Would you take this drug?

Here’s a little quiz for you.

Step 1: Read the following warning label for a prescription drug (I’ve substituted “[REDACTED]” for the name of the drug).

Some people have had changes in behavior, hostility, agitation, depressed mood, suicidal thoughts or actions while using [REDACTED]. Some people had these symptoms when they began taking [REDACTED], and others developed them after several weeks of treatment or after stopping [REDACTED].

If you, your family, or caregiver notice agitation, hostility, depression, or changes in behavior, thinking, or mood that are not typical for you, or you develop suicidal thoughts or actions, anxiety, panic, aggression, anger, mania, abnormal sensations, hallucinations, paranoia, or confusion, stop taking [REDACTED] and call your doctor right away.

Also tell your doctor about any history of depression or other mental health problems before taking [REDACTED], as these symptoms may worsen while taking [REDACTED].

Do not take [REDACTED] if you have had a serious allergic or skin reaction to [REDACTED]. Some people can have serious skin reactions while taking [REDACTED], some of which can become life-threatening. These can include rash, swelling, redness, and peeling of the skin.

Some people can have allergic reactions to [REDACTED], some of which can be life-threatening and include: swelling of the face, mouth, and throat that can cause trouble breathing. If you have these symptoms or have a rash with peeling skin or blisters in your mouth, stop taking [REDACTED] and get medical attention right away.

Tell your doctor if you have a history of heart or blood vessel problems before starting [REDACTED], or if you have a history of these problems and have any new or worse symptoms during treatment with [REDACTED]. Get emergency medical help right away if you have any symptoms of a heart attack.

In clinical trials, the most common side effects of [REDACTED] include: Nausea (30%), Sleep problems (trouble sleeping, changes in dreaming), Constipation, Gas, Vomiting. If you have side effects that bother you or don’t go away, tell your doctor. You may have trouble sleeping, vivid, unusual or strange dreams while taking [REDACTED].

Step 2: Before reading further, answer this question: How seriously ill would you have to be before you would be willing to take this drug as a possible treatment? Terminally ill with cancer? A mild cold? Or somewhere in between?

Okay. The drug name is now revealed: It’s Chantix and it’s purpose is to help you stop smoking.

You read correctly. A drug whose sole benefit is to possibly get you to stop smoking can lead to suicide, a fatal skin reaction or a heart attack. Among other unpleasant side effects. Granted, smoking is a serious problem with its own life-threatening possibility. But I have to wonder about taking a drug that, at least in the short term, seems potentially worse than the problem it’s trying to fix.

It’s not just Chantix. Whenever I see a drug advertised on TV, there’s at least a 50:50 chance that the list of possible problems is enough to scare me from ever wanting to take the drug. Some of these drugs may be worth the risk. But you wouldn’t know it from the ridiculous television ads. And yet…these ads must work or I wouldn’t keep seeing them. I guess people attend more to the happy people on the screen than to what the announcer is saying may be about to happen to them.

Posted in General, Media, Politics | 1 Comment

My Rant Against Air Travel

I typically don’t travel far for my vacations. Why should I?

I am one of the lucky ones. I live in the San Francisco Bay area. It is one of the most naturally beautiful locations on earth. For gorgeous views and superb outdoor activities combined with a great cosmopolitan city, there is no place better. U.S. Travel lists it as the number-one spot for a vacation in America. I’m not surprised. There’s more. Within a few hours drive, there are a variety of equally stunning locales, from Monterey to Yosemite National Park. If for some reason I was constrained to stay within this driving radius for the rest of my life, I would be content.

Still, I periodically feel the lure of visiting distinct and exotic locales. I rarely give into this urge. The main reason is that, aside from being a satisfied stick-in-the-mud, I find traveling abroad to be more and more unpleasant with each passing year. I’m not talking about the time spent at whatever destination I’ve chosen. That remains fine. I’m talking about the hassles you have to endure before you ever set foot on foreign soil. For me, I’m sure the unpleasantness is partly a side effect of having less tolerance for hassles as I get older. But it’s mainly due to the total disregard for customer satisfaction shown by most travel providers, especially airlines.

