bookmark_border“Generously proportioned” at best

We got a promotional flyer in the mail from yet another car dealership, which looked kind of like a free raffle for cool prizes. And right at the top it said that it was “Cars for the Cure to support the American Cancer Society.”

It’s a nice looking piece, tri-fold, card stock, four color printing.  On the back is a plastic “combination box” and a peel-away sticker. The combination box looks like it has an LED readout, and a little tab you can pull to turn it on.

The idea here is that you turn on the combination box, then peel the sticker off of the flyer.  There’s a number printed under the sticker, and if the combination box lights up with that same number, you have won one of the seven awesome prizes.

The first prize is his-and-hers 2014 Mustangs or $100, 000.  The prizes go from there through a whack of cash, TVs, iPods and things like that.  What’s important is third prize.  Third prize is an Amazon coupon worth $2-5000. To be clear, third prize is a coupon, and that coupon can worth some amount between two dollars and five thousand dollars.

Here’s where the nerd kicks in.  Do a bit of reading of the finer printing, and spend 30 seconds with a pen knife, and you find the following:

– In the contest rules (which are, refreshingly, quite clearly printed on the flyer), the odds of winning each prize are listed.  It says “Odds of winning a $2 Amazon® Card are 1:1 should no other prize be won.”  This means that ANYONE who gets one of these fliers will at least get a $2 gift card.  It’s like a boxing match, in that everyone can win third prize.

– There are a few things you have to do online, including choose which prize you want to play for, before you win anything.

– Here’s what the combination box looks like if you take it apart.

Book shelves should have books on them
Yeah, I need a pedicure as well.

That thing on my pinky is a sticker.  If you light it from behind, it kind of looks like an LED segment display is making those numbers.  But in reality, the combination box is just a single white LED, a piece of clear plastic to diffuse the light, two button batteries and a sticker.  It’s supposed to LOOK like it’s picking a number that’s exclusive to you, but it’s not.

Guess what?  The number in my combination box is the same as the number in my flyer!  I am teh w1n!  I do have the sneaking suspicion that a lot of people will have the same numbers, but hey–when you get right down to it, we are ALL winners.  Makes you feel good, dunnit?

Does this color make my thumb look fat?
I am teh w1n!

So what is going on here?

Basically, this car dealership is spending somewhere between $3 and $5 per piece to drop these flyers in an attempt to get people to come into their building and claim a prize.  An additional $2 will go to everyone who goes through the hoops to claim their prize, but in order to do so, every winner is going to have to start a conversation with a salesperson.  If this is as smart a campaign as it appears, those salespeople will have a script or some other way of getting the winners to look at cars.

So that’s about $7 (at most) per warm lead who walks in the door.  Not too bad, if it works.  I’d assume that they targeted who was getting these things a bit.  Ours was addressed to the people who used to own our house “or current resident.”

See, you can’t just say to the world “I will give you $7 if you come to my dealership and let me try to sell you a car.” Most of the people who would say “yes” to that deal are NOT THE TARGET MARKET.  If you need $7 that bad, you are not going to buy a car.

So instead, you choose a large group of people who are able to buy cars, and you spend $7 apiece to tell them “You live somewhere that people who can afford cars live, and you’ve won a prize, it might be a pair of awful cars or $100,000.  Come talk to me about it.  Also, it’s a benefit for the American Cancer Society.”

It’s not technically dishonest.  You get as close as you can to saying one thing and meaning another, but mostly, you depend on people not reading to closely, and thinking that you’re giving things away.

This campaign is done through Fatwin, though this kind of thing is hardly unique.  I’ve included their name here simply so that this might show up in search engines in case anyone else is as randomly curious as I was.

On the upside, I got an LED in a diffuser and two little batteries.

bookmark_borderIt’s so hard to swim cross the mainstream

HOORAH!  Ubuntu is now a sure-nuff mainstream operating system!  Here’s a transcript of a conversation I had with it just the other day.  I couldn’t figure out why it felt so familiar, but then I realised that it’s the same conversation I’ve had with the more popular operating systems.

a picture
Find one in every car

netdud: Hello Ubuntu computer I use for three things! I would like to do one of those things now.

Computer: This version of Ubuntu is no longer supported

netdud: Hey, good to know. Anyway, if we could just do the thing

Computer:
You should totally upgrade.

netdud:
Yeah. I don’t really use this machine for anything but those three things, and it doesn’t see the outside world, so it really doesn’t matter

Computer:
We’ve got a whole bunch of stuff that’s new and doesn’t look anything like the version you’re using. You totally want that!

netdud:
No. I don’t. Can I just do the thing…

Computer: We’ve cloud got cloud the cloud cloud services cloud TOTALLY cloud integrated cloud into cloud the operating system.

netdud: That sounds horrible.

Computer: We’ve got the awesome Unity interface, for people who can’t use computers, and don’t want to buy a tablet that does much.

netdud: Oh right! Took me a couple of hours to get that utter toss off this machine last time. No. Not interested

Computer: Your version isn’t safe.

netdud: What?

Computer: Yeah–the version you’re using right now, if you keep using it, uh, all kinds of bad things are going to go unpatched.

netdud: BS

Computer: I’m totally SRS! Also, cloud!

netdud: FINE. I just want to do my one thing!

Computer: OK! I’ll just sort out all the stuff you don’t need–

netdud: HEY! WHAT? No! Just leave stuff alone and change the OS crap you need

Computer: Uninstalling GNOME files, removing My SQL…

netdud: What the WHAT? GET OUTTA THERE!

Computer: Download complete. Installing the upgrades. About 6 hours remaining.

netdud: WHAAT?

Computer: About three hours remaining

netdud: OK. That’s better. I guess. For an OS I need to do THREE THINGS

Computer: About five hours remaining.

netdud: Oh. We’re doing that, are we?

Computer: About three hours remaining.

netdud: Whatever

Computer: Unable to delete the directory containing the thing that we are replacing with another thing that does the same thing but has a new name you won’t remember. So I’m just going to leave that directory full of old junk for you. I’m sure you’ll enjoy nothing more than reading all the log files for this six hour install, so of course you will find all the directories I left like this.

netdud: Yeah. I love doing stuff like that. You’ve got my number there.

