On Apple and Bureaucracy – Apple doesn’t think people move

As faithful readers know, I have recently relocated from the US to Australia, and now my stuff, including my iMacs, arrived in their container. I would like to use them. Sadly, American power and Australian power are different voltages, different currents, different shapes of plugs. My MacBook works fine with an adaptor, surely, you say, one can go to the Apple Store / Town Center and pick up a replacement power cable. How hard could this be? I think the only difference from the computer’s perspective is the cable, not the country of origin, as the device itself has a transformer.

I went to Apple Store at Broadway, near campus. I learned after about 15 minutes of very polite back and forth that Apple does not sell replacement power cables, they are considered service parts. However if I had my serial numbers they might give them to me. Unfortunately, I did not memorize my iMac serial numbers, I barely remember my phone number. This is offloaded to the computer, which is of course not plugged in, as it is in Australia with American power cables. They could not look it up for some reason.  Also, I did not carry my iMac with me, which might have made this go faster, if my arms tired. Find my iPhone doesn’t tell you the serial number (also it doesn’t use TouchID).  The computer is out of AppleCare warranty. They said I should contact support online.

I had a lovely 20 minute text chat with Apple Support which in the end resulted in them saying they can’t do anything since they are in the US (though I logged in from Australia, my computers are American). But they very politely connected me with local technical support via telephone.

I repeated the story. After a 20 minute conversation with the first local technical support person, I had to be kicked upstairs to Herbert who informed me he was from Singapore (I am not sure where the first person had been located). After another 25 minutes, he was able to generate an exception and said the cables would be sent to my local address in a few business days.

So the good news is they could eventually resolve my problem. The bad news is it took 4 people and more than an hour of time (both mine and theirs) for something seemingly so simple and inexpensive.

So in answer to the question “how hard could this be”, the answer is very. The reason is that Apple, like so many large companies, is functionally a bureaucracy without empowered staff. They have systematically lost a can-do spirit, and almost everyone, while well-trained in customer mollification, lacks authority to do things that are exceptional. There is no doubt a reason bureaucracies exist. As the famous quote from the The Caine Mutiny says “The Navy is a system designed by geniuses to be executed by idiots. If you find yourself in the Navy and you are not an idiot, you can only function well by pretending to be one.” The US military is the extreme example. However Apple’s growth is clearly driving it in that direction too.

I realize the simpler solution would be to just get a off-the-shelf non-Apple US-AU power adaptor, but when I started the process, I didn’t think it would be so difficult. But, I am an edge case.

Post-script 2017-10-28. 1 Powercable arrived in the mail on Friday. I had clearly asked for 2. It did however work fine.

Open Source, Open Content, Open Campuses … New Apple HQ


Alexandra Lange at Design Observer does not like the New Apple HQ

Wouldn’t it have been more radical for Apple to double down on an actual town? To act more like J. Irwin Miller in Columbus than CG chairman Frazar Wilde in Bloomfield. Miller hired Alexander Girard to spiff up Main Street, and masterminded adaptive reuse of the old storefronts to provide his employees and his neighbors what they needed in town. Cupertino leaders fell all over themselves in their desire to keep Apple’s taxes in town, but wouldn’t it be better to benefit from some of its knowledge and physical assets?

This is a classic trade-off. Interaction between people is of course good for generating ideas, productivity, etc. But which interactions, between which people, do you want to maximize: Interaction within the firm (a la Apple’s HQ) or interaction between the firm and the outside world (Lange’s proposed solution)? Given finite time budgets, more of one means less of the other. For Apple, with its secretiveness part of the formula of its success, the answer is obvious. For many universities, the issue is the same (town vs. gown), even without the profit motive. The most productive work-related random interactions I have are on-campus, not between me and some random town-folk (sorry Minneapolitans I meet on the street).Crashed2 This is the same argument as Eric Raymond puts forth in The Cathedral and the Bazaar, which argues in favor of the Bazaar model of software development (which gives us Open Source products like Linux) rather than the Cathedral (Microsoft or Apple, e.g.). Open source and open content are good things (my Open source and open content projects include the Metropolitan Travel Survey Archive, Simulating Transportation for Realistic Education and Training, some wikibooks, and the Journal of Transport and Land Use), and interaction with the community is a good thing, for the community. As an employee of a not-for-profit University, I am enabled to do these community-benefitting works.

