Why are soft serve ice cream machines so expensive?



I want to serve gourmet Latin American food at an upcoming party. By “gourmet” of course I mean Sonoran hot dogs and Toblerone McFlurry (as served in Argentina) .



To make the McFlurry I need soft serve ice cream. The only thing that I could find for home use was a Cuisinart that seems like an old Donvier with a motor to do the turning and a nozzle. I had hoped for a scaled-down version of what one sees in cafeterias. I poked around and discovered that those cost $6000. The question is why? How do they work? http://www.instructables.com/answers/How-do-soft-serve-icecream-machines-work/ talks about freezing, whipping, pressure, etc., which sounds complex but if the Japanese could design breadmakers to cost $200 why aren’t soft serve machines more affordable?

Class D amplifier for home subwoofers?


I am experimenting with in-wall speakers in a new (sort of small) house. There are a couple of in-wall passive subwoofers that I need to drive with a power amp (since home theater receivers don’t include anything other than line-level subwoofer outputs, as far as I know). I might watch a movie once a week and therefore I don’t want to spend too much money and don’t want the IT closet heated up too much if the amp is left on. I’m wondering if a Class D amplifier if the solution. Here are some ridiculously cheap examples:

What’s wrong with this idea, if anything? Has anyone tried using one of these amps to drive a 10″ in-wall subwoofer or similar? I’m assuming that the power output numbers are completely fraudulent but I figure that even if I divide by four it will be enough power.

Why is it hard for Yahoo to make more money?


The New York Times recently devoted a lot of ink to “Why Marissa Mayer is mediocre and couldn’t turn Yahoo around.” (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for “regression to the mean” and other reasons why sought-after job candidates often don’t work out that well; also see “America’s Worst CEOs: Where are they now?”)

Yahoo! has a huge audience and a very capable team of engineers. Computers and Internet applications generally don’t do what consumers want. Why is it hard for them to build the stuff that people want? For example, Yahoo Travel doesn’t seem to add anything to other travel booking sites (in fact they say it is “powered by hipmunk”), which means that it is okay for business travel (user tells server where he or she needs to go) but terrible for leisure travel (server should tell user where is best to go given date-time constraints and activities desired; see my February 2014 posting).

Yahoo Finance is the same as Google Finance (maybe because Google copied all of their features!). Why doesn’t the server ask you about your investment goals and tell you how much to invest and where to invest it? (if not specific funds then at least asset classes)

Yahoo Mail is the same as all of the other web-based email services (see this paper by Jin Choi on an RDBMS-backed email system from the late 1990s). Since Yahoo has a staff of capable managers in India, why don’t they offer a service where they’ll actually answer the email for customers? A personal assistant who can put stuff on the Yahoo calendar, delete spam that makes it through the filter, come up with a daily to-do list, organize parties from the contacts list, etc. It is a lot easier for Yahoo to hire and supervise an employee in India than it would be for an American consumer.

As a portal company Yahoo is uniquely positioned to offer something like the online community aggregation system I wrote about back in 2009. Instead they sat idly while Facebook drained users and page views away from all of the standalone online communities. But I still think it would be worth a few programmers.

Is it really the case that the superheroes at Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Uber have used up all the oxygen? It feels to me as though there is a lot of low-hanging fruit for a company with Yahoo’s resources.

What would readers do if they could push a few new products (or features for old products) out the door at Yahoo? I’ll start with a trivial one: add the ability to publish a narrated slide show from Flickr.

Time is ripe for Cubans to become Medicare vendors


Now that the U.S. is taking steps toward normalizing relations with our cash-poor, doctor-rich neighbor to the southeast, I am hoping that the time is ripe for Medicare to begin using Cuban medical services, as proposed in a February 2013 posting. (See my health care reform proposal for some reasons why every other country can provide health care at a lower cost than us.)