Computer: Moving obsolete conf file [XXX] out of the way.

netdud: Did you REALLY just say that?

Computer: Moving obsolete conf file [XXy] out of the way.

netdud: What the hell does that even MEAN? Did you go to “Bad command or file name” University or something?

Computer: Moving obsolete conf file [XyX] out of the way.

netdud: Again?

Computer: I’m going to fill the screen with those. You can read all about it later in the log file I guess.

netdud: Sorry–missed that. Just decided it was a good time to get a drink

Computer: About 1 hour and 27 minutes remaining.

netdud: I just wanted to..

Computer: Now I’m replacing a whole shit-ton of packages like GREP and Chrome and fonts that you already had, but I just stopped updating them because you didn’t upgrade the entire OS.

netdud: Yeah. Woulda sucked to just get those a bit at a time, in the background. On a machine that runs 24/7.

Computer: About three hours remaining.

netdud: It’s like I don’t even know you any more, dude.

Computer: I’m installing the Wifis and Bluetooth support. Yes, I DO still have the list of hardware currently on the machine, but I didn’t look at it. Just installing stuff. That’s what I do.

netdud: This box doesn’t even have… Nevermind

Computer: Also replacing the eleventy-billion printer drivers we installed with the last upgrade with eleventy billion printer drivers which are not ALL the same as the last ones, just in case you suddenly want to use eleventy-billion printers right after this upgrade.

netdud: That’s awesome! Thanks! But the driver that worked perfectly with the one printer I actually use, that’ll still work fine, right? Because that’s one of the three things that I…

Computer: About one hour and twenty minutes remaining.

netdud: Why am I excited that this is suddenly going to take on a stupid amount of time, instead of a ridiculously stupid amount of time?

Computer: Moving on–remember that package you tried, and then found out that the project was discontinued, and that it didn’t work anyway? I just replaced it with the point release you didn’t bother upgrading to because it was discontinued.

netdud: Thank you for that. As I recall, that package wasn’t part of the distribution

Computer: Just one of the services we do on upgrade.

netdud: Oh, I can see your point–that’s just the sort of thing you SHOULD add to a 1.5 gig, four-hour automatic upgrade. I’d hate to go through all this and find out I’m a version behind on software you don’t support and doesn’t work. What would my friends say when I try to tell them how user-friendly Ubuntu is?

Computer: I’m replacing the LAME codec right now. The old one was working fine, but there’s a new one.

netdud: Why are you doing that?

Computer: Because I’m going alphabetically.

netdud: Good plan. And I mean, what are the chances that someone would have a problem with the awesome sound subsystem on Linux, and have to do some bodgy junk to get it running? You should TOTALLY screw around with the stuff and set it up in a nice generic way to use a sound card I don’t have installed, and move all my codecs somewhere exciting.

Computer: Updating your version of OpenOffice.

netdud: Really? Why? What does that have with the operating system?

Computer: We include it WITH the operating system!

netdud: Yeah, but that means I already HAVE it. Why are you including a new install of the fattest piece of bloatware on the entire system with an OS upgrade?

Computer: Same amount of time remaining as the last four times you looked, even though the list of things I am doing keeps changing.

netdud: I’m going to bed. Check on you in the morning.

Computer: I’m going to change some config files, and I need you to tell I can replace them. Or you can tell me to keep the old ones. I’m not going to tell you if the old ones might have a different effect after the upgrade.

netdud: Hang on–let me see the two files

Computer: I can let you compare the two by dropping them in a big long vertical window with codes in front to show what each file says.

netdud: Can I see them side-by-side?

Computer: Don’t be ridiculous! What good would that do?

netdud: Uh, let’s keep the old ones

Computer: I will accept that with an off-putting ease, making you wonder why I didn’t just keep the old one as a matter of course. But you will pay, stupid. You will pay.

netdud: I’m really sleepy. I’m going to bed

Computer: Hang on–I want to show you how I am testing for the right audio drivers by saying that things are failing, and then test a bunch of drivers that have brand names not even remotely related to this machine.

netdud: Wait–I’ve never even owned a Dell laptop!

Computer: I don’t blame you–that driver is teh fail!

netdud: Cool, thought you were losing your mind.

Computer: I’ve installed the HP Crudsucker 760 driver, it’s totes wikkid!

netdud: That’s a laptop! This machine is an old desktop!

Computer: So that should have the sound squared away. I’m just going to tell you there are 24 minutes remaining for the next 24 minutes.

netdud: All the hope in me has died. I feel strangely free.

Computer: I’m going to leave a sentence that ends with the word “completed” on the screen, and but the fans are all going to come on like mad and the drive light is going to stay lit for the next three minutes straight. Everything’s fine though.

netdud: So sleepy

Computer: Hey–you want this old config file? Looks like the only difference between it and the new one is that the old one is set up to run headless.

netdud: Yeah–this machine only runs headless.

Computer: Y’don’t say. Wow. If I knew that before I started, there’d be no need to keep stopping and waiting for you to compare conf files and click yes.

netdud:
Gosh, that would really be something.

Computer:  Hey!  Why don’t you go to bed and I’ll just sit here with this dialogue box waiting for your input and the drive light and all the fans going full blast.

netdud:  No, I’ll sit up here with you. I’ve suddenly got a bunch of reading to do about unpopular Linux distros..

bookmark_borderWe like to go out for home-style cookin’

Steel, man.
Doesn’t taste as good without the gravy

Kids, please. You have GOT to calm the hell down, because you are making the Ineerweebs boring by whining about the same things over and over, every time a big shiny new movie comes out based on a book or a comic or something else that you care about.

And it’s only going to get worse, because it looks like there are going to be tons of them in the next little while.

Take a second, take a breath, take a step back, and get this into your head.    It’ll seem all cynical and snarky, but you will feel better by the end, I promise.

Right.  The big companies that make expensive movies have one primary motivation for doing so:  To make as much money as possible.  Everything else–EVERYTHING else–they do is in the pursuit of this.  In a nutshell, the model goes like this:

  1. Spend a buttload of money making a movie
  2. Spend a buttload of money promoting a movie
  3. Make more buttloads of money than you spent, from people going to the movie in theaters + additional buttloads from merch and a few more buttloads over time from DVD/Streaming/On-Demand and whatever new formats you can resell the thing on later.

