Monday, March 31, 2014

I Told You So

Back when Dropbox was new, several friends pushed me to sign up for it.  It's totally awesome!  So easy to share files!  Blah blah blah.

I was a little skeptical.

But I signed up anyway.  And I used it for a few months before eventually discontinuing my use of it.  I had a handful of problems with the service, both technical and non-technical.  For starters, they are closed source.  I have a big problem with that, mostly because I have spent my career working on open source software and have a personal problem with companies who take work that I likely helped along the way at some point, offer some sort of service, and don't contribute code back.  I don't care that they charge for the service, it's the fact that they sit on their changes as some sort of secret sauce that no one else can have.  Intellectual property lawyers and open source advocates have a long way to go before they understand each other, but let's say that Dropbox sits on the traditional side of the argument.  I sit on the other side.

They offer a client for Linux and other platforms.  The Linux client (at least when I looked at it) amounts to a small executable that they downloads a gigantic amount of unnecessary software and crams it in to a hidden directory in your home directory.  It's basically like an entire Linux distribution just for running Dropbox.  This is completely unnecessary and ties back to the fact that they are not open source.  If they worked with the Linux community, they wouldn't have to invent these stupid hacks to work around what they perceive as problems on the Linux platform.  "But all distributions ship different shared libraries!"  Yes, they do.  So open source your damn project and let the distributors incorporate it in to their distribution.  They will do all of the ugly work of integrating it in to their platform.  Companies still don't understand this and instead sign up for doing the annoying work on their own.

"But they are open source," you say?  Oh, you mean this.  Yeah, that's actually not really required to use the service and does nothing by itself.  That is just the Nautilus plugin that communicates with the Dropbox backend software.  It implements the drag-and-drop functionality for GNOME desktop users.  You still need the binary-only blob that is downloaded and installed automatically when you getdropbox.

OK, so enough of the technical arguments.  Dropbox is about easily sharing files with people on the Internet.  Like you share files in your office maybe.  And it does this well.  Across platforms.  But Dropbox has decided that it is going to declare itself a publisher rather than a common carrier.  It's a tricky business that they're in.  Is it ok to facilitate sharing files among people you don't know and then wipe your hands clean and say you're just the common carrier, like criminals using phones but the phone company not being responsible for any part of facilitating that crime?  Napster tried to be a common carrier and lost.  Of course, their service specifically was for sharing music with the unspoken selling point being you can avoid paying for CDs.

What about, that site that no one knew about until the FBI raided the offices and founder's New Zealand.  They were more similar to Dropbox than Napster and the US government was still able to go after them, with questionable legal power and jurisdiction.

Dropbox is now scanning files you drop in your box for any content that may violate the Digital Millenium Copyright Act.  Their legal team likely advised this as being the best mode of operation now given the legal action taken against other companies in recent times.  But is it right?  A topic for a law school exam, but I personally don't think it is sustainable for content enforcement in this capacity to be fair or equitable.  It's already unfair and it will only get worse.  The RIAA and MPAA need to come up with a new model for copyright ownership and revenue because the models of the past do not work in a world where I can download and watch Pacific Rim on my phone.

I had a feeling that Dropbox would eventually start doing this if they weren't already.  Do you mind your files being scanned by a company?  Do you have private data stored there?  Unless you have total control over the system you're storing data on, you given up privacy.  Maybe that's ok for some people, but do you really feel ok knowing that ANYONE at the service provider has access to your data?  Do you trust that service provider?  Think twice before using services like Dropbox.  You and your data are rarely, if ever, in any company's best interests.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Good Fluke

There was a story a week or so ago about a small business named SparkFun in Boulder, CO that sells electronics and tools and such to the hobbyist market (they call it the maker crowd, but I find that term sort of silly).  They look for and carry less expensive alternatives to professional equipment.  Wait, why don't I just link to the article instead?

A common tool used in the hobbyist electronics crowd is the digital multimeter.  You've likely seen one and you may even used one.  These are the devices that measure volts, amps, and ohms.  Sometimes other things.  The gold standard among these meters is generally Fluke, though opinions on gear are as common as models of multimeters out there.