As a taxpayer I am looking forward to complete normalization of ties with Cuba. Keeping Cuba around as an official enemy is a sad reminder of how little return we get on our military and CIA dollars. If we can’t make the Castro brothers do what we tell them to, why should any other political leader listen to us?

[Separately, a friend has just returned from a trip to Costa Rica where he and his wife had complicated dental surgery at a fraction of the cost quoted in Boston. How was it? Here's how he responded to my emailed question...

I have had nothing but bad/horrendous dental care in the US (part of why I'm having to have so much work done), so the bar has not been set high. I have seen three different specialists from one practice- a cosmetic surgeon, a periodontist, and a general? dentist. They are all US-educated and teach at the university here. Their English is perfect, they are highly intelligent, articulate, and personable. Really, the best professional experience of any type I have ever had. Their office is in Escazu, which is the Weston of CR [Weston is a rich suburb of Boston]. Lots of rich CR clients, the practice is not really oriented towards foreigners, although they do that as well.


Google Play Music for Classical Music Fans


Sonos replaced my dead eight-year-old player for a reasonable price (earlier post) and threw in a coupon for 60 days of unlimited Google Play Music. I decided to try out this competitor to Rhapsody, Spotify, Pandora, et al. I clicked on a classical “radio” station. Unlike any classical FM station, but like the other streaming services, this turns out to be classical tracks selected at random. So you might get the second part of a string quartet followed by the first part of a symphony composed 100 years earlier.

Is it illegal to stream complete classical albums or at least four tracks in a row so that listeners can hear a whole symphony? If not I can’t figure out why none of the streaming services offer this from their “radio” stations. (Paying Rhapsody customers can stream entire albums, so it definitely is not illegal if the user selects the music rather than the service/station.)

Video Conversation as Online Dating Profile?



Nearly everyone in the U.S. has Internet access. Many online dating services are inexpensive or free. Many people are single and say that they would prefer to be partnered and/or married.

From the above facts I think it is reasonable to infer that online dating services are not very effective (see my 2011 posting on the subject).

What could work better? What about a way to learn how a person interacts with other people, e.g., in a conversation? A way to hear how they talk, laugh, respond? Why not a simple video recording of a conversation on general topics? Not “What are you looking for in a partner?” or “How many children do you want to have?” but “What did you do last weekend?” or “What do you think about some recent news stories?”

As I am a documentary filmmaker (translation: “I own a video camera”), it was easy to do a test last weekend. My friend Avni, a single 35-year-old Bostonian interested in marriage, was over for dinner. I recorded about 30 minutes of conversation and edited it down to a five-minute YouTube video.

What do folks think about the result? Does it give a better sense of Avni than a standard online dating profile listing favorite books and movies?

(And finally, if you’re looking for a warm and wonderful partner in the Boston area, send me an email and I will forward it to her!)

[Please forgive some of the technical shortcomings. It was dim light and I had an f/1.8 lens mounted and what looked like sharp focus on the back of the camera doesn't look sharp now. If you're a camera/video nerd, the equipment used was a Canon 5D III on a tripod, an 85/1.8 lens, and, most important, an Azden wireless microphone system (one lav mic mapped to the left channel and one to the right).]

Related: a dating profile that I created for a friend a few years ago; she married a medical doctor with a passion for online communities who was a reader of my site and now they have a very lively two-year-old daughter.

Good article for inspiring young people to learn Mandarin


New Yorker magazine carries an article (full text available to all) about a young self-made billionaire whose success was partly due to having put in the effort to learn Mandarin while in high school.

Separately, the article covers the question of whether people will benefit from being able to get blood tests more easily and cheaply, e.g., without having to first visit a physician and without having a vein opened up. A doctor friend says “Never order a test unless you know what you’re going to do with the answer.” If he is correct then generally we will not be healthier if we get more numbers more frequently. the article also covers the question of the extent to which the FDA will regulate vertically integrated blood testing labs differently than labs who buy their machines from third-party vendors.