I assume airlines, at some level, are interested in maintaining their tourist customers. If so, you’d be hard-pressed to find evidence of this. It’s no wonder airlines keep declaring bankruptcy.

Case in point: My wife and I recently started planning a trip to Paris we hope to take this spring. Just booking a flight turned out to be so infuriating that I almost decided it wasn’t worth the bother.

We first tried getting tickets several months ago, hoping to get seats before things started to get busy. No such luck. We couldn’t book more than six months in advance. So we had to wait. When our departure date was about five and half months away, we tried again. More bad news. The desirable flights were already almost full.

But almost doesn’t count, as they say. So we pressed forward, under the pressure of knowing that any delay could spell doom for getting a good deal. Dealing with AAA Travel, we eventually found a flight we liked at an acceptable price. We did hesitate one day before paying for the tickets — just to be certain this was what we truly wanted. Big mistake! Huge! By the next day, the flight had gone up $100/ticket for a fuel surcharge. The ticket price jumped yet another $100 because the seat category available the day before had sold out; only more expensive seats were left. Understand that these more expensive seats were still in the cheapest economy class. It’s just that the airline charged more for the remaining seats because the plane had less seats left. Lastly, it turned out that our agent had made a mistake in her initial pre-booking; she had put in the wrong departure date. Luckily, I caught this before buying the tickets. However, when she entered the correct date, the cost of the flight that day was (you guessed it!) a further $100 increase. So, within 24 hours of selecting a flight, the cost of a ticket increased over $300 from the initial quote.

Is there any other purchase where prices fluctuate like this? I can think of some cases where the price of a product may go up (or down) significantly on a given day. But that would typically happen only one or two times a year. With the airlines, these price fluctuations happen continually, every day of the year, perhaps several times in one day.

Buying an airline ticket amounts to a gamble, not unlike rolling the dice at Vegas or playing the stock market. If you wait, even a day, the price may go up — a lot. You lose. Alternatively, if you buy a ticket today, the price may go down the next day. And if that happens, you can’t cancel and rebook at the lower price. You lose again. This is because, if you have to cancel your reservation for any reason, there is almost always a fee, often a big fee, that you have to pay.

In our case, the cost of canceling our trip was (sit down before reading further!) $400 per ticket. This is true even if you cancel well in advance of the flight and even if the airline rebooks your seats to someone else (probably at a higher price). It’s just an automatic and non-negotiable fee.

The airlines are, by far, the worst offenders here. No other part of a typical trip (hotels, car rentals, restaurants) have anything close to these onerous restrictions on reservations. Even after you succeed in purchasing a ticket, the airlines don’t guarantee you a seat. You could get bumped off a flight at the last minute if they are overbooked — which is legal for them to do.

Added to all of this is the fact that the price you found may not be the best price available for a given seat on a given plane on a given day; the price can vary depending upon whether you deal with the airline directly, a travel service, or any of dozens of websites.

In case you’re wondering, I did consider getting tickets on the web, rather than go with AAA — although it was hard to determine if this was worth the effort. For starters, you first have to figure out where to search (as a recent New York Times article covers, there are a myriad of choices). Next, you discover that the variation in prices on the web for different flights is enormous; for our trip, there was a range of over $1200 (all for economy class seats). Prices varied as a function of the particular airline, the number of stops, the length of the layover(s), the time of departure, as well as for no apparent reason at all.

Given my ignorance of international travel, intelligently deciding on the trade-offs was almost impossible. Which is better, flying Icelandic Air with a 2 hour layover in Reykjavik — or saving $150 by flying TAP Portugal with a 5 hour layover in Lisbon? Or skipping layovers altogether and going for a non-stop? I don’t know. And this assumes I could figure out who is actually flying a given plane. Air France had several flights listed as “operated by Delta.” I learned this meant that Delta was actually the carrier, not Air France. The name of the airline attached to the flight number is irrelevant.