But if open dissipates the quality of internal interactions, or costs the profits necessary to justify a high fixed cost investment, the reasons for resistance are quite clear. Apple’s business model is such that it cannot make large multi-year investments if someone else can get their ideas and come to market at the same time without the investment. In some areas, those with high fixed costs but low excludability (ideas are easy to steal and hard to protect, hence patents) and low rivalry (my possessing an idea does not prevent you from possessing it) require secrecy for development. If the fixed costs of development were low relative to the variable costs of production, the isolation and secrecy would be less critical, since the cost of production would be proportional to units made, that does not describe software, where all of the investment is up front.
The Linux strategy of openness works quite well at producing low-level operating systems (which underlie Android phones, servers, cable boxes, and airplane entertainment systems (see figure) among the countless other systems out there), but not well at User Interface, for that someone needs to come along and put something proprietary on top, or hardware/software integration. Google did a UI stack on top of Linux with Android and essentially gave it away in exchange for advertising revenue (if they are not selling to you, they are selling you). This is a different business model.

My life as a Content Management System Administrator (updated)

I spend my life as a Content Management System Administrator. Below is a short list of the cool (and uncool) tools I use. Much of this is aligned with my Sisyphean objective to be paperless (to be strived for, but ultimately frustrated by the workings of others).


  • Journal Editing. For the Journal of Transport and Land Use we use Open Journal System. This works well for some things, but it breaks down for paper re-review, it does not notify editors a paper has been resubmitted, and there are other bits of wonkyness and user-unfriendliness. On the other hand, it is a much nicer backend than used by many publishers. I suspect all journal management software is a bit wonky. When I review or submit to other journals I am tied to the various CMS for each journal. These are unfortunately not linked, even within same publisher. Single LogIn, at least within publisher would be nice (Elsevier is working towards this, but every time a new journal sends me something, it is not tied together. Spend some of your billions Elsevier and get this working. Also please stop sending passwords in the clear in email messages!). OpenID maybe? Orcid? The consequence is I have many log-ins which are difficult to track, even for the same journal. These are all fixable with effort, but why bother for something used only a few times each?
  • Mail – Mail.app (the backend is Gmail Gopher mail) I used to use lots of rules and folders, but have switched to two major folders, InBox and Archive. If it is in the InBox, it is for me to do. If it is in the Archive, it is done. The problem is long-term items, like journal reviews (sorry other editors), which have their own folder (Reviews ToDo) which I check monthly. This ensures long term items stay out of the InBox and that I don’t return reviews too soon, which just encourages the editors to send more (no good deed goes unpunished). Thus I am trying to follow the GTD rule of “touching it once”.
  • Notes – Evernote and 1Password. Mail.app (MobileMe Syncing). These are for lists of things, like frequent flyer numbers, which I want at hand, or extended bits of work that I do on one machine, but want available on another (work vs. home vs. laptop vs. phone).
  • Addresses – AddressBook.app (iCloud MobileMe Syncing). Note I scan Business Cards via CardMunch on the iPhone, so I can now scan these directly (almost) to the address book. Apparently CardMunch uses Mechanical Turk services, not OCR, as had my previous physical scanner, which seems a step backwards, but probably improves accuracy.
  • Calendar – iCal.app (MobileMe Syncing)
  • ToDo/Project Management – I now use Omnifocus. (I used to use iCal.app (MobileMe Syncing), but this was approximately useless). This is very new, but it seems quite workable. I use Asana for group project management.
