Stewardship or possession?

What’s the healthier, saner way to view that which have or enjoy?

Should you regard it as a possession or should you see yourself as a steward of it? What’s the better long-term approach to these matters? Join me for a (non-religious) discussion of the subject in this video. I’ll talk about various topics related directly to this subject, such as the relationship between husband and wife, one’s home, business and other “possessions”, such as cars, furniture, clothes, etc.

I hope this helps you!

Unscrupulous customer care at Apple

This is one of those posts I don’t enjoy writing but this must be said.

I have a mid-2011 27″ iMac (with AppleCare). It has now broken down three times for the very same problem (its video card goes bad). Other things on it also broke down, like the SuperDrive.

Bottom line: Apple has refused to replace it, although I’ve asked them twice. I think they’re just trying to kick the ball down the road until AppleCare expires. This isn’t the first time, they did it to me with another iMac.

Section 3.1 in the AppleCare agreement says the following:

“Apple will either (a) repair the defect at no charge, using new or refurbished parts that are equivalent to new in performance and reliability, or (b) exchange the Covered Equipment with a replacement product that is new or equivalent to new in performance and reliability, and is at least functionally equivalent to the original product.”

Notice they’re giving no clear rules about when they’ll replace it, although when you speak with Apple technicians, they’ll say three times is when it happens. It’s been three times for me and still no replacement. Not specifying when a defective computer must get replaced in the AppleCare Terms of Service gives Apple lots of backpedaling room, so they can delay that expense as much as possible, perhaps until AppleCare expires.

Here’s what makes this unscrupulous and unacceptable from my point of view:

  • They did this to me before with my iMac G5 (Rev. B). Those of you who owned that computer know it had a lot of issues; most often, its motherboard went bad and needed to be replaced. The board on that iMac broke down three times during its AppleCare coverage. It was in the shop for other issues as well: the Super Drive, the Bluetooth module, the WiFi module, fan speed issues (fans would go on high and stay there permanently). The motherboard broke down for the third time a month or two before AppleCare expired. They fixed it but refused to replace it. Then it broke down a few months after AppleCare expired and by then, it wasn’t their problem anymore.
  • It’s unconscionable for an Apple computer to break down in such a major way, repeatedly, after a little more than a year of use, which is when the problems with my current iMac started. Imagine where I’d be if I hadn’t bought AppleCare for this thing. It’d be sitting in my attic alongside my iMac G5. Essentially, I would have paid about $2,000 (after taking out tax and cost of AppleCare) for a computer that would have lasted a little more than a year. How shoddy was Apple’s quality control when this computer was made?
  • When the video card in my iMac broke down a second time, I was promised by a technician from Apple’s Advanced Support department, that when it happened for a third time, I’d get a replacement. Now they tell me his promise wasn’t documented in the case history so it doesn’t count. Perhaps the technician lied to me at the time to delay the replacement.
  • I’ve been an Apple customer since 1994, when I bought a PowerBook 150, my first Apple notebook. I’ve bought plenty of Apple stuff since then. Is this the way they’re treating long-time customers?
  • Apple has been putting me through all this unpleasantry right around my birthday. They have my birthday on file. No comment here.
  • Apple is one of the richest, if not the richest, companies on earth. They ought to be treating their customers right, because it’s because of them that they are where they are. It’s the right thing to do and they have the wherewithal to do it.

I wrote to Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO. No response from him, but a few days later, I was contacted by one of the people at Apple Executive Relations EMEIA in Cork, Ireland. I thought my situation would then be handled properly. No, just insincere apologies and a refusal to replace it. I wrote to Tim Cook again. No response, instead more of the same from Apple Executive Relations in Ireland. That confirmed it for me: you know what they say, a fish starts to stink from the head down. It looks to me like he’s instructed his people to do everything possible not to replace computers, even when they should be replaced. What other conclusion can I draw but this?

I was asked to accept the repair one last time and was promised that my iMac would get replaced for sure the next time its video card broke down. I asked the woman with whom I spoke to put that promise in writing. She refused point blank. I assume this was yet another lie from Apple to delay the replacement. What else can I assume when a person won’t put their promise in writing?

What complicates matters somewhat in my situation is that I bought the iMac in the States but have since transported it to Romania, which is where we spend some of our time. I can take it into an authorized Apple Repair shop and AppleCare covers its repairs there, so technically, replacements should also work. Not that this is a problem. I’ve told Apple they can ship the replacement to my US address. But I think what’s happening here is that they’re using geography and customs complications as an excuse not to replace my computer.

What should have happened is this: Apple should have replaced my current iMac, no questions asked. And out of embarrassment because of the way they handled the repairs on my iMac G5, they should have offered to at least repair it, if not replace it with its modern-day iMac counterpart.

The AppleCare agreement also says this:

For consumers in jurisdictions who have the benefit of consumer protection laws or regulations, the benefits conferred by the above mentioned plans are in addition to all rights and remedies provided under such laws and regulations. Nothing in this plan shall prejudice consumer rights granted by applicable mandatory laws, including consumer’s right to the remedies under statutory warranty law and to seek damages in the event of total or partial non-performance or inadequate performance by Apple of any of its contractual obligations.

Apple is currently in breach of EU/Romanian consumer protection laws on at least two counts, by my understanding:

  1. European/Romanian consumer protection laws mandate that repairs be made with new parts, not refurbished parts. Apple technicians, including the people from Apple Executive Relations, have admitted that they’ve been using refurbished parts to fix my iMac until now, and only this last time have they used a new replacement video card. The woman from Apple Executive Relations Ireland said that to me during one of our phone conversations… So they’ve been in breach on this point from the get-go.
  2. European/Romanian consumer protection laws further mandate that the customer must be offered the choice of a replacement or repair. The choice rests with them, not with Apple. I asked for a replacement, didn’t get it, they’re in breach of the law.

Since I bought my iMac in Florida, I also put in a request for assistance with the Office of the Attorney General there and I’ll see what they say. If any of you reading this are knowledgeable on the matter, please chime in.

