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Prisoners are people

The US penal system is despicable in many different ways. John Oliver covers some of it.

Category: misc – Tags: reality


Paying for incoming calls

When people find out that you pay for incoming cell phone calls in the US, it seems illogical and likely part of the various issues where the country is dysfunctional (eg politics, health care, rampant hypocrisy). However there are good reasons for this system and issues in your own country you may not be aware of.

Whenever a phone call is made there are termination rates - the amount paid to the operator on the receiving end [1]. In most countries the termination rates for cell phone calls are higher than for landlines (note the termination rate covers where the call ends up - it isn't related to where the call is from - cell, landline or other).

This means that when a call goes to a cell phone, it costs more than going to a landline. Somebody ends up paying that difference.

Calling rates

Screenshot from a random calling card site. Note that these costs include the costs to route the call to the country, in addition to the landline or cellular termination. ie the termination fees have an even larger disparity than shown here.

Look at the United Kingdom or France where the cellular rates are considerably higher than landline rates [2]. Most countries decided make the caller pay for these higher rates, but the caller had to know they were doing that. Consequently they had to allocate new area codes for cellular (these are the UK ones). Every person making a call has to know which codes are which, and some knowledge of the different rates [3]. Receiving parties can't port non-cellular numbers. Cellular carriers have no incentive to reduce their rates.

In the US the difference between landline and cellular is paid by the receiving party. The North American Numbering Plan means area codes can't change from 3 digits without massive disruption, and that there aren't enough spare area codes even if they wanted to assign them to cellular (eg 36 area codes would be needed to get one number for every American and Canadian, and have some pattern to recognise the codes).

Cell rates

So is the US system better? It has a number of advantages:

  • People don't have to remember even more rules about area codes and differing charges
  • There is greater incentive to reduce the cellular extra prices since you are affected by every minute of incoming and outgoing calls. With the model used in other countries, the termination rate is set by the receiving customer's carrier and that customer has far less visibility or bargaining power over the rate.
  • Cellular was easily rolled out without disruption. An existing number could switch to cellular and no one else would have to know or care. If you were a business (eg a plumber) you didn't have to worry about people calling you fretting over getting charged more for the call than your competitors.
  • Numbers are easily portable. You can switch any number to use cellular. Countries using the other scheme can have portability but usually it is limited to cellular area codes only.
  • The method used to connect the number with the recipient is only a concern of the recipient.

The US system does make sense, and does have a number of advantages. Someone is always paying for the difference between landline and cellular virtually everywhere.

The US carriers also charge for incoming SMS. This is more a case of being able to get away with it, mixed with some of the reasons above. However most plans these days are for unlimited voice and SMS, with the big charges for data consumption.

[1]There are various exceptions like freephone/toll free numbers, premium services etc.
[2]You can also tell which countries have a poor landline infrastructure and cellular competition.
[3]You already have to know which area codes have no extra charges, which have minimal charges and which are premium. For example UK folks have to be aware of this list.

Category: misc


Farewell: Mario Kart Wii

Last week Mario Kart Wii online services went away. I am a fan of driving games and have had Mario Kart Wii since it came out in 2008. Most driving games only allow for perfection. If you take a corner badly or have a crash, then that is it. You'll have lost several seconds and have to start again for the position or time [1].

Mario Kart is very forgiving, using goodie boxes scattered throughout the tracks, containing random items. The closer to the front you are the more pointless the goodies are, while being further back gives the good stuff especially items that let you get closer to the front.

That all leads to a nice balance. Mistakes that lose position get you better goodies that let you recover. Players who aren't as good drivers also get opportunities to move up. You get three laps of hectic racing with everyone having a reasonable chance of a good scoring position. And the best driver can come last too.

The single player game, racing against the computer is ok but not that much fun. You need to complete various cups to unlock vehicles and characters. It just isn't that hard nor does the computer offer much challenge.

Online on the other hand is spectacular fun. You race against other people. Unlike the computer they do all sorts of unexpected things as well as cool tactics. This makes every race unpredictable and lets you use your own nefarious tactics. Fortunately Nintendo means there is no interaction with other players unlike the swearing, racism and misogyny reported on other platforms. Heck you can't actually tell it is even people other than they don't behave like the computer does. When playing you'll assign all sorts of motives to actions, be lenient or get revenge.

The engineering is impressive too. The players can be all over the world (and often are) which means it takes a while for position and speed information to be transmitted to all other players. Until later correct information arrives it has to predict where karts are to show you them right now. This is why you can sometimes think you hit or shelled someone but then nothing happens.

