In a little-reported incident, the Chief of the General Services Administration Lurita Doan — the woman appointed by the Bush administration as head of the agency which directs $66 billion a year in U.S. Government procurement contracts — allowed the Deputy Political Director of the White House to come in and give an overtly political presentation to 40 GSA staffers, a presentation which included lists of Democrats the GOP is targeting in the 2008 election and Republicans who would need “defense” in order to hold onto their seats. (The presentation, in PDF format, is available from the House Oversight Committee website.) Worse still, people present at the meeting recall Doan standing up at the end and asking employees for ways in which the GSA could “help our candidates.” Video from her testimony in front of the House Government Reform Committee today is already online, and it’s amazing to watch her stammer “I don’t recall” and “it wasn’t my meeting” repeatedly. If I weren’t so cynical about our current government, I’d also say that the video provides a great view of her career dissolving, but given that our Attorney General is still in command of the DoJ despite being part of attempts to pressure U.S. Attorneys to engage in political prosecutions and then overtly lying to Congress about it earlier this month, Doan is just as likely to be the future recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Those who found themselves in a weblog-free cave for the past 24 hours might have missed the huge storm that erupted over the head of Kathy Sierra, the fantastic weblogger and author of more than a few great programming-related books; in a nutshell, a handful of people in the weblog world have been treating her to death threats and other pretty awful harassment for a few weeks now, and it finally reached the point where she cancelled her presentations at O’Reilly’s Emerging Technology conference out of fear for her own safety. To say that the community response has been overwhelming would be a far, far understatement, and I won’t pretend to have something more profound to say than nearly all the folks who’ve weighed in on this already.
That being said, during my time in the pool today at lunch, I kept returning to a point that I think is worth making, so I figured I’d put it out there. Chris Locke, co-author of the original Cluetrain Manifesto and general crank-about-town, was named in Kathy’s post as involved to some extent, and we’ve learned since that he was one of the founders of meankids.org, a weblog devoted to ripping various internet personalities apart and the home of some of the harassment against Kathy. Similarly, when meankids.org went away, Chris started another weblog (unclebobism.wordpress.com) for the same purpose, and it was there that yet more harassment of Kathy started taking place. And when asked about all this by a reporter yesterday, Chris unrepentantly defended his involvement in the whole situation; his specific justification was that he was never the one posting awful things about Kathy, and that he has a guiding life principle that prevented him from taking down the posts of those that did, the “You Own Your Own Words” principle of the online community The WELL. The point I kept returning to in the pool is that in the 15 years since he was introduced to YOYOW, Locke and many others seem to have lost touch with the first “O” in that acronym, the concept of ownership. The YOYOW ethic at The WELL is rooted in the fact that the community doesn’t allow anonymity in any form, a situation which stands in stark contrast to the anonymity under which everyone participated in both meankids.org and unclebobism.wordpress.com (and sites like Digg, Slashdot, and YouTube). In Locke’s little fetid nests, there wasn’t a single shred of ownership taking place; truly horrible posts were just shat out without a lick of accountability for the shockwaves they caused in people’s lives. And as a result, we all find ourselves here, with a reasonably prominent author and community member literally worried for her own safety due to the behavior of a few people operating under the anonymity granted to them by Locke and the others who ran both weblogs. (Incidentally, it’s also a great advertisement for communities like MetaFilter, where the combination of a reasonable barrier to entry and a strong moderator presence keep things incredibly civil and reasoned most of the time.)
You’d think that Locke, the author of the Cluetrain Manifesto would be able to hear the cluephone ringing loudly at his side, but apparently, his rage has made him deaf to the sounds of reason.
If you live or spend any amount of time in Washington, DC, you might have noticed a problem recently: Google Maps essentially no longer works here. Sometime in mid-February, it appears that the folks behind the previously-amazing mapping service updated the address parser that it uses, and at this point the parser doesn’t have any clue how to understand the one-letter streets and quadrant system that’s used throughout the District of Columbia.