I’d like to quote from a recent ad campaign from Apple. Keep in mind the things you’ve just read above as you see what they’re saying:

This is it.
This is what matters.
The experience of a product.
How it makes someone feel.

Will it make life better?

We spend a lot of time
On a few great things.

How am I supposed to feel after the way you’ve just treated me, Apple? Would you say that you’ve made my life better?

Couple this self-congratulatory ad piece with Tim Cook’s stating during the WWDC Keynote that Apple is #1 in Customer Satisfaction and that it “means so much” to him. If this stuff means so much to Apple, they wouldn’t be doing this to me (and who knows to how many others).

There will probably be some comments about switching to another platform. This isn’t about that. I love my Apple hardware and software. It’s just that quality control seems to be going down the drain and Apple execs seem to be in risk management mode. Apple computers have traditionally been about two things: design and quality. That’s what I’ve been paying for when I bought Apple products. Now it seems they’re about one thing: design.

I want to make it clear that I think what’s now happened to me twice is not the norm of my experience with Apple; that’s why I still buy Apple products. For example:

  • The Powerbook 150 I bought in 1994 lasted about 6 years before the hard drive went bad; if I fix it, I might even be able to boot it up and use it today,
  • The 15″ MacBook Pro I bought in 2008 is still going strong; along the way, I replaced the hard drive and the two cooling fans, but I can still edit HD video on it,
  • The iMac I advised my parents to buy in 2008 is also still going strong. It had a couple of minor issues but they occurred while it was still covered by AppleCare,
  • The 13″ MacBook we bought in 2008 still works; although the video conks out every once in a while, a reboot sets it straight, and
  • My experience with Apple software has been positive from the get-go; I’ve always found it to be stable, a joy to use and easy to live with.

I suppose whatever happened to my two iMacs was inevitable as their volume increased (making more of everything means there will be also be more manufacturing defects) but the way they’re choosing to handle the situation reminds me of PC companies, and I don’t think Apple shareholders and customers want to see it go down that road.

Still, if that’s what’s in the cards for Apple and their stuff is going to become less and less reliable, then I guess they’ll have to convince their customers to buy their stuff for looks alone and for the real work, people might have to build Hackintoshes, where they’ll get to use the Apple software they love and get the reliability, serviceability and upgradeability that we should be getting directly from Apple. With a Hackintosh, we won’t need to pay extra for AppleCare, which now appears to be a band-aid that tides you over with refurbished parts for the three contractual years only to have your computer break down soon afterward. Planned obsolescence and a price premium? Is that the Apple way?

My take-home message for Tim Cook and Apple: this isn’t the way you should be doing business.

At the office

Here are a few photos of objects around my office, taken a few years ago. One of the photos has the exact date and time when it was taken written on it, but not in the typical way, where the camera imprints the text in the corner. I’ll let you see it for yourselves. Enjoy!

See the ColdFusion handbook in this photo? ColdFusion (by itself, without the Java layer recently shoehorned into it by Adobe) was and is the best programming language. It’s so high-level that a few lines of code can do what would otherwise take pages of low-level code in other languages. I find that very elegant.

Nokia: from a bright past to a dim future?

A few months ago I bought a Nokia X3-02 “Touch and Type” cellphone, and I’m sorry to say that I’m disappointed with it. I’ve been gradually let down by it over time, and in the end, it’s just not what I’d hoped it would be. In the store, I was dazzled by its small, thin design (I love thin phones). I loved its metal shell as well. It felt the proper weight as it sat in my hand.

After I took it home, I started to see the defects. This was a brand new phone mind you, and already one of its clamshell latches (on the back) refused to close properly. And the more I used its touch screen, the less I liked it. I’m accustomed to working with quality touch devices like the ones on the iPod Touch, the iPad and the Magic Trackpad. The touch screen on the Nokia X3 is just not as good. It feels like a sad, cheap imitation of a great original.

Granted, this is Nokia’s first touch-and-type device, as they say in their intro video for the phone.

But they have other touch screen devices in their product line-up. They’ve had time to perfect their touch screens. Why launch a phone with an inferior touch screen?

Once you ask that question, then you have to ask a bunch of other questions as well:

  • Why are they using so many versions of their operating systems on their phones?
  • Can they come up with common design elements and aesthetics on their phones, to make them seem like they’re part of the same product line-up? Because right now, if you were to look across the whole Nokia line-up, you wouldn’t know all the phones are from the same company unless you looked at the logo.
  • Can they reduce their product line-up to something more manageable? Why have a gazillion phones? What’s the point of that? I understand the need for targeting products at various audiences and at different price points, but do you need tens/hundreds of phones to do that? Why not have at most 10 phones in the line-up?
  • Why launch the phones with lackluster features? As an example, the X3 has a 5 megapixel camera, but it’s a sad facsimile of the 5 megapixel camera on my old Nokia N95, which was launched in 2007. And there are less in-software options available on the phone, so it’s even harder to get better photos out of the camera. It also doesn’t have a flash.

Another thing I quickly discovered about the X3 is its annoying sleekness. Normally, a sleek phone is a good thing, but somehow, the X3 has the annoying characteristic of being very likely to slip out of your hand. You’re afraid to hold it by its top half, because you’ll press the on-screen buttons. You can’t hold it by its lower side, because that’s where the keypad is. So you hold it by the sides, but they’re rounded and thin, so the phone slips right out of your hand and falls to the ground. To its credit, it’s pretty sturdy and unless it’s going to fall on bare concrete, it’ll probably be fine, but the design was not well tested before it was launched.

Another problem which I discovered, and I’m not sure if this happens on just my phone or on all the Nokia X3 phones, is a software bug that lets the built-in @Mail application access the internet when the phone is on a WiFi connection, but will not let it access the internet over WAP or GPRS. I’ve sent the phone in for service and it remains to be seen what Nokia will do with it (if anything).

I can’t help comparing the phone with my Nokia N95, which as I mentioned above, was launched in 2007.

