Warranty Madness

I got a deep fryer for Festivus and just hooked it up on Sunday, upon which it immediately made a loud “pop!” noise and blew the breaker it was on.  After much troubleshooting, I determined that the electronics module had sacrificed itself in the name of some unknown cause.  This particular model is modular, and the electronics module is a small part of the overall unit.  I called the manufacturer, T-Fal, to return the defective bit under warranty, and I was told that the warranty “only covers the entire unit, not individual components.”  I asked if the rep realized the absurdity of that, since warranties are usually restrictive in the opposite direction.  I was told, though, that if I wanted to replace just the failed component, I could always just buy one.  Nice!

The reason I was given for the whole “all or nothing” stance is that they’d be doing what amounts to integration testing on the whole unit before sending it back, and if they couldn’t fix the problem, they’d send me a new unit.  Thanks, but I think the mechanical components are fine, based on my previous assembly, and all I need is a replacement electronics module.  My end result will be the same: a working unit.  The bottom line is that I just don’t want to pay more than I have to for shipping to get it.

I’ve been on the other end of this warranty issue, too, and I use the same philosophy.  On rare occasions when there have been component failures with computer systems that I sell, I’ve always complied with customer requests to just send back individual components.  If I know full well that one stick of RAM is bad, why in the world should I make the customer send a 35-pound computer back just so I can swap it for them?  It’s only when the problems couldn’t be remotely diagnosed or addressed that I’ve needed the entire system back.

A supervisor is supposed to call me back in 1-2 days to either try to convince me why I should pay extra for shipping, or to listen to what I want and make it happen.  In the meantime, let’s all think about what’d happen if your aftermarket car stereo’s warranty required that you send them your entire car so that they could do proper integration testing on a replacement unit, or if your rechargeable battery warranty required you to send them any and all devices you used with the batteries so they could test the replacement batteries.

Buying Online: Convenience vs. Security

I run an online store, and one of the features we offer is shipping to an address that isn’t the customer’s billing address. I did this for a couple of years without verifying that the shipping address was connected to the card holder, until some limo driver in Ohio defrauded us and other online stores by ordering items as one of his previous customers. He knew the real billing address because he picked the victim up at his house, and he used his own home address as the shipping address. Unfortunately, not all fraudsters are as dumb as this man, or the problem might weed itself out genetically.

Nowadays, we call the credit card company to verify that the customer’s shipping address is registered as an alternate shipping address with their account. This ensures that the actual card holder(*) has provided the address, rather than just someone who knows the card number and the real customer’s billing address. Ironically, even though I always offer to provide all the information and only ask for a yes or no response on the validity of the shipping address, some credit card companies won’t even talk to me because I’m not the cardholder, citing “security reasons.” It’s for “security reasons” that I’m doing this in the first place. Thankfully, these short-sighted policies are rare.

I know of no way to automate this, and it’s not clear that it’s even possible without each credit card licensee wanting to provide this service and agreeing on a common API(**). This means that the process is not convenient for the store, and it’s not convenient for customers who have no alternate shipping address on file and are asked to add one. Most large online stores don’t go through the pains of manually doing this verification, preferring to combat fraud through some combination of automated heuristics that don’t work all the time, random manual auditing, and after-the-fact actions like litigation. This means that all someone needs is your address and your card information, and they can probably order whatever they want and have it shipped wherever they want. It gets worse when the fraudster lives near you, since it’d pass any distance-based heuristics for guessing whether or not a shipping location is ok.

Think about who could have your address and your card information: cab companies, limousine companies, Lowe’s/Home Depot delivery, moving companies, or a cashier at a restaurant who copied your card information and looked up your address. “But Bob,” you say. “This is FUD! If it’s so easy to get this information, why hasn’t everyone become the victim of credit card fraud?” First of all, lots of people do fall victim to it. Credit card fraud is big business on all sides of the issue. Having said that, there’s a relatively small percentage of people who have access to your full credit card information, since it’s in the best interests of the business owners to make sure they minimize the number of eyes that can see it. I suppose it’s also fairly easy to catch most people who commit credit card fraud, especially when they can’t resist ordering lots of items and helping investigators to narrow down the search, so perhaps the failures of individuals sustain the notion amongst most would-be fraudsters that it’s too much risk for too little gain. It may also be the case that everyone has had someone try to commit fraud using their credit card, but some combination of store action and credit card company heuristics caught it before it happened.

