Friday, December 26, 2008

Speed Camera Woes

I'm strongly against automatic traffic enforcement. Not the least of my complaints is that the guilty until proven innocent procedure that most of them use is unconstitutional. The systems are sold to communities as a fund raising program.

So, it is with great pleasure that I read about high school students in Montgomery County, Maryland gaming the system. They've exposed a huge flaw in camera based systems with no human review: you can cheaply fool the system with fake plates.

Originating from Wootton High School, the parent said, students duplicate the license plates by printing plate numbers on glossy photo paper, using fonts from certain websites that "mimic" those on Maryland license plates. They tape the duplicate plate over the existing plate on the back of their car and purposefully speed through a speed camera, the parent said. The victim then receives a citation in the mail days later.

Unfortunately, I can already guess what the county will do about this. They'll increase patrols to catch a few kids with fake license plates. They have to spend money to protect their investment.

Still, we can sit back and laugh as pranks like these increase the cost of automatic enforcement all over the country. Spread the word.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Idea: Your Credit Card is Your Room Key

Hotel chains such as Extended Stay America have limited check-in hours. They save money by eliminating the need for a third shift. This is a great idea because they pass on some of those savings to the customers. Unfortunately, this also means that a late arrival can leave you out in the cold.

I believe that these businesses could benefit from an automated check-in process that allows you to gain entry to the hotel and room using the same credit card you used to make the reservation. This would allow the hotel to continue to operate without a third shift clerk, yet a guest could still check-in.

The biggest problem that I see with this would be that problems often happen during check-in. Automated systems often require babysitters for when problems occur. The management would have to implement a way for customers to receive help for problems at check-in without undue burden on employees who don't work third shift, including management itself. It's a case where the biggest problem is managing customer expectations.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Hungry Truth

I'm going to be contributing to a new blog about cooking called The Hungry Truth. I'm not sure how much I will contribute, but it should be interesting. There are some really talented people working on this project and I'm excited for it.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Windows Vista: The Multilingual Must Pay

I have a Colombian friend for whom I occasionally perform some basic computer maintenance. She, and her whole family, are relatively dumbfounded by some of the chores required to keep their systems working in a usable fashion. They rely on me perhaps more than I would like, but they're good people and these are the things friends do.

Last week her mother bought a laptop. As I write this she and her new computer are flying to Ecuador. Since I was unavailable last week, I had to do some last minute work yesterday. They needed anti-virus software, the kind that doesn't require ridiculous yearly fees, and to have the language switched to Spanish. The first issue was a five minute ordeal to download and install Avast!, my current pick for AV. The second issue took two hours and required a hack.

You read that right, you cannot switch an English version of Vista Home edition to another language without using a hack. At first I thought it was annoyingly difficult, but when I found out that it was impossible without paying to upgrade to Ultimate edition I was floored. I'm not the only one, check out the anger and confusion at Microsoft's TechNet Forums over this issue.

The solution, as I mentioned, is a hack. Vistalizator, though it has a ridiculous name, was able to change the language in a few minutes. After that, I could barely work with the context menus. Since much of the software was developed in English it turned the laptop into a Spanglish mess. Something tells me that is a perfect result.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Wonderful Apple Customer Service Experience

My iPod Touch was having problems. It would randomly crash, displaying a vomit-like multicolor display of failure that was inescapable until the unit ran out of batteries. I restored the software, bought a couple of upgrades. Nothing fixed my problem.

I had another issue. I won that iPod and didn't have a receipt or service contract or anything. Still, I was fed up with the shenanigans so last week I walked into the local Apple store and asked to see someone at the genius bar.

If I'd made an appointment I may not have had to wait a half hour. So I wandered around the mall. Thirty minutes later, back at the store, I was able to go sit up at the bar. There I listened to some poor fellow that was going to have to wait for his custom MacBook Pro to be shipped to the store, replacing the old one that died.

When it was my turn I handed over the device. The tech plugged it in, looked at it with a magnifier and a light (I think he was checking for water damage), then proclaimed that he'd give me a replacement. ...Wha?

That's right. I walked in with no receipt, no warranty contract, no explanation of what happened, and he simply replaced it. He even gave me a receipt this time. His explanation was that he thought it was a software issue but he saw something going on with the hardware and he'd rather give me a new one than potentially force me to come back in two days when it happens again.

That's good service. Actually, that is pretty much the best customer service experience I've had with small electronics. Not only are my problems solved, but the new device is shiny and free of scratches from before I bought an iPod case.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Free Trade: Why Don't You Get a Job?

A coworker sent my department one of those junk emails with crappy jokes today. This one was about a guy looking for a job. It went down a list and mentioned all of the things he was wearing and using and where they were supposedly "made." The punchline was that everything was foreign and he wondered why he couldn't find work.

Welcome to global economics with free, but not fair, trade.

The problem I have with sentiments like those insinuated in the email is that they blame the wrong thing. They blame everyone else, but especially the foreign workers for having the audacity to import their goods.

There is a distinct failure to blame the politicians for opening up free trade without ever imposing the slightest bit of human rights, workers rights, or environmental regulation. More importantly, there is the failure of our mindless consumerism to ever think of the consequence of blind shopping for the lowest price in a category with little actual understanding of how that price is achieved. In short, the reason we don't have manufacturing is because we exported it willingly and then refused to buy local.

So, if its the jobless man's fault that he can't find a manufacturing job, or his father's or his neighbor's, where's the joke? I'll rewrite it for you: All he needs to do is wait for the economy to collapse to the point where he can't afford any of those things and the capitalists will gladly pay him $0.12 per hour to make them instead.

Post Election Break

Well, that was a nice month. I think I'm boiling over with the need to broadcast a few things, so it's time to resume blogging again.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Race and The Race

Ever since the Democratic primaries were pared down to two people, I've been thinking about just what it will mean to have a non-white President. I think it says a lot about where we're at as a country. Probably not as much as some would want to believe, but we still have to give ourselves credit.

Early on, I maintained that it was possible for us to elect a non-white President, even a black one. Doubters, especially Hillary supporters, claimed that it was impossible for a non-white to win in this country. Their claim was that racism is too strong, and the racists too plentiful. I think they sold our country short and overstated the problem. I also argued that they were proposing to empower the racists if they let that fear alone prevent them from voting for Obama.

Here we are, less than a week from the election and every major polling agency and aggregator has the race for Obama. Most of the projected leads are statistically significant. The aggregate lead appears insurmountable for the Republican, whose only chance appears to be a belief in the Bradley Effect.

I find myself particularly swayed by the arguments that the Bradley Effect won't play any roll in this election, at least not a significant one. If it appeared in the primaries all it did was keep Clinton afloat in a couple of states, but Obama outperformed more polls than he underperformed. If anything, it would seem that various sector of Obama's support are being vastly under polled. I think we're set to see a landslide and he will win at least one state in the South that was thought to be an impregnable Republican safe haven, probably Georgia if any.

That doesn't mean racism is dead.

The racist reaction was strong, if not as strong as most feared. There have been so many overtly racist events surrounding this election. Every side is guilty, but none more so than the Republicans. No one is more complicit than Sarah Palin.

All over the country the Republican base was fired up over Governor Palin. Almost universally for the wrong reasons, although we must admit that she does appear to have a decent record against corruption, even if she just replaced old corruption with new corruption. They supported her because of her subtle bigotry, her religion (in all its extremist Christian glory), and her gender. Even the gender issue is for the wrong reason, she's not a feminist, nor a ground breaker, she's trying to ride Hillary's coattails in the most offensive way possible. The message was clear: If you want to vote for a minority you can still vote McCain. Don't worry about whether your vote is for or against feminism or if it will positively impact the institutional racism and patriarchy in our society, you're voting for a ticket with less penises than the other.

Once the honeymoon faded Palin's supporters had a hard time drumming up enthusiasm. She failed to connect with anyone but her narrow base, shy of a few old perverted men. So she fell on America's current worst racial issue: Our public acceptance of racism toward Arabs and bigotry against Islam. It didn't take long for her and her supporters to complete the circle back to the early whisper campaigns. The insinuation is that Obama is a radical black Muslim, the image they painted in the minds of racist Americans (this is a subset, not an indictment of us all) was that of the Black Panther with their fist in the air. It was just shy of screaming, "C'mon, people, he's black!"

Weeks later and the Republicans have not seriously censured this group of racists. They maintain their claim that Obama is "different," even as the differences between Palin and the average American become more and more clear. Recently in Iowa, Palin spent a solid minute merely talking over the crowd's growing anger and shouts of "he's a nigger!" Has she ever stopped to tell the crowd that she won't tolerate that, that it's not right and it's not how Republicans should act? No. That is why it keeps happening, that's why it has gotten worse.

