Friday, December 21, 2012

E) Kiss My Ass

I used to like being surveyed. I figured almost anyone could benefit from my advice. Now I'm older and I figure other people care about my thoughts and opinions about as much as I do theirs (i.e. none).

One of the big business fads going around now is the idea of surveying customers to get actual feedback on satisfaction. Business fads are like almost any idea-set that crosses into the mainstream; a few facts are correct but the concepts behind them are usually lost. So many firms will poll their customers to gather data which will be

a) presented in such a way to produce a predetermined outcome
b) misinterpreted to produce a predetermined outcome
c) ignored
d) any of the above, depending on which level of management prepares the report

Lately I've been seeing these surveys pop up more and more on websites I visit. It started out at check-out with an invitation to take a follow-up survey. Now I see them showing up as soon as I hit the web page before I've done anything.

It wouldn't be so bad if they were unobtrusive, but many are now using the same annoying tactics as the advertising I hate the most: pop-ups, pop-unders, or the worst: the animated thing that rolls across the middle of what I'm trying to read.

Worst of all: some aren't even satisfaction surveys. I clicked on one I believe to be a thinly-disguised advertisement from my current favorite company, Microsoft.

For awhile I just ignored them, but now I'm actively embracing them. I'll click on any survey offered figuring it's my turn to pee in their Wheaties for a change. And I invite everyone else to do the same.

When I am offered an annoying survey to take, I now:

A) choose answers at random, as long as they aren't accurate

B) coordinate a set of answers that are consistant but completely inaccurate (for the Microsoft survey--yes, I'm the CIO of a firm that's excited about their latest product!!!)

C) choose a set of answers to explain how deeply dissatisfied I am with the product or service

One way to approach this, if it's an in-depth survey, is to create a persona for yourself and look at it as an acting job. Back when some on-line sites used to demand demographic information before they'd let you in, I was an elderly woman from Andorra (that's a tiny country between France and Spain). An alternative is simply to be your favorite celebrity. I use one for sites that want to know my birthday, location, and so forth.

What do you think of this plan?

A) don't care
B) disinterested
C) apathetic

Saturday, December 15, 2012

I Am Done with Microsoft

I say this as I type this on a Win 7 computer using IE 9 (don't ask why I'm using IE 9; it's a tiresome story and there's no payoff).

I don't mean that I'm throwing it all out right now. But I won't be replacing things with MS products (*knock wood*). In some cases I have alternatives in mind. For others I'll just have to wait and see.

I'm not one of those people who always hated MS. I didn't hate it when it was fashionable. Americans almost always hate Goliath and root for the underdog, and there's always a Goliath and always some scrappy youth trying to take him on. Before MS it was IBM, and before IBM it was Bell Telephone, and before that it was General Motors and before that it was RCA (yes, people forget RCA used to be big and scary) and so on. At the turn of the century it was The Railroads. And on and on.

My beef with MS now is that I feel like they're definitely on the downhill slide; that all their products peaked about a decade ago. I was never a huge fan of Windows but for a long time I felt like it trended better; then it peaked with Windows XP. I started with Excel 95, felt that it peaked at 2000, and hit a major skid with the 2007 downgrade. It's as if they never got over the fact that MS Works was a piece of shit, so they put the Works people in charge of Office and Works'd it.

You win. I quit.

The straw, and that's what this literally is, the final straw was a wireless keyboard. Bought it because I'd liked some MS keyboards in the past and I don't like Logitech. But the MS keyboard lacks a capslock LED. Sound niggling? It is until you're typing in case-sensitive passwords and can't figure out why they're not being accepted, until you finally think that maybe you hit the Caps lock by mistake and your cases are backward. But you can't just glance to see if the caps-lock light is on; it's an MS keyboard, you have to click on another field or open another window to type something and determine whether caps lock is on or off.

I'm fed up.

But I'm not really angry (except for ruining Excel; I still have to use that at work), I'm really looking at this as a key to freedom. It's like expatriating yourself; yes, you lose the familiarity of your home country, but there are a lot of other countries to choose from. Some are unpalatable (I never liked Apple), some are scary (Linux), some are mostly unknown (Android). But they're out there. They're different, and they have their ups and downs. Just like MS. Except hopefully I'll like their Ups more and dislike their Downs less.

A couple years ago, I couldn't imagine myself thinking this way.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Christmas Lists

Favorite Christmas Songs
  • 2000 Miles - the Pretenders
  • Calling On Mary - Aimee Mann
  • Carol of the Bells - anybody
  • Christmastime is Here - Richard Cheese
  • Greensleeves - anybody
  • O Come Emmanuel - Sixpence None the Richer
  • Old Toy Trains - Roger Miller
  • This Christmas - Jill Scott
Stuff I Miss from Being a Kid
  • Advent Calendars
  • Lying on my back under the tree, and looking up at the lights
  • Christmas lights
  • Homemade christmas candy
Stuff I Absolutely DO NOT Miss from Being a Kid
  • Going to relatives' Xmas parties
  • Decorating and undecorating the tree
  • Going on drives to see the Christmas lights
  • Egg nog
Favorites Movies that Involve Christmas Somehow
  • A Christmas Story
  • Die Hard
  • It's a Wonderful Life (if I let several years pass between viewings)
  • On Her Majesty's Secret Service
Worst Movies that Involve Christmas Somehow
  • Anything with Tim Allen
Favorite Scrooge from A Christmas Carol
  • George C. Scott
Best Christmas TV Special
  • Charlie Brown Christmas
Worst Christmas TV Specials
  • Kathy Lee Gifford's
  • The King Family (a staple of the 1970s)

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Christmas Season

I should do this. I keep being disappointed by finding blogs that I start to read, enjoy, and then find out sooner or later that they haven't been updated in months or years.

I got derailed by a serious post that I tried several times to write and just couldn't make work. I don't mean serious as in some big personal thing, I just meant serious as in Thought.

So frivolity is the rule for the day. Which fits the time of year.