  • Blog reading – The tools of choice for RSS feeds are Google Reader Feedbin.me and  Reeder for iPhone. With the death of Google Reader, this is an important decision. Feedbin seems to sync reasonably well. Reeder for Mac and for iPad don’t yet have Feedbin integration, but we are promised it is coming soon. Google Reader does not handle some sites well (i.e. sites are not Reader-friendly, and want you to go directly there, presumably because they want ad revenue). All good sites however let you read full blog posts via Google Reader. The list of blogs read can be exported as an OPML file (some of mine are here), which is nice in principle. There were some services (Toluu) that tried to connect people based on their OPML files, but this did not seem to take off.
  • Blog writing – The Transportationist is hosted on a WordPress site Moveable Type foundation on the University of Minnesota’s UThink site). I now generally writes posts via MarsEdit rather than the painful web interface … it would be nice to sync this across multiple computers, so I have draft posts where-ever I am. Apparently syncing across multiple computers can be done with Dropbox, using symlinks (e.g. created using MacDropAny), not aliases.
  • Website Management – For Nexus, I use Dreamweaver, which I get at a steep discount from the University. The site is hosted on MacOSX, running Apache. I occasionally use BBEdit, which is much nicer for editing source code than Dreamweaver, but Dreamweaver has decent file management, and can attach templates to pages effectively. The site itself was designed as part of a class project at Metropolitan State University, and employs a minimal amount of javascript.
  • Paper indexing – All the papers on nexus are indexed in RePEc – research papers in economics, to ensure they get listed by Google Scholar.
  • References – When I write in LaTeX (MS Word is banished in my world), I create a .bib file, starting usually with Google Scholar, which can export files in BibTeX. I sometimes use JabRef to manage the content in the files. Surely there is a better way.
  • Bookmarks – Safari (MobileMe Syncing). I uploaded my bookmarks to Delicious once, but aside from the bookmarks bar, I don’t really use Bookmarks anymore.
  • Documents – MacOSX (with Spotlight), I don’t quite get the need for separate document management software on my own machine, I can find things, and don’t want to tag my files, folders should be enough. Perhaps if someone could convert folder names to file tags, I could do away with folders.
  • Statistical Databases – Stata is our (nexus group) official statistical program, though some students prefer R, which I cannot argue with, but do not have time or patience to learn (it is enough I learned LaTeX)
  • Archiving – The Metropolitan Travel Survey Archive (MTSA) is hosted as a series of flat files, some of which are formatted in XML so that SDA can be used for online analysis. We are considering trying to move files to ICPSR, which is a larger social science archive, for safer-keeping and economies of scale, but the migration involves some pain. We should also have a copy at the Digital Conservancy.
  • Professional Network – LinkedIn (though really, I am not sure what this does, I know what Facebook does, but no one hangs out here it seems)
  • Maps, Geographic Data – My lab uses ArcGIS for all its geographic data, but these are stored in the computer file system, rather than their being a good CMS for this, which seems odd, one would think ArcGIS would have better CMS capabilities. Maybe I don’t know enough, or maybe there is an opportunity. It pains me that ArcGIS is not available on Mac.
  • Backup – I use TimeMachine for local backup (though I have Time Machine Scheduler, so it only runs once a day rather than tying up my machine. I once (until 2 minutes ago) used Mozy for off-site backup, but this was really slow, especially for my home machine, and they are ending unlimited backup, so this is on the way out. New solution needed.
  • Website Registration – GoDaddy  Hover.com
  • Finances – The U of Mn has a large Peoplesoft installation, but this is almost totally useless for really basic things, like easily determining the amount of money left in project accounts. Banks have done this online for more than a decade, it can’t be that hard.
  • Other U of Mn stuff – can be accessed by myU or OneStop. I am not clear why both exist. I am not clear why there cannot be a cookie so that as a faculty member, it defaults to Faculty OneStop. I suspect faculty never go to myU, I don’t know about students.
  • Project Reporting – CTS manages a Quarterly Reports system for all the projects that go through them. Fortunately other sponsors like NSF only ask for annual reports. Unfortunately other sponsors like TRB (NCHRP) ask for monthly.
  • Teaching – I use Moodle for course management. This is a great program, which would be better if I could drag and drop files from my desktop instead of using old-skool web-interface. Nevertheless, much high praise to Moodle, which is an open source project.