I bought it in 2008, brand new, unlocked, and have been using it ever since. I’ve used it, by my count, on four different mobile networks, one in the US and three in Romania. It worked just fine on all of them, did what it was supposed to do and it has served me well. I’ve recorded more video and shot more photos with it than I remember, and some of those videos and photos came out quite nicely. I still use it today, though it’s now my backup phone.

The N95 is Nokia at its best (for its time). It was compatible with a ton of cell networks, was even capable of 3G speeds, could use WiFi networks, had a 5 megapixel camera with a built-in flash, a ton of options for manipulating the photo software, recorded video at 640×480 resolution in stereo sound, it could play music and movies, it had Bluetooth, Infrared and USB 2.0 connections, it could use MicroSD cards, it had a second camera for video calls or video conferencing and best of all (for me) was the ability to sync it with my Mac using iSync and tether it to my MBP via Bluetooth.

The only things I didn’t like about the N95 were its operating system, which was (still is) a bit wonky, and the incredibly expensive apps (at the time) on the Nokia (now known as Ovi) Store.

Fast forward four years, and what has Nokia done since then? The software for their phones is still wonky and still looks the same, I’m still confused about where to find certain phone or system options when I look for them, their new phones still only have 5 megapixel cameras (some still sell with 2 megapixel cameras, like my wife’s new C3), most of their phones record almost unusable 3gp video with crappy sound (the X3 is a prime example) instead of mp4 or mov files, and I’m sure I could keep adding to this litany of complaints if I tried. Meanwhile, other phone manufacturers are doing unbelievable things with their phones.

One other thing comes to mind: Nokia Maps. In recent years, Nokia keeps advertising this app and the fact that their maps are free, but what they fail to mention is they’re not really usable. Sure, the maps are free. You can download them from the Nokia website at any time. But the maps are no good without an extra internet option on your phone’s monthly plan, and more importantly, you also have to pay extra in order to get the driving instructions (the voice guidance files and the step-by-step turns). So really, all the maps are good for is to give you general guidance about your whereabouts. But they won’t tell you how to get to your destination unless you pay more. Sure, you could futz around with your mobile phone, zoom in and out of the maps and eventually figure out how to get there, but that’s not going to be possible if you’re driving.

To be fair, I haven’t used today’s equivalent of the N95, which would be the N8 (or the E7). How much do you want to bet the Maps app has the same shortcomings on those devices as well? They’re supposed to be better. Unfortunately for them, they’re still using the Symbian OS, which from my experience is wonky and ill-organized, as mentioned above. I’ve heard Nokia plans to launch a new smartphone this year that uses a new and better OS. We’ll see how that works out.

There is a saving grace for Nokia though. Do you know what my favorite phone right now is? I’m using it and I love it. It’s the Nokia E63. Yes, I know it’s old, and it’s actually a hand-me-down phone (I bought it for my wife about 1 1/2 years ago), but I love it.

It’s got a surprising amount of options (if you keep digging through the OS screens). The camera is only 2 megapixels and the video camera only records at 320×240 pixels, but as far as the rest is concerned, it has the same options as my Nokia N95, and it has the incredible bonus of an actual keyboard. Of course, I can sync it to my Mac, just like the N95 (and unlike the X3, which still has no official sync plugin).

I never realized until now how useful an actual keyboard is on a phone. Sure, the virtual keyboard on an iPod Touch or iPhone is nice, but there’s something wonderful about pressing actual rounded buttons. I was so frustrated with buttoning on keypads and using predictive text (which sucks for anything other than simple messages). Now I can easily send emails and text messages from my phone at any time. It’s made my communication so much easier!

As a matter of fact, do you know what our current phone line-up is? It’s this: a Nokia E63, a Samsung Ch@t GT-C3222 and a Nokia C3. Notice something common across all of them? They all have keyboards. I think the Nokia keyboards are better designed. The buttons have rounded edges so it’s easier to press them. But there’s no mistaking the productivity gain from having an actual keyboard on a phone.

So what’s the point I’m trying to make? The point is this: phones with keyboards are awesome. Nokia should focus on them. If they’ve got to use their kludgy old Symbian OS, then simplify it and put it on nice phones with nice keyboards and nice cameras. That will work well and won’t disappoint. And if Nokia’s bent on imitating Apple and putting touch screens on their phones, they should work on the quality of those touch screens. They should make sure they’re just as good or better than what Apple’s got. I know that’s a hard standard to beat, but if they shoot for that, they’ll probably end up with 80% of what Apple’s got in terms of touch screen functionality, and that’ll do just fine.

I’ll end on a final note, with a pet peeve of mine. If all these phones from Nokia have Nokia Maps and access geo satellites, why in the world aren’t they geotagging the photos I take with them? This has been bothering me ever since I bought the N95. It started as a nagging wish on the back burner, but now it’s a full blown pain in the derriere kind of thing. The iPhone’s doing it. Now consumer-grade digital cameras, cheap ones, come with built-in GPS chips. Here Nokia’s had this in their phones for 4 years or more, and they still haven’t bothered to do it right. It’s not even a hardware upgrade. It’s just a software upgrade that checks for an internet connection, goes out, gets the geo coordinates when the camera app is activated, and applies them to the photos. And if there’s no internet connection, then the photos don’t get geotagged. How hard can it be? Sadly, this is yet another example of Nokia’s inefficiency.

How to watch Netflix from abroad

At the start of 2009, when I left the US to spend most of the year abroad, I was an avid Netflix subscriber, and I looked forward to being one even as I lived abroad. There was a loophole in the Netflix protocols which allowed my wife and I to watch movies from outside the US (see this post), but they plugged it very quickly — within three days after I wrote about it.

I was, needless to say, very disappointed. Here I was, a US citizen, with a US mailing address, a US bank account and a US credit card, wanting to watch movies legally instead of downloading them from torrent websites, not able to do it, just because my IP address happened to be from another country. This was not fair. I cancelled my subscription. In hindsight, my anger was unnecessary. The situation is probably a result of certain stipulations in their contracts with the movie studios.