SparkFun was importing a couple thousand multimeters from China.  It looks like they were labeled under SparkFun's house brand name.  These are nice looking meters.  In fact, they look very similar to the Fluke style meters.

And that's where the problem starts.

SparkFun received a letter from US Customs and Border Protection in Denver telling them that their shipment of meters from China would not be allowed in the United States due to trademark infringement.  The letter pointed them to the trademark in question and told them their options:  return the meters to China or pay to have them destroyed in the United States.  Both options cost a lot of money.

So trademark infringement?  On a multimeter?  Turns out that Fluke applied for a trademark covering it's distinctive case design in 2000 and was awarded the trademark in 2003.  These meters from China were styled in the same manner as a Fluke device which is what triggered the trademark infringement concern.  As a trademark owner (any trademark owner), you must defend your mark or risk losing it.  This has happened many times in the past and lots of companies regret not being more aggressive in defending their trademarks, however silly they may be.

Fluke is an American company and part of what our import controls are for is protecting the interests of American businesses.  In this case, a very large business (Fluke) unfortunately disrupted a very small business' livelihood.  And both businesses are American.  Who do you cater to?  We want both to succeed, right?  In SparkFun's case, the cost of either option would likely have put them in significant debt and made it hard to continue doing business.

We talked about this story at lunch one day and I said that Fluke should step up and either offer to cover the destruction fee or do some sort of other goodwill thing for SparkFun.  You acknowledge a growing market of technically minded people who just can't really afford Fluke gear right now and you hopefully keep everyone liking Fluke, whether or not they can afford the equipment.

A couple days later, Fluke did just that!  Wow, a business trying to do good to help a smaller business.  While they did not cover the cost of destruction, they did one better and offered SparkFun a free shipment of genuine Fluke meters to do whatever they wanted with.

This is amazing to me.  Fluke really seemed to understand the bind they put SparkFun in.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

We [may have] Bought A House

Karen and I have been searching for a house to buy and finally came across one we really liked.  We put in an offer last week and it was accepted, so we have begun the slow crawl through the remaining paperwork.

We were hoping to stay in Cambridge, but the property availability, types, and price were just not what we were looking for.  So we looked 6 km down the road in Medford and found a house we like.

We have been renting for a long time now, and were both renters even before we met.  We are looking forward to some simple things that most homeowners probably take for granted:
  • a dishwasher
  • a washer and dryer that is (a) in your house and (b) that you don't share with other apartments
  • a microwave oven
  • a driveway
  • a garage
Yes, these are pretty silly, but the last time I lived somewhere with a dishwasher was in 2007.  And I haven't had my own washer and dryer since 2005.

The sellers want a closing date of May 30th.  Pictures at some point.  So much paperwork to sort out before then.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

I Still Want Unix

We have phones that are 50 times more powerful than the first computer I had in college.  I haven't lifted a CRT display in....well, I have no idea how long now.  Laptops are now considered dated and touchscreen interfaces are more and more common today than ever before.

I love being able to watch a movie on my iPad or look up something via Google on my phone, but when I want to hack or do something requiring a keyboard, I want a Unix system.  Still.  I think it's the speed and proficiency thing.  Once you become really accustomed to particular user interface, it becomes harder for you to want to use different user interfaces.  Yeah, I know about the Find operation in a text editor or a word processor, but I'd much rather use pipes and grep for that at the command line.  It's just faster for me.  Maybe it really isn't, but it feels that way to me.

An oldie but goodie:

This is the June 24, 1995 Dilbert comic strip.  I don't have the beard and there is hair on the top of my head, but maybe I should start wearing suspenders.  Standard AT&T issue suspenders.

I see complex UI proficiency in other areas too.  I am an amateur radio operator and there is rarely anything simple in that hobby.  The long time radio operators refer to the new operators who purchase handheld radios an appliance jockey.  A little harsh.  Just because they have chosen to purchase a Japan built handheld radio doesn't mean they respect you and the way you "radio" any less.  Ehh, they're just angry old guys.

Hardcore amateur radio operators love Morse code communications.  It's a skill that requires training and a lot of practice to become proficient at.  And then the user interface is still never trivial.  Yet, they love it.