Online is what makes this game.

The Wii doesn't do code storage or online code updates, so Nintendo's developers had to get everything right first time for the CD. (By contrast Gran Turismo 6 for PS3 had updates every few days after release.)

There are two areas that Nintendo didn't get right. The first is balance - you expect characters and vehicles to be approximately equal. There are different attributes - eg one vehicle may have a higher speed, but lower acceleration or vice versa. These can still be balanced. Sadly they gave the bikes too much advantage, with the consequence being virtually all highest scoring players using a big player (eg Donkey Kong) on a bike.

The second area is the waiting. Each race is a multi-step process waiting to join a race, waiting for everyone else to join, selecting a track, waiting for everyone else to track select, waiting for the system to pick the track, waiting for everyone to load the track and then finally you get to race. A lot of this waiting could be combined to make the whole process be quicker.

Sadly near the end the distasteful topic of cheats came up. Some people reverse engineered what was going on and could for example shell every player as the race started, or avoid having anything affect them. Despite these "impossible" things happening, Nintendo never seemed to do anything about it.

So what is next? Wii U has a new Mario Kart coming out, but it isn't that good. And it costs over $300 because you have to buy a relatively unpopular system. I'm going to pass, and just remember the several years of multiplayer Mario Kart Wii for the fun it was.

[1]A notable exception is Excite Truck where you lose a fraction of a second in a crash, and even get points for how spectacular the crash is. When the game resumes you are still in the thick of the action instead of seconds behind in the dust.

Category: misc – Tags: exit review


Exit Review: Novell Bag

In the spirit of Bunnie's exit reviews I'm writing about a bag.

Photo of bag

In 2005 I happened to be passing the Moscone Center where lots of events happen, and spotted many people on the street with the bag. It turned out Novell's Brainshare conference was happening inside and that was amongst the swag being given out. The bag looked the perfect size to me and one was ordered online. In the almost decade since, that bag has been with me all over the world for both personal and professional trips and meetings, and has been perfect.

Size

It is hard to get size exactly right. I wanted something big enough to function as a carry on (eg some clothes, toiletries, books, electronics and laptop) but at the same time being small enough that it easily fits in overhead bins, cars, and with me when I am walking. This bag makes the tradeoffs and gets the size exactly right.

When other passengers have been made to weigh or measure their carryon, I've always been bypassed with the bag.

For my last two laptops I specifically made sure they fit in the bag (just). They were the Lenovo Thinkpad T61 (15 inch) and T430s (14 inch).

Wheels and extension handle
It has wheels at the front and a nice long extension handle. The handle has two vertical pieces which makes it very stable and easy to control.
Straps, grab handle
There is another decent sized grab handle on top, useful for pulling out of overhead bins or just moving the thing around. There are also two backpack style shoulder straps at the front, hidden behind a panel. Although I never remember using them - it was always wheels or grab handle.
Plastic bucket
You can't see this in the picture but the entire bottom is a large plastic bucket with the fabric over it. It is about 15cm deep. This means that if it ever ended up in water, the water would have to be quite deep to actually get into the bag itself. It is nice to be puddle proof.
Compartments

There are 3 compartments - not too many and not too few. At the back (closest to the camera) is a small compartment suitable for keys, documents, pens etc. There is a nice organizer inside for all these including a zipped pocket and quite a bit of space at the bottom where I would have things like spare contact lenses and an alarm clock.

The middle compartment is for laptops and has a nice padded pouch plus enough additional space for things like mice and power bricks.

The main compartment is suitably spacious. Even when full it kept its shape which meant you could still easily get the laptop in and out.

Side pockets
You can see one suitable for water bottles or rolled up magazines. It has a drawstring with a clamp to keep whatever is there from falling out. The other side has zipped pocket - perfect for ear plugs and eye masks.
Understated but sufficient colour
The black colour means it doesn't draw attention to itself, but the red trim and panel at the front made it sufficiently noticable that it would get lost in a sea of other black bags or get forgotten in a meeting room.

Sadly it broke earlier this year with the plastic near the extension handle folding over. This causes the main compartment to distort which then does the same to the laptop compartment rendering the whole thing broken (or at least significantly reduced capacity.)

It was the exercise of trying to get a replacement bag that made me appreciate just how perfect this one is. Sadly Novell don't sell the bag anymore, nor could I track down who actually made it.

