File Formats (Apr 23)

Back in 1994 I made detailed blueprints for my current house: enough to get a building permit for the rehab work. Now that it’s for sale, I wanted to show the plans as a selling aid. All the construction project files were still there in an old backup, but nothing would open the drawings.

I don’t even remember which app created the plans. Maybe MacDraw II, maybe MiniCAD. Definitely nothing that runs on current Macs. There is still one laptop here from the early 2000s, but nothing on it would open the files. All the older hardware died years ago.

As developers, Turtlesoft has had a hard time keeping up with changes on the Macintosh. It’s also a problem for plain old users. When an app dies, so does all the data that it knows how to unlock.

I’ve tried out a few simple CAD programs to whip out plans, both for the current house and the probable next one. FloorDesign2 seems like the best so far. However, it uses its own file format. You can print and then save as pdf, but the details won’t transfer to any other CAD apps.

Some types of data do have universal formats. For text, there is plain text (.txt) and rich text (.rtf), which many apps can read. Spreadsheet data translates well as either tabbed text, or comma separated values (.csv). Page layouts can use either .pdf or .html. Databases often uses SQL.

In addition, some apps are so dominant that other software is forced to support their file format. Excel and MS Word are that way. QuickBooks aspires to that role, at least for add-ons. AutoCAD may do it for higher-end CAD. Unfortunately, many apps have their own unique data formats, and it’s difficult or impossible to move it elsewhere.

I don’t know if there is any good solution for this, except for keeping old computers around. They seem to last longer if used regularly.

These struggles also apply to our Goldenseal software. You can export any data to a text file and then open it in Excel. However, there’s no easy way to move all the accounting details to some other app in a single step.

The transfer problem works both ways. We wrote code to import from QuickBooks, but it can only translate some of the data from their export file. The translator brings in all the account setup details, but not purchases, bank transactions or job costing. The two formats are too different. Importing from any other accounting software would be even harder.

One issue for accounting software like ours is security. Having the file format be too accessible is not a good idea. Too much risk that data will be changed or stolen. The Goldenseal file format is not encrypted, but viewing the raw file data is not very useful. Even if someone clever had access to your computer, it would take many hours for them to figure out how to, say, find and change a paycheck amount.

If you are really worried about that risk, you can encrypt the whole hard drive, and protect everything on it. All of the fraud problems we’ve heard about from users have come from employees who could just sign on and enter stuff the usual way. Preventing that kind of fraud requires careful use of password access, and occasional audits by the owner or their accountant.

An employee who enters data should not also be reconciling bank statements. Having a second set of eyeballs on the money adds a ton of security.

Dennis Kolva
Programming Director

Covid-19 in New York #7 (Apr 14)

This chart shows the local experience with Covid-19 over the past 13 months. Blue is number of active cases, yellow is number in hospital, red is cumulative deaths. The last two are 10x to make them more visible.

There was a bump after every major holiday. Even Halloween. The most recent was mostly Cornell students after Spring Break.

That first blue bump in March/April 2020 now seems downright puny. Of course, NYC and a few other places had a terrible time then. The spare capacity here saved lives. Local medical staff took a bus down to help. Some patients transferred here.

I got the J&J vaccine more than a month ago, but haven’t changed behavior much. The chart explains why. Almost 30% of local residents are fully vaccinated, and over 50% have taken one jab. But active cases and hospitalizations are still worse than anything before November. It’s not over yet.

In the rest of the US, the situation is similar. New confirmed cases are off the winter peak, but still higher than last summer. Most regions are showing a small fourth surge.

Deaths have fallen off faster, probably because older people were vaccinated first. It’s already better than last summer. These days, Covid-19 is mostly a young people disease.

BTW the green bump is because Ohio changed the way they classified Covid deaths, and suddenly added 5,000.

Covid-19 probably is winding down. Unless something dramatic happens, this will be my last post on the subject. It has been an interesting ride. I sure hope we are better prepared for the next one.

Dennis Kolva
Programming Director

Real Estate (Apr 2)

My house is getting ready for sale. I’ve also started looking at places to buy. The goal is to make both happen at the same time, and not be homeless in between.

For buying, Zillow and are fantastic. Put in the right filters, and you can see a map with everything that matches. I wish it existed for the three other times I bought property. Real estate agents are still doing business as usual, but I think it’s an industry that soon will be disrupted by technology.

As a remodeler, I always talked directly with clients. We negotiated prices and talked out the details. It worked well. A few bigger jobs had an architect involved, but they were not much different than subcontractors: another expert handling their part of the project.

Real estate is very different. Around here, there is a listing agent working for a 3% commission. They are supposed to look out for the seller’s interest. Then a separate buyer’s agent getting their own 3%. It’s more like a lawsuit than a sale.

Usually I try to look at properties with the listing agent, since they know more about the property and the seller. However there’s a fixer-upper Victorian in Waverly NY that had to be done via buyer’s agent. Questions take about a week. I ask the buyer’s agent, who asks the listing agent, who asks the seller. Then it comes back the chain. Often so garbled that it’s not even useful. Three people eager to make a sale, who might be lying.

Aside from the communication issues, those 3% cuts are big chunks of money. They fall from the sky and land on agents almost randomly. That creates all sorts of perverse incentives. It turns some people into assholes.

Last weekend I booked to see a different Waverly Victorian at 2 PM Sunday. The listing agent planned to be out of town, so someone else was going to show it. An agent called me Saturday night. I incorrectly assumed he was the replacement, even though he mentioned the wrong address. Rather than clarify, he got the appointment details from me and said he’d show it. Then he called the listing agent and booked for 1 PM. Then texted me to say the time had changed. He also did some web stalking: looked up my house in the tax rolls, prepared a detailed sale analysis, and spent most of the visit trying to sell me on having him list it. The scam fell apart when I got a call at 2:15 from the original agent, wondering why I didn’t show. Yuch.

Having agents involved doesn’t seem to add 6% of value to real estate selling. So, I’m going to try a FSBO (for sale by owner). I’ll probably have to pay a buyer’s agent. Zillow is very aggressive about pushing them. But maybe I can talk directly with buyers and, you know, figure something out. I’ve sold 2 properties out of 3 that way, and the sales went much more smoothly than the one with an agent.

This is kind of an experiment. I’ll handle the sale the way I think it should be done, and see what happens. There’s already a web page. House for sale in Ithaca NY. Pix, videos, lots of detail. For the next 2 or 3 weeks it will be a work in progress. The house is on Craigslist now. It will list on MLS and the realty sites when there are more photos and videos, probably via Houzeo.

There’s a little construction work still undone, but mostly what’s left is sorting and boxing 27 years of accumulation. Feels good to get everything into better order. There’s already a Home Depot bin full of assorted door and shelf hardware. Another with plumbing. Electrical will need two of them. One bin is nothing but hammers.

Meanwhile, I kinda won’t mind when technology disrupts the real estate biz.

Dennis Kolva
Programming Director