I needed time to sort all of this out. But the airlines don’t give you time. By the time I figured out what flight I wanted, all the available flights and prices would have changed. And I would have to start all over again. This was not a road I wanted to travel down. In the end, I probably could have saved money by booking the tickets myself. But it would have been for a different less desirable flight. I decided it wasn’t worth it and stuck with AAA.

There were other options I did not consider: going with an airline + hotel package, or one of those group packages that include guided tours and meals. Throwing these into the mix would have made a decision even more overwhelming. For better or worse, we decided to go “a la carte.”

One last insult. I earlier mentioned the $400 cancellation fee. It turns out that AAA offers insurance to “protect” you in case you need to cancel. One such insurance allows you to cancel for any reason (not just for health-related reasons). In our case, the cost of this insurance was $248/per person. If we did wind up canceling for any non-medical reason, it costs us even more — as we only get back 80% of the cost of the ticket. Given our ticket price, this meant that canceling our trip with insurance would cost us more money than canceling our trip without insurance! I’m not joking. Is anyone stupid enough to fall for this scam?

This is hardly the end of the story. We still have accommodations and other advance reservations to book — as well as deciding on a pre-trip package for mobile phone usage. And then there’s the great “joy” of the travel day itself — with security lines, luggage fees, long flights with cramped seating and minimal food.

Some people may find true joy in planning their trip. There was a time I might have as well. Not anymore. Not with the way things work today.

I still enjoy being on the trip, of course. And Paris awaits us as our reward for putting up with all the pre-trip hassles. I’m looking forward to it. There’s an old saying that the “journey is the reward.” When it comes to travel abroad, this saying is a complete fiction.

Posted in General | 2 Comments

Play the Lottery? Don’t Bet On It

Time magazine has some financial advice for you. The only problem is, if you follow their advice, you are nearly 100% certain to lose money. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think this is the sort of advice Time (or anyone) should be doling out.

Specifically, an article by Bill Saporito asks and answers: Play the Lottery? You Bet. You read correctly. The column argues that buying lottery tickets on a regular basis, something that even Time magazine itself (in a previous article) asserted you should never do, is actually money well spent.

This has to be one of the most inane and potentially harmful columns ever to appear in Time. The author should be embarrassed by the column. Time should be ashamed for publishing it.

By what torturous and irrational reasoning did Mr. Saporito come to this fallacious conclusion? Let’s take a closer look.

What are the odds?

The author admits that the odds of one ticket winning the Powerball Lottery are incredibly low — as in 1 in 195,249,054. In his attempt to convey just how low these odds are, Saporito warns: “You have a better chance of being struck by lightning.”

True. But not nearly true enough. If you buy one lottery ticket a week for a year, the odds that you will win the lottery are 1 in 195,249,054/52 which works out to 1 in 3,754,790. In contrast, the National Weather Service reports that the odds of being struck by lightning in a given year is 1 in 1,000,000. In other words, the odds that you will win the lottery are more close to the odds of being struck by lightning 4 times in one year!

The odds go up or down depending on how many lottery tickets you buy in a year. If you only buy one ticket a year, you would have to get struck by lightning 195 times during that year to match the lottery winning odds. On the other hand, if you buy 4 tickets a week for a year (as Mr. Saporito does), the odds of winning are indeed close to the odds of being struck by lightning. Of course, even this is not anything that should get your hopes up.

Let’s look at this one other way. Suppose you buy one ticket a week in a lottery where your odds of winning are 52 to 1. This would mean that you could expect to win the lottery on an average of once a year. With the Powerball’s odds of 195,249,054 to 1, you could expect to win on average once every 3.75 million years! In other words, the odds of winning the Powerball are close to the odds of winning if you never play at all. They are both about zero.

And yet, $58.8 billion dollars was spent on state-supported lotteries last year.

A regressive tax?