Take this map link, which is supposed to show 500 E Street SE (the address of our local police station). You don’t have to be eagle-eyed to see that that’s not the address the map shows; here’s a MapQuest view of the distance between Google’s mapped location and the true one, nearly five miles away. Try to use Google Maps to locate any address on a lettered street in the District, and you’ll get the same result.
I’ve avoided posting about this for a little bit in the hope that Google would get around to fixing it… but there are a half-dozen posts or threads in the Maps troubleshooting group, dating as far back as the last week in February, that have gone completely unanswered by Google. Similarly, I’ve personally had email correspondence with “The Google Team” which reassures me that “they’re aware of the issue” but neglects to mention anything about whether they care about the issue, despite me pressing the question and getting a similarly cookie-cutter reply. Since our house is on an essentially-unmappable street, none of the map links I’ve sent people over the past year work anymore, and Shannon and I have pretty much stopped using Google Maps for any of our regular direction-finding for trips out and about on weekends.
I know Google is a huge company now, and that it’s hard for them to reply to the concerns of individual users, but when a change they made causes one of their larger products to stop working entirely in a reasonably large and well-traveled city, you’d think that they’d get hop onto fixing that. So far as I can tell, though, you’d be thinking wrong.
Are you kidding me — John McCain, a man who is seriously considered as a potential Republican Presidential nominee isn’t willing to even commit to an answer as to whether condoms are capable of preventing the transmission of HIV?!? It’s behavior like this that is the perfect answer to all the people who keep telling me that their appreciation of McCain stems from his moderate stands and his maverick nature. When the truth comes out, though, he’s just another pandering mouthpiece for both his party and his President.
One symbol of how amazing the internet has become is that you can saunter on over to the Internet Archive and download the original, very first recording of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. (That’s part one, and part two is here.) It’s a digital conversion of the original 1924 acoustic recording — as in, a recording made by the pressure of the audio waves causing an engraving onto wax — and it’s simply awesome. For those who don’t speak the cryptic language of computer audio formats, the download you want is the “VBR ZIP”, which is a variable bit rate MP3 file that provides the best quality of all the files available from the Archive.
(And while the point of this post isn’t to lambaste the state of copyright in the US, it does serve to point out that we wouldn’t be able to listen to this amazing recording if the Congress of the mid-twentieth century treated copyright like our current one does. Since 1960, Congress has extended the length an artistic work remains under copyright eleven times, all at the behest of media and entertainment companies. Without some sort of change, it’s doubtful that our grandkids will be able to download recordings of the Gershwins of today without violating someone’s copyright, and that’s a true shame.)
For the past two weekends, Shannon and I have been busily building a set of bookshelves that we designed to fit along a wall in our guest room to replace a pair of store-bought shelves that just don’t give us the book storage we need. It’s been a hell of a fun project, involving a bunch of design iterations, a lot of problem-solving (like figuring out our not-so-plumb walls!), a small bit of frustration at a Home Depot lumber clerk who didn’t know the first thing about cutting plywood, and a huge dose of euphoria at discovering a phenomenal lumberyard less than a mile from my office. The shelves are exactly what we wanted them to be, and the project introduced a new tool into my workshop, a Paslode 16-gauge angled finish nailer that came highly-recommended from a friend. Honestly, I can’t say enough about the nail gun — it’s simple to operate, doesn’t require an air compressor, and made attaching all the facing a five-minute job rather than an hour-long job. (And I won’t lie… usinga spark and a controlled butane explosion to drive an inch and a half of steel into solid wood is a damn awe-inspiring feeling.)
Needless to say, I’m pleased with the outcome; now it’s time to do a little bit of research into pre-constructed cabinetry so that I can design a few built-ins for our dining room wall. There’s more fun to be had!
