Category Archives: IMHO

My humble opinions…

A Cautionary Tale

Picture of the word FAIL

“FAIL STAMP” by Nima Badiey on flickr CC:A

Why I Won’t Purchase from Artifactory Replicas, and Why You Shouldn’t Either.

I love movie and TV show props. These are items that may be an integral part of the story, like Luke Skywalker’s Lightsaber, or an incidental set piece like a Men in Black business card. These items, for some, become icons that personally tie them to a story and make it more real to them. The Internet has a lot of information about these things, and there are many websites that cater to people with these interests. One such place is the Replica Prop Forum. The members there often discuss items in detail, obsessing over every measurement and component of a prop, and the more skilled among them make limited runs of these items for purchase by board members.

On February 12, 2010, one member with the handle “SD Studios” opened a message thread in the RPF’s ‘Junkyard’ forum  to gauge interest in a Men in Black “neuralyzer” (otherwise known as the ‘flashy thing’.) (NOTE: a free membership is required to read the posts in that forum.) This member, whose real name is Stephen Dymszo, had a small company that had produced well-recognized prop replicas in limited runs before he went on to found a commercial prop company known as Master Replicas.  He had previously produced the neuralyzer in proper filming scale, which raised a great deal of controversy within the community as it was very large. (The original prop had to be bigger to hold all of the electronics. A hand model with huge hands was used in close-ups to give the appropriate sense of scale on-screen.) These originally cost over $800 each, and people had gladly forked over their money to own one. Master Replicas produced another neuralyzer model under his tenure that quickly sold out. He left Master Replicas years ago to start another prop company, Quantum Mechanix (QMx) before he finally went back to producing props under the SD Studios moniker.

Mr. Dymszo had a reputation of being honest, straightforward, and dedicated to quality. He exhibited high standards in what he produced and happy customers would vouch for his work. After reading the thread about what he proposed I jumped in and registered my interest. He responded with an email giving details and a few pictures. There were two models to be made—a ‘standard’ with rudimentary electronics for $395 and a ‘deluxe’ with fancier electronics and sound effects for $495. The production process should take about 4-5 months, depending on the ability to coordinate the work between five different companies. He wanted to implement a payment plan, and I made arrangements to pay Mr. Dymszo $400 toward a deluxe model. I was told that the final payment of $100 plus shipping would be required upon completion of the props. This began an ongoing saga that, nearly four years later, has not yet reached a successful conclusion.

Members began getting sporadic updates on the progress of the prop. We got enough info to keep us happy and believing that we’d soon receive our precious replicas. We were told there were some initial problems in acquiring the dot-matrix LED displays used in the earlier SD Studios models as they’d long been discontinued. A cache of them was found and production moved along. RPF member JeffreyMorren recently reported that he and Gerry Mros shipped 53 deluxe circuit boards and 7 standard circuit boards to Mr. Dymszo in December 2010. Videos of the working electronics were posted to YouTube. Then, bad news: the printer that Mr. Dymszo had worked with on his previous runs had gone out of business, and now he’d have to find someone who could not only print the control panel legends but could also perform the necessary cutting and trimming of the panel. Months went by. Then we were told that he found an overseas company to do the work, but since this was a small order they’d fit it into their workflow when they could. He’d also discovered that the on/off switches were flimsy and wouldn’t stand up to regular use, so he had to replace all the switches before the units were shipped. Again, months went by with no updates. In the meanwhile, SD Studios continued producing and selling other prop replicas. The reports from his satisfied customers were good, so the neuralyzer customers kept waiting. More patiently than we should have, but remember that this guy had a sterling reputation and produced a lot of great merchandise over the years.

Within the past year he’d mentioned (in an email update, I believe) that he was closing down SD Studios. He’d said not to worry, that all outstanding orders and runs would be completed, but that he was starting a new company. From what I remember he’d also said he wanted to get out of the prop business. The new company would take a considerable amount of his time and effort and that updates would only come with actual news to report. He also asked people to stop bumping the RPF message thread because that could bring unwanted attention from the studios and a cease and desist (C&D) order from the lawyers. A C&D order would mean that the neuralyzers would never be finished or delivered. That kept the buyers quiet for a while longer. Over the past six months or so, however, the message thread has come alive with people who’ve finally had enough and want a resolution.

In the meanwhile, Mr. Dymszo has opened another prop company, Artifactory Replicas. This company produces some pretty boring stuff in comparison to his previous efforts, but these items are intended for use in museums and for eclectic collectors. His offerings include a replica “Shroud of Turin” and the golden record sent off with the Voyager spacecraft. He sent an email update a few months back to the neuralyzer customers that said he fully intended to finish them. However, SD Studios was closed and had no money for refunds or to finish them but he was working on a solution. He also said the money couldn’t legally come from Artifactory as it was a separate business that had no dealings with SD Studios.

As of this posting, neuralyzer customers including myself are still waiting for a product or a refund. Some readers are probably laughing at this turn of events. Couldn’t we have seen this coming? Why did we wait so long before making a fuss? Why should we expect anything if these items weren’t “legal” to make in the first place without a blessing from the copyright holder? Well, there is some precedent for this. Studios have turned a blind eye to this sort of hobbyist activity in the past if the produced numbers of an item are very low. As for the trust placed in Mr. Dymszo, he’d had over seventeen years (by his own count) of producing quality merchandise and happy customers. None of us thought we were gambling our money on an unknown quantity. We believed in him. And in the grand tradition of one “Oh sh*t” cancelling the goodwill of a thousand “Atta-boys” Mr. Dymszo has blown his previously good reputation to shards.

Many of us no longer believe that we’ll see anything from the investments we made nearly four years ago. In fact, if Mr. Dymszo were to contact me with news the neuralyzers were finally ready and asking for my final $100 payment plus shipping, I wouldn’t send him anything. At least, until someone else reported they had and received their item. Fool me once…

The bottom line is this: don’t spend your money with Artifactory Replicas. If Mr. Dymszo was willing to treat the customers of his previous company in this manner, it is likely you may find yourself in the same predicament.

If and when I ever have good news to report I’ll let you know, right here.

To see more of Nima Badiey’s flickr photostream, go here.


UPDATE: March 14, 2018

Apologies to my readers as I realized that I’d never updated this page.

Several years ago I was finally able to regain my $400 (less a Paypal fee) from Mr. Dymszo. It took a number of threatening emails and a promise to turn the matter over to law enforcement in Pennsylvania before things were resolved. He paid over several months, but I was more or less made whole.

I’m still looking for an original-style neuralyzer.

Mr. Dymszo has re-opened Master Replicas and is producing mainly “2001: A Space Odyssey” HAL 9000 merchandise. I’m sure this is just the beginning. I will give Mr. Dymszo this: before he blew it, he enjoyed a sterling reputation in the movie prop collecting community for his quality and attention to detail. I’m sure that hasn’t changed. However, unless I could actually put my hands on an item he’s offering for sale, I’d only buy with a guaranteed payment method (charge card) and be ready to contest the charges if he didn’t deliver in a timely manner. Consider yourself warned.

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Spy Much?

-The Electronic Freedom Foundation

-The Electronic Freedom Foundation


Why, love him or hate him, you owe Edward Snowden your thanks.

By now you know the story. American contractor Edward Snowden, working for the National Security Agency, absconds from his job with copies of sensitive surveillance data. He had an attack of conscience when he saw the extent of spying performed by the US Government on us, its citizens. He begins releasing data, shocking the press as well as his fellow countrymen, eludes capture and prosecution by the Government, and gains political asylum in Russia. End of story.

Except that it’s not the end of the story. Data continues to be released on a regular basis that implicates the Government in also spying on our supposed world allies, pissing off such staunch US friends as Spain, Germany, and Mexico. Additionally, recent news that NSA employees routinely used their access to spy on family members, friends, and lovers made everyone wonder whether or not the Government had crossed the line. Well, if there was a line I believe it was crossed years ago, perhaps even decades ago. The citizens of the United States of America have had crosshairs painted on their backs by their government for years, but the most infuriating over-reaches have been facilitated wholesale by their own elected officials since 9-11.

