Thursday, December 30, 2010

Failure is Great

The other day as I was describing a failure of mine to my boss I realized that I really enjoy those instances. I like when the current me is able to go back and fix some failure the past me created. I like admitting to stupid mistakes, and I like correcting them.

I wanted to write a long-winded post about this and talk about various failures of mine, but every time I start I would let myself be distracted and stop. It's sat like that since the day referenced above. Thus, this post is in essence a microcosm of the phenomenon it describes.

The one failure I originally set out to address that I will include is that of my grand scheme to post juvenile friend descriptions about people in my Facebook friends list. I started everything, beginning with a spreadsheet listing every person from the friends list. Then I used the random number generator to pick 10 people. The first was my niece Angela, and I was instantly discouraged when I realized that while I know Angela well enough I don't know that I care to write about my grade schooler niece whose account was created for FarmVille.

Then there was the brief Facebook meme that solidified my resolve to scrap the project. You might recall those couple of days where people would ask for someone to send them a random number and then they'd post a status about them. Given the similarities, my idea was suddenly far less edgy. Without the edginess all that was left was the immaturity and pettiness of it all. So I gave up.

I'm embracing the failure, though. Next time I'll put more effort into my petty juvenile ideas before I announce them, that way I'm more likely to follow through and I can have even greater failures than the past. Who knows? Maybe one will be a success instead.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Michael Vick

The Michael Vick story is a great example of a terrible problem in American society. Just not the one you're thinking of. It's a story of someone who took the punishment for their crime, and yet most of society wants him to fail on the other side. It's the story of how the criminal justice system is failed by society just as much as society is failed by the criminal justice system. It's also an example of how the basic moral of forgiveness escapes both our religious and secular populations.

The Obligatory Non-Defense Paragraph:
I am not defending Michael Vick's past actions, nor am I attempting to trivialize them. Nothing herein should be construed as a defense of such repulsive behavior. I like dogs. I don't understand dog fighting (or the culture around it, which is another under-reported aspect of this). I believe it is possible to defend Michael Vick without condoning these actions, and as such I will try.

So, we all know what Michael Vick did. We should all know that he admitted his guilt and rather than have some prolonged legal battle in which he'd likely have prevailed on some technicality or lawyer wizardry, he admitted his guilt. We should all know that he served time in prison that was not only deemed appropriate by the justice system, but is excessive when compared to others who have committed like crimes.

It isn't so clear why this means that Vick should no longer be a part of this society. The way he's regarded by some is baffling - whether it be various media members questioning the morality of appreciating Vick's football talent or random people on Facebook who must remind us of how horrible Vick is as a person every time he's on TV. I can see why someone would take such a stance against Ben Roethlisberger since he wasn't punished for the highly corroborated allegations of rape, but Vick's life was ruined after his crimes were exposed. He lost essentially everything he had. He lost a year of his life in prison. He's been thoroughly punished by the media, the courts, the NFL, and continues to be punished by society.

That's not enough for everyone, though. Some want to push it further and demonize anyone who would dare to support Vick's attempts to be a productive member of society. If you like how he plays you are a bad person because you've forgotten what he did.

Such a mentality is pervasive everywhere towards ex-cons. Social justice in our society is one that punishes first, but never forgives and rarely forgets. The punishment for a criminal record is to become a second-class citizen. You have to divulge it every time you apply for a job, or they'll likely find out anyway. Good luck getting that job at that point, unless it's something lowly that no one else wanted. Even so, this is occasionally more understandable than not. I understand that you don't want someone whose already committed fraud working in the banking industry. How does having a past involving animal abuse disqualify you from throwing a football? (Save the pigskin puns.)

If Michael Vick cannot contribute to society in the field of sports, for which he has tremendous and unique talent, then we need to throw out the entire justice system. We should switch to a system in which crimes at that level result in a quick death penalty. Why should we let these people out of prison if we've predetermined that they must not be able to positively contribute? If we're not letting them out then we may as well just off them now rather than sheltering them for dozens of years. This is society saying that the justice system is a failure, and it is a failure precisely because society deems it such and refuses to give ex-cons a chance.

That is also society's way of never forgiving. Forgiveness is a basic Christian value. The Koran prescribes swift punishment for certain actions, but forgiveness after. Culturally, it's a principle that has been important for millenia. Here is a case where forgiveness seems not to apply. After all, how can you forgive a man enough to let him throw a football when he's only been to the extent of the law, become a pariah, and lost most of his fortune? He clearly hasn't suffered enough, where "enough" is determined by the harshest sentence any member of the public can imagine for him. No, we can't forgive a man who has admitted he was wrong and paid the price, because such an action in our society has become taboo. Instead, we should forgive those who admit no wrongdoing and are never punished, or at least we should forget and then act enraged when reminded. Vick admitted his guilt and thus he should be dead to all of us, or maybe just dead.

What good is a failure for society? Why should we want someone to slip into destitution and obscurity when they do something wrong, even if they are punished for it? If Michael Vick were left with no football career do you think he is more or less likely to commit further crimes?

Personally, I hope Vick succeeds. I think his can be a success story, someone who made grave mistakes and lost it all but was able to bounce back after atonement. We almost never get to root for the ex-con, this is our chance.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Two Big Take-Aways from Last Night

I could write a lot about the importance of the elections last night or what went wrong and what went right, but I'm honestly in no mood. I'll summarize my thoughts like this: if you spoke to me two years ago I would have told you that the Republicans will take Congress back in 2010, and I'd be happy about it.

Of course, in the meantime the Republican party has become a vile piece of shit pressured by some of the most self centered people in the country to be even more vile, so I'm no longer happy about what happened. The Contract with America and the Silent Majority ended up being good for the country, even if they didn't really achieve their goals. I have a hard time believing that the Tea Party and whatever you want to call their radicalized bullshit will yield similar results. Back to the point...

Two things stand out in my mind more than anything else from last night:

John King needs an election results screen to be happy.

I mean, good for you, John. You looked so enthusiastic last night. I was delighted to see you in front of the touch screen again. You can point, click, pan, zoom, circle shit, and even write on it. You looked so very at home. I hope you have one of those things in your bedroom. If not, get one soon because I have a feeling you'll never be happier.

We don't have to worry about hard line Tea Partiers winning too many big races.

While they may be able to take individual districts and push the House far, far to the right last night showed that the larger the population is the less well the TP group does. In other words, every Democrat should be hoping for a strong TP influence in the next Presidential cycle. That will make Senate races easier to win (even Sestak almost won and he was running from the left, I have no doubt that Spector would have taken that race). More importantly, a radicalized, half-literate, batshit crazy Republican candidate or running mate guarantees a Democrat win for President.

The biggest proof of this is in Nevada. Reid was terribly unpopular. Almost anyone could have beat him. Sharron Angle is an extremist. She's not politically savvy. She has few populist views. She only came close because Reid has been demonized for the last two years, especially by Faux News and the conservative radio alternate universe. The Republicans worked hard to trickle this agenda into more mainstream and center targeted sources, at the very least presenting it as such that some hidden group of moderates was actually unhappy with Reid's specific performances, never mind that they were really unhappy because they were out of work and the only way the government can create jobs in a recession is through deficit spending, something the Republicans were set against even though it was the backbone of Reagan's fiscal policy. Yet, they were unable to beat him despite years of electioneering against him.

We'll see more of this. Definitely. It'll be like this in 2012. When it is, in an election that should have far greater turnout, we'll see even more defeats of radicalized Republicans. And it will be good.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Social Experimentation

Now that I've detailed how many friends lists are maintained, and how I maintain mine, it's time to put this to the test.

The theory: I believe that my social network is comprised of well known associations and that I can make a legitimate justification for each of these.

The test: I will randomly select friends from my friends list. For each friend that I select I will write an entry about them. I plan for these entries to be candid and informative, they will probably consist largely of descriptions about how I know the person but many people will also include some personal stories. If I cannot explain how I know someone and why they're on my list then I will defriend them.

By picking at random I hope to avoid any bias toward people with whom I have a deeper and easier to explain relationship. I'd like to get some of those more awkward relationships out into the open without waiting until the end. If I defriend anyone I will write about it.