The Washington Post reported today on a DC-area general contractor which has filed a $6 million lawsuit against two homeowners for posting their bad experiences with the company on Angie’s List. (Both also posted their opinions in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood forum, and apparently, this posting is also cited as a basis for the lawsuit.) It’s hard for me to see the contractor coming out on top here, being that I’d imagine neither homeowner will have a problem describing their own experiences with the contractor, documenting how their renovations went poorly, and how those experiences led to them forming negative opinions of the company, but now both will have to spend time and money fighting for their right to have and share an opinion.
It bears mentioning that it’s precisely because of personal opinions like these that Shannon and I belong to the DC chapter of Angie’s List — I value the opinions of a company’s customers far more than I do the company’s own claims, and I’m not sure I’d ever hire someone to do $30,000 worth of work on my house without finding out how other people feel about the work the company has performed in the past. And because of this, I hate hearing about lawsuits like these, because if consumers become so worried about being sued that the utility of services like Angie’s List or Consumers’ Checkbook is diluted, it’ll be that much harder to figure out which companies are worth trusting with what can be incredibly large investments of money. (It’s sort of like the world of job references these days, where companies more or less refuse to accurately talk about bad experiences they’ve had with ex-employees for fear of being sued.) I guess for the time being, another way that DC-area homeowners can vet potential contractors is by searching the publicly-available building permit database to find other jobs the company has done, and then tracking down and asking those people what they think of the work… it sure as hell beats trusting the few hand-picked references the contractor passes on when asked.
When home users back up their computers, a lot don’t think about the fact that in some scenarios of data loss, those backups won’t do them any good — the scenarios which involve the loss of both their computer and their backups. (Think home fire, or burglary that involves taking the computer and the external hard disk that contains the backup.) For this reason, one tenet of most corporations’ backup plans is that an entire backup set exists off-site from the machines that are being backed up — safety through separation. There are hundreds of thousands of corporations who have the need to manage this process, so as a result, there’s a market of off-site storage providers that’s expanded and matured in a way that supports the importance of the data that’s being moved into storage. The big players have service agreements that stipulate the time frame in which customers can get their data, they provide reasonable guarantees for the safety of the data, and they put quite a bit of effort into meeting these guarantees.
In today’s day and age, home users are installing internet connections with more and more bandwidth, and this has opened up the potential that these users can actually back up their computers to some off-site location over the internet; unsurprisingly, a group of services has popped up to support this potential, services like .Mac, AT&T Online Vault, Mozy, and Carbonite, and even applications like JungleDisk and Amazon S3 which provide the infrastructure to allow users to take a more customized or do-it-yourself approach to online backups. As we’re talking about backups of people’s data, you’d think that these services would provide similar guarantees about the data’s availability and the services’ reliability, yes? Alas, that appears to be a false assumption. Ed Foster, everyone’s favorite griper, took a look at the end-user license agreements for a few of the online backup services back in mid-February, and he was pretty amazed to find that all the ones he investigated disclaimed pretty much any responsibility for the usability or availability of the backups, or even for the functionality of the services at all. (Granted, at least a few of the services he examined were provided for free — so in the end, you get what you pay for — but others are paid services.) That’s a real shame… but I’d imagine that it’s also an indication that there’s a real market niche waiting for the right company to come in and provide the right level of service.
Wow, does this Washington Post article make me feel old. The premise of the piece is that colleges now find it difficult to track down or get messages to their students, since most don’t have in-dorm telephones or voicemail and don’t check their college-issued email all that much. It’s a fact that I’ve now heard in different contexts a bunch of times over the past few months, and I feel like it’s the first concrete thing that makes me feel completely separated from today’s generation of young’uns.
I graduated from college just a hair over a decade ago, and during my four years, email went from mostly inaccessible to an essential staple of every student’s life. Talking to friends a few weekends ago, Shannon and I were stunned to learn that for most of today’s students, the term “checking email” has nothing to do with college email accounts, or even Gmail or Hotmail — instead, it means logging into Facebook or MySpace and reading your incoming messages. Similarly, while my university had digital phones with campus-wide voicemail in every dorm room (and used the system regularly to push out notices and information), a not-insignificant number of students at my alma mater today have never picked up their in-room phones, and actually don’t even know their own campus phone numbers. It’s amazing how fast things change.