Still, there’s obviously a need for a legal way to watch movies online, right? And until Netflix (or another company) decides to open up their servers to paying customers from all over the world (which I hear might happen), here’s how to watch Netflix from abroad, right now.

You’ll need:

  1. A US credit card and a US mailing address. If you’re from the US but you happen to be abroad, great, you’re in luck, because you probably still have both of these. If you’re not from the US, see if you can make some arrangements with friends in the US.
  2. A VPN connection that will give you a US IP address, or a DNS Proxy Service subscription which will make Netflix and other US streaming sites think you’re based in the US. 
  3. A computer that’s compatible with Netflix Streaming. At this time, I believe only Mac and Windows computers can do it. The last time I tried it, a Linux machine wasn’t compatible. You could get a Netflix-compatible device or media appliance but if you want to keep things simple, stick with a computer.

That’s all you’ll need.

The DNS Proxy Service is a fairly new offering and is, in my opinion, the easiest way to configure your device to watch Netflix from abroad, without installing any additional software or configuring a custom VPN connection. You simply change the DNS servers for your network card (see these instructions).

Now let me talk a bit about the VPN service. In the two years I’ve spent abroad, I’ve used two services: AceVPN and HideMyNet. I’m currently using HideMyNet for my VPN service, and I’ve been using them for the past four months. Both cost about the same, but from my experience, HideMyNet has faster, more reliable service.

I started out with AceVPN but after several months, I started getting a lot of buffering messages when watching Netflix (you know, where you wait for it to load up the movie). It would take minutes, sometimes 5-10 minutes to load up a movie, and toward the end of my subscription with them, the movie would stop playing multiple times as we watched it, and we had to wait for it to rebuffer. It was annoying, particularly when the movie stopped playing during a gripping scene. Who knows, perhaps they were experiencing growing pains or temporary issues with their servers…

Out of the blue, the folks from HideMyNet contacted me to see if I wanted to try their service and write about it. Disclaimer: they offered me a 1-year subscription to give an honest opinion about their service. I told them I would, but that I’d need to try out their service thoroughly before I spoke about it, and if I found anything negative, I was going to reveal that as well. That was back in April of this year. It’s now August, four months later, and after all this time, I can definitely recommend them.

I do have a few pieces of advice for you:

  • If you’re not sure how to set up a VPN connection as L2TP or PPTP on your Mac, go with OpenVPN and Tunnelblick. Check out their setup instructions for the details. If you’re on Windows, setting up an L2TP connection is super easy and takes only a few minutes.
  • Make sure to ask their Tech Support which of their servers would be faster for you. Here’s some general advice I got from them on this issue: “Generally you want to connect to whichever server is closest to you [geographically]. If you’re in the EU you should try our DC and NYC servers. If you’re in Asia you should try the Seattle or LA servers. If you’re in South America you should try the Dallas and LA servers.” 
  • They currently have a limit of two simultaneously connected devices, so keep that in mind. I believe Netflix has the same limit, but if you were, for example, watching Netflix on one computer and browsing the internet on another, both through their VPN service, you wouldn’t be able to, for example, connect a third device (computer or phone) through the VPN service until you disconnected one of other two.

So there you have it. That’s how you can watch Netflix from abroad. It’s simple, it’s easy and it’s legal.

On a side note, I can’t understand why movie studios prefer to hang on to costly and outdated ways of distributing content, and thus encourage piracy, instead of promoting lower-cost, easily available methods of renting or purchasing their content, for any customer, anywhere. There are many people who would rather pay than use torrents, but the cost is either too high, or there’s no way to pay even if they wanted to. Thank goodness for VPN technology, otherwise I’d start thinking about using the torrents as well.

A long commute may push you toward divorce

I’ve been a proponent for telecommuting for years, and I’m glad to see more proof — such as this article, which presents research from Sweden, where they’ve found that long commutes (around 45 minutes) make you 40% more likely to divorce, and also re-inforce gender-based stereotypes, where the man will usually have the better job and do the long commutes, while the woman is forced to take a lower-paying job closer to home.

According to the study, 11 percent of Swedes have a journey to work that consists of a 45-minute commute or longer. Many commuters have small children and are in a relationship. Most are men.

The risk of divorce goes up by 40 percent for commuters and the risk is the highest in the first few years of commuting.

And more Swedes are travelling farther distances to work.

“The trend is definitely pointing upward. Both the journey to work and the working hours are getting longer, “ Sandow told The Local.

The study was based on statistical data from two million Swedish households between 1995 and 2000.

This article in The Economist echoes the research, and offers additional arguments:

Ms Lowrey ends up running through the whole litany of traditional commuter complaints—that it makes us fat, stresses us out, makes us feel lonely, and literally causes pain in the neck—and finds research to prove that the moaners are, more often than not, right. “People who say, ‘My commute is killing me!’ are not exaggerators,” she concludes: “They are realists.”

This of course is in addition to the arguments I’ve already put forth in the past, such as in this article offering reasons for telecommuting, or this article about reducing waste in business operations.

It’s no surprise broadband internet sucks in the US

A recent Akamai survey, which I shared here and here, ranked US in the 33rd spot (globally) when it came to broadband internet connections above 2 Mbps. Sure, it moved up two spots compared to last year, but it’s still lagging behind countries such as Monaco, Slovakia, South Korea, and believe it or not, Romania — which is where I’m living these days.

That’s sad. It’s very sad because a country such as Romania, with fewer resources than the US, and with a LOT more corruption at every level, has managed to provide better Internet services than the US. It just goes to show you how much pork barrel legislation and ridiculous lobbying can slow down an entire country’s Internet access. Why, every time a company tried to improve the way broadband worked in the US, it was eventually bought out or dragged down and kept down for the count.

Remember Telocity? It was one of the first companies to offer DSL service in the US, ahead of Ma Bell. Even though it was paying hefty amounts of money for the right to transport Internet traffic on Ma Bell’s lines, they had enormous problems with the same Ma Bell, due to problems that would somehow just happen to crop up on the same wires or the switching equipment. Then they’d have to pay more money so Ma Bell could fix their own equipment, which they’d say Telocity broke, etc., ad nauseam, and so on and so forth.