I've already entered my current friends list into a spreadsheet. Using random numbers from I've selected 10 people so far. First up, my niece Angela.

Since this is a public blog I'll use first names only, or first name last initial. I don't want people to be listed in stories on the open Internet without their consent but I don't think it's worth getting consent first. When this is reposted on Facebook I will tag people.

That's about it. I'll try to work my way through my friends list. I realize this is the sort of thing that a teenage girl might do, and that makes it so wonderfully awkward. I can't promise any sort of a schedule, but now that I'm committed I have to at least do a few.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Qualifying as My Facebook Friend

In my last post I wrote about how I think most people treat social networking "friends" with a new mix of intimacy and distance, and that I doubt most people have lists filled with true friends. In this post I will explain what is required before I add someone to my friends list, which I believe deviates from the norm in a few ways.

How do you become one of my Facebook friends? The simple answer is that we have to have some significant contact outside of Facebook.* So, to be my friend you must have a deeper connection than simple acquaintance.

I have several previously unwritten measures that I use to determine whether I should send a friend request, or if I should accept one. Most of these I would consider "significant acts." Though I will admit that I'm far more inclined to accept a request because I view that as an olive branch, the request in itself can be considered a significant act.

A significant act is an action that solidifies a friendship or moves an acquaintance up a level. Normally this is something like, "I see this person every day." Sometimes it's someone I'm just getting to know but I've at least had a few interactions with them. More often than not I have had a lasting relationship of some kind with these people, even if that relationship consists of purely online interactions.

This brings me back to the asterisk about contact outside of Facebook. Since I consider online interactions as potentially significant it is not impossible that a person who I only know through Facebook would become a friend. In fact, that happened recently when a friend of a friend (who I've met once but only talked to a little) sent me a friend request. In several interactions with mutual friends he and I had talked, so I felt that I knew him well enough to accept the request.

I can classify most of my friends fairly quickly. There's family, the inescapable fact that if your family is part of your life you will probably interact with them in multiple ways. Friends from everyday life, the people I know because my wife and I interact with them on a somewhat regular basis. Friends from my hometown, likely people that I was completely out of touch with for a decade that these networks have brought back into my life. Coworkers and former coworkers, people who I've met through work that I felt inclined to codify my connection to them. Friends from online, people who I know from my 15 years of online presence. There's also some stragglers in there, but almost everyone falls into these categories.

Having high standards for the people I share my Facebook presence with allows me to worry less about privacy problems that have plagued the service. If I know everyone on my list then I don't have to worry as much about sharing my phone number or email with contacts. I don't worry about telling people my location or my activities, because I know these people well enough to assume they will not abuse the information. I can, at times, have very meaningful interactions on the site. I'm also not weighed down with the noise of hundreds of acquaintances.

I believe that social networks which have been codified need to be maintained. There should be some barrier to entry. There should be situations where you cut ties. Sometimes you lose touch with a person, or you grow apart, and it should be okay to realize this and record it by removing that person from your friends. If one of you decides to get back in touch then you can always re-add.

This is how I manage my social network. In my next post I will introduce an experiment of sorts that I will impose on myself. I hope to prove or disprove how close I am to those in my friends list.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Qualifying Facebook Friends

One of the concepts that social networks are redefining is that of friendship. Sites like Facebook and MySpace focus upon a "friends list" that allows users to interact with one another, control their privacy, or just show off. I think it's intriguing how this has changed the meaning of friendship, and also how it breaks down old walls and builds new ones.

For me, the most interesting aspect is how many social networking users have changed the meaning of "friend" into "acquaintance." While it is common for someone's friends list to achieve membership numbers in excess of 500, it is rare in a real social network that a person would actually consider 500 people their friends. I do not believe that there has been such a huge population of super networkers and that online social networking sites [from here on: Facebook] have suddenly exposed them. Rather, I believe that this demonstrates a situation where somewhat loose acquaintances are now added as "friends" on social networks.

Adding people to your social network seems to have replaced previous acts such as exchanging business cards, phone numbers, or emails. In many ways it is superior to the actions it replaces. If you meet someone at an event that was planned using Facebook then you can later add them from the attendees list. However, the boundaries are significantly different between adding someone to a list online and giving them your phone number.

Social contexts were dramatically different before the advent of Facebook. If I give you my phone number you probably feel some hesitation to use it if you do not know me well. If you never use it then we will never communicate. If, instead, I add you to my friends list on Facebook then we barely have to initiate communication. Unless I've quarantined you using privacy features then you'll likely see my every status update, and you can choose to browse through most of my interactions. In essence, I've conveniently opened my life to someone I may barely know.

The walls continue to break down from there, though. While you may have felt that hesitancy to use my phone number or email, it's less likely that you will hesitate to write something on my wall or reply to a status update. This is a major social dynamic of early contact that has changed dramatically. Not only can a short encounter cause me to open my life to you, but the social code dictating further contact has opened up such that it is far more likely that you will engage me.

That's not to say that new barriers haven't formed. It may be easier for communications to occur and that may enable lesser acquaintances to know more and say more, but these interactions are by far less intimate and less important. Significantly more interaction is required before any sort of trust is established, which is somewhat ironic considering the volume of information you've likely shared.

The other big wall is one that may or may not be real, but in a world where everyone is at your fingertips you may not have such an urge to meet up in person. I say this may not be real because I do not believe that online communication will create a generation of reclusive geeks who only talk online. Those geeks will be there, but they were there last generation as well, and the one before that and so on. More to the point, those who don't already fall into this category will not be reclassified due to social networking. Instead, I believe that some of the types of encounters we used to have will be less prevalent. After all, who needs to meet and catch up with friends if you never quite fell out of touch?

The cliché is that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Absence is almost nonexistent in modern culture. We are always online, always available, always within reach. This can have many unwanted effects between friends. Those old friends from high school are now available, but they might not be the same person you remember. If you put your coworkers in your network you might suffer from too much information or too much exposure. These things serve to deteriorate relationships, not to grow them.

Is this the right way to handle social networking? I believe it is not. It certainly isn't right for me. In my next post I will discuss how I handle my Facebook friends. Beyond that, I hope to explore some patterns and actions that may help bring these things more in line with past societal expectations.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Route 23 Honda

Last month I had to make one of those big financial decisions. My old truck finally crossed that line of marginal utility where the cost to benefit ratio was no longer in its favor. New car time.

So, you're looking at the title of this and thinking, "this guy bought a Honda." Wrong. However, I did have a great interaction with a Honda dealership. I came so close to buying a Honda Fit that I actually put a down payment on it to hold it until the weekend. In that time, I decided to buy a different car. Yet, I walked away from this so happy with the way I was treated by Route 23 Honda that I feel I need to sing their praises.

First, there was our salesman, Alton Brown. We wanted to buy the car just so we could make Good Eats jokes for the next 10 years. Of course, he was just a pretty good guy. He wanted to sell the car. He didn't want to lie to us. He didn't want to make a bunch of small talk or try any sneaky salesman tricks. Sure, he had the pamphlet on the car memorized, but I never caught any of the little deceptions that pretty much every other salesman we met threw in. Over the course of our dealings he was pretty open and didn't disappear for too very long.

Then there was the price. Cost was a major factor for me. I need basic transportation with a little cargo flexibility and room for my family. Beyond that it's all dollars. I have a spreadsheet that compares the yearly TCO for a range of cars. I used various resources to collect information on the price of each vehicle, including what people really pay. I knew that Honda doesn't cut too many deals. And yet, they did. They offered me a price that sites like TrueCar say the Fit simply doesn't sell for, at least not new. Even better, I was approved for a loan with a 0.9% APR. I knew I was getting a great deal.

So, I signed some papers and put a deposit down. They said the deposit was refundable. The paper they had me sign said it wasn't. So I had them note that it was and initial it. I knew Amex would have my back, but I was still nervous about the potential fight to back out. I had a pit in my stomach about it afterward. Oh well, it would be a pain but it might not even be necessary.

It was, though. We backed out. Not because the deal was bad. Not because the car was bad. Instead it was because another car, the Kia Soul, was a better fit for us. We liked it better. It was more comfortable. No fault of Route 23 Honda, they did a great job.