Whether or not you choose to worry about this is up to you, but if you want to help stores out that do take the extra steps to make sure items bought with your card can only be sent to addresses that are associated with you, it’s easy to add an alternate shipping address to your credit card account. Just call up customer service, tell them you’d like to list an alternate shipping address, and they’ll know what to do because it’s far more common than you might have known. Then when people like me go through the manual process of calling up to make sure it’s your alternate shipping address and not some random place where a fraudster decided to hang out and wait, your order will go through without further intervention on your part.

(*) or at least someone who has access to so much sensitive information that they seem to be the actual cardholder

(**) This is one of the rare times when I think government regulation would help.

Acronyms FTW

I learned recently that the acronym FTW usually means “For The Win” and not “Fucks The World” as I had thought. Strangely, the alternate version is very similar in context, but I now know why utterances like “Ubuntu FTW” didn’t quite seem to fit the character of a typical Ubuntu supporter.

Wind Turbine Research

We occasionally get very strong winds, but it’s often dead calm. I was toying with the idea of getting a good wind speed gauge to get some idea how much electricity I’d get out of various wind turbines, but then I came across the Beaufort Scales which offer a decent heuristic for wind speed and cost nothing. It’s by no means as accurate as a wind gauge, but it’s close enough to get some idea of whether or not a wind turbine would be feasible.

Today, we have 25mph-32mph winds, by my rough estimation. If I got a low-end $538 turbine (and the cost doesn’t include shipping or installation) it seems that I’d get between 250W and 500W(*) right now. At 9.5c/kWhr in my area, $538 would buy 5,663kWhrs (5,663,000 Whrs) of electricity. Doing the math, it’d take the turbine between 1.29 and 2.58 years to produce that amount of electricity if the wind were always as strong as it were today. That isn’t really feasible, given that wind speed here is usually low. I guess I’ll just have to wait for nanosolar to sell to the general public.

(*) The specs say it can do 400W max, but the chart indicates 500W max. It’s not clear which to believe.

rsync for Windows: Quick and Easy

If you have used UNIX/Linux/BSD for very long, then you know about rsync, which allows you to do incremental copies or backups between network-attached UNIX/Linux/BSD systems. Such a free facility is sorely lacking on Microsoft(R) Windows(tm), an expensive proprietary Operating System made by a convicted monopolist, Microsoft(R).

If you have an unencrypted filesystem on Windows(tm), and you need an easy way to do incremental backups of all your data, I recommend booting the Windows(tm) box with a KNOPPIX live CD, which will boot Linux on your Windows(tm) box without actually installing it. From there, you can access all your Windows(tm) data and rsync to another UNIX/Linux/BSD box, and, until you boot back into Windows(tm), you won’t need to use an OS made by a convict.

Time Table for Withdrawal

Conservatives have said that announcing a timetable for leaving Iraq will give the insurgents confidence and enable them to rally and kill more US soldiers than ever before.  Mind you, my only exposure to battle strategy is from reading The Art of War and playing the StarCraft and WarCraft RTS games, but this seems to be in direct opposition to what I would expect.  If I were in control of an insurgency, fighting to get back control of my country, and my enemy told me when they’d be leaving, I would go into hiding and stop fighting entirely; my goal could be accomplished simply by waiting.  After that, If I still wanted power, I’d still have the resources I did before.  (I’m assuming that attrition due to death would roughly equal attrition due to people leaving the group, and that recruiting still takes place.)

Am I missing something, or are the conservatives mixing politics with strategy?

Making Code Commenting Enjoyable

I have threatened on a couple of occasions to write code comments in character. This would be fun to write and to read. Some examples:

as Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb from The Silence of the Lambs:

“It implements the SQL query or else it gets the hose again. Yes, it will, Precious, won’t it? It will get the hose!”

as Neo from The Matrix:

“Whoa. Déjà vu. ” (inner loop comment)

as Ash from Army of Darkness:

“Ok you Primitive Screwheads, listen up! You see this? This… is my shell script!”