It’s pretty simple.  When it works, it really works, and when it doesn’t work quite so well, it still usually works OK, and when it doesn’t work at all, well, that’s what some of the additional buttloads from the movies that did work are for.  Yes, I read the stuff Spielberg and Lucas said recently.  Hilarious stuff, coming from two guys who kinda drove the whole thing in that direction.

I’m not saying this is how things SHOULD be, or even how they HAVE to be.  Please read this line again.

But make no mistake. Big money movies made by big companies are fundamentally money-making projects.  All the writing and the directing and the acting and the scoring and the promotion and the gaffers and clapper-loaders and grips, all that stuff is in the project because someone who controls the money thought it would make the movie make more money.  The people who do the actual work might have some other reason for doing what they do, and that’s nice. It’s great to do work you believe in. But the reason that those people are doing that work is so that the movie will make more money.

Every word of Step 1  is important.  It is VERY important to this process that the projects cost a buttload of money.  Have a buttload of money behind them is what differentiates these projects from other projects.  Hollywood movies HAVE TO LOOK LIKE Hollywood movies. There are two problems if they don’t:

  1. Not as many people will want to see the movie, because people are used to Hollywood movies that LOOK like Hollywood movies
  2. Instead of only competing with the few other movies that look like Hollywood movies, the movie would have to compete with every other movie.

Helicopters, cranes, exotic locations, big-name movie stars, directors and composers, huge stunts and really cutting-edge CGI are all expensive.  So are re-shoots, focus groups, delays, and two-storey trailers.  Having a buttload of money means that companies can put all that stuff in a movie, and it differentiates that movie from all the movies that can’t afford those things.  It doesn’t necessarily make it better (or worse) as a piece of art, but the primary intention isn’t to make a piece of art. It is to make a profitable project.

But it goes farther than that.  Fast and Furious movies are not made to compete with ANY other movies in the world.  Neither are Die Hard movies, or Bond films, or any other franchise.  They are made because they don’t HAVE to compete with other movies.  A big movie project doesn’t WANT to compete–apart from the unavoidable part about being in theaters at the same time as other movies.  Competition means splitting ticket sales with competitors. Even if you come out on top, doing this makes no sense if your intention is to make as much money as possible.  The best product for a project like that is unique in a way that appeals to as many people as possible.

That means using as many things as possible that other projects can’t. The most expensive-looking shots and effects, the limited resources of stars, directors, and products.  And it really helps if the concept for the movie is some property that can be bought or licensed, and no-one else can use–like a comic book or a novel or a board game.

Yeah, I said “board game.” Crazy, right? What are they even thinking? A freakin’ BOARD GAME!

I know–Let’s make a movie based on a board game!  We’ll get a couple chunks of beefcake and have a famous sort-of singer shooting a .50 calibre machine gun, and tons of CGI and flying saw-balls and stuff blowing up and people saying “Let’s DO this!”  and walk Liam Neeson through a day of shooting, to add some gravitas.  We’ll call it “Battleship” and it will be universally decried as a cynical piece of crap.  It will cost about $209 million to make.  OH WAIT SOMEONE TOTALLY DID THAT!

Are you laughing right now because of how dumb it was to spend that much money on a crap movie?  It’s good for you to laugh.  Go ahead and get all the laughing out before you read the next sentence.

“Battleship” grossed about $100 million MORE than it cost worldwide.

One.  Hundred. Million. That’s about three times what “Blade Runner” cost to make.  It’s five times what “Gosford Park” cost.

And I’m sure that what you find most annoying about that movie is that it wasn’t ANYTHING like the board game.

Great time to bring up Step 2.  Every word of Step 2 is equally important.  It can’t happen until you have Step 1 in place, but it’s just as important. Ideally, everyone in the world will be aware that the movie is coming out, that it cost more than coating the Burj al Arab in prosciutto and took more organization, and then entire planet will be just PUMPED to line up at midnight on Thursday to buy a ticket.

Reality isn’t like that though, so the aim is to get a bunch of people REALLY excited, and they will drag their friends along to the theater. And then later, the less excited will watch it some other way for less money, which is better than nothing.

Some of that marketing pays for itself too, through cross-promotions and licensing.  Kids should want a toothbrush based on a character in the movie before the movie is even out.

Marketing a product is a heck of a lot easier when that product already has brand recognition in the market.  If people already know something–pretty much anything–about the movie you are trying to get them to buy a ticket to, then you have a hook to draw their interest with.  It could be actors’ or directors’ or even the writers’ name recognition, or it could be the title or whatever concept the movie was based on, but that hook is important.  You put Mel Gibson’s face on the side of a Whopper box, and people will want to know why. It doesn’t matter if they hate him, as long as people get curious about the movie, and buy tickets.

And the fact is, once the tickets are sold, nothing about the movie itself really matters.  The actors might do their best work, or they might phone it in, but the people who go to movies to see those actors are added to the number of people who will buy tickets.  It’s the same for everything about the movie, right down to the high concept, like a comic book or novel or board game or whatever the original idea was that started the project on the path to being done.  Once the people drawn to that idea have paid for a ticket, the idea has done its job.

Hollywood movie projects are expensive, and they have to bring in a LOT of tickets and rentals and copies–way more than the goofy little numbers that comic books or novels sell–in a relatively short amount of time. A Hollywood movie that sold as the same number of tickets as a typical best-selling book in the same amount of time would be a dismal failure.  If every person who read a particular comic book went to see major movie based on that comic, that movie would probably not make money, and if the comic was a niche title, the movie definitely would not make money.

The target market of movies then, is not just the people who bought the book or read the comic or played the board game–it’s all the people who have HEARD about the book/comic/game, plus all the people who are attracted by all the other movie stuff.

And that’s why major movie adaptations that are “just like” the source material are very rare exceptions.  Making a big-money film project that can only be appreciated by people who have absorbed the source material is an enormous risk that is simply not worth taking most of the time.  It makes much more sense for a big company to make a movie that a lot more people will buy a ticket to than it does to make a movie that will satisfy a smaller number of people who will probably buy a ticket anyway.

It doesn’t matter that the folks who loved the book hated the movie, as long as they bought a ticket.  Or enough other people bought tickets.

