Avoiding Subsidizing Overpaid Ass-Clowns in an A La Carte Consumption World

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Image courtesy of zenshaman.com

For about half my life, roughly, the media that I consumed was essentially collectivized.  That is to say that everything I saw or read or listened to was from a very limited set of corporate producers.  The individual content was from a huge mass of folks of course, but they were collected under the heading of “The TV Networks” or “The Big Publishers” or “The National Newsweeklies” or “The Big Record Companies” or what have you.

Over time, the collectors changed somewhat–cable and satellite TV became big business; the phone company was broken up, acquired media properties, and started consolidating; big players in one industry (Warner, e.g.) bought big players in other areas (Time, record companies, etc.).  But from the consumer perspective this all had the appears of deck chairs shuffling around on the Titanic; we were all still sailing on the USS Media Collective, where a very limited number of companies controlled a huge percentage of what we these days call “content”.  And it was in the interests of these big media companies to become even bigger, to acquire even more properties, leading us to a place like the current proposed Comcast/Time-Warner merger.

I was thinking of all this recently because of a big push by the New York Times to try to get people to subscribe to just their opinions section.  The New York Times opinion section is immensely popular, so much so that about 10 years back, they tried to put a paywall in the way of people who wanted to read just that content.  And like the vast majority of pay walls, it was a monumental failure and they gave it up.  Now they’re trying again.  But the thing is, I don’t want to pay some monthly subscription fee and get stuck with their idiot columnists like (shudder) David Brooks or Maureen Dowd or cliche-thrower & metaphor mixer Tom Friedman or right-wing anti-sex moron Ross Douthat; I just want to read Paul Krugman whenever I like. So I’m not going to subsidize people I consider overpaid ass-clowns just for that. And I doubt very much I’m alone in that regard.

And this got me thinking about how much the Web era has changed our expectations, how we consume (and want to consume) content, and the effect that’s having on these big–but terrified–media companies.

Big media companies want to continue to force you to purchase things collectively.  You know how it works:  If you want HBO, you have to get a cable or satellite subscription, and you have to pay for some kind of “premium” package, forcing you to buy dozens (or even hundreds) of channels of programming you don’t give a rip about just so you can watch “Game of Thrones” for three months out of the year.  Or you have to get a ruinously-expensive “add-on” package to the premium package if you want to watch, I dunno, hockey or football or whatever beyond what the networks offer “for free”.

It’s the same with newspapers; you may just wants the sports and comics (or in the case of my bff the rocket scientist, the comics and the technology section), but you also have to pay for the ads, the obits, the opinion section, the business section, and whatever else they put in there.  Or in the case of the New York Times and their brilliant new Opinion Subscription strategy, they want me to subsidize people I consider overpaid ass-clowns just to get the one or two people I think are worth actually shelling out dough for.  And every newspaper has that issue to some degree.

Hell, it’s even the same with music; they want you to pay $10-20 for a whole album, not just buy the one song from that album that you’re interested in.  Do you really want the entire “Despicable Me 2″ soundtrack, or do you just want “I’m Happy”?  And media companies want you to spend $15 just to get your personal dose of Pherrell.

Now, there are reasonable arguments to be made for forcing people to pay way more than they want for packages of stuff they’re not interested in so as to subsidize quality “minority”-level content.  But about 20 years ago, something funny happened that started us moving toward an a la carte world:  Mosaic, the first legitimate Web browser, was introduced.  And that, combined with the Net Neutrality-induced low bar of entry to publishing content, opened the content floodgates.  Mix in things like Amazon, iTunes, portable media players, iPads, and whatnot, and you have a world where not only are people familiar with buying only what they want, when they want, to consume at their own leisure, they expect it.  People get irked when their favorite podcast is late, or when they can’t download this week’s episode of “Mad Men” the day after it is broadcast.  (Not to mention the insanity of companies like HBO trying to force you to wait nearly a year to watch programming like “Game of Thrones”–a topic I go into in boring detail in other post.)

Now there is an entire generation–a generation as familiar with YouTube and NetFlix and Amazon Instant Video and iTunes as I was with the flavors of Slurpees available at my local neighborhood 7-Eleven–that has grown up with that.  (And don’t even get me started on social media!)  My son doesn’t care that the episodes of MythBusters he’s watching were filmed 7 years ago; my daughter doesn’t give a rip that the Anime she is enjoying were broadcast originally in Japan in 2003; they are products of the Internet age, and don’t care.  And for me, a long-time nerd, that the episode of “Top Gear” I’m watching was made in 2004 matters to me not a whit; it’s still fun to watch.  These are the times we live in, and the big media companies simply don’t get it.