Surveillance technology has been improving by quantum leaps since the first telephone wiretaps were challenged in the legal case of Olmstead v. United States in 1928.  U.S. spy planes carrying high resolution cameras flew the skies over foreign countries decades ago, and when satellites began carrying similar technologies the game rapidly began advancing. Today’s citizen of the world can safely assume that, wherever they are and whatever they’re doing, they’ve been spied upon at least several times during any normal day. The success of Osama Bin Laden’s terrorist network stripped away America’s naiveté and made many in the population ready to accept a surveillance state if it meant they could “stay safe.” Senators and Representatives began rubber-stamping anything the U.S. security agencies told them was necessary for National Security without questioning what they were told. (This is a safe assumption if you look at the loads of crap that’s been approved since 9/11. Any rational person would’ve looked at some of that stuff and put their foot down. Hard.) Now all of our Internet traffic is inspected as is our telephone calls (cell and land-line). It’s been said the only form of communication that’s currently safe from spying is the good old U.S. Postal Service letter.

Mr. Snowden found out that our government wasn’t acting properly in that they were spying on their own, in direct violation of laws designed to prevent it. Revealing what he knew was, according to law, illegal and carried serious penalties for doing so. The sheeple of the U.S. had been lulled into silence by what the news outlets, fed their information by the government, were telling them. He thought they ought to know and so he told them. He felt the good that would come of his actions was so great that it was worth his personal sacrifice. He walked away from his well-paying job, hot girlfriend, and family after leaking the story and chose the life of an isolated ex-pat.

I’m not going to debate whether or not the man is a traitor. I’ve talked with so many people who are nearly physically torn because what he did was morally right but legally wrong and they can’t rectify the two. What I will say is that he deserves the gratitude of the world population because he initiated a badly-needed conversation on the topic of spying. The U.S. Government is not unique—if they spy on other countries (and their own citizens), those other countries are also spying on themselves and us. They traditionally don’t make a lot of noise about the practice. Unless, of course, they’re outed—in which case everybody involved screams foul, tempers flare and people become indignant. When that happens  the diplomatic machinery goes into hyperdrive. Apologies will be offered and hesitantly accepted, situations smoothed over, and spying will resume (if it ever stopped at all) until the next leak. The practice of domestic spying will continue because those responsible are not beholden to the laws. When you’re in government these days, you can hide anything by declaring the information or situation as something vital to national security and you have to answer to no one.

Which, ultimately, raises another question. Who really runs the country? You’d think the President does, but he’s often body-checked by the judicial and legislative branches of the government. This was by design…remember “checks and balances” from your Government classes in grade school? However, this country’s founders didn’t envision that the military/security groups would rise to surpass the House and Senate in power. Looking at history over the past sixty years or so, you can see any number of times the country’s citizens were conscripted into the armed services, forced to fight against their personal and religious beliefs, and used as science experiments by their own government. Money was acquired through obfuscation and deceit to build top-secret military facilities (think ‘Area 51’) and fund programs that wouldn’t have gotten a dime had they been properly submitted for approval. It would seem that the military really runs the show and, if that’s true, how does that make us different from many other countries already under military rule?

So, whether or not you like or agree with Edward Snowden, you should thank him. People who are willing to stand up for the rights of their fellow human beings are far too rare these days.




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Powerball Illogic


In mid-May of 2013 an 84 year old widow, Gloria C. Mackenzie, walked into a Florida Publix supermarket and purchased a quick pick Powerball ticket. It turns out that one of her sets of numbers won the $590 million dollar jackpot. As she waited in line to purchase her ticket, a fellow resident of Zephyrhills Florida named Mindy Crandall gave up her turn in line and told Gloria to go ahead of her.

Now the media is up in arms, relating the story and playing up Crandall’s “bad luck” (and poor choice of timing). Lots of people are apparently wondering if the elderly widow will give her benefactor some of her winnings in gratitude. The entire situation is ludicrous, both on the winner’s side as well as the loser’s. Let’s look at the reasons why.

First, the “loser’s” side. This was not a contest where, for example, the thousandth customer would win, and Crandall was that thousandth person but gave away her place in line. Nor were Mackenzie and Crandall purchasing scratch-off tickets, where there was a possibility that they were going to purchase tickets from the exact same game and each person’s place in line would be important. The lottery is a game of chance with astronomical odds of winning. The winning numbers weren’t hand-picked–they were automatically generated by a computer with a ‘supposedly’ random seed. (At least, that’s the way these things are supposed to be run.) I don’t know if Crandall also had her numbers auto-picked, but with the odds stacked against the players anyway, there’s little chance that she would’ve gotten the winning numbers had she kept her place in line.

Second, let’s look at Mackenzie’s side. She was in the right place, at the right time, and received a ticket with randomly-chosen numbers. Her odds of winning were as improbably high as anyone else’s. Is there a reason she should split any part of her money with Crandall? Not particularly. If she were going to reward an act of kindness shown to her, shouldn’t she also give money to the person who filled her gas tank so that she could drive to the store? How about the clerk who handed her the winning ticket? Any reasonable person can see where this could go. She owes no one a thing, and if she didn’t share her winnings it wouldn’t matter a bit. I firmly believe in there being a plan for each person’s life, and she would have won that prize whether she’d gotten the ticket earlier in the week or an hour after she originally purchased it. She wouldn’t have needed to go to that particular Publix, or even to play more than one set of numbers.

Now let’s look at the ludicrousness of Mackenzie’s win. According to news reports she’ll take home approximately $278 million after taxes. Did I mention that she’s 84? Being older I’m sure her personal needs are modest. She’s reported to have four children and I’m sure she’ll give each of them something. Even so, she’ll have a lot of money to manage and it’s very likely she won’t live long enough to fully enjoy her windfall.  Unfortunately lottery winners have a history of having their lives ruined by their good fortune. It gives credence to the old saying that God shows his disdain for wealth by the kinds of people He gives it to.

And, if the lottery is really a tax on people who are bad at math, what can we say about those people making the erroneous leap of logic in this situation?

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Caroline Glaser and Rachel Bilson: Separated at Birth?

I’ve been watching “The Voice” off and on since it started this season. I haven’t cared to get into it too deeply; I have a belief that America’s love affair with reality shows has lessened the number of quality scripted TV dramas, and so I despise them. However, I’d flipped the TV on last evening as I was doing something else and heard this wonderfully quirky singer named Caroline Glaser. When I looked at the TV I had to blink a couple of times. This extremely talented young lady bears an incredible resemblance to a woman I’ve had a huge crush on for several years. See for yourself:

Caroline Glaser

Caroline Glaser, singer/songwriter.

Rachel Bilson

Rachel Bilson, actress.

Caroline could easily be mistaken for Rachel Bilson’s sister. Both are extremely easy to look at, though Caroline brings a little guilt to the table as she’s just 18. But still…wow.

Add the fact that my best friend’s stepdaughter bears a striking resemblance to Rachel as well, and there’s a Battlestar Galactica moment in the making. “I like Number 11 a lot. Is she available in blonde?”


Addendum 10-24-2013: The title of this post has bugged me ever since I published it. It’s impossible for them to be separated at birth–Caroline was barely eighteen and Rachel was, I believe, about 30 at the time of this posting. A more accurate title might have been “Sisters?” or “Are They Related?” Oh well. The toothpaste’s long out of the tube. I still think they’re both talented, beautiful women–and would be happy to spend time with either one.


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The Sweet Smell of Old Technology


I’ve noticed a phenomenon with older technology (mainly computers) that I cannot find an answer to. It’s odd, a real head-scratcher, and doesn’t necessarily mean something’s wrong with the unit. I first noticed it a few years back when working on a friend’s computer. I’d hooked it up on my test bench and turned it on. After a minute or so I could smell a distinct odor coming from inside the unit’s case. It was slightly sweet, almost like a perfume. Since this guy was living alone at the time and I knew he wasn’t given to wearing Liz Taylor it was puzzling. I’d opened the PC’s case and looked around—nothing was amiss—and decided to give the unit a good dusting out.

After going over it with an air compressor and a clean dry paintbrush to dislodge any hangers-on, I let the case air out overnight. When I turned the power on again the odor returned. Most people might think that an electrolytic capacitor had blown up and caused the smell, but that leaves a visible mess as well as a very distinct odor which is unlike what I smelled. The PC’s problem was a corrupted software installation so I repaired and returned it. The computer functioned well for several more years before being retired.