  • Passive Entertainment – iTunes contains my music, movie, TV, audiobooks, podcasts and many ebooks. The library bends under the weight, and the software seems a bit inefficient, especially with homesharing. Other books are in Kindle format, which is probably the direction I will go for all new books.
  • Podcasts – Instacast Apple’s Podcasts App solves the podcast syncing problem, which is, I don’t want to constantly sync my iPhone via iTunes, which is slow, just to update podcasts, and I don’t want to go to the online iTunes Music Store to download them. The downside is that podcasts sometimes stop if the AT&T network is slow for any reason, and need to be restarted. But this is a really nice App in general.
  • Games – This really needs work (Nintendo, iPhone, MacOS) – I should be able to store Wii games on the system or a server, not use DVDs to load. I also have a set of Board Games (which are not organized), including a set of Railroad Games for use in the class to play with network evolution.
  • Photos, Short Movies – iPhoto Aperture stores these, I have thought about share with Flickr and Everpix.  I have thought about MobileMe, Facebook, but dislike, and Wikimedia commons (if I had time to categorize, label, and add metadata to these properly) (and have done trivial amounts on each) but none of these seems ideal quite yet. If Yahoo did not own Flickr, I would trust it more. And with 20K+ photos, it is not trivial to upload. Like iTunes, iPhoto seems to crack under the weight of large libraries.
  • Personal finances – My financial institutions have their own CMS which I must comport with. I have thought about Quicken (or Quickbooks) and would like a solution for Receipts especially that syncs with my tax program, but the upfront setup costs of Quicken dissuade me.
  • Taxes – I use TurboTax, I switched to TurboTax online this year, from offline, but there did not seem to be a way for them to take my last year’s return to populate basic fields. (It says it could, I couldn’t find it). I am disappointed in Intuit for this, but otherwise it seemed to work well enough without crashing or losing all my data.
  • Book index – Our books are almost completely indexed on Library Thing, but this needs a good iPhone app or Mobile-friendly website, preferably with local storage when I am in the basement of a used book store (a cell phone dead zone).
  • Knowledge – I store all my knowledge on Wikipedia, and increasingly Wikibooks (where I have three textbooks ranging from Featured to candidate to in progress). Alas, I have done a brain dump already (I am ranked 3055, a long slip from my number 37 ranking back in the early days (March 2004), I am fairly sure I was higher at some point, but it doesn’t seem archived), so there is nothing non-personal I know that the web does not. I guess there is some other knowledge in my papers and books.
  • Friends – The Facebook (sorry, you are not really people, just content to be collected and managed)
  • Genealogy – I have a set of GEDCOM files encoding my ancestors, my aunt did one side of my family, I did the other side of my family, which are sitting on my computer. I don’t actually have a tool for this. I don’t want to upload all of it without some privacy control, and don’t know if there are any good sites, I played with a few a few years ago, like Geni, but none of the wiki-like sites seems to have sufficiently matured, and Geni disabled GEDCOM. Maybe my children will eventually care or have a school project and figure this out.
  • Buddy List – I have contacts in a variety of IM and communications systems. Address Book as above noted is the primary store for Contacts. There is also AIM, Skype, Facebook, and Google for chat. Fortunately I don’t chat much. I moved my mom from AIM to FaceTime.
  • Shopping wish list – Amazon keeps my wish lists.
  • Backup – At home there is TimeMachine and SilverKeeper Carbon Copy Cloner for the iTunes library, which runs weekly. I periodically copy my home library to my work machine in case of disaster, but this is too infrequent.
  • Password management, I like 1Password
  • Offsite backup! –  I have killed Mozy, since they killed unlimited, and went with Minnesota-based CrashPlan (if they lose my data, I can hunt them down), though Backblaze seems a worthy alternative.