That’s just one example. Another was the more recent push to restructure the way cable services are provided (both TV and internet). One of the efforts was the a-la-carte programming initiative, and another was the push for faster and more reliable cable Internet services. You wouldn’t believe the advertising, PR and lobbying blitz the cable industry started and kept up for several months — actually, I’m fairly sure you saw their ads on TVs and buses everywhere, particularly in the Washington, DC area.

Or what about when they got together in late 2007 and 2008 to ask for an Internet tax? Remember the tiers of traffic they wanted to create? They wanted all the big websites to pay them for the traffic, as if they weren’t already getting enough money from the customers for their slow and unreliable services. They also wanted large chunks of money from the federal government in order to upgrade their infrastructure. No matter how much money they make, they’re so greedy they always want more, more, more.

What I’d like to know is how all these other countries, including Romania, can manage to offer faster and more reliable Internet services without asking for money from their countries’ government, without charging big websites for their traffic, and also by charging less per month for better broadband? How is that possible? Could it be that these companies actually know how to run their businesses while their counterparts in the US are filled with lazy, greedy idiots?

I still vividly remember an incident which happened while I was a director of IT at a Florida hospital, several years ago. A BellSouth technician had been called in to check the phone boards, and my network and servers kept going down and coming back up. The Medical Records system kept giving errors when employees wanted to access forms to fill in patient data, not to mention that other network services, like file sharing and printing, kept going on the fritz. I checked every one of the servers and they were fine. I finally walked into the switch room, at my wits’ end, only to find the moronic BellSouth employee with his fat, lazy butt on our UPS, jiggling it back and forth as he chatted with someone back at BellSouth HQ, plugging and unplugging the power supply that fed one of the main network switches. I went ballistic, grabbed him by the collar and threw him out of my switch room. Was he that stupid that he didn’t know where he was sitting? Was he such a pig that he couldn’t feel the plugs underneath him as he sat on them? He didn’t even want to apologize for taking out an entire hospital’s network during daytime hours. That’s BellSouth for you.

I don’t know how the US can get better broadband, unless it’s legislated. An ultimatum must be given by the government, one that can’t be overridden by any lobbyists or CEOs shedding crocodile tears in front of Congress. These companies simply will not get their act together until they, too, are grabbed by their collars and shaken about. They’ve gotten used to the status quo, they like it, and they’re clinging to it with all their might.

Meanwhile, here’s a sample of the Internet plans you can get in Romania right now. For comparison purposes, 1 Euro is worth about $1.4 these days.

Romtelecom (the main phone carrier, provides ADSL services):

  • 2 Mbps, 2084 kbps/512 kbps, 4.88 Euro/month
  • 4 Mbps, 4096 kbps/512 kbps, 7.02 Euro/month
  • 6 Mbps, 6144 kbps/512 kbps, 9.40 Euro/month
  • 8 Mbps, 8192 kbps/768 kbps, 14.16 Euro/month
  • 20 Mbps, 20480 kbps/1024 kbps, 24.87 Euro/month

[source]

Birotec (provides fiber optic services, all plans include phone line with varying amount of minutes based on plan price):

  • 3 Mbps up/down, 10 Euro/month
  • 4 Mbps up/down, 15 Euro/month
  • 6 Mbps up/down, 20 Euro/month
  • 8 Mbps up/down, 29 Euro/month
  • 10 Mbps up/down, 49 Euro/month

[source]

RDS (provides fiber optic, cable, cellular modem and dial-up access — prices not readily available on website):

  • Fiber optic access up to 2.5 Gbps
  • Cable access up to 30 Mbps

[source]

The lowest internet access plan in Romania is 2 Mbps. Cellular modems are advertised at speeds up to 3 Mbps. Meanwhile, in the US, you can still find 512 Kbps plans at prices twice or three times as much as the 2 Mbps plans in Romania. That’s the price of complacency and excessive lobbyism.

Signs of overpopulation

Signs of overpopulation are virtually everywhere — and can even be seen when it comes to the basics of life, like food and shelter. Besides the obvious signs, like crowded cities and roads, and rampant consumption of our natural resources, there are other signs that may or may not be readily apparent, depending on your outlook.

First, let’s have a look at the current world population. As I write this, the figure stands at well over 6.7 billion people. Given people’s reproduction habits, particularly in developing countries, and the fact that population growth goes virtually unchecked, thanks to our being the dominant species on earth, with no natural predators of any kind, how many more hungry mouths do you think our planet can support, particularly when most people’s diet consists of meats instead of vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains and other plants?

Housing

Have you thought about housing lately? Those of you who read my articles regularly know how worked up I am about the flimsy plywood boxes they build and call houses in the US these days, and for good reason. But, other than greed, why is it that houses nowadays are built with a 30-50 year span in mind? Even important buildings are built for only 100-year life spans. In the past, buildings were made to last several hundred years or even thousands of years, and certainly many of them still stand, centuries and millennia later. Some say it’s because tastes change with each generation, and there’s no reason to build something for a longer lifespan when it’s only going to get torn down. Perhaps. Then again, Roman and Greek architecture is still in fashion, entire millennia after it was laid out in stone.

Could it be that cost is being used to drive people toward cheaper and flimsier building methods? Have you checked to see what it costs to build your house out of stone or bricks, with nice ceramic roof tiles? And have you stopped to consider if there can be enough building materials out there to build everything, for everyone, out of thick, solid rock or brick? It’s not feasible or sustainable. We’d have to grind down a lot of mountains and dig up countless valleys, and we still wouldn’t have enough raw materials to satisfy demand. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt the pocketbooks of those who produce and distribute the building materials if the cost is higher…

Wood

How about timber? One statistic puts the rate of deforestation (for rainforests) at three football fields per second. That’s only the rainforests, mind you, not the temperate forests, which contain most of the hardwoods that are used for construction. The history of the eurasian temperate forests is a sob story onto its own. The thing is, trees regenerate at a much slower rate than current demands dictate. At the end of the day, there simply aren’t enough trees in the world.

