Thursday 28 February 2013

Anson Belt & Buckle Review: Part 1

Note to readers: This review is outdated but I've kept it in its original form for information. There are two things you should keep in mind as you read on:

  1. This review is based on my initial experiences and opinions only. To see my thoughts after wearing the belt for a year, read my follow-up post. 
  2. Anson Belt & Buckle has made some changes since I made my purchase. They report that they have changed suppliers and improved the quality of their belt straps, so belts bought today won't be quite the same as the ones I reviewed. They also now advertise 100% satisfaction and a lifetime guarantee. 

I came across this website and thought to myself "what a great idea." (Note that these guys don't claim to be the innovators here. They freely admit to seeing this technology abroad first.) Since I needed a couple of new belts anyway, I decided to place an order. This is how my experience went:

I ordered "Gift Box D" in the evening of 17 February 2013. The ordering process was quick and easy and I immediately received an automated confirmation email which included my order number and the invoice details.

I received a second email the following morning, informing me that my order had been shipped. Included in this second email was my United States Postal Service tracking number and URL taking me directly to the package tracking page on the USPS website. The package was delivered on 28 February 2013. The box came both well-presented and well-packaged, especially when you consider that it wasn't exactly fragile... just two strips of leather and a few pieces of metal.
Anson Belt box
Well-packed box in a box
Anson Belt box 2
Wax seal was probably a little much
Anson buckle box
Buckle in a padded display box
Anson belt bag
Belt in a silky microfibre bag
The Product
The buckles look nice from afar. However, close inspection reveals plenty of small flaws in the shiny plating.
Flaws in the plated surface of the buckle.
Granted, people won't be inspecting my belt so closely, but it is a bit of a concern because it could indicate that the plating can't handle any abuse. If that's the case, the plating would flake off with use, gradually revealing a darker, dull metal underneath. I am impressed with the simplicity of the buckles. There are only a few moving parts, which is often a good thing on any device because it means fewer things can go wrong. It only took me about 30 seconds to figure out how the whole thing works, so it'd be easy to fix if one of the smaller parts happens to break in the future. The buckle lever is held closed with a magnet rather than a spring, which is simpler and should make it much more durable than any spring-loaded mechanism. You'd have to manage to lose or demagnetize the magnet for the closure to stop working. It would've been nice if the pin for the buckle lever wasn't quite so loose in its bearings. I feel like the large amount of play in the lever makes the thing seem cheap. It was probably done to keep manufacturing costs down (it's faster and easier to slip an undersized pin into a hole). They're charging $25 USD per buckle, so the loose-fitting, cheap-feeling lever seems out of place.

I was a little disappointed in the colour of the brown belt. It's a few shades darker than I had expected. The contrast between the black and brown straps was less than the photos on the website had suggested.
Anson belt straps
Brown belt on the right.
Photo was taken with no flash in regular lighting.
Anson belt gift box D
What the website's photo shows.
Probably taken using a flash or bright studio lighting.
Seeing the words "Made in China" on the leather was also an unwelcome surprise considering the price of these belts. They sell the straps for $30 USD, which puts a complete belt at over $50. Top-grain leather belts can be found relatively easily at the same price point, and you can also get some pretty decent belts in genuine English or Italian leather. You can even get full-grain cowhide belts for less if you know where to look (full-grain is the best and most durable grade of leather), though for only $50 it might be poorly finished. I had taken the price and this guy's review to be a bit of an assurance of the quality of the leather when placing the order. I suppose it's my own fault for not contacting a sales rep first. "100% Leather" is stamped into the strap, but I know that can be a misleading statement on a product from China. I decided to dissect one of the trimmed ends.
Trimmed end of the black belt cut open and separated to expose laminae.
As you can see, the belt's made from laminated leather. Laminated leather is to leather what finish-grade plywood is to lumber. The thin outer sheets look nice, but inside you've got layers of the cheaper, lower-quality stuff. The only worse type of leather product is bonded leather, which is basically like particleboard; pieces and fibers of low-quality leather fused together. The middle layer here felt more like a tougher synthetic core than a strip of leather.