For me Christmas starts on Pearl Harbor Day (December 7th). I picked that as a date because a) I can remember it, and b) it gives me a good 2-1/2 weeks (three if you go through New Year's) of Christmastime, which seems like plenty to me. I like Christmas, but it's like maple syrup; there's enough and there's too much.

So that's when the decorations come out, if I feel like doing anything, and when I load the music on the MP3 player, and so forth. It's when I get ready to send out Christmas cards, if it's a year that I'll be doing it. Some years when I feel poor I just send emails. This year I think I still have a lot left over from last year so I'll just be sending those, if I can find them.

In my obituary, my life will be boiled down to the catch-phrase, "it's around here somewhere."

The other day I took an online poll, since I'm with a service that pays me a pittance every time I take one (enough that I can get an Amazon gift card about once a year). It asked me about my attitudes about Christmas. Mostly I'm pleased with it. I do growl when I see Xmas stuff up before Thanksgiving. The Xmas-season-starts-the-day-after-Thanksgiving concept goes back to my childhood; I don't agree with it but I'll compromise over it (I think it should start on Pearl Harbor Day, or the day after). But before Thanksgiving is unconscienable.

I said my pet peeve was listening to people bitch about it, particularly the ones who lament the loss of the True Meaning of Christmas. Most of people I know who do that are the most material; it's a "you made me hit you" mentality. Eat me; if you don't like it, don't do it. Do you resent giving too many gifts? Stop giving gifts, at least to the people who shouldn't get gifts.

I've got a no-gift-exchange treaty going with most of my friends so it works out nicely. A couple people think I'm Scrooge, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Friday, September 14, 2012

All Paths Lead to Door Number 1

For a moment there I thought they were on to something great. I was on Hulu to watch an old TV show episode and they make you watch commercials. They began by giving me three thumbnails and asked me which commercial I wanted to see.

My first thought was that it was stupid—like asking me whether I wanted hemlock, arsenic or cyanide. Then I thought, at least this is a chance to pick something that could be worthwhile.

Because if you think about it, there are three major problems with TV commercials (and to an increasing extent, internet video ads). The first is that they break into whatever you're watching. But if you do it intelligently (there are obvious places where you can place a commercial break and not ruin the flow of the story), that problem can be overcome.

The second problem is that they're often moronic; but it's been that way since advertising began. There are some very bright, very clever people in advertising. Unfortunately, there are a hell of a lot of dumbasses in it, too.

But the killer, the worst one of all, is the irrelevent ad, the one you have to sit through knowing full your time is being completely wasted. That one drives me crazy because now something can be done about it; I could choose my commercial.

Example: during the show I watched, the regular commercials included these products: a) tampons (I'm a man, I don't use them); b) cat food (I don't have a cat); c) an insurance company that already has my business; and d) various kids' back-to-school stuff (I don't have kids).

There are plenty of businesses I wouldn't mind hearing from, and products I'd be interested to know more about.

Anyway, it turned out to be a false alarm. My three choices all turned out to be Chevy ads, even pitching the same thing. It would be like getting a choice of three Progressive Insurance commercials, all pushing their multiple-coverage discounts. Do I want to see Flo talking to the fat guy, or Flo talking to the bald guy, or Flo talking to the tattooed woman?

And then they wonder why sales are down.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Pulling It Out of Your Ass

Interesting article about the movie The Watch. They're not complimentary about the improv elements.

I can't blame them. Even though a lot of scripted comedy blows and ad libs are often far funnier than the script, that tends to happen most often for crap tv shows, particularly awards shows where the patter has been dumbed down so even the family dog can gets the joke.

But improv often doesn't work well in the long form. Theoretically anyway, when you write a script you actually structure the story; you can shape it, forge it, hone and sharpen it over time until it's at its most effective. With improve you're just winging it and there's no going back. So if the pacing is off, too bad; if someone says something that turns the plot in a different (not necessarily better) direction, so be it. The result isn't electricity, it's often just a meandering.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Buzz Around Indycar

This article, IndyCar Could Benefit by Will Power Not Winning Championship turns out to be just another thing about how under-rated Indycar racing is, and what needs to be done to correct it.

You can read the article yourself; needless to say I disagree on some points. Here are my main thoughts on the subject.

1. Nobody cares about the series championship. There are two: one for ovals and one for road courses. Nobody gives a frig about either. Nobody gave a frig about the overall drivers' championship before that. Unlike Formula 1 and NASCAR, the Indycar series has always been the Indianapolis 500 and "there are more races?"

Given an hour or so, I can name nearly all of the Indianapolis 500 winners from 1960 to date. I can hardly name any of the series champions. I know Franchitti won the last three mostly because I'm a Franchitti fan, and because it's been fun watching Will Power lose every year. I know Will Power has won none for the same reason. I keep forgetting that Franchitti won a fourth championship and that Helio has won none, even though I'm a fan of both. Without looking at a cheat sheet (I've got one open in another window) I can't tell you who won what how many times. And I'm an Indycar series fan.

The only thing interesting about the series championship is watching Will Power become the sport's version of Jim Kelly and the Buffalo Bills.

As I type this, the Baltimore race just ended. I'm generally not a conspiracy theorist but I definitely veer toward it when it comes to the "championships" in Indycar, because every year it seems like things just miraculously tighten up going into the last race. Ryan Hunter-Reay just won, and Will Power finished 5th, so the points standings tightened up between them. Nobody at Indycar wanted Power to mathematically eliminate RHR before the next (final) race in Fontana: that would mean the race itself would have to be interesting on its own, and a lot of Indycar races are like watching paint dry; at the end of the race the only noteworthy thing that comes out of it is the championship points standings.

What they need to do is: 2. Make each race more interesting on its own. You can compare Indycar to other sports, like baseball, in this respect: the best races are dynamic and the worst ones are static. You watch a football game and one team goes ahead 10-0 on the first two possessions, and the game ultimately ends 27-3. Even if you're a huge fan of the winning team, it's a snooze of a game. A lot of Indycar run that way.

