Sunday, February 22, 2015

Circular Square

A year or two ago I ran off on a tangent and made a website I thought would revolutionize grocery shopping. I called it Circular Square. Simple concept: give it your zipcode, and it will search the major chains for locations near you. It gives you their addresses, links to Google Maps, and links to their weekly sales circulars.

You can then search all those sales (or some subset) for a particular item that might be on sale. It will come back with everything matching your search. It was essentially a giant collection of scrapers with a clean  single-page AJAX front-end. It took a good bit of work to make each scraper, but I ended up with eleven or so, covering half the major chains around Nashville.

Got a shopping list, and want to know the best place to get each item this week? Problem solved. This site could save you half an hour of searching through fliers.

Oh, but it gets better: you would be able to log in and save searches! The system would then email you when something you wanted to stock up on went on sale. Love Blue Bell ice cream, but only willing to buy it if you catch the rare half-price sale? Just watch your email! And on top of that, it would search the coupon sites too! This thing was going to be beautiful. You can still go to the site and get an idea of how it went. (Saved searches didn't work yet, though.)

But I ran into a slight problem: the websites I was scraping change constantly. After a year or two without maintenance, only six of the eleven scrapers still give location results, some of those links don't work properly, and only two still give sale results. It's still pretty sweet for Aldi and Harris Teeter, though!

At the time I concluded that this wasn't going to be worth the effort to maintain. But I'm starting to reconsider. I can obviously make this site work. I even enjoy writing the scrapers, it's a fun puzzle to solve. But the real problem is that it has to be worth my time. I see a few possible business models.

1) Completely free. I just use it for my own purposes, save my own money and time, and let others use my tools if they want to with no guarantees of functionality. I'm pretty confident I wouldn't end up maintaining it very long under this model, but if I had some help it might survive.

2) Ads. The search page itself contains ads, the emails contain ads, ads ads ads. Not the insane sort that flash and blink and start talking, but some relatively unobtrusive ones. Might offset the time cost some.

3) Subscriptions. You get some subset of services for free, but having more than say three saved searches costs you. So then my question is, what would you pay for this?

4) Additional services. Maybe it makes a giant grocery list, then hires an Uber driver to go pick it all up for you. Or something marginally less crazy?

So I'm throwing it out there. What do my readers (all three of you) think? Should I pick this project back up, finish it out, and maintain it for a while? Would anyone out there use it besides me?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Robin Hood conversation

A Facebook friend posted a link to this article. I found the following conversation interesting, so I've recorded it here.

Me: False dichotomy. Robin Hood both robbed an overreaching government, and stole from the rich to give to the poor. In his case they happened to be the same. The ultimate lesson doesn't change either way: allow wealth to become concentrated to the point that most people have difficulty making ends meet, and law and order breaks down. Surely nobody can believe that if everyone was starving, but it was because all the wealth had been acquired by legal monopolies, Robin would have just been fine with that situation.

(How bad do things have to be for a criminal to be the hero of the story? I could think of a few names in the last few years one could say that about, actually...)

Complete equality of outcome is idiocy, but government can remove all reward for hard work just as thoroughly by allowing unchecked concentration of wealth as by preventing it entirely. If you want a functioning market system, and more fundamentally a stable law abiding society, government is required, and must take a path between the two absurd extremes typically presented by neoconservative commentators.

Beware those who present you with such false dichotomies. They're trying to shut down your reasoning process. Just like sound bite politics.

Friend:  I understand your point. However, in the stories, he didn't steal from rich individual citizens. He stole from a wealthy government (King) or Church which came into its wealth by immoral means (robbing from poor families, unfairly taxing, requiring tithes)

Me: My point was that difference does not change the applicability of the story, nor would that difference have changed Robin Hood's actions. My greater point is that arguing over Robin Hood is a cheap distraction from the fact that the American lower and middle classes have been taking a beating for thirty-five years, while the rich get richer and leave the rest of us with no hope of bettering our situation.

Friend: I think the two are mutually exclusive. This position assumes all wealthy individuals achieved this wealth through illegal means, or immoral means. That simply is not true. 

Me: I make no such assumption. I do assume that having a stable society is preferable to having an unstable one, and that having a large number of desperately poor people and a few very rich ones leads to an unstable society. How those rich people got there is beside the point. You can argue over a standard of morality all you want, but at the end of the day you have robbery and food riots either way.

Ultimately, we're arguing over a marketing slogan, rather than discussing the actual issues that desperately need to be addressed.  

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Could iTunes please not suck? Please?

I spent DAYS making a Christmas playlist for a party last year. iTunes has eaten it. The data is sort of maybe still there, but there's no actually making it point to the songs. If I try, it loses the link forever. Screw iTunes.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

November 2014 Election: State Legislature

Again, I'm copying and pasting some information from my posts on the primary elections. Unfortunately, there's not much thinking to be done on most of these.