However, it's not all bad news. The fact that the belt is adjustable in 6 mm increments is a definite plus. The ratcheting system will probably prevent the kind of damage to the belt's tongue that you get over time on a traditional belt. The stitching does look good and durable. I had a good overall impression of the belt when I first took it out of all that packaging. I've certainly had worse belts (though they also didn't cost so much). As far as laminated leather belts go, these look and feel really good.

Both leather straps were 51" long. I used one of the trimmed pieces for the dissection above and the other to run a little experiment on the durability of the belt. I'll post a follow-up when that experiment's over.

Despite all of the issues I've pointed out, I'd say that I am pleased with how the belts look. I'll have to wait to see how durable the belts really are before I decide if they're worth the price.

Monday 18 February 2013

Tailor4Less Review: Part 1 of 3

In the past few years, a huge number of online made-to-measure clothing stores have popped up. They all have a similar business model.
  1. Use a computer algorithm to get tailored clothing measurements from a few simple body measurements.
  2. Utilize programmable machines to cut the fabric to the right measurements for the customer.
  3. Utilize cheap labor to assemble the clothing.
  4. Ship to the customer.
The made-to-measure model is appealing to me because I'm not the standard shape and I don't have a lot of money to spend on formal clothing. I have broad shoulders for my otherwise very slender build. I have to choose clothes that fit my shoulders properly, but that usually means that the neck is fine, the sleeves are too short, and the rest is baggy like a woman's blouse. I priced it out once; fixing all that on a shirt using a local tailor would cost $30 - $60. So I did some research on some of these made-to-measure services.

Basically, when you order made-to-measure, you're supposed to end up with a suit (or shirt, trousers, etc.) that costs the same as a regular suit off the rack, but fits better and saves you the cost and hassle of alterations. You also get to customize little details like how you want the lapels and pockets to look. Some websites claim to sell bespoke clothing, though this is a lie. Bespoke clothing is custom clothing that is handmade by a master tailor with you as the model (rather than some "standard"). There are intermediate fittings involved to ensure that the finished product is perfect. Made-to-measure clothing on the other hand starts with a standard pattern. Before the fabric is cut, some of the standard measurements are tweaked a little based on a few of the customer's body measurements. There are no fittings involved, but the final product should fit relatively well.

The main drawbacks of these online made-to-measure services are that you lose the in-store experience. You can't feel fabrics or look at various outfit combinations like in a regular store. If you're not knowledgeable about men's fashion, the staff at menswear stores can be helpful. Furthermore, a large number of these online stores don't have a phone number you can call. Not having a phone number can make things difficult and frustrating for unsatisfied customers. It's a bit sketchy for a company not to stand behind it's product with a good system for customer service.

Tailor4Less (T4L) is one that stood out because they seem to offer some of the lowest prices and appear to be pretty popular. Most reviews are favourable, though there are a few scathing ones. Unfortunately, I can't find any positive reviews concerning their customer service. This is alarming because good customer service is important to any successful business. Some of the most valuable reviews are from people who had their problems resolved by good customer service. Most detailed reviews seem to agree that the overall fit is not truly perfect, but respectable considering the price. Of the complaints that I've found, they're usually regarding the quality of the fabric or construction. Have a look at some reviews for yourself:

When researching a business, it's important to keep in mind that a few angry customers doesn't necessarily mean they're a bad company to deal with. Anyone who's dealt with customers before can tell you that some people are simply irrational. I suspect that the majority of dissatisfied customers were people expecting too much, hoping to get something for nothing. Regarding fabric, T4L doesn't claim to sell top-quality fabrics (though it looks like the website might be deliberately misleading). Don't look at the S number alone, as this is only one important thing to consider when choosing a fabric. Pay attention to thread count, fabric weight, and fabric composition. You'll see that most of the fabrics offered by T4L are representative of typical inexpensive clothing. Regarding construction, T4L doesn't explicitly tell you, but it's safe to say that for the price they're asking, you're getting the cheapest construction available. The means no canvassing, no collar stays (or cheap flimsy ones), etc. Don't expect more for these modest prices. Nobody's going to waste high quality fabrics or extra labour for careful handmade construction on clothes this cheap.