Used to be, when I moved someplace new–and when I lived in Santa Cruz, I did it on an almost-yearly basis–I did three things immediately:  Unpack and set up my stereo, get out all my books and put them on the shelves, and subscribe to my newspaper of choice.  Getting everything else set up took a back seat–even the phone.  But music, books, and news were critical.

Now?  Now, I take out my iPhone, iPad, and Mac, and I have all three immediately.  I haven’t subscribed to a newspaper in nearly a decade.  My books are all in boxes.  I don’t even have a stereo.  My entire music and book collection I carry with me all the time, and the news I can access whenever I like, wherever I like.  For the media companies, this is of course a monumental disaster.  For the consumer, it’s unbelievably convenient and wonderful.  Talk about overcoming the PITA principle!

Until such a time as media companies like HBO and Time Warner and Comcast get on board with the fact that not only do we live in an a la carte world, but that denying people that access is counter-productive not only to their business model but also to their bottom line, we’ll continue to get pushed to sign up for things like the New York Times’ new Opinion-section Only Subscription App.  And I’ll say it again:  I doubt I’m the only person in the world who doesn’t want to subsidize overpaid ass-clowns just to get the content I want.

It’s an a la carte world, media companies; time to get over it and move along.  Or you’ll get run over.

 

The PITA Principle

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Image courtesy of Wiggins Marketing

OK, yes: I should be flogged for such a bad pun.  I beg forgiveness.

I’m in high tech, and in high tech we love our acronyms.  We love them so much, we even have an acronym for them:  TLAs, or “three-letter acronyms”.  Sometimes you get longer ones, but often they’re three letters.  But in this case we have a four-letter acronym: PITA.  “Pain in the ass”.  And I want to share a theory with y’all about why certain things get adopted by the public and world at large, and other things don’t.  I call this The PITA Principle.

The PITA Principle is simple:  The more of a pain in the ass something is to do, the less likely people will do it.  This seems obvious, right?  But the thing is, when you look at a lot of things that seem confusing from a rational perspective–why don’t people buy electric cars more often?–it’s because of The PITA Principle.  Having an electric car is more of a PITA than a gasoline car.  The world infrastructure is designed around gas cars that can be refueled in a few minutes, every 300 miles or so.  Gas stations are distributed accordingly.  People plan their trips based on this.  Their subconscious expectations are all geared towards it.  So why would you switch from something that goes 350 miles on a single refueling, said refueling taking less than 5 minutes, to something that goes less than 100 miles on a single charge, and recharging takes hours?  Even if doing so is cheaper, and more environmentally sound?  The PITA Principle, baby; it’s easier.  I think it’s that simple.

This explains the adoption of a ton of things that might–especially to curmudgeons–seem weird.  Why email rather than physical mail?  It’s easier!  The PITA Principle!  You can email in seconds, from your laptop, wherever you are; to mail something physical requires stamps and envelopes and licking and walking to the mailbox and paying money.  It’s not much of a PITA, but it’s more of one than sending email.

Which also explains why teens text so durn much; it’s even less of a PITA than email.  And furthermore, it’s less of a PITA (for a teen) than talking on the very same phone!  “Why?” you might reasonably ask.  Because when you talk on the phone, you have to be in a location with a reasonable amount of privacy, as does your calling partner; you have to deal with the emotional content of their voice, and correspondingly control your own vocal dynamics; you have to hang up or put the person on hold if interrupted, and so do they; and on and on.  It’s more of a PITA.  Texting is easier.  Teens text.

Or move on over into the political realm.  Despite the fact that the Republicans’ platform is out of step with more than 2/3 of the country (seriously; look it up), they continue to be competitive, are in charge of the House of Representatives, numerous states, may grab the Senate, and continue to be competitive in Presidential elections.  How is that possible?  Democrats far outnumber Republicans; Democratic positions (raise the minimum wage; increase Medicare and Medicaid coverage; improve Social Security; get government out of doctor/patient decisions; etc.) are wildly popular compared to Republican positions.  How do they keep winning?  Yes, incumbency; yes, Gerrymandering; yes, cheating.  But I also believe the PITA Principle plays a big role.  What’s easier?  Voting for the guy (or woman) who you’re familiar with, whose name you know, who you are used to.  “The Devil you know.”  The PITA point is lower.  Incumbents win because voting for them is easier.  The PITA Principle.