I believe that what is happening is that we've flushed the racists out. They can only think to rally around Palin as their last bastion of hope against a black President. They are scared, because racism is born of fear and stupidity. These rallies are a support group for the racists. A last effort for them to vent their anger and fear before the coming unknown. In that, I believe the results we're seeing manage to slightly overstate the true weight of the racism problem in the Republican party, America, and the individual locations that host the events.

At the same time we can't give too much credit to the Democrats, or Obama supporters in general. The ability to ignore race due to the gravity of other issues does not signify the absence of racism. Indeed, there are plenty of voters who are simply voting "for the nigger." It's dangerous to ignore what this means. This indicates that racism is still a very real problem in our country, but even racists have their limits and very few people are shallow and stupid enough to allow race to be the most important issue.

So, if he wins what does it mean?

It means that we're less racist than almost anyone gave us credit for. Or, at the very least, that we do not let our racism affect our most important decisions. What is equally important is what it doesn't mean: This is not the end of racism in America. There is still a lot of evidence that we have a long way to go, and we need to seize the moment to make things better.

This does send a message to the world. I don't think it says that racism is dead. Instead, I think it says that we're growing up and we're moving on. It says that the slack jawed ignorant self-identifying redneck is no longer acceptable as our representative stereotype. We are more complex and diverse. Most importantly, I think it signifies that we care about how our country is perceived.

The worst possible outcome here would be if we declared victory prematurely. There isn't an exit strategy for the war on racism yet. Equality does not exist in our society, and what little equality there is has not yet reached a proper level of sustainability. Having an African American President does not invalidate Affirmative Action. This country is still a patriarchy ruled by the whites. The social systems that enforce that are still in place, let alone the governmental ones. We cannot throw up our hands in victory and give up. We cannot be complacent.

Now is the time for increased vigilance. This election has forced the dormant race issue to the surface. It is within our reach, we can grab it and attempt to fix it. We're 90 percent there, we just have the other 90 percent to worry about.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Dora Fitzgerald

Dora Fitzgerald of North Charleston, SC, 93, died last week. She clung to life so that she could vote for Barack Obama.

She made her mark, and we put it in the envelope, my brother and I walked to the mailbox, it was 11 o’clock Wednesday morning and I said ‘Mom its in the mail, you’ve done your thing, Barack’s going to win,’ and she kind of smiled and it was kind of a deep sigh, a sigh of relief, and in less than an hour later, she died

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Subtle Bigotry: Hockey Mom

We've heard about the racism that the McCain campaign has stirred up, but few people have addressed when it started. I believe that it started as soon as Sarah Palin was named as his running mate. Specifically, the first time she claimed that she was "just one of [us]" and a "hockey mom."

Why is that racist? To answer that question we have to look at who hockey moms are. So, that's just what I did.

Luckily, I already had an idea of who they were, at least in this area. For a few years I helped my brother-in-law with his little league photography business. Among his clients were a few of the local hockey leagues. He also had football, baseball, basketball, soccer, and wrestling leagues for clients. He worked in communities on all ends of the income spectrum. As far as Northern New Jersey is concerned, I know the sports demographics well.

From this I tell you that hockey moms are earlier risers, able to tolerate prolonged periods in freezing temperatures, financially comfortable, SUV drivers, and as white as possible. Don't take my word for it, here is what MinnPost's Jay Weiner had to say about it:

[T]he sport is predominantly Caucasian and, of course, extremely Northern in its geography. Among hockey, soccer and basketball, those who participate in hockey have the highest household income of $80,540. It's a more affluent sport and, perhaps, more Republican, although Minnesota hockey has a blue-collar strain to it.

Slate's income numbers are different, but they tell the same story:

[T]hey're almost certain to be largely Caucasian. Just 2 percent of National Hockey League players are black, despite the work of a "diversity task force" for both the professional and youth leagues. (The task force has held special camps in Wasilla, Alaska.) USA Hockey claims hockey-playing households earn nearly twice the U.S. average, with a median income of $99,200. According to polling by the Pew Research Center, a slice of registered voters that might be roughly equivalent to hockey moms—comprising white married women with kids under 18, incomes over $75,000 and living in the prime hockey-playing regions

If you read the full stories accompanying those quotes you will start to realize who the "us" is that Palin is one of. It doesn't encompass people of color. Nor does it include the poor, actually it mostly excludes the middle class. It does include someone who can afford thousands of dollars every year for their child to play a sport. Very few hockey moms are worried about how they're going to afford their next meal.

When Sarah Palin says that she is one of "us" and that Barack Obama isn't, in the same breath that she claims to just be a hockey mom, she is making a classist and racist statement. She is saying that we can't let a non-white person who had to work their way through school into the White House. She is professing her disgust for someone who would waste their time as a community organizer in low income areas.

It is a subtle attack, but one that should not be overlooked. At the very least, not anymore. Once her attacks became more overt, and her attempts to provoke a passionate racist reaction became more obvious, we had to look at just how deeply this runs in the campaign. It isn't merely a ploy that started a week or two ago, it's built right into the VP pick.

Monday, October 13, 2008

I Agree With Bill Kristol?

Bill Kristol now thinks that McCain should fire his campaign, something I called for in July. Not that I agree with Kristol on much else that he's saying, especially that a stunt like this could work this late in the campaign.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Troy, Ohio

On a more positive note, this is why Barack Obama will be our next President.

I have to say, I can picture Troy as I read those words. Why? Because I grew up a couple towns over. I could walk to Miami County from my house, it was about 400 feet from my door to a corn field that was in the county. My brother was once hit by a car while riding his bike on Route 202 in Miami county, he was thrown over the county line into Montgomery county.

When I lived in Ohio I considered myself an undecided Republican. I believed in the ideas that I was taught the party represented. I was told that they were right and just.*

My mother was heavily involved in their organization in my town. My father was an Independent, if he were around today he'd probably consider himself a Libertarian. That's just a guess, though. I was a product of my environment.

I used to be far more politically motivated, back when I had free time during the day and wasn't trying to feed a family. I would hand out fliers for the Republican party. I started working the polls at 17. At that age you're allowed to work at the county elections office doing ballot collection. It's manual labor. Once I turned 18 I took over my mother's spot at the local poll serving as a judge.

A Republican judge.

I served as a judge at several elections. After the first few I served as the presiding judge, which meant that I had to pick up the equipment before and deliver the ballots after.

Every polling place I've presided at was a Christian church. That didn't strike me as being so odd back then. Now I can only pause to wonder how a Muslim or a Jew feels walking into such a place to cast their ballot.

Now I'm quite happy to be out of Ohio. Every time I talk to someone who still lives there the outlook gets bleaker. The economy there is in shambles. No one knows who to trust or where to look.

It's good to see that change is happening. People need to stand up, and stand together. It is my hope that these organizations and connections live on beyond this election, and beyond the goal of getting one party or another into office. They should grow into organizations to push ideas up the chain and tell candidates what the voters really want and need. They should become the next generation of watchdogs who are ready to defect if they aren't being represented.

For now, I'll take solace in knowing that I won't have to hear another four years of Ohio taking the blame for electing the wrong candidate.

* This is not to say that I believe that all of the Democrats' ideas are right. I've since grown up and I realize that no party can represent every idea correctly. However, in that time I've learned a lot of good reasons why some Republican policies are foolish. Also, the underlying Christian Nationalist agenda within the Republican party is something that needs to be exorcised before I could consider their platform to be viable.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

That One

It has been a long political season. I am thankful that it will soon come to a close. This has been the most turbulent election I can remember, at least since 1992 with the on-and-off Perot campaign.

I believe that the right team is in the lead. They only need to play defense, and maybe shoot for a couple more points to fully secure the win. They cannot let their guard down yet, but their sideline can smile in satisfaction. What we've seen over the last few months has been a collapse of the opposition.

Specifically, if you couldn't already tell, I believe that Barack Obama will rightfully be the next President. John McCain has completely destroyed his brand. He's left himself with no choice but to run a dishonorable campaign over the coming month. It is a sad tribute to someone who once ran specifically on honor, dignity, and righteousness.

It comes down to two words, "that one."

When I heard him say that during the last debate I was astonished. I cannot recall a Presidential candidate with that little tact. I have heard no apology and no explanation for what was said. I can only assume that John McCain himself has lost his ability to be a gentleman. The only question now is whether his campaign is a reflection of him, or he a reflection of his campaign.