For all of the user interface advancements out there today, I still want my dated and difficult to use system.  I spent all that time learning command line options after all.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Shack It To Me

Poor Radio Shack.  They just can't get it together.  Also, why the hell do they have more than 5000 stores?  That is a ton of batteries.

Their most recent earnings call notes that even though this is their 8th consecutive quarter of huge losses, they still have a plan to turn things around.  Really?  REALLY?  They must be sitting on a mountain of cash because I would have expected massive store closings before now.  Even though they are closing 1100 stores, I expect more closings after that and likely an eventual move to online sales only or just closing up entirely.  Of course, this is assuming that they are going to stick with the same product focuses.

Things I think Radio Shack should also do in order to bring customers back:

  • Stop "Radio Shacking" people when they just want to buy batteries.  Even if you haven't done this in years, most people still remember it.  Why do you need my name, address, and phone number just for batteries?  Oh, for the catalog?  No thanks.
  • Promote hard to find gadgets and accessories.  Look at Cyber Guys online.  This is a perfect example.  They specialize in the hard to find but nice to have gadgets and accessories.  If my local Radio Shack carried those kinds of items, I would go there rather than order online.  EVEN if the price in the store was slightly higher.
  • If you're selling parts for projects, sell all the parts that make sense.  For example, don't have a store selling resistors without also selling good soldering irons.  Don't sell car stereo do-it-yourself stuff but then sell inadequate spools of wire at the wrong gauge.
  • Take the LEGO approach to restoring business.  You now have a generation of potential Radio Shack shoppers who were kids in the 80s and 90s.  What about the occassional limited time reintroduction of a classic Radio Shack product.  A stereo with the Realistic brand on it, for example?  Things we remember seeing in the store and wouldn't mind seeing again just to remind us of back then.  We might even buy it.
  • DON'T tell me to go to another store if you are out of stock of some item.  Offer to sell it to me in the store from your web site, but do something like offering me a coupon to come back or waiving shipping.  I am absolutely shocked when I have gone in to Radio Shack, asked for a item, told it's not in stock (or worse, they don't know what I'm asking about) and then suggested another store to go to.
  • Probably a lot of other things.
I can tell you this.  I am uninterested in a Radio Shack that is just a big cell phone store.  We already have those and no one likes going to them.

My kids will never know a retail world with CompUSA, Circuit City, Incredible Universe, Phar-Mor, American Fare, Revco, Zayre, Richway, Montgomery Ward, Service Merchandise, Computer City, Eckerd, Egghead Software, and Lechmere.  I don't want to add another company to that list.

If Sears can still do it, I think Radio Shack can.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Had Milk

Big Milk (America's Milk Processors by way of Milk Processor Education Program, in other words THE MILK LOBBY) want you to say goodbye to got milk? and say hello to Milk Life, the new ad campaign.  Expect it to last either a week or a couple of decades depending on the public reception.  Why, you ask?  Because.

Don't worry, it still works with parodies and jokes.  For example, "got milk?" becomes "got milf?" but you can also turn "Milk Life" in to "Milf Life".

No word yet on what ads lactose intolerant people are supposed to be looking for.

Oh, I'm really sorry, we don't take reservations.

We've been invited to a wedding somewhere in Calisota and I spent today sorting out travel details.  We have airfare and rental car taken care of, now to reserve a hotel room.  The wedding has two hotel blocks, so I assumed this would be the easy part of sorting out travel details.  Here's how the phone conversations went down:

(H=hotel, M=me):

