Thoughts

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.

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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]

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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.

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Reviews

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.

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Thoughts

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.

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Hooray for Netflix Watch Instantly abroad

Updated 8/11/11: The loophole detailed in this post has been closed off by Netflix, but there’s a simple way to bypass their new rules, provided you have a US credit card and mailing address. I’ve written a new how-to article that details how I’ve been watching Netflix from outside the US for the past year. ➡ Click here to read it

My wife and I are avid Netflix users, and we had a problem. We knew we’d be going abroad for an extended stay in Romania, and we didn’t know how we could get Netflix service there. Of course we realized DVD shipments wouldn’t work, but we thought the Watch Instantly feature would at least be available to us. I love streaming movies to our laptops, and was excited by the availability of Watch Instantly on our Macs when it became available in November of 2008.

The official word from Netflix is that Watch Instantly is not available outside of the US, due to licensing agreements.

Netflix Watch Instantly not available outside of the US

Fortunately, there’s a loophole. If you go to your queue, you can select movies from the queue and stream them to your computer by clicking on the Play button there. It’ll take a while to buffer them — I think it’s because a connection from Romania to Netflix isn’t as reliable for streaming movies as a connection from inside the US. The Netflix player insists on buffering the stream all the way to 100%, but in a few minutes or a little more time, depending on the speed of your connection, you could be watching a Netflix movie on your computer, as if you were back in the US.

Netflix Watch Instantly buffering outside the US

Netflix Watch Instantly playing outside the US

I hope Netflix doesn’t close this loophole. Their restriction doesn’t make sense to me in the first place. After all, non-US residents can’t get Netflix accounts. You have to have a US address and live in the US in order to get a Netflix account. And if you, a US citizen or resident, happen to be traveling abroad and you have an active Netflix account, you should be able to log on and watch movies. You’re paying for the service, so it’s your right.

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Is it easier to design for the enterprise or for the consumer?

I was thinking about the difference between hardware and software products designed for the consumer and those designed for the enterprise. In particular, I thought about how vocal consumers can be nowadays vs. companies, and how that affects the process of making and selling products to them vs. the business market. I think it makes it more difficult.

You’d have to be braver, as a company, to put your product out there for the consumers in this day and age when anyone can chime in and voice their opinion on the Internet — even when they’re not well-informed, or worse, they intend to do harm to your brand, for whatever reason. Whatever the pitfalls of this brave new age of feedback, it is a good thing, as you’ll see by the end of this article.

On top of that, consumer needs are a lot more varied than business needs. It’s notoriously hard to figure out what people want. Let me ask you something: when was the last time you spent your own time filling out an online survey? If you’re like me, that’d be years ago. How about filling out a survey at work, on the company’s time, because you got an invitation from one of the vendors? I bet that happens quite often. So you see, businesses making stuff for the enterprise have a much easier time figuring out what customers want, while those making stuff for the consumers are stuck paying people to take surveys and doing focus groups and who knows what else in order to get an idea of what they want.

Individual taste is also something that enters into the equation. Individuals will have different tastes, and while your product may appeal to someone, it might appear downright ugly to the next person. Generally speaking, taste and design have little do with enterprise products, which are utilitarian and function-oriented. They are meant to perform certain duties, and as such, not much thought is given to how they look.

How about the difference in ease of use between enterprise products and consumer products? I don’t think I can think of a single instance when an enterprise product was easier to use than a consumer product. Not one. Sure, they perform more complicated tasks, but still, little thought (if at all) is given to making the user interface easier or more intuitive. Mostly, enterprise products are difficult to use, difficult to navigate (if they’re software), difficult to learn, and overall, frustrating. You simply can’t get away with that when you make stuff for consumers, because no one will buy your products. They’ll laugh you right out of the marketplace.