Thinking of the phrase, "that one," many things come to mind. Most notably are the times when my father would incredulously call my brother or I that way. "And that one over there wasn't helping anything," he would say. It was always used to scorn. It belittles and dehumanizes.

Yet, my father knew something that Mr. McCain must not. That is not a phrase to be used lightly. It is not to be used on those of equal or greater standing. A well mannered individual would never utter those words in public when any better label would do. My father knew that and he would never refer to my brother or I in such a manner outside the house.

Another interpretation would be that the quip was meant as subtle racism. I don't believe this is the case. However, I do believe that the questions and allegations are justifiable. I don't judge those who would accuse this man of resorting to racism during his fall from grace. I won't join them, though.

A more honorable man would step up and defend his words. He would explain that it is just an expression and declare that he did not intend to demean Senator Obama. Since that has not happened, we can only assume that his intent was dishonorable.

This is just one instance, though. Two words. Much more can be observed from the rest of the debate, and the rest of the campaign. Senator McCain's surrogates, especially Sarah Palin, have ventured down far less honorable paths. They are overtly questioning Mr. Obama's heritage, childhood, and service. In doing so, they insult all Americans who believe that freedom knows no such bounds, as well as those who put their country, and their communities, before themselves.

I believe that during these final days of this election cycle we should reflect on the grace and integrity shown by each of the candidates. Specifically, that which is shown by Barack Obama and that which John McCain has apparently lost.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Shockingly Pleasant Verizon Service Cancellation Call

I just canceled my Verizon Wireless service. The call took 8 minutes total. The person who helped me was very polite and was never forceful, nor did she try any annoying retention techniques. Service like that will make me consider Verizon if I'm ever dissatisfied with AT&T.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Now Presenting...

Here's an email I sent to my manager about a presentation he had me review. It's snarky, and very blunt. I hope the presentation will be better for it.

I'm reviewing your Green Presentation. I'll attach my thoughts to this email as they occur.

Slides 2 and 3 are busy and very hard to read. The font is too small, not contrasted and enough with the background.

Slide 2: I hope to hear what the average household consumption has to do with how we can help be green at [our company] (if you make the point then the content of this is fine, I guess)

Slide 3: This slide has the worst layout. The text keeps getting smaller. Lose the footnote, make it an endnote or make it a legit part of the slide. People will stop to squint at this instead of listening to you.

Slides 4 & 5: Hooray, graphs! The white pixilated charts look really ugly on this background.

Read this and think about these:

Slide 6: I still worry that this is too risqué. I like the humor. I would leave this up

Slide 7: I like the slide, you missed the 's' in "headquarters"

Slide 8: The slide is fine, at this point I'm just wondering why an IT guy is talking about the building specs.

Slide 11: Not crazy about the slide, text and images all over the place. The title is missing the word "are"

Slide 12: The graph is off center. We don't have ANY clue about the power draw of OUR data center? If we do, you look really lazy when you don't include it. If not, it makes it seem like we don't care. Expect questions about this.

Slide 13: Is that a power bill or your cell phone bill? I can't tell. Consider zooming in and cropping the bill so that a readable section is shown, that section should include the bill total. For better effect, don't crop this as a square...

Slide 14: One of the few legible graphics in this presentation and you put the words in it directly under it as well? Welcome to the department of redundancy department. If you're going to use this then get rid of that ugly copyright notice.

Slide 15: Interest photo. Be prepared to segway into this photo so that the listener knows why you put it there. Why isn't it full screen?

Slide 16: Not so interesting photo. Er, I guess it's interesting. It feels contrived. Still small, the focal point of this presentation has been the background.

Slide 17: The text is okay, I'm not wild about the picture proliferation.

Slide 18: Exclamation points!!!!! Nothing gets me more excited.

Slide 19: Thermostat: boring. Monkeys: adorable. Guess which should be changed and/or which should be bigger?

Slide 20: I like the picture, and sort of like the message. The problem I have is that it seems to condone that sort of excessive waste during Christmas. That says to people: it's okay during this time of year, people do this. That translates to, why bother? I say you make fun of the overdone display. Tell people that it's ridiculous and tell them that if we claim to be green and don't practice simple green habits this is how we'll look to our clients.

Slide 21: I love the picture, and wish it were even bigger to cover up that background. If it had a power button in plain view it would be absolutely perfect.

Slide 22: Use of bold is ineffective at best, obnoxious at worst. It comes off as demanding rather than highlighting. It should be bolder so that it's skimmable or it should be removed.

Slide 23: I don't care for the play on words in the title. By the time I'm reading point one I have to go back and reread the title to figure out what you're doing there.

Slide 24: The comparison between Japan and our company is confusing. You have one Fahrenheit number and one Celsius, then below two Fahrenheit. Keep your slides to a single measurement system, please! Hopefully your talk would make clear how a country compares to our business.

Slide 25: You're not winning any friends telling them to be warm in the summer and cold in the winter. Be prepared for questions about whether any energy savings would be offset by the increased fan and space heater usage these measures would bring.

Slide 26: Don't use money to qualify these changes. Use energy. You can use money as a secondary factor. The people there do not care about saving the company a few dollars. Period.

Slide 27: Another copyright watermark. This presentation makes you look like a cheap infringer.

Oh my. I just actually played the presentation rather than just viewing slides. Don't use cheesy transitions and make text bounce around. That's just annoying.

Slide 29: I'm willing to bet you could make the same point with only 2 of those pictures. If you can't, then it's fine. If you can make the same point with only one picture then that's what you should do. Be prepared to explain the device.

Slide 30: So much information for a single slide. Expect your audience to spend upwards of 30 seconds reading this instead of listening to you.

Slide 31: Good slide, why all the empty space? If you don't want to have the text take up the entire slide it should at least be centered or something.

Slide 32: Shouldn't exist. This is something you should say not have them read.

Repeat this for every slide through 41. What's the point here? Watch Letterman tonight. Copy his top 10 style: visually you should have 2 slides, 5 points on each. The point on the slide should be very short and you should have your talking points expand upon the slide's point. Make each item in the list appear one a time, but the list should be cohesive.

Slide 42: Numbers! Quick: how many numbers can the average human retain at once? Hint: this slide exceeds the answer.

Slide 43: This slide should not exist. It's utterly pointless. No human can read this slide and pay attention to anything you're saying. Anything with this amount of info should be in a handout (read: document on the network) or completely excluded.

Slide 44: See Slide 43.

Slide 45: Computer: Boring. Kid: Cute. Guess which one should be removed?

Slide 46: This chart finally matches your color scheme! What's with the text at the bottom? Get rid of all the white surroundig the chart.

Slide 47 is okay, could be organized better.

Slide 48: 8.6% what?

Slide 49: Green on green action. This will look great on a low contrast projector.

Slide 50: 50 slides? How long do you have for this talk? You realize you lost 98% of your audience 30 slides ago. Oh, lose the picture. Your slide doesn't need it.

Slide 51: Another chart! Otherwise this slide is great.

Slide 52 is okay. The parenthetical statement should be included in your talking, not your slide.

Slide 53: The bullet point on this slide should be said by you, not written on your slide.

Slide 54: Slide 53, take 2. I don't like the layout and Slide 53 had a more interesting image.

Slide 55: Alright, a blank slide so we can see what this presentation is really about, the background!

Slide 57: Car pollutes is not news, it's sarcasm. Cars pollute is a well known fact. Adding exclamation marks beyond one doesn't add emphasis, it reduces your credibility. Love the image.

Slide 57: Did you have to put "Recycling!" there? If nothing else, did it need the exclamation? If you removed all the exclamation marks in this presentation would it make a difference?

Slide 58: The antithesis of how to compose a slide. Too much info. Text is impossible to read. If the image helps this slide, why put text over it? It's more green on green. The header is inconsistent with anything we've seen in the presentation (which has only one consistency anyhow: the background). The layout is still boring even with all of that.

Slide 59: There should be more like this, but there's still a lot of numbers for one slide.

Slide 60: I like the image, but it's too much like the one from slide 53. The font makes me feel like I'm suddenly watching Swiss Family Robinson.

You need to cut this thing in half, focus on the powerful images and points. Cut some of the boring stuff and the numbers out of your presentation. Make the extra stuff into a document (or documents) and distribute it electronically to attendees.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Use Filters to Pare Down Your Spam Folder

The biggest problem with spam filters is false positives. The very prospect of a false positive means that you cannot erase all of your spam without at least quickly scanning through it. If you do, you're in for trouble.

