Sunday, October 21, 2007

Brilliant Marketing or Alienation of Customers

Chevrolet has a new line of commercials for their Malibu sedan. In these commercials people are wildly ignorant to the existence of a late model beige Malibu. Then the announcer promises that soon the Malibu will be noticed. What does that say to the owners of the existing Malibu?

While the ad is true, the old Malibu in almost any color is urban camouflage, it's a little offensive to hear that from the people who designed and sold those cars. I'm kind of torn as to what this really says. Does it say that they feel they made a mistake in this design? Are they actually admitting that their old product was inferior?

I'm pretty sure that if I owned a Malibu I would be offended. I would take this commercial to say that I made a mistake in my purchase. This essentially says that Chevy thinks Malibu owners have bad taste. Why would these people buy from this company again? I wouldn't. Especially the new design, it doesn't fall in line with their existing customers tastes.

The same goes for Scion's latest campaign that displays the polarization of opinions toward their tiny car-based utility vehicle. Love it or loathe it, they say. Eye catching or eyesore. While I think that this may fool a few teens into thinking that Scions are rebellious vehicles that their parents just don't understand, I perceive this as a reminder that these cars are found ugly by many. This may help to positively influence the purchase process for some, but I think there's a good chance that it will plant that seed of doubt into the minds of others.

At the same time, I'm really happy to see this move from Chevy. One of the big factors that has created such a gap in quality between foreign and domestic automobiles has been the desire to please return customers. People don't like change. When you change the way a car feels they will resist it.

Buick is a great example of this. Only now are Buicks starting to come with firmer suspensions. It wasn't that GM was unable to produce a firm suspension that would still take bumps well, it's that the customers didn't like it. Buick's return customers wanted the bobbling boats of yore.
When the engineers worked to finalize Buicks for production they had to dial in a suspension that wouldn't offend their core buyers. They never forced those buyers to choose from better suspensions. The problem is that the pool of repeat buyers can never be larger than the original pool of buyers, as your first time buyers dwindles, so will your repeat buyers. Thus you'll see a slow death. Buick has started to turn around, and they're losing some repeat buyers but they're gaining more first time buyers.

Sometimes alienation is a good thing. You can't please everyone. I think that it's important not to be offensive about it, though. Telling someone that their taste is bland is a bad thing. Simply not offering a bad attribute just because they were accustomed to it is another. I think the new Malibu looks like a big improvement, but the marketing is still sub-par.

HeaDache TV

I'm trying to buy my first HDTV.

This is a huge entertainment purchase for me. Aside from a few computers that were around $1,000, I've never spent this much on electronics. The closest I've really come to a purchase like this was when I bought my first LCD monitor.

The purchase process is a confusing nightmare.

This market seems to be a huge mess. Depending on who you listen to you are either wasting money by buying a name brand, or saving yourself from huge problems. You should buy a TV that can display 1080p, unless your viewing distance is greater than 360 deg.* 60 * pixel pitch / 2 * Pi. I'm not kidding, either. Most TVs have VGA hookups, but if you use those many display at full resolution and you have to use a DVI to HDMI converter.

When you walk into a store that sells these you can immediately see the difference from brand to brand. Unfortunately, many commentators online will tell you that the people in the stores don't know how to properly adjust the units, so you can't even trust that. It makes perfect sense for an electronics store to spend time adjusting a set with a high profit margin while leaving a set with a low profit margin alone.

Finishing off the whole negative experience is when you find out that you're going to need $50+ worth of new cabling for this TV. Also, the salesman informed me that I need some outrageously expensive surge protector. If I bought the setup he was selling it would cost me nearly $300 in cabling just to accomplish my goals.

Who do you trust?

Trust your senses. Well, the safe bet is to pick a unit that has a good picture and a good price in the store. Then go home and find out what the bargain basement price is for that set. Trust your eyes. Trust your common sense.

Trust the manufacturer. The manufacturer will have some spiel to try to get you to buy their product, but the facts about the unit must be documented. While a reseller has an excuse, and a reason, to have vague or misleading product information, the manufacturer really doesn't. Any manufacturer that is vague or misleading shouldn't be trusted and should be avoided. If you can't trust the people who made the device then why would you put down hundreds of dollars for it?

Trust the consensus. Don't listen to any one individual, especially online. Remember that a dissatisfied customer is generally 5 to 10 times louder than a satisfied one. Also, a satisfied customer typically feels good about their purchase and any negativity about that product makes them question their decision, so they get defensive. The only way to reconcile this is to get a consensus of opinions. If you can't find a negative comment on a product then it's probably not very popular and you're running the risk of spending money on an untested product. If a product has nothing but poor reviews then it is, at best, mediocre. Mediocre products rarely have fans. Ideally you'll find a comfortable ratio of good to bad reviews, somewhere between 5:1 and 10:1 is a safe bet, note that a bad experience is far more likely to earn a review so these ratios really heavily favor a good product.

