Category Archives: IMHO

My humble opinions…

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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Casey. Caylee. Caseycayleecaseycayleecaseycaylee. Enough already!

By now nearly everyone who hasn’t been living in the far-flung hills of Appalachia has heard of Casey Anthony and her deceased 2-year-old daughter Caylee. Just in case you’re one of those hill-folk here’s a rundown: In 2007 the girl turned up missing. Casey didn’t report the child as missing for a month. Caylee’s remains were found a while later after intensive searches by volunteers.  Lots of forensic evidence was examined, including ‘material’ from her daughter and a horrible smell in the trunk of Casey’s car. Casey spent several years in jail awaiting trial, and when she finally went to trial a media circus formed. The trial was hyped to high heaven. CNN’s “bitchin’ babes” Nancy Grace and Jane Velez Mitchell  yammered constantly about the case for several years. When the trial began they went into a rabid-dog frenzy over every detail. You couldn’t turn to the network without seeing some Casey/Caylee bulletin or announcement of ‘new information.’  CNN truly earned the nickname ‘Chicken Noodle News.’ You know–all nutrition-less filler and little real meat, just like the product of a certain well-known old-line American soup maker whose name begins with a “C.”

The trial finally concluded with verdicts of “not guilty” for each of the three counts; the only things that could be pinned to Casey were four counts of lying to the police. She was sentenced to four years, one year on each count, from which her time served was subtracted as well as the traditional “time off for good behavior.” The net result was that Casey was released a little over a week later.

Two weekends ago she was released. The press camped out at the jail to cover every exciting detail of her ex-perp walk. The end result was a quick trip by Casey from the jail to a waiting SUV, wearing a serious face until she got into the vehicle. A reporter got a picture of her as she entered wearing a smile of relief; afterward she was driven off. A news chopper tried unsuccessfully to follow her but was given the slip in the darkness. The release of her smiling image set the dogs off again, with all manner of regular folk and the media commenting nastily on why she was smiling and how sick they all felt at her seeming happiness.

An all-American girl...see? She's even wrapped in a flag.

Casey shows her patriotism before her world caved in.

You’d think it was all over, and could be forgiven for thinking so if you were a rational person. The news channels kept replaying the same thirty-seconds of Casey leaving the jail ad nauseaum the following day, with CNN’s reporters staying on-scene for hours after the non-event all the while discussing…what? The same few facts, conjecture, et cetera. As of today literally EVERYBODY is playing Where’s Waldo? and trying to find out where Casey went to.

My message to all the news outlets: STFU and move on!

Having said that, let me state the obvious: I think Caylee’s story was a tragedy. However, the public was not made privy to the details of the case; twelve jurors were. It was their job to decide whether or not the woman was guilty of murder beyond a reasonable doubt. Heard that before? It’s one of the basic tenets of our judicial system in this country. Given the evidence that was presented to them, they concluded that there wasn’t enough tangible evidence to lock her away or take her life. Despite her trial by media in which the woman was summarily condemned, the courts found her not guilty of the charges.

It’s all over now. Justice may not have been served by the legal system (at least according to all the armchair lawyers) but that’s how it goes in this country. Her life from this point forward, if you could call it that, will not be easy. She’ll be constantly recognized wherever she goes, and will not live a peaceful existence as if nothing ever happened. She’ll probably be spit upon, personally attacked, harassed and worse.  She’ll be lucky if some nutjob with a retribution complex doesn’t kill her in the first year of her freedom. She’ll be practically unemployable, at least in any capacity where she deals with the public.  She alienated her family (and probably most of her friends) so she’ll lead an isolated existence. Most, if not all, of these points could still be applied to her if she’d been given life in prison; the future she now faces in many ways is more unbearable than prison.

Let’s let this woman and the particulars of her case fade into the past and move on, shall we? The best we can hope for, if she was truly guilty, is a fate similar to OJ Simpson’s. Karma’s a bitch, and maybe she’ll end up in prison for something completely unrelated. Like it or not that may be the best that society’s collective rage can hope for.


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