As the amount of spam that I receive at my gmail account grows, I have been adding filters to delete email that is definitely spam. This significantly cuts down on the amount of spam that sits in the spam folder. Less spam in the folder means less spam to scan.

The drawback of this is that I have to pick my filters carefully to avoid any false positives in them. This means that I may not want to filter for "pharmaceutical", but I can filter "Paris Hilton" with impunity.* It's also difficult to filter foreign language spam, though that's easier to scan through.

A couple minutes spent setting up a filter now can save me a couple minutes every week or so when I check my spam for legitimate email.

*If you send me legitimate email about Paris Hilton it will be deleted. It's a false positive that I'm okay with.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


I've known of the Lifehacker blog, and the concept of lifehacking, for some time now. I've openly practiced lifehacking on occasion, but normally I thought I was just being over-analytical. Recently, I've come to embrace the idea of myself as a lifehacker for a while.

I'm trying to clear up my time so that I don't feel so overloaded. I also need to find a working process that keeps me focused. I have conflicting goals of being more productive at work and spending more time, and also being more productive and helpful, at home. These things require some high level and low level changes to my processes, habits, and lifestyle... basically, lifehacking.

If this blog is nothing else, it's an outlet for my wandering thoughts and ideas. So I'll be trying to document some of my hacks here.

Keep a Quarter in Your Pocket

This is a little tip that I think would help most men. If you keep a quarter in your pocket then you should never receive more than 75 cents in change. This can really cut down on jingly pockets.

I settled on a quarter because anything smaller is virtually useless, and anything larger requires two coins or rarely used coins. Fifty cent pieces are rare and annoy cashiers, but that would be the optimal coin to carry. Two coins doesn't work because they would always clank together, the exact scenario you're trying to avoid.

As a variation, you could carry two quarters in separate pockets. You could carry a penny as the second coin, to avoid getting four pennies as change. If you can and do carry a coin purse, then you're probably better off carrying some other combination, maybe 41 cents (a quarter, a dime, a nickel, and a penny) or 52 cents (two quarters, two pennies).

Monday, July 28, 2008

BlackBerry Conundrum

As I previously stated, I had a BlackBerry temporarily for work which prompted me to buy one for personal use when I had a chance. So far, I'm very happy with my decisions. I was happy to turn in the other unit, as I feared it would soon become a leash. I also like the convenience and connectivity afforded my personal BB.

So, I'm not sure why I feel compelled to mix the two, but that's what I've attempted. I asked at work if I could connect my personal BlackBerry to their enterprise server. The way I saw it, this would be a good mix of potentially increased productivity without increased expectations. Plus, by paying for the unit and the service I'm not stepping on any toes with the request. The sort of thing where if nothing changes then nothing is lost, but if I can work more efficiently then I look better and am a better value for the company. It's a win/win situation, right?

Not quite.

The losing starts with the roadblock in my plan. My company's policy does not allow personal devices. It is mostly due to the support problems that causes, and that the engineers at the firm live in an alternate reality where our IT is responsible for any technical problems they, their clients, relatives, friends, acquaintances, neighbors, etc... may encounter. So, I can't have my own phone and hook it into the corporate mail system.

But wait! There's a Plan B. Plan B is for me to cancel service for my new phone and get a BlackBerry from work instead. This would save me $40/month by eliminating the family plan and data service. I would have an unlimited data plan and could link it to my personal email. I would have enough minutes allocated for all my calling needs, and my boss assures me that I can make personal calls within reason, so I wouldn't have to carry multiple phones (which would be a deal breaker for me).

The problem with that idea is it would mean that I'm essentially selling my private usage data to the company. Essentially, they would own a device that I use extensively for personal communications, including phone calls, instant messages, and email. At any point they could fire me with no notice and rifle through the device spying on my personal communications. Without going to such extremes they could still easily track the calls I make, which is something I'm not comfortable with, even if my calling habits are fairly mundane.

Is there a solution? I'm not sure. One solution would be to forget about the whole thing and leave my work email at work when I leave at 5. [Ha ha! More like 7.] There would be no expectation of increased productivity or availability, but I would also miss out on the benefits.

Another solution is to forward my work email to a personal account. This is the one I will try starting tomorrow. There are a few problems with this method. I won't be able to properly reply to the emails unless I log in to the email system or reply from my personal account. There will likely be a longer delay between the time the email is sent and the time I receive it. Also, I'm likely violating some risk management/email retention/privacy policy with every email that forwards, creating a vague possibility of legal ramifications. I'll want to be more proactive to filter the noise, because all of that email will end up in 3 places (work inbox, personal inbox, BB). Hopefully this will give me some of the benefits without introducing the nastier problems. I'm flirting with the boundaries of work/life balance.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Blogging Bonanza

I went nuts tonight. Between finishing un-posted entries and creating new entries, including this one, I'll have 10 new posts. Considering the ~35 posts I made during the last 11 months, I think that's quite a feat.

I don't know how it may look if someone out there has this blog in their RSS reader. I did edit a lot of entries tonight. All of the entries that were newly released tonight I had to modify the dates on. Many were posted with the original date that the draft was started, which would be okay if I hadn't added new content on top of the entry. If that did anything funky to anyone's reader, I apologize. I was editing for clarity, not to hide anything.

While I was at it I also deleted a few entries that were incomplete or more boring than usual. Then I went back and tagged nearly all of them. Finally, I added a few new items to the side bar of the blog.

Consider this yearly maintenance. I think I'm done now.

Idea: Replacement Caps for Wal-Mart's New Milk Containers

As you may know by now, Wal-Mart has started selling milk in a new type of container. This container causes problems when pouring the milk. I think that the problem could be solved by selling a reusable cap with a built in spout alongside the milk. The savings of the new container would eventually even out the cost of the cap, and both Wal-Mart and the vendor selling the cap could make money off of it.

I'd produce this myself, but I have no idea how to get started. I tried contacting the company that designed the new containers but they aren't easy to get in touch with. I thought it best to put the idea out here instead.

What McCain Should Do

If McCain wants to keep Obama from running away with this election he should make a very public spectacle of firing top campaign management. On the other side of this he should immediately begin running a campaign that makes almost no negative mention of Obama, and his focus should be on his own integrity and commitment to the United States. His current campaign makes him seem old, outdated, and the wrong choice.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Finally Making a Move from Microsoft

Years ago I attempted to shift my home from Windows to Linux (GNU/Linux with KDE, GNOME, and a few other window managers, for the sticklers out there). It was a terrific success and then a huge failure. For around six months Windows was almost never used at home. Then my wife started school and a week into that it wasn't worth the struggle to get things to work with her school.

Her school was generally uncaring about what she did or didn't have available to her, for them she had to have a Windows OS and Microsoft Office. They wouldn't accept PDFs, her assignments involved creating documents that use features RTF doesn't support, and at the time still had issues saving Word documents. So, even though I managed to trick the school's website into unblocking Konquerer, she eventually had to use Windows.

Windows is a drug. All it takes is one use and you're hooked. Ignore the side effects, the constantly degrading performance, the nearly mandatory reinstall every few years, the need for all sorts of protective [and resource draining] software, it's still easier than fighting the tide. Roll with it, and you become addicted to the ease of communicating with others who are hopelessly addicted to Microsoft's proprietary formats. You can move on with your life and forget about the computer.

Along came Vista, and things started to change. The staunchest Microsoft supporters can only give a meek yelp of defense for Vista. It is becoming a Windows Me 2, and everyone is avoiding it. As more people move to that OS I hear more chatter about this or that device becoming a useless brick. Now that you must jump through hoops to buy a new system with XP, more people are becoming sympathetic with those who switch from Microsoft.

The resurgence of Apple is the tipping point. Apple is becoming less of a niche market every day. It helps that Apple kept their price points up so Macintosh owners are now associated with money. America respects money, so America has started to respect Apple again. With respect for Apple comes the understanding that interoperability [the real definition, not Microsoft's distortion] is important.

To give due respect, FireFox plays a big part in this as well. FireFox is largely responsible for the browser market opening up again. Now that Internet Explorer is relegated to a mere two thirds of the market fewer businesses are ignoring the other browsers. This means there is far less of a chance that a website will required IE for basic use. Although I still encounter a lot of small organizations who are behind the times and want IE for important features to work, sometimes inexcusable features like rendering or navigation. It is far better than it was, which is important because the World Wide Web becomes more useful every day.

When a shock to my Inspiron notebook bricked it this weekend I had a choice. I could continue with my addiction to Microsoft, or I could pay a little more and make a big step toward freedom. I took the step and I bought a MacBook.