So there it is. Getting bent out of shape over a movie because you happened to know the source material makes about as much sense as getting bent out of shape because the food you eat in a fast-food restaurant isn’t just like the food you eat at home.  That was never the plan, and you’re being silly when you act like it was.  Over and over and over.

There are lots of movies that aren’t particularly true to the source material they were based on and still worked out pretty OK, like this one, this one, and this one.  I would wager that most of the people who loved those films never actually read the source material.  Something about bliss, I think.

If you managed to read this far, you might also find this article from the New Yorker about “About Schmidt” a bit enlightening as well.  Didn’t hear a lot of bitching about that one.

Haven’t seen it myself. I’m waiting for the graphic novel.

bookmark_borderThe baked beans are off.

not spam
With lots of pepper!

A while back, there were some big takedowns of a couple very large spam sources, which caused an enormous drop in the amount of spam worldwide. It appears that other parties have recently picked up the slack.

There has been a marked increase in the amount of email spam firing around over the last week or two.  I’ve been seeing a few hundred showing up in my filters daily, and the number seems to be growing.  There are a couple of things that can be done to protect yourself and others.

Luckily, these new attempts are pretty clumsy (eg emails claiming to be from MySpace containing warnings about bank accounts), but these new spammers won’t stay clumsy forever.

Also, because so many people are depending more on “private” messaging services (Facebook, Skype, etc), and/or have got new devices that use mail apps with limited  or hard-to-find controls, a lot of folks simply aren’t aware of what spam is and how to deal with it.

There are lots and lot of resources on the Weebs to help you find out if a message is spam.  Here’s an old one that is still pretty good,  and here is one more with more detail and a charmingly naive opening sentence.   I recommend you learn more about this stuff, but the most basic way to protect yourself is simply not click on anything–either a link or an attachment–unless you know FOR SURE that it is OK.  This applies even if the message has made it past your spam filters.  You can always send a reply to whomever sent you the message and ask if it is legit.

Oh, and spam occurs–and usually looks similar, on all them fancy chip jewelries you kids spend all day rubbing as well.

A quick and simple way to identify spam is copy a couple of sentences from the message and then paste them into a Google search, surrounded by quotes. It doesn’t always work, but if the spam has been around for a day or two, you’ll usually see search results about it.  This also works quite well with heartwarming stories and pithy quotes that have political overtones, talk about “a local [profession]” or use the term “studies have shown” but don’t cite any ACTUAL studies.

Some basic mail account maintenance would also go a long way in slowing this stuff down.

A lot of people have moved to newer email providers (Gmail being the most common) over the last two or three years, and just abandoned their old accounts without emptying or deleting them.  This provides a great hunting ground for bad guys, because:

  •  Those old addresses still seem legit to the people who used to receive mail from them
  • A lot of those old accounts were started back before people learned to use stronger passwords
  • Those old accounts are full of email addresses that are probably exploitable as well

If you have old accounts out there that you no longer use–especially if they are web mail accounts  (like yahoo.com or whatever MS is calling hotmail this week), please take a moment to shut them down.

If the mail provider is foolish enough NOT to provide means to delete your old account, you can do the following:

  1. Log into the old account
  2. Send a message to all your contacts telling them that you are no longer using that address, won’t be receiving messages sent to it,  and that they are free to block it.

    You should probably include something that makes it obvious that you are you, such as your current email address, in case they have questions.

  3. Delete everything in the account, including all sent messages and especially all contact/address book entries.
  4. When you are sure that you will never need to get back into the account, reset the password to a very long string of gibberish with capital letters and numbers.  At that point, you can just mash the keys at random, using caps and numbers and stuff, and make as long a password as the thing will accept.

Spamming asshats will always be with us, but we don’t have to make it easy for them.

bookmark_borderCop talk is a gateway drug

werds werds werds
Werds werds werds

 

This  article, which was found by a link from an site with no other known connections to the article, is thought to be quite illustrative of a counter-productive tendency within a certain community.

Speaking for myself, I would venture to assert that it was indeed exposure to this form of writing and speaking style that gave rise to the increased popularity of what I would deem, to coin a phrase,  “Long-Speak,” if you will.  This form or mode of writing relies heavily at its base on the considered opinion that more words—and words of longer and, shall we say, more rarified usage—lend more meaning to the statements at hand which are being made by the speaker, if you will.

As one, or indeed, all of the people involved, if you will, progresses in this style of executing the writing of a thought or placing words on the page that reflect the thinking of an individual, the reader, or listener, if you will, will notice at some moment in time the marked tendency to repeatedly fall back on entrenched habits and time-worn clichés in terms of the choice of phraseology, as this proven technique has repeatedly shown great success in the explosive growth of what is soon to be known as “content-free elevated diction.”

If you will.

The end result of this continuous upping of the anté vis-a-vis the on-going competition to enhance the putative and nominal importance of what is being said, if you will, while in point of fact ignoring or indeed, if one parses the content being mooted by the writer and/or producer in the harsh light of day, negating the need for content or at any rate, the clear display of what that content may be, per se.  A view might be held by some parties in certain camps that the end result of this was always the intent. That is to say, the objective of this idiom of the writing arts is to artfully obscure the originating motivator for the writing’s existence, and is rather the aggrandizement of the author or voice of the piece, while distancing that self-same entity from any possible repercussions resulting from what content manages to filter through the sieve of the medium and catch in the public eye, if you will.

In such cases as might occur in the form I describe, a fine balance must be artfully struck between the soothingly meaningless tropes expected by the core audience, and some amount of novelty which defines the voice of the writer as unique within the market structure. This gives rise to further twisting of the language, as writers personfully strive to create new but instantly and easily digested terms based on the acceptable limited dictionary of common vacabulatory usages, verbifying nouns, nounifying verbs, and adverbingly adjectiving. Also, sentence fragments, the end of which unnecessary prepositions are put at.

It is this self-same line of thinking which provides both the writer and audience, if you will, with new coinages, per se, while at the same time reambiguizing the terms that the audience might have a glimmer of recognizance of, but not full defination, particularly those of foreign or non-native origin to the audience. These terms are the cookie dough of the language, taking on whatever shape the writer, or word-baker, if you will, decides to impose upon it, and accepted without question by an audience, listener or reader, raised on words that, like sweet foods, are pleasing in the mouth and do no good elsewhere.