Regarding the second question, I queried a friend in the pharma industry. Here’s what she had to say…

A couple of things struck me, the first being the powerful friends/supporters that she has on her Board.  I really do believe that this has insulated her from some rather obvious scrutiny.  The second was the FDA representatives who appear to not have a clue regarding their own regulations.
Item: Definition
If a product is labeled, promoted or used in a manner that meets the following definition in section 201(h) of the Federal Food Drug & Cosmetic (FD&C) Act it will be regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a medical device and is subject to premarketing and postmarketing regulatory controls.
A device is:
“an instrument, apparatus, implement, machine, contrivance, implant, in vitro reagent, or other similar or related article, including a component part, or accessory which is:
  • recognized in the official National Formulary, or the United States Pharmacopoeia, or any supplement to them,
  • intended for use in the diagnosis of disease or other conditions, or in the cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease, in man or other animals, or
  • intended to affect the structure or any function of the body of man or other animals, and which does not achieve its primary intended purposes through chemical action within or on the body of man or other animals and which is not dependent upon being metabolized for the achievement of any of its primary intended purposes.”
Item:  21 CFR 820.1
This part of the CFR details the Quality System Requirements for all Medical Devices.  In the scope section it states: “(a) Applicability. (1) Current good manufacturing practice (CGMP) requirements are set forth in this quality system regulation. The requirements in this part govern the methods used in, and the facilities and controls used for, the design, manufacture, packaging, labeling, storage, installation, and servicing of all finished devices intended for human use.”  (Theranos is utilizing these devices for the diagnoses of human ailments, so this should be applicable.)
This section of the Code of Federal Regulations discusses exemptions for diagnostic devices, and specifically states: “…must still submit a premarket notification to FDA before introducing or delivering for introduction into interstate commerce for commercial distribution the device…”  and goes on to list circumstances and applications which appear to fit the description of this application.
I think the crux of the argument here is the interstate commerce clause, however the argument could certainly be made, and I think effectively, that because this device is being utilized as a diagnostic tool in multiple states, Theranos has definitely crossed the line into interstate commerce.

Revisiting the 21st Century Draft Horse posting


In August 2010 I wrote a posting titled “unemployed = 21st century draft horse?” that questioned the extent to which American employers were likely to want to re-hire the lowest skilled workers in the U.S. Today’s New York Times has a related article: “The Vanishing Male Worker.” The article starts off with a guy that has been fired from two jobs that don’t require especially high levels of skill. It quotes an economist:

“They’re not working, because it’s not paying them enough to work,” said Alan B. Krueger, a leading labor economist and a professor at Princeton.

The (mostly American, presumably) readers take up this idea eagerly. There are hundreds of comments supporting raising the minimum wage and other non-market approaches to getting the least-attractive-to-employers Americans into well-paid jobs.

The employers’ perspective was not sought by the New York Times.

My own casual discussions with employers reveal a picture in which anyone with a reasonable level of attention to detail already has a job. A friend is an attorney in Denver, Colorado, where the cost of living is close to the national average. She is trying to hire an administrative assistant. This job requires no legal knowledge. The worker has simply to show up on time, be able to use Web sites such as Orbitz to book travel, be organized enough to keep a calendar, etc. How much will she have to pay to get someone qualified? “At least $70,000 per year,” was her answer, and in fact she hasn’t been able to find anyone good so far.

[In response to comments, I researched the Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers on what admin assistants get paid. It seems that roughly $50,000 per year is a national median, with a range of $32,000 to $75,000 per year going from the 10th to the 90th percentile. Thus the lawyer's expectation of  her (large) firm paying $70k/year for a high quality assistant is not unreasonable  Returning to the median $50,000 number, that's about 3X current minimum wage for a job that requires no specialized training or degrees (i.e., a diligent high school graduate could be effective in the role). In my opinion this supports the theory that any American who can be effective in a modern workplace is already highly sought-after by employers and therefore continued economic expansion won't result in a flood of job offers to the men featured in the New York Times article.]

