02
Feb 17

Little joys can make a difference

Yesterday on Twitter I said:

Find the little joys.

Treasure them.

I mean this sincerely. Our lives can be overwhelming. But I believe that the key to living a life worth living is to find these little joys.

If you follow me on Twitter, you may see these from me sometimes. A video of a bird singing. A photo of a flower. A sunset, or often a photo from a 737 as I fly to or from one of our licensing boot camps.

I may sound full of crap to you at the moment, but I believe this. I was walking out of a store the other day with my daughters, and my youngest just sort of walked out in front of me, and cut off a stranger who was trying to come in. I paused, let the stranger come in, let my eldest leave, and then left the coffee shop myself.

As we walked to the pet store, as we often do, I asked my youngest, “Can you do me a favor?”, followed by a “What’s that?”

I asked her to “Walk mindfully.”

If we go through life each watching out for each other, and perform small kindnesses, while noting these small joys, our lives can become calmer, more meaningful, and we can pass that along to others, who may even return the favor to others.

A few weeks prior to that incident, I was driving out of Kirkland after a busy morning at the office. There’s a construction project that has been going on forever, and will likely be going for a while more. The flagger at the project who controls the flow of trucks into and out of the project, has a tendency to wave as you drive by – almost like a “Hey, I hope you’re having a great day!” wave. When I passed her, I thought, that’s silly… but she insisted on making eye contact as I passed by – which made me sort of smirk – and she smiled.

I continued driving on this cold day, headed towards the grocery. As I pulled in, an older woman in the lot appeared confused, and a bit flustered. She was standing in the middle of the lane of traffic, clearly looking for her car. I pulled in and walked over to her, asking if she was okay. She explained her situation – she had gone to a medical appointment at a nearby clinic, and now could no longer remember where her car was parked. I felt awful for her, but she didn’t want to call family, out of embarrassment, and didn’t want a ride home. I gave her my card and told her to call me shortly if she needed a ride. I shopped, and upon coming out, saw her still wandering, and looking. I was worried, but stealthily drove around for a while, keeping an eye on her. Eventually, I saw her walking around with a nurse, and she must have called home for a ride. Short story, her husband called me and told me that the police were looking for her car, calling me back later with an update that they had found it.

That night, as I listened to my youngest play in a band concert, I pondered the events of the day. I’ll always do what I can to help others. But I believe the wave from the young woman in Kirkland had sort of slapped me back to mindfulness, and made me more aware of what was going on around me. As I said, we can pass these small joys, these small kindnesses, forward.

I love when my eldest gets trapped in a bout of giggle fits, or when she excitedly tells me about some academic accomplishment she has performed at school.

I love when my youngest locks her curiosity into high velocity, and assaults me with questions. Watching her brain work and digest facts is amazing. She also gives amazing bear hugs.

I love to learn – to learn something new – but I also love to teach. There’s nothing like teaching someone, and seeing that moment when… it clicks.

Since I was a child, I’ve had this tendency to get a shiver down my back as I get enveloped by something someone is teaching me. It reminds me of my favorite teachers over time, as it was a feeling I felt when I learned from them too.

I love the small beauties of nature that surround us every day. The mountains. The birds. A sunset. Clouds.

I love it when you’ve had a stressful day or week, and you meet with a good friend – and realize that they’ve got your back.

I love to close my eyes, and think back to the last time I was in Glacier, and how small it made me feel – while appreciating the sheer joy I felt, watching the sun set over Swiftcurrent Lake.


26
Jan 17

The cult of tribalism and the death of the United States

“Death of the United States?”, you ask, shaking your head at the lunacy of a blog post that dares to suggest such a thing.

As we sit here in 2017, days into a new administration, we are faced with a dangerously narcissistic man in the White House who has suggested voter fraud based on no provable facts, but instead based on his own opinion; a press secretary who parrots whatever he is told, whether it is provably false or not; a chief strategist who has openly discussed destroying the republic; and an advisor/press liaison who openly suggested that “alternative facts” are anything other than a lie.