They could do something about this by reworking the worst of their road courses to have more passing areas so that faster cars can get by the slower ones. As it is, far too many races end with fast cars being stuck behind slower ones because there are few places to pass and the acceleration difference between fast and slow isn't enough for to allow a fast overtake. The result is what Indycar fans derisively call a parade.

Instead, they come up with gimmicks like "Push-to-pass," which makes no sense when it's explained, is invisible to see on television, and doesn't really appear to do anything other than give the announcers another statistic to spout. "Briscoe has six more push-to-passes; Viso only has two!"

3. Make the thing available so more people can see it. There's a double-whammy on this one, as Indycar's TV package is split between two different companies: Disney (ABC and ESPN) and Comcast (NBC). If you don't have cable (that would be me) then you're limited only to the ABC broadcasts—and only those which ABC actually airs; if there's a problem like a rain-delay which makes the race go long and interfere with, say, the high-school water polo game that's already scheduled, they'll throw the Indycar race onto one of the many ESPN channels on cable. NBC only has the one venue, NBC Sports (formerly Versus), so things are less liquid when they have it.

The result is a mess of never really knowing when and where you can find the race, and God help you if there's some sort of problem (like a rain delay). DVRs would help, but all broadcasters seem to think we still live in 1970 and if they just wish it hard enough, it will be that way, so DVRs are frequently fooled. I don't know anyone who has a DVR and manages to get all of the races.

The Buzz Is that more people are watching online, but not if it's Indycar. Can you get it on your iPod or your iPad or your iPhone or even your iMac? No. Comcast pulled the plug on the online stream at without even offering a pay-per-view fee. Stupid? Not if it's 1970.

Of course there's radio, if you have XM/Sirius satellite radio. I know someone who does but there's no way I'm going to sit in their car for 3 hours to hear it. It appears that they've cut the audio streaming feed on, which now means there's no reason to go to for anything. How about the Indycar radio network? That appears to have gone with Sid Collins.

4. Advertise it with relevant products. Decades ago, Indycars used to be sponsored by automotive products: oil and gas and chemical additives and auto parts of all kinds. Some of these companies are still around and still sponsoring: Lucas is this generation's racing icon of my generation's STP. Yet the series sponsor is Izod, a clothing manufacturer with no discenerable target market, making commercials that appeal to—I don't know whom. The "Buzz" is to sell ring-tones and "Apps" and Facebook Likes even though the people who buy ring-tones are watching x-treme skate-boarding, the Apps people should be watching that commercial on their iPhone, not on their television, and nobody's yet bothered to figure out what a Facebook Like really does for anyone or anything other than Facebook itself. Try selling something to the people who actually watch the race.

If they can find it.

If they can stay awake through it.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Beauty of Cover Art

When I was a kid, I thought these were the coolest. I read the books over and over, but that's another thing entirely. The cover art just made me drool.

Some day I'll write a lament over Science Fiction, but right now I'm derailed again by looking at those books. That and the fact that 40 years later, those book covers still look vivid and fresh to me. I'm trying to think of the last time I walked into a bookstore and saw a cover that really captured my imagination like that. Probably not since I was a kid.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Tain't Funny, McGee

One of my favorite jokes goes like this. A scientist has a frog that he's trained to jump on command, and he uses it for an experiment. He says, "jump" and the frog jumps 8 feet. The scientist writes this down. Then he cuts one of the frog's legs off. He says, "jump" and the frog jumps 4 feet. The scientist writes this down. He cuts a second leg off. He says, "jump" and the frog jumps 1 foot. The scientist cuts a third leg off. "Jump" and the frog manages to bobble a few inches. The scientist now cuts off the last remaining leg. "Jump." Nothing. "Jump!" Nothing. "JUMP!!!" Nothing.

The scientist notes this down and then writes his conclusion: when all four legs are removed, the frog goes deaf.

That joke went through my mind as I read this article on USA Today about how Insurers' Funny Ads [are] Not Paying Off.

The article says that the discounters (Geico, etc.) aren't doing too bad, but other insurers' copycat ad strategies using humor are not converting into customers.

The Geico commercials vary but some are funny, as is the AFLAC commercials. But I'd argue that most of the others are not at all. The Progressive commercials are more quirky than funny. I don't recall any of the others being funny, intentionally or not, at all. I knew people who would quote "Lost another one to Ditech!!" but don't remember ever hearing a laugh, or a chuckle, or even seeing a smile.

The fundamental issue is (or ought to be): what are the commercials supposed to do? Are the supposed to generate actual sales, or just build brand awareness that may lead to sales? The former is direct, the latter is indirect.

I doubt many people watch a Geico commercial and say, "okay, I'll buy." What it does is make Geico look like a viable player, a credible business, and the message is "call us and see if we can help you." That doesn't necessarily generate sales, it just creates the opportunity. It's up to the company itself to make good.

If it's about building awareness, then Geico, Progressive, et. al are working very well. I'm aware of their companies. And unlike some of the companies that use other (non-entertaining) strategies, like The General, I'm not ill-disposed toward them.

On the other hand, I have zero interest in changing my insurance companies. Funny or not, hard-sell or soft-sell, I haven't been given a compelling reason to check any of them out. That's not the fault of the commercials per se. None of them are going to address my concerns about choosing a discount insurance company.

I think it really comes down to this: most advertisers, in their heart-of-hearts, believe that the hard-sell works best and anything else is a fad novelty to be used on occasion to break up the monotony of the hard-sell.

I disagree: I never liked the hard sell. My mute button was nearly broken during the Billy Mays reign of terror (and I made it a point to quit buying Oxy-Clean when he began endorsing it). But I'm not in advertising, and I'm not the one who has to approve an advertising campaign. So what do I know?

I just buy stuff...

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Send Her Here

I'm behind in my reading. Sorry.