The same friend upgraded his family’s computer a year or so and gave me his old one. Guess what? It exhibited the same smell.  Okay, I thought, it must be something in his home environment that’s getting sucked into the computer’s air vents.  Again, the computer itself worked fine but had a dead power supply. I removed the motherboard and transplanted it into another case. When the computer was turned on I could still smell the odor but more faintly.

Recently a different friend gave me a netbook so that I could attempt retrieving some files. This one had been dropped which shattered the built-in LCD display. I hooked it up to work on it, and guess what? The same smell filled my workroom. This time, however, the friend is female, has children, and multiple dogs. There’s one small fan in the netbook from what I can tell as it uses an external brick-type power supply.

I mentioned this to a friend who runs his own electronics repair shop. He’s never noticed the phenomenon with all the various electronic detritus that has crossed the doorway of his shop.

Several weeks back I acquired a Playstation 3 that had ceased to operate in the hopes of fixing it for myself. It also has the smell.  I only had it on for a short time and I can still smell it well over a week afterward. Scented electronics…surely there’s a market for that.

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eBay: Some Words of Wisdom

Hard-won tips and observations about what works and what doesn’t.


eBay Sign

eBay…My Frenemy.

I’ve been on eBay over twelve years—the first few were simply as a buyer. Eventually I tried my hand at selling and was good enough at it to move a lot of my old stuff. As an eBayer  I’ve seen and experienced many things that delighted me, some that disappointed me and a good quantity that irritates me to this day. As eBay has tried to evolve into something more than a Wild West, anything-goes-type of trading post it has alienated many basement- and garage-cleaners like me. This is primarily through their push to regard all their customers as professional dealers. This has forced a migration by their smaller sellers to their competition while volume-based companies have moved in–that all sell the same imported Chinese crap at less than desirable prices.

eBay’s management has enabled dishonest buyers by allowing them to leave any type of feedback they want while preventing sellers from leaving honest feedback about their bad customers. They feel that, from a seller’s standpoint, the only type of buyer there can be is a “good” one—even if they’ve stiffed you on a payment, were very late on making payment, or fraudulently claimed to get defective goods and try to screw you out of your item while getting a refund. Yes, that really has happened—browsing the eBay Seller Central forums reveals all sorts of horror stories like these. Yet eBay claims these policies level the playing field for everyone. John Donahoe, eBay’s CEO, must have belonged to the generation who taught their kids that “everyone’s a winner, and everyone gets a prize.” Most eBayers believe that he needs to go and the sooner the better.

So why do I and the other dedicated stalwarts who stick it out continue to do so? Despite the negatives, eBay is still the big player in online auctions and commands a significant amount of traffic. While other players like Amazon now allow the little guy to sell there, let’s be honest–not everything can be sold on Amazon. I can dump an old 386-class motherboard and ISA expansion cards or a broken camcorder on eBay that would gather no interest on Amazon. For people like me who have a LOT of that kind of merchandise eBay is where those types of prospective buyers reside…and so we stay.

Over the years  I’ve seen many poorly-designed auction listings.  These design faux-pas range from poorly-worded ad copy to having crappy pictures (or the wrong ones!). I’ve tried to learn from these examples and make my auction items more appealing. I’m going to share some things I’ve learned with you to try and prevent more of these atrocities, and in doing so give you some tips to help you shop and sell your own stuff.

Tips for Sellers: Product Photography

1.  Get a good digital camera and learn to use it properly.

Judging by the mediocrity or outright crappiness of many auction pictures a lot of sellers think their cell phone camera or cheap point-and-shoot is all they need. WRONG! Look at your own behavior as a shopper/buyer when you‘re evaluating items. How many things have you purchased that had blurry, darkly-lit or indistinct pictures? Probably not many, if any at all. If you’re a brave soul who took the plunge because the price was irresistible, how many of those items weren’t what you were expecting? If you’re like me you’ve probably tried at least once or twice; maybe you weren’t burned too badly. The simple fact is that good pictures go a long way in helping you sell your items.

Make sure that whatever camera you choose can take in-focus and up-close pictures. You want the ability to fill the frame with your item, and it has to be sharp. Keep in mind that pictures of very small things require a camera/lens capable of “macro” photography. The inherent problem with macro photography is that, the smaller the item, the harder it is to keep the entire item in focus. That problem deals with something called “depth of field,” meaning the amount of space in front of and in back of the point you’re focusing on. A good photography tutorial will explain this better than I in this short article. In general, increased depth of field requires more light and a smaller aperture.

2.  Light It Up!

If you take a picture of your item and its dark, throw some light on the item and try again. Place the item on a table by a window, or invest in a tabletop light tent in a kit with several lights. If you’re handy, make your own like I did. (Google using the terms: “build photo light tent.”)  For lights I took the reflectors off a couple of clip-on utility lights and married them to some gooseneck table lamps from Lowe’s. For bulbs I used 100-watt equivalent spiral CFLs with a “daylight” color temperature between 5000 and 7000 degrees Kelvin. By building your own setup you’ll invest less than $50.00 and have the basic equipment to light and showcase all your items.  The only downside of CFL lighting is that it’s not bright enough for fast shutter speeds.

Why not use the camera’s built-in flash? If you have the experience, great! I don’t recommend it because, for most people, flash photography of “products” is difficult to do well. The most-often seen result is that the item is washed out (too bright). Flash photography can be done well, but it requires external equipment and more finesse than the typical eBay seller can (or is willing to) muster.

3.  Use a Tripod

Lower light levels mean longer shutter speeds which make it difficult to handhold a camera. Putting the camera on a cheap tripod (and using a remote shutter release or the camera’s self-timer) practically guarantees sharp photos.

4.   “Hey Buddy, Am I Bidding on the Doll or the Coffee Cup?”

Isolate your item from other distracting things when taking your picture. People looking at your auction item want to see that thing alone, not how nice your living room is or that you’re drinking from a 49ers mug.  If you have a stack of stereo equipment you’re trying to unload, PLEASE separate the items and photograph each one by itself.  Being lazy by taking one picture and saying “only the CD player is in this auction—the other items are in their own auctions” is lame and says to the world that you’re an amateur.

A corollary is this: if you’re photographing an item that is reflective or shiny, look to see what’s reflected on the surface of your item. By now I’m sure everyone’s seen the picture of the teakettle with the naked photographer reflected in it. Don’t be that person.

5.   Clean Up Your Act

Before photographing your items take a few minutes to clean them up. A clean item will photograph better and will bring more money than something you picked up off a dirt floor and blew on a couple of times.

General Selling Tips

 1.   Be Brutally Honest in Your Pictures and Descriptions

I’ve been burned a few times by sellers who only showed the good side of an item in a picture and didn’t disclose that the back half was partially melted. Or that it was missing its battery cover, had a hole drilled in it for who-knows-what reason, or a major crack in its plastic case.  If you don’t have all the item’s parts, say so. If there really is a crack in the case or a seam in the pants is split, tell the prospective buyer up front AND show it in your pictures. Do you really think that the buyer will keep your wonderful P.O.S. once they discover the defect on their own? If you disclose the item’s flaws, the buyer will not only appreciate your honesty but have no excuse to come back on you for having a fraudulent auction. If you’ve listed an item’s flaws honestly, and spelled them out explicitly in word and picture, you can be reasonably assured that the buyer doesn’t care about purchasing a flawed item.

You should also functionally test your item (if that applies) to make sure it works. A phrase like “I couldn’t test it because…” has become an inside joke among buyers and is interpreted as “It doesn’t work and I’m trying to screw you.”  This also marks you as an eBay hack and someone to avoid.

2.   Do Your Research Before Listing Your Item

This requires a little work on your part but prevents you from looking like a clueless idiot. eBay has a tool called “What’s My Item Worth?” (You can search eBay help on the terms “item” and “worth” if the link doesn’t automatically appear on your main page.) With this tool you can find out what prices an item like yours have recently sold for. If most of the items came without all the accessories or their physical condition was poor, they might have been priced lower or brought less money than items that were complete with their original boxes, packing, and documentation. There are some items I’d wanted to list but changed my mind when I looked them up.  My time was better spent taking those things to a thrift store. If you have a number of similar things that are valued low, you could also lump them together in a “bulk lot” and sell them in one auction.