A few weeks ago, I met with a friend for drinks. I shared with him a thesis that I had come up with earlier in the day, which went as follows:

There is an opportunity cost to immediate information. Connectedness, absent mindfulness, equals insanity.

What do I mean by that? I mean, with our rapid information consumption, through Twitter, Facebook, other social media, “always on” news, and innumerable sites competing for our eyes with rapid fire information that is rarely checked for accuracy, if we don’t stop to question things, reality disappears, and we wind up bathing in a cult of our own tribalism.

If you aren’t familiar with it, I encourage you to read Thinking, Fast and Slow to get a frame of reference here. Here’s a good summary.

In a nutshell, the two parts of our brain are constantly at odds – this entire presidential campaign, rather than being grounded in debate, logic, and considered thought (System 2), was grounded in emotion (System 1).

If you look carefully at the statements that DJT used throughout the campaign, and that he continues to use, there’s a common refrain. What is that refrain?

Fear

His entire campaign was about fear. His speeches preyed upon emotion, rather than logic. He was a fast-twitch candidate, if you will. His bold, often demonstrably false, claims fed the fears of his base. ISIS. Refugees. Immigrants. Overregulation. Jobs. Rampant crime/shootings/carnage. Voter fraud. (A card he continues to play, as it resonates, due to the popular/electoral mismatch.) But the same base that lovingly digested those lies would push back diligently throughout the campaign at press that questioned that “truth”, because doing so would make them question their own beliefs, and their own comfortable reality they had created.

As my friend and I talked, he suggested something I hadn’t considered. Maslow’s hierarchy. Humans crave food first – and only at the top are they able to become self-actualized. In other words, “I’m going to watch out for my own interests until I can ensure they’re safe.” In this cult of tribalism I discussed above, people refuse to question their tribe… to question their beliefs. I mean, sure, you should fear ISIS. But good grief. You’re throwing away the very foundation this country was built on if you say “immigrants aren’t welcome here”.

That’s just it. We’ve got this selective reality in this country now, where the hard left will tell you one thing, the hard right will tell you something completely different, the news media all digests it and spits it back out at high velocity. How on earth is anyone supposed to end up with anything but a subjective opinion that mirrors their own existing reality???

We choose whether to listen to others, or to close off and say “my way is right.” And I’ll admit, it’s going to be pretty hard to get someone to see something when their livelihood depends on them not seeing it. People in coal and petroleum industries will fight you tooth and nail about climate change, because their literal reality depends on your literal reality not being true?

How the hell are we supposed to move forward as a country, if we can’t all stop, and think for a moment? A friend used the expression “low vibration minds” as a gentle way to refer to people who are unable to, or unwilling to, think beyond themselves. That’s really what this all comes down to – a level of mindfulness. But if someone doesn’t want to listen – if listening means that you question, and or destroy the very fabric of who they are?

  • How do you get someone to listen?
  • How do you get someone to listen to the truth? (By this, I mean a calculated, proven, truth.)
  • How do you get someone to listen to the truth that undermines the truth as they understand it, and reality as they want it to be?

When we would fly as kids, I would often ask my mother what made the sky so blue. My brother would say, “It’s not blue. It’s pink.” This used to annoy the hell out of me, because it was provably false. As we find ourselves in this weird alternative reality, it’s important to realize the exact antics and approach being used by Steve Bannon and others occupying the White House who seem to, in my opinion, not have the best interests of the country in mind with their actions.

Fear is a powerful thing. It fed the marginal approval for Brexit. It fed the marginal approval for DJT. In fact, it’s important to unwind a truism before both of these votes – that they were polling that they weren’t going to pass. Why? My opinion is… fear. Those willing to vote for these actions, based upon ungrounded, potentially irrational, fears, weren’t willing to have those views questioned. With such overt xenophobia, racial hatred, and anger driving both – and the ricochet of hate that resulted from both, it’s not hard to see why someone might want to be a closet Brexit or Trump backer. Cowardly, IMHO, but not hard to understand – again, the position for pushing for both being based upon fear.

Unfortunately, as we already see six days into this administration, those leading it – not necessarily the guy in the chair – choose to continue the antics that played well to his base as standard operating procedure.