This is a recent obit from The Economist magazine.
Though he was probably the last surviving example of the giant Galápagos tortoise Chelonoidis nigra abingdonii, he too refused to perform. Scientists, tourists, journalists, conservationists and the government of Ecuador all waited for two decades for him to mate successfully or, indeed, get it on at all. He wasn't playing. In 1993 two females of a slightly different subspecies were put into his corral. He ignored them. When at last he decided to do his duty, in 2008 and occasionally later, the eggs failed to hatch. Clearly, he was a slow burner. . . . He refused to be turned on even when a female Swiss zoology graduate, smeared with tortoise hormones, gave him manual stimulation for four months.
That could be me! Where's my hot Swiss miss grad student?

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Match Game

Some people hate hospitals, others hate retirement homes. You know what I think is the most depressing place on earth? The animal shelter—especially the ones where I know they're going to be killed if they're taken. But really, I even avoid the live animal section of Petsmart; I want to save them all.

But now that's been beaten. The most depressing place I've been lately is an online dating service.

I can offer several reasons, and will. One is that I'm surprised at how many of the profile bios, the part people will read so this is where you sell yourself, really make yourself shine, are pre-emptive strikes; the tone bordering on angry. Several people make a point that anyone who contacts them must submit photos. One lady offered a reason I never thought of: if you're willing to put a photo of yourself online, you're probably not sneaking around on your wife or girlfriend.

But there are other missives from people who've clearly been burned and want to avoid past disasters. I understand it, yet some of it seems like doing everything you can to prevent a recurrance of World War I and got World War II instead.

Another is irratation at a physical limitation over which I have absolutely no power to change: my height. I'm not short, but I'm not tall either. I'm statistically average. But I've seen a large number of ads, not just on this site but in classifieds in newspapers and Craigslist and any other place where people try to meet by making requests: I'm not over 6 feet tall.

For one, I don't know how much difference it really makes. I can reach the top shelves of my cabinets and anything I really can't get to, there's this thing I have called a step-stool. Other than that, height is mostly useful for seeing over shoulders in crowds. I haven't found other uses. The drawbacks are that clothes sizes are larger and more expensive, it's harder to sit in some cars comfortably, especially with people in the back seat; you're always folded up in theaters, stadium seats, even restaurants where your legs tend to tangle with others, almost never in a good way. If you're really tall, you have a collection of bumps and scars on your head from things that you've hit.

And there's a double-standard to it as well. Women have no problem specifying a height, and even petite women routinely want men 6' or over, as if those extra couple inches meant anything. But if a man put in a demand for a range of bra sizes, there would be outrage.

Enough about height. There's also an unwillingness to want to sell myself like used car. Like a lot of people, I grew up with the rule that you don't blow your own horn, you don't show off, you don't preen. That's a very, very difficult one to get past.

But finally, the big one, the elephant among the mice I've already mentioned, is guilt and my own double-standards.

I think the root problem, after a lot of soul-searching and analysis, is in the pictures. Most people don't look the same in a photo as they do in real life, and usually the photos aren't flattering. In real life we're typically hit with a flurry of impressions: the person's image—from all angles, not just one; there's the voice, the posture, movement, attitude and behavior from broad to minute.

But when you see a photo, you react just a photo. There could be 10,000 words in the profile that make the person sound like the mate of your dreams, but the photo says run away.

I do this is much as anyone, and I'm not proud of it because I'm much a victim of it as perpetrator. I'm not the male version of Anne Ramsey (pictured) but I'm far closer to Ernest Borgnine's Marty than the Roger Moore photo I use as my avatar. I know that I am judged on my looks. In person I can try and save things with personality, but just a photo would sink me before I even cast off.

But I feel guilty when I do the same thing. The dating company gave me a group of "matches" to sift through, and I immediately tossed out some based on nothing but the photo.

I have met women who are not, shall we say, fine physical specimens yet I found them attractive. But the difference was that I met them in person, where I could see them from all angles, hear them talk and interact and be a full-bodied individual rather than just a (usually poor) 2-D image on the screen.

All that makes me think that this is just a disaster of a system. Things were better when there were ice cream socials and local mixers, where you met other "available" people in the flesh instead of just pixels. Internet dating is the 21st century equivalent of 19th century mail-order brides. Look through the catalog, find one you like and write a letter...

And I suspect the long-term results are about the same.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

I'm Turning Everything On Full Blast

I got this email from my local utility.

Treat Yourself With Savings

Ready to start saving? Tomorrow, Thursday 7/12/2012, is a Save Power Day, which means if you use less energy than you normally do between 2:00 pm and 6:00 pm, you can earn credits on your electricity bill - up to $100 a year.

Gee, thanks. I've already pared things down pretty close to the bone to minimize my bill already. What if my normal use is (to pick round numbers for comparison) 10KW/h per day, and even I unplugged all the non-essentials (i.e. not the refrigerator), I'd only drop to 9.5KW/h?

Saturday, July 14, 2012

It's Not Ignorance, It's Hubris

Another day, another guy gets arrested at the airport for trying to bring a gun.

Another day, another celebrity arrested for DUI.

Another day, another couple's prayers go unanswered because the stick turned blue and the condom package is still sealed.

I was listening to an NPR piece one day (I'd link it if I could remember which) where the reporter was discussing some kind of health issue, I think it was unwanted pregnancies and condom use (and the lack thereof). The reporter began by asserting that was an issue of the lack of education, and then followed it up interview clips with private people who all said "I know I was running a risk, but we had sex without a condom anyway."

Then it's not about education (and the lack thereof), is it?

This is one of those things where I want to throw a boot through the tv screen or toss a radio off a tall building. I'm sick of the "it's a lack of education" excuse. In children that's applicable; in adults it damn well isn't.

It's predicated on the idea that if you present the facts to a person, he (or she) will make a sound (usually obvious) decision. Is that the case? A hell of a lot of the time: no!

How many times do people get arrested for DUI? How many of them really had no idea that drinking might deteriorate their driving skills, and that if only they had known...? Only the Forrest Gumps of the world. Most of the DUIs are from people who honestly thought they weren't drunk and were fit to drive, or they just didn't care and decided to chance it anyway. Education and ignorance wasn't a factor.