Amazingly, here's where things got even better. A simple phone call to my salesman was all that was required to cancel the deal. I could hear he wasn't happy about it, but he didn't say anything to that effect. I thanked Alton and told him we'll see him next time. I hung up. A few days later I had to give my credit card number to their billing department (they actually have security on their system so the number was unavailable) and they issued the refund.

That's it! It was one of the best experiences I've ever had with a dealership, and I didn't even buy there. Because of this, I will certainly visit Route 23 Honda any time I'm shopping for a car. Good dealerships are few and far between.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Answering Google Searchers

We've already established that I like to check out my traffic stats. Of course, there's that little section that tells you what search terms were used to find your site. I've seen plenty of sites simply lampoon people for searching things. I'm going to do things a little different and try to answer some questions.

Ever since I wrote my complaint and follow-up about Chegg my blog has started to come up when people try to find out more about book rentals. I'm still a big advocate of this, it is usually the cheapest way to get textbooks. So I'm going to focus on that right now, since we're right at the beginning of the semester.

"chegg crappy service"
It makes me a little upset with myself that this was the top search term for my site last month. I was venting after a bad experience. I want to take a moment to clarify that one experience doesn't define a company with hundreds of thousands of customers. If you hit my site because of this I hope you read that and let it sink in. It is also worth noting that eventually Chegg responded to my complaint, this indicates that up the chain people care and it's actually a sign of a good company to resolve issues like this eventually. While it can be terrible to be on the consumer end of these exchanges, we have to take the corporate side into account. Some extent of the treatment I received is there because Chegg must deal with fraudulent claims. There is always some friction required to push back and keep frauds from running wild.

"chegg charged me for full cost of book", "chegg lost book fee", "chegg missing book", "what happens if you dont return chegg books"
Chegg does charge fees for lost and damaged books. So do all book rental services. In fact, if you change the media you'll find that under certain conditions you'll be charged for the replacement of DVDs from Netflix or games from GameFly. It's a perfectly reasonable requirement and it is necessary for these service to stay in business. However, that does not excuse these services from providing their customers with reasonable due process to prove that the missing book is indeed the fault of the customer. Netflix is pretty good about this, they excuse a certain number of missing discs before they begin to bill you. They also monitor their distribution and return process closely to look for theft trends. I think there may be a problem with this process for Chegg. That doesn't excuse you if you lose a book. My suggestion is to thoroughly document the return process so that if something goes wrong you can easily demonstrate that it was beyond your control.

"what box do we use to return to chegg"
Ideally you'll save the box they shipped your book in. However, I realize that's not always possible. Use the smallest box that will fit your book while still allowing it to lay flat. I suggest you wrap it in newspaper and put something in the box to keep the book from bouncing around, which may damage the book. I returned the last book I had in an Amazon box and had no problems. If you can't find a box for free then you can buy one cheaply at a UPS store, the couple of dollars likely won't break the bank and it's still cheaper than buying used from most sources. You have to go to a UPS location to drop off the package anyway.

"quality of chegg books"
Chegg books seem no better or worse than any decent used books. I didn't have a problem with them at all. In fact, I've actually found some useful notes. I don't recall any books being pristine, but the economics books I rented were both in very good condition. Comparatively, the used books I've bought were no better. Also, I recently rented a book from BookRenter, which I was expecting to be in excellent condition since their policies are less lenient to abuse, and I found it was in no better quality than those I'd received from Chegg.

I hope that helps you wayward searchers. Next time it seems I should take up some questions about Hulu.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

When I decided to revive this blog after a few months of dormancy the first post I began to write was about the Tea Party. Specifically, I was going to explain why the Tea Party, as a group, can be considered racist. I never finished that post and a few others finally made the same argument I had in mind, rendering my purpose moot. Of course, since I abandoned that post I won't make that the subject of this one.

Instead, I'd like to propose a new tact with these idiots. It's the initial thought I had on the "movement:" ignore them. They aren't worth your time. They aren't worth my time.

When I thought about this a video came to mind. It's a CollegeHumor animated parody of Disney's Alice in Wonderland mad tea party. The more I think about this the more apt it becomes. Indeed, everyone else is playing the role of Alice while the Tea Partiers play the buffoons.

If you watch original scene you will notice some key elements of the Tea Party. It's fraught with false logic, their message is all over the place, and from the outside looking in they appear to just be crazy. Alice tries to talk sense to them, but when she does she's talked over, the subject is changed, or she's met with an even more nonsensical answer.

However, the Tea Party is not run by complete idiots, even if the public front is made up of imbeciles like Sarah Palin, the GOP political strategists behind the scenes are much savvier than we give them credit for. Like in the original there is more going on than we initially see. In the Mad Tea Party we are reminded that saying what you mean and meaning what you say are different concepts. This is also true of the political Tea Party. They've taken a couple pages from the activist's handbook and realized that by yelling louder you can over-represent yourself and that a loud extremist group can help the more mainstream groups redefine the centrist position.

At some point during the scene their ideas begin to make sense. Sure, it makes sense to maximize your partying by celebrating every day that isn't your birthday, if you really like to celebrate yourself. Just like it makes sense to cut taxes or to worry about the deficit. Of course, all of these ideas are short sighted.

Perhaps the most pertinent allegory of all is that of the original Mad Tea Party, in which the reason for tea time was due to the Mad Hatter being perpetually stuck at six o'clock. The Tea Party is rife with people who are stuck in a particular time period. Most of them are in an imaginary time when pop culture teaches us that some particular set of values ruled American life. Still, others are stuck in a time period where Reaganomics is still considered a good idea, and they've drank the Kool-Aid enough to conveniently forget that Reagan had a double dip recession, tripled the deficit, and his economic policies led to another recession in 1991. By knowing nothing of history the Tea Party has conveniently stuck themselves in a place where their goals are unattainable, because they're striving for a time in American life that either didn't exist or cannot exist without abandoning almost all American values. It would require government to dictate culture in a way that would make China seem like a Free society.

All of that is beside the point, though. It's the last salvo. The point here is that Alice eventually moved on. In the Disney version she didn't learn much, and I think that's how most Americans will be when this political scene eventually fades. Sure, she had a slightly better concept of how things work in Wonderland, and likewise I can see these political arguments causing some people to be at least slightly more aware of the governmental workings here. Mostly, in that it was just a time killer.

In the book Alice learns a bit more about the world. She learns that time is a person rather than a concept. She sees that there is a method to madness. Those who are more politically savvy may pick up on the subtler aspects of this brutish political group. Further, in the meta debate over their ideas both sides throw around political and economic concepts that are actually worthy of debate. It's very confusing, but perhaps that aspect is worthwhile and maybe when this farce comes to an end we will be ever so slightly better for its occurrence.

In both renditions, Alice walks off rather disgusted. That's what I think we should do here. It is what I will do. The first step in this process for me was realizing after my vacation that I don't want to catch up on the backlog of STFU, Teabaggers. Then I unsubscribed. I also unsubscribed from Media Matters because they rarely do more than pwn Fox News, another organization I think is a waste of time. I like both of these sites, especially STFU Teabaggers where I was a somewhat frequent, though anonymous, contributor. It's not that I will completely erase news about these groups from my life, but I will no longer partake in concentrated vitriol against them.

The Tea Party is essentially a group of political trolls. They don't exist to further the conversation, they exist to influence it in the most negative and nonproductive ways possible. Trolls use misdirection to derail a debate. The best way to handle trolls is not to feed them, starve them of attention. They simply aren't worth the time.

p.s. The reason why the Tea Party is racist is because they've actively embraced or ignored their racist elements. The same is true of any group, tacit ignorance and acceptance is the best way to cosign a message. It is something that is only solved by internally policing what is and isn't socially acceptable within your group. For instance, left leaning media offered up some very sexist views of Hillary Clinton during her Presidential campaign, but the greater population of socially progressive people shamed them for it, including then candidate Barack Obama.

Friday, August 20, 2010

What Does a Smartphone Do?

It's been about a month since I received my HTC Droid Incredible. I'm extremely pleased. Recently I've been thinking about the various ways this phone has changed my life.

I have a history of limited success with my cellphone choices. The phones I've had thus far were... okay. Most of them got the job done and that was about it. So, it's been somewhat revelatory having a true smartphone for the last month.