Don't trust salesmen. They are there to sell you something. They want to make you feel good about spending as much as possible. They can help you find what you want, but you have to walk in with a budget and an expected price point. The salesman will fill that price point and then try to nickel and dime you with cables and extended warranties. Don't fall for this. The extras that the sell at those stores are horribly overpriced and you may not even need some of them. You will need some new cabling, and if you only have cheap surge protectors then a new one isn't a bad idea. Don't pay these people for them.

Don't trust haters or fanatics. This goes back to the idea that you shouldn't trust a single source. A hater will dislike a brand because they had a bad experience with that company, or someone they know did, or they're merely a fanatic for another company. Fanatics won't allow reason to influence their decision that only one company sells a product worth buying. Often, they have a distinct lack of reason for why that is the only brand they'll accept. These people are only worth listening to if you also plan on listening to their contemporaries with differing opinions so you can decide who is the most persuasive.

I really wish this were an easier process. I don't like spending this much time and effort to make a purchase for a device that I'll merely be staring at. Hopefully in another 5 years the quality of these products will be to a level where few deviations in picture, features, and durability will exist. When that happens the whole process will be as simple as it's been for the last 20 years to buy a CRT. Until then, it'll be a headache. Right now that headache is mine.

Friday, October 12, 2007


Okay, so I should have verified that Vonage still doesn't offer anonymous call rejection before I wrote that last post. They now offer it, not that I was ever informed. I checked earlier this year and it wasn't there, so it still took them nearly 3 years (since I joined) to implement it. That's way too long.

My other option saves me money, so I'm not changing my mind. Such is life.

So Long Vonage

Dear Vonage,

I write this farewell with a heavy heart. There are many reasons why I didn't want to let you go. In the end, I failed you and you failed me. It's time to leave.

My friend was an early adopter of VoIP and his testing led me to sign up for your service. I've been a loyal customer for about five years now. I recognize that you're a pioneer in the field. I appreciate that Vonage isn't part of a monopoly. I liked most aspects of your service. I never cared much that 911 didn't work quite as reliably as with a POTS line, and I realized that the telcos were the real bad guys in that situation.

I really wanted to make it work. I stuck with you when my cable company started offering VoIP. I even went so far as to take pleasure in thwarting their telemarketers when they called to offer their service to me, "No, I have Vonage and I pay $15 plus tax." That always shut them up.

That was then. Now it doesn't shut them up. Their first tactic was to offer a year of service at the same rate. I don't like introductory offers as much as permanent ones, especially when after the introductory offer the deal isn't as sweet as what I have. Now they've changed the deal so that it's permanent. On top of that, they discount my television and internet service as well, making the phone bill virtually disappear into the cable bill. The pragmatic side of me, the one that would rather have that extra $15 for his son, said that it was time to bite.

You failed me first, though.

Despite the easily implemented advanced functionality of VoIP service, you never implemented the one feature that I wanted so dearly, the only feature I miss from the Verizon days. All I asked was for an anonymous call rejection function. It's not that hard, and most phone service providers offer it.

ACR was the real deal breaker. Without it we still receive too many telemarketing calls. Even New Jersey's strict telemarketing regulations don't eliminate all of these incredibly annoying calls. This includes the one company that sneaks under the telemarketing radar by being a charity*. Another large segment of these calls were pre-recorded campaign statements during the last major election. They're an annoying way to push information or make a sale. The worst offenders use a call box to call several numbers at once and put the others on hold. These organizations don't want you to know who they are because you might not answer the phone, you might complain about them, basically you might do something to stop them from annoying you other than give them what they want - normally your money.

When I found out that my cable company offers ACR and their service will save me money it was too much. I couldn't stay with you. I'm sorry. I wish you well. Maybe some day I'll be back.


*They've called with a few charities. The names are always very close to legitimate charities, but slightly different. One can assume that some money makes it to the claimed beneficiaries, but this company always shies away from any attempt to find out more about them. If you interrupt their script with a challenging question or request for more information that doesn't involve a commitment to donate they hang up on you. The last few times they've called I've taken to saying, "Take me off your list," as fast as I possibly can. A few times I've made it through the sentence before they hung up on me. My guess, based on their shady telemarketing practices, is that almost none of this money goes to charity, instead it probably gets sucked up by "overhead" in the form of huge salaries for the executives. I bet some of the new employees even think they're doing legitimate charity work, maybe they are... but that's not the way to do it.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Gentoo: Buried in Packages

I have a dirty little secret.

I've been a horrible administrator on my home network, in large part due to the neglect of my home server. I admit it, I've not done any reasonable upkeep on my Gentoo Linux machine for over a year.

"What's the big deal," you say?

It's just that any security vulnerability, performance enhancement, or feature enhancement over the last year has been ignored. This means my machine is vulnerable, slower than it should be, and probably not as feature rich as it could be.