This is reflected in a lot of high tech success stories.  Not all, but some.  Why did Apple sell a b’zillion iPods, when there were so many other MP3 players out there?  Because by browbeating record companies and artists and publishers and making iTunes pricing very consistent, and making the downloading process easier and simpler than the competitors, Jobs lowered the PITA factor to a point where it was significantly better than his competitors, and thus won the market.  Why do people still buy more iPhones than Android phones?  Lower PITA point.  (Though Android is now very, very close, and in some ways better.)  Why do iPads continue to outsell other tablets?  The PITA point, which not only takes in the tablets themselves, but how they interact with iTunes, your computer (particularly if you’re using a Mac desktop or laptop), and the other iPads, iPhones, and Macs in your home.  Apple’s products, in the main, have extremely low PITA points, and they charge accordingly.

You can also see this, very much, in a business environment.  For example, at a previous job at [formerly awesome company that no longer exists], one team was performing software source control using a very sophisticated, graphical interface tool, while another team used a very rough-and-ready, command-line tool for their source control.  The graphical tool was more powerful, more technically sophisticated, did a better job and ensuring source security, was superior at preventing source collisions and workflow errors . . . and people hated it, and we all eventually moved back to the command-line tool, kludgy though it was.  Why?  The graphical tool was way more of a PITA to use and maintain, and the command-line tool was simpler and easier to use (and easier to spoof when something went wrong, too).  The lower PITA point won out, even though the company was actually selling the graphical tool!  A lower PITA point buys you a lot.

I’m sure someone smarter than me, with better math, economic, sociological, and business knowledge, would be able to put together charts, graphs, figures, and PowerPoint slides to make this into a true scientific study.  I’m sure there’s some kind of way to enumerate PITA values for particular products or processes, and correlate PITA points to prices and profit margins, but I’m not that guy.  John Nash could probably do it and win another Nobel Prize.  But I’m just a humble writer.  A humble writer who sincerely hopes someone smarter does take up this gauntlet, and see where it goes.

Information Isn’t Power

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Illustration by David Somerville based on the original by Hugh McLeod

I read a pretty broad swath of stuff, from my son’s car magazines to high tech blogs to marketing web sites.  My job is weird, and (apparently) my thirst for input is pretty promiscuous.  Thus it was that I was reading a post by the aforementioned Mr. Somerville on the Brain on Digital site.  And there, right up front, the very first sentence grabbed my attention:

They used to say knowledge is power, but now there’s Google — information is everywhere, and cheap.

Now, don’t get the wrong idea here; Somerville’s post is about how in the ocean of data that washes over us every day, the most important commodity is attention.  How can you catch someone’s eye when you know that they’re flooded by information?  How can you get someone (to stick to our water analogy) to pay attention to a particular drop of water when they’re swimming in the middle of a data equivalent of the Mississippi river?  It’s well worth reading.

But it was that first sentence that got me thinking, because I’m sure that there is a big difference between information, and knowledge.  That old chestnut states “Knowledge is power”; not data, or information, but knowledge.  I’m not being pedantic here; in a world where we almost literally have an incredible amount of data (some of it highly dubious) at our fingertips, it’s how we collate, integrate, and apply that information that gives you knowledge.  And, as Somerville shows, hopefully eventually wisdom.

When I was a kid, what I wanted more than anything was eidetic memory, i.e. “photographic memory”.  I had an unusually good memory, but it was frustratingly imperfect and I wanted it perfect.  I wanted to remember everything.  I knew that a lot of folks with eidetic memory had some fairly severe neurological or psychological issues, but I was Doug; I wouldn’t have that problem, right?  The perfect arrogance of a child.

In the years since, I’ve learned that there’s a reason eidetic memory is both rare, and often associated with disorders; how the heck do you catalog and store all that data?  How can your brain keep up?  Memory is associative; that is, when you create a new memory, it associates with other memories in your brain and forms new connections.  It’s not a straight linear progression of adding raw data; your brain is always taking that data and doing shit with it.  “That reminds me of . . .”  The more memories, the more associations.  So most people’s brains flush some stuff, just to make room.  People with eidetic memories are awash in memories, flooded by data.  No wonder they struggle!  Do you really want to remember, say, what it smelled like that day you had the flu in 1987?  Or how your skin felt when you burned yourself on the stove that time in December, 1992?  What if you couldn’t forget that?

The Internet is our cultural eidetic memory; it stores everything.  We apply associations by hand with links, but the Internet doesn’t self-associate.  Adding new data and linking it to other data doesn’t create real associations like we do with our brains; they’re just static links.  They’re something some random person at some point thought was related to the topic at hand.  Useful, but not the same thing.