Same thing with condom use. If you're an adult and you're capable of functioning on your own in modern society (you can hold a job, pay the bills, etc.), you know what condoms can and cannot do. If you decide to have sex and not use it, you know what the risks are. You've just chosen to accept them. Maybe you want to procreate. Or likely you just don't like them for any number of reasons. Still, it's not a "I had no idea!" situation.

There are plenty of things in the world that go poorly or unexplained: how the government truly works; which laws apply; how tax, spending and lending policies affect the economy both at a macro and a personal level; why the annual global temperature is supposed to be rising yet last winter was especially severe. Education is a valuable tool and it needs to be used. But it needs to be expunged as an excuse for human hubris and poor decision making.

Another day, someone takes the cigarette out of his mouth and blows a huge plume of smoke at the tv during an anti-smoking commercial.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Yin and Yan of Jack Dorsey

I thought this was interesting on multiple levels. By coincidence I read these two articles almost back-to-back, so even I couldn't miss the connections.

We start with a man named Jack Dorsey, the man who launched Twitter. I think Twitter is (like Facebook) overhyped and little understood, but I still found this story in Wired Magazine a compelling read. It's a personality profile of Dorsey; and of course because it's written by a leading-edge tech mag, there's a Cult of (Steve) Jobs undercurrent; much of the article compares him with Jobs and Apple.

As an illustration, there's a discussion of Dorsey's current project, a merchant payment service called Square. For the purposes of this blog post, I'm not interested in Apple, design, or other Revealed Truths. I'm interested in the company itself and what it does:

. . . Earlier this year, Square . . . released Square Register, an app that makes it easy to use an iPad as a full-featured cash register. Vendors can set up buttons for each item they sell, much as McDonald’s lets cashiers simply press Shake instead of entering the price. It can also connect wirelessly to a cash drawer.

But Register’s real value is that it offers sophisticated analytics for free. Its users get data that allows them to identify which products are selling and when, and future versions will be even more powerful. “As a customer enters the vicinity of the establishment, a notification will spring open on the merchant’s screen,” says Megan Quinn, Square’s director of products (who has since left the company). “It will show the customer’s name and suggest their most likely order, based on an algorithm that knows past purchases and things that sell well at the store.”

Henderson, the engineering lead on Pay With Square, points out that the company collects all kinds of information about its users, data that might be invaluable to merchants and customers alike. “First of all, we know your location,” he says. “Second, we have a decent sense of your history. We know the kinds of places you’ve been and what you like. But we also know lots of other things—like if there’s a whole bunch of food trucks that pull up nearby, we’ll see the spike in activity and can point you to those trucks. I think you’ll see us get really good at this.”

Analytics and data-mining might provide Square’s real business model. So far, the company has charged a very small fee for each transaction, and merchants aren’t likely to pay much more. And while Square has been giving participating merchants access to analytics about their businesses for free, it is also aggregating that data, real-time information about what people are buying in every region of the country, complete with detailed demographics. It’s reasonable to think that might be very valuable in the near future.

Square is still focused on smaller merchants, but its executives believe that even tier-one retailers will use Square before long. “The Neiman Marcuses and the Walmarts will want to have an emotional attachment with their buyers, where anybody can walk in and pay with their name and have an electronic receipt,” Rabois says. “That’s what we’re going to deliver.”

In other words, Square aims to provide shoppers with an emotionally satisfying experience . . . .
Wired, "The Many Sides of Jack Dorsey", paragraphs 40-45

I showed this article to a friend and he was thrilled at the prospect. Rooting through the wallet for money, making and handling loose change and such just slows everything down and can be an annoyance (e.g. almost nobody wants pennies anymore, let alone a pocketful).

He also made a point that in some places, like Europe (and probably many parts of the US), a lot of transactions are still in cash, such as cab fare. Cabbies don't take plastic, so you have to have and handle an often unfamiliar foreign currency, which leads to more bills and more coins, and receipts (if you're lucky) to keep for expense reports. Even when you are able to use credit cards, you're still limited to whichever brands or systems they accept; American Express (still a favorite for US corporate travel) is often non grata.

The no-swipe, no card, electronic-wallet-on-your-iPhone world that Square envisions may still not be adopted by cab drivers or small bistros in France, but it's still a welcome step toward it.

That aside, the portion of the Wired article that I quoted above discusses the use of analytics—the analysis of buying habits. Wired's example would be walking into a coffee house and the barristas would have your likely order on the cash register and ready to go as soon as you walked in the door. I used to frequent a chinese restaurant and always bought the same lunch, so they always knew what I wanted as soon as they saw me. That's not a bad thing.

So next I came across an article in The Economist magazine (June 30-July 6, 2012. London's skyscape on the cover). This article never discussed Square in particular, but the part about Square's analytics dovetails in nicely:

The internet was supposed to be the consumer’s friend. By making it easy to shop around, it would drive prices lower. But online sellers of all sorts of goods and services are taking a keen interest in new software that promises to help them spot customers who are well off, or whose money is burning a hole in their pockets, so as to charge them more).

Online shoppers let slip plenty of information about themselves that could be of use to crafty salesmen. Cookies reveal where else they have been browsing, allowing some guesses about their income bracket, age and sex. Their internet address can often be matched to their physical address: the richer the neighbourhood, the deeper the pockets, it may be assumed. Apple computer-owners are on average better-off than Windows PC users, and firms may offer them pricier options, as Orbitz, a travel website, is doing. Your mouse may also be squeaking on you: click too quickly from home-page to product page to checkout, and the seller can conclude that you have already decided to buy—so why offer you a discount?
The Economist, "Caveat", paragraphs 2 and 3.

I know the Wired article wasn't about the dark side of technology, yet there's a little bit of me that thinks it's the "Apple is Good, Steve Jobs is God, this man is obviously the Chosen One so all he touches is good" philosophy springs forth. If Dorsey idolized Bill Gates, I would bet the implications of Square's analytics would have gotten a harder look.