Additionally, weak and obvious metaphors—analogies, if you will—become an qualifier of distinguished letterpersonship, as they stand out like a tall mountain against the flat plains of the level of the remainder of the bulk of the writing, in the main, if you will.

But as Knute Rockne once said to Walter Cronkite “Mens rea, Tempora mundi!

bookmark_borderSeymour Duncan Tweak Fuzz Repair

Nice warm clipping
Nice warm clipping

Should you ever need to repair a Seymour Duncan Tweak Fuzz, you will probably find this schematic.

It is largely accurate, and I am always grateful to anyone who takes the time to make such things available. But there is one correction you should know about:

P2 (the Gain potentiometer) is a 2KC. That is, a 2K pot with a REVERSE AUDIO taper. At the time of writing, the only manufacturer for this part appears to Alpha, and this part is only available from Mouser in North America. Here is a link to the exact part.

I’m going to say Seymour Duncan Tweak Fuzz one more time. For the search engines.

bookmark_borderUpgrading to worse

It all starts with my mother. Now with more better than nothing!

My mother has an Intel Mac Mini that she got a few years ago. It works like a champ, and she has had fewer problems with it than any other computer she has ever had.  She does not have the need, interest, eyesight, or digital dexterity to use chip jewelry.

Before she got the Mac, she was using a Windows 98SE machine.  It was old, she’d had it quite a while, and it worked just dandy for her.  She liked it very much, and was pretty choked when she finally had to replace it.

There were two programs that she particularly liked on her Windows machine:  Quicken, and Maximizer. Maximizer is/was contact management software, which she used as an address book, calendar, to-do list and more.  (I used to work at the company that made Maximizer).  These two programs, along with a Web browser, email client, and some Word-compatible word processor, were pretty much all she used on the computer.

They don’t make a Canadian version of Quicken for Mac. Maximizer has unfortunately remained convinced that their only market is Windows users (too bad, as it was very useful stuff, and there was nothing quite like it).  Mom had to make a decision, and at the time, any new Windows machine she got would have run XP, which was as different to her as anything else would be. Also, I was using a Mac as a daily driver, and I’m the one who gets called when Mom has questions.  So Mom went with the Mac because the reasons for doing so were stronger.  It doesn’t matter whether you agree with this or not.

It is hard to explain to people who don’t know much about computers but actually think about what they are buying why computer X can’t run the same software as computer Y.  Normally, when dealing with boring products that perform a function, we define product Foo as being “better” than product Bar largely because Foo can do everything that Bar can do, and/or do more than that, or do it better.

You know–“This vacuum can pick up everything that vacuum can, AND it can pick up bigger things, and it can do stairs and it filters more crap out of the air.  So it’s better and it costs more.”

But because the personal computing market has been fundamentally defined by operating systems, we’ve been comparing apples to oranges (sorry) the whole time.  You can not buy an operating system that does everything the other operating systems do AND more.  Not simply.  And shut up about virtualization unless you are willing  to go set it up for my mom.

We use really screwy metrics to make our purchase decisions for personal computers, like:

  1. Computer X is faster (which is usually irrelevant, as all options are usually faster than the user needs)
  2. Computer X is what more people use (which is irrelevant, if you are only using formats that are cross-compatible)
  3. Computer X has more software titles available (which is irrelevant, because most people use their computer for a very small number of tasks, and almost becomes  a contradiction of #2 anyway)
  4. Computer X is ready for the next operating system (which is a really stupid argument, because despite what you see in ads from operating system manufacturers, most normal people don’t buy computers in order to get an operating system. They buy computers to do things.)

I used to look down my nose at people who bought computers because they looked nice, or were thin, or fit in their luggage, or matched their eyes. But you know, those are probably more reasonable arguments in most cases than any of the four above.  You’re better off making sure you like the screen, the keyboard and the mouse than the processor.

But let’s get back to Mom’s problem.  Last year, a friend of Mom’s sent her a Flash e-card.  It was one of those nice advent calendar thingies. It looks like an old town. You go to the calendar every day in December, and you click on the number of that day, and something nice happens–some decorations go up, some birds fly around.  It’s a sweet little thing.

This year, Mom got two of them.  She followed the link to get the cards, and was told that she didn’t have a compatible version of Flash. So she tried to update her Flash plug-in and was told that she didn’t have a compatible version of her browser. She tried another browser, and got the same message. So she tried to update her browser, and was told that the browser no longer supported her version of the operating system.

So there we are: Mom has to install a new version of her operating system JUST TO RUN AN E-CARD.

  • Does the e-card even use the new features of Flash?  Who can say?
  • Does the browser actually need its new features to run the Flash plug-in? Who can say?
  • Does the browser actually need all the functions of the new operating system just to run the Flash plug-in?  Who can say?

But nobody is going to say, and it wouldn’t matter if they did, because the answer is still “Install a new version of the operating system.”

Despite what it looks like in the ads, updating or installing a new O/S is not a super-fun happy time. You should back up your stuff first.  No matter what, a bunch of your settings will change, and a bunch of stuff will be in a different place, or have different names, than what you were used to.  It takes a long time too.  Oh yeah–and it costs money.  I live about half a continent away from Mom, so I have to bug a friend to help her out with this.

Yes, the easy way to look at this is particular problem is “It’s not worth it just for an e-card.”  But while it’s a masterfully-chosen example, it’s not just e-cards that this affects. I have recording hardware and perfectly functional computers in my basement which are no longer considered usable because they are no longer supported by operating systems.  The recording hardware and software I use on the current Mac I am writing this on will stop working if I “upgrade” the operating system.

It works just fine now.  And after I upgrade, it won’t work at all.

And the only solution is to buy more stuff–stuff that doesn’t work as well for me as the stuff I am using, by the way.  And of course, the new operating system does more, but not necessarily more of what I want it to do, and it does so at the cost of performance on the computer I am using.

In short, upgrading will make this computer worse.

Everything all the way along here is broken, as far as the user is concerned. Every link of this annoying chain of compromise was forged by a decision that something was more important than providing actual daily value to the user. And the user is the customer.