So now we all have access to eidetic memory, but does all that data make us all equally “powerful” in the “knowledge is power” sense?  Clearly not.  You have to tag, order, sort, and organize that information in some way.  Then you have to create connection between pieces of data that maybe other folks don’t see.  “Huh; you know, that makes me think of what this book by Dr. Blaupunkt said on a related topic . . .”  And with those connections, you come up with ideas and thoughts that maybe didn’t exist before.  And that is power.

People in fiction often use the “knowledge is power” formulation to demonstrate that when a state or other entity withholds information, withholds data, the people are ignorant and the folks holding that information have the power.  And that’s true, of course, but why?  Because without that data, people can’t collate the information, form those associations, and come up with their own ideas and thoughts.  If you don’t know the multiplication tables, you can’t do fractions.  But if you do know those multiplication tables, you can move on to division, and fractions, and algebra, and geometry, and on into Calculus and the next thing you know you’ve got Newton’s Laws of Motion and nuclear power and iPhones and whatnot.  But it’s not just the raw data; it’s the insight to see connections between those data points that other people haven’t seen yet.  And it builds on itself; new ideas create new data, which allows people to have new insights and create new data, and so on ad infinitum.

And it’s not just having access to the data and making connections, either; finding the information is more difficult than people imply when they say “Just Google it”.  Google is all well and good, but if you’re using the wrong search terms, you’re not going to find what you’re looking for no matter how many times you click the Search button.  You have to imply a certain amount of insight and use some guesswork (“I wonder what most people would call that?”) to get what you’re looking for.  Google can’t do that thinking for you.

While not a great movie (and I personally don’t like Bradley Cooper), “Limitless” explored this in a very interesting way.  Our Hero, Eddie, is a smart but unmotivated fiction writer.  He takes a drug, and suddenly he’s brilliant.  But not because he’s suddenly taking in a huge new ocean of data; no, it’s because he can make connections between data that was already there in his noggin, and create new ideas and new conclusions from it.  Such is also the brilliance of Sherlock Holmes, Mr. Spock, Herocule Poirot, and many other “genius” fictional characters.  It’s not the data, folks, it’s the connections and conclusions and deductions.

So fear not:  Even though the Internet and the Web and Google and WikiPedia level the data playing field, that ability to create those connections, and from them original ideas, is still the thing that counts.  Data isn’t power; knowledge is power, and knowledge comes from those insights and connections.

That’s what I think, anyway.  But maybe I need some more data.

A Brief Meditation on Software Obsolescence

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Dead too soon, far ahead of its time

I have been fascinated with high tech stuff as long as I can remember.  Growing up in the 60s right in the middle of the Apollo mission push, tech permeated the culture, and I sucked it up like a sponge.  The first book I ever had, bought by my dad as a bribe so I would read the school’s execrable “Dick and Jane” readers (Yes, I’m that old) was titled, simply, “Space”, about outer space and exploring it.

So I’ve been doing tech for a long time.  And I’ve been in the high tech industry my entire career, from before there was a Web, and when the Internet was young.  I’m used to it.  I’m familiar with it.  And one of the things you get used to is the ridiculously fast pace; you take a year off, you miss a couple of updates, and you’re screwed.  You get accustomed to it; you get so you expect it.  And in general, it’s a good thing; those bugs that annoy the crap out of you, or the slow speed of a particular app, or that lack of functionality that really drives you nuts, well, just wait a bit and hey, presto! it’s fixed.

But that has a down side.  For example:  One of my favorite PDA devices of all time was a combined PDA/game device designed for the Palm OS called the Tapwave Zodiac.  This was a sweet gizmo, with all the functionality of a high-end Palm PDA, but with game buttons and a small analog joystick, on which you could play music, manage your calendar and contacts, take notes, and every other thing you could do with your iPhone except make phone calls.  It had a beautiful, full-color touch screen (stylus required), felt great in your hand, a couple of SD slots to expand the memory space . . . it was a damn fine piece of work.

In 2005.

Two years later, the iPhone would hit the market, and to my eye it was basically an improved Tapwave Zodiac with no expansion slots that didn’t require a stylus and let you make phone calls.  The big difference was that it was backed by Apple.  The result:  iPhones are everywhere (despite Steve Ballmer’s idiotic predictions) while the Zodiac is known only to  a few obsessive enthusiasts such as myself.  It is obsolete.  And alas, all the software on it–some of which was quite wonderful–is obsolete as well.

And that’s something that is often overlooked in our fast-moving high tech environment:  The stuff that is lost.

Now don’t get me wrong:  I love living in this world.  I love the fast pace; I love the sense that we’re only one or two revisions away from an iPhone that comes with a jetpack or a transporter or something.  But sometimes you lose stuff along the way.