Finally, how about price? Isn’t it true that enterprise products are insanely expensive when compared to consumer products? And yet, the rationale for that huge price difference is always hard for me to find. Every time I ask why they’re more expensive, the answer I get is because they’re enterprise products. That’s never been a good enough explanation for me. Sure, the market for enterprise products is smaller, and you have to price them higher in order to sustain your business — the economy of scale just isn’t there to make up for a lower price. Plus, the stuff you make for the enterprise has to perform more complicated tasks and be more reliable under heavy levels of use. But I’ve always believed that enterprise products were overpriced simply because they’re marketed for the enterprise and for little else — and I haven’t yet been offered any conclusive proof to the contrary.

A few examples came to my mind as I thought about all this. Let’s call them mini case studies. I want to look at each one in particular. First, we have two consumer products, the Drobo and the WD My Book Pro Edition II:

Drobo

The folks at Data Robotics had a tall order on their hands. They wanted to come up with a consumer-oriented product that would give people the benefits of RAID, the ability to increase storage space on the fly, the flexibility of using drives of any size, and a dead-simple way to replace hard drives. Did they succeed? Yes, I think so. On top of delivering on all of those functional criteria, they managed to design a beautiful enclosure, too.

Were the odds stacked against them? I think they were, and while people are enthralled with the product once they begin to use it, there are a lot of questions they need to answer for themselves before and after the purchase. One of them is the file system, called BeyondRAID. Is it compatible with other file systems? Can you get the data off the drives without a Drobo? Another issue is the price. People find the entry price expensive, and they’re quite vocal about that, wherever you look. (For a representative sample of what people think, just look at the comments section of my Drobo review — the 110 comments posted there should give you a pretty good idea.)

Besides all of this, the Drobo is a new product, literally. There is nothing quite like it on the market. Sure, it works in comparable ways to other external storage products out there, but still, the inner workings are new, and the way in which data is stored is new. That means resistance, automatically. When you go against the grain, you get friction. It’s the way things work. So that’s why I say creating the Drobo, marketing it, and actually selling it and getting people to use it properly was a tall order.

Data Robotics had to work extra hard at this. And it was crucial that they provide good product support, or they would have failed. When I say they provide good support, I mean it. You might say I’ve been a frequent user of their support plan — and the Drobo folks might say they could have done with a little less complaining from me.

If you should read through my Drobo review, you will see what problems I had. My situation was a bit different than most. I have three Drobos, two with me in the DC area, and one with my parents in FL. I got a chance to see how the Drobo would work through the changing seasons of a temperate climate in the DC area, on a PC and on a Mac, and also how it would work in a pure Mac environment, in the sub-tropical climate of South Florida.

Now my primary Drobo is a new, second generation, Firewire unit, which I’ve been using happily for the past couple of months. But over the past year since I bought the Drobos, I had noise issues and various other bugs that surfaced through my intense use of the other units, and I went through a few unit exchanges and many email conversations with the folks at Data Robotics. I can say, without a doubt, that they’ve been responsive, courteous, helpful, and even went out of their way to help me sort through the issues and replace units that I didn’t think functioned correctly.

What was their motivation? Perhaps they’re just good people. That’s quite possible. But that’s not what this article is about, is it? It’s about the difference between making consumer and enterprise products. So I think in the end it boils down to needing to work extra hard as a company, because they’re not only making a product for the consumer, but they’re making a new product and they need to carve out a slice of the storage market. Sure, they’ve got good name recognition now, but they’ve had to work extra hard at it, and I think that played greatly into the level of customer support they provided. For me, it’ll be interesting to see how their customer support evolves over time, as they become a more established company.

Western Digital My Book Pro Edition II

This external storage device was an example of how not to design for the consumer market. The drive was meant for the Mac user, although it could be used just fine on PCs. It was a triple interface (USB2.0, FW400 and FW800) device, but it only worked on USB or FW400, depending on who you talked to. It also overheated frequently, and it sometimes crashed the computers to which it was tethered. As if that stuff wasn’t bad enough, some people experienced data loss, or the inability to get at their data because the drive would either crash their systems or it wouldn’t stay on long enough for people to copy their data off it. For a good summary, see the Wikipedia entry for the WD My Book drives, or have a look at my two articles about the drive, one of them the original review, and the other detailing the problems I’d had with it. (I’m one of the cited references on Wikipedia.)