So… was the 2010 posting prescient? Or will the seventh year of “recovery” somehow make American employers enthusiastic about those working-age Americans who’ve spent the past six years at home?

[Note that government regulation over the past six years has made low-skill workers less attractive to employers. Obamacare requires that more employees be provided with health insurance (a big fraction of the total cost of hiring a low-skill worker). Minimum wages are higher in some places and for some employers, e.g., those with government contracts. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (2009) opens up new fields of potential litigation.]

Maryland Commission on Child Custody Decision-Making


On December 1, 2014 the Maryland Commission on Child Custody Decision-Making issued its final report. This committee, most of whose members are attorneys or people who get paid to serve as custody evaluators or expert witnesses in divorce lawsuits, recommended statutes and procedures for resolving child custody disputes in Maryland going forward. Note that this commission did not address Maryland’s child support guidelines, which determine the cash value of obtaining custody.

The commission recommended as a guiding principle “there should be no presumed schedule of parenting time.” In other words, a judge can impose any schedule between 0/100 and 100/0 on the child of two fit parents. Attorneys we’ve interviewed nationwide say that this leads to the most litigation and the highest total fees billed. It also puts a premium on attorneys’ personal connections with judges because we were told that, in the absence of striking facts (e.g., one parent is a drug addict), judges generally award custody and set parenting schedules based on personal prejudice and/or their relationships with attorneys. A litigant who has the means to hire a well-connected attorney can reasonably hope for a better custody outcome when there are no limits on what judges can do. (Rigid guidelines, such as “mother always wins; children with father every other weekend” or “neither parent can become primary via litigation; absent parental agreement, children alternate weeks or have a 2-2-5-5 schedule” lead to the least litigation.)

The commission’s proposed statutory language enables a judge to use virtually any conceivable basis for an award of a 0/100 or 100/0 schedule, or any schedule in between. Judges are encouraged to investigate the share of parenting responsibilities “performed by each party … before the initiation of litigation.” Aside from this approach having been discredited by academic psychologists (see the Linda Nielsen interview in one of our draft chapters), attorneys that we interviewed said that it led to substantial rewards for people who engage in pre-lawsuit planning. If Parent A expects to sue Parent B, Parent A will eagerly volunteer for all kinds of child-related tasks while asking Parent B to shop, cook, work extra hours, and do other non-child-related tasks in the marital partnership.

The commission’s proposed statutory language encourages judges to deny shared parenting to parents who are in conflict by making “the ability of each party to effectively communicate with the other party” a factor. In nearly every state where this is a factor litigators told us that parents who thought that they had a good chance to win primary custody, and the child support profits to accompany it, would simply generate conflict with the other parent. How does that work? Here’s a text message exchange contained in an exhibit to a motion in a Massachusetts case, Kosow v. Shuman. The mother of a 2-year-old sued the father following four years of marriage, seeking primary physical custody and approximately $5 million in tax-free child support. The parents, who live about 15 minutes’ drive apart from each other, are trying to coordinate an exchange:

Jessica: She gets picked up at noon if she were to go to school. Drop her off at noon.
Michael: I won’t be home till 12:45. I can drop her off at 9:30 if you u want but she will prob sleep late
Jessica: Ok well WTF. School is out at noon.
Jessica: U r fucking a selfish fuck
Jessica: And u r no role model
Jessica: I wont even say it and it is sooooooo vile
Michael: I can drop her off at 1 or u can pick her up earlier. What is ur problem?
Jessica: Fuck u
Jessica: I have had it with u and ur abuse

(After a 2012 trial, Judge Maureen Monks of Middlesex County awarded Ms. Kosow about $2 million in child support cash, a free house for 20 years, all of the expenses of the child paid (including a nanny to relieve Ms. Kosow of any hands-on child-related chores), health insurance for herself, $50,000 in annual alimony, and half of her attorney’s fees. We estimated that Kosow, while relaxing at home, out-earns her average full-time employed University of Pennsylvania classmate by 3.2:1.)