That said, a few disappointed customers have put together a website dedicated to warning people. T4L doesn't have a phone number, so if they choose to ignore you, you have no way of getting any customer service. Some people report that T4L will get bad reviews deleted, which can be done even on websites like TrustPilot if you don't agree to the terms to allow them to verify that you're an actual T4L customer.
T4L also appears to be a cooperative of companies based all over the world. The website's registered in France, owned and managed by a company in Switzerland, yet protected and operated in accordance with Spanish law. T4L appears to have two headquarters, one in Barcelona, Spain and the other in Shanghai, China. It seems that all this allows them to get away with shady business practices like:
  1. No refund policy.
  2. No clothing labels. In many countries, including Canada, the law requires garments to have labels disclosing the fabric's composition, country of origin, and care instructions.
Actual satisfaction considerably less than 100%. Garments can be remade after you pay for the extra shipping costs.
In conclusion, my research indicated that the principle of caveat emptor is more applicable than usual when dealing with T4L. However, I was still intrigued. After all, I will need appropriate, well-fitting business wear when I'm finished school and can't just go spend all my money on one suit. I decided to proceed cautiously and order some fabric samples, so there will be a sequel to this review.

Update: Links to Part 2 and Part 3

Saturday 16 February 2013

Remove the cotangent from CSA A23.3

A right triangle.

A long time ago, three important trigonometric ratios were committed to memory thanks to the mnemonic SOH-CAH-TOA. These ratios are the sine, cosine, and tangent. 
\sin A=\frac{\textrm{opposite}}{\textrm{hypotenuse}}=\frac{a}{\,c\,}\,.

\cos A=\frac{\textrm{adjacent}}{\textrm{hypotenuse}}=\frac{b}{\,c\,}\,.

\tan A=\frac{\textrm{opposite}}{\textrm{adjacent}}=\frac{a}{\,b\,}=\frac{\sin A}{\cos A}\,.

What helped me retain this knowledge was the fact that these functions are on my calculator, so I actually use these ratios. Now, there are other, lesser known trigonometric functions, such as the reciprocals and the slew of ratios defined to make circle and spherical geometry calculations more convenient for navigators. All of these functions are just some arithmetic manipulation of the sine, cosine, and tangent. The only reason they were given special names is because they were printed in tables to facilitate computations in the days before calculators.
\textrm{versin} (\theta) := 2\sin^2\!\left(\frac{\theta}{2}\right) = 1 - \cos (\theta) \,
The "versed sine" or "versine". 
Today, functions like versine and coversine aren't taught in school. They aren't on your calculators. It's because they aren't necessary. It's easy to express a problem in terms of sine or cosine and then evaluate it with a modern calculator in just a fraction of the time it used to take to look up the versine in a table. But for some reason, we are taught the reciprocal trigonometric functions (cosecant, secant, and cotangent) in schools. 
\csc A=\frac{1}{\sin A}=\frac{c}{a} ,

\sec A=\frac{1}{\cos A}=\frac{c}{b} ,

\cot A=\frac{1}{\tan A}=\frac{\cos A}{\sin A}=\frac{b}{a} .
The reciprocal trigonometric functions. 
It's not explained to us why the reciprocals are useful or why they even get their own names. We're just given the definitions and then expected to regurgitate them on tests. Later, we see a few reciprocals in calculus classes, Not because there's some practical reason for an engineer or scientist to know how to integrate the secant function, but because it's another math problem to throw at the students. 

Which brings me to the Canadian structural concrete design standard, CSA A23.3. The folks who wrote CSA A23.3 seem to have a special place in their hearts for the cotangent. While it is certainly well within their rights to be especially fond of any mathematical function of their choosing, I don't understand why a design standard, written by engineers for engineers, would put a useless trigonometric function in a math expression. When I see a cotangent, I see unnecessary extra work. My calculator doesn't come equipped with a 'cot' button, but I do have 'sin', 'cos', and 'tan' buttons. Where there's a cotangent, I have to take a moment (however brief) to recall that the cotangent is really just the reciprocal of the tangent. I then have to rearrange the formula using the tangent in order to punch the right buttons on the calculator to get my answer.