WD Support were responsive, but, at the first lines of phone support, also clueless. The were willing to help, but all they could was to keep sending me refurbished replacement units, each one in worse cosmetic shape than the other, and all exhibiting the same issues. The problems unfortunately ran deeper than a replacement with this line of drives, and WD never really came clean and confessed, which would have helped their image quite a bit. Instead, they were content to sweep the complaints under the proverbial rug and hope they would somehow go away. That didn’t happen. People were getting even more vocal, and there was quite a bit of talk about a class action lawsuit at one time.

I think the problems with the My Book Pro line were hardware-deep. I know WD tried to fix them via firmware upgrades, but they were only partially successful. While the enclosure design was nice, it didn’t lead to easy cooling of the drives, and they overheated. The circuit board was also not successful, and the USB and FW connections tended not to work properly. The on-board thermometer likely didn’t measure temperature correctly, and shut off the units prematurely because it thought they were overheating. It also caused the fan to run into overdrive, which made an awful racket.

Thankfully, a few people among the WDC executives saw the greater picture and stepped in to help in individual cases. I was one of those lucky cases. I got another replacement unit, this time a My Book Studio Edition II drive, which has worked wonderfully for me since day one. Stepping back from my case, I believe that if Western Digital hadn’t mended its image with the My Book Studio Edition, things could have gone badly for them. Just look at the comments left on my two articles (23 on the review and 104 on the one detailing the problems), and you’ll see that people were getting progressively angrier with the company.

I think the problem with the My Book Pro line of drives is that it was put out by a large company. WD just doesn’t look at the market the same way as Data Robotics does. First, they’re one of the big players in the storage market. They not only make enclosures, but they make the hard drives that go in them as well. That’s actually the biggest chunk of their business. When they launched the Pro line, it was just another model line in their large product lineup. Did they do proper product testing and QA? The tally of the real-world results comes in at a resounding no. Did they listen to the customers as the first problem reports came in? No. Did they address customer issues appropriately? No. I bet there still are plenty of My Book Pro users out there who can’t use their drives properly, if at all. I think things went differently in my case because I was vocal about it. My article gained traction and as it started to come up on the first page of Google search results (it was up among the first results for a while), and it posed a real threat to the company’s public image, which they needed to address.

As a side note, I’m glad they chose to address my case correctly. They were polite and helpful in their interactions with me, and while I had to wait a long time to get the final replacement, I didn’t get bullied in the meantime. That was nice.

To get back to the root of the problem, WD just didn’t look at things properly. They put out a faulty product because they thought they could afford to do so (they probably didn’t think that as they were making it, but when a product is one of many, that’s the unspoken thought). They had a dismissive attitude toward the consumers because they were big and thought they could ignore them, and in the end, it cost them.

Now let’s have a look at two enterprise-level products and see how the rules change in this market. I’ll be talking about a DNF SAN and VMware. First though, I want to look at customer feedback in the enterprise arena.

How feedback works (or doesn’t) in the enterprise market

What you’ll find here is the customers (the companies, rather) will tend to be much quieter than consumers when things don’t work as expected. This happens for multiple reasons.

For one thing, companies as a whole don’t have an outlet where they can complain about things like this. The larger the company, the tighter the rein on public relations, as they call it. You won’t find employees going on the company blog and writing about their bad experience with a product. It just won’t happen, because at traditional companies, every post tends to get vetted by multiple pairs of eyes, each concerned with legal and marketing and general image issues.

If the employees won’t do it, the company executives won’t do it, unless it’s off the record, among themselves, at certain gatherings. It won’t be in the public arena, unless a particular products stinks very badly and the company needs to blame it in order to account for poor results during a quarter or year, etc.

You also have resistance from within to let others know that a product is a real stinker. After all, when you’ve just spent a few tens of thousands or more on some fancy piece of hardware that’s supposed to solve your problems, and you find out it stinks, you can’t very well go to the executives and tell them you need to spend another five or six figures on another piece of hardware, because they’ll think you’re incompetent and you didn’t do your homework before recommending the purchase.