A quick rundown of my previous phones: The first was a Kyocera stick phone that pulled little more than basic phone duty, I had phone numbers stored in it but that's about it. Next was a Samsung flip phone, and with that phone I added alarm clock duties that are now requisite on all my phones. After that was an LG flip phone, which I started using for light camera work and text messaging. Then I made a big jump from Verizon to AT&T and I got a Blackberry Pearl, which also marked the shift from texting to email, a little more contact management, occasional searches, and infrequent GPS duties.

I was terribly disappointed in AT&T's service, though. So as soon as we had the chance we jumped ship back to Verizon. I splurged and for the first time bought the phone I really wanted, the Incredible. Of course it's picked up the duties of the previous phone, but it's so much more capable. Here's a list of what this phone is to me, with a brief review of the features.

  • It's a phone! Well, duh. It is a decent phone with good call quality. I've used the speakerphone a lot with great success. I like to use it so Kevin can talk to his grandmother without having to hand the phone over to him. My only gripe is that I instinctively hit the "Phone" button but all that's available from there is a numeric keypad. If you hit the numbers it will then select contacts based on the old-school phone key mappings, but it's difficult to call those contacts secondary numbers. I want an alpha keypad so I can search contacts and then easily select which of their numbers to call. The solution is to put the People shortcut within easy reach and teach yourself to use that instead.
  • It's the Internet! The Internet capabilities of this phone are pretty great. It has some Flash support, but that's not the strength. The browser on this is really great. Navigation and zoom is every bit as good as the iPhone, but it's a bit quicker. Actually, the zoom functionality is better because not only can you easily zoom in on your text but the browser then changes the flow of the text to match the width of the screen. It does this with tables and some other elements, too. For instance, if I browse the forum I frequent using my phone then I can zoom in on the thread titles column, it will then resize that column of the table to match the width of the screen so that I no longer have to scroll horizontally to read the entire title. Maybe that sounds minor, but it's huge for readability. Counter point: Navigation between tabs takes a few actions more than iOS.
  • It's an email client! That sounds like a non-issue, doesn't it? However, Android phones have the advantage of fantastic GMail integration. Basically, the GMail client on this phone is a native-running version of the web interface. Sure, there's a few differences, but it's a phone. It supports conversations, labels, and all that GMail goodness. The way other clients handle some of GMail's features really annoys me. For instance, my Blackberry would treat my Google Reader shared items as new messages when they hit Buzz. It would also treat every message sent as a message received because of the way conversations work. Android doesn't do that. It easily handles both of my accounts. On top of that I also have an IMAP account and my Yahoo! account. The Blackberry had some great shortcuts that I miss, but the pros far outweigh the cons here.
  • It's a camera! The camera on this thing is simply amazing. I turned the capture resolution down to 5MP, because I just don't need the extra detail that the max 8MP resolution offers. The flash works okay, especially for a phone. It's not too slow, either. It's great because I finally have a camera on my person that takes passable pictures and doesn't require 2 minutes to warm up. (The Blackberry was terrible about opening the camera app, and then it took grainy low res pictures.) There's no downside here.
  • It's an IM client! Maybe this falls under the Internet, but I think it warrants its own bullet. I no longer send SMS "text" messages. Instead, I use IM over my phone. Why pay the outrageous rates for SMS messages/plans when I'm already paying for a data plan? There's no need at all. Plus, I'm more highly available via IM because I can have it open on my computer or my phone. I did this a bit with the Blackberry, but I found it to be annoying. This phone handles the conversations a bit better and I like the onscreen keyboard better than the Pearl's keyboard. It helps that this device is so much more responsive, so I can reply very quickly. The downside is that some people still think SMS is a good idea, I've started telling them to use my Google Voice number.
  • It's an iPod! Well, it's at least an MP3 player. I don't think the music players available on this thing quite stack up to the iPod, but they're close enough to render my iPod Touch a paperweight. Between the music stored on my phone and Pandora, I probably use this thing 30 hours a week for just that. I need to get a bigger MicroSD card, but otherwise it's completely replaced my old music player. It also has some features that the iPod lacks, like an FM tuner. If my commute ever changes back to one that relies on public transit then I will use this more, but I've already used it a few times if there's something interesting on NPR and I have to get out of my car.
  • It's an alarm! I mentioned this one before, I use my phone as my alarm. The alarm on this is much better than my Blackberry's was. It's almost the same as my iPod's alarm, but the iPod's weak external speaker rendered that useless. I suspect any iPhone would be equally good. The last time I had a phone with this good of an alarm system was the LG. I'll add in here that it's also my watch. I haven't worn a watch more than a handful of times since I started carrying a cellphone.
  • It's my planner! I generally have no clue what the date is. Actually, there's a lot of times where I can't pinpoint the day of the week. I have to try very hard to remember what's planned. The phone syncs nicely with Google Calendar and I've started putting things directly in via the phone. As I get more used to this I may even stop relying so heavily on my wife to remember what the hell I'm doing on a given day.
  • It's got the traffic and weather! When it's quick and easy to pull up this information on your phone there's that much more incentive to take a second to check this info. I can glance at the weather in the morning, and I normally check the traffic before I leave the parking lot after work.
  • It's a GPS Navigator! I have a Garmin that I use on the weekends, so I haven't had too much of a chance to use the GPS. I did use it a few times, once as a test on my way to work. Another time to find a restaurant in Passaic. Both times I found the turn by turn directions to be on par with Garmin's, though the text to speech system isn't as good. I'm a big fan of GPS navigation and I'd always planned to eventually get a second unit for my truck, but I've scrapped that now. The navigator on my phone is good enough for lighter duty use and I can use the Garmin for longer trips.
  • It's a time killer! Like the iPod/iPhone, this device is great for little hand held games. I have a few on it already. These are perfect for taking a break or in the waiting room. Yesterday I managed to play a game of Minesweeper while my boss took a call. [Don't tell her that.] Of course, I can also play most YouTube videos on it if I want. Or I can pull up Google Reader and churn through my RSS feeds.
  • It's going to be my 3G modem! I did root my phone but I've yet to get the tethering to work correctly. I will, though, and I'm sure it will come in handy eventually.
I could go on into minutia but I'll stop there. I think the point is clear, this is a very useful device. Some of the uses are limited and others are trivial, but overall it's great to have around.

I will temper my enthusiasm, though. By now you've heard that the battery life on Android phones is terrible, and I won't dispute that claim. Depending on what I'm doing I've gone anywhere from 12 hours to 2 days between charges. It helps to put the phone into airplane mode at night, something akin to the sleep mode that Blackberry phones have. There's also something to be said for the sheer volume of my personal data that I've entrusted to Google, which is a topic I could write an entire post on.

There's also the iPhone comparison issue. It is inescapable to compare the Incredible, or really any Android phone, to the iPhone. For me the Incredible wins hands down. When others mention they're in the market for another phone I tell them that the iPhone will serve them well. This is akin to my advice with portable music players, I prefer not to go the Apple route* but I point almost everyone else in that direction if they're looking for such a device. I actually don't point people away from Android, but I recommend they go to the store and try out the different offerings.

*I have an iPod Touch because I won it, I still have my iAudio player from before that but the iPod holds 16x as much music so it was impossible to resist at the time. As I mentioned, the iPod is now a paperweight.

I'll have to see how this phone ages. I plan to write about my experiences with it and any tips, tricks, or particularly useful apps that I find. For now, let's just say I'm pretty happy being an android.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Windows Server 2008 R2 and COM Objects

So we just went through a huge ordeal while trying to decommission an old server and move a legacy website onto a new one. The old server was a 32 bit Windows Server 2003 machine, the new one is 64 bit Windows Server 2008 R2. The website is classic ASP that uses Dimac's JMail control and SoftArtisan's FileUp control, which are both 32 bit.

The result was several HTTP 500 errors and a relatively generic set of log messages. Actually we weren't always seeing anything in the logs. It was fairly perplexing. When we did get error messages they were like this:




The first part of the solution was to set the application pool for that website to 32 bit. You do this by opening IIS Manager, select Application Pools, select the application pool you're modifying, in the Actions pane click Advanced Settings..., then set Enable 32-Bit Applications to True. After you've done that, reset IIS and try your site. If the site still isn't working, reboot your machine. Apparently Windows isn't all that keen on switching between 64 and 32 bit, so sometimes a reboot is in order. [We had to.]

