Archive for May, 2006

The path to the dark side

Posted in Daily Entries on May 31st, 2006 by Mike Taber – Be the first to comment

In recent years, I’ve been tempted. Seriously tempted by what many of my peers would consider to be “the dark side”. I’m not talking about “the force”. I’m talking about an operating system.

For going on close to a decade, my buddy Andrew Welch, owner of Ambrosia Software has been tantilizing me with all of the latest and greatest stuff from Apple. The iPod? He had one within months. The iPod nano, he bought them for all of his employees as part of ‘employee appreciation week’. A 30″ LCD screen? I think he had two of them, one at home and one at his office.

He’s a registered developer with Apple, so he gets developer discounts, attends the Mac Expo every year, and since he publishes games, loves to show them off to me. All on his Mac of course. “The Windows port of EV Nova will be out later on.” he smirks. “You’ll have to wait”.

Bastard.

For years, I simply couldn’t justify the cost of the Mac hardware, given how much I was likely to use it for anything other than games. I mean, lets face it. I’m primarily a Windows developer living in a Windows world. That’s just the way that it is.

Then came the Mac Mini. *drool*. A friend of mine bought one. He drove all the way to New Hampshire to get it one day so he wouldn’t have to pay sales tax on it. Smart move. Maybe too smart. Not long after he bought his, and I was considering getting mine, they released an upgrade for it. Again… tempting…

Time passed, and Apple switched to the x86 architecture. That’s great, but I’m itching to get that Athlon X2 4400 with dual core and 1MB of cache.

January 2006: Enter duo-core Macs. Tempting, but they can’t boot Windows.
April 2006: Apple releases Boot Camp, allowing Windows XP to run on the Mac hardware.
May 2006: MacBook Pro released. Duo-core x86 architecture laptop. *drool*

Chances are better than 50/50 that by the end of June, I will own a MacBook Pro and begin using it as my primary laptop computer. I’ll keep OSX to play around with of course, but Windows will be my primary working area because it has to be. Maybe I’ll toy around with some cross platform development. I would have one of these things in my hands tomorrow, except that the Apple stores apparently don’t carry ones with the 7200rpm drives in them. I’ll have to order it online. Fortunately, that has tempered my lust so I’ll wait a couple weeks before I spring for it.

Yes Andrew, I am on my way to the dark side. Can I play your games when I get there?

Share/Save/Bookmark

Two weeks of hell

Posted in Daily Entries on May 21st, 2006 by Mike Taber – Be the first to comment

The last two weeks have been pretty harrowing. I’ve been clocking in at around 80+ hours/week and it’s likely to continue for another week.

They say it takes hard work to build a business. Unfortunately, I’m just making money.

You have no idea how strange it is to say that.

Share/Save/Bookmark

Comcast

Posted in The Good, the Bad, & The Ugly on May 8th, 2006 by Mike Taber – Be the first to comment

Good:Comcast
This past weekend, I was back in Rochester, NY visiting friends and meeting with an overseas contact about some work that he needed done. On my way back on Sunday, driving near the Syracuse area I saw no less than 5 New York State Troopers. Anyone who has ever driven through New York knows that if one of these guys pulls you over, you’re going to get a ticket. I’m the only person I know who ever got out of one and I consider myself extremely lucky to have done so.

The speed limit on the New York State Thruway is 65 mph and the average person drives somewhere between 68-75. There are the occasional drivers who do around 80 mph, but they don’t tend to last very long. I generally drove in the 68-70 mph range because although it’s a 6 hour drive, a $150 ticket just isn’t worth the half hour I’m going to save, not to mention a speeding ticket would allow my car insurance company to have its way with me for the next six years. (I’ll go off on the insurance companies some other time.)

Massachusetts is a bit different. In a 65 mph zone, if you’re driving 75, you’re probably going to get squashed by the guy behind you who is doing 85-90. Did I mentionhe’s tailgating you too? I have a theory that the Registry of Motor Vehicles in Massachusetts gives out drivers licenses in Cracker Jack boxes. It’s the only logical explanation I can come up with, since speed limits and turn signals appear to be entirely optional, as are stop signs with white borders.

As I cross the border into Massachusetts, the traffic gets noticeably faster. It speeds up by around 15-20 mph on average. Just as I started to reflect upon this phenomenon (while speeding past an entire Massachusetts State Trooper barracks no less) I see a billboard sign that says:

“You’re probably speeding. We can relate.”