With that said you should be realistic with your pricing. I’ve been looking to pick up a dbx 3BX-DS dynamic range expander. The 3BX was made for years in a number of incarnations.  On the model I want, most of the auctions start out low but end up bringing several hundred dollars. Yet I see the early 3BX units being priced hundreds of dollars higher than the newer units with more features. These overpriced older units don’t have a great sell-through rate. Be realistic. I’d like to get more money for some of my stuff too but I acknowledge that I won’t always get the amount I’d like.

3.   Don’t Get Cute in Your Item Titles and Descriptions

I enjoy writing creative descriptions and have used humor to sell things. I’ve never gotten a comment back about my writing style, and I’d like to think that someone has enjoyed my prose. However, I’ve never used cutesy-pie terms such as  “minty” or “L@@K” in my item titles and descriptions. If you use either of these conventions there’s no question that you are an eBay loser. Why? When I see items with those terms in the titles I pass them by without reading the descriptions no matter how much I’d want them or how reasonably priced they are. I’m an average guy and I know that I’m not the only person with these dislikes. If I’m willing to turn away from an item I want based on this I know that others will too.

4.   Don’t Even Think of Holding a Reserve Price Auction

Most people rationalize that a low initial price will get bidders into an auction early so they go with this type of auction. If the highest bid amount never meets the reserve price (meaning the least amount the seller would take for the item) by the auction’s end time, then the seller isn’t obligated to sell it. Let me ask the sellers who employ reserve prices this question: Have you ever been on the losing end of a reserve price auction? No? How would you feel if you had the highest bid on an item you really wanted to own but didn’t win the auction because your bid didn’t meet the minimum price? Reserve price auctions alienate customers.

Make things simple for yourself and your prospective buyers. Run a regular auction but set your starting bid as the least amount of money you’d accept for the item. If it goes for that amount, great! If it goes for more it’s a bonus. Or, list your item in a fixed price auction for the amount you want. If you don’t sell the item it should tell you that your asking price is out of line.

5.   Shipping Do’s and Don’ts

Don’t Turn Shipping Into a Profit Center

This simply means that you should make your shipping costs reasonable. Use the lowest cost shipping that provides the ability to track the shipment and gets the item to your buyer quickly. If the item’s valuable select the appropriate amount of insurance and include it in your shipping costs. It won’t cost you anything since your buyer pays shipping and provides great peace of mind.

There was a widespread practice among vendors where they’d advertise an item for a low cost, say 99 cents, and then charge $30.00 for shipping.  This was to avoid eBay fees. eBay then started charging fees that included the shipping costs, taking money out of legitimate seller’s pockets. Unfortunately some of these yahoos still persist in the practice.

If you ship your item(s) free then ignore the above advice. But why would you ship free and lose money?

Pack the Item Well

I purchased an old laptop from someone who crammed it into a Priority Mail box and shipped it to me. There was no space around the item as it just fit into the box. They didn’t even bother to use a simple layer of bubble wrap for padding! Another seller sent me an Xbox 360’s outer case in a box that was slightly too small, so they wrapped it liberally with packing tape to hold it together. The best bad example was the guy who put a 60-pound subwoofer into a box using only foam peanuts for packing, then put that box into a bigger box with literally a handful of foam peanuts “separating” the two boxes. Of course the unit was trashed in shipping.

Pack your item like you are shipping it to yourself. Put it in bubble wrap. Choose a sturdy shipping box that provides enough room around your item so that you can fill the space with foam peanuts.  Tape the box well and, if the buyer should open a particular side of the box, mark that info on that side using a black marker.

State Your Handling Time and Ship Properly

eBay says you have 30 days to ship. I list in my auctions that I will ship within three days of receiving payment and I keep my word. Ship your customer’s stuff promptly to keep them happy.

Establish Accounts With Your Carriers of Choice

I set up accounts with both UPS and the Postal Service. Because of this, I get preferred rates from UPS and by purchasing and printing the labels at home I no longer stand in line to ship things. When I have personal items to ship I can also purchase labels on-line to save time.


Hopefully you’ll find some of these tips helpful in your own eBay dealings. My next eBay article will recount some of my purchasing experiences, both good and bad.

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Now Back to Our Regularly-Scheduled Program


A makeshift memorial for the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary. AP Photo

It’s happened yet again. Another nutcase decided to go straight to hell in a blaze of gunfire, taking as many with him as he could. This time it was twenty six- and seven-year-olds and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the gunman’s mother, and the gunman himself.

And it’s not December 21st yet.

Of course this is a tragedy. It was a senseless loss of life and a rude introduction to the world-at-large for the children who survived. If you aren’t touched by this turn of events you have a cold, hard heart. If you aren’t praying for the families who lost a loved one in this mess or in any of the other shootings this year, well…may God have mercy on you when you need help and comfort.

It was big news on December 14th. Every TV news outlet had wall-to-wall coverage of the event. It was all over the news the next day as well, and tonight it was still the big story two days afterward. If you wanted news on anything else in the U.S. or the rest of the world, sorry, you were out of luck. According to the news propaganda machine it is all you’re supposed to be thinking about. Oh, please.

News is something that’s both current and noteworthy. Something you need to inform you about the greater world around you. Getting information to the public as it’s released about the pertinent facts of a situation is news. News is not showing the same footage over and over while talking vacuously about unconfirmed rumors when a situation is going down. News is not shoving a microphone into the face of someone whose world has just been torn apart and asking them “How do you feel?” And news is definitely not interviewing first- and second-graders to find out what they were doing when madness was roaming the halls of their supposed sanctuary from the daily world. Most of them can barely describe what they had for breakfast in a cogent narrative without dissolving into a string of “ums” and “ahs.” In this case it was news two days ago, and in the newspaper business of old it would be lining a birdcage today.

Yet if you were to complain to the news organizations about this type of coverage you’d get this answer: “We’re simply providing the coverage that people want at a crucial time.” (I know this because I’ve complained a few times about situations like this one.) We pretend we’re civilized and refined; that we’re above gawking at accident scenes yet we always slow the car down and try to see a flash of red or a limb sticking through a broken windshield. We don’t want to experience such a horrible loss ourselves so we hang onto every word of the witnesses and survivors to know what it “feels” like. Ultimately it boils down to dollars and cents to the broadcasters—every set of eyeballs watching their coverage means more possible revenue for their advertisers.

What the people of Newtown Connecticut need more than anything else is to be left alone. They would certainly welcome support from outside their community in the proper time, but that time isn’t now. The news organizations need to get out of town and respect their privacy. It’s time for grief and healing—and let’s not be the morbidly curious world that keeps it from happening.

UPDATE: 12-20-2012

Brian Williams made a comment last night before launching into NBC Nightly News’s Sandy Hook coverage. He said that NBC had “reduced their presence” in Newtown because the residents told them they wanted privacy now. Hallelujah! I’m happy that at least one news organization gets it and will do as they are asked. Sort of. Thanks, NBC!

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How to Write a Prize-Winning Poem

…and then lose the contest.

My poem about an oak tree.

Text and photo ©2012 Phil Combs. All rights reserved.

I’ve been a writer for most of my life. I started writing fiction when I was a kid in grade school and continued right through college. I ended up with a B.A. in English and was one of the first in the English program to get a Certificate of Professional Writing. I went into tech writing for ten years before moving into computers and technical support where I now labor. I’ve published a few tech articles in the now-defunct Amazing Computing for the Commodore Amiga as well as the maker periodical Nuts & Volts. My love of writing (and my missing the work in my field of accreditation) eventually led to the blog you’re reading today.

Part of the reason I’ve been distracted from writing over the years is my love of all things technical. All that tinkering takes time away from the keyboard. So imagine my excitement when I got word of an opportunity to indulge in two of my favorite activities—and one would make it directly possible to benefit from the other!