Maybe that will fix your problems, it didn't for us. In fact, the ODBC error seems to stem from this action. Apparently when you create an ODBC DSN it's only available to 64 bit processes. You have to create the DSN in the 32 bit space by using the 32 bit Data Source Administrator from the SysWOW64 directory [odbcad32.exe].

We still had those pesky JMail errors. The object was created successfully but we were getting File I/O errors. We followed advice that suggested we should copy the DLL to the SysWOW64 directory and register it there. No change. We modified the permissions on the DLL to allow everyone to read and execute it. No change.

What we hadn't thought of yet was to modify permissions on the SMTP pickup folder. We didn't think of this because the test page we'd created had everything but the instantiation commented. Still, this simple change made all the difference. For whatever reason, giving write permission to the IUSR didn't fix this. We tried a few other users before we gave up and just gave all local users write permission to the pickup folder. This did the trick.

Overall this was a royal pain. That's why I stopped to do this quick write up. I hope it helps.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Video Quality, Content, and Cable Replacement

Last week researchers at Rice University released the results of a study on subjective video quality. These largely confirm my opinion on the current best streaming service. It's not the video quality, it's the content.

We don't watch movies and shows in a vacuum. Other factors matter. The most important one is that you actually want to watch the content. This is especially true of any service that you might have to pay for. It's the reason why Netflix doesn't have a streaming only plan, those DVDs help augment their limited but growing library of streaming content. Without the extra DVD many subscribers would have lower satisfaction as the ebb and flow of licensing cause periods where desirable content is lacking.

Of course, that's only part of the story. The importance of these services is that they are likely to displace our current television service in the long run. For that to happen the services need to not only mimic the television experience, but surpass it. Meanwhile, the cable providers won't rest on their laurels and watch themselves be supplanted. The only way to win this battle is to provide the absolute best overall service for the money.

So long as you've tried them all then you already know what the best service is.

The video quality doesn't matter so much. The user interface is something that we can hack at until we've found every flaw and highlight, but after watching two videos you likely know what you like. You intuitively pick the best service. You've probably already done the cost/benefit analysis without even knowing.

This is a $90 Billion industry. It's an understatement to say that there's a lot at stake. Netflix has become a billion dollar company in roughly a decade. Speculation on a Hulu IPO puts the value at around $2 billion. Online video might be a startup industry, but it's growing fast.

Millions of people have decided that Netflix provides sufficient value and have subscribed. Millions also watch Hulu on a daily basis. Of course, I think Hulu is better. Millions more subscribe to some sort of cable television service and may or may not bother with the other two. There is a lot of strong crossover in these groups. I'm sure most Netflix and Hulu users either still subscribe to cable, or they use other online video services.

All of these services are trying to tip the scales in their favor. Netflix has added thousands of new streaming titles since I last reviewed their streaming library. Hulu adds new content constantly, and they have the advantage of their traditional media ownership. Cable isn't adding new content so quickly, instead they're adding more technology via set top boxes and their own streaming offerings. Of course, the cable companies also get the most money directly from subscribers, their goal is to stop the bleeding.

How does this apply to the customers, though? Well, for one we can't expect a free ride forever. If content shifts online then we'll see more premium services pop up. Netflix is one of them, and increasingly Netflix acts like an old-school premium channel by signing exclusive streaming contracts to lock in content for extended periods of time. Hulu added their Plus service, which is a little different in that it's more akin to a television archive with access to some higher video quality content. It's a very cool take on such a service, but I wonder how broad the appeal will be.

If online video expands and more customers shift away from cable providers we'll also see an increase in broadband prices, especially in monopoly markets. Most markets will continue to have these monopolies, or anti-competitive oligopolies in the short run. Eventually we may see more competition from wireless and wifi providers. During the period where options are limited we're likely to see broadband prices increase as cable subscribers decrease. There will be offset contracts for subscribers to both services, but this will be a big hindrance to those who want to switch away from cable simply to save money.

The point of this exercise is to emphasize that money only matters in the short term. What we need to focus on is value. Money is part of value, so some people may be more inclined to use Hulu and deal with advertising so they won't have another $9+ bill each month. Others hate commercials and love the idea that they can pay a paltry amount to avoid them. Value is very subjective and it requires everyone to evaluate things themselves.

Even video quality is merely part of the value equation and is likely to be a non-issue in a few years. Today's issues include playback smoothness, image quality, and buffering. It is a given at this point that these issues won't exist in another five years. Advances in video encoding, decoding, and hardware will cure the smoothness issue. Competition will cause more providers to offer HD video, and those same advances in delivery will help this video get to you smoothly. Edge networks will help the bigger providers with the buffering, but so will smaller file sizes. These things are problems today, not tomorrow.

The real problem is overall experience. Things like UI design and customer service. Technological and economical challenges are relatively easy to solve. We know where to look, and have a rough idea of what to do. Human interaction is infinitely complex. The larger your user base the harder it is to please everyone. The solutions to these problems don't scale the way others do.

That's why when I review on of these sites I focus so much on getting to the content I want and viewing it. I focus less about what the content is than I do with how it works. The online video services that solve these problems will invariably solve the other problems. So they're the ones worth considering. Beyond that it's all content.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Book Rental Industry Madness!

The Google email alerts were aflutter with activity today after I wrote my post about Chegg.

One of the benefits of having a blog that almost no one reads, yet still having access to Google Analytics, is that I can practically hone in on every little hit my blog receives. Sometimes it's just fun, because I can presume to know exactly who that hit represents. Other times it's handy because I can track down strange traffic.

In this case, there was strange traffic. I do get stray visitors to my blog, but they are few and far between. So when three people replied to the last post, something seemed odd. Maybe my preachy rant about how to run a customer service operation had gained traction somewhere. Needless to say, I was curious.

So I checked. My little blog received visits from a PR management firm, Chegg competitors, and of course, Chegg.

I have to say... I'm flattered.

I'm also impressed. It's good to know that these companies are paying attention. It's great to see them using the web to manage their reputations. This probably shouldn't be too surprising. These are web upstarts, they aren't stodgy blue chips and they haven't grown beyond the point of caring.

Since I know you guys are reading, I want to say something to you.

Chegg: Thank you for your efforts to make me whole again as a customer. I don't know if that was a direct result of what I wrote before, or if it was already happening. We weren't expecting another call or the personal attention we received. Any way I look at it, in the end you went above and beyond.

I hope my story raised some eyebrows. My wife said that she found other stories of similar experiences on the web. The problem we had, more than anything, was how far things went and the treatment along the way. Until this incident I was an advocate of your service. I hadn't written about it, but through word of mouth I would tell everyone in college to check your site first. I'm sure if experiences like mine are limited then you'll continue to have high customer satisfaction.

Fleishman-Hillard: I suspect your reputation management service had something to do with the above. Kudos to you.

BookRenter: I do still intend to use your service. Thanks for visiting.

And I'm not quite sure why Follett visited. I know they're in the textbook industry, but that one seems odd.

It's been a weird day, but I feel like this was productive.

Edit: My wife points out that Follett also does book rentals. Guess I didn't look hard enough (and thinking back I vaguely recall the press release on that one).

Chegg: Cheap Books, Crappy Service, Costly Results

My wife and I have been using Chegg for a while with decent success. Renting a book through Chegg is generally at least $30 cheaper than buying used, even if you sell the book back. I like the business model and all was going well until last semester. Now they're trying to charge me full price for two books on a gotcha scheme where you can't prove their employees' ineptitude.

Here's what happened: Both of us rented several books for Spring semester. Time slipped by and my wife never sent them back. So we paid a late fee. That was fine, it was our fault. After that we made sure to send it back, because inaction on our part would result in the purchase of the book. So we sent three of them back in a single box.

The catch: only one of those books was checked back in. The box was received, there was no mention of damage to the box. Thing is, we can't prove that we put all of the books in it. Why? Because with Chegg you simply use their return labels, so there's no receipt saying how heavy the box was, nor is there any remaining evidence of the contents. It's your word against theirs.