Sure, this is only a tiny amount of extra work, even if I forget the cotangent's definition and have to do a quick internet search. But why not make the code's expression a little more practical? Save the user's time and effort by expressing formulas the way they are actually used: the way they're entered into a calculator. 

Friday 8 February 2013

Second letter to Hamilton's city council

Dear Mayor,

Your statement in The Spec that gambling already exists is a terribly weak rebuttal to the opponents. Statements like that suggest to people that you haven’t given any thought to defending your claim or refuting the opposing argument. It speaks nothing to the question of whether or not gambling has negative social impacts in Hamilton. Therefore, it doesn’t answer the question “will the casino have a negative social impact?”, it just skirts the issue. Don’t infuriate the opponents by giving unsound arguments and failing to address their concerns. Present a grounded argument and the opponents will listen (most of them anyway).

You told opponents to dial back the emotional debate. From what I can surmise, it’s the proponents who argue baselessly and the opponents who are well-founded! But I’ll present to you my debate, emotionless and supported by evidence and expert opinion. The most powerful evidence are the observations and conclusions from an exhaustive list of studies. It just so happens that such a comprehensive report by Williams, Rehm, and Stevens exists. I doubt that you’ll take the time to read it, but I’ll give you the opportunity anyway (click to download) and provide you with the important conclusion: 

...the overall impact of gambling in a particular jurisdiction in a specific time period can range from small to large, and from strongly positive to strongly negative. That being said, in most jurisdictions, in most time periods, the impacts of gambling tend to be mixed, with a range of mild positive economic impacts offset by a range of mild to moderate negative social impacts. (emphasis theirs)

In other words, a comprehensive analysis of the socioeconomic effects of gambling reveals that investing in gambling is sometimes a good thing and sometimes a bad thing. It's a gamble that typically results in only modest economic benefit that is outweighed by negative social impact. Are you willing to gamble Hamilton’s future on a casino that the evidence says is more likely to fail than succeed?

In light of the fact that most casinos are failures, I urge you to really scrutinize casino proposals. Are the projected numbers deliberately misleading? Are proponents dismissing or downplaying the legitimate concerns of the opponents? 

Expert economists (including Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Samuelson) agree that casinos aren’t good for a local economy unless they attract new tourist dollars. Are you certain that a downtown casino will attract new tourists to Hamilton? What will make people choose Hamilton over Niagara Falls? Or Toronto? Or Las Vegas for that matter? The proponents are failing to make a convincing case that the casino would attract more tourist dollars, and until they do, they will fail to convince anyone with good economic sense that Hamilton should proceed with a casino deal.

The concerns are real, based on real observations of real casinos. Most casinos derive the bulk of their revenue from the existing local economy. 40-60% of gambling revenues come from problem and pathological gamblers. 65-80% of casino revenues come from 10% of casino patrons. These aren’t intangible feelings but are alarming facts that rightly have many people concerned. The rebuttals by proponents are superficial, unfounded arguments which often fail to even address the core issues. Statements like “gambling already exists” and “problem gamblers are a minority of the population”. Yes, gambling exists, but that doesn’t mean a casino couldn’t exacerbate crime rates. Yes, problem gamblers are a minority of the population, but they are a minority that casinos are designed to prey upon. A minority that furnishes the majority of gambling revenues. A minority that is a significant burden on society, including the 30% of the population that doesn’t gamble at all.

When it comes down to it, we know you’re no expert. You must rely on the expertise and judgment of others. But that doesn’t mean you should be naive. A proposal is by people with vested interest in their own financial success, not the needs of the city. You need to really analyze it to see through all the smoke and mirrors. Look beyond the information the proponents feed you. Look to sources that have no compelling reason to be biased one way or the other.