I’ve seen what deforested land looks like, and it’s a sad sight. It’s full of stumps and clumps and roots and holes, and it looks like it’s been through war. I’ve seen entire mountainsides in Romania and elsewhere cleared of trees, mindlessly, putting the people in the valleys at risk for avalanches and mudslides and rock falls.

Very few timber companies obey the rules once they’re left to their own devices on the land. They’ll clear the trees out with no thought for tomorrow or for the life of the forest. They simply don’t care what happens after they’ve made their money. What they do is to provide a momentary abundance of wood and a long-term lack of supply, matched by increasing demand. Sadly, we’re currently in the long-term lack of supply part of history, while demand is still increasing.

Cost is once again being used to drive people to flimsier wood, if you can even call it wood. Most furniture you can buy nowadays is not made out of wood, but out of pressed wood pulp — basically, bits of all kinds of crappy wood stuck together with glue and pressed together into boards. You just try buying some furniture made out of real, solid wood — that is, if you can afford it.

On one hand, I’m disgusted by this, and on the other hand, it’s logical. In order to use trees economically, you have to use them in their entirety, even their bark. You can’t afford to only get a few good, solid planks out of a tree trunk. You have to grind it down with its bark and branches, turn it into pulp, then glue it together to get particle boards. That way you get a lot more “planks” out of a tree, and you can build more stuff out of it.

Unfortunately, companies are really cheapening out on particle boards. They’re using less glue, which means the boards will start to fall apart when put through normal use, and they’re churning out thinner boards that can’t carry any amount of significant weight. This means you can’t use your bookshelves to hold books or any sort of significant weight, and the doors on your new closet stand a pretty good chance of falling off after a few months, because the screws that hold the hinges and door handles in place can’t grip the fake wood and start slipping out. To add insult to injury, even if you manage to keep your “new” furniture in decent shape, you can’t move with it. Furniture these days will fall apart or get really wobbly if only moved around the house, much less moved around the state or the country. It’s just not made to last.

Food

What can I tell you here? It’s a mess. On the one hand, you have people who are doing the right things, like eating healthy, organic foods, and on the other hand, you have the majority of the population out there, who’s happy eating meats, drinking their sodas, and snacking on all sorts of crap food made with fillers and artificial substances and colorants and test-tube flavors. And why not, right? It’s cheaper to make that crap, cheaper to transport it and to distribute it to people, and there’s more profit in that than in healthy fruits and vegetables, which spoil. Artificial crap pumped full of preservatives doesn’t spoil. It can still be sold and turn a profit months down the road. You can’t do that with an organic apple. What’s good for the corporations in this case is also good for overpopulation. It’s much easier and more profitable to distribute crap food to lots and lots of people than it is to stock them with real food.

What’s also happening is that our food chain is being hijacked. There are several large corporations out there bent on producing genetically modified foods. The benefits quoted to the public sound good on the surface, but they’re not real. The only real benefit is to their bank accounts. You see, what they’re doing is destroying the seeds’ capability to generate life. Each new crop made from their seeds is unable to germinate. Farmers have to turn to those same corporations each year and buy the seeds, and the fertilizers and pesticides made for those seeds in order to get new crops. In essence, they have once again been enslaved, become serfs, not to medieval lords, but to corporate executives.

We, on the other hand, have become a large experiment for the long-term effects of genetically modified foods. What really gets my goose is this: how dumb do you have to be to realize that it’s not good to mess with seeds, and with their God-given right to germinate and yield new life? What sort of devilish greed runs through your veins and blinds you so much that you don’t realize that by destroying the life-giving properties of seeds, you have set yourself up for a major food supply disaster? When you’re a single point of failure in a big, global food chain, you’d better believe you’ll fail at some point, and everyone will suffer as a result of your stupidity.

I also don’t buy the recent food safety measures the White House is talking up. I think they’re really just double talk for pushing the small farmers out of the marketplace, through heaps and heaps of regulations and hoops they have to jump through. I think the goal is to make the process so onerous that only those with deep pockets will be able to afford to reach the marketplace, and once again, that will allow the large corporations that already control most of the food chain to gain more of a foothold just when things were looking brighter.

What about the famines in Africa? For decades, there have been famines in Africa. And there have been efforts to “eradicate” those famines for those very same decades, yet we still have famines. What’s really being done about it? Not much. I know this will sound cruel, but, hypothetically speaking, if you could somehow control the situation, why do something effective about those famines when you’ll only be contributing to an already out of control overpopulation?

Each year, tons and tons of corn and wheat are destroyed in the US because selling them would mess up the commodity markets. Those same tons of grains could go to Africa, or to other places where they’re needed, couldn’t they? Say they could get there through the benefit of some aid societies. Unfortunately, most of that aid still wouldn’t make it to the people. It would make it to the warehouses of the corrupt people in charge of those countries, where it would get re-distributed among those who prop up the same corrupt regimes.

Wars

While we have no more global wars — thank God for that — we do have little wars these days, and they manage to wipe out undisclosed numbers of people each time. Yet, somehow, with all our modern census methods and computers, we still can’t seem to figure out just how many people get killed in these wars.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t it the mission of the UN and NATO to stop wars? Let me quote you the primary reason for the existence of the UN, right from their charter:

“To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace”

And yet, with all of those heads of state gathered together, and with all of that clout and power, all that the UN really does is talk — nothing more but empty talk. It and NATO send peacekeeping forces to the regions where wars occur, but almost always, those forces are puny compared with what’s needed, and they have no teeth. They do nothing except stand by while the killing and raping occurs miles or even furloughs away. That’s incomprehensible.

Do you honestly think that wars cannot be stopped or dictators toppled? These things can happen very quickly through the use of spies and elite forces. You don’t need to take out entire armies, only their leaders and key points in their logistical structure. But if you did that, then certain corporations and governments couldn’t profit from all those weapons they get to sell to various governments, and that would be a disaster, wouldn’t it?