InfoComm is an enormous audiovisual trade show that’s held annually in the U.S., and alternately in two locations. This year its back in my favorite “OMG did you see that?” town: Las Vegas. I was going in 2010 and my employer was footing the bill, but the discovery of my clogged LAD artery had me in the operating room the day I was scheduled to leave on the trip. Last year my employer told me that my “job responsibilities have changed” and so they couldn’t justify sending me. (I am still heavily involved with technology; go figure.)  Now they simply claim abject poverty so any out of state business travel is off the table. I found out that there would be a drawing this year from the pool of early InfoComm registrants for an all-expense-paid trip to the show (less food and gratuities), so I pre-registered at no cost anyway. The deadline came and went and I lost that one so I put my InfoComm hopes away.

Then I received an email from the show announcing a poetry contest. The prize would be the same—an all-expense-paid trip to the show. This wasn’t simply a game of chance but a competition of skill. And, it was something I knew and had a genuine shot at winning! I rubbed my hands together, dug out my sharpest quill (used only for the most personal of my work) as well as a stack of parchment and prepared my contest entry.  The steps I followed here should be used for any competitive work where there is some creativity involved. College prepared me for some of this and the rest I learned along the way.

1)      Examine the contest rules carefully.  In this case I was tasked to write an “acrostic” poem. In this form the first letter of every line will spell a word. The three choices of words were “InfoComm,” “Las Vegas” and “audiovisual.” The given example seemed thrown together and didn’t have lot of meat to it (as an example should be), so I followed some links and learned far more about acrostics than I ever wanted to know. I also noted the submittal deadline and that there was a “one entry per person” limitation. On the official entry form they provided a checkbox for my agreement to “all of the Contest Official Terms and Conditions as outlined on and other related links.” Going to the main link uncovered no such rules or related links, so I made some safe assumptions from other contests I’ve entered.

  • My contest entry becomes the property of InfoComm International. This means the contest promoter can use the entry in any way they wish without further compensation to me. This is pretty standard stuff.
  • The contest promoter isn’t responsible for late, lost, illegible, stolen, or misdirected entries.

The main thing to remember is that, in most states, contests are strictly regulated to ensure fairness. Failure by an organization to thoroughly ensure that the contest is properly and fairly conducted can open them up to all manner of legal problems. You can be reasonably assured that, unless the sponsor’s management are complete morons, they’ve covered themselves and your entry will be fairly handled.

2)      Research your subject.  A visit to the show’s website revealed the show’s theme this year (“Communications Intensified”) as well as the various dimensions of the event. InfoComm prides itself on training and certification opportunities for its membership and attendees, as well as the ability to network with others in the field. It offers tours of local facilities to showcase the latest technology as well as how particular problems are solved. Its show floor is unparalleled, with hundreds of exhibitors as well as dedicated pavilions for specific areas such as audio and digital signage. They offer information for attendees for local sights and give suggestions for off-hours activities and networking. I noted these points and resolved to hit as many as I could with my work. In order to provide as much room as possible for the promotional “meat,” I chose the word ‘audiovisual’ to frame my work.

3)      Tailor your work to suit the subject / organization. This should be a no-brainer.  If the sponsor sells shoes, your work should focus on shoes; you wouldn’t extoll the virtues of going barefoot if New Balance  is holding the contest. The contest information said the work would be highlighted on the show blog as well as in the promotional materials, so I kept that in mind. That way the work can get the maximum usage by the contest giver (and exposure for you and your labor).

4)      Add some flourish and style to make it your own. Only one out of three word choices were necessary to frame the poem. I used one for the acrostic component and mentioned the other two within the poem itself. Mentioning the show’s theme within the poem also seemed to be a “can’t miss.”

5)      Follow the submission guidelines to ensure your entry is accepted. I submitted mine in an email to the provided address on Friday afternoon; the deadline was the following Monday at 5 p.m. EST. I received an immediate “out of office” robo-response so that told me my entry was received.

Given the above points I crafted what I considered to be a noble effort that met the intent and stated rules of the contest. I offer my contest submission for your consideration:

All that you need, everything you seek
Unified in one place in the space of a week.
Dazzling new tech, ideas and connections
Inspire Communications Intensified in brand-new directions.
Organized tours showcase real-world solutions
Vendors display products for your institutions.
Intensive training, seminars, and courses provides
So much for an upgrade to your bona fides.
Unique opportunities await—so won’t you go
And get an advantage over others you know?
Las Vegas is the place and INFOCOMM’s the show.

It’s obviously not fine literature but it hits the high points and, I think, makes a damn fine promotional piece for the event. It can also be reused for multiple shows by changing the third and fourth lines (for the show theme) and the destination city in the last line. I worried a lot because I’m not the world’s best poet but soon realized that I didn’t have to be. I just needed to be the best poet of all the contest participants.

It’s difficult to create anything, even something like this that many would consider as a ‘throwaway’, without some pride and the confidence that it will be a winner. I waited well over a week for the contest results and tried not to pre-plan how I’d spend my off-time (but I had ideas!). The day of the contest announcement found me on pins and needles. Time dragged by with no email announcement and no posting on the show blog. Finally in late morning there was a blog posting, and guess what?

I didn’t win. But after reading the winning submission I was nonplussed. I won’t reprint the winning poem as it is someone else’s work but you can read it here. The anointed work used romantic, picturesque language and entreated the muse Calliope for her favor to win–with passing mentions of the show’s various aspects. In percentages, nearly 50% of the winning poem had little to do with InfoComm. With that being said I won’t cast aspersions on the winner’s work–the poem itself is nicely crafted and is certainly a fine example of the art. By my understanding of this contest’s intent, however, it just doesn’t have the characteristics of what a winning entry should have been.

There isn’t a way to tackle this subject without it sounding like sour grapes. I’ll admit there are indeed sour grapes on my part, but I’ll use the definition given by the late comedian George Carlin from his book Brain Droppings. Mr. Carlin said the term meant the “rationalization of failure to attain a desired end. … It doesn’t deal with jealousy or sore losing.” In that spirit I will take some educated guesses as to why my entry bombed out by adding the following corollaries and conclusion to my points above.

1a)  Ensure the contest rules are explicitly spelled out.  In this case the given contest rules were sparse. Expanded rules were either not available (or easily discoverable) on the event’s website as promised on the entry form. Ideally these rules would have defined a number of things, including…

  •  The number of people judging the entries and their qualifications. In the photo contests sponsored by manufacturers that are advertised in publications like Popular Photography there are panels of judges from different aspects of the industry. Some of them are usually other photographers, some are publishers, and some are manufacturer’s reps. This insures a wider gamut of eyes looking at the entries and minimizes bias. This is crucial in efforts where creative works are judged since personal tastes are subjective.
  • The criteria under which the work will be judged. In this case the form was spelled out (acrostic poem) and there was an implied requirement that the poem should somehow relate to the show. There was a statement that “the more creative the better” but beyond that everything was open to interpretation.
  • A methodology for revealing the total number of entries in the pool. Game-of-chance contests base chances of winning on the number of entries received, but since it was skill-driven a method of disclosing the number of entries should have been defined. To be fair to all the participants, you need to tell them how much competition they faced.

2a)  Know something about the qualifications of those on the judging panel. This is as simple (in the photo contest example) as reading the bios of the judges. Someone who works with creative writing every day is looking for one thing; a director of corporate marketing should be looking for something completely different. Knowing this information in advance will help you properly tailor your work.

3a and 4a)  Don’t expect that your method of expressing information about the organization will be acceptable. It could be killer ad copy, a catchy jingle or a modern take on Paradise Lost, but if it doesn’t fit with the organization’s image and message you’re wasting your time. This organization deals with technology, problem-solving and trade education, so it seemed that a more fact-related approach was warranted. Who knew they were given to the Classics?

I gave considerable thought to this situation and sent an email to the Public Relations manager at InfoComm who handled the contest entries. I was polite but asked the following three questions:

a)      How big was the entry pool?
b)      How many people were on the judging panel?
c)      Of the total number on the judging panel, what was the male/female ratio?