One of my favorite games on the Zodiac was “MicroQuad“, a cart racing game not dissimilar from MarioKarts.  If you were to see it in action, you would note the close resemblance to the iOS game Cro-Mag Rally.  But it’s not the same on the iPhone without the analog controller; if you’ve played any iOS games that require a “virtual” controller, i.e. one on the screen, you know that it’s just a weak imitation.  (I keep hoping someone will invent a plug-in piece of hardware that allows you attach buttons and an analog controller to an iPhone for some real console gameplay.  Seven years and still nothing, though.  Sigh.  Somebody do a Kickstarter for it, okay?)  So MicroQuad, a true favorite, is obsolete.

Similarly, in the early years of iOS, a company called Glu created a slow-moving, almost meditative “action” game called Glyder.  You’re a (female!) hang glider pilot in a mysterious world, collecting jewels and the like.  It wasn’t face paced; nothing died; you didn’t shoot anything; and I just loved it.  It was popular enough that they made a sequel.  But iOS never stays still, and Glu decided, for financial reasons I’m sure, that continuing to update Glyder to keep pace with iOS changes didn’t work for them.  And now Glyder is obsolete, and I can’t play another of my favorite games.

A simliar fate has apparently befallen Sandlot Games’ title “Glyph“, which was one of the very, very few games I enjoyed during my brief foray on a Windows phone (the HTC Universal, a wonderful phone that was stuck with a truly miserable operating system).  I was thrilled when Glyph was ported to iOS.  And then I was much less thrilled when it was summarily eliminated.  A victim of Sandlot’s acquisition by Digital Chocolate?  A pure financial decision?  I don’t know; all I know is that I can’t play Glyph any more, and it bums me.

Hell, there’s even a term for this:  Abandonware.

Obsolescence is something we live with all the time, with all the gadgets around us.  We expect it.  But somehow it feels even more brutal and arbitrary in the software world, a world made up of bits, of ephemeral zeroes and ones floating in a virtual world, stored for the most part in “the cloud”, so many layers of abstraction away that it’s hard to track.  And when something goes away, you can’t even pull up a picture on Google or find it on eBay.  It’s gone.  Obsolete.  And it gives me a little pang.

I guess even in the beating breast of the most hard-core techie, a bit of a romantic luddite lurks.

New Story: Death Comes Calling

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Cartoon courtesy of Gary Larson

While I am still struggling to get back in the groove of writing fiction regularly, I did have a story that I cranked out a couple of months ago that I didn’t particularly like at the time but, in looking at it now, thought that it was at least worthy of putting on Wattpad so that people could shoot flaming arrows at it.  Or not, as suits them.  But I have gone so long without posting that I thought I better get off my lazy duff and post this at the very least, so there it is.

In brief, in a lengthy fit of pique over the fact that none of the financial barons who crashed our economy nor war-mongering politicians who got us involved in not one but two land wars in Asia (didn’t any of those ass-clowns watch “The Princess Bride”?), I dusted off some time-honored science fiction tropes and cranked out what is, essentially, a revenge fantasy.  It doesn’t have a plot per se; it’s one long rant.  But if you’re as PO’d as I am about the behavior of Our Glorious Corporate and Political Overlords over the last 14 years or so, maybe it will be cathartic for you.  Who knows?

Anyway, you can check out Death Comes Calling on Wattpad.

A Brief Treatise on Trolls

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photo courtesy of BeWytch Me

I’ve been online since, believe it or not, 1982.  Yes, the Internet existed then, but it was tiny, and primarily limited to universities and military or government installations.  And as luck would have it, my career in high tech has almost completely coincided with the exponential expansion of the Internet, the birth and explosive growth of the Web, and the penetration of computers into basically every home and practically every pocket.  So I have a little bit of perspective of things of an online nature.  I’m not an expert by any means; I haven’t studied it.  But I do have more than 30 years of experience in it.  For whatever that is worth.

I mention this to provide a little context for my observations about trolls.  I was thinking about this recently after reading an interesting article in Slate that cited a scientific study of trolls and trolling.  The gist is, bluntly, exactly what Slate’s title notes:  Trolls are awful people.  I had always wondered what kind of personality got actual pleasure from pissing off complete strangers, starting online fights (and then leaving them), creating havoc, and engaging in this kind of anti-social behavior.  Your assumption is that they are dicks.  And now the evidence is in, and it tells us:  Yup, they’re utter douche-bags.