Comcast High Speed Internet

Now if that isn’t a great location for that advertisement, then I don’t know what is. Someone really knew what they were doing when they decided to put that sign there. And you know what? It’s the only Comcast sign I saw the entire way back to Boston. Great job.

Share/Save/Bookmark

Eric Sink offers 20% off coupon for SourceGear’s Vault

Posted in Daily Entries on May 3rd, 2006 by Mike Taber – Be the first to comment

*sigh*

On Monday of this week, Eric Sink offered a coupon for Vault purchases in the month of May. If I’d only waited another week before purchasing the extra Vault licenses, I could have saved myself 20% on them. And I didn’t actually need to purchase them for another 2 weeks. Ah well.

Maybe he reads my blog and will offer me an extra license for free that I can use for my build machine. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Share/Save/Bookmark

99 restaurants and Applebees

Posted in The Good, the Bad, & The Ugly on May 2nd, 2006 by Mike Taber – 2 Comments

Bad:99 Restaurant andApplebees
Applebees has definately made a bigger deal out of this little marketing ploy than the 99 Restaurant and Pub has by spending a lot more money on their advertising. This is evidenced by the sheer number of television commercials. Applebees runs them all the time, but I have yet to see one for the 99. Applebees calls it “Carside to Go”, while the 99 just calls it Online Ordering. This isn’t a new concept and it’s basically the same thing no matter what you call it. Any given pizza parlor does it all the time. You order your food, then go pick it up. What a concept!

Unfortunately, there’s one fatal flaw. People go to Applebees and the 99 for the food and for the atmosphere. That’s why they can charge more. When you call for pizza, you’re buying a meal for the whole family that probably averages $15-$20 for the entire thing. Contrast that to a meal at Applebees that averages $12-$15 per person. There’s an obvious price difference there.

What’s not so obvious is that when you order from Applebees for their fabulous “Carside to Go”, it’s lukewarm by the time you get it home, you can’t easily send it back if something is wrong, and you are given plastic silverware. That means to eat your steak, you either make futile attempts to cut with the plastic knife, get your own metal knife from the drawer, or squat down and using both hands grind on it like a caveman. Oh, did I forget to mention that you’re paying the same price as if you went in and sat down?

Somehow, their “Carside to Go” seems a bit second rate. To be blunt, it downright sucks. I don’t think the food is as good as if you went in and sat down. You probably save a few bucks because you aren’t ordering drinks and can use your own personal stash of booze, but let’s be honest. The atmosphere counts as part of the price, as does having the food piping hot when you get it.

Somewhere in the corporate ladder, an operations executive said “Allright, our restaurants are a bit crowded, especially on the weekends. How can we get more sales at the same location, without having to expand the buildings, charge more, or push people in and out the door faster? Let’s let people phone in their orders, and come pick them up! Brilliant!” This guy needs to stick to operations and stay out of marketing.

Nice try guys. It’s not going to work. In fact, I can give you a perfect example of where this has failed. I worked on a pilot shopping project for Wegmans Food Markets back in 2000. It was a pilot program to sell groceries online to Wegmans customers. Think of Webvan, but with much smarter executives who tested the waters before committing a billion dollars to the project. A small team of us put together the back end infrastructure at the corporate office, and there were employees on-site at the pilot store who would manage the labor aspect of the project.

The executives at Wegmans intentionally stacked the deck against the project. They used one of the smallest stores that actually had space for the project. They also severely limited the number of potential customers who could participate, after qualifying them as internet users of course. The basic concept was for people to order their groceries online and then, pick them up at a designated time slot on any specified day within the next 7 days. After the system went operational, within weeks the labor costs were shrinking fast, average order sizes were higher than predicted, and things were generally going quite well.

After a number of marketing meetings and customer feedback sessions, the pilot program was killed. This didn’t make sense to me at the time, but it does now. I suppose the years have made be a bit wiser because I was pretty upset with what they did. The decision was made to not move forward with the project because customers enjoyed shopping in the Wegmans stores. Incredible, right? Stupid on the part of Wegmans? I thought so at the time, but having become widely read since then, I’m even more astounded at their foresight. When customers like coming into your establishment, that alone says volumes about your business. There are companies who would (and probably have) kill for those kinds of customers. How did they get them? Where did they get them?

They did it by being good companies to shop at. Most of you will not have been to a Wegmans, but I assure you that it’s an entirely different experience than Shaws, Star Market, Price Chopper, the Piggly Wiggly, or any number of other food stores. If you ever get the chance, I’d recommend stopping into one. The difference is just amazing and it is one of the few things I really miss about living in Rochester, NY. For just a small taste, go totheir website, sign up for an online account (it’s free and they’re amazingly conscious of privacy) and add items to your shopping cart. Then when you’re viewing it, notice that they tell you which aisles everything is located. Change the store you’re shopping at, and everything is shuffled into the right aisles. How’s that for convenient?

