USPS.gov Still Sucks

This time of year, going to the Post Office is enough to make anyone go postal. And with the upcoming rate increase for stamps to take effect the first week of the new year, I thought I would be smart and order some 2 cent stamps online and save my time to wait in other lines.

Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. First, I had to register. Then I had to find the login that I last used many moons ago. Then I had to find the darn 2 cent stamps — you would think the Postal Service would put a link somewhere on their home page for these puppies. (Note: After Christmas, they have put a link on their shopping home page.) Then I had to pay a $1.00 shipping fee to get the stamps sent to me. Somehow, the thought of having to pay postage on postage strikes me a little odd. All told, the time involved in this $3 transaction was close to 30-40 minutes, about what it would have taken if I went down to the physical PO itself.

Speaking of which, this is what you might have in store for yourself if you do make the trek:

Last Friday I went into a post office in Waterbury CT and asked for 200 one-cent stamps. The clerk asked me what I needed them for. Seeing as it really was none of her business, I thought I would have a little fun and told her that I was planning to put thirty-nine of them on every letter I mailed, rather than one $.39 stamp. She was not amused. Okay, I confess I have postcards that need the additional postage; a lot of postcards. I gave her the real story. She told me she could not give them all to me; that she needed to save some for other customers. Now I wasn’t amused. She has a product for sale. I have money to purchase the product. What part of this equation am I missing? Did the rules on capitalism and business profits change for 2006?

— from “Are You Done Whining?” newsletter

Guys, make it easier. Please!

Why books still win

There is nothing like two back-to-back cross country flights to make you think about what should be the next best immersive environment for personal entertainment. Especially when you are crammed into a middle seat between the Constant Squirming Woman and XL Man.

So in the interests of science and research, and in the anticipated hours of ensuing boredom, I took with me various tools to test out last week: a video iPod with a couple of Lost and Desperate Housewives episodes, an iAudio mp3 player with several dozen songs (just for variety’s sake), a Palm with the Sudoku program and a couple of books. What I found out is interesting and timely.

You can read the rest of this post here.

Turking around

Amazon.com last month released a beta of its Mechanical Turk Web Services. In the past month, this has created a very interesting ecosystem of developers, users, and contract workers. And let’s not forget about the bloggers and commentators. The whole thing is a case study in how a simple but sophisticated programming interface can quickly grow into a life force. And BTW, empower some shut-in folks to earn a few bucks.

The idea is a simple but powerful one. Think what SETI @ home (which recently changed its own programming interfaces, but we’ll leave that aside for the moment) does. It takes a very complex task, searching for radio signal patterns in the hope of finding extra-terrestrial life, and distributes the computing and processing to complete this task amongst millions of PCs that otherwise would be idle. The software runs as a screensaver and sends the compute jobs back to the mother ship when done.

Now replace the PCs with people, yes actual real carbon life forms sitting in front of their PCs. Stir in a Web Services API that allows the people to do tiny, very tiny, bits of programming jobs when they are otherwise idle, and also compensates them with tiny, very tiny, bits of actual money when they accurately complete the task. That is what Turking is all about.

You can read more about this phenonmenon here.

Learning how to work the Web from Hef

Yes, I’ll admit that I read Playboy.com only for the articles. And earlier this month I had a chance to get up close and learn from Christie Hefner herself. The CEO of Playboy Enterprises was in town for a conference preaching digital entertainment to a bunch of old-world TV types and Web wannabies. Her speech was on how she has extended the world’s most famous rabbit logo into cyberspace and how she continues to make hay from those centerfolds, I mean, excellent articles.

I came to the keynote a bit skeptical about what Hef’s daughter could tell me about online media. But by the end of the hour I was impressed with her knowledge and common-sense lessons that she and her company have learned from running one of the most popular Web destinations for the past decade. Her words (and a few pictures too, I won’t deny that she is good with the illustrations on her PowerPoint slides) struck a very resonant chord with me.

You can read more about what Christie Hefner had to say here.

Finding the perfect pocket pal

Seemingly overnight, my pockets are overflowing with gear. Part of the problem is we get plenty of stuff here to try out, and I like trying them out. But the issue is that not every device is capable of satisfying every need, and they all have some fatal flaw. Here is a picture of what I am carrying around these days.

You can read more about why I carry all this gear around here.

Mark Eppley of SC-integrity

Mark Eppley has been around the PC business almost since day one, when he invented a special cable to enable two computers to transfer data between them. Laplink went on to be one of the longest-selling brands in PC history, eventually selling more than 30 million copies, and Eppley became a fixture at industry conferences and events.