And then finally this cherry on top. Flip the page after the Economist article and you see a full-page ad for SAS's analytic services (see image at top of this post). If I were SAS, I'd be pissed.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Powerpoint Pain

First, you know how people say there are secrets to great presentations (people title books like this all the time. The 7 Secrets of... horseshit). Well, in presentations there really is one. I say it's a secret only because I have yet to see anyone actually say it anywhere (most of my tips below, however, I've seen printed elsewhere).

Secret: it's all about authority. I don't mean power-authority— the ability to flick your fingers and have someone sent to the gulag (presentations would be a lot more interesting, though). I'm talking about credibility, as in the audience believing unequivocably that you know what you're talking about, that you're Revealing Truth. Anything that adds to your authority should be embraced and anything that detracts should be cut out like cancer.

Think about speakers who put on presentations. The best ones never leave you in any doubt that they know what they're doing and that their message is the word of God. Crappy speakers undermine their message, no matter how accurate or relevant, by casting doubt on their own veracity.

With that in mind, some tips:

1. Know what's in your Powerpoint presentation. You are responsible for it. Even if it's a group effort, it's still yours.

I saw presentations where the creator had obviously cut and pasted chunks of prose from the internet (probably Wikipedia) into a slide, and thought no more about it. When it came to present, that person then simply read aloud what was on the slide.

1A. Know what's on the slide. The creator/reader stumbled over sentences and mispronounced words (and I'm not talking about tongue-twisters like paraphenylenediamine or Zapatecas; I mean relatively common words like legume). This gives the impression that the presenter is reading this for the first time, or simply has no idea what he or she is reading. This completely undercuts the presenter's credibility as an authority. How do I really know any of this is true, valuable or applicable when the presenter obviously doesn't know what he or she is talking about? All he's doing is reading the screen.

1B. Just put bullet points on the slide. This is common advice, yet it's common because it's so often needed. People cut and paste a sea of print onto a slide. Nobody in the audience wants to read a page of prose. Think of the Powerpoint text as being like note cards: they're meant to have a few words--just enough to summarize the concept or make a point. You supply the patter to fatten it out.

2. Get your facts right. Reading one source (e.g. Wikipedia) doesn't cut it. If you use the internet for your research, check multiple sites and make sure they don't all site-back to the same single source. If you got the library and read a book, check a couple of other books as well. In some cases there really is only a single source; but very often there are several and one offers insight where another is blind.

2A. Don't assume that because this was new to you, that your audience doesn't know it either.. I'm serious—this will put your head into a noose faster than mis-pronouncing words like noose. I was watching presentations that touched on subjects that I happened to know something about, and it immediately became clear that the presenters had only read a Wikipedia page or a corporate About-Us web page and nothing more; the result was that they would toss out "facts," simple things that didn't have much to do with the bulk of the presentation, that were either flat-out wrong or gossimer-fragile. Either way, it destroyed the authority of the presenter. I know xyz and this isn't even my project! This is your project, why didn't you?

2B. Try to do a little independent research. Some people think if you're assigned to do a story on, say, Apple, Inc., that everything necessary can be gathered from or Wikipedia. Try doing some searches that take you farther afield. Do some searches on your own--don't just follow links from one person's bibliography; if only because you may stumble across something great that you would have found otherwise.

3. It's better to have two interesting facts than ten dull ones. I recently saw a presentation about Starbucks, and the presenter had the typical list of uninteresting trivia about the company; how many stores are open, how many employees they have, how many pounds of coffee beans they roast every day.

By coincidence, I had a book with Starbucks trivia, but it had "3 Things You Didn't Know About Starbucks." One was about using the foam on a latte as a way of keeping the coffee hot (it's not as efficient as a thermos but it does help), the second was that there really is a "short" size even though it's not on the menu, and the third is that there's a Starbucks barrista blog (actually there are many) which had the blogger's idea of the worst custom frappuccino ever (it included pomegranate).

Those three items were far more interesting than the dry facts. If he had tossed those out, it would have woken the audience up. People respond to the unusual and unexpected; it forces them to pay attention.

4. Care about how it looks.

4A. Powerpoint looks different when its projected on a wall than it does on your monitor. Typically the color is washed out and loses its vibrancy. At best it just looks drab, but you want to check that colors don't blend. I see this a lot—a colorful chart that looked great in Excel and even in Powerpoint on the computer becomes meaningless when it's presented because you can't tell the line colors apart. The fix for this is to use colors that contrast more strongly than you might otherwise use, and to use other visual indicators, like dash patterns, to differentiate lines.

4B. Simplify the Charts. A great chart can convey a lot of information, but again, what works on the computer or in a printout can quickly get confusing on the wall. It also goes back to the sea-of-print advice from 1B. Strip your charts down to the bare minimum of information. If there's too much info, consider making separate charts.

4C. Don't Be Lazy. I recently saw the single worst Powerpoint slide evar [sic]. The presenter wanted some info from a website but did not want to recreate the chart, so he just took a photo of it with his iPhone. The result was a blurry, ugly mess. The only message that slide conveyed was that the user was more interested in Tweeting complaints about making this presentation than in actually making the presentation.

5. Get away from the God-damned lecturn! People who are uncomfortable giving presentations, which is most of us, and even people who do it often, use the lecturn as a form of armor against the audience. Speakers will plant themselves squarely behind it and not budge for fear of being killed by stray gunfire if they step to either side.

If you have notes, put them on the lecturn and walk away. Stand to either side of it if you need to consult your notes, but walk away from it completely when you don't. If you're projecting your presentation onto the wall, stand on one side of it for a slide, then cross over to talk about the next slide. Don't be afraid to point to things on the screen directly.

Dynamic movement is visually interesting, even if it's just you traversing eight feet of floor. If you want to see this in action: turn on the local TV news and watch the weather and traffic casters--the people who have to stand in front of the local maps and point out things. They move back and forth from one side to the next. Same thing with good public speakers. If you ever see those motivational poeple that pollute PBS these days, they typically don't stand behind a lectern; they stand by themselves on the stage, and move back and forth across it.