However, I would like to offer a few words of advice on dealing with the propaganda-based approach being deployed by this White House administration:

  1. It’s very important for all media, regardless of their political bent, to question provably false statements coming from them.
  2. But understand that when you do, you will be confronted by his staff, and challenged on it, because you are not endorsing the message they want to resonate.
  3. If you continue to try and question, you will in turn be questioned. Like a football star accused of sexual assault, their defense will focus not on debasing your statement, but on debasing you. Be strong, stand firm, and defend the truth.

I also think that it is critically important at this moment in time, that Americans – “left” or “right”, regardless of faith, gender, race, age, economic strata… that all Americans – including those who represent us in Congress – need to start listening to others, and understanding why they feel the way they feel, why they believe the way they believe, and why they fear the way they fear. We will not move forward as a country with this “my way or else” bullshit. We must work together, even where a precise common ground does not, or likely cannot, exist.

I started out this post with a bold claim. I genuinely believe we are at a dangerous point in our beautiful country’s life, when the men running this country are willing to blatantly lie for their own benefit, and to the detriment of the country, its citizens, and the world at large.


30
Nov 16

Tired Mac prose

Over the last several weeks, a Skylake full of ink has been spilled over this fall’s Apple crop. Actually, the press seems fascinated with three distinct topics:

  1. Insufficient magic in the 2016 MacBook Pros
  2. Apple “sticking it to pros” by offering limited RAM in the MBP
  3. Apple “sticking it to pros” by not updating the Mac Pro desktop since 2013.

Issue number 1: Beginning the next day after the announcement, I had non-technical friends asking me, “what’s the deal with poor, old, beleaguered Apple?”

Okay, I’m exaggerating. That’s not really what they asked. But they were underwhelmed. Tell you what? I was too. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I was expecting a bit more. The Touch Bar is interesting, but hardly world-changing. The presence of Touch ID is also interesting, and frankly, more relevant, especially for business users of Macs. (Dare I say it, “Mac-using pros”.) But most relevant, IMHO, is the fact that it is thinner and lighter (both also useful to pros who remove it from their desks). The move to USB-C is perhaps annoying today, but in time, will not be a big deal, and potentially very useful in terms of Thunderbolt 3 extensibility.

So is it earth-shattering? No. But it’ll do just fine at filling the backlog of orders that came after Apple had let the MacBook Pro lay dormant for a good long time.

Issue number 2: Apple only provides up to 16GB of RAM (and they didn’t go full Kaby Lake). Last thing first, it’s just late 2016. Nobody goes full Kaby Lake. But to suggest that Apple missed the boat by skipping a secondary tock is wacky. Apple rarely takes a bullet for the industry. We’ll see Kaby Lake and beyond come to the MBP. But it makes no sense to rush it this year.

Now we come to the real meat of the outrage. There’s this fascination – dare I suggest it is a feedback loop, that Apple completely doomed the MBP by not enabling more than 16GB of RAM in any of the new devices. That these devices are (paraphrasing) “unsuitable for pros”.

Please.

I offer you a challenge. Using Google, or any tool you’d like, find links to the following three things:

  1. The US$15 burger on the McDonald’s menu
  2. The Tesla convertible
  3. The page on Microsoft’s site where I can build or configure a Surface Pro 4 or Surface Book with more than 16GB of RAM.

Too tongue in cheek? Seriously though… The first two would exist, if there was a large enough market for them. The third would as well, although Microsoft most likely chose to cap it at 16GB for many of the same reasons that Apple did (Spoiler alert: it was about a compromise of what most users need in terms of RAM, and battery life). You’ll note that every Mac you can plug in, short of the [somewhat] budget conscious Mac Mini, does offer options for configuring more than 16GB of RAM, if that is what a user needs.