Another reason is that you don’t want to spoil a partnership. If your biz dev guys have just worked for months to get a partnership started and the company has put out marketing materials advertising said partnership, and there is promise of work in the future involving said partnership, you can bet your bottom dollar your company’s not going to go public with allegations that a certain product made by their gold/platinum/diamond partner stinks. And if you raise too much of a stink, internally, about said product, you’ll be told you’re not a team player, and you can’t be trusted to work with the valued company partners. What’s more, if the tone of your emails toward said partner gets angry, you may even be counseled.

There’s another ingredient to throw in this mess: the fact that most (if not all) support forums for enterprise products are behind login screens. Even if you should log on as an enterprise customer and voice your complaints on the company forums, those complaints will not show up on search engines, and other potential customers won’t be able to see that you’re having problems with the product until they, too, spend ridiculous amounts of money for the right to use said product and log onto the product forums, after which they find out they should have stayed away from it.

What you’ve essentially got is a muzzle on the customers in the enterprise market, for the reasons stated above. Is it any wonder then, that the companies making such products have very little incentive to be responsible, and to make good products? They can afford to charge ridiculous amounts of money for buggysoftware, ugly hardware, and despicable user interfaces, because the enterprise customers will pay for them and like it, or else.

Now, I’m not saying this is what happens most of the time, but let’s face it, when you’ve got a muzzle on your customers’ real-world experiences with your products, there’s little to keep you from going in the wrong direction and staying that way.

DNF Storage SAN

At one of the companies where I worked, we used to call it the “Does Not Function” SAN, which was a (sadly) true play on the acronym for its maker (Dynamic Network Factory). This SAN was purchased for the sole purpose of working with a VMware server cluster to act as storage for the company’s virtual servers. It never worked correctly. It was supposed to connect through iSCSI to the servers that controlled the cluster, and the iSCSI kept failing, time after time after time. Sometimes the RAID would fail, too. Throughput could never be maintained, the virtual machines sometimes didn’t want to boot up or took forever to do so, writing to the disks and reading from them was horribly slow, etc.

When the company called DNF, they got some support, but mostly, they were told the issue was with VMware. When they called VMware, they were told the the DNF SAN was no longer approved to use with VMware’s enterprise solutions, although it had been on the list to begin with, and that’s why it had been purchased.

Bottom line is the company got stuck with this thing which didn’t do its job and cost a pretty penny to boot. The staff bandaged it together and kept it going somehow, with frequent outages, until money could be gotten together so they could buy some SAN devices from EMC (VMware’s parent company). Those were on the aproved list of SANs to use with VMWare — funny how that works, isn’t it?

But wait, the fun doesn’t end here. Once the virtual servers were transitioned over to the new EMC SANs, the company wanted to repurpose the DNF SAN and use it as storage for various backups from their other servers — basically, use it as a network hard drive. It failed miserably at that task as well. First, one or more of the hard drives went, corrupting the RAID array. That meant starting from scratch. Once the setup was completed and another server stood up, people started copying data to it, and it got corrupted again. This time, it went down and stayed down for good.

At that point, after 2 years of struggling with this thing, and the support contract expired (not that the support was worth much anyway), the company was stuck with an expensive piece of hardware that took up space in the server racks and served no purpose whatsoever.

VMware

I’ve been working with VMware technology, daily, for the past two years and a half. I worked at a company which I think was at the forefront of using virtualization technology. We had production virtual servers when most companies were still only testing the waters. That was cool. Getting support from VMware with various issues that came up as we transitioned our physical servers to virtual ones and started to use them heavily, was not so cool.