Now the venerable pitchman is running a new business called SC-Integrity that has nothing to do with laptops, cables, or computers – directly. Call it LoJack for finding lost tractor trailer freight loads. The problem is that more than 100 truck loads a day on average are lost or more likely stolen from America’s roads. These aren’t just some random pickup, but full 50-foot trailers that can carry anywhere from $100,000 worth of clothing to multi-million dollar loads of pharmaceuticals. And recovering these stolen goods is all being done with hi-tech that until recently wasn’t even possible.

The idea is fiendishly simple: place a tracking device of about the size of a deck of cards  deep down inside a pallet of goods that is carried by trucks around the country. The device sends out a signal every 30 seconds telling the central monitoring command center where it is located. If it goes someplace unexpected, call the cops.

“A pallet of Viagra is worth $1.2 million on the retail market, and there are 28 pallets in the average-sized trailer,” said Eppley.

The problem is that all this missing merchandise is the result of some very determined and clever crooks, and Eppley’s company is using tech to track them down and stop the losses. So far this year they have recovered more than $7 million in goods. “The problem is that trucks and their trailers are almost always recovered, but not before they have been emptied out of their freight,” he says. The FBI says that all it takes is $5,000 in cash offered to a driver, and he’ll gladly leave his motor running at a truck stop when taking a break.

“You can have professionals unload a truck in about five minutes,” says Eppley. “We get a fix every 30 seconds on our trucks. If there is a problem, we can immediately detect that within one minute and notify the proper authorities.”

Why so many missing trucks? First off, drivers are infrequently prosecuted, and when they are state laws let them get off lightly. “The problem is that in many states, vehicle theft is not a felony and many people are just prosecuted for the value of the empty trailer and not the freight, which can be at most $25,000.” Your average BMW costs more than that. Several states, including California, are passing harsher laws to make it more risky for stealing freight. But clearly, theft is on the rise, and the bad guys know how to game the system.

When Miami cracked down on freight theft earlier this year, the thieves moved north to Atlanta, who had more lenient laws. “Things do change and the crooks do move around, although a lot of the theft is centered around the port cities,” said Eppley.

And despite the popular image of Italian-surnamed thieves and the mob, Eppley paints a picture where many gangs are involved. “It is highly organized, and it is ethnic based. Everyone — Cubans, Latin groups, whatever — they all specialize and have their network of fences for the stolen goods and particular kinds of goods that they steal,” he said.

Some of the goods get sold by being incorporated back into legitimate distribution systems, he said. “There are many retailers who will buy merchandise from a distributor that they know is hot, especially clothes and shoes. This just goes back into the stores. We all end up paying for it in the costs of goods and in the vendor’s insurance premiums,” he says.

So how does it work? The devices, called SC-Tracker, are self-powered and don’t require any external antennas. Part of the challenge for the tracking device is battery life, as any of you would instantly recognize. “Our device gets a seven day minimum life on a battery charge. Our closest competitor says that they generate 700 reports, but we generate 20,000 reports over the week that the device is active.” The issue is that you have to be paying attention to where you load is going, and make sure that you can quickly get a fix on its location.

“It doesn’t work to get a report once a day or once an hour. The truck could be emptied by then. You need to be almost constantly in touch with where it is,” said Eppley. To do this requires what he calls “geo-fencing” meaning putting in a very specific route profile into their systems, so when a truck veers off that course an alarm will sound and they can figure out what caused the event. Also, typical rest periods for the driver are included, so unscheduled stops also create alarms.

They use multiple radio modes to broadcast their location, and are designed to be durable, small, and work under many adverse conditions. Like a LoJack unit, they are placed without the driver knowing where they are located inside the truck’s trailer load, otherwise thieves could easily find and remove them. “We have a hybrid solution, because no single technology will work in the environments that our customers put them in,” says Eppley.

And the solution is working. In the short time that the company has been in business, they have gathered their share of customers, who are paying them six-figure annual fees. In one noted event, their technology figured prominently in the capture of more than a million dollars in Microsoft software that was repacked on a different truck and taken to the Chicago area. It turned out that more than a dozen arrests were made, including some sheriffs from the Cook County police department.

The company has been operating in stealth mode for at least two years, but is now getting noticed and gathering steam. Eppley, who is the president of the company, co-founded it with Dennis duNann. And unlike typical hi-tech firms, you won’t find any management bios on their Web site, or other identifying information.