I’m admittedly on the low-end of the “pro” user market anymore. I couldn’t readily make my living doing what I do without a Windows PC or a Mac. But I don’t ever run an IDE. Like a band saw, that is a thing I’m not qualified to do, and it’s in nobody’s best interest that I do it. I also am a firm believer for about 4 years now in not virtualizing diddly on my Mac. I cut my teeth on the Mac running VMware Fusion from the beginning. Frankly, licensing (Windows-based) stuff to run in VMs on a Mac is a hot mess that your org should be very careful about doing. But that’s not why I don’t do it. I don’t do it because it’s a hot mess of RAM and storage requirements, in an era when both are more limited than in desktop-class laptops of the past. For my needs, I’m better served by buying a laptop that focuses on being a kick-ass laptop (minimal CPU, the RAM and SSD I really need, and a battery that lasts for a delightfully long time, and running VMs in Azure, AWS, or on a desktop. (Or more desktop-like “laptop” that would probably burn my crotch if I really used it for that.) I’m not convinced that the top-tier MBP that Apple created still can’t meet the needs of many (most?) of those who truly need a laptop to do their work.

I feel like a lot of the issue here can be summed up by a tweet of mine from 2014…

untitled

There is a number, greater than 0, of business Mac users who truly need a laptop with more than 16GB of RAM, and would pay what it costs for Apple to build in the technology+battery needed to make it happen. I believe that if Apple saw that that number was significant enough, they would build it. That’s what they do. They built an oversized iPhone, when we all said they wouldn’t. They offered a stylus for the iPad, even though that would mean they blew it. If a market that is willing to pay a premium exists, Apple will build a thing to address it. (This also likely describes why Apple is letting their displays go fallow, and perhaps will even let them die completely. We will see if, perhaps, new displays arrive the next time we see an iMac refresh, likely in 2017.) But I honestly would love to see more detailed scenario descriptions where people need more than 16GB in a laptop day-to-day, where having a secondary desktop or using cloud-based virtualization wouldn’t meet or exceed their needs instead – especially in cases where people aren’t willing to pay the premium Apple would need to charge for an MBP that could meet those needs. Thoughts on that? Blog on what you do, what you need, and why those wouldn’t work, and post a link to my Twitter.

Issue number 3: Finally, we come to the Mac Pro and signs of life. It has been almost 1,100 days since the last update to the Mac Pro, a desktop high-end Mac that is, significantly, a) really expensive, and b) uniquely, assembled in Austin, TX.

As a result of a headline with a recent year stating, “New Mac Pro announced”, many have marked the line for death. Why shouldn’t they? Apple used to make servers. They don’t anymore. Apple used to make wireless routers. They don’t anymore. Apple used to make displays. Whoops, my bad. We’ll see in 2017, but that might be the case as well. I don’t know the stats on how many Mac Pros Apple sells annually, or what the ASP of those units is. It could potentially be a reasonably large chunk of cash, but even with the price of the units, is most likely a pittance of the actual revenue compared to what Apple makes on iPhones, or even on the rest of the mobile Mac+iMac lines. And for better or worse, Apple’s focus, as most companies of late, has been on shareholder value/returns. Apple gives what it gets. Like a “MacBook Pro Plus” (or whatever the ultimate nerd-spec MBP would be branded), the cost to address the market in a timely manner don’t likely mesh with more aggressive research spend to deliver it more rapidly than the cadence we’re seeing.

So will we see a new Mac Pro anytime? Perhaps.

But there seems to be a fair amount of rumors that say Apple would rather build a tier of iMac that could address some (but not all) of the scenarios the Mac Pro instead of building a new top-shelf desktop PC. Because we are at a reasonable plateau of display technology – of sorts, I could reasonably set aside my distaste for AIOs and say maybe that isn’t a horrible idea. Is it ideal? Not really. The Mac Pro is minimally extensible, and a (27″, Kaby Lake) iMac that addressed it’s space would need to rely completely upon external extensibility… not that the current Mac Pro doesn’t, outside of RAM or SSD). Any iMac would also be seriously challenged to address the caliber of GPU or CPU power possible with the Mac Pro. The replacement, or suggested replacement for a Mac Pro is, IMHO, very likely to arrive in 2017.

In terms of both the MBP and Mac Pro, I think Apple will try their best to continue to address the high-end pro market as best they can. But time will tell. In the end, some pros may find Apple’s innovations discouraging. Some will possibly switch to Windows-based PCs, but short of building their own PC, I think many will find the PC OEMs driving towards similar modularity and cost reductions, and feel constrained – if less so – when buying a PC of any kind.