Needs and Other Consideration

    • Ebook Conversion – I still seek less paper. We have over 3000 bound books, many of which I would love to replace with electronic versions, if I did not have to pay a fortune to do so. Converting CDs to a music library was painful, but this looks to be god-awful.
    • Simplified CV/Website/Metadata (.rdf) reference management – I seek automatic updating of CV and website from same the reference database. There are programs that do this, from BibRef files even, but they don’t produce the web output I want, so this is still non-optimal.
    • DVD libary – My DVDs are not indexed unless ripped. I need some way to store DVDs in my media library efficiently, and without copy protection, so the content remains available even if the media is scratched.
    • References management? (Papers vs. Sente vs. Mendeley) 
    • Document management? (Yojimbo vs. DevonThink)
    • Personal financial management
    • Grocery lists – Tried GroceryIQ but it was laggy, since it touched the server too much and sent needless graphics. Now use paper again.
    • Household inventory
  • A systematic way to identify needs. Are there categories of my existence that are not cataloged, managed, and described digitally?
  • A Content Management System (CMS) for my Content Management Systems – lets call it a Content Management System management system (C(MS)^2).

updated May 12, 2011, May 28, 2013

Why retailers cluster: an agent model of location choice on supply chains

Recently published:
Huang, Arthur and David Levinson (2011) Why retailers cluster: an agent model of location choice on supply chains volume 38(1) pages 82 – 94. [download from Environment and Planning b website]

Abstract. This paper investigates the emergence of retail clusters on supply chains comprised of suppliers, retailers, and consumers. An agent-based model is employed to study retail location choice in a market of homogeneous goods and a market of complementary goods. On a circle comprised of discrete locales, retailers play a noncooperative game by choosing locales to maximize profits which are impacted by their distance to consumers and to suppliers. Our findings disclose that in a market of homogeneous products symmetric distributions of retail clusters arise out of competition between individual retailers; average cluster density and cluster size change dynamically as retailers enter the market. In a market of two complementary goods, multiple equilibria of retail distributions are found to be common; a single cluster of retailers has the highest probability to emerge. Overall, our results show that retail clusters emerge from the balance between retailers’ proximity to their customers, their competitors, their complements, and their suppliers.

The software underlying this paper, CLUSTER, has just been made available on the STREET website, so you are free to test and reproduce the results yourself. The software is free and open source, so feel free to modify, please let us know if you do anything.

Using Crowds, and GPS, to Chart Roadkill

From NYT: Using Crowds, and GPS, to Chart Roadkill

While Mr. Ringen’s friends goad him with nicknames like “Doctor Roadkill,” he is not alone in his peculiar pursuit. Hundreds of volunteers collect and upload roadkill data to the California Roadkill Observation System, a mapping Web site built by researchers at the University of California, Davis, to better understand where and why cars strike animals.

(Are these guys like trainspotters?).

Quick links: Software to “help” travelers.

Wikidirections A wiki for directions (for those who prefer not to use GPS or mapping services). Essentially no content yet. Will there ever be?
Google’s OpenSpot Find an open parking spot, if someone notifies this service AND it hasn’t been taken by someone else before you get there. Ultimately doomed because it cannot be useful unless it is automatic and ubiquitous. (And it won’t be ubiquitous unless it is useful).

Topological evolution of surface transportation networks

The following was recently published:
Xie, Feng and David Levinson (2009) The Topological Evolution of Road Networks.
Topological evolution of surface transportation networks
Computers, Environment, and Urban Systems 33(3) 211-223 [doi]

This study explores the topological evolution of surface transportation networks, using empirical evidence and a simulation model validated on that data. Evolution is an iterative process of interaction, investment, and disinvestment. The temporal change of topological attributes for the network is also evaluated using measures of connectivity, density, heterogeneity, concentration, and connection patterns. The simulation model is validated using historical data from the Indiana interurban network. Statistical analyses suggest that the simulation model performs well in predicting the sequence of link abandonment in the interurban network as well as the temporal change of topological
attributes. The simulation model is then applied on different idealized network structures. Typical connection patterns such as rings, webs, hub-and-spokes, and cul-de-sacs emerge in the networks; the spontaneous organization of network hierarchies, the temporal change of spacing between parallel links, and the rise-and-fall of places in terms of their relative importance are also observed, providing evidence for the claim that network topology is an emergent property of network dynamics.
PACS numbers: 89.75.Fb, 89.75.-k, 89.75Kd

Ads for old news

On today’s New York Times, an ad:

Politics E-Mail
Keep up with the 2008 presidential election with the daily Politics e-mail newsletter. See Sample
Change E-mail Address | Privacy Policy

What is wrong with this picture? I seem to have read that Obama has been inaugurated and all? (I realize the 2008 Minnesota Senate election is not resolved)
I assume this is evidence that the Old York Times is not selling advertising, and therefore is likely to be losing money.