While I wasn’t the main point of contact between our company and VMware, I had to take charge in a couple of situations when the POC was out. I remember quite well this one occasion when one of my production servers went down while live, and I couldn’t get it back up. It simply refused to boot at first, and when it did boot up, the networking went out. I called VMware and filed a support request. I asked them to mark it as urgent. I was promised while on the phone that someone would get back to me within 2 hours. No one did. I called again and was assured someone was researching the issue. I waited several hours. No one got back to me. I then called again, but couldn’t reach anyone. It was already the weekend. I kept monitoring my email account on Saturday and Sunday to see if anyone would get back to me, and no one did. On Monday, the main VMware person at our company was in, and he was able to get the server going again. On Tuesday, a VMware rep finally got back to me and, as if nothing happened, asked how the server was doing. I recounted the story, told him a 5-day delay in his response is not adequate for an issue marked as urgent, and expected an apology. I never got one, nor did I hear from him again. So I had a production server that was basically out of commission for a whole weekend, and VMware didn’t give a damn.

That’s not all. You remember from the DNF SAN story above that VMware kept blaming them for the iSCSI bandwidth/throughput issues. For about a year and half, we had to put up with slower than normal servers that could take as much as a half hour to boot up, not to mention that they’d often lose their networking connection on reboots, causing us to toggle between the internal and external virtual network cards multiple times in order to get it going again. When they did boot up, they just weren’t as fast as they should be. VMware and DNF SAN kept passing the buck on these issues.

When the company finally purchased EMC SANs, the problems didn’t go away, but at least VMware couldn’t play the blame game any more, since it was now their own hardware and software. Even then, it took countless hours on the phone with the VMware and EMC reps to get the issues resolved. After that, it could safely be said that the servers were adequately fast, and they booted up without issues, but bandwidth was still a major issue. Even though the company had a Gigabit network, writing data to and copying data from the virtual servers was still not at Gigabit levels (not by far), and I think that’s an issue with the iSCSI connections between the SAN and the VMware production cluster. This is why I said at the beginning of this diatribe of mine that iSCSI connections are problematic.

Another gripe of mine with enterprise software is that it’s needlessly complicated and badly designed. Sure, their virtual infrastructure client is pretty good, but we tested a piece of EMC (VMware’s parent company) software designed to keep virtual servers in sync (I forget its name), and boy, did it stink… First, it was hard to figure out what do do with it and how to do it. Second, the GUI looked as if it’d been designed in the early 90s by some dude with no taste whatsoever. Third, it cost plenty, too. The company ended up not using it.

Summary

If you’ve read this far, I’d love to hear what you think, although I’ll understand if corporate folks reading this would rather not say anything.

I’d also like to make it clear that I’m not singling out the companies and products I’ve named above because I have something against them. I don’t. I do have something against badly designed and overpriced products, no matter who makes them. I think as Western Digital proved, a company can turn things around if they want to, and in that case, I’d be glad to praise the things they’re doing right (see the WD My Book Studio review).

I hope I’ve made it clear that customer feedback is important. It’s very important as a matter of fact. Furthermore, I believe that public customer feedback, as in the case of people voicing their concerns on the Internet about a certain product, makes a company more responsible and more responsive to the needs of the marketplace. It also makes it harder for a company to create products for consumers, because the pressure to deliver a success is greater. But that’s a good thing, because if you’ve got a hit, word quickly gets out and the potential for profit is greater. That should make the bean counters and the execs happy.

When you muzzle your customers though, as is currently the case in the enterprise market, there is real potential for abuse. Companies have little incentive to price products correctly and to address issues that come up once those products get used. There is also no real incentive to design things well, so they look good and are easy to use, and I’m talking about both software and hardware here.

I think that we need to have a more transparent customer-vendor feedback loop in the enterprise markets. I think business customers ought to feel it’s their right as consumers to voice concerns about vendor products publicly if the vendor fails to address them privately. After all, when you’re paying five and six figures (or even more) for enterprise-level solutions, then you ought to get your money’s worth in every sense of the word.

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Thoughts

An announcement about my photos

I’ve been mulling over this decision for some time. As I thought about it, I wanted to balance my desire to let people enjoy my photos with my very real need to retain the ability to sell my photographs, because I do want that to become a larger source of income for me than it has been thus far.