Here I go again: Software companies exist to make money.  They want to sell a new version of the same thing on a regular basis to an ever-increasing user base. I say that so often that even I am tired of hearing it, and I love the sound of my own typing.  It’s true though, and there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the idea.  The problem is that the model operating system manufacturers use is more appropriate to applications than operating systems.   I believe it was JWZ who said “My application shouldn’t break just because you did something as trivial as replace an operating system.”  I think he was going at that from a different angle, but it still obtains.

And it could get worse.  There is some conjecture that Microsoft wants to move to an annual OS update schedule like Apple’s. That’s a new operating system every 12 months. That’s an ASS-TON  (Kelvin) of broken drivers, suddenly obsolete software and hardware, and seriously non-productive users. Which is nothing but good news for hardware and software manufacturers and IT types, and thus pits them squarely against users.

You should not need to buy a bunch of new stuff just because a small thing on your computer has changed.  And when you get new stuff, it should work better than the old stuff.  All rationalizations about why this is not so ONLY make sense if you accept that this broken system is how It Has To Be.  It is not.

Right now, personal computing (including mobile) is a marketing scheme that happens to involve computers, and it is hurting itself and its users.

I had an idea though.  I’ll get to that next time.

bookmark_borderYou say dumb, I say unicorn.

 

It just keeps running!This whole long post grew out of this short Cringely article about how Microsoft is dumbing down Windows. Cringely figures that this is being done so that Windows8 will run on Mobile devices.

Now Cringely can sometimes be right out to lunch about stuff, but I think the point he is making here should be obvious to anyone paying attention: All major desktop OS platforms are now rushing like mad to crank out operating systems that will work on fondleslabs and chip jewelry (now collectively known as “Mobile”) AS WELL AS desktop/laptops.

Because that’s where the money is going to be.

After the last couple-three decades nobody should need convincing that the point of a software company is NOT to create, innovate, forge ahead, or make the world a better place. The point of a software company is to sell as much software as possible, and make as much money as possible doing so. Like any other commercial enterprise.

This should come as no surprise, though the Internet is full of people who seem to believe that one software company or the other is a Magic Software Unicorn, and all the rest are Evil Evil Bastards Who Are Only In It For The Money. They will sit in Starbuck’s and blow spit at their screen as they make this point, the irony bouncing off them like an anti-trust ruling bounces off a Magic Software Unicorn.

We find ourselves now at the same point we have found ourselves many times before–some new way to sell more software has arrived, and it’s become a large enough market that it is worth moving into for these large companies. This time the new thing is Mobile. The Magic Software Unicorns will leap bravely into this market, vowing to make the world a better place for all involved. The cost for this better world is, of course, consumers buying more stuff more often–otherwise there would be no point in making the world a better place.

This is what the cool kids call one of them “disruptive moments.” And for the Magic Software Unicorns, it couldn’t really come a moment too soon. We ran out of low-hanging fruit in the desktop/laptop markets a few years ago, and now there some doubt that the fruit will last at all. Even with the shorter lifespan and improved destructibility of laptops, the rate at which people buy new computers and turn over their operating systems is not going to grow much where the pickings are easy. In fact, depending on whether it’s a week before or a week after one of the Magic Software Unicorns issues a profit report, it might even be slowing down.

That’s lethal to a mentality based on infinite constant growth forever this quarter forever.

Magic Software Unicorns have made a buttload of money by convincing their customers that there is some value in buying a new operating system or computer every couple of years or so. The reality is that most people only use their computers for a very small number of tasks, and most of those tasks could be done on a much simpler machine. Most people don’t need a new operating system that does more things every two years. They don’t explore all those things. They would be happy with a less-expensive system that makes it easier to do their small number of things. And when they want to do something else, it would be nice to just get that one thing simply and easily, with as few confusing steps as possible.

A less expensive, simpler device, sold as a premium device that does more than other premium devices. Put that on a two- or three-year contract, with the idea that OF COURSE you will get a new device when you get a new contract and you can watch the Magic Software Unicorn prance with joy.

And when you buy a new Mobile toy, it LOOKS different. You don’t just get just another beige or silver rectangle, you get a A WHOLE NEW THING that solves all the problems you didn’t know you had when you bought the last one.

The whole scheme friggin’ sells itself.

I overheard a conversation yesterday in which someone asked a clerk in a department store if they carried “that app to get Siri to call me ‘Rock Star’ like in the commercial.” And the clerk referred the customer to another clerk who “knows all about that app stuff.” The nerd in my head thought “Do you really need an app to change your own name on your own device?” I have no idea if you do, but this guy was willing to pay for an app to do it.

Is he nuts? Or is he just a normal user? I’m going with “normal.” Most people are net consumers on their computer. They read more than they write. They view more pictures than they put out. They get more help than they give, and they learn more than they teach. They fill in more blanks than they make forms. They watch more people get hit in the crotch than they get hit in the crotch (I’ve got a million of these, but I’ll stop now).

This might sound like a cranky assessment but in fact, it’s not a criticism in any way. Most people simply have more of a requirement to use their computer to do simple tasks–talk or write short messages to other people, view and read and listen and play–than they do to create content and products for other people. They are mostly consumers, not producers. They do not care how it works, and do not think it is their job to set up, fix, troubleshoot, or understand the device. They just want to use it to do a few simple things, and they will pay to have those things done.

A smart phone or tablet is a much better fit for this vast majority of computer users. It is a consumption device, not a production device. It’s terrible for writing or editing long documents (I will make you a deal: don’t give me anecdotes about someone writing a novel on Twitter or tell me about the dude who does New Yorker covers on his iPad, and I won’t make an analogy about people who paint by holding a brush in their butt), passable for recording the events of the day with a shaky camera or microphone (“Watch–it hit him right in the crotch!!!”), very handy for reading/watching/listening/playing.

As an added bonus, the phone/tablet market is growing like a weed, and the consumers in that market are pretty easy to sell new devices and operating systems on a regular basis right now. It’s like computer sales were in the 90’s, only faster and cheaper, without the need to make or deal with any physical software media. The return on investment for Magic Software Unicorns can be quite high, and the lifespan of the product is short and pretty much enforceable. Carriers will subsidise the product in order to get contracts, so the user never knows how much the operating system costs, so they don’t get mad at OS vendors as often. Customers get mad at the phone, and at the carrier, and that puts two lines of support between the customer and the OS vendor.