And here’s the thing: They’ve always been around.  Even when I was on a university forum (text-only, limited to students and faculty), people would troll just to be obnoxious jerks.  And about the same thing that people troll about now:  Abortion, homosexuality, politics, sexism, racism, and the like.  The same damn things.  The only big difference now seems to be that more people have access, so there are more trolls.  But they’re still jumping in their with their homophobic polemics or whatever to stir people up.  It’s predictable.

And because it’s predictable, in my standard bury-the-lede style, I thought I’d outline a few common behaviors over the years to help you spot trolls sooner, and so maybe avoid some personal aggravation.  Also, I’m procrastinating on working on my novel.

  • First and foremost, trolls are bullies.  They’re not online to debate; they’re online to piss people off.  If you see someone bullying over and over, they’re probably a troll.  Do not engage.
  • They employ name-calling, often of the most juvenile sort.  I’ve lost track of the number of trolls who have called me “Moron” (sometimes with the capital “M”, sometimes not), an insult that was a tired trope in, literally, my grandfather’s day.
  • In the same vein, trolls often resort to simple, ad hominem attacks, often out of the blue.  If you push them, they won’t engage, they’ll attack.  Usually by calling you stupid, a “libtard”, an idiot, or some other juvenile epithet.
  • Some trolls like to employ ALL CAPS.  And they do this because they know that it pisses people off (see how this is a recurring theme?), and that people will respond to it.  Think of the two year-old mentality of your toddler pushing their zippy cup off their high chair just to watch you pick it up; that’s how they like to use all-caps.
  • When bullying, name calling, ad hominem attacks, and all-caps fail, trolls often switch the subject, what I call the “shiny object” method.  Say you are arguing about a particular behavior patter of Republicans.  A troll will sail in and start talking about Democrats that “do the same thing”, or start chattering about Benghazi, or some perceived right-wing slight from 10 years ago.  Anything so long as it’s a shiny enough object to distract attention away from the main point, which is that they don’t have any argument worthy of the name and are just trying to piss you off.
  • And of course it almost goes without saying that these creatures never, ever, ever acknowledge mistakes or apologize.
  • A quick and easy method to recognize trolls is:  Did this user (and they always hide behind aliases) just join up in the last few days, or even hours?  It doesn’t matter if this is just a new alias for a pre-existing troll; if they’ve just joined up, and all 12 of their posts are berating “libtards” or “socialists” or something, they’re almost certainly a troll.
  • Does this person tend to post their inflammatory B.S. and then vanish, with no follow-ups or attempts to engage?  Classic trollism.
  • And finally, your more clever troll will appear to engage you, but in reality they’re laying rhetorical traps to try to catch you so they can scream “Ah Ha!  Hypocrite!” and pretend that they win the discussion.  This type is rarer, because it takes some intellect, and most trolls in my experience don’t have all 52 cards in their mental deck.  But you do run across them at times.

So there you have it.  You see these behaviors, you have yourself a troll, and you shouldn’t bother responding to them because–to repeat–all they want to do is piss you off.  If they succeed, they’re happy.  If you ignore them, that makes them mad.  I know which option I prefer; how about you?

Tradition!

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Tradition! (Image courtesy of The Film Sufi)

When you’re Jewish, but don’t hew particularly to either the Ashkenazic or Sephardic traditions (my rabbi grew up Azkenazi, his wife was a Sephardim), it can make some choices in your Jewish life a little odd.  And when your Dad was a Catholic rather than a Jew, it gets even weirder.  (How do you mourn your dad’s too-soon death, for example?)  Many Sephardic traditions are less stringent.  For example, during Passover, Sehpardim are allowed to eat corn, while Ashkenazi are not.  The differences aren’t huge, but they do exist.

I only mention this because I was plowing through my Twitter feed today, and saw that Chris Hayes of MSNBC has had another child, and named his new son David Emanuel.  Which struck me as a pretty solid Jewish name, and reminded me of the conundrum we faced when we adopted my son.

When Sami and I had a child, like every other overly-educated couple, we over-thought the whole “naming” issue.  Not for us is the Homer Simpson method of just checking to make sure there were no nasty nicknames possible with a particular name (and of course Homer hilariously stopped at “eart”, not getting to the “f” variant); we had to do research.  We had to think about the kid’s own feelings on the topic.  How about a name that had lots of diminutives, so she could choose one herself if she wanted?  Could we honor a relative somehow?  Would we insult some other relative if we did?  Etc.  Which got us to Megan Elizabeth “Maggie” Moran.  Lots of room to dodge around the nickname issue, plus the double-whammy of it “Elizabeth” being my mother-in-law’s, my grandmother’s, and a variant of my other grandmother’s name (“Isabelle”).  Plus we just loved the name “Maggie”.  Jackpot!