What this means for you is that if one of their warehouse workers screws up, you're paying. Or at least you'll be charged. I'm nearly certain that's what happened here. I have no hard evidence but it certainly does fit. We know we returned all of the books due at the time, the box arrived, but only one book was checked in. That's not all, though...

Just today, as we attempted to print the return label for the last book we'll ever rent from Chegg, we found that the book was marked as returned. It happens that this is my Macroeconomics book, whereas the Microeconomics book from last semester is one that went missing. Needless to say, they're very similar books. Why is this one, which I'd only just received back then and is still sitting in my office, marked as returned when the other went missing?

There's a million scenarios, but this is what seems likely: The books arrive and for whatever reason they are manually checked in (a barcode is misread, maybe that's just the process). The worker receiving the book doesn't pay enough attention, because they're probably not paid well enough to pay attention and likely have quotas to meet for the day. Said worker checks in the book that was recently rented instead of the book that was due.

That still leaves a mystery of what happened to the other book that is missing. However, in such a scenario it's likely that stressed, underpaid workers doing repetitive cataloging will make mistakes. So it wouldn't surprise me if that book were simply not properly checked in.

Of course, that's only half the problem. The other half is the way this service will treat you in this scenario. They're argumentative. They're brash. They refuse to acknowledge any possibility of fault. You'll spend countless calls with different members of their CSR team explaining the same thing over again, and receiving the same attitude each time. Then they charge you full price and completely destroy the value of their service.

That ends my relationship with Chegg. Well, there is one more chapter to this. After my wife speaks with yet another supervisor today, if the problem is not somehow amicably resolved, we'll be speaking with our credit card company to dispute the charge. Fortunately, Amex tends to look down on this as much as I do.

Update: It would seem that it is possible to get through to these people. After a conversation with a supervisor, and an explanation that yes there are two economic fields with similar names, we're getting a refund. There's no explanation as to what happened to the other book. I don't particularly care, though. It's over and that's what matters.

Update 2: Pretty wild. We received another call and a bit more of a refund. I think Chegg is taking this to heart. There's more here.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Let's Hear it for My Wife

My wife is finally a college graduate, twice. Just yesterday she finished her undergraduate studies and has earned her BS in Social Work. A month ago she received a diploma in the mail from her last college, who decided two years later that she had indeed earned her associates degree. So that's two degree in the span of a few months.

Over a decade ago she graduated with honors from high school. She made it into one of those whose-who books and all of that. She had full scholarships to many colleges, and was accepted into NYU. Her parents, although they'd lived just outside of NYC for 30 years (longer for her mother) refused to consider NYU. Lehigh was too far for their baby. So they sent her off to Sacred Heart in Connecticut. She hated it.

Sure, she made some friends. There was a nun there who she still speaks fondly of. Maybe some of the teachers were good, I don't remember at this point. The other people at the school were terrible. She was saddled with a crappy roommate and had to switch, that roommate never let it go, though. She and her friends decided to make college unbearable for my wife and her new roommate and they largely succeeded. Her grades were still decent, though. So she was able to transfer schools easily, at the cost of some of her scholarships.

Next up was Wright State in Ohio. Here she made a lot of friends, and she had a pretty good time. I'm reminded of some of the parties and pranks on an almost daily basis. Of course, the problem here was hardly the school or the people... it was me. Our relationship was a huge distraction from her studies. I didn't support her. My life was a mess and it generally rubbed off on her. Her GPA was approaching 3, which she thought was passable though she certainly wasn't thrilled by it. Turns out it wasn't, she lost her financial aid after they raised the standards slightly. She'd found a school she liked but she could no longer attend.

Defeated, she returned to Jersey and worked. And worked. And worked. She's a hard worker. Her whole family is. I'm envious of their work ethic. Of course, something didn't sit right with her. She'd spent four years in college and had nothing to show for it. When she said she wanted to go back I knew this time had to be different.

She enrolled in Bergen Community in NJ. Nothing fancy this time. Bergen is fairly reasonable if you live in the county and it just so happens that we lived in the ass crack of Bergen at the time. I liked to call our place the last house in Saddle Brook, because we were technically in Saddle Brook but for all intents and purposes we lived in Garfield. Please don't take too much offense if you live in that area, but I was not a fan. Still, she was able to go to a decent community college on the cheap and that's what she did.

This time was different, though. She had to work while going to school. Fortunately, unlike me, she could keep pace with two full time schedules. She was on course for an AS in two years. At this point she was a little uncertain what she wanted to do at school. She'd been through so much of the soc/psych program but she didn't want a degree that would be useless without a graduate degree. In the end, I don't even remember what she decided, because it didn't much matter. She knew she was going to go on to another school rather than rest on her associates degree. Ultimately it came down to one gym class. The problem? I was working in NYC and she was pregnant, still working, and just couldn't be bothered for a diploma she'd do little with. She wanted to move on and so she did. Another two years of school and still nothing.

She enrolled in William Paterson in Wayne. You might recognize it as the school that Sammi from The Jersey Shore attends. It's still fun to point that out. Anyway, she was set on education when she enrolled. She was accepted into the department and was doing well. Yet, every new semester brought new drama. Her advisors told her contradictory things and kept changing the program requirements. She could feel her work slipping away again. It would take an extra year, at least, at this rate. She was attending full time, spending the rest of her time being a mom. [I believe being a full time student is far easier than being a full time mom.]

Another change was in order. She switched to social work. This department was much better. She was back on track. As she approached her last year it looked like everything would fall into place. Of course, at this point we knew better. She wasn't able to take either her qualitative or quantitative research classes in the fall. This forced her to take both classes in the spring so that she could take senior seminar over the summer - that is, if she could get permission to take them both at once and if senior seminar would be offered. This set up the spring semester from hell.

She was approved to take both classes at once, though some people thought she was crazy for wanting to do it. There wasn't a choice, really. It was that or she wouldn't graduate this school year. Disaster almost struck immediately, she had to switch around her schedule three times because after a single class with the one professor she knew she'd fail. Turns out that wouldn't be her only problem that semester, the teacher she eventually had for quantitative was terrible. He didn't teach the class such that any of the students understood the material, then he waited until the last three weeks of class to approve everyone's work and give a semester's worth of exams all at once. My wife is the only person in the class who got an A. We know this because he apparently showed another student. In fact, she got an A in all four of her classes that semester.

On to summer semester. At this point we have to thank her professor for even offering to teach the class. No other teacher would, and a couple dozen students wouldn't graduate this school year without it. After the semester from hell this one was easy in comparison. The course requires you to do three things, write a research paper, give a presentation on your findings, and take an exam. Done, done, and done. In the meantime she interviewed for jobs, got one, took her GRE, and was accepted into graduate school. She doesn't rest on her laurels.

Oh yeah, she also got her other diploma around the same time. Actually, the same day she was hired. It turns out that Bergen changed their program eliminating the gym requirement. When she received mail from them she was perplexed. What could it be? Oh, it's just a diploma issued in May 2010 from a school she hasn't attended in two years. It should be fun to explain this to employers.

That's really it. She's been in college intermittently for 15 years. She was enrolled at some point during at least 10 of those years. Now she has two diplomas from two different institutions, finally some validation for all her work.

As for me, I'm inspired. I've been back in school for the last year. It's a hard slog, especially with the way my time is split. Yet, I don't think it quite compares to the trials she's been through. It merely helps me to appreciate her work.

That's why I decided to write out her story, because I think it needs to be told to fully appreciate how great this accomplishment is. She didn't give up. Sure, life got in the way, but that didn't stop her. She worked damned hard and earned her degrees at least twice over. I'm proud. Exceptionally proud. So much that I wasn't quite sure how to express it. The only thing I could think of was this.

I love you Karenann.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Best Streaming Service

I've long avoided writing this post. Maybe it's because I was hoping for more progress in the streaming video field. Maybe I was just being lazy. I'm actually leaning towards the thought that I didn't want to admit the truth.