During my shopping trips to get a replacement I found problems like:

  • Not having wheels
  • Too large or too small
  • Mismatched dimensions (eg really tall but comical lack of depth)
  • Nowhere to put a laptop
  • Designed to only take small Apple laptops (eg 11 inches)
  • Not having easily accessibly external pocket/compartment for travel docs and similar
  • No side pockets
  • Very inconvenient to take laptop in and out
  • Tendency to fall over
  • General lack of attention to detail

So far the JWorld Sundance (model RBS-19) has been the least worst replacement, and took a really long time to find.

Category: misc – Tags: exit review


Recommended: Glympse location app

An app I have been using for several years is Glympse. It is very close to perfection.

It lets people know where you are. A common example is if you are meeting someone somewhere they can monitor your progress and estimated time of arrival. This is especially useful while driving.

Where Glympse gets things right is how smooth they make it. Unlike most other apps, absolutely no authentication, account creation, social media profiles or privacy invasion is required. That applies to both the sender and the recipients. Glympses automatically timeout (your choice of up to 4 hours, or on reaching your destination).

The Glympses themselves are a URL in the form glympse.com/123A-BCD4 which is sent to the recipients. Providing they can access the web, they can see details. You are tracked on a moving map, along with updated ETA, speed (if you chose to share it), traffic and track. Recipients on mobile devices can use the Glympse mobile app to track multiple people at once etc, but this is not required.

Gympses can be sent in whatever methods you have made available. For example SMS can be used on mobile, Twitter if you logged in, email etc - all at once.

The pervasive feeling throughout is an app on your side. Every potential source of friction has been removed, for both senders and recipients. You don't feel like a pawn in some ecosystem or social network war. This stuff just works, and works well. Recommended.

Category: misc – Tags: recommendation


Support Tale

TLDR: Panasonic use an outsourced company for support that is beyond comical. This includes only being able to provide answers they already have, surveys that can't be completed, and general behaviour indistinguishable from gross indifference.

If find it fascinating what companies do these days. They hate their users so much that third parties [1] are hired to deal with them. And you can bet those third parties are used because they are cheap.

Most of them seem to operate by having 10 or so common answers, and pattern match your question to the closest answer, hoping to close the incident as quickly as possible.

Many software companies still think that it’s “economical” to run tech support in Bangalore or the Philippines, or to outsource it to another company altogether. Yes, the cost of a single incident might be $10 instead of $50, but you’re going to have to pay $10 again and again.

Seven steps to remarkable customer service

This is extremely short term thinking. The best customer service is one you don't have to contact because things just work. And when there are calls, actually address the issue so that more calls do not come in. And use this to make your future products better. Better products result in better sales in a good feedback loop. Worse products and blowing your customer interactions is a way to bleed away customer loyalty and future product purchases. Often that forces competing on price due to the lack of other virtues, and isn't particularly profitable or good for the long term.

Panasonic makes many consumer goods, amongst them cameras. I bought a DMC-ZS40 which includes [2] wifi functionality. When connecting to a wifi access point it won't let you enter a space in the password.

Keyboard

Normal text entry screen showing that a space is entered. There are 5 buttons letting you enter a space.

Screenshot

Time to enter the wifi password

Keyboard

All space buttons are disabled and clicking on them has no effect. You may need to click on the image (full size) to see the lighter gray disabled look for the space buttons.

Spaces are perfectly acceptable in wifi passwords. Heck all the domestic access points I have access to use them! Now you know and I know that this is a bug [3]. But rather than being presumptuous I contacted Panasonic support to ask how I enter a space in wifi passwords. Maybe there is some other way in just this case?

I started with online chat. It quickly became clear that the customer service staff do not have access to the cameras, nor had they ever used that model or its similar predecessor. I pointed to the screen shot on page 75 of the manual (warning: PDF) and explained that the spaces worked elsewhere, just not for wifi passwords. I had to repeat this over and over again - I can enter spaces, just not for wifi passwords.

The rep tried everything but didn't really grasp what was going on. And short of some secret setting there is nothing they could do, other than take a lot of time to not address the issue. Eventually they told me to call phone support.

It took 5 phone calls. The calls are answered by an IVR (voice) system that asks which product, then if they recognise right what you want (eg support, buy accessories) and then in support if you want to hear common tips before finally connecting you to a person. Actually just before the human connection they ask if they can call you back for a survey [4]. At no point can you press buttons - you can only proceed by speaking. (You also can't go back.)

#1 I describe the issue to a person who immediately hangs up. My guess is wifi related issues are longer calls and make their stats look worse.

#2 It decided that I was talking about a TV, and then connected me to a number saying it was out of service permanently.