“We are one of the only companies that have delivered this solution. Our competitors will say that they have certain capabilities and accuracy levels, but when you get under the covers and do the tests, you don’t see the same stuff that we have.” Eppley mentions how GPS truck tracking has been around for more than a decade, but only with miniaturized technology and longer-lasting batteries and better wireless products has he been able to produce an entire solution. “All of this has only been possible in the last couple of years It is a simple concept, but has very difficult execution. We are as accurate 5 to 200 meters, depending on where you are, density of cell towers. We also are integrated with our clients’ business services and security services and have a proven ROI record too,” he says.

Network Magic and McAfee’s Wireless Home Network Security Reviewed

Setting up a small LAN isn’t always easy for the newbie. While both Microsoft and Apple have made big strides in their latest operating systems with respect to sharing folders and printers, it still can be a daunting task, especially if you are using earlier OS versions or mixing non XP and MacOS X systems into the network. Two companies are trying to make it even easier with some software solutions. And while they get points for trying, they both still have a long way to go before network setup is as easy as turning on your computer.

The two products are Network Magic from Pure Networks and Wireless Home Network Security from McAfee Software. You can read the complete review here.

Sony BMG Sounds A Sour Note

It is bad enough trying to keep your computer free of viruses, spyware, and those annoying pop-up ads that can download even more nasty stuff to one’s hard drive. Now we have to beware of music CDs and their associated software that comes along with the tunes. It is sending another sour note in the music industry, a sad song indeed.

At least one of Sony’s music CDs comes with special rights management software from a company called First 4 Internet. The software came with the CD from the Van Zants called <i>Get Right with the Man</i> (ironic title completely unintentional).

The software is used to play the music files from the CD and monitor how the music is used by the PC, ostensibly to prevent digital copying and ripping the music. Sadly, the software does more than that, including burrowing deep into your Windows OS and purposely disguising itself and hiding its executable files from plain sight. Worse yet, the software steals performance from your computer in doing its bidding. Even more ironically, the software is Windows-only, meaning that you can still rip the tunes on your Mac without having to worry about having this code enter your system.

The security researcher who uncovered this sad state of affairs, Mark Russinovich, continues to dig deeper this week as Sony backpedals and offers half-baked fixes to the situation. As he mentions on his site, “the EULA does not disclose the software’s use of cloaking or the fact that it comes with no uninstall facility.” Before the story broke, there was no way to remove this code without knowing a great deal about where it was located and how to uncover it. I guess that is part of the design: after all, why would you install a rights management client if you could easily remove it? But people don’t install DRM, big faceless corporations that want to continually grab your wallet do.

Unfortunately, that Catch-22 is at the basis of why digital rights management will ultimately fail, just as every other digital copy protection scheme has failed in the past. While most people don’t care, and just want to play their music, music I might add that they have legitimately purchased, those that do care will spend the extra time like Russinovich and go to great lengths to remove it from their systems. And it isn’t because they want to become digital scofflaws. They just want to get access to their music files without any associated baggage, and play their tunes where and when they want to.

What makes matters worse is how Sony is dealing with the situation, and how they continue to get caught up in their copy protection. There are three big lies here. First is how they are not being upfront in their EULAs  (not that most of us read this documents anyway, but still). Not being upfront on their Web pages dealing with the matter is the second:

“The protection software simply acts to prevent unlimited copying and ripping from discs featuring this protection solution. It is otherwise inactive. The software does not collect any personal information nor is it designed to be intrusive to your computer system.”

Not according to my reading of the situation. Code that takes away a couple of percentage points of CPU performance is not what I would call inactive.

But the final straw is issuing a “uninstall patch” that doesn’t really uninstall the code. The tool that Sony has posted on their Web site last week doesn’t remove anything, but just reveals the files and updates its DRM code with something even more heinous. This won’t do. Sony needs to face the music, as it were, and stop meddling with my machine.

When I buy a CD (and I do buy them from time to time), I don’t want anything extra coming along for the ride. I want access to my music in my car, at work, at home, and on any of the various digital devices that I currently listen to. I want to make backup copies because CDs aren’t indestructible and they do wear out, especially since I leave many of them in my car. I don’t want to be treated like a common criminal, nor do I wish to infect my PC with something that will sap its performance and communicate back to Sony what I am listening to.