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Maggie O’Connell, of “Northern Exposure”

Then we adopted our son, and that brings us back to traditions.  When it comes to child naming, he Ashkenazi tradition is to use the name of a dead relative; the Sephardic tradition to use a living relative.  And both (naturally) consider it “bad luck” to do it the other way.  So in fine, American, “smear those traditions together!” style, we did both.  I’m lucky in that my Dad, while Catholic, was named Francis Joseph, but went by “Joe”–a good, solid, Torah-based name.  So our son is Joseph Isaac, after my dad, and my own Hebrew name.  Which also gives him the initials “J.I.M.”, which he could use as well, should he so desire.

How about you; what family name traditions do you have?  And what subjects do you way overthink?

Yes, I’m Still Alive; Notes from the Doug Bunker

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Me an Dawg

If you happen to be a regular reader of my blog, first of all thank you, second of all, I’m astonished.  But for those few of you who are, I wanted to provide some explanation as to why I have been so quiet on this front these past months.  There is a good reason, and a bad reason.  (I mean, from my perspective; for you, the “good reason” may be a “bad” reason to not be blogging and vice-versa.  What I mean is . . . oh, hell, you get the point.)

First:  I got promoted at my job, and the group that I have the privilege of managing is not only growing by leaps and bounds (formerly 3 people; now 9), but also our area of responsibility is similarly enlarged.  We are important to the overall corporate effort now, and that is both exciting and frightening, and it also leaves me less free time.  Most of which I’d prefer spending with my sweetie and my family, or just vegetating and trying to recover from work, rather than spreading more of my silly opinions across the WebVerse.

But second, speaking of my family, we are going through some pretty severe personal difficulties right now (that I don’t want to relate the details of), and I need to focus on my family unit, not my silly opinion writing.  If it were critical for my livelihood, I’d still be expelling my nonsense to the world; it isn’t, so I’m not.

However, I’m hoping that things will lighten up soon, and we’ll be on a more even keel here in the Famille Moran, allowing me time to write both more blog posts, and get back to cranking on my fiction as well.

In any event, thanks for your patience, and that’s where I’m at.

Lament of the Cable-Cutters

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Image courtesy of The Telegraph

The Olympics are on.

I love the Winter Olympics, honestly. Sami and I enjoy watching the figure skating together and regaling each other with our (in my case) half-informed opinions on various skaters, techniques, and move difficulties. I have loved the downhill ever since Franz Klammer’s utterly-insane, gold medal, death-defying final run in Innsbruck in 1976, something that literally took my breath away. I love watching the ski jumping, the men (and now finally women!) flying hundreds of feed down the hill, drifting, drifting, seemingly hanging up there forever. The bobsledders, lugers, and nutty skeleton riders, barreling down the hill inches above the ice at speeds that make me nervous when I’m surrounded by more than a ton of metal and plastic. I really love it.

And I would love to watch it. Except that the network that has a monopoly on all the content–NBC in this case–is completely and utterly against people in my minority group.

No, not Jews. Not nerds either, although there is definitely some overlap there. That group is cable-cutters.

Cable-cutters are folks who gave up on cable or satellite subscriptions, and the networks (especially folks like HBO) absolutely hate us. Or at least that’s the way it appears to us, given their behavior. You see, while most shows are available via Amazon Prime or iTunes or other avenues, “special” content–anything HBO puts out, or Big Events like the Stanley Cup or World Series or, yes, the Olympics–are only available if you sign up on an app, and the only way to sign up on that app is . . . to have a cable or satellite account.

Yup, that’s right gang: If you want to watch “Game of Thrones” or the Olympics on your iPad, you are required to have a cable TV account.

Cable and satellite companies hate and fear families like ours. The way cable companies make money is to force you to buy big packages of content, subsidizing all those channels you never watch by making you pay a premium for the stuff you really want. “A la carte” cable packages are anathema to these people; if you could only pick and choose the 5-10 channels you want, they would lose leverage, money, prime deals with various networks, and I don’t know what else. They don’t want that; they want to continue their monopoly on your content by forcing you to watch what they want to sell you, their way. And people like us are a threat to that model.

