Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Postbox: How not to do customer support

I am generally suspicious of large organizations, and I am often in areas with poor wifi access, so I have never totally bought in to the idea of relying on Gmail to keep track of my mail for me.  While I do use their product, I prefer to use a Desktop client to back up my messages and give me a little more flexibility in how I use my email.

Unfortunately I am in the minority, and desktop mail applications are dying off rapidly.  Thunderbird has largely been abandoned.  The developers of Sparrow have stopped working on it after Google acquired the company.  Postbox is one of the few options left, and for the most part I like the product.  It works cleanly with Gmail and has a pleasant interface, as my tastes go.  There are a few bugs, as there are with all products, though nothing out of the ordinary.

However, they have cut themselves off from their customers as completely as they can.  If you look at http://support.postbox-inc.com/entries/21694767-How-to-Get-Help-with-Postbox, every option there is designed to avoid the burden of dealing with their customers.  There is no way to report issues or even to post on a forum.  A year-old message reports "we're currently evaluating a number of different Forum solutions that will enable Postbox users to collaborate and share ideas."

Dealing with customers can be annoying; ignoring them is fatal.

Nothing is more irritating to users than having a problem and not even being able to report it.  The company has no way of learning about which issues matter to their customers, or even learning about these issues in the first place unless they themselves have the same problems.  It is a damning flaw in a fine product, and it is likely to cripple Postbox going forward.  I hope that they address it in the near future, though I am not hopeful.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Tales of DRM

The struggle to find a balance between the rights of artists and the rights of their customers seems to be ongoing.  Each new medium seems to go through a struggle before the balance is found.  Music seems to have settled, or at least to be quiescent.  Video and books are still a little more turbulent.

Rewarding artists for their efforts is important, but in my own experiences, DRM-free content has been a great tool for making me aware of new content and getting me to part with my hard-earned dollars.  On the other hand, content locked down has driven me away from some purchases.  Some examples:
  • MP3.com first introduced me to a huge variety of independent music.  Through that site, I developed a taste for Celtic music and ordered albums from a dozen artists that I would never have come across otherwise.  In one particular case, I discovered a band that was playing at a bar three blocks from my apartment.  I went to their show and bought all three of their albums at the show.  (I wept when MP3.com was destroyed).
  • On another front, I have stopped buying videos from iTunes due to issues with DRM.  My previous apartment complex provided pathetically slow download speeds, so streaming videos were not a realistic option.  But when I purchased an HD version of "Downton Abbey" through iTunes, I discovered that I was unable to play it on my screen.  Emailing support, they nicely informed me that I would have to buy an Apple monitor.  In the meantime, I could watch the content I had purchased on my iPhone...
  • While I have paid for locked-down content on my Kindle, my purchase of tech books has skyrocketed since I discovered several sites that sell their content DRM-free.  The Kindle works great, but for technical books I like to read them and mark them up using iAnnotate on my iPad.
The internet provides a wonderful way for consumers to find new content, but the freedom for customers to use that content on the devices of their choosing can be an important selling point.  DRM too often restricts many important use cases.

Of course, lack of DRM on a product can lead to an increase in casual piracy.  I came across a PDF of Programming in Lua by Roberto Ierusalimschy.  After reading through it for a bit, I noticed "Prepared for [name redacted]" written across the bottom of each page.  With a pang of conscience, I deleted the PDF.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Reading "Zorro"

Today I finished my Amazon.com preview of Isabelle Allende's "El Zorro".  I am not a native Spanish speaker, so this is s significant accomplishment for me -- I've read roughly 10% of the book.

I have always been a fan of swashbuckling tales, and I wanted to develop my Spanish, so this book was an obvious choice.  I bought a paper version of the book 7 years ago, shortly after it came out.  As of this last Christmas, I had made it through about 4 pages with a supreme amount of effort.  It is not that the story was not engaging, but my Spanish was simply not up to the task.  With a thick Spanish-English dictionary in hand, it would take me roughly an hour a paragraph.

So what changed?  Did I suddenly move to Mexico?  Spanish immersion classes perhaps?  Nope.  I got a Kindle for Christmas.

I bought a Spanish-English dictionary for the Kindle, and with that in hand, looking up a word just involves a click of a button.  It has made more of a difference than I ever expected.  Starting from the beginning again, I had passed up my old position in an evening, and completed the first chapter in a weekend.  I have not read every day or even every week, but nonetheless after 3 and a half months, I have finished my sample.

I have now purchased the book, and I am expecting to speed up even more.  Previously, the dictionary lacked several words, and the translation option was disabled for a book sample.  I ended up losing time trying to deduce an unknown word by context.  Now I can translate whole paragraphs with just a couple of clicks.

I wonder what this will mean for the future of foreign language eduction.  Will a Kindle (or equivalent) become a requirement for every serious language student?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Vim, Emacs, and Rome

After visiting France, my wife and I spent a week visiting Florence and Rome before returning back to the States.  The architecture of Europe is amazing.  Even small towns have cathedrals about like we have Starbucks -- one on every corner.  However, of all that I have seen, Rome's subway system struck me as the most awe-inspiring engineering feet that I have seen.

That is not to say that Rome has a particularly good subway system.  In fact, it struck me as pitiful compared to Paris or London.  In Paris, the subway will take you within a block or two of wherever you want to go.  In Rome, there are only two lines in the entire city, which form a giant plus.  You are lucky if your destination is six or seven blocks away from the closest stop.

The problem is that Rome has a rich and ancient history, and any time you dig twenty fit down, you will probably hit some of it.  Work must stop so that an archaeological team can investigate it.  In this context, it strikes me as nothing short of miraculous that someone could cut a continuous line across Rome.  Twice.  Whoever had the vision, the political savvy, and the sheer force of will to accomplish it is a force to be reckoned with, and a (wo)man to be feared.

