Monthly Archives: August 2006

How to lose a customer.

I have two Credit Cards with MBNA:

The first has a high limit and is hardly ever used. The second that has a limit of just $100 and is used mainly to purchase things online from Merchants that I have not encountered before. I do not carry balances on either.

Recently, I was trying to purchase an item online from a merchant that only accepted Visa. Sadly, both cards sported the MasterCard logo. So I phoned MBNA. They gave me two options: One was to “convert a card” from MasterCard to Visa (unacceptable), the other was to apply for a new line of credit. Either approach would take three weeks, and setting up a new card would require a complete new application.

I have been a customer of MBNA for about seven years now… but apparently that does not count for anything – I still have to jump through the same hoops as anyone who has just walked off the street.

Gee, thanks.

It occurred to me that if I had to go through the whole rigmarole all over again, there was absolutely no reason that I needed to talk to any particular company… so I politely hung up, phoned CapitalOne and applied for a new card from them. If approved (and I cannot think why I would not be), I will most likely cancel one of my MBNA cards, possibly both of them.

Memo: In a free market, do what is necessary to keep your customers. The next guy is doing what is necessary to steal them.

So, how do you lose a customer? Treat them like a stranger.

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Escape from Wal-Mart

On the way home last night, I stopped at Wal-Mart to buy some milk, as we were running out. Predictably, they had run out. I don’t know why, but this Wal-Mart in particular seems to run out of my particular brand very quickly.

I looked around for someone who could help – there’s almost always some more in the back. After a couple of minutes, one fellow came out. I stopped him and asked him if they had any more. He scratched his head and asked me to follow him.

He walked all the way to the front of the store (for some reason supermarkets like to put milk in one back corner and bread in another, so it was a long walk), past the long checkout lines, and pointed to the long line of people waiting to be served by one harried-looking individual who apparently comprised the entire Customer Service Department. I thanked him (what else could I do?) and he went on his merry way.

I stood there for five seconds of sheer incredulity before leaving the store in disgust. I went to another store that charged 26c per Carton more, but 1) had the item in stock and 2) did not make me wait.

This experience has taught me that Wal-Mart needs some new marketing slogans. Here are my suggestions.

  • Wal-Mart – Low prices, long lines.
  • Wal-Mart – We’ve got the savings if you’ve got the time.
  • Wal-Mart – Where Customers come first… eventually.

So you’ve got Broadband – now what?

A Broadband connection is much more than a faster version of dial-up. It will change the way you use your computer… but it also presents a new set of problems and challenges. Here are some tips to make your broadband existence easier, faster and safer.

1: Keep Windows Patched!
The single biggest thing that you can do to make your computer secure is to keep your Operating System patched. Most people who use dial-up do not bother, since the process of downloading patches takes far too long. An unpatched windows machine connected to the Internet via Broadband can be compromised in as little as twenty minutes.

Now that you have Broadband you no longer have an excuse. If you don’t trust Microsoft (and I don’t), at least configure Automatic Updates to “notify” or “download and notify”. If you would rather put Microsoft in the driving seat, configure it to “Download and Install”. Whatever you do, don’t just turn Automatic Updates off and hope that it will never happen to you!

2: Get a firewall
When you were on dial-up, you had two advantages. Firstly, the slow speed of your “pipe” made it difficult for bad guys to actually do anything with your computer. Secondly, and more importantly, every time you dialed in, your computer would be assigned a different “IP Address”. This made it difficult for the bad guys to find you. That was then this is now; with Broadband, you will typically keep an IP address for weeks, if not months.

Congratulations. You are now a target.

The best way to deal with this problem is to get a Firewall. “What is a firewall?” I hear you ask. Let me draw a picture. A firewall is like a bouncer – a large, burly fellow who stands at the door, inspects credentials and kicks out people who shouldn’t be there. So when the bad guys come knocking, a good firewall will refuse to do business with them, denying them access or – even better – convincing them that there is no computer at this address.

While there are some good software firewalls, software can always crash or be removed – a hardware firewall is better. The good news is that most Wireless routers have a feature called Network Address Translation (but his friends call him NAT) which effectively operates as a hardware firewall. A router can be gotten for as little as $30.

3: Get an antivirus… and keep it up to date.
AVG has a free one. They make it difficult to find while pushing their paid products, but that is understandable. Get it. Install it. Keep it updated.

4: Install and USE Antispyware tools
I recommend Ad-aware and Spybot Search and Destroy. Both are free. Scan with both weekly and keep them up-to-date (SS&D can be configured to auto-update and auto-scan on startup). Spysweeper is a paid offering that is highly recommended.

5: Lockdown those Kiddie Accounts!
“FREE SCREENSAVERS! DOLPHINS! SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS! DOWNLOAD HERE!” The siren call is hard to resist, particularly if you’re a kid (or a less-than-disciplined grown-up).