Mr. Saporito points out a second criticism against lotteries: They amount to a regressive tax. That is, the lower your annual income, the greater percentage of that income is used up when you buy lottery tickets. Buying $1000 worth of lottery tickets a year is 5% of your income if you make $20,000 a year. But it is only 0.5% of your income if you earn $200,000 a year. Given that those in the lower income brackets tend to buy lottery tickets with greater frequency than those in the upper brackets, this is a double whammy: lottery ticket purchases most hurt those that can least afford it. Indeed, a study cited by Saporito showed lotteries eating up as much a 3.1% of income that would otherwise go to food, rent and clothing.

How does this make sense?

At this point, you might expect Saporito to strongly advocate against lottery ticket purchases. That’s certainly what the data he presents would suggest. But no, he instead recommends the opposite. Huh? How can this be? Mr. Saporito attempts three answers:

First, Mr. Saporito advocates for the entertainment value of the lottery. The enjoyment you get imagining what you would do if you won makes it worth buying a ticket. In some sense, it’s the same enjoyment you might get from playing a slot machine in Las Vegas and hoping for the jackpot. I concede this point — up to a point. It only makes sense if you truly enjoy the process (to me, buying a lottery ticket and waiting to see if I won is no fun at all), you don’t buy more tickets than you can afford (which may be close to zero for low income individuals), and you truly understand how badly the odds are stacked against you. I would suggest that very few people meet these combined criteria.

Saporito’s second argument boils down to this quote: “And there are many other even more foolish places to waste money (than the lottery). Why does Wall Street keep coming to mind?” By this, Mr. Saporito appears to be implying you are better off playing the lottery than investing your money in stock.

Here is where Saporito’s logic truly comes off the rails. As cited in the article, if you had invested money in the stock market for the past ten years (which happen to be among the worst ten years in the history of the stock market), you would have lost 1.54% of your investment. In other words, a $1000 investment would now be worth a bit over $984. Had you invested the same money in the lottery, you would almost certainly have $0 left. By what screwy reasoning does this make the lottery a better deal than the stock market? Never mind that throughout most of the last 60 years, you would have actually made money in the stock market during any ten year period.

Anyway, it’s not as if the stock market is the only alternative place for your lottery money. If you just put the money in a bank, even at the current low interest rates, you’d be better off. Heck, if you spent it on a flat-panel television, you’d probably have more enjoyment than from lottery tickets.

Finally, Mr. Saporito concludes: “So I’ll continue to buy my $4 worth of lotto tickets each week.” This is the final bit of illogic. If all you want is to enjoy an “imaginary jackpot”, why spend $4 a week? Couldn’t you get the same enjoyment from $1 a week, and save the extra $3? If not, if spending more money somehow increases your enjoyment, where does this progression stop? What makes $4 the stopping point? Why not $40 or $400 dollars a week? Saporito offers no advice here.

Take my advice instead. Ignore Mr. Saporito. Stay away from the lottery. Unless the near certainty of losing money appeals to you.

Posted in General, Politics | 3 Comments

Jailbreaking, iOS 5 and Me

iOS 5 is out. I’ve updated our iPad, iPad 2, and iPhone 4 to run the new iOS version. Plus, I purchased an iPhone 4S that comes with iOS 5 preinstalled. As installing iOS 5 wipes out any prior jailbreaks, this means I lost the jailbreak on all my updated iOS devices.

This, in turn, leads to the obvious question: Should I jailbreak any or all of my devices running iOS 5?

At least for the moment, the current limitations of jailbreaking have largely determined the answer for me. You can not jailbreak the iPhone 4S or the iPad 2 running iOS 5. The jailbreak for my remaining iOS 5 devices is tethered — which means I would have to connect the device to a Mac whenever I power down and reboot the device. In the past, I have resisted installing this type of jailbreak, not wanting to have to deal with such an inconvenience.

But let’s ignore these restrictions. Suppose I could jailbreak all of my iOS 5 devices with a minimum of hassle. Should I do it? I’m not asking this in the ethical or political sense. That’s a different kettle of fish that I intend to cover today. Rather, I am asking a more personal question. I have previously jailbroken nearly every iOS device I have owned. Why? Because, as I have written on numerous occasions (such as this posting), I have found it worthwhile to do so. But what about now? Is it still worth even a minimum of trouble to jailbreak? Or has iOS 5 changed the equation in such a way that I would rather not bother at all?