#3 The rep never spoke and I could hear some background talking for about 10 seconds before it got quiet. After trying various things to get attention I hung up.

#4 It decided I wanted to buy parts and insisted on taking me down that road. Yes I did end up swearing at the idiocy.

#5 I got through to a person and did pretty much the same as with the chat person. (Yes they too had no experience/access to the camera or seen its keyboard.) We did the page 75 of the manual thing plus fruitless attempts to enter the space. After 28 minutes they decided that a higher level support person needs to get back to me. I'm not sure if it ever sunk in that I was perfectly able to enter spaces -- just not for wifi passwords.

Email

The next day this arrived

That is cut straight from page 75 of the manual - the same one I kept pointing them to. I am completely mystified as to what the red arrow is pointing to.

Needless to say this has cost Panasonic money and is going to cost them even more as I persevere to get the issue addressed. It didn't have to be this way.

Update: I then tried to use the "email" option where you enter details in a web form and will get a response within two business days. This was so I could link to screenshots to show the problem. I still hadn't got a response 10 days later.

I did another chat where they acknowledged the issue but said there was absolutely nothing that could be done. They refused to actually tell Panasonic about the issue. Insisted I call because they can't take personal information in chats. I pointed out I didn't need to be contacted, they already took my information to initiate the chat, and it is Panasonic who need to be contacted on the issue. The chat transcript they emailed also included a survey link. Clicking the link just resulted in a redirect to the Panasonic US home page.

Figuring that nothing would happen, I did phone call too. After some back and forth, including giving an imgur url verbally they finally came back and told me you can't enter spaces in a wifi password. I had to remind them that was exactly what I had told them. Then I was told the camera was set in stone and could not possibly be changed. I pointed out the firmware version was 1.0 and my previous model had firmware updates, so it was perfectly possible. Eventually the rep said the information would be passed on to Panasonic (yeah right). I got the usual phone call survey afterwards where a few questions in it wouldn't recognise answers.

I am befuddled as to why Accent/Panasonic aren't noticing a lack of survey responses. It is in Accent's interest that negative ones don't get through.

[1]Pansonic is using Accent and none of what is written on the snazzy Accent home page is remotely true from this experience.
[2]For some especially bizarre reason they use USB for charging but the connector on the camera while being the same size as micro-usb is not micro-usb. This means you must use a proprietary Panasonic "USB" cable. This was a really boneheaded decision.
[3]Spaces in wifi password work just fine with Android, iOS, Windows, Linux, Mac, Roku, Apple TV, Nintendo, Samsung Printer. Oh and Panasonic TV and Blu-ray players.
[4]The callback is beyond comical. You are asked to press buttons to rate various things (a scale of 1 to 5 IIRC). But on the third question it wouldn't accept any number I pressed so I had to hang up. Oh and they called 5 times - once per each original call. But I was on the phone with call #5 for several of the callbacks so they went unanswered and there were no retries.

Category: misc – Tags: rant, panasonic


On Nikola

Eight months ago I switched this site to using Nikola. It is a static site generator which takes a bunch of files on disk and spits out your site in HTML, ensuring there are links everywhere as appropriate, applying templates etc. You then serve up those HTML files via any regular web server. (The opposite approach is a CMS.)

Sadly there is one design pattern that has severely affected my use of it. Nikola attempts to only do the work necessary each time you do a build. For example if you create a new post, it wants to only generate the HTML for that post and update the indexes that list posts. This should be a lot faster than generating everything from scratch.

Sadly it is nowhere near that simple. For example a setting in the configuration file could change how posts are output (eg point to a different template) which requires everything to be rebuilt. Or something could have been deleted or renamed, actions that Nikola doesn't know about. It would have to scan the output directory for files and deduce they should be deleted/renamed too. Once you add in templates, processors, configuration settings this gets very complicated.

When I first started using Nikola I quickly discovered that it would frequently get the incremental builds wrong. I did report them to the author who was surprised that any existed, and was sceptical. I have no doubt it always worked for him though!

Through the bug tracker I discovered others seeing even more cases of the incremental builds being wrong. I quickly resorted to doing full clean builds since there is no evidence Nikola would ever get incremental builds right in all circumstances. The result was me being happy.

My long experience has left me with several principles when using software to build outputs:

  • A build then clean then build should give the same results between the two builds
  • Doing the build on different machines should give the same result
  • If incremental building is possible then it must give the same results as a full clean build

If these principles are not met then the output is non-deterministic. That means you can't depend on it, and testing it is problematic.