The following four elections are uncontested, and there is no reason to support any of these candidates based on their stands on issues that matter. I suggest writing in a name in protest of the very concept of uncontested elections. If you want a name to write, feel free to use mine.

52nd Representative District
Mike Stewart (D)
55th Representative District
John Ray Clemmons (D)

58th Representative District
Harold M. Love (D)

59th Representative District
Sherry Jones (D)

The following elections are only between the two major parties. I never heard anything on the big issues from most of the candidates, and only the usual partisan stuff is on their websites. Since the Republican party has gone so far off the rails lately, I suggest voting Democrat. If you can't do that, I suggest writing in a name for those elections, if only out of protest. Again, feel free to use mine, if you like.

21st Senate District
Diana Cuellar (R)
Jeff Yarbro (D) 

50th Representative District 
Troy Brewer (R)
Bo Mitchell (D, incumbent)

51st Representative District
Brian L. Mason (R)
Bill Beck (D)

56th Representative District
Beth Harwell (R , incumbent)
Chris Moth (D)
Unlike any of the others on this list, this candidate responded to me, and described himself as "deeply concerned about the influence of money in politics". It's not a commitment to the Wolf-PAC amendment or anything else, but it's something. On a personal level, I can strongly recommend him. He's a computer, science, technically-oritented kind of guy. I really enjoyed speaking with him, and I think he'd do very well in the House.

60th Representative District 
Jim Gotto (R)
Darren Jernigan (D)

The following three races have a third-party candidate, so I'll go slightly more in depth on them.

19th Senate District
Sterlina Inez Brady (R)
Still no information, at all. No webpage, no Facebook page, no Twitter feed, no contact information.

Thelma M. Harper (D)
The incumbent in this district. She did not respond to my requests for positions. She has no website or position statements that I could find. Regardless of what she actually wants to do or has done, a Senator who's not interested in participating in democracy leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

George Thomas (I)
He has position statements! And they're actually mostly sane! (Sadly, that's how low my standards have to be in this election.) From his statements he's closer to being a Democrat than anything else, but since we can't tell a darned thing about Harper, I'm going to say, vote for Thomas!

53rd Representative District
John Wang (R)
Generic Republican candidate, no position statements of interest.

Jason Powell (D)
Generic Democrat candidate, no position statements of interest.

Tonya Miller (L)
Generic Libertarian candidate, no position statements of interest.

Much like the two-candidate elections, there's not much to say here. Republicans are doing horrible things lately, so pick the Democrat if you see a difference between those two parties, or the Libertarian if you don't. 

54th Representative District
Brenda Gilmore (D
The incumbent in this district. She did not respond to my requests for positions. She has no website or position statements that I could find. Regardless of what she actually wants to do or has done, a Senator who's not interested in participating in democracy leaves a bad taste in my mouth. 

Martin Holsinger (G)
Well-spoken, communicative with the voters, and doesn't seem to be particularly crazy. I'd vote for Holsinger in this election.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

November 2014 Election: US House TN-5

There are three candidates for US House this fall, and very little chance that the incumbent will lose. I already described two of them in my posts on the primary, but I'll repeat what I said before here.

Bob Ries (Republican)
I'm not analyzing Bob Ries's website this time. See, I met Bob Ries in 2010, when we were both running for US House TN-5. (He lost the primary to David Hall, so we weren't directly opposed.) We spoke for some time about one thing and another, and I came to the definite conclusion that he was not someone I would want in Congress. I won't go into more details; it was four years ago, and there's just no need to pick on the man. But I can't recommend voting for Bob Ries.

Jim Cooper (Democrat, incumbent)
He's got a good list of issue statements, including intellectual property, wonder of wonders. (I'm not 100% convinced he's got a good policy, but at least he's aware of the issue, and claims to strive for balance.) And I appreciate the fact that he has links scattered throughout his text; a familiar style! Cooper has a 65% match rating with me on POPVOX, which is twice what either of our Senators get. If Cooper wins, I won't be terribly disappointed.

Paul Deakin (Independent)
This candidate seems to be almost entirely concerned with animals. He has no policy statements at all besides that.

My recommendation: if you feel a need to cast a protest vote against both parties, vote Deakin. Otherwise, vote Cooper.

Monday, October 20, 2014

November 4 2014 Election: Wine Referendum

Right now it is not legal for grocery stores in Tennessee to sell wine. Beer, yes, but not wine. I suspect this is a hold-over from prohibition. Judging by the signs and employees asking me to sign petitions, grocery stores would apparently like this to change. I'm sure the liquor stores would prefer it to not.

I do not oppose others' right to drink. I have no desire to make it legally difficult for adults to obtain alcohol, nor is it against my religious beliefs to drink. Dependency on alcohol, drinking to the point of losing control, drinking so that you put others in danger, those I would hold to be immoral. But not drinking in itself.