(That last question could be considered sexist, but I’ve seen though my coursework that males and females generally look for different things in their poetry.) I realize this is a busy time for the organization since they’re prepping for the show, but as of the time of this posting my questions remain unanswered. Given the outcome of the contest and the points I’ve raised above I offer the following conclusions:

1: The contest was hastily slapped together and executed. This can be exemplified by the sparsely-given rules and the lack of expanded rules on their website and leads to the second conclusion, which is…

2: There was little to no interdepartmental communication within the organization about the contest. If there were comprehensive rules, the web team either didn’t receive them or they failed to link to them in an easily-accessible way. This could also mean that the legal department didn’t see or clear the contest, which could open them up to litigation if any of the other contestants took issue with the results. The apparent lack of communication also indicates that…

3:  There was no panel of judges, and if there was, there wasn’t a representative from Marketing. I can’t believe that anyone with a marketing mindset would vote for the winning entry. There simply wasn’t enough show-related promotional content in the chosen work. Most likely one person was the sole judge—someone with a soft spot for this type of poetry.

I don’t expect that my entry was the only one that was more on-point with the show’s intended message. This contest was inherently flawed by its design. The organization, if challenged, could simply claim its determination of the winner was fair without providing proof of their assertion and that would be the end of it. But conducting your business in that manner is detrimental to the goodwill and image of your organization. Who takes any entity at their word anymore with the debacles we’ve seen by Wall Street and our own government? Given what transpired here the only lesson to carry away is this one: You can go hunting and be loaded for bear but if you’re working blind you’ll never know whether you’ll hit your mark.

If I had a do-over I think I’d just buy some lottery tickets and try winning enough to pay for the trip. Either that or I’d spend most of my poem appealing to Euterpe and let sibling rivalry determine the contest’s outcome.

UPDATE 5/26/2012:  I received an email from Betsy Jaffe, Director of Public Relations for InfoComm International after my original posting. She directly addressed some of my concerns, and I will selectively quote from her email:

“It was a very popular contest, with more than 100 qualified entries.  The five-person judging panel had a difficult time choosing a clear winner because of the large number of excellent entries. The panel included representatives from the marketing and expositions department, and contained both male and female judges. Each poem was ranked on a scale of one through five. A sixth tie-breaking judge was identified in advance.

While I know that it must be terribly disappointing not to win this time, know that poetry is a subjective art and reasonable people can reach different conclusions.

It was our plan to run a “Best of the Rest” posts (sic) with some of our other favorite entries.  Since you seem angry, I am not sure if it is okay for us to feature your poem.  Kind regards, Betsy”

My response, also selectively quoted:

“I understand that the art of writing is subjective as I’d mentioned in my posting. It just didn’t seem to me that the chosen work hit the mark. Not having information about some of the contest particulars was frustrating. But since you’ve provided that information it helps me to feel that the contest was, indeed, more balanced than I’d believed. I wanted to express my confusion over the results, not anger for failing to win.”  I also gave my permission to run my contest entry if they chose to do so.

I stand corrected in my conclusions, but the tips I gave above are still valid. Any writer entering a contest should carefully prepare and gather as much information as possible before expending their creative effort.

And given that there were five members on this judging panel, I still think I should’ve entreated Euterpe.

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The ‘Occupy’ Movement: Rebels Without a Clue?

Mildred: “Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?”

This protestor must be a computer geek.

Protest Sign for the Modern Computer Geek. From

Johnny: “Whadda you got?”

-Exchange between two characters from the movie The Wild One, 1953, with Marlon Brando

I’m classified as a late-stage baby boomer, having been born in the late 1950’s. During the decisive and divisive decade of the 1960’s I was a snot-nosed school kid; the most important crisis of my life was when our TV died and it took weeks before Mom could afford to replace a bad tube. (No, not the tube you looked at—one of several tubes inside the box that generated heat and helped make the picture.) The country was embroiled in Vietnam. JFK, MLK and RFK were assassinated, and the civil rights movement was in full swing. Back then it was common for young people to stage protest marches, sit-ins, and acts of civil disobedience to make a point about something. The war, equal rights, poverty, injustice, or political misconduct—it didn’t matter. Everything seemed fair game and it was all done to a rocking soundtrack. The evening news was filled with stark images: soldiers on the front lines; water cannons deployed against civil rights marchers, and students shot by National Guardsmen at Bowling Green University in Ohio. As a kid I soaked it all in but much of it didn’t make sense. The only thing that solidly connected was the certainty that I would be drafted by my Government to fight for them when I turned 18. I didn’t want to die so I prayed every night for the abolishment of the draft, protection for our soldiers, and an end to war. It’s a shame that any kid who hasn’t reached the age of 12 had to pray every night about death and dying but it’s what I did.

Years passed, Vietnam ended, and the draft was abolished for a window of time. America sailed through the disco years and into the prosperity and growth of the eighties. Everything was okey-dokey, at least on the surface. There were societal issues that needed to be dealt with but we were caught up in a capitalistic furor. Go to college, get a great job, make lots of money to buy stuff, and grab a piece of the American dream. I remember reading a magazine article back then by someone decrying the flaccidness of our youth’s resolve to change the world. “No one has a cause to fight for anymore. All they care about is money.” The piece was probably written by an ex-hippie protestnik remembering the golden age of social activism. I remember thinking that, perhaps, that time had passed and the role of the mass protest had become unnecessary. In actuality capitalism and the acquisition of worldly goods lulled us to sleep. Meanwhile a lot of Very Bad Things were going on behind the scenes, and crimes against the citizens of this country went unchecked. Our political process, which was never very clean or honorable, had long ago yielded itself to corruption.

Suddenly we found ourselves in the new millennium and realized that things had gone to Hell. America was attacked in grand Hollywood style on September 11, 2001. We found ourselves involved in multiple wars and losing our individual rights and freedoms on a daily basis in the name of security. Rich corporations received massive tax relief for years in order to “build the job market,” and did just that—for foreign countries. They’d started shipping American jobs overseas to save themselves money in the nineties, but really ramped up their efforts during the past decade.  Many local economies were devastated as towns whose residents supported the steel mill, auto plant, or multinational shipping conglomerate saw those businesses close with no jobs to replace those that were lost. Then we discovered that the financial institutions—the ones the government had failed to properly oversee—had perpetrated several types of shell games using our money and our economy nearly went under, wiping out many families’ finances and future retirement plans.

The citizens of our fine country suddenly found themselves totally screwed by those who were supposed to represent and protect them, and helpless when they tried to express their anger. Politicians didn’t seem to listen or care about anything except their own jobs and keeping the ‘other party’ at a disadvantage. Some bright people decided they’d had enough and marched on Wall Street to denounce corporate greed, the lack of jobs, homelessness…in fact, everything that had been repressed for years came rushing out in a torrent.  That movement became “Occupy Wall Street” and gained strength over a few weeks to encompass protests across the country.  Despite the best intentions of these people to have peaceful demonstrations, local police ratcheted up the tension by employing tear gas and pepper spray, then used force to shed blood and hauled hundreds of them away to jail. The protester’s resolve was unbroken. When told they couldn’t use electronic amplification, they created ‘human P.A. systems’ by having crowds loudly repeat what a speaker said for the benefit of all. They set up mobile food kitchens, portable Internet hotspots, bathroom facilities, and extensively used social networks to organize the faithful. There’s no doubt that they’re determined and dedicated to their goal of making the voice of the people heard.

But many people are asking: “If everyone’s shouting different things, can they really make a difference?”  Part of the problem is that we’ve been silent for so long that a lot of things have turned sour. And, unfortunately, many of those things are inter-related. People can’t get needed assistance after natural disasters because funds were bled dry by numerous calamities this year, and the cost of ongoing warfare in multiple theaters of combat as well as a divided Congress hampers their replenishment.  The job market sucks because the economy nearly collapsed from the corruption of Wall Street insiders who weren’t properly overseen by the government due to its own corruption and incompetence.  Got that? How can you attack any one of those points without attacking the others? How can you fix jobs without fixing the economy, and how can you fix the economy if the government can’t be trusted to ensure that the companies manipulating the economy are honest? It’s a rabbit hole that Alice couldn’t tackle without major chemical assistance.

The other problem is that our fledgling young protesters don’t seem to know how to affect social changes of this magnitude, any more than the youth of the sixties did when they began their journey. Back then they had to flex their muscles, find their voice, and experiment to find the best way(s) to express their views. Today’s youth are no different. They’re like Neo who, after being freed from his pod in The Matrix asks Morpheus, “Why do my eyes hurt?”

His answer was simple: “You’ve never used them before.”