A Quick BlackBerry Post-Mortem

I recently carried and returned a BlackBerry 8820 for my job. I did this on a temporary basis as a stipulation of my vacation, since not enough notice was given I had to be on-call for at least two of the five days. My experience overall was a positive one, I was able to be responsive and somewhat productive what out of the office.

I never finished this one. Long story short, I found myself checking my mail too often. I felt slightly leashed to work. The 8820 was too big for my liking, and the keys too small. Yet, through all that I was able to be away from work without worrying too much that I'd miss out on things. I could communicate still, and I was able to make a big contribution with only a small amount of my day.

I decided not to press for a BB through work, but to get one for personal use. Last weekend I did just that. I chose the Pearl because it's more phone-like yet it has larger buttons that are easier for me to use. I'm trying to work something out where I can get my work email on this phone without the attached expectations of having a work BB. That way I can use my free time to help my productivity without my boss (or her boss, more importantly) feeling that they command 24 hours per day of my time. We'll see how that goes.

Traffic, A Light at the End of the Off Ramp

I wanted to analyze this intersection and point out why it's so horrible. That was obviously more effort than it's worth. This post is about eleven months old...

Of the daily annoyances I encounter, the ones that involve driving are probably the most prevalent and irksome. Whether it be bad drivers, bad laws, or poorly designed roads, driving can be one of the most stress inducing activities you frequently partake in. Probably the saddest part of all is that I know how relaxing driving can be if you find yourself in a situation where none of those factors can influence you. In North Jersey those situations are especially scarce.

Take this intersection, please...

This image, courtesy of Microsoft Virtual Earth, is the intersection of a heavily traveled semi-limited access divided highway and a relatively (especially for the design of the road) highly traveled side street. The highway, State Route 46, acts as a secondary artery for Northern New Jersey. Its path criss crosses I-80, at times it's a limited access highway and at times it's simply divided and is littered with retail and the occasional residence. The cross street is one of those old farm roads come neighborhood through way come major thoroughfare that this area is littered with. Several other neighborhood side streets intersect in the immediate area, as well.

Did you notice what this picture lacks?

It lacks a traffic signal. All of the intersections pictured on the cross street are controlled by stop signs alone. Making matters worse, none of the stop signs apply to the major cross street. All of them apply to the tributaries and off ramps.

Any traffic engineer could watch this intersection during moderate to heavy volume, which happens frequently, to see how the traffic flow at is a horrible failure.

DVR is a Game Changer, Someone Tell the Networks

When I started writing this I planned to write three or four consecutive posts about TV. I had a lot of thoughts about how TV could be better for DVRs, and I like to think that DVRs could be better for TV...

First, the problem: When a sports broadcast does not end on time the broadcaster often shifts the start time of later programs so they can be displayed in their entirety. This wreaks havoc for the DVR user, whose device relies upon the program scheduling to know when to run. Extra innings in a Sunday afternoon baseball game can cause prime time to shift, sometimes by over an hour.

I think that the networks are foolish to ignore the DVR market. I know they really dislike DVRs because they embody a change in demographics that scares advertisers. I think that this data can easily be tracked and the ad revenue will not cease for quite some time. In fact, if they work with DVR providers they may be able to collect more accurate information on the subject. I think that time shifting, particularly with the ease that a DVR offers, opens up the viewership to new demographics while the existing demographic stays the same. It also could change the value of off-peak time. Imagine running new content at 3 a.m. and telling viewers to set their Tivo, but I digress.

The important part here is to make sure that the intended viewer sees the show they want to watch. Even those who don't have a DVR may have time constraints that prevent them from watching the 9 o'clock time slot. There are more potential solutions when you consider the DVR, but even the average viewer could benefit from a few changes.

Give the event some insulation. Put a show after the event that can easily be canceled if the event goes into overtime.

More Chain Mail Lunacy

In retrospect, I should have posted this one as-is back in November...

Last time, I was complaining because a coworker used me as a source rather than doing a simple two second search to verify the validity of a piece of chain mail, and I commented on how the email actually linked to the article that invalidates it. This time it's far worse. This time the CIO actually forwarded one of these messages, claiming a new computer virus is spreading, to the IT Department.

Why Doesn't the Theater Industry Do Something?

Here's a brief diagnosis of what's wrong with the theater industry. I was going to suggest that they do more dinner theaters and IMAX screens, and I still think that's the answer. Make a movie ticket significantly more expensive and increase your service level. That will make movie goers feel special and they'll respect the entire experience more. One thing is for certain, something has to change if this industry doesn't want to join the drive-in...

After much ado, I recently purchased my first HDTV. I've had a surround sound system for quite a while. I also have a Netflix membership and a very comfortable couch. This leads me to the question:

Why should I ever go to the theater again?

I'll further qualify this by stating that I am nearly 30, so I'm mature enough to not bite on advertising hype. I've learned the people and conversations that I need to ignore so that the plot is not spoiled for me. There are other factors to help solidify the decision that I really don't want to go to the theater anymore, but I won't bore you with them.

Back to the question, I think that people need a compelling reason to go to theaters. I'm going to try to find ways that the industry could answer this question, but in reality the industry should be attempting to answer it themselves. Without an answer, I believe that somewhere around three of every four theater goers who purchases an HDTV will abandon the theaters and never look back.

The Simple Answer

The simple answer, and the one that theater owners have stuck to, is that they must keep DVD release dates pushed back as far as possible. They must cling to the old system where movies come out in theaters and then are released on consumer media some arbitrary time span later. This gives the theaters a temporary monopoly that adds value to their ticket sales.

This is the same flawed logic that is hurting the entertainment system everywhere. They are simply so afraid of change that they will spend every dime they can to make things stay the same, instead of adapting. They're ignoring what their consumers want. The consumer wants to either stay at home or have a better experience at the theater. They don't want to go to the theater to spend $50 for sticky seats and obnoxious company. (I can hardly remember the last time a movie at the theater wasn't marred by some selfishly loud commenter or teen who can't hang up their cell phone.) People will not continue to honor the monopoly of the theaters if the entire experience is terrible, the rest of the industry will not continue to ignore this either.

If the industry and the consumers abandon the theaters, who is left? No one. The theaters will fold at that point. America will then be left with an immense collection of empty big box multiplexes and a mere memory of when it was worthwhile to go out and see a movie.

Basically, while the limited monopoly answer is still part of the equation, it's not a good answer. Theaters can not afford to rely on this. The supplier is threatening to take it away and the consumer is demanding it go.

It's an indictment against the theater experience. The only way to fix this is to fix the experience. The answer lies in asking more questions. Questions like, "How can the experience be fixed?"

The Never Ending Netflix Queue

Here's a post I started writing a couple of months ago and left as a draft. I remains true, though Karenann no longer has her own queue so mine has grown to about 45 movies. I think I was going to try to analyze why the queue never really shrinks, but I'll just post the thought as is...

I've been a member of Netflix for several years. I've had my own queue since late 2005. There have been periods where I only have one movie out at a time, and others where I have two.

Originally, I only allocated one movie to myself. Then I watched as the other two sat on the entertainment center unwatched. So I gave myself another slot. I was watching movies far more frequently. I figured that I would process a bunch of movies that I wanted to watch and then give the slot back once I'd whittled my queue down to 10 or 15 movies.

My queue has never dipped below 25 movies.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

It Is Not WWIII, Yet

I'm looking forward to debunking the World War III rumors that are currently being spread by spam. Just in case you see this and you get an email that you're tempted to open, don't do it. These spammers are using this as a way to spread malware so that they can recruit more computers to do their spamming. We haven't invaded Iran yet, and you probably still have a chance to vote against more war this fall.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

5 Days

5 days is how long it's taken my package to get from Jersey City to... Jersey City. I don't know whether Amazon or the USPS is at fault but it is ridiculous either way.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Thank You For Working

I want to take a moment to express my appreciation to everyone who is working during this three day weekend. Even those who were able to take the 4th off, but have to work today or tomorrow, deserve some gratitude. Holidays are great, but the world continues to move. Thank you for facilitating that movement. Rest assured that there are people who don't take you for granted.

Netflix Redeemed

After a few weeks of customer complaints they decided to keep their profiles feature.

I'm still going to work to move my ratings outside of Netflix. I've begun rating movies on IMDB for this. Then I'll delete my profile and assimilate my information into my wife's, since she's no longer using the service anyway. I still wish they made the data portable, it would make everything so much easier.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Why, Netflix? Why?