Back to my story, Wegmans had the foresight to realize that by offering groceries online, they were not going to increase their share of the market. On the contrary, they were merely going to shift the location of the customers buying groceries, and at what cost? Online customers only see what they’re looking for. They don’t browse up and down the aisles. “Ooh, I’ll buy that. It’s on sale.” This is referred to as impulse buys. That’s why individually wrapped candy bars line every register. It’s an impulse buy and a lot of people do buy them. It also costs a lot in terms of labor to have employees doing shopping for the customers, even if they know where everything is.

Applebees and the 99 think that they’re being smart. Certainly, they’re shifting the location of their customers, which is what they absolutely need to do. However, when the quality of the food you’re serving drops like a stone, not only will people stop ordering by phone, they’ll stop coming all together. The bad food will be related to Applebees, not to “Carside to Go”. Bad food equals fewer customers. So technically, they will of course reach their goal of offloading customers, but it will be only because their customer levels are decreasing. If it’s not obvious, this is bad.

What they really need to do is move those customers from the busiest parts of the week to the parts of the week which aren’t so busy. This will allow them to maintain complete control overquality, while increasing their market share and encouraging people to come back for more. Most people won’t eat at a restaurant every day, but when they want to go to Applebees, they’re going to go. The one near me has a TGI-Fridays right next door. If Applebees is too crowded, you walk next door and they lose business. To me, and to many others the two are basically interchangeable. If you go on a Wednesday, you want something different on Friday.

But, if Applebees could convince even 10% of their Friday customers to come on Wednesday instead, they have not only increased Wednesday sales by that much, they have reduced the line at the door on Friday by 10%. They will still get the same amount of money on Friday, but they’ll also get an additional 10% of Fridays sales on Wednesday.

I believe that while this strategy will appear to work in the short term, over the long term it will not. People will gradually stop using the service because the food quality suffers so much and they will be back where they started, with reduced profits, long lines at the door, and refusing customers because they simply don’t have the space to handle them.

Share/Save/Bookmark

Macs no longer immune to viruses

Posted in Daily Entries on May 1st, 2006 by Mike Taber – Be the first to comment

I really couldn’t believe my eyes when I read this one. I saw this article listed on Google News this evening, and couldn’t help but read it. As if any real experts would have ever thought that a Mac was immune to a virus. Perhaps that’s where my intense dislike of self-proclaimed experts comes from. Not this time. After reading the article closely , I came to a different conclusion. I don’t think the ’security experts’ are to blame. I think this is a case of the media distorting something they know nothing about in an effort to publish something which will attract attention.

It would be too easy to summarily dismiss this article as Microsoft sponsored rhetoric, given that it was published on MSNBC so I’ll attack this from a marginally different angle. Indeed, what people should be worried about is the fact that there is what appears to me as intentionally misleading information contained within. I know that there will be people out there reading this who were considering buying a Mac. These non-geeks will be less inclined to do so after reading that article. Imagine… using a computer and getting a virus. Wait a tic. I’ve been using computers (including Windows) for years, and I honestly don’t remember the last time a virus actually infected my computer.

Newsflash people. It’s called anti-virus software. That, coupled with anti-spam software, and the self control to stop forwarding everything I get to my buddies and not clicking on attachments from people I don’t know. Maybe I’m overprotected. Perhaps I need to drink more before reading my email. A lot more.

But back to my point. There are several subtle inaccuracies in the article and I’ll point out a few of them. First, lets take a look at one of the bullets on the second page which lends credibility to the article.

“The SANS Institute, a computer-security organization in Bethesda, Md., added Mac OS X to its 2005 list of the top-20 Internet vulnerabilities. It was the first time the Mac has been included since the experts started compiling the list in 2000.”

Hmm. Well, I worked at Pedestal Software for two years developing security policy files for Fortune 100 companies starting back in 2003. One of our policy files was based directly off of this very SANS vulnerability list. Even three years ago, there were Mac vulnerabilities listed on the SANS web site in the form of Safari and Unix services.

Upon closer inspection it would appear that they’re saying this is the first time that ‘the Mac’ has been included… as a stand alone entry they must mean. Of course. I’m glad to see that was pointed out so the people who don’t know anything about SANS would realize what the article really meant.