6. Loosen up. This is easier said than done, and the hardest piece of advice I have. But it's also the most important if you don't want to bore your audience to death. Even if you're fundamentally shy (I am), you can fake it for the length of the presentation.

A few suggestions:

  • If you have props, use them. A prop can be something interesting that's related to what you're talking about. Is your presentation about the history of Starbucks? Bring in a bag of coffee, and open it and show off the beans. Get green (unroasted) beans if you can. And quakers. Anything coffee related is fair game, it will add visual interest, and it will give you something to do with your hands.
  • Give away stuff that's related to your presentation, like mini-bags of coffee beans. Or dixie cups of beans. You don't have to give something to everyone, just toss a few out among the spectators. Especially people you want to distract, because they'll be paying more attention to the freebie than what you're saying.
  • If you have a sense of humor, use it. You don't need to tell jokes, but if you have a wry comment or a funny anecdote that fits, use it. If you can find a cartoon (preferably a one-panel) that fits your subject, stick into the presentation somewhere at the most opportune time. Humor wakes people up.

And a last bit of advice for those of you who got this far—another secret that never gets mentioned but it's absolutely true:

Nobody knows what you meant to do.

This means that you actually have more freedom of movement than you think; you can change the order of slides on the fly; you can ad lib; you can go off the presentation completely to make a point. Unless your audience has seen you do this before, they don't know what to expect and what not to. It also means that you don't have to get rattled if something doesn't work as planned; steamroll over it and keep going.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

In the Mood

A friend of mine once told me this: her boyfriend lived far enough away that they could only get together on weekends. You'd think the routine would be pavlovian and she'd be ready for sex on the weekends. But instead she found herself horniest in the middle of the week and uninterested on the weekends when he was available.

I'm the same way. There's a mental and physical disconnect, or maybe it's conscious and subconscious, but either way, I'm most interested when I can't act on it. Mornings when I have to get up and get ready for work are good example, but not in the evening when I'm ready to go to sleep. Any time I'm mentally ready—I've got some free time blocked out, there are no distractions, let's see what's on tap today . . .

You'd think I'd just opened the refrigerator and all I have is spam.

I was going to say it was like I'm married and the wife isn't interested, but really it's more like trying to get my own inner-self to wake up in the morning and get his ass out of bed.

Get up! C'mon, let's go.

Go away. Wanna sleep.

Nope, come on. Get up.

Leave me alone.

No, get up. You'll have fun. You enjoy this too.

That's what I said yesterday.

Yesterday we were stuck in traffic and we couldn't do anything about it—you know that.

I don't make the rules.

Now it's perfect. There's nobody here, nobody expected. I've got all your favorite stuff . . . .

I'm tired of it.

How about this DVD—you really liked that.

We just watched that the other day.

Okay, we'll get on the 'net. Check out the blogs...

groan It's all the same old thing. One naked girl. Two naked girls. Two naked girls with a strap-on.  One naked girl with a banana.  Two naked girls with a banana. . . .

You haven't seen these two particular naked girls with a banana.


All right, but don't come complaining to me tomorrow during a conference call.

And so it goes. The problem may actually be the sameness and the routine. For the most part you can distill sex into something very simply and accurately described. Let's say you're interested in vanilla sex, dick-in-pussy sex; after awhile it's all the same, it's which dick in which pussy. Sooner or later even that becomes generic, and no matter what, you feel like you've seen it all.

So what's left are all the kinks and variants, and at this late inning in the game, I think I've figured out which ones I like and the vast majority that I don't;when I was a teen it was all new and unexplored; now if there's something that rings my bell, I already know about it and I've burned on it. The idea of seeing someone tied up and spanked, or covered in latex, or participating in showers (you know what I mean, and if you don't—you don't want to know) or having sex with midgets—none of that opens any hidden doors inside me that lead anywhere that I want to go.

One answer is abstinance, but that really doesn't help a lot. I'm still young enough that I don't have to wait for the planets to align; I can still make things happen on demand. And I want to enjoy that while it's still the case.

I just don't want to have to demand it.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Spread Again

Where I live there are a lot of furniture store commercials. They're always opening or going out of business. One store has been trumpeting its grand opening of a new store: I think it's been opening for about six years now.

I'd like to start with some kudos to myself for mentioning that I was shutting down to begin with. I'm amazed at how many blogs just end abruptly, like a film without a final reel. Imagine watching Goldfinger. James Bond has just arrived in Kentucky and met Pussy Galore. Then--nothing.

Or Butch and Sundance have just taken jobs as payroll guards, and they're looking for bandits. Strother Martin spits in disgust and announces, "morons! I've got morons on my team. Nobody is going to rob us going down the mountain. We have got no money going down the mountain. When we have got the money, on the way back , then you can sweat." *spit* "Bingo."

Then nothing.

There's a wonderful short story by Mary Ladd Gavell called "The Rotifer" (I highly recommend it), and in it there's a sequence where the narrator talks of being a grad student, going through a prominent family's old papers in the library. She's reading letters and gets caught up in a family drama from a century earlier. The letters abruptly end with no conclusion, and she's left hanging. What happened? All the participants are long dead and gone, and what survives is the record. She'll never know what happened.

It's the same with these blogs. What happened to the author? Did he or she die? Or in a debilitating accident? Did an important family member, friend or even an employer discover it and exert massive pressure to end it? Or was it that the person simply locked himself out of the account and cannot get back in? (Been there, done it, bought the t-shirt.) Or did the person simply lose interest, which is the most likely explanation.

The first example is the most excusable, but even then I remember an occasion where this sort of thing happened, and word got back to us so that we knew. For all other cases (except a lock-out), just a note saying "that's it, I'm done. I'm busy / have other commitments / spouse doesn't approve, etc." would be really nice.

It's bad enough when I find a blog I like that ended a year ago. But it's worse with active blogs that just suddenly end with no comment at all, because I keep checking back to see if there's a new post, and there's nothing, nothing, nothing. It's like being stood up on a date every Saturday night for a year.