There’s a whole other topic to discuss another day, which is the rumbling “Microsoft has stolen the creative mantle from Apple” theory. More on that later…


27
Nov 16

Goodbye, Twitter

Almost exactly three years ago, I decided to kill my Facebook account. Not log off. Delete it. It’s been gone since then, and honestly, I never miss it.

When I signed on to Twitter for the first time in May of 2008, I had no idea what I would do with it. The running joke at the time was that Twitter was primarily used to let others know you were going to/were in/were back from, the bathroom. Colleagues at a startup in Austin even registered a domain name (whospoopin.com) as a joke, in the hopes of creating a “competitor” to Twitter.

During the last 8 and a half years, I’ve used Twitter to make new friends, find old ones, and make connections that sometimes even translate from binary into analog, meeting Twitter connections for the first time. As I once said on Twitter, when I was young, I didn’t get the point of pen pals, but now with Twitter, I did, and had pen pals around the world.

I’m very disappointed with the state of the world at the moment, and I find that Twitter lately only adds despair, rage, or both to my mood.

In my life, I try to be mindful of how tools work for me or not, and discard them if they cost me more than they benefit me. Recently, I’ve realized that Twitter’s return for my investment has greatly diminished, and I’m wasting far more on it vs. what it gives me. Sure, some of this has to do with this insane election. But it is not just that. Pondering what Twitter means to me has helped me highlight a desire to focus inward on my own personal priorities – my health, my weight, my job, reading and learning, and  my other personal interests, ahead of the seemingly empty calories that Twitter provides to me of late.

For the time being, I’m not deleting my Twitter account, deleting any tweets, or even taking the account dark. But I have deleted the apps from my computers and iPhone, and I don’t intend to check Twitter with any regularity any longer. I continue to be reachable via email, and cell phone, as well as Signal and Telegram.


07
Jun 16

The Autostadt, brand spaces, and marketing

Following my recent trip to Germany, I’ve spent the last month thinking about the idea of brand spaces. By brand space, I mean the use of a space – be it a single store, a building, or a multi-building space, that a business uses to establish or grow a marketing relationship with their consumers.

Although I hate to fly, I love to travel. (As I like to tell people, “I like to be places”.) I took a few days this year between work events to visit Volkswagen’s hometown of Wolfsburg, Germany, and the Autostadt, located there, as well as VW’s museum. A child of the 1970’s, there is a special place in my heart for the Volkswagen brand. My parents owned a VW Fastback before I was born, and a Dasher and Westfalia camper when I was young, and that’s when I fell in love with cars… So there are considerable emotional links for me associated with the brand.

I had hoped to visit the factory, but it was closed while I was going to be there. But the trip was still worthwhile to me, just to visit the Autostadt.

If you haven’t heard of the Autostadt before, you may not completely understand what this place is. The Autostadt, which is completely owned by VW, was first opened in 2000.

If you’ve ever been to Epcot (as it was created, not as Walt imagined it), or a World’s Fair, you can get an idea what the Autostadt is like. It reminded me more than a little bit of Expo ’86, in Vancouver. Imagine an automotive Epcot, where each brand has a pavilion, instead of each country. It was apparent that brands each had a very different idea of what to do with their pavilion. (A few really struggle to tell a cohesive story.) But Škoda and Porsche’s pavilions, in particular, tell stories that really align with their brands. (The lack of any Bentley presence was odd to me, given that even Ducati, Lamborghini, and Bugatti – brands people often aren’t familiar with the ownership of – are represented at the Autostadt.)

When you enter the Autostadt, you go through a main pavilion to the “park” itself, where each of the pavilions are. It’s much like any Disney park. Single point of entry, and once you’re inside, it’s rather easy to get disoriented. Thankfully since it is situated next to the factory with its tall smokestacks, and the Autostadt itself features two large car towers that store 800 cars, it isn’t quite as mentally all-encompassing as Disney’s parks.