H:  "Thank you for calling Popcopy Hotel, do you mind holding?"
M:  "Sure, that's fine."
H:  "How may I help you?"
M:  "I need to make a reservation in a wedding block in the hotel.  The wedding is near the end of April."
H:  "You need a wedding block of rooms?"
M:  "No, there is a wedding block to which I've been invited and I'd like to reserve a room in it."
H:  "OK, can I have the name?"
M:  "My name or the wedding name?"
H:  "Your name."
M:  "David Cantrell."
H:  "I'm not seeing a reservation under that name."
M:  "I know, that's why I'm calling.  I need to make the reservation."
H:  "Oh, hehehehehee, my mistake."
...CLICK, on hold music...
H:  (new person) "What's the check-in date?"
M:  "Oh, ummm, April 23rd."
H:  "One night?"
M:  "No, I need to check out on April 27th."
H:  "Just you?"
M:  "No, it's my family.  Me, my wife, and my daughter."
H:  "Just a moment."
H:  "OK, the hotel is under a mandatory rate for that time period due to the occupancy."
M:  "Right, so there should be a wedding block under the name Bride & Groom.  That's why we're traveling."
H:  (type type type) "OK, that wedding block does not cover all of the nights you need so we have to charge the full rate for the other nights, is that ok?"
M:  "Sure, that's fine."
H:  "Are you a AAA member?"
M:  "Yes."
H:  "OK, just a moment."
H:  "Yeah, the hotel is under a mandatory rate for that time period due to the occupancy."
(ugh, we already went over this)
M:  "Sure, that's fine.  We can pay full rate for the other nights as long as we can get the wedding rate for the block nights."
H:  "Not a problem.  OK, so I've got you checking in on April 24th and checking out on April 27th."
M:  "We arrive on the 23rd, I need an April 23rd check-in."
H:  "Oh, that's not available for this wedding block.  But if you want to reserve a full rate stay for the 23rd to 27th, that's available."
M:  "What?"
H:  "I can only extend you stay by a specific number of days, but I can't get the 23rd on this reservation."
M:  "So you're telling me there are rooms and the only way to get an extra day on our stay is to not take the wedding block rate at all?"
H:  "That's what the system is making me do.  Do you want me to call other hotels in the area?"
M:  "Is there someone else I can speak with about this reservation?  I don't mind paying the full rate for the extra nights."
H:  "I don't know, you'll have to call the hotel."
M:  "I'm not talking to the hotel?"
H:  "No, this is central reservations and I can only do what the system allows."
M:  "Ugh, ok, I'll call the hotel."
H:  "Do you want keep this reservation?"
M:  "No, go ahead and cancel it."
H:  "But you might not be able to get a room later."
M:  "I can't get a room now apparently."
H:  "But you can cancel up until the 21st with no penalty."
M:  "I'll take my chances."
H:  "Thank you for calling Goliath International Hotel Consortium."

I wait until after dinner and call the hotel back in an attempt to make the reservation.   Here's how that goes.

H:  "Thank you for calling Popcopy Hotel, do you mind holding?"
M:  "Sure, that's fine."
H:  "How may I help you?"
M:  "I called earlier and was transferred to central reservations.  They were unable to help me and told me to speak with someone directly at the hotel."
H:  "OK, do you mind holding for a moment while I help some guests?"
M:  "Sure, that's fine."
H:  "Sir, I don't want you to have to wait for a long time, can I transfer you to the front desk?"
M:  (I wasn't talking to the front desk?) "Sure, that's fine."
H:  "How may I help you?"
M:  "I tried making a reservation with central reservations and they were unable to help.  I need to make a reservation for April 23rd to 27th.  And..."
H:  (interrupts) "OK, just so you know, if this is for business travel you should call during business hours and speak to our business representatives who can make a business reservation for your business travel needs.  Business."
M:  "This isn't business travel.  There's a wedding block and we need a room in that block plus some days."
H:  "OK, well, I can't make a reservation for you now.  Our systems are out of date since reservations happen all the time."
M:  "What?"
H:  "You need to call back during business hours and speak with one of the sales & catering managers who can help you with this reservation."
M:  "But I don't need a block of rooms for a wedding.  I'm just trying to get a reservation in a wedding block.  I'm invited to this wedding."
H:  "I know.  I know.  I know.  This is how it works.  I can't actually make you a reservation, you will need to talk to one of the sales & catering managers tomorrow during business hours."
M:  "Does this seem at all efficient?"
H:  "Oh no, it's a lot of work, but that's how they do it here."
M:  "OK, I guess I will call tomorrow and see what happens."

And that's where I stand.  No room yet.  I wonder if anyone can make a reservation at this hotel.  With these procedures, they should have vacancy all the time.