Thursday, June 30, 2011

The benefits of value-added taxes like the HST, and the folly of referendums on taxes

I really hope the referendum on the HST in British Columbia ends up with a decision to keep the tax.

The Globe and Mail reports on a study by the C.D. Howe Institute that shows the HST has resulted in a better environment for business (and hence employment) while not affecting consumers negatively.

It is clear to anyone who understands the economic principles involved, that value-added taxes are far more efficient than 'flat' sales taxes that tax the entire sales price multiple times. A VAT taxes just the increase in value, and allows exporters to export without having foreign consumers indirectly pay taxes to support Canadian government services. Such taxes therefore help support jobs in Canada.

Also harmonizing the GST and PST will cut red tape and simplify things for business and consumers alike. Surely a win-win.

Putting a complex economic issue to a referendum, as was done in British Columbia, is just plain silly. The 'opposers' who forced it are populists who have an axe to grind and don't understand economics. The problem really lies with the original legislation that allowed such matters to be taken to a referendum via a petition.

I am glad I don't live in BC: The Vancouver riots and the high cost of real-estate give a negative impression, but this kind of "nonsense-onomics" will just add to my feeling that I would never want to live there. Too bad; it's a beautiful province.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Usability Blooper: Microsoft Excel claims it can't find things when multiple cells are selected

This blooper has been annoying me for many years. I would have thought that Microsoft would have fixed it, since it is so obvious, but it has persisted from version to version. In the following it I am using Excel 2011 for Macintosh (any version).

Enter a spreadsheet such as the one shown below, and select more than one cell. I have selected 'Dog' and 'Cow' (two cells in total).


Then use any method of invoking the 'find' command to search for something outside the selection. For example, 'Cat'. Your search method could involve typing in the search box at the top, or using command-F to bring up the 'Find' dialog box.

No matter how you invoke the find command, the result is the following absurd modal dialogue:

What? Excel can't find it? The exact word is in an adjoining cell!

Of course, the experts among you will say: Excel searches only within the selection, when more than one cell is selected. But this is just not usable:
  • Beginners will not know this somewhat-arcane rule.
  • Users often invoke search when the selected cells are not visible (the user has scrolled the sheet) and  doesn't know how many cells are selected.
  • Even an expert might think that one cell is selected, and make a wrong decision when they see the error message.
  • The error message gives the user false assistance. It suggests re-typing. But the user will get the same response!
A more usable solution would be to:
  • Tell the user the response was not found in the selected cells, but that there is a result somewhere else (if there is) and ask if the user wants to search the entire sheet.
  • Not use a modal dialog in any case. The error message should appear non-modally without the user having to 'OK' it to proceed. The user should be free, for example, to immediately type some other search term, or execute any other command.

Cellular and weather radar infrastructure should be expanded in Canada

Canada needs to provide better core infrastructure services in parts of its vast territory that are under-served.

Two infrastructure services that come to mind are cellular telephony/Internet coverage and weather radar coverage. I will start with the latter.

Weather Radar Coverage in Canada

Below is a map of Canada's weather radar stations, to which I have inserted suggestions for strategically placed additional stations that would provide vast areas of coverage. These would facilitate rural and first-nations (aboriginal) development, conservation efforts, tourism, resource industries, arctic sovereignty, national unity (e.g. by providing Federal services in Quebec that cross provincial boundaries), international trade (i.e. via the Alaska Highway) and general economic development.

My suggestions, marked as red circles from left to right on the map are:
  • Northern coast of British Columbia, including Prince Rupert (would help  native communities, park conservation workers, fishing, port development, tourism, etc. There is already a train to the area.)
  • Southern Yukon, including Whitehorse (would help the capital of the Yukon and traffic on the Alaska highway)
  • Central British Columbia (would help with the Alaska Highway, and general economic development)
  • Western Northwest Territories (would help visitors to Nahanni National Park, and residents of Fort Simpson)
  • Central-South Northwest Territories (would serve Yellowknife and the resource industries developing there).
  • Northeastern Alberta, including FortMcMurray (a major oil centre) and Wood Buffalo National Park
  • Manitoba-Saskatchewan, centered near The Pas (a Via Rail train destination)
  • Northern Manitoba, covering Thompson and Churchill (also Via Rail train destinations, with the latter being a major arctic-ocean port with service to Russia developing)
  • Rankin Inlet and the communities along the Western shore of Hudson Bay
  • James Bay, including Moosonee Ontario 
  • Iqualuit, Nunavut
  • Central Quebec including Labrador City NL
  • Central Labrador including Goose Bay
  • Anticosti and the Gulf of St Lawrence coast of Quebec (important to fishing and many small communities)

Cellular Telephony (and Internet) Coverage

I think that government agencies should also fund cellular towers around all unserved highways, railways and population centres in the same areas I have highlighted for weather radar. They would then rent access to the major carriers, or provide service themselves until major carriers agree to do so. Also, companies that agree to provide service over unserviced territory should be granted lower prices for spectrum in major population centres.

It is quite interesting to see the coverage from the two largest networks, Rogers and Bell which I have also reproduced below. (Telus shares most towers with Bell so has roughly the same coverage).  There are some smaller networks of note; for example, Ice Wireless covers certain spots in the Northwest Territories and TBayTel, which although it partners with Rogers, has coverage that doesn't appear on the Rogers map, especially along the major transportation routes of Northern Ontario. Many companies share coverage with the majors (see a comparison here) so they don't actually have their own networks, or their networks are already shown in the coverage of the majors, or their networks just cover major population centres so don't cover extra territory.

From the above, we can see that coverage is good in the major population centres, especially in Ontario and Quebec, as you would expect. But coverage in Alberta is simply incredible even in rural areas, presumably due to the historical investment when the Alberta phone system was run by the provincial government. What is telling though, is that there is little or no coverage along many transportation routes (e.g. smaller highways and the Via Rail route through Northern Ontario) and in may other rural and remote population centres or economic development centres.

I predict that in the long run, government stimulus for infrastructure such as I have described in this post would pay off in a major way. As far back as 2002, when I spent time in South Africa, I was impressed by the cellular coverage even in sparsely populated areas. Rural infrastructure is seen in much of the developing world as critical to their future; surely we can do even better in Canada.

Rogers coverage at the time of writing:

Bell coverage at the time of writing: