Nov 222016

A few days ago, I came across this excellent blog entry about many of the project management misconceptions, bad ideas, overused buzzwords that I ran into in my professional career.

For instance, the author defines “backwards causality” by the example, “let’s adopt the Spotify model!” Yes, of course. While you are at it, also ask a lottery winner what he did that led to his winfall, and make sure you follow those steps exactly, as it will surely guarantee a win.

Or how about the “big bang”, as in “we can’t afford to keep up two systems at the same time”? Even in my teeny-weeny home office environment, I run things in parallel. When I set up a new workstation, it runs parallel with the old for weeks. Same goes for a new server. When I last did a planned transition to a new Internet service provider, I ran things in parallel for a month, too. Sure, it costs money. But it costs a lot less money in the long run than a botched, irreversible transition.

Then there is “buy vs. build”, or the mythical commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) beast. I have seen this so often, especially in this blessed government town! Sure, don’t develop your own word processing software, specifically designed for Her Majesty’s Canadian Government, as that would be foolish nonsense. But many government applications are unique to the government, and may also be unique to the country or jurisdiction. Yet I have seen this happen, in fact I have lost business as a result, when a government department somehow got it in their head that COTS is the way to go.

Closely related is the concept of a “platform”. As in, we’re not just selling a product… we are selling a platform! Yeah, right. Add an API to your software, perhaps bundle two or three remotely related applications with a common installer, and suddenly, you are a platform vendor. To would-be buyers out there: The word “platform” has no technical meaning. It is a marketing buzzword designed to serve one purpose and one purpose only: to suck more money out of your budget.

Speaking of money, how about “enterprise”? You know, it’s government, we cannot just go with some low grade consumer product, we need an “enterprise solution”! You know what makes a product “enterprise”? Mostly it’s the price, nothing more. So-called “enterprise-ready” software is usually the same solution you get elsewhere, just packaged differently.

Another lovely buzzword is the “roadmap”. OK, I plead guilty: in my misguided youth, I both talked about, and contributed to the development of “roadmaps”. And to some extent, they may even make sense: as in a vague, strategic overview of where an IT system is expected to be heading in the long run. But the moment you shoehorn that roadmap into Microsoft Project and start attaching numbers (dollars, dates) to it, it becomes a work of pure fiction. Don’t build roadmaps, do research, do planning, do analysis, do design.

And for goodness’s sake, don’t buy a “turn-key solution”. That is perhaps the greatest deception of all: the idea that an outside vendor can come in, study your business, analyze the requirements, design and implement a solution so that on the agreed-upon delivery date, a nice, shiny new system is ready, just waiting for you to turn the ignition key. That *never* happens. Every experienced system architect can tell you that successful systems don’t happen without customer/user involvement at all stages; that the best adoption strategy is often gradual (see also the “big bang” approach above); and that even the best system needs adjustments and tinkering as its shortcomings only become evident once it is tested through daily use.

Anyhow, these are good lessons. The original article is well worth the read, as it talks about many other points, too.

 Posted by at 4:19 pm
Apr 102016

I’ve been encountering an increasing number of Web sites lately that asked me to disable my ad blocker. They promise, in return, fewer ads.

And with that promise, they demonstrate that they completely and utterly miss the point.

I don’t want fewer ads. I don’t mind ads. I understand that for news Web sites, ads are an essential source of revenue. I don’t resent that. I even click on ads that I find interesting or relevant.

So why do I use an ad blocker, then?

In one word: security.

Malicious ads showed up even on some of the most respectable Web sites. Ad networks have no incentive to vet ads for security, so all too often, they only remove them after the fact, after someone complained. And like a whack-a-mole game, the malicious advertiser is back in no time under another name, with another ad.

And then there are those ads that pop up with an autostart video, with blaring sound in the middle of the night, with the poor user (that would be me) scrambling to find which browser tab, which animation is responsible for the late night cacophony.

Indeed, it was one of these incidents that prompted me to call it quits on ads and install an ad blocker.

So sorry folks, if you are preventing me from accessing your content because of my ad blocker, I just go elsewhere.

That is, until and unless you can offer credible assurance that the ads on your site are safe. I don’t care how many there are. It’s self-limiting anyway: advertisers won’t pay top dollar for an ad on a site that is saturated with ads. What I need to know is that the ads on your site won’t ruin my day one way or another.

 Posted by at 9:19 am
Aug 062015

Here are nearly all the parts from a recently failed fluorescent bulb, which I disassembled:

Most of these parts are perfectly good, mostly generic electronic components that often end up in the trash. All because of these:

Yes, a rotting electrolytic capacitor. The Great Capacitor Plague is supposedly a thing of the past, but bad capacitors still show up quite often. One cannot help but wonder about the possibility that this is not altogether accidental… after all, more frequent replacement of these supposedly long-lasting bulbs means more profit to manufacturers.

 Posted by at 12:09 pm
Jul 312014

I like Staples stores. I often shop at Staples stores, and not just for office supplies… I find that they have a reasonable lineup of computer and office electronics products, too, and sometimes I find “no frills” accessories at Staples (e.g., a plain PC keyboard with no fancy lights, buttons, or extra functions) that are difficult to find elsewhere.

Recently, a friend of mine (let me call him Sam; that is not his real name, but it will make it easier to tell the story) was contemplating the purchase of a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 tablet. Much to my delight, I saw that Staples, specifically the Staples store at the South Keys mall in Ottawa, already had them in stock. So I naturally suggested to Sam that he should consider purchasing one there. After all, beyond supporting the local economy, a purchase in a brick-and-mortar store also means you have readily available support in case something goes wrong, instead of having to deal with someone from the Philippines over the telephone and then leave an expensive device at the mercy of a courier company when you need service. Well… I was really wrong on that one.

What happened is that Sam indeed went ahead and purchased his Surface Pro 3. As he also had a nice, older flat panel display with a VGA connector, he wanted to purchase an appropriate adapter. The Surface Pro 3 has a DisplayPort plug, which has become pretty much the new standard, capable of delivering images at ultra-HD resolution. Now Sam wasn’t (yet) interested in UHD, but he certainly wanted to be able to view his new tablet/laptop comfortably at home, taking advantage of a larger screen. He also wanted a VGA adapter in case he might use the Surface Pro 3 in the future to give talks; many institutions still have projector facilities that are equipped with a standard VGA cable.

The first adapter sold by Staples was an adapter for the Surface Pro and Surface Pro 2. When Sam tried it at home, the adapter did not work. He returned it to the store, where they informed him that the Microsoft adapter is not compatible with his Surface Pro 3. (Could it be that they actually sold the micro-HDMI adapter that is for the Surface RT?) They exchanged the adapter for another, made by Apple, which was supposed to be generic and work with any DisplayPort device.

Except that it didn’t. When Sam plugged in the adapter, the Surface Pro 3 recognized the monitor, but no picture was displayed.

So Sam returned to the store, this time with Surface Pro 3 in hand, asking them to help again and perhaps demonstrate how he is supposed to accomplish this supposedly simple task: connecting his new tablet to a VGA display.

After trying several monitors (the store staff carefully avoided touching Sam’s device; he was asked to plug in the cables into his own tablet) with no success, the sales clerk concluded that the tablet’s DisplayPort connector was faulty.

So Sam asked to have his Surface Pro 3 replaced. Sure, they told him, they can do that as he is still within the store’s 14-day return policy window. When Sam revealed that he only had a photocopy of the receipt (the original was with his employer, as it contained other items as well, for which he was reimbursed) the clerk told him that only the original receipt is accepted.  This being a Friday, waiting until Monday was not an option as the 14 days were almost up. So Sam rushed back to get the original receipt and then returned to the store to arrange the replacement.

However, the store refused his request. Their technician examined the device and concluded that the DisplayPort socket must have been damaged by Sam. They explained that they can only replace a device that can be repackaged and sold. They also told Sam that it was all his fault; he should have purchased an extended warranty. Bottom line: the store told Sam to try his luck with Microsoft, as they had absolutely no interest in resolving this matter to Sam’s satisfaction. The risk that they might be stuck with a device that would not be accepted as a warranty return by Microsoft was not acceptable to them.

Needless to say, Sam was extremely disappointed. He wowed never to shop at Staples again (at South Keys or anywhere else). Indeed, he decided not to consider purchasing a nice UHD monitor that I saw at this very Staples, and which I recommended to him.

When Sam returned home, he phoned Microsoft. He gave them the details of his story. When Microsoft understood that the device was purchased less than 14 days earlier, they immediately offered to replace it, no questions asked, free of charge. Sam gave them a credit card number for security, and the replacement Surface Pro 3 arrived the following Monday morning, shipped over the weekend. Sam then returned the damaged device using the shipping label that Microsoft provided; tracking the package, he ascertained that it has since been received by Microsoft.

I felt very bad about this affair, since I was the one who recommended Staples to my friend in the first place. I thought a lot about what happened to him. Was Staples right? Well… let me assume that their interpretation of the facts is absolutely correct and that there were no ulterior motives (I have my doubts, especially in light of their snide comments about Sam’s failure to purchase a worthless extended warranty, but let me give them the benefit of the doubt.) Well… perhaps what they did was legal, but it was still insanely bad policy.

First, Sam did not do anything inappropriate with his new tablet. He was not trying to use it to swat flies, chop trees, or paddle his boat. He was trying to connect a device that was, in fact, provided to him by Staples. So even if it was his hands that caused damage to the connector, I’d argue that Staples bears at least some responsibility.

Second, Microsoft would likely have accepted the return from Staples just as easily as they accepted it from Sam (unless Staples already had a bad reputation with Microsoft with an excessive percentage of warranty returns.) The actual damage is arguably the manufacturer’s fault (a connector should be a little more resilient than that) and in any case, in an appropriately equipped service center, the repair (disassembling the device, desoldering the faulty connector, soldering in a new connector, reassembling and testing the device) would consume no more than a few minutes of a qualified technician’s time.

Third, and most importantly… Even if there was some risk to Staples, isn’t it precisely why we pay a premium and make purchases at brick-and-mortar stores? At the very least, we would expect better support from a local store than the standard set by online retailers like, say, Amazon or TigerDirect.

And sometimes, we get that level of support, even from retail chains that compete with Staples directly. I am thinking about Future Shop, specifically the Future Shop store on Ogilvie Road. A few years back, I purchased a digital camera and photo printer there, as a gift for my Mom in Hungary. I asked the clerk if the printer (which also served as a charger) came with a universal adapter that would work in Europe. Sure, I was told, all adapters are like that nowadays. Yet a few weeks later, as I was setting up the printer in my Mom’s Budapest apartment, the moment I plugged it in, the adapter went up in smoke… sure enough, its label read, 90-120V AC or something like that.

My fault. I should have read the damn label. Still, upon my return, when I next visited the same Future Shop store, I recounted my sad tale to a clerk, and also told him that I was able to find a replacement adapter online, and shipped it to my Mom. Guess what… the clerk asked me to wait a little, vanished for a moment, and returned with a manager who asked me to retell my story. When I was done, he told me that Future Shop would reimburse all my expenses in the form of a gift card. I protested, as it really was my fault! No, they told me, they stand by their products and the advice given by their store clerks, so if I was misled, even if inadvertently, they should reimburse me. And they did.

This happened a number of years ago but I remain a frequent visitor at that store, and in Future Shop stores in particular, ever since. Now this is how a brick-and-mortar store can still hang on to its customers, despite the online competition.

Not the way Staples South Keys treated my friend.

 Posted by at 9:43 pm
Jul 152013

What an ugly word: monetization. Never liked it.

I especially do not like it when it comes to games.

When it comes to computer games, my age shows I guess. The first computer game I ever played was an arcade version of Pong. And the first multiplayer world I participated in was British Legends, the Compuserve implementation of the original MUD, or Multi-User Dungeon. Eventually, I started hosting MUD’s successor, MUD2, and when CompuServe shut down British Legends, I began hosting my own port of MUD1 here as well. And for a while, I did charge MUD2 users a subscription fee but that’s just not a viable business model for a small gaming site these days, so eventually we dropped all such fees.

In any case, subscription fees are not what come to my mind when I think about game monetization. It is more insidious ways to compel players to cough up hard earned money.

And now I came across an intriguing article that offers a thorough review of several monetization tricks and schemes. The basic idea is to compel players to purchase in-game add-ons, “power-ups” and other improvements, and pay ever greater amounts as they progress through the game.

Of course it cannot be done as blatantly as that. As the article explains, a good monetization scheme does not destroy the player’s illusion that the game is skill-based. Paying may help a little, or help a player avoid losing prior achievements, but the player’s perception remains that the game is fundamentally rewarding skill, not big spending. Which, of course, is untrue, but the most successful monetization schemes can liberate hundreds of dollars from the pockets of devoted players each month.

I don’t like these schemes. They feel… dishonest. I do purchase the occasional game, both for my phone and for my PC (thanks to GOG.COM and DOTEMU.COM who offer great titles free of DRM). But I never pay for in-game features or upgrades as a matter of principle, and a good thing, too: as the article explains, once you pay, you end up paying more, in part to protect the investment you made earlier by paying real money to help your progress.

 Posted by at 12:42 pm
Mar 022013

Recently, I needed a bit of cash and I decided to take advantage of one of those “0% interest” loan offers that regularly appears in my mailbox for several of my credit cards. It was very easy to do of course, all I had to do was to deposit a check in my bank account.

But when the credit card statement arrived next month, I was in for a surprise. True, the loan was at 0% interest, just as advertised. However, what I neglected to take into account was that this credit card actually had an insurance contract attached to it. I never kept a balance on this card, so whether or not it had insurance was completely irrelevant to me… until now, when I suddenly noticed that my supposedly 0% interest loan suddenly increased by a full 1% in just a month! (Actually, 1.08% to be precise, because the insurance was also subject to provincial sales tax.)

Needless to say, I called up the bank and immediately canceled this ridiculous insurance, cursing myself for not having done this sooner. (Live and learn.) Another month went by and a new bill arrived. Behold! That 1% of the original loan amount that they added in the form of insurance qualified as a “purchase”, with interest calculated at the standard (albeit rather usurious) rate of 17.99%. And of course you cannot pay off just this amount; any payment you make to the card will be distributed by this particular bank proportionately between the lower and higher interest rate amounts that you owe, so 99% of the payment I made went against the 0% interest original loan amount.

My cash crunch was long over, so I phoned the bank and simply told them that unless they are willing to rectify this situation, I am going to pay of this card immediately and close the account. To their credit, they rectified the problem right away (or so they said; it’s not yet reflected when I check the account over the Internet, but hopefully all will be well when next month’s bill arrives.)

But it got me thinking: how does this scam (for I do not really have a better word for it) work when it involves people less attentive to numbers than I?

So let’s say you start with a $5,000 loan that you take out at the promised 0% interest for, let’s say, 12 months. You naively expect that if you keep paying the minimum payment (1% each month) then by the end of the 12 months, you will have payed off $568.08, with $4,431.92 still owing. Well… not exactly.

What actually happens is that you will have paid a total of $602.64 at the minimum rate. Yet your final balance at the end of the year is $5,094.40, so you now owe $94.40 more than you originally borrowed. In the intervening twelve months, the bank will have charged you $602.52 in credit insurance; $48.14 in sales tax (at the Ontario provincial rate of 8%); and a further $47.99 in interest on these “purchases”.

Lumping it all together, it amounts to an effective interest rate of 14% that you ended up paying on a loan that was advertised at a 0% interest rate.

And this if you did not use your card for anything else. Remember, when you make a payment, this particular bank (and probably, many/most others) applies your payment proportionately to the lower and higher interest rate portions of the total amount you owe. So you cannot just pay off your high interest purchases at the end of the month; they will keep on accruing interest so long as your 0% interest loan remains on your account.

At times like this, I regret not being religious. Otherwise, I could believe as Dante that usurers get what they deserve in the afterlife:

“Turn thee around, I pray thee, backward look
“There where thou sayest usury gives offence
“To goodness infinite and the knot untie.”

“Philosophy,” he said, “th’ observant mind,
“Teaches this truth, not in one place alone,
“That Nature takes her method and her course

“From the divinte intelligence and art;
“And if thy physics thou hast studied well,
“Then thou before thou readest far shalt find

“That this thy art, so far as it hath pow’r
“Follows as pupil in his master’s steps;
“So of God’s child thine art seems almost child.

“From these two, then, if thou in mem’ry hold’st
“The earlier Genesis, it is decreed
“That life must spring, and man’s increase must come.

“But then the usurer treads another path;
“Nature and her attendant both he scorns,
“Since in another means he places hope.”

 Posted by at 10:56 am
Dec 302012

Haunting letter from ChinaHere is a reason why I prefer not to buy goods made in China. Some of the goods from that country may have been made in “re-education through labor” camps.

In other words, forced labor.

And last year, a camp inmate had the courage to smuggle a letter into the packaging of a Halloween decoration kit. The package sat unopened by its purchaser for a year, when she finally decided to put up some Halloween decorations.

Note to retailers: I am more than happy to pay a premium for goods made in Canada or the US, by free people earning decent wages. And, while I may be in a minority for the time being, I am pretty sure I am not alone.

 Posted by at 8:36 am
Oct 292012

I use PayPal a lot. I initially started using the service for eBay purchases, but since, I’ve used it to sell calculators, to receive payments from advertisers, even to send money to family. I generally like PayPal. Indeed, I always considered them one of the “good guys”. After all, isn’t it PayPal’s very founder, Elon Musk, who seems to have single-handedly established the era of commercial spaceflight with his SpaceX venture?

But now PayPal is notifying me of a policy update. A policy update that is specifically designed to prevent users from using the court system. Yes, you can opt out, but you can only do so in a manner that is made intentionally difficult:

“You can choose to reject this Agreement to Arbitrate (“opt out”) by mailing us a written opt-out notice (“Opt-Out Notice”).  For new PayPal users, the Opt-Out Notice must be postmarked no later than 30 Days after the date you accept the User Agreement for the first time.  If you are already a current PayPal user and previously accepted the User Agreement prior to the introduction of this Agreement to Arbitrate, the Opt-Out Notice must be postmarked no later than December 1, 2012. You must mail the Opt-Out Notice to PayPal, Inc., Attn: Litigation Department, 2211 North First Street, San Jose, CA 95131. “

Yes, you need to use snail mail. Yes, the world’s leading digital payments company apparently lacks the ability to process an opt-out request electronically.

Of course what it really is about is that they are counting on you and me not making the effort to put a stamp on an envelope.

Which indeed I won’t. I never tried to sue PayPal in the past, nor do I have plans to do so in the future. And I will still use their services.

But, I no longer consider them one of the “good guys”.

 Posted by at 8:55 am
Oct 222012

Think of an essential part of your life. Now imagine relinquishing control over it to others, people you don’t know, people who may in fact be in different countries, providing a service on an industrial scale. Most of the time they do an admirable job; but when they make a mistake you and many others suffer, possibly with life-altering consequences.

No, I am not describing cloud computing. I could have, but I was actually thinking about manufactured foods. When you buy a bag of snacks at a supermarket, for instance. The materials used to manufacture that food come from all four corners of the world. Some are organic in origin, often waste products from the processing of hundreds of animals or tons of vegetables. Others are manufactured at chemical plants, e.g., from petroleum. And when the controls fail; when an unscrupulous manufacturer in China, for instance, introduces an unapproved substitute to boost the measured protein content of a manufactured ingredient, people or pets suffer, even die.

But what I am really struck by are these similarities between cloud computing and “eating from the cloud”: that for the sake of convenience and easy access we willingly relinquish control over something essential, and that we generally trust society to such an extent that we are not the least bit worried when a private e-mail with an intimate personal photograph travels halfway around the world before arriving in our Inbox (which itself may be physically located in another country, perhaps on another continent); or when we put bits of food in our mouths without the slightest worry about the origin of its ingredients produced in distant lands by people we will never get a chance to know.

 Posted by at 8:27 am
Sep 122012

That the main function of the post office is to deliver letters may be obvious to many, but apparently it wasn’t obvious to a postal employee today when my wife tried to mail an oversize letter to Hungary. It would be about $30 surface, or $60 air mail, said the young employee to my wife who was so surprised at first, she was unable to respond. Thankfully, a senior clerk overheard the conversation and eventually came to her colleague’s rescue, explaining to her that a letter is not a parcel. Actual cost? $4.20, for a letter weighing between 50 and 100 grams. Though I am seriously beginning to wonder if at least half that price is due to the inefficiencies of inept postal employees…

 Posted by at 5:26 pm
Sep 082012

Poor Nokia. The struggling mobile phone manufacturer is about to introduce its new flagship phone, the Lumia 920. The phone supposedly has a high quality camera with image stabilization, which Nokia proudly showed in a YouTube ad. The ad shows a young couple, the geeky man taking videos of her girlfriend while they ride bicycles, go to an amusement park, or just generally goof off.

Except that it’s all a fake. Look closely at this frame, about 27 seconds into the video:

Look at the reflection in the window of that mobile home (or whatever it is). Do you see the girl’s goofy boyfriend, riding his bicycle while holding a phone? Of course not. What you do see is a white van with its side door open, revealing a cameraman with a large, professional camera.


I am actually rooting for Nokia. I even think that Windows 8, while a disaster on the desktop, will likely be a good smartphone or tablet operating system if it is given the chance. None of which excuses the phony ad.

To their credit, Nokia admitted the fake right away, and the updated version of the video that is presently on YouTube says that much. Still…

But then, as P. T. Barnum once supposedly said, any publicity is good publicity. Maybe Nokia will actually benefit from the extra publicity that their commercial receives as a result of this fiasco.

 Posted by at 4:57 pm
Jul 162012

I just listened to an interesting story on NPR: how the Red Cross lost (and never regained!) the trust of American soldiers 70 years ago. It’s a cautionary tale about charging for things that were once free, and how that can irreversibly change perceptions.

The Red Cross made a mistake in 1942 when it obeyed a request from America’s then secretary of war and started charging GIs overseas, to eliminate tension that arose because British soldiers had to pay for similar services. Just how bad are the consequences? Seventy years later, when NPR’s reporter told a veteran that the Red Cross still offers donuts for free, the response was predictably skeptical: “stale donuts probably, too”.

 Posted by at 5:41 pm
Jun 122012

This graphic was sent to me by its creator with an obvious viral marketing intent; but since it is both funny and informative, I said what the heck, why not? In any case, I just love that photograph of Ballmer on which he looks like a mad 1930s dictator from some wacky computer game (Zork Nemesis comes to mind).

 Posted by at 10:33 am
Sep 122011

The other day, I bought some new undershirts. It was my wife who noticed something on the label that escaped my attention: Made in Canada/Fabrique au Canada. It has been so long since I last saw such a label, I almost forgot what it looks like. The undershirts were made by Stanfields, in Nova Scotia.

I also got two books from my wife. They were both printed in the USA. What can I say… neat.

 Posted by at 7:51 pm
Jul 302011

Every summer, on every Canadian TV channel, during just about every commercial break, a commercial for Marineland in Niagara Falls is shown… with a song that just drives me bonkers. I’d sooner listen to a hundred pieces of chalk scratching a hundred chalkboards. Will they ever stop?

 Posted by at 12:49 am
Jul 022011

Yesterday, Intel lost the bid for the patent assets of defunct Canadian company Nortel, despite joining forces with Google.

Google bid some odd amounts; for instance, at one point they bid $1,902,160,540.

The digits happen to be those of Brun’s constant: B2 = 1.90216058…

Brun’s constant is the sum of the reciprocals of twin primes. B2 = (1/3 + 1/5) + (1/5 + 1/7) + (1/11 + 1/13) + … According to Brun’s theorem, this sum converges. The limit of the sum is Brun’s constant.

A professor of mathematics named Thomas Nicely once used a group of computers to calculate twin primesup to 1e14, computing Brun’s constant among other things.

At one point, Nicely’s computations failed. After eliminating other sources of error, Nicely concluded that the problem was a fault in the new Pentium processors present in some recently acquired computers in the group.

Nicely notified Intel, but it wasn’t until after a public relations disaster that Intel finally responded the way they should have in the first place, offering to replace all affected processors. This cost Intel $475 million.

Who knows, if they still had that extra $475 million cash in their pockets, they could have bid more and won yesterday.

 Posted by at 10:21 pm
Jan 172010

I wondered recently about Google not (yet) being evil.

If recent news are to be believed, Google decided to play hardball with the Chinese government. Good for them! I hope Google prevails, but even if they don’t, I think they should be applauded for having the guts.

Now here’s the $0.02 question (or, in the case of Google, more likely the multibillion dollar question): how long before Google’s CEO gets fired for failing to maximize shareholder value?

 Posted by at 3:43 am