Compared to the cost and risk of trying to convince a jaded user-base to buy a new thing to do the same thing on a desktop/laptop, mobile is the Big Rock Candy Mountain.

Though it was a bad fit for most users, the desktop/laptop was easy to sell because it is much, much better than nothing. That’s how we got luggables, and XTs, and the Apple II, and that advantage carried on for as long as the choice was between computer-as-we-sell-them on one hand, and NO computer on the other. Extend that idea just a little bit, and you see how  Microsoft achieved and maintained a monopoly position for so long: Everyone used MS’ products because “everyone” used MS’ products. No-one wanted to be on the outside looking in, or have to think/spend too much trying to do things another way–even if that meant putting up with a higher price, a worse fit, or a troublesome product that didn’t do exactly what you wanted it to.

The largest amount of the most customisable type of mass-produced product in the history of ever was mostly sold in a form that is completely uncustomisable.

And that’s because most people using computers do not want perfect software that that have to think about. They just want good ‘nough software that lets them do their stuff as simply as possible.  That’s actually not such a dumb thing to want.

There is a much larger population in the emerging markets for computers than in the existing user base. That is to say, there are still many more people Over There who don’t own computers than there are people Over Here who do. But reaching those markets poses more problems than reaching the existing one. First of all, there are more comfortable options open to non-users in those markets than there are for existing users Over There. Over Here, we are trying to improve and work with what we already have.  We’re trying to improve on things, even if that means dumbing down.

Over There, because any computer is better than no computer, an inexpensive used computer that you can afford with a free operating system on it (“free” has a few definitions here, some legal, some not) is infinitely superior to a new computer that you can’t afford. There’s a lower standard for Good ‘nough.

This makes the advantage of “everyone” using a particular product disappear. Existence before essence and all that. But these markets are also more work to develop for other reasons.

It might be that some of these new markets don’t have the same view of copyright and licensing that we do Over Here. It may be that the governments in those jurisdictions don’t want the same features that we take for granted Over Here available to people Over There.  It may be that those governments place a higher value on getting computers into the hands of their people than they place on making sure that licensing payments get to the software makers over here. They might also have other reasons for wanting everyone to be connected.

Centralized control of the technology–like a cell or data system–works for both the software vendor and these other interests. A cell or data plan can subsidise, or at least amortise, the cost of the device and the operating system, so people who couldn’t normally afford the device all at once can now pay for it over time. The system can determine which devices or operating systems it will work with, so software vendors don’t have to constantly compete against any other technology–including old versions of their own. And the system can determine who has access to what, ensuring that everyone toes the line, and it’s easy to find anyone who doesn’t. Last, but certainly not least, the infrastructure for mobile devices is just a lot easier to put in place, control, and maintain if you are starting from scratch right now.

All of this–the slowing desktop/laptop market, the growing mobile market, the potential of emerging markets, makes Mobile The Obvious Way Forward for Magic Software Unicorns. And as they rush into that space, we see what at first glance look like odd developments by the big desktop OS players, but are usually moves that fit with their overall approach.

Apple, always thinking of user experience, is making the user experience of iOS and OS X more similar to each other. That makes it easier for users of one Apple device to feel comfy buying and using another. And Apple is starting to push people more and more towards the idea of the App Store as the only reliable source of OS X software, the same role it plays on iOS.

Ubuntu, which tries to make a user-indifferent system appear friendly, is making their default user interface uniformly non-functional for both computer and mobile users (Sorry man, but I tried Unity on a desktop, and it seems built specifically to get you to do about 8 things, at the cost of being able to do anything else. It is horrible).  I wish there was some upside to this, but I can’t find it.

And, as mentioned in the Cringely article, MS is dropping their shiny, cheesy (sic), porky desktop interface, probably in order to make their mobile OS work on the lower-performance hardware we can cram into phones and tablets right now. This appears to be an historically uncharacteristic move, as MS has never had a problem simply requiring the user to buy more horsepower in order to run new versions of Windows, but as all three fans of the aptly-named WinCE can attest, it’s not complete unprecedented. What’s important is the licensing fee, and that the user sees the Windows logo on startup.

You’ll notice that two of the Magic Software Unicorns are trying to reduce their resource use by building just ONE system that will work on both Mobile and desktop/laptops. Those are the two who do not build their own hardware, and they are smart enough to know that if they get some traction in the market, then hardware manufacturers will come to THEM and the unicorns can go back to calling the shots.

Cranky as I sound, the move to Mobile is not an altogether bad thing. Feature- and function-wise, it’s a better fit for most users. Cost of entry is lower, and updates and compatibility issues between hardware and operating system are taken care up farther up the tree, instead of driving users nuts.

And you never know, after a few years, people might learn that they don’t have to have the things glued to their hands every waking second and might start to act like functional human beings again.

Unfortunately, none of this bodes well for those of us who produce things with technology–who actually use it to make complex things or do large jobs. While there is always lots of money to be made by cobbling together low-featured Mobile versions of software and selling it based on name value, it’s unrealistic to think of someone editing a film or mixing a complex recording or developing 3-D images–or large 2D images, or composing a poster layout or..or.. on the tiny screen and limited resources of a mobile device. Not with the current technology, anyway.

As I mentioned 400,000 words ago, the point of software companies is to sell software, and any innovation or initiative they may pursue falls out of that basic need to separate people from their money. Development of “better” operating systems or software is only profitable with the right combination of price and sales. Most improvements we have seen in commercial software have largely been the result of those products being over-built for most of the people who buy them. The development cost for that has been offset by a large sales volume.

In a Mobile-dominated model, there’s no benefit to an operating system that does more than it has to–it’s just a bare-bones system that supports apps. There’s no incentive to build in any features or capability that you could sell separately.  Like the ability to change the user name to “Rock God.”

We may see again a time in which products like Photoshop and ProTools become small-market items, and cost a lot of money, not just because they are named “Photoshop” and “ProTools” but because they are actually tools built for specialists, and they just don’t sell very many copies.

The future may be very easy to watch, but more difficult and expensive to make.

bookmark_borderWhere do you FIND this stuff?