Medicine

We have all of these organizations dedicated to wiping out chronic diseases like cancer and diabetes and whatever else there is, and they’ve been at it for decades, yet no cure is in sight. Perhaps I’m more cynical than most, and maybe I have good reason to be that way, but maybe it’s not in the best interest of the world that these diseases get eradicated. They’re some of the only things keeping our population in check.

After all, we’re collectively living longer while more of us are being born each second. When you ask someone older how they feel about death, most will say they want to stay alive as long as possible. They won’t care how, they won’t care if they’ll be a bag of bones kept alive by drugs alone, they’ll want to keep living. To what end?

Better not wipe out the diseases, there should be something to make us kick the bucket. After all, who would believe you if you told people to stop eating crap and start eating raw foods, and then they wouldn’t suffer from any diseases and they’d live longer, too? Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?

Then we have stuff like all these kooky viruses that certain labs out there get to play with and mix around, sometimes with very deadly results. Oops, how did that happen? No matter, move along, nothing to see here. Does it matter there is now a virus that could literally start a plague and clean a billion people or so from the face of the earth? No, it’s not important, right? Who knows what other nasty stuff is being cooked up for us in some government-funded test tube somewhere…

In closing…

Doesn’t it all seem like a long-term passive-aggressive punishment from a greedy yet moronically short-sighted bunch of overseers? Oh sure, on the surface, what’s important is the quality of our foods, cures for our diseases, eradication of wars, quality housing and the comforts of modern living, and yet… something’s still rotten in Denmark. It’s when you look a little deeper that you find greed is driving this freight train, not social responsibility, no matter what the short-term and long-term costs may be.

I’d like to know if we can sack the current “overseers” and get someone intelligent, kind, balanced and responsible to take care of things. This poor planet could use some better leadership.

Verizon math

See this video, which features recorded audio between a frustrated Verizon customer and Verizon customer service, whose math skills are below those of a fourth grader. Verizon customer service just cannot grasp the concept of cents and dollars, and the hundred-fold difference between the two, and insist repeatedly that $0.002 equals 0.002¢.

The conversation goes on while the customer tries to explain the difference to them, and why he shouldn’t be charged what he was charged on his bill, given the advertised price, but the Verizon rep, and then a Verizon floor manager, just cannot get it. The customer got the equivalent of blank stares in spite of repeated explanations. Question is, should those reps be allowed to work in the billing department at Verizon when they have little or no math skills and lack the mental capacity to learn such skills when they’re explained to them?

Is it any wonder I (and countless other people, I’m sure) had billing problems with them when I wanted to terminate my service last year?

[via Hacked Gadgets]

Don't use Project Wonderful unless you want to be offended

Project Wonderful is full of crap

A few days ago, I applied for inclusion as a publisher with Project Wonderful. I’ve been looking for a sponsor for my site, and I thought a boutique ad service might be just what I need.

Boy, was I wrong about them! First, they rejected my application. A nice, respectful rejection I can take. I can even handle a short, tersely written rejection. But when they basically called me a hack and a content thief, and expected to get away with it, I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help it if my blood boiled over. Have a look at what they wrote to me:

“When examining your site, we found that it appears to have one or more (not necessarily all!) of the following issues: sponsored “review” posts, posts with content taken from third parties such as other web sites or Wikipedia, posts with little original material, and so on.”

Excuse me?! I steal content from other websites and Wikipedia?! I write posts with little original material?! What?! Here I am, having typed my fingers off and eaten up my evenings and weekends for the past couple of years with my website, creating original content, writing every post myself, with my own words, and you dare call me a hack?! Now you can forget about doing business with me. And no, I also don’t write sponsored “review” posts.

It looks like — from my subjective point of view anyway — Project Wonderful isn’t so wonderful after all. I’d say a bunch more things about them right here, except my wife edited my post and cut out all the juicy stuff. Apparently I need to cool down and step away from the laptop…

Just to be clear, I did NOT steal this post from Wikipedia.

Mozy advertising versus user experience

A few months ago, I was interested in offsite backup, and thought I’d give Mozy a try. Their Home Backup plan intrigued me. It was only $4.95, and was billed as unlimited. Could it actually work as advertised?

Short answer is no, not by a long shot. Sure, it only costs $4.95/month. That much is accurate. The unlimited part is where Mozy starts to stretch the truth. The problem lies with bandwidth, and I’ll give them this much: uplink speeds on US broadband connections, particularly on DSL lines, are horribly inadequate in order to perform any sort of decent backups.

But Mozy also does something I dislike, something that isn’t readily advertised on their site when users sign up: they cap the bandwidth for Home users at 1 Mbps. Even if you should be blessed with faster uplink speeds (like a fiber connection), you won’t be able to take advantage of it with Mozy. You’ll still only upload to the Mozy servers at 1 Mbps or less (usually around 600-800 kbps from my experience).

I had around 150GB of data I wanted to back up on my laptop at the time. It would have taken me several weeks (I think up to 13 weeks) to back up that data from my home DSL connection (860 kbps uplink). I had to reduce that amount to about 96GB, took my laptop into work, where the uplink pipe was much fatter, and still, it would have taken over 12 days to get that data backed up, because they were capping the uplink speed.

I then reduced my backup set even more, down to 59 GB (see below), hoping this would speed things up. It would have still taken a ridiculous amount of time to back up my data, and I only ended up getting frustrated with Mozy’s software in general, because of its poor design. Every time I wanted to configure the backup set, I needed to wait for the software to finish calculating the aggregate size for all file types, and that could take half an hour or more every time I opened that panel. Couldn’t they have cached this data when the operation was performed the first time?

Isn’t it ironic how they say the “Account storage limit” is “None”, yet you can never really quite test that None unless you leave your computer on and connected to the Internet for a month or more, which is clearly not feasible in the case of a laptop? Let’s not even consider the possibility that your Internet connection might go down, in which case the backup job would fail, and you’d need to start over…

In the end, in order to get any sort of progress with the Mozy backups, I reduced my backup set to 1GB. That’s right, 1GB, which allowed me to back up my Address Book, iCal, and Application Preferences, plus some documents. Then, and only then, did Mozy manage to complete the backup jobs in time.