What do the citizens say? A recent poll of 5,402 residents indicates that 56% of Hamiltonians are opposed to a downtown casino.
What do expert economists like Paul Samuelson and Earl Grinols say? They report that gambling is detrimental to socioeconomic progress.
What does the empirical evidence say? Williams et al. have already examined and summarized it all. The evidence says that investment in a casino is a gamble that usually doesn’t pay off.

Do right by your city's citizens. Examine things closely and address their legitimate concerns with a legitimate response.

Tuesday 5 February 2013

Why say 'No' to a Downtown Casino?

What do landfills, maximum security prisons, and casinos have in common? Most people don't want one in their backyard. A recent poll of 5,402 residents indicates that 56% of Hamiltonians are opposed to a downtown casino. Not an overwhelming majority, but it's a majority nonetheless.

As an engineer, I'm a fan of basing decisions on things like evidence, expert opinion, and sound reasoning. I encourage all concerned parties to examine the proposed Hamilton Downtown Casino under this light.

I don't have to do any significant research on what a casino will do to the city because so many others have already put gambling under the microscope. Perhaps the most convincing is the unbiased, exhaustive analysis and review by Williams, Rehm, and Stevens (click to download). The authors analyzed nearly 500 published studies on the social and economic impacts of gambling. Their conclusion?
...the overall impact of gambling in a particular jurisdiction in a specific time period can range from small to large, and from strongly positive to strongly negative. That being said, in most jurisdictions, in most time periods, the impacts of gambling tend to be mixed, with a range of mild positive economic impacts offset by a range of mild to moderate negative social impacts. (emphasis theirs)
In other words, a comprehensive analysis of the socioeconomic effects of gambling reveals that investing in gambling is sometimes a good thing and sometimes a bad thing. It's a gamble that typically results in only modest economic benefit that is outweighed by negative social impact.

The proposed downtown casino will allegedly create 1200 new jobs. How many new problem gamblers will lose their jobs? How many local businesses will go bankrupt? How many jobs will be lost at Flamboro Downs? I don't know, but I suspect that if you add up all the losses, it'd be more than 1200. Expert economist Earl Grinols of Baylor University says casinos are a wash at best when it comes to jobs.

Casino proposals are presented as a quick fix for economic problems. Proponents highlight projected revenue and job creation numbers while ignoring or downplaying the fact that casinos cost money and jobs for the surrounding local businesses. Casinos rarely deliver the kind of economic stimulus suggested in the original proposal. In fact, many casinos are in debt. Casinos don't actually create anything valuable; money just changes hands. Hence, a casino can only boost the local economy if it attracts more tourist dollars than what would've been spent without the casino. Nearly all casinos actually derive their revenue locally, either from local gamblers or from the redistribution of existing tourist dollars (from local businesses to the casino). Hamilton is unlikely to benefit from tourism the way Las Vegas or Atlantic City did. Frankly, Hamiltonians don't want that kind of growth anyway. Crime rates skyrocketed in both of those cities after all the casinos showed up. Gaudy new casinos wouldn't complement downtown Hamilton's historic structures either.

Many opponents will point to the negative social impacts of casinos, especially problem gambling. Casino proponents will try to downplay the issue with arguments like these:

A minority of problem gamblers shouldn't influence my freedom to gamble
You're also free to own a gun, but we don't let just anyone walk into a store and acquire one. Such a practice would be generally damaging to our society. In the same way, you are free to gamble, but that doesn't mean we should knowingly and willingly enable problem gambling; a burden on society. Do not ignore the fact that roughly 50% of gambling revenue comes from problem and pathological gamblers. They may be a minority of the population but they are the casino's best revenue source, not to mention a burden on everyone.

Gambling already exists (lotteries, bingo halls, etc.). A new casino won't change things.
This is an argument that looks sound superficially, but is actually very weak if you give it some thought. The fact that gambling already exists says nothing about whether or not gambling is contributing to current social costs. Brothels and opium dens also exist but that doesn't mean we should build more of them. A new casino probably would attract some gambling revenue from existing gambling. However, casino gaming is different from bingo halls and lotteries and will therefore also attract new gamblers (and enable new problem gamblers). Casinos are designed to prey on the problem gambler, designed with few or no windows and with all amenities within the facility. The argument that "gambling exists and it's not so bad" doesn't address concerns that a casino would make things worse.