The truth is that there is no best streaming service. However, there are best services in a couple of categories. There's also the highly subjective "best service for Dan." Without delay, that service is:


Sorry Netflix. I've been a loyal customer for so long. In fact, I probably watch more content from Netflix than I do from Hulu, but it's all on DVD. The truth is that due to the implementation and catalog I almost never watch anything via Netflix streaming. Hulu is easy, available, and most of all it has loads of high quality content. In the end, no technical measure can make up for that quality of the catalog. The video quality is better on other services, as is the community. I should also mention that I can tolerate commercials, especially in the low dosage and variety that I see on Hulu.

If you prefer the catalog offered by Netflix, it is the superior service. If you can't stand commercials that may tip it the edge. I consider Netflix the winner overall if we ignore content. The combination of online and offline viewing is great. I appreciate the user reviews and recommendation system, both of which help me make up my mind what's the best use of my entertainment time. The Silverlight based player is also superior to most Flash implementations. It's not perfect by any means, but it delivers solid video quality and UI with much less resource utilization. I can watch Netflix content on my 6-year-old Pentium 4 desktop without noticeable degradation in quality or dropped frames. I can't say the same about Hulu.

I have to also mention Amazon's VOD service. It's Flash based, yet they've worked some magic to deliver a superior video experience to just about anyone else in the streaming sector. It's a winner in that respect, but it loses in almost every other. The UI is terrible and confusing. Most importantly, from a value perspective Amazon ranks up there with a trip to Blockbuster (brick & mortar, that is). Most of the VOD offerings are available as rentals for only a small discount over buying a boxed set or renting a DVD. I'd rather use my money on a Netflix subscription and rent the DVDs. I'd recommend Amazon's service as a way to try one of the few series they have before you buy or rent the set, but otherwise I don't think it's worth it now.

As for other services, I've excluded many based on principle alone.

I don't count YouTube because only a small part of its content is longer than 10 minutes. Most of the shows you can watch there are webisodes, or they're illegally posted and broken into 10 minute chunks. No thanks.

I really like Vimeo's player for its UI and video quality, but beyond that is suffers from the same problem as YouTube. It's all user-generated, independent content. Vimeo has a lot of merit, they're kinda the PBS of the web. They host a lot of great shows, but ultimately the stuff there is just for a quick break from work or its all substance with no entertainment value. I'm also not sure of their website at all, I only seem to view their content via the embedded player. I'll have to do a proper review another time.

There's many, many more. I'm not going to bother to review all the different networks, especially since the biggest players simply signed up with Hulu. Viacom hosts a lot of its stuff, but they use a no-frills Flash player and they seem to focus more on making their content short so it can be embedded. This seems to be the way smaller cable networks have gone. They really want you to watch TV instead. Anime sites like CrunchyRoll have serviceable players but nothing great. Aggregator sites like Joost have largely given up on hosting content (beyond ads) and focused on aggregation, so they're not worth a mention. Beyond that, how much is there? I'm sure I'm missing some service but I doubt it would change the top three that I picked.

Hulu it is. I'll give it another year or so and revisit.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Feature Creep: The Enemy of an In-House Developer

If you do in-house development then you probably have first-hand knowledge of feature creep. If you don't know what that is, or you haven't seen it happen, then I envy you. It's an ugly monster and the bane of my work. The problem is not limited to in-house developers; it is particularly acute in that environment, though.

This is because development cost is a taboo topic in most in-house development environments. The developers and their immediate management don't want to talk about it because they don't want to remind senior management that in-house development is expensive. Senior management is happy to ignore it because they crave the finite control, costs be damned. So a game is played to balance the quality of the product with costs, where the quality is generally lower than a prepackaged system and the cost is generally higher. In general, this works fine. It helps keep developers employed and management happy.

The real problems start as the customization culture trickles down the management chain. Depending on how vertical the structure of your company is, you may have dozens of management steps between the top and the developers. Typically, when software is not a primary focus of the company, your developers and their managers will be quite low on the org chart. This puts them at a disadvantage when dealing with almost any manager and makes saying no quite difficult.

Therein you have the perfect storm: A situation where discussion about cost is a taboo, but the number of powerful voices calling for increased cost is huge. It's worse yet, though. When management's focus is not on software but instead specifically on how to make software work for them (as in, each manager personally) there is often little to no concern about the cost of feature creep to usability. In fact, usability is typically not in a non-technical manager's vocabulary. Outside of the developer group no one cares about usability, and often inside the developer group it is neglected because of the notion that client doesn't care.

Unfortunately, even if the user thinks they don't care about usability they really do. The difference between great software and passable software is often usability. The difference between a truly happy client and a client who is merely happy that development is done is usually usability. Software is supposed to solve a problem, to help a user achieve a goal. If it is too difficult to use it creates more problems than it solves, or it hinders the users from achieving their goals. At that point it should be considered a failure, though reality shows that this rarely happens.

Failed development projects, whether they are recognized or not, are dangerous. They put developers on shaky ground. They cause managers to think of the taboo of their in-house development: cost. If they aren't thrilled with the product then they will be far more likely to consider whether it is worth the money. The only thing that keeps this from happening is that they are often too egotistical to admit failures, but eventually if feature creep continues they will come around. When they do they will externalize the failure to the development group, after all it is their job to make this software and if it's so much more expensive then it should be better, right?

Wrong. There is little connection between cost and quality in software. Devs don't dare tell a manager this, except maybe as a last resort. Lest he add things together and realize that he could put company resources to better use.

Of course, most developers actually do want to put resources to better use. With less pet projects on their plate most developers will try to automate processes to save the company money. They'll refine existing systems to make them more efficient. In this aspect, in-house developers yearn to be more like system and network administrators; if you can't tell I'm there then that means I'm doing my job. Occasionally they might venture off course to test some new technology or try to solve a particularly complex problem, but for the most part a dedicated in-house developer is happy with the sense of accomplishment that comes when he or she knows that their product made a truly positive impact.

Developers have a responsibility to fight against feature creep. Don't buy into the false mantra that your job is to do as you're told. Your job, at any level of any company, is to act in the company's interest. That means to be truthful about costs and try to help management make the right decisions. There is no room for complacency in this. Feature creep is the developer's enemy and it is our duty to fight.

Sunday, April 11, 2010


Politics around the healthcare debate have reached fairly epic levels recently. As the bill passed I've noticed a general mood among the people I know who are even remotely politically aware that is eerily similar to the mood before and immediately after the election. Moderate Republicans have all but shut up about things after passage, meanwhile the radical factions have gone completely bonkers. [Note: for some it was not a long journey.] Democrats were whipped up at the end, and they still have a feint elation about the entire ordeal, yet the pessimism that this administration is not liberal enough soon returned.

Granted, it has been my position that this administration is neither significantly more liberal or less liberal than President Obama promised as a candidate. I also believe that by the administration and congress whipping members into passing comprehensive health care reform, among various other acts that are done or in the works, they've been very productive. Between this and credit card reform alone, I'm very happy with the first year or so of this administration.

I'm not as happy with congressional Democrats, though. They seem almost completely inept at forming any sort of narrative or defending any of their actions. I can't think of the last time that a Democratic member of the legislative branch called out the revisionist history that the Republicans are selling. The history that says that tea partiers are the majority voice of the people (which only works if you look at racial demographics) while ignoring the historic victory that brought President Obama into the White House. The history that blames Obama for the recession, ignoring that the housing crisis started during the summer of '08, and the problems that led to our crappy economy were almost completely ignored by the previous administration and the ones before it. The history that calls out as offensive almost every presidential act that Obama performs, regardless of the bipartisan precedent of that act. The history that calls the obstructionist attitudes of Republicans - who are now voting against proposals identical to those they previously drafted - maverick and revolutionary. Why aren't our representatives fighting back at this? Why isn't anyone standing up to say, "Hey, that's a lie," or "This health care plan was good enough for you when you offered a nearly identical plan as an alternative to the Clinton health care legislation."?

I believe it is because we've let our Democrat representatives grow too soft. We've mistakenly believed that a sweeping victory for Democrats in two straight elections would give them the leverage necessary to make the progressive changes we desire. We were wrong. Not in our intentions, but in our judgment. We were led to believe in the majorities we gave, but these were false majorities propped up by numerous "independents" and "blue dog" Democrats. When the other side formed a narrative that the majority was dangerous, ignoring what previous majorities on their part had done, these groups of right-leaning politicians that caucus with the Democrats completely caved, and they took the rest of their caucus with them.