On Heroism

I have never encountered or heard of a culture that did not praise heroism. I have also never encountered a culture that did not tell heroic (and possibly exaggerated) tales of people long dead, or even people who never existed, as people need heroism in their lives more often than it occurs naturally. Humans seem to have an inherent need for heroes, whether it’s to inspire us, humble us, or make us feel that a hero might save us if we’re in trouble.

A recent example is the British Airways Boeing 777 crash landing with 100% survival rate. The cabin crew has been rightfully celebrated for their heroism, as usually happens in these cases. It’s always in our best interests to do what we can to prevent a problem like this from recurring, but the unfortunate side-effect of this is that it limits the opportunities for heroism. This is better for survival, but what effect does it have on our clear need to celebrate heroes? What would happen if humans no longer needed to be heroic because the need for it had long ago been eliminated? Would we turn more to stories of heroes, or would relatively minor acts of skill and bravery take the place of what we celebrate as heroism today? Even today, people who do nothing more than win at a game are celebrated as heroes, so perhaps this process has already begun.

Which is the better story?  1) The family dog started barking and woke up the adults of the family, who then realized that their garage had caught fire and was spreading to the rest of the house.  They were able to grab the kids and call 911 from outside.  The fire department gave the dog an honorary fire fighter medal.  2) The family smoke detectors went off and woke up the entire family, who then realized that their garage had caught fire and was spreading to the rest of the house.  They were able to grab the kids and call 911 from outside.  3) The family fire suppressant system triggered and left voicemail that someone should figure out what caught fire in the garage.

Strangely, not all cultures take logical steps to look at heroic deeds as examples of causes they need to address. There are many examples, but I worked in an environment where heroism was culturally more important than the elimination of the problems that required heroic solutions. Working long hours was more valued than being efficient; making yourself available on call 24/7 was more valued than documenting what you knew; performing a slow manual process was more valued than automating it and letting it take care of itself. There were heroes everywhere in that company, and they were beloved. Any steps that would have eliminated their chances to be heroes were dismissed for various reasons.

If you asked someone if they wanted to eliminate heroism, they’d probably balk at the very notion, but if you asked someone if they wanted to eliminate emergencies, they’d probably embrace the idea. These reactions are at odds with each other. Still, it seems that heroism is important enough to us that it will probably stay with us in some form, even if it transforms itself in a way that would look trivial to most of us today.

The Relationship Between Design and Documentation: A Heuristic

Personal experience seems to indicate that the best Designs do not need Documentation to be usable, but the worst Designs need pages and pages of Documentation. The heuristic is that the quality of a Design is inversely proportional to the length of the user Documentation.

The problem, of course, is that there’s no guarantee that a poorly-designed product has enough compensatory Documentation. Likewise, someone may have just written lots of Documentation for something that didn’t really need it.

Taken on its own, it’s not perfect, but if you are looking at adopting a product, process, or other technology, you may want to choose the one that, all else being equal, has the slimmest manual.

What Will be the Last Physical Technology Created?

Excluding software, what do you predict will be our culture’s last technological creation? This has to be something that, once made, means “game over” for our culture. It’ll break the world, but we’ll want it anyway.

When I asked this once before, a friend of mine replied, “A really good sex robot.” It should be obvious why that might make half the planet reprioritize their lives and stop showing up to work on time.

My personal view is that it’d be a replicator. While I think a culture could recover from that, it’d be tricky. You can bet that most everyone on the planet would want a replicator, and it’d literally spread virally, since your neighbor could replicate a replicator for you. People could make food, replacement parts, even larger replicators that could build bigger things like cars and houses. The replicator could make whatever you needed to stay clothed, fed, and sheltered. All you’d need is material to feed it, and we have plenty of garbage even today. In such a scenario, the most important job would quickly become that of replicator programmer (yes, I’m biased in thinking that) but finding them would be hard, since everyone’s basic needs would be met, reducing the motivation to work.

What do you think?

I try to figure things out. Sometimes this leads to a thought. Sometimes I write it down.

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