I just talked to Danni from NetFlix customer service. She provided more psychological help than anything else. She can't help me, because they haven't enabled her to do so.

Netflix is deleting my profile in a few months, and there's nothing she or I can do about it.

The closest thing to a solution she offered was to go into my wife's account, look at my account through the friends feature, and manually add all of the movies from the queue and rate all of the movies again. There is no way to switch my account to the main one, make my account a new account, or copy the data automatically. It's really disappointing.

It seems that I'm somewhat alone in seeing the value of all of this. My wife mocks me for it. To me, this was a database of nearly every movie I've ever seen with at least some thought put into how I felt about that movie.

It won't seem right to mix that data with my wife's. Suddenly I'll have to think, did I watch that movie, or did she? Did I really give that 4 stars, or was it her?

More than that, I occasionally took part in the community, and had recently made an effort to write a few more movie reviews. I was toying with the movie reviewer rankings to see what I could do to raise mine. Now, why bother?

I'm pretty disappointed, NetFlix. I've often evangelized your service and I've rarely had an issue with your customer support. By your own metrics I was within the top 2% of reviewers even before I actively tried to manipulate the rankings. You're just tossing that in the trash in a couple of months.

You couldn't even write an account migration script? What a letdown.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Mistaken Identity, Mistaken Outrage

As I've said before, I have an old email account that is fairly simple to type and remember. Unfortunately, that means that a few people through the years have mistakenly attributed my email address to someone else. As of right now someone thinks that they are emailing Jeff "Rusty" Rouston and someone else thinks that I'm a sheriff's deputy in Indiana.

The deputy mistake is mildly entertaining. If nothing else, I get an interesting insight into public event security planning. The Rusty mistake has been annoying more often than not, usually it's chain mail forwards that I would debunk for any friend. Last night, my Rusty persona received an email from Janet, who is apparently outraged by Obama's policies on defense spending, specifically one YouTube video posted with an anti-Obama slant and a blog post (linked from the email) that reinforces the same opinion.

I'm going to highlight some aspects of the video and Janet's reaction. It really is interesting, because I don't think I personally know anyone who would be so outraged by so little. First, here is Janet's reaction, which was originally in a 20 point bold red font:

Whether you are democrate or republican..........This should scare you!!! It scares me!!! I want to continue feeling safe in my counrty. -janet

Now the video she's responding to:

So, let's look at what Obama is saying: He will end a war that has become completely indefensible. He will cut unnecessary and unproven defense spending. He will try to slow other defense spending by limiting research into future weapons. Also, he will increase oversight of spending. Lastly, he will attempt diplomacy with other nations so that we don't need to spend so much because we won't have so many staunch and powerful enemies.

Uh, why is this scary? Notice that what he's said is that he'll get rid of unnecessary, unproven, and failed things. He's not saying that we won't have guns and missiles, or that we'll start defending our country with flower power. He also isn't promising any huge cuts in existing successful programs. No where did he claim that he would cut the military's size in half like George H. W. Bush started and Bill Clinton finished. He doesn't even promise to rid us of nuclear weapons, just to take them off of constant alert status. These aren't huge changes, unless you're a defense contractor or a warmonger.

Now, let's dig into what Janet said. Whether you're a Democrat or a Republican you should be scared by Obama's stance is a ludicrous statement. He's repeating the same stance that many Democrats, and a few radical Republicans (I hate to mention the name, but Ron Paul springs to mind), have held for decades. More importantly, she unknowingly reveals the real problem she has: she wants to feel safe, she's far less concerned with being safe.

What she wants is the current security theater where we spend trillions to fight an attack that will never happen while we are in the middle of an economic crisis. To her, and people like her, we must pump money into a system where we seem imposing, instead of putting effort into a system where others recognize that we are not a threat. She's scared because Obama might provide real security, but it isn't security she can touch, it's security she simply must have faith in.

She, like so many others, has lost faith in people. When we have no faith in each other then we build barriers that look omnious, are dubiously effective, and serve to destroy others' faith in us. She didn't even have faith in me when I replied to her email last year and said that I'm not Jeff "Rusty" Rouston.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Driving Outside the Averages

Have you ever heard that the average speeder only gets to their destination ten seconds earlier? I have, or at least something to that affect. I think this ignores the obvious in trying to influence people. Life is not about the averages, it is about the rarities. Almost everyone lives for the rarities.

The average is the day that traffic moves normally, whatever normally is for your commute. The rarity is that you get stuck behind that slowpoke who drives exactly the same speed as the person next to them. The average is that you come to a red light and can turn right on red. The rarity is that you find yourself behind someone too pensive or distracted to make the turn. On the average day you get that same parking space, but sometimes you've been beaten to it.

The cumulative effect of this is that you remember those rarities, while the averages all blend together and don't matter. So, what do you do? Go a little faster to try to get there earlier. Pass those last few cars before you take the exit. Maybe, if you've got time to spare, you leave earlier, but that's a hassle. So, despite what the averages tell you, you rush to get there a little faster.

The result is that on average you get nowhere. The rarity is that you make in before the pensive, slow poke whose after your parking space. Is it worth it? You decide.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Stop the HD Stretch

After months of having people hit this page from searches for HD stretch I've decided to add this section. I wrote this for an update post, but that one never took hold with the search engines.

It seems that it is high in the results on Google when you search for... "HD stretch," go figure. Well, if you've reached this site looking for advice I apologize. You may feel heartened that I feel the same way about picture stretching that you probably do. Until the time that I take a deeper look into how to fix the issue, may I suggest the following:
  1. Try a more specific search, such as "brand [and model] hd stretch."
  2. Check your user manual or check if you lost your copy.
  3. Go to the AVS Forums and look around. If you need, ask about your problem there.
I'm sorry I can't be of more help. I hope you find a solution somewhere. If you do, post a comment telling others how. Maybe the next person to stumble by won't have to search as much.

And now, on to the original post...

I bought an HDTV last year. It was the largest entertainment purchase I've ever made. I had high hopes, and they've been met for the most part. HD content, DVDs, and even standard TV all look great. There is one caveat to HD, stretched content.

See, there are people who are willing to pay huge sums to get a better picture on their TV, yet they defy all logic and set the TV to stretch normal content. I was fine with this when I bought the TV, let those people watch 90% of the available content with atrocious distortion and horrible picture quality. I picked a TV that would show 4:3 content in its native aspect ratio, it displays black bars on either side but the actual content looks great.

Unfortunately, the predisposition to stretch content has wormed its way into the media. The more HD channels I watch the more apparent this is. Mostly commercials are stretched, but occasionally it's whole shows. This is unacceptable. Why pay to have HD content delivered only to get low definition content that is distorted to look worse than it originally did? Even when the upsampling is done well, stretching the content makes everything look odd.

What's the point anyway? Why would you sacrifice the image quality just to avoid some black bars? I suggest that these stations develop a tasteful graphic to show in the empty areas. I'd love to see some of them dedicate broadcasts to HD, instead of using the same stream downsampled for standard television. This way they could adjust their graphics, show station identification and show advertisements on the sides while keeping the content at its original quality. Advertisers should use this extra area to deliver more information so that they only have to make one version of the ad.

Happily, I'll never be on television. If I were, I'd hate to imagine myself stretched like that. At least my TV can display 16:9 content in 4:3 aspect, I once thought it was a useless feature

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Difficult Choices

This is an email I wrote to the users of one of our applications. I realized that none of the users want to hear all of it, so I decided not to send it. Still, I think it's an interesting look into what I do, and the little details that I toil over.

Recurrence, recurrence, recurrence…

One of the most requested features for the new Corporate Events Calendar is now implemented, sort of. We have partially implemented the feature, and plan to finish it soon.

Recurrence is one of those things that are easy to describe, but hard to get right. We had a very crude implementation done by release date. We realized that it was not right and so it was removed from the calendar. In its place was a message [I considered it a promise] that it would come soon. Since then we have spent much time in planning and development to strike a balance between easy to use and powerful, functional and sane.

We believe we have achieved those goals, but you are our ultimate judges. Read on to learn how it works.

Recurrence can be broken into a few questions: How often, how many, and what gets copied.

How often can you schedule a recurring event; daily, weekly, monthly, yearly? We chose the middle two. You can either schedule a weekly or monthly event. Daily and yearly events rarely recur in such a pattern, and we do not want a lot of wasted reservations being created, we are going to handle those differently. I will cover that later. As for the weekly recurrence, you can set what day of the week to start and how many weeks between occurrences. The monthly scheduling is done by selecting the day again and which week of the month the event should be held.

