of its dominance in Americans' hearts and wallets.

If the mandate to make presidential coins wasn't enough to generate a growing heap of unwanted coins, a political deal ensured that even more unwanted coins would be produced.

It was easier for the bill's sponsor, then-Rep. Mike Castle (R-DE), to move the presidential coin bill forward if it didn't displace other dollar coins honoring Sacagawea, the teenage Native American guide to Lewis and Clark.

The deal: The mint would be required to make a quota of Sacagawea coins. Currently, the law says 20 percent of dollar coins made must have Sacagawea on them.

So, there are now about 1.2 billion dollar-coin "assets" chilling in Federal Reserve vaults, unloved and bearing no interest. By the time the presidential coin series finishes, and there are coins honoring all past presidents, there could be 2 billion.

Several congressional leaders contacted by NPR declined to comment for this story.
My modest proposal? Give them all away. Every person in America would get four; seven if you keep handing them out until the presidential coin series ends. Warehousing problem solved. If no one wants to use them, so be it.

Then the Federal government doesn't incur the expense of keeping and guarding them for however many years it will take to get rid of them all, or worse yet, melt them back down. Which probably means money will be saved in the long term.

Bixi. The service is popular, but the company has some problems.

From "Bixi program to lose millions for Montrealers, auditor general says":
Montrealers stand to lose millions of dollars in the popular Bixi bike-sharing program because of administrative irregularities, an illegal organizational set-up, incomplete planning and a lack of oversight and accountability, city auditor-general Jacques Bergeron has concluded.

The city and the company had no business plan, no serious feasibility studies, no clear financing structure and, apparently, no legal authority to launch Bixi in May 2009, Bergeron’s report says.

“It’s not unreasonable to conclude that the city therefore exceeded its powers” in setting up Bixi, Bergeron writes.

And while SVLS and Stationnement de Montréal have assured the Bixi program will overcome its deficit in the medium-term, the provincial government has thrown a wrench into their plans to turn a profit.

The Quebec Municipal Affairs Department last month ordered the city and Stationnement de Montréal to get out of the business of exporting Bixi to other cities in Canada and abroad because of their irregular structure, which violates the Cities and Towns Act.

The city is not permitted to be involved in a commercial entreprise. As a result, SVLS will have to sell off the business of exporting Bixi. That, says Bergeron, effectively cuts off its ability to make money off the Bixi program. It also jeopardizes the company’s ability to return a $37-million loan that Montreal city council approved last month, Bergeron finds.
As a result, the Public Bike System Company (PBSC) may now be on the market.

From Bike Portland:
Alta Bicycle Share (a spin-off of Portland-based Alta Planning) that plans and manages bike-sharing systems, says they'd be interested in purchasing Montreal's Public Bike System Company (PBSC) if it became available.

PBSC is the international company behind the "Bixi" bike-sharing system. According to the Montreal Gazette, it was set up to finance Bixi's Montreal operations by selling bikes and other hardware to other countries (they visited Portland in August 2009). Recently, Bixi/PBSC have come under serious fire and, following a report by the Montreal auditor general that, "painted the entire arrangement as one rife with procedural and legal irregularities," there is pressure to sell the international division.
PBSC's Bixi system is used in Montreal (as Bixi), London (as Barclays Cycle Hire), Washington (as Capital Bikeshare), Melbourne (as Melbourne Bike Share), and Toronto (as Bixi Toronto). It will soon be rolled out in Boston (as Hubway).