That said, I don't drink. I have had various alcohol at different times, but have liked almost none of it. I prefer having full command of my senses, and I've seen a ruined life or two that included a lot of alcohol. There's apparently nothing in it for me. So if I'm being asked to vote, "Should grocery stores carry wine?" I find there to be no moral dimension to this question; it becomes a matter of practicality.

Now, I know market theory. This is talking about undoing a pointless government intervention in the market. But I don't hold that an unregulated market is necessarily better than a regulated one. I judge policy based on its observed impact, not on presumptions and theory, unless there's genuinely no data.

What happens if grocery stores carry wine? That means some business that was going to liquor stores will now go to grocery stores instead. We're basically moving money from one group to another, when it was artificially shunted to the first group in the first place. More competition, which will theoretically result in a more efficient allocation of resources, maximization of profit, invisible hand, yadda. None of that has any direct impact on me or mine, positive or negative.

You know what will impact me? Finite shelf space. If grocery stores start carrying wine, they have to stop carrying something else. What will they give up? Obviously the things they make the least money on. I have no idea what those things are. Do any of my (three) readers? My bet is that they'll stop carrying the exact things I buy the most of. Just because the universe is perverse like that.

What else will impact me? We'll be rid of all those irritating "RED WHITE AND FOOD" signs everywhere. I'd like that. I prefer my grocers to not try to suck me into their politicking.

So I'll probably be voting against this resolution, but not for any grand reasons that will make the world a better place for anyone else. Just for my own tiny selfish purposes.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

November 4 2014 Election: Amendments

There are four amendments to the Constitution of Tennessee on the ballot this election. For each amendment to be passed, it must earn both a majority of the votes cast for/against the amendment itself, and a majority of the votes cast in the gubernatorial race.

Amendment 1
This amendment would clarify that the state legislature has power to regulate and restrict abortions beyond the present limits, as interpreted by the state Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood v. Sunquist. Essentially, right now both the Tennessee and US Constitutions protect a woman's right to an abortion. This would remove the state-level protections.

This is one small step in an ideological battle, the end goal of which is for the US Supreme Court to overturn Roe v Wade. Frankly, it's an ideological battle that's been set up to manipulate and divide this country. Those who set up that battle, those who divide us, do it cynically for their own ends, not out of the moral superiority of their position, and I'm sick of it. It's time for rational people to take over the discussion.

If abortion is legal, many unborn children will die. This is tragic.

If abortion is illegal, many pregnant women will die. They will die from complications of pregnancy, or from seeking an unsafe illegal abortion. This is also tragic.

Regardless of which way the law lands, the government is deciding who lives and who dies. But let's be clear: both options are terrible. Sometimes the world just sucks. If you find yourself feeling particularly great, that you picked the right thousands to condemn, maybe you should reconsider just how comfortable you are. Supporting the lesser evil is something you should mourn, not celebrate.

That said, I will be voting against this amendment. Not because of the effects on actual abortion, which I believe will be minimal either way this referendum ends. But because I oppose the hijacking of my religion and my country for cynical political ends. It offends me to see good Christian people ignore every teaching of Christ, supporting those who hurt the poor and the downtrodden, based on an argument of questionable scriptural validity. It offends me to see intelligent people refuse to consider all the implications of an election, instead choosing candidates based on a single criterion that that candidate can not affect.

I want Christians to behave like Christ. I want rational people to weigh actual, measurable outcomes of their actions. Based on those standards, the people behind this amendment oppose what I stand for, and so I stand to oppose them as well.

Amendment 2
Right now, appellate judges are elected directly by the people of Tennessee. This amendment would have them appointed by the governor, confirmed by the legislature, and then after one term the people could vote whether or not to retain them. Direct election of judges is a questionable process, as it damages the political independence of the judiciary. It's a lot harder (though by no means impossible) to buy a judge if he doesn't have to worry about being elected. I will be voting for this amendment.

Amendment 3
This would prevent the state from ever enacting an income tax. As a structural matter, it's a bad idea to constitutionally limit options that the legislature may one day want. As a political matter, I find it to be extremely distasteful to encode one party's political preferences into the constitution of the state. Income taxes are not some inherent evil; if your goal is to have a functional society without a huge wealth disparity, progressive taxes like income are vastly better than regressive taxes like sales. Just because that's not Tennessee's priority today doesn't mean it will never be. I will be voting against this amendment.

Amendment 4
The intent of this amendment is not obvious from the wording, but the primary effect appears to be to allow veterans organizations to hold lotteries, like all other non-profit organizations are presently allowed to do. This is essentially a minor procedural alteration. I'll probably vote for this amendment.

As pointed out in a previous post, voting for governor makes it harder for all these amendments to pass, and this is the largest effect your vote for governor is likely to have. Based on the strength of my preferences against amendments 1 and 3, compared against the strength of my preferences for amendments 2 and 4, I will be voting for governor.