Cloud Commuting

The End of Traffic and the Future of Access: A Roadmap to the New Transport Landscape. By David M. Levinson and Kevin J. Krizek.
The End of Traffic and the Future of Access: A Roadmap to the New Transport Landscape. By David M. Levinson and Kevin J. Krizek.

Once upon a time, people kept their life savings on their person or at their homes, stored in physical material like gold and jewelry and property. Then money was invented as a medium of exchange, and people stored a surrogate of their wealth. Then banking was invented, and people centralized their holdings in a bank, and were paid interest for the privilege. Why were they paid? Because the banks could reuse their money by lending it out, at an even greater rate of interest. Money is fungible. I do not lose anything by storing it at the bank (and allowing them to lend it) except the privacy of keeping secret how much money I have, and risk that the bank will be unable to pay me back. The first is resolved through regulations, and the use of multiple banks, the latter by insurance. In any case, it is much safer than storing the money in a mattress at home.

Once upon a time, people kept their life’s information on their person or on computers at their home or work, stored in physical material like floppy disk drives, hard disk drives, solid state drives, CDs, DVDs, and USB chips. Then the internet was invented, and centralized servers were made inexpensively and redundantly, and people could store their information in the “cloud”. In many cases the cloud is free, or charges only a small fee. In exchange, the recipients agree to allow their personal information to be used to generate customized advertising targeted at them personally. But imagine their were a way for the cloud to earn interest on information much the same way banks earn interest on money, by synthesizing it and “lending it out”. Since information is not rivalrous, this may prove viable with sufficient artificial intelligence aimed at developing ontologies and computer intelligence. The risk is the loss of privacy. Alternatively the customer pays the cloud for storage and computation, retaining privacy, in exchange being relieved of duties of backup, which when neglected lead to all too much data loss.

Once upon a time people kept their personal transportation near their person, parking cars and bikes at their homes, workplaces, or other destinations. This was the only way to guarantee point to point transportation in a timely way where densities were low, incomes high, and taxis scarce. Then “cloud commuting” was invented, cars from a giant pool operated by organizations in the cloud would dispatch a vehicle that drives to the customer on demand and in short order, and then deliver the customer to the destination. The vehicle would have the customers preferences pre-loaded (seat position, computing ability, audio environment). The customer benefits of course by not tying up capital in vehicles, nor having to worry about maintaining or fueling vehicles. The fleet is used more efficiently, each vehicle would operate 2 times or 3 times or more miles per year than current vehicles, so the fleet would turnover faster and be more modern. Fewer vehicles overall would be needed. It is likely customers would need to pay for this service (either as a subscription or a per-use basis), there is no obvious analogue to financial interest payments (and while advertising might offset some costs, surely it would not cover them). However stores might subsidize transportation, as might employers, as benefits for the customers or staff.

The tension between centralization and decentralization has been continuous through the history of technology, each has its advantages and disadvantages (and strangely, each also has religious zealots convinced there is one true way). This is ultimately a question of costs and benefits, and who bears the costs and benefits.

I am skeptical that cloud commuting can be made to work quite yet, there are still a few more technologies to perfect. Having tested Zipcar, their system lacks in several ways, much the ways the first banks failed frequently. Zipcars are still not local enough, they charge too much for lateness, the technology is still imperfect. But imagine we have cars that drive themselves. (and to PRT-advocates, these will be cars driving on streets, there are not enough resources to build a new infrastructure network for specialized vehicles). Smart cars solve the localness problem, since the cars come to you. In a way it also solves the lateness problem, because there is no need to reserve a specific car for a specific window, any unused fleet car can be dispatched. There would need to load balancing features, and maybe coordinated carpooling at peak times. (It also saves on parking, especially parking in high value areas).
Related links:

* Technological change, part 2: Autonomous vehicles
* The Future of Cars