Finally, don't be fooled by numbers that sound really big, like 1200 jobs, $200 million investment, and $10 million annual revenue for the city. The city's gross expenditures budget for 2013 is almost $1.9 billion dollars! $10 million dollars is less than 1% of the budget; not even a penny on the dollar. Based on recent data from Statistics Canada, Hamilton has a census metropolitan population of 721,000, a labour participation rate of 66.9%, and an unemployment rate of 7.9%. That amounts to 38,000 unemployed workers in Hamilton. Even if the number of new jobs casino proponents are talking about turns out to be true, it's still only 3% of Hamilton's unemployed labour force. When you scrutinize the numbers, it's clear that even the casino proponents don't think a casino will furnish significant economic stimulus for the city, they're just being deliberately misleading to garner support. These projected, very modest,  economic gains are hardly worth pursuing, especially when most Hamiltonians don't even want a casino to begin with. Hamilton can pass on these proposals and will get along just fine.

The evidence and overwhelming expert opinion says casinos are generally bad for cities. But you don't have to take my word for it. These folks wouldn't recommend a downtown casino either:

Letter to Hamilton's Mayor Bob Bratina

Dear Mayor Bratina & Councillor Duvall,

Though I now live in Edmonton to pursue post-secondary studies, I grew up in Hamilton and lived in Ward 7 for some 15 years. My mother and sister are still living in Ward 7 and share my feelings about a downtown casino. We ask that Hamilton city council reject any proposal for a new casino. Please consider the following:

1.       Casinos do not stimulate a recessed economy. In fact, they contribute to the problem. To quote Nobel Laureate Paul Samuelson: (Gambling) involves simply sterile transfers of money or goods between individuals, creating no new money or goods. Although it creates no output, gambling does nevertheless absorb time and resources. When pursued beyond the limits of recreation, where the main purpose after all is to kill time, gambling subtracts from the national income.
2.       Casinos do not attract many tourist dollars. Aside from the rare “destination” like some Las Vegas casinos, most casinos derive the bulk of their revenue locally. It has been estimated that over 90% of casino revenues in Montreal is derived from their local economy. This means that Hamiltonians would be wasting their money gambling so that a multi-national casino operator can profit. Wouldn’t it be better if locals were spending their money on rent, food, clothing, etc. locally?
3.       Casinos take money away from local bars and restaurants. The number of bars and restaurants in Atlantic City dropped more than 40% in just 20 years after 1978 (when their first casino opened). Money that would be spent on food and drinks inside the casino should be going to Hamilton’s diverse bars and restaurants instead.
4.       Casinos do not create jobs. Expert economist Earl Grinols of Baylor University says that, at best, the number of jobs created by a casino is equal to the number of jobs lost.
5.       There are casinos all over the world that are seeing either losses or minimal profits. Even some of the big ones in Las Vegas are in debt (see this article from USA Today). I think you’d agree that an economic sinkhole is the last thing needed in downtown Hamilton.
6.       Casinos are crime magnets. Rates of street crime, fraud, loan sharking, and prostitution increase when a casino comes to town.
7.       Property values go down by about 10% near a casino.
8.       Most casinos are architecturally appalling. Additionally, they require a vast amount of parking (typically about one stall per slot machine). Certainly not something Hamiltonians want in their downtown (nor on their waterfront).
9.       The most significant risk factor contributing to problem gambling is proximity to a casino. If you build a downtown casino, there will be a greater number of problem gamblers in Hamilton.
10.    The social cost of problem gambling is staggeringly high. In addition to resorting to crime, problem gamblers are expensive to treat in order to manage their addictions. Their trails of financial ruin are damaging to both families and businesses. In a 2003 report, Earl Grinols estimates that casinos generate $6.22 of social costs for every $1 of government revenue!


Adam Lohonyai
5-042 Natural Resources Engineering Facility
University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
(780) 492-3496