So back to the subject at hand. My personal life has settled down again and I have the time and inclination to post here again. The schedule will be once a weekend; could be more, but that will be the least. That's my goal.

And for latecommers, the mission statement is that I'm simply using this to vent thoughts on a variety of topics. The subtitle says "things I wouldn't say in real life" and that's still true. But beyond sex and politics (and I'm largely apathetic on the latter, so not so much of that), I'm actually interested in a variety of topics, knowledgable about a few, and I can fake the rest.

I've been writing down things to post about on scrap paper. I've got something about being horny at inopportune times, debt culture, podcasts, the generation gap (that suggests how old I am. Maybe I'll post something about Hi-Fi equipment too) and targeted advertising. I had a couple more I didn't write down; hopefully I'll remember them soon.

So there it is. Welcome back. Miss me? And please, please, if you have a blog of your own and you quit updating it, spend 2 minutes and write a farewell so we're not hanging by our left nuts in suspense.

Monday, January 9, 2012

My Definition of Convenience

When I was a kid, I wanted to park as absolutely close to the store or building as physically possible. If we parked in a spot and there was one spot even slightly closer, it was an affront if we didn't take it.

Now as an adult I find myself parking wherever I think is easy to get in and (better) get out of, and I don't mind hiking a half mile in. My definition of convenience has changed from walking to parking the car.

I'm sure this has happened in other facets of my life, but so far this is the first that I'm aware of.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Will Technology Spoil Rock Hunter?

aka The Laziness Factor

I like radios. I like listening to them. The problem is that I generally hate commercial radio. I don't like the political crap from either side, and most of the old-time regular talk guys, the ones who could discuss things other than politics, are mostly gone. I like Hotel California, but I'm sick to death of hearing it. Katie Perry and hip hop and country and whoever won American Idol last season don't do it for me. And I can only take so much of NPR before I want to drive off the road.

But there's a world between 1.720 and 87.9 MHz. It used to be called Shortwave, though shortwave is usually generic for anything other than commercial broadcast.

It's not just Ham radio, the guys who talk to each other with their giant antennas and their home built stations in the spare bedroom or backyard shed, because the Hams only get a small slice of the acreage.

It's often called World Band radio, because a hell of a lot of people all over the globe still live outside the normal broadcast areas, and a GE clock radio won't do it. And they don't necessarily have wi-fi or decent internet, so forget podcasts and streaming media. Their connection to the world is with a radio that picks up frequencies that skip greater distances, that run on AC power if it's running and batteries when it ain't. If they're lucky, they live in a country where the government doesn't jam anything uncontrolled by the despot-in-charge. If they're not lucky, they still might be able to pick up a broadcast from The Outside World that isn't being jammed.

Most of the stuff on World Band are state-sponsored broadcasts--the BBC out of Britain, Voice of America from the US are the ones people think of now. But you can also get Radio China from Beijing, and Radio Japan. The other night I was listening to Radio Havana Cuba. Some of the broadcasts are in English, but a lot of things are in various other languages.

The problem with world band (and also what's great about it) is that it's unpredictable. You turn on your regular radio and you know where your station is and it's always there. On world band you never know. On Monday your station is weak. Tuesday and Wednesday it's not there at all. On Thursday it booms in. On Friday it's another station entirely.

I've got an old radio and you have to turn a big dial to scan the frequencies and another big knob for fine tuning. There are a lot of frequencies to check, so it can be a tedious business. It's a balancing act--you go too fast and you could blow past a good signal; you go too slow and you'll grow old and arthritic scanning the bands.

It's a bit like hunting and fishing. You don't know from one day to the next, even one hour to the next, what you're going to get, if anything at all.

On the internet there's a guy who has a great setup. It's only for the ham bands, which means no world band stuff, you only get guys talking to each other about what ham gear they've using (I gotta Soombish 410E with a 6-10 splitter and a 90 foot line on a half-track...) or trading conspiracy theories worthy of a dumbass AM political talkshow.

Anyway, this guy's website has five HAM bands at 160, 80, 40, 20 and 10 meters, and each band covers a certain amount of territory. You can tune in to anything on any frequency that he picks up. AND he can handle up to 40 people simultaneously, so I can listen to some guy talking about the price of heating oil while other people can hear about someone's new yagi.

So what, you say?

Here's the thing. Imagine you have a radio and it's got a slide-rule dial, which is simply a long, horizontal glass with a needle pointer, and as you turn the knob, the needle moves across the dial. Most radios have those kinds of dials, even in this digital age.

On an ordinary radio, you see the dial and the pointer tells you what frequency you're tuned to. If you want to see what's on a frequency, you have to go to that position on the dial and listen.

This guy's website has something similar, except that there are graphics that show you where the activity is across each dial. In other words, I can see at a glance that someone's transmitting on a given frequency, and I can jump right to it to hear what's going on.


Not only that, but I can tell where the dead spots are. I can see which bands are active and which are dead. I can see where the noise is. I can see which transmissions are weak and will be faint and noisy, and which will be strong and clear.

What that does is take out the tedium of spinning the tuning knob, trying to find something to listen to.

So this should be fantastic, right? It is—but—

It takes some of the fun out of the hunt. It makes it too easy. Even though it's frustrating, one of the reasons I have an old radio is that I like sitting in the dark, lit only by the light of the dial, turning knobs and trying to pick out a voice out of space, and then making various adjustments to bring it in so I can hear it.

But the romance of that gets thin fast when I'm sitting in the dark, trying to find something interesting to listen to; my butt is sore, my shoulder is sore, my fingers are cold. All I'm picking up are broadcasts in Spanish or evangelists in English, plus bursts of noise that threaten to blow my eardrums or the radio speaker cone. That's when I visualize that website with the full spectrum analysis where I can see what's going on where and I can go right to where the food is, and if I don't like one thing, I can jump immediately to something else.

This is what happened with microwave food, too.