I think I may have reached a happy medium, and I hope I won’t regret what I’ve already begun to do. As of last week, I’ve been publishing my images at a much larger resolution — 1920 pixels on the longest side vs. 800 pixels previously. This means that you, the reader who sees this, will be able to download them and use as desktop backgrounds, without seeing a decrease in the photo quality as it fills up your screen. As a matter of fact, you’ll be able to use my images on monitors up to 24″ or more in size (1920×1200) or on HDTVs of any size, without seeing a decrease in quality. I am also resizing all of them to an aspect ratio of 16:10, so they’ll fit natively on widescreen displays.

Now, what am I not doing? I am not posting them at their native 240 dpi, as my Canon 5D gives them to me. I am posting them at 72 dpi, which is the native dpi spec of computer screens everywhere. I am doing this because I want to discourage the making of large prints from my photos, since I’d like to make money from those prints. This also makes it a little harder for people to blow them up to larger sizes for serious commercial work, which is where I also hope to make money.

I am also not removing my copyright notice from the photos. You’ll see it as a small watermark in the lower left corner that says “(c) raoulpop.com”. I want to keep that there to let people know that while I may be giving my photos away, I am not relinquishing my copyright, nor am I moving to a Creative Commons type of license, which I believe is inadequate for photographs. I also realize that the photos will get edited in various photo editing programs, and any meta-data will unwittingly get wiped from them. The watermark is the only sensible way to tell people down the line that I made a certain photo. I do wish Lightroom would let me format the watermark in some way, but for now, that’s what it gives me, and I’m not going to run all my published photos through Photoshop just to put a watermark on them.

Am I opening myself up for theft? Yes. There’ll be unscrupulous people (I hesitate to call them people) who will likely steal my photos and try to profit from them. For them, I should point out that I do register my images with the US Copyright Office, and I wouldn’t mind getting a six-figure payout.

For you decent folks out there, I’ll be happy to know that you get a little joy from looking at my photos at a resolution where you can actually enjoy them. Go ahead and download them and use them as desktop backgrounds, put them on your HDTV, email them to your friends, use them on your website, whatever. As long as it’s personal, non-commercial use, and you give me credit, it’s okay with me.

If you’re a company or some kind of organization that wants to use my photos in some way, please get in touch with me first to clear that use with me and to pay for the license. I’ll do my best to accommodate your needs.

Okay, so where do you partake of this fantastic offering? There are wo places where you can get it:

  1. My photo catalog.
  2. My Flickr stream. I’ve opened up access to the All Sizes button. Download away.

Remember to play nice. Here’s how to use my photos. Please obey the rules listed there when using my photos for free, and if you’ll end up licensing some, then you’ll make me very happy. Thanks.

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Thoughts

You can always count on pride

On DC’s beltway, you can easily spot trucks carrying concealed military equipment. All you have to do is to go about your business, and you will pass one or two semi trucks every day, each carrying some big payload wrapped in canvas. While the trucks are generic, the canvas isn’t. You will almost certainly find some logo or initials on it.

If you’re diligent, you can trace that logo back to the company, then find out what contract they were awarded, by whom, and finally, what concealed equipment you might have seen. It’s not hard to do this if you have a somewhat basic knowledge of how government/military contracts work.

I’m not saying this because I want to divulge any government secrets or put anyone at risk. I simply want to point out that most people can’t keep their mouth shut when it comes to bragging about their work, particularly when they’re proud of what they’re doing.

Remember Napster back in its golden days (circa 1997)? You could log on and download music all day long. College students everywhere were doing it. I did it too, for a while, until I realized it was wrong to rob artists of their hard work like that. Later, I even deleted most of the music I’d downloaded, and since then, I’ve been buying my music.

I’m not sure how online music sharing works today, but back then, most hardcore music sharers would mark their files by putting some sort of identifier (such as a nickname) inside the meta data. Some even put site URLs in the meta data. I’m sure that as music labels clamped down on file sharers, these nicknames and site URLs made it easier for them to find the culprits.

These file sharers and the military contractors are just two examples of how one can always count on pride to get at some information. Like most things in this world, this is nothing new, but it’s something to keep in mind if you’re working on something you’d like to keep under wraps.