The fact is that SANS completely reorganized their vulnerabilities list this past November. The list used to be just a Windows top 10 list and a generic Unix top 10 list, resulting in the top 20 vulnerabilities. From the looks of it, they’ve taken a lot of software that used to be on both lists and combined them into a cross-platform section. Then made ‘Windows vulnerabilities’ as a section (which has five sub-sections) and Unix vulnerabilities (which has two sub-sections). Seems a bit of a lopsided comparison if you ask me. Better buy your lifetime supply of Twinkies. The world might run out of food sometime soon as well, key word being ’sometime’.

In addition, the list of vulnerabilities from SANS is a somewhat arbitrary list. It’s made up of what a general census of people across the security industry think are a collection of high risk vulnerabilities mitigated by how widespread they may be. If a vulnerability was discovered for Red Hat 5.0 (and only Red Hat 5.0) that could give anyone root access by browsing to the URL of the machine with Firefox, it would not make the list. It would be considered a medium to low level threat because not many people are running that specific version of the software. The same vulnerability on Windows XP would be critical and would certainly make the list because of the sheer number of computers that could be affected. It should be obvious to the casual observer that as a company achieves market share, even relatively minor problems could appear on the SANS list because of the number of computers with that software installed.

I don’t believe the fact that OSX has made the list is as much an indicator that it’s severely vulnerable as it is an indicator that the Mac is gaining market share. If I were to hazard a guess, I’d be hard pressed to keep OSX out of the top five highest installed bases of Linux or Unix variants, thus making any vulnerabilities discovered in the operating system more widespread.

Here’s another truth laced comment that lends credibility to the story:

“Less than a week after Daines was attacked in mid-February, a 25-year-old computer security researcher released three benign Mac-based worms to prove a serious vulnerability in Mac OS X could be exploited. Apple asked the man, Kevin Finisterre, to hold off publishing the code until it could patch the flaw.”

Forgive my cynicism, but after a flaw, bug, exploit or virus has been discovered, don’t you think that the chances are pretty high that someone else could do it too, especially after having seen it done and being shown the hole in which to look for the white rabbit? It’s not even clear from reading the passage that the two incidents are related in any way, shape or form. They may not be at all, but they appear to be if you don’t dig down into the sentence, which most people will not do.

Need another example of how slanted this article is towards gaining exposure and credibility?

Point: “The bottom line is we still feel more comfortable using a Mac than a (Windows) PC,” said Alan Paller, director of research for SANS.
Counterpoint: “But as Daines can attest, there are no guarantees.”

Here we have a quote from the Director of Research at SANS resolutely stating that they feel better using a Mac than a PC and the author of the article undercuts it with a statement from a guy named Daines who is a Chemical Engineer. Not a security guy. Not even a computer guy. A Chemical Engineer. For the record, in case someone misunderstands this, I’m not saying Daines is not smart. I’m saying he’s not in his element. There’s a big difference. So, the author combats the opinion of a highly specialized computer person with an incredibly obvious fact that you certainly can’t argue with. That’s pretty gutsy. I’m surprised this article hasn’t been crucified by the geek world. Perhaps it has, and I just haven’t noticed. The same counterpoint could be applied to nearly any argument.

Point: “We need to cut our CO2 emissions to reduce global warming.”
Counterpoint: “But as Daines can attest, there are no guarantees.”

Point: “If you start a company with great people, you’re bound to make great products.”
Counterpoint: “But as Daines can attest, there are no guarantees.”

Point: “If Admiral Kirk had continued firing on Kahn’s ship and killed him when he had the chance, Spock would never have died and his son would never have been killed.”
Counterpoint: “But as Daines can attest, there are no guarantees.”

Catch my drift? Your average person will read that statement in the article and instantly agree with it, and how could you not?

There are a few other truth-laced inaccuracies that I could point out, but I think I’d just be wasting my time. I don’t blame this article on the security experts. I blame it on the media who seem to be acting more and more irresponsible. They need to do their homework, and when they don’t, I think it’s the duty of the geek world to call them out on it, asking questions like: “What are they not telling me?” or “Is that really true?”

The sad fact of the matter is that people read the news so that they don’t have to do the research themselves to find out the information. The expectation is that the news is relatively accurate and relatively unbiased. In my mind, this article doesn’t qualify as either. I wouldn’t be so annoyed if the article were just inaccurate or just biased. It’s the combination that really bothers me.

The sole saving grace here? This story has been rated a 2 out of 5 by 354 users on MSNBC’s website so perhaps there is some justice in the world.

Share/Save/Bookmark