How many events can you schedule at once? This was a particularly challenging question. We would love to allow for infinite scheduling, but that is not very manageable. We chose to limit you to 24 monthly occurrences and 52 weekly occurrences. You will have to revisit your events to create a new schedule each year, which will allow you to make the necessary adjustments and will self-clean any abandoned event schedules.

What gets copied? Again, there were no easy answers. We could copy everything, from basic information to each invitation sent, but only certain values apply to every event. We chose to copy: Event Information, Rooms/Equipment, Scheduling, Capabilities, Facilitators, and Sign Up settings (not the attendees). We have left off the Invitations and Menu, because those tend to change from event to event. Obviously, while the schedule is copied, it is also modified to start as of the new date.

One last feature is that you will see a list of all scheduled occurrences after you have added recurrence. This will allow you to quickly jump to other occurrences. You can also use this list to cancel future occurrences, just select one or more and press the Cancel Selected Occurrences button, then confirm your action.

Now that I have covered what is implemented, I need to discuss what is still missing. The biggest feature that is missing is the ability to modify all of your occurrences at once. After you schedule multiple occurrences of an event you will have to manage each one separately. We will implement a way to push changes to all occurrences and plan to release it in the near future.

Another feature that is missing is the ability to add an individual occurrence. This will allow easy scheduling of yearly events or quick copying of an event with two instances. We think this could be of great benefit and plan to release it shortly.

I cut it off there, realizing that I need no conclusion to an email that I will never send.

I love to be open with my clients about what I do. Sharing information is important to me. I find that when people know what goes into every decision that we make then they're more likely to appreciate what we get right and positively contribute when we get things wrong. The problem here is that most people don't care about the decisions, especially not until they believe it effects them. So, I'll hold this one back.

Monday, April 14, 2008

God, Stop Blessing The Seventh Inning Stretch

Spring is upon us. Among the millions of notable events that this change sets in motion, the start of baseball season has gained a special status with me in the last few years. I've learned new appreciation for the game. I look forward to enjoying games with my son, once he's old enough.

Unfortunately, this also brings the newfound tradition of singing God Bless America during the seventh inning stretch. This is one of the side effects of the 9/11 attacks. I hoped this would go away with time, but it seems to have ingrained itself.

I have two problems with this. The first is that playing this is a subtle reinforcement of Christian Nationalism, as the song itself is. What I take from the song, is that this is a Christian nation and that we would be nowhere without god. There is a wealth of evidence, outside of the revisionist crap taught by most schools, proving the former to be wrong and the latter is argumentative at best. Combine the sentiment in the song with the implied connection to nationalism in America's sport, and you have a strengthened connection between Christianity and nationalism. I'd like my sports to have a little less politics, thanks.

My second problem is that I think the song is second rate when compared to other songs that could be performed. Notably, America the Beautiful and This Land Is Your Land are both better representations of this nation, why it is great, and what is special about it. Neither has god as a main focal point, and only one actually mentions god. Both are more inclusive and have better statements of our countries values.

You'll note that America the Beautiful contains several references to god, and you might question why I believe that it is a better choice. I believe that song speaks of why America is great without attributing it to or without proclaiming reliance upon god. Instead, it acknowledges the writer's belief that we need god to help us and to guide us, especially because we have a potential to be great and powerful. The distinction to be made is that in God Bless America we are a weak country in service of god and we attribute everything to god, in America the Beautiful we are a wonderful country which may need god to keep on the right path. It also helps that I think America the Beautiful also sounds better.

Of course, I also don't think that baseball needs to have any more nationalism pumped into it. I think I'd be happiest if they were to remove patriotic songs from the regular schedule. Take Me Out to the Ball Game is a wonderful alternative.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Problem with Integration

The more you integrate products the more that product A's operation relies on how well product B works. A bug in product A can cripple product B.

That's pretty obvious, but what's less obvious is that you have to be able to trust everyone involved in the integrated products. If you can't trust the developer, or the code, of product B then product A may be doomed. If you're integrating products so that they use the same data then you not only have to worry about the developers, but the operators as well.

On Monday an application stopped working. It's part of our Intranet, but it displays human resources data, and it ties into our accounting system. It turns out that the accounting department had not opened a new period in the system, which broke everything.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

I Want My H1B

Well, not for me. I'd like one for my coworker. He's a great guy whose been here on a student visa and began interning for us a few years ago. I believe we're hoping to get him one of these visas and I really worry what will happen if we don't. He wants to stay and work with us, but he has to do that legally. This whole situation is a mess.

The federal government on Tuesday begins accepting H-1B visa applications. The government grants 65,000 visas by a lottery system — mostly to tech companies so they can hire highly skilled workers from outside the U.S. Last year, it received more than double that number in applications — on the first day.

The funny thing is, we're not just looking for cheap labor or to replace all of our programmers. [At least I really hope not, because that would include me.] What we want to do is keep a good worker around. He's someone who positively contributes to the company and, I'm sure, the community. We think he's worth the effort to try to obtain a visa, so our HR people have been working on it.

Interestingly, he is not displacing American workers. Last year he took a four month hiatus from the company due to a lapse in his work visa. We tried to hire during this time, not to replace him, but to augment our team and to help fill the gap during his leave. After hundreds of resumes and dozens of interviews, we found no one who wanted the job and fit our needs. It isn't for lack of trying, we just need our guy.

He's far from the best programmer, and I've done everything in my power to ensure he's not the cheapest. The crux is that he's part of our team. I'd hate to see the team suffer because of stupid immigration laws and greedy, abusive companies. I'd hate to see my coworker suffer, too.

April Fools! Finally Admitting The Truth About Red Light Cameras

MSNBC has a report on the recent trend of turning off traffic cameras. It seems that when they work as their proponents say they will then people don't break the law as much. When people don't break the law as much, then there is a decrease in tickets, meaning less money for the municipality.
City officials in Charlotte and Fayetteville, N.C., recently turned off all of their red light cameras, concluding that a state law diverting much of the revenue they generate in fines to schools meant their general funds were actually losing money, NBC affiliate WNCN of Raleigh reported.

In Bolingbrook, Ill., meanwhile, officials ended their red light camera program after statistics showed a 40 percent drop in ticketable offenses.

If safety was the real concern, why turn these cameras off? More importantly, why not lengthen the yellow light? April Fools, America, red light cameras are only about the money.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Lesson in Offensive Driving

In the last week I've added 1,400 miles to my odometer. It's hard to drive 5 miles without encountering someone attempting a boneheaded maneuver, or has learned horrible habits from other poorly trained drivers. My recent trip was full of encounters with these people.

Of the ill considered practices that I encountered, none was more prevalent nor more annoying than when a driver accelerates as a vehicle that was traveling faster attempts to pass. I witnessed this over and over, sometimes I was in the faster vehicle, sometimes it was someone else, sometimes the faster vehicle managed to pass, others the slower vehicle accelerated enough or cut off the faster. It was a plague throughout Pennsylvania and Ohio.

The worst part about this is that it doesn't make any sense. If someone is going faster than you, and wants to continue going faster than you, why would you take actions to ensure that they cannot go past you? The safest thing to do is to allow that person to pass.

At the very least, do not slow back down. The only reason I can fathom for that action is to tell the other person that you think they're going too fast. That's not your job, unless you happen to be a member of the police with jurisdiction over that stretch of road. If someone is really going that fast then the safest action is to stay out of their way, keep your eyes open, and hope that they can speed along on their merry way. Getting in front of these people to slow them down only incites them to take dangerous actions to try to overtake you.

I understand a few scenarios for this behavior, and in some cases it's justified. If the faster person will have to make a dangerous maneuver to pass you then it's acceptable to either slow down or speed up a bit to force them to pass you later. Another scenario is when you're attempting to save gas and effort by using cruise control, then this other person is not passing you fast enough, so you have to get in front of them to maintain your speed. You should weigh the difference in speed that you would have to decrease due to them versus the amount of speed you would cause them to decrease by getting in front of them. As soon as you possibly can you should get to the right to let the other person pass. If you just decided that you want to go faster, wait until they pass or at least try not to slow them down. There are extenuating circumstances for everything, and if you're courteous then other drivers should appreciate that you tried.

The only other way that I can make sense of this behavior is libido, in the form of a belief of entitlement and boy-racer machismo. These are just wrong. If you think you are more entitled to any piece of public road than the next person, I'd love to hear why. I'd also love hear how you know that they are less entitled. Keep in mind that many states have laws stating that you should keep right except to pass and some even require that you yield to faster traffic, with no mention of speed limit.