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Reviews

A Dell order and return experience

On 7/31, I placed an order for a Dell S2409W 24-inch Widescreen Flat Panel LCD Monitor, a new model from Dell which has a 16:9 display ratio and runs about $350. I needed an external display for my MacBook Pro, because it’s getting cumbersome to edit photos on a 15″ screen.

On 8/21 (three weeks later), it finally arrived. After connecting it to my Mac, I discovered it just didn’t have the display quality I needed, and started thinking about returning it.

A couple of days later, after I tested it and calibrated it as much as I could, I filed a request for a Return Authorization on Dell’s website. I had to fill out a form with all of the order information and with my address (which I had to enter twice), because the website isn’t designed to pre-populate the fields based on the information already present in your account. There is a way to log in, which promises to pull that information for you, but even if you do log in, nothing gets pulled. You can’t just go to an order and click on a Return option.

I got an automated confirmation right away which assured me they are “working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to answer customer inquiries”, and that I could expect a response in “24 hours or less”.

Their response did not arrive within 24 hours. When it did, it said they are “unable to process a return authorization for the order,” and to “please contact Dell Consumer Customer Care at 800-624-9897.” I called them.

I was greeted by the Dell phone robot, and followed the various prompts to navigate the menus, until it was satisfied and passed me off to a real person. That’s when the fun really began.

Rep 1 (Indian): “Could I have the order number? What is your name? How can I help you?”
Me: “I’d like to return that order.”
Rep 1: Okay, let me connect you to someone that can help.”

Rep 2 (Indian): “Could I have the order number? What is your name? How can I help you?”
Me: “I’d like to return that order.”
Rep 2: “Okay, let me connect you to someone that can help.”

Rep 3 (Indian): “Could I have the order number? What is your name? How can I help you?”
Me: “I’d like to return that order.”
Rep 3: “Okay, let me connect you to someone that can help.”

Rep 4 (American): “Could I have the order number? What is your name? How can I help you?”
Me: “I’d like to return that order.”
Rep 4: “Why?”
Me: “Display quality is not satisfactory when connected to a Mac.”
Rep 4: “Have you tried to adjust it?”
Me: “Yes, but it just won’t display colors the way they need to be displayed.”
Rep 4: “Do you have a video card?”
Me: [Couldn’t believe what I’d just heard… Pause] “Of course, otherwise my computer wouldn’t work.” [Which is true — to my knowledge, you need either a graphics card or an embedded graphics chip to display video with a normal computer, and besides, they don’t ship Macs without some sort of video cards.] “Look, I just want to return the order…”
Rep 4: “Okay, I wanted to make sure, because you’ll be charged a 15% restocking fee.”
[Then she got to work on processing the Return Authorization and issued it to me.]

I spent 19:06 minutes on the phone to get the Return Authorization, and had to go through all of that stuff listed above. I’m not counting the time spent digging on the Dell website to submit the web request, which obviously didn’t come to anything.

You would think:

  • Dell would want to make it less onerous for its customers to get their business done when they deal with them over the phone.
  • It’d take less than four people to get to the right person.
  • I wouldn’t have to speak to three Indian reps at some call center in India, then get transferred to an American rep somewhere here in the States, before someone could address the reason for my call.
  • Someone who processes RMAs wouldn’t try to troubleshoot a product, especially when I’m not interested, and when they don’t know how a computer works.
  • Dell would have a way to pass the order number and customer name from rep to rep, so I wouldn’t have to say them over and over and over.

You’d be right to think all those things. Unfortunately, every time I interact with Dell, I see that they still don’t have their act together. They’re too big, disorganized, they don’t treat their customers properly, and they make it a hassle to deal with the company. As for their design philosophy, it’s practically non-existent, unless making ugly stuff counts — except for their recent Studio laptops and Studio Hybrid desktops. Is it any wonder they’re not doing so well?

And what’s up with the 15% restocking fee? I thought the industry “standard” was 14%.

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