The Occupy movement is in the chrysalis stage—it’s well on its way to becoming a mature force to reckon with. For now it’s stretching, flexing, reaching out to test the capabilities and power within its grasp. The list of its demands seems way too broad and unfocused but they’re quickly learning to prioritize. The ways of the original sixties protestniks are well documented—both good and bad—and widely available through the web, and you can bet they’re soaking in everything they can learn.

As of this writing things have quieted. Occasional protests sporadically occur but as winter settles in the Occupiers appear to have lost their will to fight.  Appearances are deceiving. Kalle Lasn, who conceived Occupy Wall Street, was quoted in Rolling Stone’s January 5, 2012 issue as saying, “The first phase was wonderful, it was leaderless, it was demandless, it inspired millions of young people to get politically engaged. Now we’re moving into another phase. … But the really interesting stuff will start happening next spring.” For these tech- and internet-savvy protesters I’m sure it will be a busy winter as they research, plan, and organize for next year.

I’m happy that people are finally getting off their butts and making their voices heard. We’ve all witnessed the changes that began with the so-called “Arab spring” and I’m sure many are drawing inspiration from the Middle East events of the past year. However, the government has heard the voices of its citizens in the past year and, to be honest, I’m not sure they care. Congress seems fixated on fiddling while the country figuratively burns. Not even the Republican candidates for next year’s election seem to get it. Newt Gingrich’s statement during a recent debate was particularly telling:

“All the Occupy movement starts with the premise that we all owe them everything. They take over a public park they didn’t pay for. To go nearby to use bathrooms they didn’t pay for. To beg for food from places they don’t want to pay for.  To obstruct those who are going to work to pay the taxes to sustain the bathrooms and to sustain the park, so they can self-righteously explain that they are the paragons of virtue to which we owe everything. Now that is a pretty good symptom of how much the left has collapsed as a moral system in this country, and why you need to reassert something as simple as saying to them “Go get a job, right after you take a bath.””

Never mind that the Occupiers are meeting on public property for which they were paying their share with their tax money when they had jobs, or that the message wasn’t “You owe us jobs” but “You owe us accountability for your screw-ups and you’re obligated to responsibly manage our country and our assets.”  Gingrich’s response is similar in spirit to that of Chinese Emperor Hui of Jin, recounted in the Zizhi Tongjian. When the Emperor was told that his subjects didn’t have enough rice to eat he replied, “Why don’t they eat meat?”  The protests in the Middle East began peacefully but when the respective governments employed violence against their protesters, those protesters retaliated in kind.

The thing I fear most is the increase of violence on both sides in this country. Some may say, “This is the United States of America; that’ll never happen.” I don’t think there’s another way this can play out, especially when our Government simply refuses to get the point. If non-violence doesn’t work escalation is the logical result. Violence has become an integral part of the overseas protests, just as it did here in the sixties. People aren’t stupid and they realize that terrorist methods get an immediate response. One or two nutjobs operating completely outside the actual movement could kick the whole thing off while using the movement as a cover. Everything quickly escalates and gets ugly; bloodshed on our own soil becomes rampant; protestors and their sympathizers get branded as domestic terrorists. Then if President Obama signs the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 as he’s promised to do, the Government could “go Guantanamo” on anyone it brands as a domestic terrorist and can make them disappear without a trace.

The anger and frustration in the air seems physical, palpable; it’s as though you could grab a handful if you simply reached for it. Perhaps things will settle down over the winter, or maybe they’ll boil over as the buffoons in Washington continue playing their brinksmanship games.  All I know is this: 2012 will prove to be a most interesting year. I’m grabbing a good seat right now to enjoy the show—how about you?

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It’s Time for a New Apple

…because success doesn’t automatically equal being right.

I’ve been an Apple observer for as many years as I’ve been in IT support. I haven’t always purchased or used their products. In the early days my first computer was a TRS-80 Model I. I moved up to a Commodore 64, and then moved to a Commodore 128 before jumping to the IBM PC-clone platform. Apple was a ‘bit’ player in those early days (pun intended) but the Apple II and III didn’t appeal to me for some reason. For the longest time I mocked the fledgling IBM PC when I had my C-128 (“The 128 has everything built-in—it all costs extra on the PC!”) After a while I came around to the idea that this was actually a Good Thing, especially after leaving college and realizing the PC was the platform that businesses used. How times change!

Some History, and an Attitude Change

Apple always had the cachet of being different. The idea of a WIMP (windows, icons, mouse pointer) interface was a game changer, and Micro$oft realized it when they saw Apple’s implementation of Xerox PARC’s interface and copied it themselves. Over the years the Mac’s interface underwent constant tweaking and improvements, and despite Micro$oft’s best efforts to duplicate its usability their implementation still lacked the grace of Apple’s interface. As a PC wonk I often failed to see the good of MacOS. Things were just, well, too different. There was no command prompt in MacOS, no easy way to get past the OS if you needed to do something that the windowing interface wouldn’t allow. When I had to support a Mac user I dreaded it. Apple’s way was so difficult that, for me, what would take a few minutes to fix in DOS/Windows would often take several hours in MacOS.  My very negative experience with MacOS and a messaging server package at the local PBS station (detailed in an earlier posting) didn’t help my perceptions of the platform.

Then I started working at a local university. Several users in my department had desktop Macs; in addition some of our electronic classrooms had Macs alongside PCs with a switching arrangement for the two platforms. I gradually became used to them and, as I started imaging PCs and Macs (which were, by this time, on OS X) I grew to appreciate the ease with which Macs could be imaged and those images deployed to any number of identical machines. While Micro$oft insisted on tying its OS so tightly to the hardware that an image made on one PC wouldn’t work on another if it had a different video card, you could simply image the most powerful Mac in your fleet and use that image on lesser equipped machines. That is, as long as the CPUs for those machines were in the same class–an image for a G5 wouldn’t work on a G4. Windows has improved over the years, but it still requires some black magic to make things happen across platforms.  I ended up purchasing my first Mac, a G4 machine with such radical styling that some in the computer press called it the iTit, when they were surplused by the university. I ended up with three of these (hey, the price was right) with the intent of using them to display images in my home as Objets d’Art. Although I’d finally gone to the “dark side” my main home computers continued to be PCs.

iMac G4 with arm-mounted 17-inch display

The iMac G4, affectionately known as the "iTit."

Apple Forges New Territory

Meanwhile Apple branched out into consumer electronics and, in turn, set the music and telecom industries on their ears with the introductions of the iPod and iPhone. I never bought into either platform and only ended up with an iPod Mini because I won it. It’s still a neat device, but I hate the restrictiveness of iTunes, Apple’s digital rights management, and their limited codec support. When the time came to get a smartphone I went Android. Then in 2010 Apple introduced the iPad. I had wanted some type of tablet PC that would allow me to view PDFs since I discovered newsgroups and the large amount of free reading materials there. This device seemed to fit the bill, but I was still put off by iTunes. I waited until after the iPad 2 was released and still hoped for an Android tablet. Android’s developers and the device manufacturers couldn’t seem to get their acts together, and a viable iPad competitor wasn’t predicted to become available until 2012.

The Apple Advantage

I bit the bullet this past spring, drank Apple’s Kool-Aid and bought a closeout iPad 1 with 3G and 64GB of RAM. I’d read about the available apps and liked the idea of connecting USB peripherals through a backdoor method using the Camera Connection Kit. There were USB microphones and recording gear that could be harnessed to the iPad this way, making high-quality portable recording and editing an option that intrigued me. The ability to hook a wired keyboard into the iPad was the clincher.

Almost two years ago my department was dismantled by the university’s administration, and our varying areas of expertise were moved into other departments. The task of classroom technology support moved to the campus IT department. Their mantra of “We do IT faster, better, and cheaper” dictated slashing support costs a number of ways. One major change was to begin the elimination of dual PCs and Macs in classroom podiums by replacing them with dual-boot Mac Minis. When my department was responsible for classroom support we’d looked at doing the same thing but couldn’t come to a consensus. We rack-mounted our podium electronics for installation convenience and theft prevention. Small rack-mount server chassis PCs were used in the beginning and eventually changed to desktop PCs secured to rack shelves by inaccessible bolts. In the rooms with PCs and Macs we bolted the aluminum-cased boat-anchor Macs vertically to rack shelves and secured the cabling out of user’s reach. Those Macs were overkill for the classrooms but we needed user-accessible power switches. Apple’s decision to put the power switch on the Mini’s backside meant that we continued putting sub-$1000 PCs in the classrooms alongside Macs that cost twice as much. Dual-booting wasn’t a possibility until Apple changed to the Wintel architecture and even then the IT folks (to whose guidance we deferred as they set campus computing standards) said dual-booting was a kludge and extremely difficult to image. They worked out the problems over the course of a few years and, by the time they assumed classroom support, felt comfortable enough to convert the classrooms to a single dual-boot machine.