That being said, these changes aren’t all that surprising, given that the fundamental roles of email and telephones have changed in college today. When I was in college, getting access to an email account wasn’t trivial; the free email services didn’t exist, the internet was new enough that setting up access to an email account was anything but trivial, and it took the infrastructure of colleges and reasonable-sized corporations to get most people into the fraternity of email users. Email was also novel enough that it was instantly appealing to college students, and there weren’t really any other options for talking to friends from back home (unless you wanted to pour money into your long-distance plan). Now, with instant messaging, social networking, and SMS-enabled cellphones, email is the least convenient of all the electronic communication methods available to college students (given the crushing amount of the erectile dysfunction spam, and what I’d imagine is an equally-crushing amount of college-related spam). Likewise, a decade ago, campuses used their functional monopoly power to satiate students’ need for phones in their dorm rooms, but today that monopoly is gone, and there’s little to recommend an in-room telephone when any student can get a cellphone for a lower price with more features and a more durable phone number. The rules of communication have changed, and it’d appear that colleges haven’t kept up… but it’d also appear that I’m getting old.
As part of a project at work, I’ve been running specs on a bunch of different barcode scanners and label printers, mostly so I can make sure that they’re able to handle the requirements for the app I’m developing. Out of my research comes a tale of two companies, Symbol (when the hell did they get bought by Motorola?) and Zebra, and the stark difference between the service each provides to people like me ready to spend money and interested in getting the right products.
First, start with Symbol — and more specifically, start with the godawful website for their line of barcode scanners. A VAR made a recommendation of a specific scanner to me, but Symbol’s page for the scanner provides exactly two sentences of specification information, and a closer look reveals that the page isn’t actually specific to that scanner model (but rather covers two related models). Having bought Symbol scanners for a project back when I worked in New York City, I also remember that you have to make sure to get the right cables to connect the scanners to your computer — but there’s also not one single page on the Symbol site that provides information about any cables.
Confused, I decided to call Symbol’s pre-sales support. After automatically being transferred to two different phone systems, I was connected to a genial-enough man, and when I asked for clarification about the cabling I’d need, I was told that I’d have to call the parts department to get that information. I then asked for the specs on the scanner that was recommended to me, and was told I’d need to call the tech support line. Finally, I asked what services the pre-sales support line did provide, and was told that they were available to take my name and phone number and make sure a salesperson called me back. Stunning. After a ten-minute call to the parts department (where I was given a part number that doesn’t exist at a single reseller I can find), and another ten-minute call to tech support (where I was literally read the same two vague sentences from their website, and then referred to a third-party reseller for more information!), I gave up.
Now, move on to Zebra. I had my eye on a specific printer, but it had a few issues that I’d need to figure out how to work around, so I gave Zebra’s pre-sales support a call. I was quickly connected to a woman who literally knew the answer to every single question I asked. She agreed with the printer recommendation, provided me with the part numbers for the add-ons we’d need to get our setup working, warned me about a few gotchas we’d likely experience getting everything working just right, and provided me with her name and direct number for any further questions. In just about five minutes, I knew exactly what I’d need to buy, and knew that the setup was highly likely to work for us.
There are times when I wonder if my standards for good business practice are a lot more exacting than others’, and then there are times when I’m sure a company is flirting with the thin line between doing the bare minimum to keep its customers and ceasing to give a shit altogether. Either way you look at it, though, Zebra’s performance far exceeded what I’d expect, and Symbol’s was so awful that I can’t imagine even the most tolerant consumer would accept it. It’s too bad Symbol has such a huge segment of the barcode market — or more likely, that’s the very reason the company can get away with such laziness. Too bad the market tends to correct behavior like this over the long run…