It is ironic that contemporaneously with Sony’s actions, the TV industry is getting its act together and selling more programming to people who will gladly pay a buck an episode. Disney started this ball rolling, and this week other networks announced they will get on board and make it easier for people to download content. There is a lesson to be learned from the video studios that the music industry could learn. How much piracy would go away if we would could pay 25 cents a song?

It was bad enough when the lawyers of the recording industry went after teenagers and others for participating on peering networks. It was bad enough when people and businesses that I don’t know are trying to grab my bits and deposit their digital crap all over my PC without my knowledge or agreement. Now Sony is coming after my hard drive. As I have said before, Sony, and the rest of the music industry, needs to back down and treat its customers properly, or we will all go away. You could say they need to get right by the Man before the Man goes elsewhere. I know I will think twice the next time I buy a CD. Or at least run it on my Mac.

Carly Fiorina c.2005

What does the former CEO of HP have to tell anyone these days about how to run an IT organization? That was the question I had when I heard that Carly Fiorina was going to be in town this week, keynoting at a small conference called the Internet Telephony Expo. Given her turbulent tenure at HP, I joked with one of my colleagues that probably the best strategy for anyone at the conference was to listen to what she had to say and do the exact opposite.

And while that seemed somewhat gratuitous, after the speech I was left with a cloying feeling, like having too much MSG after a big Chinese meal. What she had to say was interesting: the nut graf, as we journos say, is that the coming digital revolution will involve transforming every piece of content and the processes that use them into portable, personal, and virtual constructs. What this means for me is a world in which we are our own IT managers, and in charge of our own digital destiny. It is a heady notion, and I for one am not sure I am ready for this level of responsibility.

At first blush, you might think this is heresy, especially coming from the guy that runs a Web site for people who do nothing but take charge of their digital domains on a daily basis. But hear me out. The job that you really have isn’t your own IT manager, but the manager for your friends and family.

Take one aspect of my digital life – my home telephone. I have been a customer of Vonage for several years, and while it hasn’t been effortless, I have enjoyed a certain freedom to never talk to a Baby Bell sales rep ever again, especially when I want to make changes to my phone features like call forwarding, voice mail and call pickup. Some of the Bells are getting this religion: last month I saw some advanced features from Verizon that allow you to make custom feature configurations via the Web like Vonage and the other IP tel providers have.

What about digital photography and music? Having all our CDs encoded on our home PC is very liberating, to be sure. I wouldn’t go back to the analog world for anything. But it has been a painful process in getting my wife on board, and it had nothing to do with technology or the bit rate the files are encoded or which music player we are using or whatever. It was all about cataloging the songs into their appropriate genres, so my wife could play blocks of music that fit her mood. You could say that as the home IT manager I forgot to do the requirements analysis, but the hard part is knowing the right questions to ask in our digital transformation.

In both cases (and I could on with other examples, but I’ll spare you), the downside is that when something goes wrong, I have to go into debug mode for my family and that isn’t a job that I relish. Particularly if I have to call the same providers that I just got freed from talking to their support reps, or spend time at night taking apart my PC.

Carly was big on transformations, which is ironic because her biggest one (in folding Compaq into HP) was far from successful. Certainly, HP has held on but has not hit any home runs then or since. Part of making transformations successful is understanding the end state of what you desire: and I think in the case of HP as well as our 100% digitally pure content world of the future, neither was a slam-dunk.

Look how much promise VoIP is, even now. While no one can argue that more businesses and individuals make use of the technology, it is far from stable and far from being universally deployed. And even in 2005, creating a single network infrastructure to operate both data and voice networks is tricky, and many IT organizations are still not up to the task of designing robust enough networks to handle both kinds of traffic.

Part of the problem is that while VoIP is a network application, it is an application that stresses networks in new and different ways that traditional IT folks don’t usually get until they are deep into the project. Second, network security takes on new levels of urgency and complexity when VoIP is running over these networks. This gets back to what I was saying about transformations.

Carly spoke about customer enablement, whereby VOIP and other disruptive digital technologies are incredibly powerful tools, helping business to compete and consumers to prosper. She mentioned how ‘this nation cannot maintain our competitive leadership without this enablement.” But I am not really sure she understands the path that we have to take to get there.

We are in the midst of a digital revolution, to be sure. But there are still many bumps along the road, and we still need better tools, too. And while “the cell phone with the camera on it has become the single most ubiquitous photography device in the world,” making use of all those digital photos and organizing them and keeping track of them is far from perfect. What we have done is created the digital equivalent of a dusty shoebox in the attic. We still need to transform the collection and display process too.