I’m sorry, but I’m not going to pay $5/month so I can back up my contacts, calendar, and a few docs. That’s not acceptable to me. I canceled the service.

I did write to them to complain about this, and that’s how I found out about the 1 Mbps cap on uplink bandwidth. They also offered to give me a free month, but what good would that have been? I’d have only ended up more frustrated.

Some might say I should have tried the Mozy Business plan, which doesn’t cap uplink speeds and offers more options. For one thing, I don’t care for those extra options. For another, it would have cost me roughly $80/month ($3.95 for the license and $75 for the storage at $0.50 per 150GB). That’s not counting what it’d have cost me to back up my photos offline, which is what I really wanted to do. I have roughly 500 GB of photos, and according to Mozy’s pricing, that would be $250/month in addition to the $80/month I’d already be paying to back up my laptop.

Clearly, at those prices, Mozy is no longer the cheap, easy to use $4.95/month service that they advertise so widely, and instead of paying $330/month to them, I’d rather pay it to buy hard drives, copy my data, and ship them to my parents once every few months. It’d cost me a lot less.

I suppose they’re not entirely to blame. For some reason, $4.95 has become the price point for online home backup plans. Carbonite offers a similar plan for the same amount and other competitors are crowding around the same amount, although with different offerings. The thing is, you can’t really give people unlimited backup for $4.95 a month. Your costs as a business are higher. So what do you do? You fudge. You get truthy. Well, I don’t like it. I’d much rather see them offer a $15/month Home plan where they don’t cap the bandwidth but cap the amount I can back up — say, up to 75GB or something like that. I’ll let them work out the numbers, but the point is, I appreciate honesty a lot more than some cheesy pricing gimmick.

Updated 7/2/09: A reader (M.J. from Denmark) wrote to say the upload bandwidth cap at Mozy has been raised from 1 Mbps to 5 Mbps. It’s an interesting move on Mozy’s part, but I still have questions about their customer service and the ability to properly restore customers’ data, as other people have indicated in the comments below.

Using the economy as an excuse to shortchange employees

I’ve seen companies do some pretty disgusting things in my time, and the move some of them are pulling lately definitely ranks right up there with some of the biggest stinkers.

In effect, they’re using the current weak economy/recession as an excuse to lay off employees and burden the existing ones with the extra work, while keeping them mum under the fear of losing their jobs. If this isn’t corporate exploitation of its workforce, I don’t know what is.

I’m going to give you three examples, each juicier than the other, but I’m sure you can come up with more if you’re in the US and you’re employed in a full time job.

The niche business with an owner

I talked with an employee from a certain company lately, one which specializes in a niche market that has not been affected by the economic slowdown, nor does it look like it will be affected any time soon. I can’t disclose any identifying details, because the employee confided in me. What he told me was this: the president (and owner) of the company fired some employees while cutting year-end bonuses for the rest of the employees, using the recession as an excuse. The employees, the ones doing the hard work, have been handling a record amount of business for the past year, but the president cited a slump in incoming business. I was told the same president has been spending lavishly to expand his own mansion and buy extra cars and toys, during the same year when the supposed slump in business took place.

Adobe’s record profits

This example is more concrete than the previous one. In December, Adobe reported record revenues for the 4th quarter of 2008, and the sixth consecutive year of double-digit growth, yet they still laid off employees in November just the same. I’m not surprised though. I talked with a friend who is a long-time software developer, and he told me Adobe has another ugly habit: historically speaking, they have relied mostly on contractors, because it’s cheaper, and they’re easier to shed without bad press.

JPG Mag starts a bidding frenzy

Let’s look at JPG Mag. It’s the darling of many amateur photographers, because it gave them the chance to publish their work when other magazines might turn them down. I never really liked it, and I’ll tell you why: I thought they were cheap.

Here was an easy way to get print-worthy photographs without paying a dime. Turns out you could get amateur shutterbugs happy and willing to give away their work simply by dangling the illusory promise of publishing their pics in your magazine. The incentive was fame, which is as fleeting as a fart and just as troublesome, if you’ll excuse my expression. Where’s the moolah? Last I checked, bills were still payable in money, not fame.

When they announced they were going under, I thought it fitting. Good riddance to bad rubbish. First they don’t pay the photographers, then they fire the founders, now they’re going under — okay by me. Unfortunately, the buzz generated by their announcement stirred the vanities of those with bigger wallets, and a bidding war began.

But wait, there’s a nugget of bitter truth to be found among all this fake glimmer and shine. Turns out they fired all their employees, and now the CEO trumpets the company’s earning potential in messages to the bidders. PDN Pulse called them out on this, and rightfully so. Sure, now the company has earning potential since everyone’s gone. Hire a skeleton staff, make them do double or triple the work, pay no money to the photographers, and you’ve got a hand-dandy business model fit for the 21st century.

To sum things up

So you see, it’s okay to use the economy as an excuse when it befits your bottom line. Apparently, it’s okay to lay off people, it doesn’t matter that they’ve got bills to pay, that they’ve put a lot of hard work and time into your company. You shouldn’t do what you can to protect them in a weak economy when it’s harder to get jobs.

None of that matters, right? Ethics are so passé. You just use whatever excuse you can to make sure your precious bottom line gets bigger and bigger. It’s all about GREED. You can never have enough money, and people are only a means to it, right?

Well, I think that’s wrong. I don’t care if you’re afraid that the recession will affect your company. I don’t care if you really want that shiny new toy and a couple of employees and their mortgages stand in your way of getting it. I don’t care if your stockholders will bitch. If greed and money are your only motivators when you run a business, and you’d gladly step over people to balance the spreadsheets — don’t give me any of that I’m so sorry and I feel your pain crap — then you’re a spineless, slimy, pus-covered slug, and you deserve to be squashed under a steel-toe boot.