Why on earth did I do this to myself?

Well, I did it because of the same thing that's plaguing me right now. Gentoo really is more complicated than it need be. This problem manifests itself in that Gentoo is not really the right operating system for a lazy administrator or a novice who isn't adept at troubleshooting a GNU system.

My problem started with simple laziness and neglect. At first I didn't update because I just forgot, or it was too much trouble to login and run the command. That situation went on for a few weeks or months after a year or two of fairly attentive administration.

Then when I finally did update everything broke. The package management system changed so that certain packages could block the installation of other packages. This change was enough to throw me off of the routine I had used while updating. When I tried to figure it out, the whole thing blew up. I managed to get the system to update, to the detriment of my Gnome installation. I found myself without a window manager, with an ailing system that I, again, couldn't update. I gave up.

Flash forward a year or so...

I've played with Ubuntu over the last year on my laptop. I was really impressed with the installation and administrative tools. I gave serious thought to replacing my Gentoo server with an Ubuntu install. Then I stopped and thought of the effort that would take. I'd have to setup some sort of temporary network or almost all facets of computing, as well as phone service, for my house would come to a grinding halt. I decided I would give Gentoo another chance.

This Sunday my friend was talking about updating his Gentoo installation. This sparked the desire to fix my machine. Now it's on.

I logged into the machine. I ran the commands. Updating failed magnificently. Search on Google for a solution, fix that. It fails again. Search on Google again, fix it again. It fails again. Rinse and repeat.

It actually managed to update around 200 packages before I hit the big roadblock. Unfortunately, that roadblock is that to update glibc I must switch the system over to gcc 3.4.6 from 3.3.6.

In short, I have to completely rebuild my system. Overnight last night 115 system packages rebuilt. Today I started rebuilding the 552 packages in world. As I write this it is working on package 180. All of this after 4 days of work. In the end I'll probably have spent a week on this.

If you would just...

I fully expect that a knowledgeable reader will think, "Just keep your system up to date." That's not the point. The point is that the way that Gentoo works makes that just a tad more inconvenient than most other systems. Further, it shouldn't ever take a week to fix a system that hasn't been maliciously compromised. I would lodge the same sort of complaint against a hosed Windows install.

Reinstalling from scratch was never an option. If I reinstall it will be Ubuntu. Reinstallation would have been even more work, even if it would have taken less time, and it would offer no advantage over simply installing Ubuntu.

I'm sure that some Gentoo guru can pop out of the woodwork and say, "If you'd just run this command..." Again, that's beside the point. If Gentoo were more intuitive then I wouldn't have missed whatever command it is you may suggest. It's not like I haven't read the handbook. I've basically done all three "stages" of the manual installation. I have a decent idea of where to start looking when I troubleshoot this box, but when time after time it involves searching around and 30 minutes of research after finding some hits, that's just a little ridiculous.

Not that it matters

I'm going to keep Gentoo on the machine for now. I'll probably leave it on there until I'm ready to install new hardware. While I'm too lazy to properly administrate a Gentoo installation, I'm also too lazy to replace it.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Sweetly Poisoned Information

Recently a coworker asked me about an email forward that she received. The email, entitled "Sweet Poison (A MUST READ)," was little different than most junk that's forwarded around. In my response I included the process I use to discredit, and very occasionally verify, the factuality of chain mail. It's pretty simple and I suggest everyone who's confronted with these things adopt a similar solution.

As I'm fond of saying, the best way to fight misinformation is with truth. My reply is as follows:

In this case it appears that the information contained is disputed at best. Also, this appears to be a grassroots marketing campaign. If you search for “Sweet Poison” you’ll find that it’s a book written about “exposing aspartame dangers.”

As for debunking, there’s a process I use:
  1. Anything, and I mean anything, written in 20 point green fonts, interspersed with varying paragraphs of other font colors, faces, and sizes, is likely junk. 99.999% of the time this holds up to be true. I’ve never found any reliable information contained within an email like this.
  2. The mere fact that several AOL users have forwarded this around is a sign that the content isn’t worth reading.
  3. Once we’ve established that it’s likely worthless we can take two courses of action:
    1. Delete the email
    2. Reply with information proving it worthless:
      1. Pick a phrase from the email or subject and paste it into the google search input. Usually the subject itself or the first sentence or two works, just make sure it’s somewhat unique.
      2. Search for it. Look through the first page or two of results. If you see,, etc. then click on the link.
      3. Unless you already know what the link says, read it. It’s best to be informed.
      4. Send an email back to the sender. Ask them to forward the truth around to everyone who they sent the original email to, as well as the person who sent it to them.
      5. Be prepared for an argument. Forwarded emails are often successful because it’s easier to accept the lie than it is to swallow the truth. People confronted with the truth will often get defensive of the falsity that they propagated and will resort to tactics such as attacking you for wanting to be right.