Securing Mac Minis in public environments was a challenge before several companies introduced different mounting options. The IT crew found several that allowed rack mounting but those were deemed too expensive. They settled on a design that allowed secure mounting of the Minis to tabletops. This past summer the IT department replaced 38 of the 120-odd classroom in-podium PC/Macs with podium top-mounted dual-boot Mac Minis. This seemed to be a good move that would eventually bring Mac capabilities to all campus classrooms while saving money.

The IT folks also maintain a pool of short-term checkout laptops. After using PC laptops for years they began replacing them with dual-boot MacBooks. My department replaced its PC-only laptops with dual-boot Macbooks three years ago, which allow us to teach workshops involving either PC- or Mac-based software.  Apple came out the winner with our institution in a number of ways once the OS-specific wall was destroyed. I even considered replacing my desktop PC with a dual-boot Mac when the time came to upgrade.

Customer Needs vs. Jobs’s Vision of the Future

Apple performed an upgrade to iOS last spring that rendered most iPad Camera Connection Kit-attachable USB peripherals useless except for solid-state memory devices. Now when plugging in most USB devices the user is presented with a dialog box that reads “This device draws too much power” even with peripherals that worked before the ‘upgrade.’ Online forums lit up with user complaints, and people who’d purchased the connection kits were returning them to Apple as broken, getting surprised looks from the geniuses at the Apple Stores. It turns out that you can still use those peripherals, but only if you connect them using powered USB hubs. The iPad is all about portability–what’s portable about having to connect extra stuff through another box that requires AC power? There’s only one company that I knew of who made a battery-powered USB hub but it’s long discontinued. Some forum posts I’ve read claim that you can hook up devices through hubs without using AC power if the hub identifies itself to the iPad as a powered USB device. This would apply to those hubs that have an optional AC power port but aren’t always sold with the adapter. I’ve gone through a half-dozen models of these during testing and have yet to find one that eliminates the need for an external power supply. Even if a user finds a hub that will work, they’ll have a nasty-looking kludge with an extra box to juggle.

After our IT crew committed themselves to the Mac Mini conversion Apple revamped their product line and eliminated the Mini’s optical drive. Further purchases for classroom conversions will now have to include some flavor of external CD/DVD drive along with some way to secure the thing to the podium tops. Even when those drives are secured they will have highly-fragile trays, unlike the slot-loading drives in the Mac Minis. This means that equipment maintenance costs just went up as well. “But,” I hear some of you saying, “What about the cloud? Users don’t need optical drives anymore! They’re so last-century! Besides, hasn’t everyone changed to USB drives by now?” Not in the educational environment.  Instructors still get presentation materials through textbook publishers who often use DVD-ROMs as the distribution media. Instructors also want to play DVDs and music CDs in their classrooms.

Apple also decided to eliminate the MacBook from the consumer product line, and though institutional education customers can still buy them, they eliminated user-replaceable batteries. When checking out laptops to various borrowers throughout the day, you have to be able to put freshly-charged batteries in them. Removing a high-demand circulating item just because it needs charged cuts down on resource availability and is a deal-killing issue. As a result the IT department has decided to run the current MacBooks until they die, at which time they’ll go back to PCs. As for those classroom machines, well…the jury’s still out, but it doesn’t look likely that they’ll go back to installing Mac towers. Perhaps we’ll finally become a PC-only campus except for special-purpose labs.

Apple’s never been afraid to orphan their users in their march toward the future. In the early Mac days new models came out every six months, so whenever you bought your Mac you could be sure that it would soon be outdated. When the changeover to OS X occurred they supported OS 9 applications for a little while but soon stopped. A few years after the introduction of Intel-based Macs Apple dropped their PowerPC support. Many of those PowerPC-based CPUs would still be powerful enough to be used today if development for that branch of the OS hadn’t halted. By contrast, take any old PC-compatible software and try to run it on today’s hardware. Unless that software was timing-dependent (tied to the CPU speed for proper operation) or depended on hardware features that are no longer available it will still run. Apple would argue that’s been IBM / Intel / Microsoft’s problem—platform advancement is held hostage by user’s demands to support “legacy” systems and software. Perhaps that’s true; however, except for a few features like FireWire what innovations made Apple’s computers so “revolutionary” that they simply blew the PC away? Even those Apple-exclusive features eventually migrated to the PC, and Apple has remained a minority player in the computer field. Marching forward isn’t a bad thing, but ignoring your customer’s needs and wants certainly is. Apple’s traditionally sucked at listening to customers and accepting criticism.  Ask anyone who’s had their Apple support forum posts deleted because their opinions or complaints were deemed, in some way or other, as ‘offensive’ to the company. The only way they listened was when a lawsuit was filed, as in the case of defective LCD screens a few years ago. They’ve never depended on focus groups as Steve Jobs trusted his instincts.

Where Apple made revolutionary changes to the consumer electronics industry and people’s lifestyles has been in consumer media. The iPod changed the portable music player market and iTunes revolutionized how people buy their entertainment. The iPad has been a runaway success, so much so that the competition is still trying to play catch-up. Electronic gadget consumers expect rapid innovation and obsolescence so Apple’s orphaning tactics might not irritate those customers as much as the users of its computers. However, there’s one thing they absolutely mustn’t do, something I’ve learned through years of supporting faculty members. I call it Combs’s Maxim: A company must not remove functionality from an already-released product, even when that functionality isn’t expressly noted, marketed or endorsed. The USB connectivity issue I mentioned with the iPad is a great example of this—Apple not only left users high-and-dry with no good reason or explanation for their actions, but also violated the trust of the companies that market add-on products for the iPad. Sure, those companies should’ve used the official iPad docking port for connectivity but that limits sales of their hardware only to iDevice users. A USB peripheral can also be sold to work on other platforms.  Sony pulled the same trick with its Playstation 3 when they removed the ability to run Linux on the box, a move which angered users and spawned a class-action lawsuit.

It’s Time for a New Apple

Apple was recently announced as the world’s largest company, beating out Exxon Mobil. Their sales figures are phenomenal, and their liquidity is formidable. They can do anything they want and buy about any other company they want. If they want to continue pushing the envelope and forming the future of media more power to them–someone has to be the innovator. But pissing off your present customers will ensure they’ll no longer be your future customers—and you’ll be left alone in the future you tried to create.

I used to say that Sony made products that were 90% perfect in the market niche where 80% of consumers lived. I bought their stereo and home theater gear exclusively because they would work together with a single remote control. The products were of good quality and sounded good, but other manufacturers had similar products with more and newer features (number of inputs, audio processing modes, et cetera) at the same price point. Getting those features on a Sony added several hundred dollars to their cost. I finally abandoned them when I bought my Onkyo pre/pro and haven’t looked back.

I started writing this piece several weeks before the passing of Steve Jobs on October 5th. I believe that many of the nits I’ve picked have belonged exclusively to Mr. Jobs and his instincts. Under his guidance Apple seemed more Sony-like to me—they made great products that were hamstrung in some frustrating ways. I’d written the following point more crudely in earlier drafts but it still bears expression: With Steve Jobs gone, it’s high time that Apple goes the extra 10% and shakes off their self-imposed limitations. They must listen to their customers, especially in the markets like education where they’ve traditionally dominated. In this economy customers cannot, and will not, invest in short-lived products with unrealistic limitations on their capabilities. Smart consumers invest their money in technologies with upgrade paths and long lives, and anyone spending money without those points in mind is either a fool or won’t stay financially liquid for long.

I want Apple to be around for a long time, but in a post-Jobs future they must change and improve to ensure their longevity. Let’s all hope they recognize the need for it, and have the courage to do so.

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