All the engine you need, baby!I read a LOT. I use an RSS reader (Right now, I use Vienna on my Mac.  It’s good.) and get somewhere over 2000 stories a day in there.  Because I follow a bunch of shopping feeds, and shopping feeds just crank out posts, about half of that number is completely irrelevant on any given day, and I just delete it without looking at it.

I used to spend a lot of time going sideways through search engines and indexes (like Yahoo! used to be).  I’d search for something that interested me, hit one of the results, and hop from links on one site to links on another.  It was great back when there were quite a few engines and indexes, because you would get different results from each.  You could get a really well-rounded view of a topic that way.  Think critically. Draw your own conclusions.  Learn.

Search and indexing on the Web keeps getting worse and worse.  Once the focus moved from cataloguing information to simply repeating the most popular results, and people started using just one source as their authoritative guide to the Web, it started to get harder and harder to go sideways.  Add to that SEO, paid search results, and results based on your past preferences, no-one wanting to look at anything more than the first 10 search results, and searching the Web pretty much sucks any more, if you actually want to learn stuff.

It is now much easier to be told what a bunch of people who didn’t know anything considered useful.

Now pretty much everything I link to I arrive at from something I read in an RSS feed. I still go sideways from there as much as I can, though.

I have about 10 feeds from conventional news sources–CBC, BBC, Reuters, stuff like that.  These feeds add a LOT of stories every day, though a lot of the same stories appear in multiple feeds.  I don’t have any commercial US news feeds.  I live in the US Midwest, where there is really good television news coverage….for about 10 minutes a day.  There are also approximately infinity hours of utterly worthless television news entertainment. Seeing this dreck is pretty much unavoidable if you own a television or go anywhere that more than 50 people pass a day.  Popular US news is like Guns ‘N’ Roses: You will hear more of it by accident than you will ever want to hear on purpose.

You can learn a lot more about a story when you find out how the outside world sees it, and that’s why I stick to RSS feeds from other countries, or raw news feeds which deliver a lot of stories without a lot of editorialising.  I don’t like to be told how to think about a story.  I like to see it from as many sides as I can.

Commercial news sources concentrate on the kind of news that sells well–they HAVE to.  That means mostly crime, mass-marketed products, stories involving well-known people or companies, politics and other big disasters.  The fact that these sources try to make space for arts, or technology, or the odd human-interest story underscores the more important fact that they have to MAKE space for that kind of story.  It’s not their stock-in-trade, it’s a purposeful inclusion of things outside their stock-in-trade.  They make their money as big-story generalists. There’s nothing terribly wrong with that, as a commercial venture. You can make money at it, but producing that kind of stuff takes the kind of money that you can only generate from a large audience and lots of advertising.

In the main, that’s not what I look for online.  Because of their need to deliver stories for a mass audience, and my oddball weirdohead, the stuff I find really interesting doesn’t filter out to these sources for at least a few days after it’s been talked about on the Web or the TwitBooks or whatever, if at all. It’s rare for me to find anything in conventional news feeds that is worth comment or repeating–maybe ten stories a week, so I read a lot of other sources.

As with conventional news, there are a lot of sites/feeds that just link to the same stories as other sites/feeds, or repost them without adding any information, insight, or at least some funny.  I follow links back to the original content and read that, and usually, that’s what I link to. Sometimes I link to the site where I first saw the content mentioned, and always try to do so if secondary site has added anything interesting

Quite often, I find things by following a link on another site, then kind of skipping sideways or searching somewhere, or I find supporting information that’s more interesting than the original topic/page I was researching.  It is sometimes difficult to figure out how to attribute anything to the site that started the trip that ultimately lead to the link, so I often haven’t in the past.

I’ve sometimes been bit of a jerk about attribution, just to save time and confusion.  I’m lots of other kinds of jerk, not OK with being that kind of jerk.

Luckily, the very hard-working person who compiles, writes and curates Brain Pickings (which is one of my RSS feeds, and is very good) has co-authored a Curator’s Code for the Internet.  It mostly boils down to either stating where you got the link, or giving a tip of the hat to whoever lead you to find the link.

I like this basic idea, and I hope it catches on.  I tried using their bookmarklet and the symbols they are trying to standardise for these two types of attribution, but those symbols seem to get messed up by WordPress’ annoying text cleaning elves when I save drafts. I hope that changes, but in the meantime I will at least stick to the idea of attribution and hat tips.

This will leave me more time to be the kind of jerks I know I can be.

bookmark_borderToday’s Mac Keystroke of the Week for July

1.5 handed typingI prefer to use the keyboard to do things on the computer, rather than having to move one hand over to the mouse, which interrupts my typing. If you’ve ever been in a conversation with me, this will make sense to you, as I also hate the part where I have to stop talking to breathe, listen, eat, or take a punch to the mouth.

Here’s a really basic set of keystrokes that I should have looked for long ago.

When you are using the Finder to look at/for files on Mac OS X, you can use one of four views. Most people find that 3 of those views are annoying, and only like one. I have, in the five or so years since I got a Mac, spent a total of 24 years and five months switching the Finder window to the view I prefer.

You can switch between views by clicking on the view buttons, or choose a view from the “View” menu, or you can use keystrokes.

  • Cmd+1 gives you the classic icon view, which I have always hated
  • Cmd+2 gives you list view, which is not as useful as it should be
  • Cmd+3 gives you column view, which I find most useful, and is a pain if you have a lot of nested folders
  • Cmd+4 gives you “Cover Flow” view, which is only ever used when Macs are on display for sale, because it is otherwise pointless

There IS an unnecessarily dumb-ass way to tell Finder to use your preferred view as the default, but Finder has its own funny way of defining “default,”  so it is much less of a pain to just use the keystrokes to set the view to what you want each time.

All of these keystrokes are shown right there in the “View” menu when you use Finder, but I’ve been ignoring them for years. Please be better than me.

BONUS KEYSTROKE: In 10.5 or higher, if you have a file highlighted in Finder, and you hit the spacebar, you will get a quick preview of the file–if Preview is able to open the file.  This is a quick way to look into a text document, or preview a music file, or look at an image, without opening a big application.  This is one of those obvious keystrokes that is somehow easy to miss.