I propose that we frame a new narrative for the upcoming election. I believe we should challenge every one of these worthless "Democrats" from the left. We should be upset at their inaction, cowering and inability to properly represent the people who elected them. If the Republican have RINOs, then we should properly label these politicians DINOs. Democrat In Name Only. Also, because they tend to cling to an anti-progressive agenda that ignores civil rights movements over the last five decades, we can call them DINOsaurs. They're outdated and unwanted. When they lose their office we should let them know it is not because they leaned too far left, but because they leaned too far right and we could no longer support them. We don't need them in our caucus.

We should expect some losses come this November, but they will largely be these useless barnacles that do almost nothing to further our cause. Progressives need not lament, but instead become engaged. Good riddance to these people, let's work to replace them with someone useful.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Christie Guts Education

I was reading an article posted on Facebook about NJ Governor Christie's cuts to educational funding. Some of the responses seemed to cheer for Christie and these huge cuts, claiming that they were aimed squarely at corruption. This is a short version of my opinion on the topic. I think there's a lot of misconceptions on this issue:

Cutting funding for education isn't going after corruption. It's a blatant affront to public service. What corruption there is won't be so easily weeded out. But he and others like him are in favor of voucher systems and charter schools, this is an attack on the secular public schools in favor of private (and largely religious) private schools.

It's also an attack on the communities that need this most. If you look at the list of cuts the biggest (dollar wise) are in the neediest areas. Obviously Upper Saddle River schools will get by without an extra $300k, and they'll have an easier time finding a way to replace that money. Passaic and Paterson schools lost millions, and they'll have to cut innumerable services and jobs to make up for that. They cannot squeeze blood from a stone by raising local taxes enough to cover this. Indeed, even if they could Christie has made sure that's impossible because the cuts across the board are 5% or more and local municipalities are only allowed to raise property taxes enough to cover a 4% school budget increase.

But let's look at the corruption issue and charter schools. What makes anyone think charter schools are immune to corruption? Evidence points to as much or more corruption in charter schools. Let's use my hometown of Dayton, OH as an example. Faced with high unemployment and low tax revenues the city tried a charter school system that promised to cut costs and corruption. The result? Charter school owners took the money and ran, did not provide even half of the services they promised, and many of them have been shut down with their administrators indicted or sued by the city. Now the city's schools are in complete shambles and the system is bankrupt, bogged down with several lawsuits and scrambling to figure out what to do with children who no longer have schools.... See More

Instead of hearing failed stories like this we're presented with the stories of privileged children who excel in these schools. In upper-middle class areas where families have two parents and home life is easy. Areas where charter schools are easy to fund and likely to succeed, and there's little evidence that the public schools were failing. Areas where there is no need for after-school programs, or food assistance, allowing the schools to operate cheaply and at a profit.

Then there's the teachers. Do you think charter school teacher make so much less than public school teachers? Do you think public school teachers make so very much money? In NJ, one of the highest paying states for teachers in the country (but also one of the wealthiest states and among the highest cost of living), teachers make on average slightly more than the average college graduate. Those averages ignore the different types of degrees, for instance the math and science teachers are required to have degrees that would result in higher pay in the private sector. Also, those with postgraduate education are included in that average, and the average pay for those with masters degrees is $30k more per year than the average pay for teachers.

Suffice to say I think the data presented is often skewed, and there's such a huge focus on the benefits teachers get and the misinformation about their salaries. What Christie is doing is beyond the pale, some cuts were required but to simultaneously cut services for the poor and taxes for the rich is sickening. I have a very wealthy friend who is moving to CT. She's moving because the school system in Montclair is so bad.
We don't need to protect the rich, they aren't leaving the wealthy areas in any sort of worrying numbers.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


This morning Toyota made the much-anticipated announcement that it will recall another half million vehicles. This recall is far more telling than the last, though. This is a highly publicized recall for an issue that has caused no significant incidents. In other words, this is Toyota's first foray into the territory that GM and Ford have lived in for at least thirty years.

The question of the day is: will Toyota manage to control this incident and win back their overblown reputation? If they don't then we can trace their decline back to this moment. As soon as the CEO of Toyota made a public apology during a voluntary recall the game changed.

It's unclear now, but Toyota is in a precarious position. Both GM and Ford have managed to improve design and quality significantly over the last decade. Recent changes at GM should help to control costs. If the American manufacturers (aside from the seemingly doomed Chrysler) are able to salvage their reputations at a time when Toyota has lost its magic then the trend towards Japanese manufacturers could reverse. That's terrible news for Toyota.

It's also bad for Honda. Honda's fate is tied to Toyotas similarly to how any of the Big Three are tied to the others. Even though automobiles are built globally, with parts sourced from all over the world and final assembly increasing pushed closer to the point of sale*, the most important factor in a homogenized market is the perception of quality. Too often that perception is tied to the manufacturer's country of origin. "Japanese cars are better!" "This is German engineering!" And of course the fading murmur of "Buy American!" If the biggest Japanese manufacturer loses its believers its sure to change perceptions of a few Honda faithful.

The truth is that none of these things matter today. These safety recalls for Toyota should change nothing. Toyotas aren't less safe than they were yesterday, or a year ago. They merely experienced the inevitable when you're mass producing a complex machine that's designed to hurdle rank amateurs down roads filled with other amateurs at high speeds. Something will eventually go wrong; some obscure detail will cause a failure; and people will die.

For the record, I have little sympathy for some of the deaths related to the original recall. Especially for the California highway patrolman who let his Lexus speed out of control before wrecking at 120 MPH. Seriously? A police officer, one of the best trained drivers on our roads, didn't know to shift into neutral? Turn the car off? It's a shame he took his family with him but it's hard to fault Toyota when it's clear that the driver was lacking common sense.

*Translation: Japanese and American manufacturers source parts from the U.S. and overseas, and most cars they sell in the U.S. they assemble here.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Two Points Each, Mac and PC

This is part of a series of reprints from my classes. Once the class is over, I will lose these if I don't save them elsewhere. I've decided to post them here as they may be of some interest. This is from my Introduction to Information Systems class, which I was too lazy to test out of.

Advantages of a Mac:
  1. Compatibility. While the general thinking is that Windows machines have the most software and the world works on Windows, so you can do anything in it, I believe this is a short sighted non-technical viewpoint. The reality is that Microsoft makes very little attempt to support standard formats, instead they spend time developing their own formats which then become de facto standards. Despite Microsoft’s practice of stunting compatibility using patents and copyright claims, Mac owners enjoy the ability to open most file formats without the need for additional software. Windows users have to install third party applications to open standard formats such as PDF.

  2. “It just works.” When Mac users say this they aren’t talking about the lack of viruses and other malicious programs. They’re talking about usability, compatibility, and stability. Due largely to Apple’s software and hardware philosophies, Mac owners enjoy a relatively hassle free experience. The interface is highly consistent and few developers of software for Macs stray from the conventions. Apple’s control of the hardware means few driver issues ever arise. Their design standards for the hardware add another element of usability. Once you learn to use OS X you rarely have to think about it, it just works.

Advantages of a PC:
  1. Ubiquity. Microsoft was able to grab the business market. This is the true key to their success, without the exposure and indoctrination of millions via the workplace the home computer revolution of the 90’s would not have been possible. Now that everyone knows how to use Windows they find themselves confused by the design differences between the PC and the Mac, which can make short stints on a Mac frustrating. Also, since the market share is so skewed in favor of Windows the impetus is on users of other operating systems to make sure that Windows users can interact with their content. This is a distinct advantage for Microsoft and to some extent the users of its OS. While Microsoft is free to create file formats like WMA with limited implementations outside of Windows, other vendors are not afforded such a luxury, and the users don’t have to worry about receiving a deliverable in a format they can’t open.

  2. Availability. Windows is also highly available, and so are the devices on which it runs. You can get a Windows PC easily and cheaply. The lack of vendor lock-in for hardware means that manufacturers are able to race to the bottom on price. This means that Windows PCs are available to a wider audience and they are infinitely configurable.