And yet just like media companies when the VCR first came out, then DVDs, and then digital content, they’re missing the boat. There are millions of us out there now, consuming our video content from out Macbooks or iPads or Android smartphones, and they are writing us–and millions of potential dollars–off their books entirely. Leaving money on the table. And for a lot of people, forcing them to choose between bad options–buying a cable package you don’t want, waiting months or years to get content that is available for everyone else, or pirating it. And as you might guess, by pulling this nonsense, while blatting on about piracy and how much it’s costing them, the media companies are causing many people to choose that over waiting or signing up for cable accounts. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that when folks are pushed into a corner and forced, they don’t like it and lash out. Not very shocking. (The Oatmeal sums up this dilemma quite well.)

I want to watch the Olympics. I am fine with paying for the content; I don’t even mind watching it the way folks watching broadcast TV have to–with endless commercials, blathering analysis by former athletes, and a flood of “up close and personal” clips. But no, that’s not an option. I can either get a cable account (for two weeks of content), go to the local bar or whatever, or pirate it. And for any of those choices, my dollars are left on the table and NBC doesn’t get them.

We are nearly 20 years into the web era, media companies, and a good half-dozen deep into the streaming era. Companies like Netflix are producing shows for people to binge-watch. And you are still trying to force folks to sign up for cable or satellite contracts? Pull yourselves into the future and figure it out, or you’re going to be left behind.

Service in the Information Age

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Image courtesy of the Connecticut Real Estate Blog

Back in the day, if you needed a plumber or electrician or carpenter or whatever to work on your house, you plowed through the Yellow Pages (ask your grandparents), looked at the various ads, and tried to decide which one sounded the most likely to be competent and reasonably-priced.  Or you asked a friend or (if they lived nearby) a relative.  Basically, it was a roll of the dice.  And if you got a stinker, you told your friends and relatives so that they wouldn’t hire him or her, and you tried someone else next time.  Inefficient and kind of ridiculous, but this was the Mesozoic age as far as information flow was concerned, and we did the best we could.

One advantage of this for providers (as we call ‘em nowadays) is that word was slow to get out; if you sucked at your job, you still had a reasonable chance of obtaining enough work to live on, staying ahead of people’s accusations of ineptitude, as it were.

How quaint.

Now of course we have almost the opposite problem:  There is so much information about a given service provider that the tough thing is to filter it out.  When you go on Yelp for example and search on “Austin best plumber”, you get 8 hits just for the “downtown” area.  Eight?  They can’t all be the best, right?  So you start plowing through the reviews and, if you are an compulsive review reader such as myself, you’ll notice something:  Everyone seems to provide either 5-star or 1-star reviews.  To put it in math terms, the standard deviation is huge.  (To put it in Tom Lehrer terms, “You can get a standing ovations for pretty much anything in this country”.)  I’ll talk about how to filter in a future post–I think it’s an interesting topic, but then I’m a nerd–but the gist for today is:  How does the provider respond?

Look for some service on Yelp–doesn’t matter what.  Then just filter the results from “worst to best” ratings.  Then take a look; does the provider respond?  How does he or she respond?  Is it some kind of canned response, very generic, the kind of thing you expect to get if you complain to a big corporation or your Senator or something?  Or is it personal, well-written, to the point, and does it directly address the complaint?  I can’t under-state how much data this gives you; if the provider ignores bad reviews, or is rude in response, or only posts canned responses, that tells you a lot, don’t you think?  But on the other hand if he responds, is friendly and courteous, and provides reasonable explanations for the customer’s bad experience . . . well, that’s a lot of quality information for you.

And this is the only way I think a service provider stand out can stand out these days:  By providing good service for the money, yes, but also by providing quality customer service.  This is much more than just being polite to nasty trolls on Yelp; you have to be response and respectful to your customers in every forum.  Is your voice-mail polite, helpful, and friendly?  Do you answer phone messages within a reasonable amount of time?  Do you work with potential customers to provide them service at their convenience?  Are you responsive to complaints?  Do you charge a reasonable price, and do you make your fees clear at the beginning of the job?  All little things by themselves, but combined with vast amount of data available on line, this is the kind of thing that makes a difference.

I’m a tech writer in a marketing organization right now.  This is an odd place for a tech writer to be; we’re usually in engineering.  But one thing I’ve learned is that the marketing trope “we’re all marketing people” (i.e., we all need to sell our product to our customers, and thus constantly be thinking about that during every interaction) is especially true for independent service providers.  You may think this is trite, but think about it:  If a plumber or electrician or landscaper or whoever comes to your house and is surly, irritating, and difficult to work with, are you going to want them back?  If they are instead helpful and friendly, aren’t you going to sing their praises not only to your friends, but also on Yelp or wherever?  I think the answer is obvious.

This is the brave new world of online Big Data; the only way to stand out is via superior customer service.  That is your market differentiator.  Do with it as you will.

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