My answer is: With the release of iOS 5, I am ready to abandon jailbreaking. Well, almost.

This is because iOS 5 has managed to eliminate almost every reason I previously had for jailbreaking. People jailbreak their iOS devices for a variety of different purposes. There’s a wealth of jailbreak apps out there. While each app has its champions, I have ignored all but a select few of them.

There have been, at most, a half-dozen features that have led me to consider jailbreaking. Apple’s iOS 5 offers an alternative for all but two of those features (and only one of those two really matters).

I give kudos to Apple for this. Apple has shown a willingness to respond to what drove many users to jailbreak their devices, yet still maintain the company’s limits in regard to what they allow on an iOS device. It’s a difficult balancing act, and Apple is handling it well.

What exactly has iOS 5 delivered that has caused me to change my tune?

Well, there’s Notification Center, Wi-Fi syncing and AirPlay mirroring. I have previously used jailbreak apps to accomplish these tasks. No more. I should also mention internet tethering. You’ve been able to do this “legally” on an iPhone prior to iOS 5. However, for me, doing so would mean giving up my AT&T unlimited data plan — something I do not want to do. As such, I considered using a jailbreak app to accomplish this tethering. However, the truth is that I have almost never been in a situation where I wanted to use this feature. So I can easily live without it. Again, this means no need for a jailbreak.

What remains for a jailbreak to accomplish for me? Two things.

The first is Home button disabling via IncarcerApp. This app puts an iOS device in a kiosk-mode. Apple uses it in their Stores for the iPads that sit on their product display tables. It’s also useful when sharing an iOS device with a young child. It means you can let a child play with a given app without worrying that they will press the Home button to exit the app and begin an “exploration” of the rest of your device.

So far, Apple prohibits any such feature on an iOS device. This represents my quintessential annoyance with Apple’s iOS policies. Here is a feature that is clearly helpful (even Apple uses it), seems easy to implement and has worked perfectly in my use. Yet, because of Apple’s restrictions on what can and can’t go in the App Store, this jailbreak-only app remains unavailable to the vast majority of iOS users. That’s how Apple rolls. Maybe someday, Apple will offer this feature, as they finally did with mirroring. We can hope.

On the other hand, I personally have had very little “real world” use for the app. I would certainly not bother to jailbreak an iOS device just to get this feature.

This leaves only one remaining reason for me to jailbreak. And it’s a big one. So big, that I am still debating jailbreaking my devices just so I can have the feature. That feature is root access to the iOS. With a jailbreak, even without adding any additional software, you have access to the entire contents of an iOS device: System folder, Library folders, UNIX directories and everything else. Connect a jailbroken device to a OS X app such as PhoneView and the entire iOS opens up to you. As I have covered before, this allows for troubleshooting and “power user” tricks that you could not otherwise do.

Install the jailbreak app iFile on your drive and you have root access right on the iOS device itself, via an easy to navigate Finder-like interface.

All Mac users have root access. The Mac has survived quite well despite openly offering this power. I am confident the iPhone and iPad would survive just as well. If it made Apple feel better, they could restrict this access to an “advanced” mode, one that most users would almost certainly ignore. As it stands now, iOS devices are like cars that have the hood locked so that only dealers can see and modify what’s underneath.

I understand that most people are content never to peer into the System folder on an iOS device or look under the hood of a car. I am not one of those people. For me, and for those who share my interest, jailbreaking remains the only solution. If Apple provided some form of root access to iOS devices, I would without a doubt be ready to bid adieu to jailbreaking.

Even so, iOS 5 is such a giant leap forward that, for the first time, I can imagine giving up on jailbreaking even if it meant a loss of root access. In fact, that’s what I am doing now. I wound up jailbreaking my original iPad, just to test things out. However, my iPad 2 and both iPhones remain unmodified. So far, things have been going well. Very well.

Posted in Apple Inc, iOS, iPhone, Technology | 1 Comment