An example of this is Nikola generated sitemaps. It uses the date of the generated file in the output directory as the date of change in the sitemap. That breaks all 3 principles above. An approach that would work correctly is to give the output file the same timestamp as the input file. Sadly the author refuses to fix the problem.

This is the straw that breaks the camel's back for me. I don't want the content of my site to vary based on what type of build I did, to differ between machines, or when I do the build. So I have to figure out what to migrate to, or write my own.

Writing general purpose software is harder than just writing something for internal use. I applaud the author for making that effort and doing a good job. But there are times where principles matter, and we don't share these particular ones.

Category: misc – Tags: nikola


Gay Marriage

There has been a lot of fuss this week over Brendan Eich becoming Mozilla CEO. The issue is a donation against gay marriage. For many, especially outside the US, it can be hard to see why this is a big deal, irrespective of your agreement with the issue. Twenty years ago someone was kind enough to explain it to me.

According to the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO), there are 1,138 statutory provisions in which marital status is a factor in determining benefits, rights, and privileges. [1]

Rights and responsibilities of marriages in the United States

Campaigning against gay marriage isn't about the marriage itself (whatever your moral framework), but also denies those 1,138 benefits, rights and privileges to gay couples. It makes them less equal than opposite sex couples. Understandably, making other people less equal is an issue.

It seems very contradictory to be all about inclusiveness at Mozilla, but against it outside of work for those same employees, not to mention Mozilla's customer/user base. Brendan has never publicly explained his opinion nor changed his mind - statement from 2012.

I personally think this is an important human rights issue - I'm for human rights and equality, and hope you are too.

[1]Note that those benefits, rights and privileges don't only apply to the married couple themselves, but also impose obligations on others. For example a hospital has to let the married partner visit or make care decisions, but doesn't for unmarried people. This is an example of what can happen.

Category: misc – Tags: mozilla


Health Insurance Profit

The dysfunction in the US healthcare system, especially around how everything gets paid for is well known. My health "insurer" [1] Anthem Blue Cross of California, a subsidiary of publicly traded Wellpoint has a new way [2] of bumping their profits.

They aren't allowed to do premium changes targeting individuals, but can do it for groups (eg age ranges, geographical areas). They group people into age ranges (eg 40-44, 45-49). When your age changes into the next range up you get a ~25% premium increase [3]. The clever bit is that they don't actually wait until your birthday and instead increase the premiums near the beginning of the year. Consequently a 39 year old pays the increased premiums of a 40 year old for on average 6 months. Across their customer base this adds up quickly.

California has a regulatory agency Department of Managed Healthcare who are the regulatory agency for my plan, so I submitted a complaint to them. Sadly I got the usual nonsense in return. Like many customer support organisations, they have 10 answers and no matter what the issue the goal is to give you the closest answer to your question no matter how relevant it actually is. The answer to me was about how they aren't a regulator, plans aren't regulated etc, which is rather comical given just how often they describe themselves as exactly that. At this point I give up and pay the penalty for having a birthday late in the year. Score one point for the system.

On the technical side, the DMHC approach is beyond comical. There is lots of use of the word "secure" as in "secure web portal" and "secure email". Their response to me was an email that looked exactly like malicious emails. It was an envelope image with "click here" in the middle, and no other information about sender, why I would want to, or what the heck was going on. It was only by examining the email headers and additional digital sleuthing I was able to work out that it was actually a legitimate email. Clicking the link gave an error while copying and pasting it into the browser worked. It then proceeded to force me to setup a username and password to read the email. I finally got to read the email answering something I didn't ask, and ignoring my actual issue. When I later wanted to reread the answer, reproduce it here etc I couldn't. I kept being told I had to go to my "Inbox" to do so without any indication as to where (or what for that matter) that inbox is. I also noted how several pages had a footer saying Copyright 2011 Microsoft. Nothing says "secure" like "we haven't updated this in many years".

[1]What is provided doesn't really resemble actual insurance, and is closer to a payment and costs obfuscation mechanism.
[2]Compare to the old ways and look at how many times they have been fined.
[3]This is in addition to the historic 22% annual increases.

Category: misc – Tags: rant


Recommended: Hardcore History Podcast

I highly recommend the Hardcore History podcast. The presenter Dan Carlin is an amateur historian (ie no professional reputation to protect) thoroughly researching each subject. He then takes as much time as needed to cover various topics.

I tried to come up with a list of recommended episodes, but you really should listen to all of them - they are that good.

Category: misc – Tags: recommendation

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