There's really nothing worse than boy-racer machismo. It's always funny to see the hypocrisy when someone pulls a boy-racer maneuver to try to thwart a boy-racer. You can't sink to another's level and then try to act better than they are. It doesn't work that way. If you turn someone else's desire to pass you into a drag race then you're not just being stupid, you're being ridiculous. You're encouraging them to do something dangerous, and thus endangering yourself and innocent bystanders.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Idea: Netfix Discount For Postal Workers

It seems like every few weeks I read a story about a postal worker being arrested for stealing Netflix envelopes, or a customer whose account is canceled due to unusual amounts of lost discs. If we know that some postal workers, who I believe are mostly honest and law abiding, can't resist nabbing a few of those bright red envelopes then why don't we do something about it besides to further criminalize them?

My solution would be to steeply discount the membership fees for postal workers. I thought about free, but that would only work if they could strike a deal with the USPS. That deal would likely violate some sort of law, so a nominal fee really is required.

The key word is nominal, though. If you want to remove the temptation of theft then you have to make staying honest the better deal. As the music industry laments, it's hard to compete with free. If postal workers paid half price it would be a good deal, and it would bring it well within the range of affordability. Anything higher than that price probably wouldn't change anything, so it isn't worth it.

There are numerous other advantages to this, some are less quantifiable than others. The first is a small PR campaign showing that you care about the people who provide your service, from end to end. It's a great token gesture for the people who provide you extremely cheap shipping and keep your business going. Another big advantage is that you'll be creating fans out of people who already work for you. Sometimes you need to boost a vendors morale to get the results you want. Imagine the reverence your mailers will receive when the Postal carrier using them is part of the club.

Postal workers are a natural customer for Netflix. For them, returning a movie is as easy as going to work. I think that a discount like this could be a win for both organizations.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Seth Godin on Customer Retention

Last week I lamented our experience with the attempt to cancel our Vonage service. I couldn't help but think of that as I read Seth's blog today. Although his experience was different than mine, it illustrates the opposite end of the same concept.

Last week, my company switched providers of an expensive commodity. The company we had been with realized we were moving on and moved into high gear to keep the account. At one point, it was clear that they could have gone into war room-mode, denigrating our decision, criticizing the new company and scorching the earth. I watched the gears turn, though, and saw them take a different path.
Then later...
That company we switched from last week? Instead of ruining our relationship and criticizing our judgment, they kept the door open. They congratulated us on our growth and earned the right to work with us again one day.
See the difference in the tone [theirs and his] and the experience? Great customer service also means knowing how to say goodbye.

Monday, March 3, 2008

No Further Remorse for Vonage

Just as I'd started to have a little remorse over my decision to leave Vonage, my wife gave them a call. Their customer service was terrible. My wife came away upset and more ready to leave, and never return, than ever. Unfortunately, she wasn't even able to get what she wanted to done.

First, why do I have to cancel my account within business hours? If you have CSRs available 24/7 then you should be able to make account changes during that time. Checking a box to cancel an account, which I should be able to do from my computer anyway, is not something that requires a lot of training, time, or money.

Then, they ask for verification by using information that you may not have readily available, and not every CSR asks for the same things. She was disconnected twice while trying to retrieve this information. Once you get past this step, the person verifying the information can't even help you deactivate your account. You have to be transferred to "someone who can."

Enter the dreaded Retention Specialist. These are the people who are willing to do everything to get you to stay, but will argue forever if you still want to leave. These people will offer you deals, and they're great if you really want to stay. My wife wanted to leave. The other person wanted her to stay, but could only offer a small concession on price and some magic benefit where if there were a hurricane people could somehow stay in touch with her. In the end she was disconnected again.

The specialist left us a snotty voicemail saying he was sorry that she hung up on him and she'd have to call back to finish the disconnect. I'm inclined to believe that she did not hang up on him, but hearing the complete story I feel she'd be justified in doing so. The funny thing is that he left the voicemail on our Vonage service, which we don't use anymore.

In the end, I have no more remorse. Even if the cable company screws me by raising the price down the line, they've had excellent customer service for the last few years, so I'll be fine with it. If I do leave and look for another VoIP solution (I'll probably just get rid of the home phone completely in that case) then I won't look to Vonage. They hassled my wife for over an hour with what should have been a 2 minute procedure, or a 30 second one that she could complete on her own.

Vonage, please fire/reassign every retention specialist. They don't work the way you want them to. For every customer you save using a retention specialist you piss off five more to the point that they'll never consider your service again. Focus your money on excellence and value of service and you'll have less customers even considering leaving. Make leaving easy and make returning even easier, and you'll win back customers if your competitors aren't up to the challenge.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Shades of Spam

Why don't the major email services have a way to separate email they know is spam from email they think is spam? If they did this then false positives would be less troublesome, and they could even tweak their filters to capture a few things the currently slip through. I know that this is possible and some people already do this sort of thing, but why don't the big three (Google, Microsoft*, and Yahoo) do this?

Imagine if Google had a "possible spam" tag where items that scored within a certain range in their spam filters would go. Then you could tweak whether you wanted these items to go to your inbox or your spam box, and they would be easy to filter through in either one. Or, maybe if Yahoo showed the percentage of which they were convinced that the email was spam. The default view in the spam folder could be sorted by this field, ascending, so that the least spammy emails would float to the top.

Since no spam filter is perfect, you have to choose between more spam in the inbox or more false positives in the spam folder. I'd rather have some control over the threshold for this, it'd make me more confident that I don't have to sort through the stuff that I know is spam just to get to verify that nothing of value got lost in its midst.

* I haven't used Microsoft's offering since shortly after they bought Hotmail. To my knowledge this post applies to them as well, though.

Monday, February 25, 2008


Wouldn't Ralph Nader be doing a lot more for the country and the world if he ran for an office he had a chance at winning? I don't care who he does or doesn't sap votes from, but if he really wants to change things he should focus on actually getting elected. Were he to run for governor of one of the states he could have a real impact, and if his policies are as effective as we'd be led to believe then he would set a standard for other states to follow. At that point he could point to how he's helped a group of people and run a government, then he'd be an electable presidential candidate. Right now he's just wasting everyone's time, especially his own... and his time is more valuable than the average person's.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Just a Parking Space

This weekend we made the mistake of going to the Palisades Center on a Sunday. Despite the frigid weather, a very many folks had ventured out to the mall. The parking lot was absolutely packed.

There was stop and go traffic throughout most of the poorly designed parking space. People were frustrated. The general attitude that I witnessed was "me first." Any intersection involving a left-hand turn was backed up.

None of that was really remarkable. What was remarkable was how positively ridiculous people were being over a parking space. I saw several people speeding around the lots trying to beat others to a space where someone was pulling out. There were many instances where multiple drivers laid claim to the same space, first one in wins.

One of these instances blocked our path for about 5 minutes and nearly resulted in a fist fight. Both drivers involved, as well as someone else who seemed to want to claim the space, were shouting obscenities out their windows. One went so far as to get out of his minvan and approach the other's. All three vehicles had young children in them, some of them visibly scared.

It was just a parking space. Next time leave, it's not worth it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

An Open Letter to Dell

Dear Dell,

Over the years I've been a fairly staunch supporter or your business. I argue with friends and coworkers, often against an unseen adversary of their other acquaintances or just hearsay, that Dell is no worse than any other major computer manufacturer, just cheaper. I also own several of your products, including two computers that I paid for and several that I inherited over the years.

With that in mind, I offer you a small piece of advice: A $130 battery's lifespan should be more than 2 years.


Sunday, January 20, 2008

I Heart GPS

My wife bought me a Garmin StreetPilot for Xmas. Today was the first time that I actually used it. I'd turned it on before, but never when I didn't really know where I was going.

The result? It gave me great directions, with every turn including the entrance to the restaurant I was going to. Oh yes, it's that good. Not like those directions that Google maps spits out where you ambiguously "arrive" at your destination.

The funny thing is that I'm pretty good at getting around. Even when I get lost I rarely panic. (Sometimes I flip out when I have a drunk telling me to go the wrong way, but I rarely panic.) Normally if I make a wrong turn I just turn around as quickly and safely as I can, occasionally I figure out a new path.

Even though I consider myself fairly able at navigation, I love this thing. It puts the map right in your view. It tells you when the turns are, and how far you are from the next one. Every good pilot needs a good navigator, and this is an electronic embodiment of a great navigator. I can only imagine my next road trip now. With my co-pilot relieved of navigational duties we can focus more on other things, like, what we'll do when we get there.