The bad news is that TANSTAAFL (There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch) – many of these programs come with unwanted hitch-hikers – spyware, viruses and programs that attempt to take over your PC.

Fortunately for you, they’ve been forced to suck that data down a very narrow straw – until now; the bad news is that now they have a fire hose – and if you don’t tell them otherwise, they’re going to use it to download everything in sight. Indeed, chances are, even if you do tell them otherwise, they’ll still download everything in sight. Before you know it, Programs, Services and Directories that you’ve never heard of will start appearing on your computer – and more than likely nobody will admit to putting them there; and the familiar blame-avoidance litany (“it just appeared, Daddy!“) will be heard throughout the land…

Fortunately there is a solution, and it is simple: Create accounts for each person who uses the computer and downgrade the accounts of the less-than-trustworthy to “User” status before the trouble starts. Then put a password on the Administrator account and do not give it out.

When they find out that they cannot install stuff they will whine, moan and complain; my advice is to stick to your guns, even if it means doing all software installations yourself.

Or you can just wait until your system is running slow (if you’re lucky) or unstable (if you’re unlucky) or unbootable (really unlucky) and pay the Geek Squad $300 to repair the damage. Who knows, you might even get to keep your data.

6: Get Firefox – and use it.
Windows suffers from a huge security hole. It’s called Internet Exploder Explorer. This security problem began way back when Microsoft was being pilloried for Bundling Internet Explorer with Windows 95. Netscape thought that this was unfair. Rather than allow the competition to get a foothold, Microsoft buried Internet Explorer so deeply within their next OS – Windows 98 – that they claimed that it was “part of the Operating System” and could not be unbundled. Most people saw that they had a browser… and never bothered to look at the alternatives.

Until recently. This “integration” of IE is one of the main reasons that IE is such a security problem, The next version at the time of writing – IE7 – will be safer and more secure.

It says here.

They said that about IE6… and IE5.5… and IE5.0… and IE4.

Personally I don’t believe a word of it – Since IE3, each new version seems to have more security issues than the one before.

Firefox is my browser of choice. Partly because it is far more powerful (thanks to features like tabbed browsing and protected passwords, along with literally hundreds of extensions), partly because it runs as an application rather than part of the OS and partly because it does not support ActiveX scripting. There are some sites out there that require IE (mostly for ActiveX support)… but for all other sites I use Firefox. You should too.

7: Install an e-mail checker
The paradox of e-mail is that you don’t know you have e-mail until you check. For a family where each person has their own desktop, having to switch users and check mail only to find that you have none is a pain. I use and recommend ePrompter which allows you to…

  • See how many messages everyone has in their mailboxes, and view the headers
  • Read and reply to messages (optional)
  • Easily remove spam.
  • Check for e-mail every X minutes.

This program is also an excellent way for pro-active parents to know what e-mails their children are receiving.

8: Get a UPS
No, we’re not talking about the guys in the Brown shorts here; you need an Uninterruptible Power Supply.

Broadband does not just mean a faster connection, it also usually leads to a lifestyle change. You will find yourself using tools and techniques that were impossible or difficult before. An always-on Internet connection requires an always-on computer.

A UPS is a battery that keeps your computer running for a short period of time when the power goes down. It also protects against power spikes. The better ones automatically shut down your computer if the power has been out for a while and the battery is low, which protects your data.

A cheap UPS is better than an expensive surge protector, and most UPSs have some kind of connected equipment warranty, which will replace connected hardware that gets fried. A UPS can be had for as little as $30, though the better ones have more features and keep your equipment up for longer. Get the best that you can reasonably afford.

Don’t forget to connect Cable/DSL Modem and Router to it – they consume little power and it saves the delays and hassles of having to restart them.

Copyright vs. Fair use: A twenty-first century consumer’s charter.

When I buy content, it is mine to do with as I see fit for my personal use. I will rip it, store and burn my music, transcode my video to PDA or other device, scan and compress my printed material for my personal use.

Copy-protection schemes will not infringe my right to repurpose my content for my personal use. Neither the DMCA nor any other legislation will infringe upon that right.

Where I source my content from is none of your business. Purchasing used content is legal, and any attempt to use technology to circumvent the First Sale Doctrine will be ignored.

Unless there are import restrictions I will assume that purchasing from overseas is legal. Where I purchase content is no business of yours. If you can outsource Production to China, then I can outsource my purchasing.

If that overseas MP3 site is really illegal, you may shut them down. If not, just shut up.

I do not, and will not install or use any peer-to-peer file-sharing utilities. Not so much out of fear of getting sued but mainly because I do not trust them from a security perspective.

Real-world rules apply. If it is legal to tape from the TV to VHS and keep the tape, it is legal to copy or rip to digital and keep the copy, as long as it is not commercially exploited.

Borrowed or rented content may be ripped or transcoded as appropriate and enjoyed for a short period of time before deleting all copies. If I want to keep it I will buy it. Fair enough?

I may occasionally share small amounts of content – say, the odd song – with an individual who asks for it. My understanding is that fair use laws permit me to share up to $1000-worth of content every six months. I am, and shall remain, well within that threshold.

I am a consumer. I want what I want, when I want it, how I want it. If you want to “Manage” rights, remember mine, and we’ll get along just fine – I will respect your right to commercially exploit your content if you will respect my right to fair use. Trample my rights in your haste to preserve yours, and I will simply take my purchasing dollars elsewhere.

Those are my rules. They are fair, and they balance my requirements with your need to profit.

These rights are not for sale, rent or hire.

They are not negotiable.

Of Music and Mathematics

The Problem With Music

A fascinating look at how the music works… along with an explanation of how, after the first album sold a quarter of a million copies, the Record company made millions… and the band would have been be better off working in a 7-11…

Favorite quote: “Make no mistake about it: once a band has signed a letter of intent, they will either eventually sign a contract that suits the label or they will be destroyed.

Warning: Colorful language.

Wally of the Week: Domain Registrations of America

Just got a snail-mail letter from this outfit, asking me if I wanted to transfer my domain registration over for them.

I have been using these folks for several years now. I have had no problems with them, and they have my recommendation.

What’s wrong with this picture?

 

  • My domain is not due to expire for another six months. I don;t know why they are notifying me so early. Looks like a sign of desparation to me…
  • While they make it clear that “this is not a bill “, the language and wording, such as “Domain Name Expiration Notice” , I suspect that they are banking on some people signing up without knowing what they are doing.
  • They try to pass themselves off as low price (“when you switch… you can take advantage of our best savings”), but their prices are astronomically high – I pay less than $8 per year for my domain. They want $30 per year – nearly four times as much – for the same thing.

Either they are stupid or they think I am. NEXT!!

Of surveillance, privacy… and justice.

Just came across this story, a sad tale that illustrates how data is being collected on us all the time. Some privacy advocates don’t like it. While I understand their concerns, it looks like data collection is here to stay.

Short version, two young bloods go racing, and two innocent people get killed. One of the lads claims that they were doing “50-55MPH” at the time of the accident, but data downloaded from one car’s computer shows a speed of 139MPH. As a result of this, the Grand Jury indicted them for Murder. They are now serving three years after “copping a plea” to Manslaughter. Here my comments:

  • Teenage, Testosterone and Tires are a dangerous combination – teenagers have no business tooling around in late-model Sports cars. Whatever happened to starting off with a junker and working your way up?
  • Drive past a high school and look at what those “students” are driving. If they earned their cars, good luck to them. If not, whomever gave them the keys to those vehicles shares the blame.
  • Their crime was stupidity; sending them to jail in this case helps no-one. Not that they have done nothing wrong, but methinks that having to go through life knowing that you killed someone is punishment enough.
  • “Plea-bargaining” is one of the worst aspects of the American legal system. I, for one, would like to see it abolished.
  • The father of one of the teenagers was upset about the “tattle-tale” data obtained from the car – he felt that the plea was “forced down our throats“. Well, Sir, cry me a river – your son’s stupidity cost two lives, then he lied about it – which you seem to think is perfectly ok , shame on you – and was found out. And you are upset? Tell that to the loved ones of those who died.

The current information culture in this country is that of corporate ownership of private data. Any company that you do business with has the right to sell, rent, trade or share your information unless you specifically tell them otherwise. This is the reason that we get so much junk mail. Since I started sending out standard opt-out letters to the most egrarious junkmailers, my junk mail has dropped dramatically, and my Credit-Card solicitations have dropped almost to zero.

Privacy should be the default option – too often businesses try to hide the opt-out button on the very sensible grounds that your information has value to them.

The real problem comes when information ends up where it should not be – in the hands of identity thieves, on junkmailers’ lists, in Government “fishing expedition” databases. That’s where we need accountability, safeguards.. and punishments. This is clearly one of those situations where use of the data is relevant and correct, if it is obtained lawfully.

As for me, I have no problem with information being disclosed as long as it is done by the book.

RIAA spanked. Again

Woman forces US record industry to drop file-sharing case

It’s the same old story.

  1. RIAA sends “pay up!” demand, alleging copyright infringement.
  2. Victim says “Prove that I did it”
  3. RIAA cannot prove it, quietly drops the case, and hopes that nobody noticed.

This is getting monotonous.

The RIAA is behaving like a bully; picking fights with smaller victims, then running for cover when the victim shows some spirit and puts up a fight.

How long will they do this before it becomes obvious to the courts that what they are doing constitutes harrassment at best and racketeering at worst?