Returning home, I discussed editors with one of my friends.  He and I are both editor junkies and have had phases of being Vim and Emacs fanboys.  However, my friend has recently been experimenting with SublimeText.  When I asked him why he was switching, he responded that it was for ease of writing extensions.

Both Vim and Emacs are highly extensible.  Both are old, even ancient as editors go.  Despite the extensibility of these editors, their age makes them difficult to adapt sometimes.  I was struck with a parallel to Rome and its challenges building its subway system.

Is it possible to streamline and revitalize these editors?  Or are all large, successful software projects doomed to be mired in their own histories?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Election time is coming soon.  In a few more weeks, I'll be able to turn on my radio without hearing election ads.  Sweet bliss...

For the most part, I think everyone knows which candidates they will vote for.  You like Obama, you like Romney, or you like neither and have to hold your nose when you vote.  Either way, you probably were decided on your choice months ago.  I know that I was.

The California propositions are a different story.  They are generally confusing, and often deliberately so.  Personally, I am not a fan of the proposition system in general -- a lot of bad laws seem to come from good intentions.  But that is another rant.

When the propositions come up, I like to look at the endorsements coming from different newspapers.  Each newspaper is at least a somewhat disinterested party, and it is the paper's business to understand the issues for each proposition.  This time, I thought that it would be fun to go about it a little more formally.

I went to Wikipedia and took the list of California's largest papers by circulation.  I then visited each paper's website and searched for their endorsements.  (I was not able to find the endorsements for the Orange County Register, Investor's Business Daily, or La Opinión).  The results are summarized below:
Proposition: 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40
Los Angeles Times YES no no no YES no YES no no YES YES
San Jose Mercury News YES YES no no YES YES YES no no YES YES
San Francisco Chronicle YES YES no no YES YES YES no no no YES
San Diego Union-Tribune no YES YES no - YES YES no no no YES
Sacramento Bee YES no no no YES no YES no no YES YES
The Press-Enterprise no no YES no no no YES no no YES YES
Fresno Bee YES YES no no no no YES no no YES YES
Los Angeles Daily News YES YES YES no YES YES YES no no no YES
Long Beach Press-Telegram YES YES YES no YES YES YES no no no YES

There is a surprising amount of consensus between the papers.  For almost half of the propositions, the choice was unanimous.  Here is the breakdown for different issues.

Unanimous for:
  • Prop 36: Revise 3 strikes law.
  • Prop 40: State senate redistricting.
Strong support:
  • Prop 30: Governor's tax increase.
  • Prop 31: Legislative reforms.
  • Prop 34: End death penalty.
  • Prop 32: Paycheck protection.
  • Prop 35: Human trafficking.
  • Prop 39: Out-of-state corporate tax.
Unanimous against:
  • Prop 33: Auto insurance.
  • Prop 37: GMO labeling.
  • Prop 38: Munger tax plan.

Prop 37 is particularly interesting.  Judging by the number of signs I see around town, it would seem to enjoy strong support among voters.  While there have been a number of seemingly disingenuous ads attacking it, the papers raise some fairly cogent arguments against the proposition.  Even the Santa Cruz Sentinel (not on the list) opposes it:
Citizens would be empowered to sue grocers they believe to be selling unlabeled GE foods, without needing to prove any damages. Clearly, this provision would create even more lawsuits. And who would this benefit? Lawyers. That's what happened after voters in 1986 approved Prop. 65, requiring disclosure of toxic chemicals. The result has been more than 16,000 legal actions. Some were warranted, others were aimed at forcing businesses to settle quickly rather than pay for court costs.
The initiative may be well intentioned, but it creates more problems than it solves. Vote no on Proposition 37.

The comments on the article are perhaps predictable:
  • "It just goes to show you the hands of the biggest corporations (Monsanto, Dupont, etc) reach far and wide."
  • "Who paid for this article to be published? Could it be the no on prop 37 group??"
  • "I guess when you don't have the truth on your side, your only option is to confuse people."
  • "Absolutely Irresponsible journalism."

Politics as usual. :-)

Friday, July 20, 2012

Why is there an app for that?

I've noticed a disturbing trend lately when I browse the internet with my iPhone or iPad.  It seems like every site that I visit wants me to download their custom iPhone/iPad app.  News sites seem particularly guilty of this quirk.

The main purpose for these apps seems to be storing data offline.  If you have a number of articles cached, you can go read them in your favorite wifi-free park.  Of course, many of these apps seem poorly designed.

Flipboard works quite well, which eliminates any valid reason for a news-related iPhone app that I can dream up.  Since it is now available on Android, it would seem to be much wiser for news sites to focus on creating a quality version of the site for mobile users, and leave the app development to Flipboard.

Also, why don't browsers allow for the same functionality that Flipboard provides?  If users want to be able to review content offline, shouldn't developers be given the tools to create that experience?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Free My Phone

Sprint is a distant third in the iPhone market.  In a somewhat desperate move, they have launched a series of ads about their unlimited data plans.


I still have unlimited data with AT&T.  I have not exactly been ecstatic about the service, but I have stayed with them.  Verizon seems to be more popular these days, but AT&T has marginally better coverage in the areas I care about.  More to the point, switching plans is a marginal pain, and I have never seen a reason to bother.

Is unlimited data worthwhile to me?  No.  I'd drop it in a heartbeat if a better offer came by.  So what would it take?


I paid for an expensive phone and I cannot take it with me we when I change networks.  That irritates me immensely.  Sprint, unlock my phone, and I'll switch to your network in a heartbeat.