If the proposed statute is passed, Maryland should be on track to build up courthouse filing cabinets full of similar material.

The commission proposes changing some language so that it is more gender-neutral and rubs less salt into the wounds of loser parents (who will have “parenting time” rather than “visitation” under the proposed statute). Other states and countries have tried this over the past 20 years and the attorneys we interviewed generally said that it didn’t affect the amount of litigation. As long as it was plain to litigants that there would be a primary parent collecting money every month and a secondary parent paying the money the court battle could continue until all parental resources were paid over to attorneys, psychologists, and other segments of the divorce industry. Here’s a snippet from our book:

The lawyers we interviewed who had not been involved in this kind of legislation scoffed at the renaming, e.g., “You get sued, have to pay me $200,000 to defend the lawsuit, lose your parental role, are ordered to pay 100 percent of a child’s expenses plus 100 percent of the mother’s expenses to live in a five-bedroom house and not work, and babysit for free what used to be your kid every other weekend. If you can’t recognize that this is a loss because the court calls you a ‘secondary parent’ instead of a ‘noncustodial parent’, you’re an idiot.”

In something of a side-note on page 29, the commission recommends “statutory or rule change” so that it is easier for judges to make the higher-income parent (usually the defendant) pay the lower-income parent’s attorney’s fees in an “adequate and predictable” manner. This would encourage more people to file lawsuits, since they wouldn’t have to pay the costs of attorneys on either side, and would ensure that litigation could continue until the savings and income of both parents had been consumed.

If the proposed statute is adopted, Maryland will be in pretty much the same situation it is now. Children are cash-producing assets whose ownership is uncertain. The profits from ownership of these assets may be greatly in excess of what a college degree will generate. Ownership of these cash-producing assets will be determined by a single person, the family court judge, based on a combination of (1) evidence that is considered irrelevant by academic psychologists, (2) attorney argument, (3) personal prejudice, and (4) personal connections to the attorneys. Thoughtful litigants who engage in pre-lawsuit planning and post-lawsuit conflict generation will be rewarded with more time with their children and enhanced cash profits.

[How profitable are children in Maryland? Using UCLA Professor of Economics Bill Comanor's numbers on actual child-rearing costs (previous post), the OECD's estimate of how much time working parents spend on child care, a 67/33 parenting time split, and the Maryland Child Support Guidelines, obtaining a custody of a child whose other parent earns $180,000 per year will generate about $77 per hour in tax-free cash. This is more than 3X the median (taxable) hourly wage in Maryland (Bureau of Labor Statistics). Adjusting for taxes, the successful custody/child support plaintiff in Maryland will out-earn the worker by 4:1.]

Note that I don’t want this posting to be seen as an attack on the integrity of litigators, including those on the Maryland committee. Most of the 100+ litigators that we’ve interviewed for our book seem like good people. But at the same time they can’t help but feel very comfortable with what they do every day, i.e., litigate. They often don’t see litigation as harmful to children and when litigation consumes 100% of a family’s assets and parental energy for several years they explain the phenomenon by saying that there was some sort of psychological defect in the litigants. “They were high conflict people,” a litigator will say about a case that went to trial over custody of children with a cash value of $5 million, not “Our legislature, with input from our bar association, set up a completely unbounded winner-take-all system and both parents tried hard to be the winner rather than the loser.”

One more reason why I love Sonos


No suburban paradise is complete without whole-house music. In setting up the latest here in Lincoln, Massachusetts I plugged in a Sonos ZP100 that the company’s records show I purchased in 2006 (yay for the RDBMS!). It failed to boot. I called the company on a Sunday, was connected to a competent native speaker of English, and offered the chance to pay about $150 (including shipping, tax, etc.) to swap the dead eight-year-old box for a working new one (retail price: $500). Of course they are sending me the new one right away and I will return the old one in the box that they provide.

Now my only complaint about Sonos is that they don’t make dishwashers

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