Supposedly, VW spent nearly US$500M initially building the Autostadt. What I can tell you is that they’ve created a fascinating tourist destination for car fans, car-tolerant families of car fans, and families picking up a VW for delivery. An on-premises Ritz-Carlton (with subsidized rooms for those picking up a car), numerous restaurants, several stores and a large design museum create a space that can occupy a day, at least, for fans of one or more of the VW brands. In essence, it’s a brand theme park.

As I walked the Autostadt, I began thinking about the fact that I paid what I did… to visit a marketing exercise. Like Apple and their retail stores, VW built the Autostadt to establish a physical presence for their brand(s) with consumers that want to engage with it. Sure, it’s synthetic. (So is Disney.) Sure, it’s contrived. Some of the brands honestly fail at making the most of their opportunity at the Autostadt (looking at you, Lamborghini), but in terms of creating consumer engagement, it’s an interesting concept.

This all loops back to the concept of brand spaces. A Disney theme park. An Apple Store. More and more consumer brands are struggling with how to nurture a brand space to be. Gateway tried for years. Sony did too. Microsoft tried in San Francisco, then tried again with their current foray into retail. I think that a brand space is a space that is welcoming, and created in a manner that reflects the design aesthetics of that brand. But you can’t force it. You can’t just riff off of Apple’s design aesthetic to build a space that consumers will just swarm to. Your brand space needs to reflect your brand, and what consumers like about your brand.

Years ago, Best Buy had a brand space. You walked in, and it felt like Best Buy. You either liked it or hated it. But now Best Buy, like most big box retailers, has turned into a micro-mall, infected with store-within-a-store parasites, compromising their own overarching brand. I believe that the creation of a unique brand space is an important component of brands that want to – and will increasingly need to – stay directly engaged with their consumers.

Bear in mind, there are brands, like Intel, that make no sense to establish a brand space for. Intel, like BASF, is really a wholesale brand, no matter how much people wish it wasn’t. Focusing on consumer-level messaging if you aren’t selling to consumers is tilting at windmills. (Here again, Microsoft’s massive presence in enterprise and struggles in the consumer space post-XP make a similar argument.)

I’m not saying that every consumer brand needs to build a retail presence or a theme park. PLEASE, no. But I am saying that it will become increasingly important for brands to consider when and how engagement with their consumers, in a physical way, makes sense, given their brand, their consumers, and the purchasing cycle of those consumers.


09
Feb 16

Taken for a ride

Last week, as I entered the elevator of the building, another tenant turned to me and gleefully exclaimed, pointing across the garage at a new Jeep, “See that Jeep? I think I’m going to buy it.” 

I could tell immediately that this guy (a younger man, in his 20’s) was in trouble. He was smitten. He was a stranger, but sharing all of this, unprovoked. I had just come home from work, after a long editorial review meeting, followed by a trip to the grocery. So the logic gates in my mind were pretty shot. But the dialog basically went as follows:

Him: “Yeah, I just went over to test drive it, and they wanted over $600 a month for it. But I got them down to $350.”

Me: (still sort of shocked at being pulled into this conversation): “Wow. That is… a big difference. Interesting that they’d do that after the end of the month.”*

Him: “I thought so too. He said their sales month ends on the second day of the month.”**

Me: “That’s… different.”

Him: “I told them that I needed to go home and let my dogs out, but if they’d get it down to $300, we’d have a deal.”

We arrive at his floor before mine, and I can’t process the whole conversation before he exits the elevator. He steps off, I say, “Well, good luck in your decision!”

I go up to my floor and head to my apartment. A few minutes pass, and I crunch those data points in my head. I think to myself, “Holy shit. I need to stop that kid.”

I went downstairs, but the Jeep was already gone. I felt guilty for a little bit, but I noticed the next day that the Jeep wasn’t there, an older vehicle was instead. Obviously the deal hadn’t occurred.

Let me explain why I was concerned. When I used to sell cars, there was this bullshit form that they insisted that we use as we sold the car. It was a con. This sales grid is basically it.

It works by trying to nail you down on one or two data points, by making all of the other (important) data points variable. For example, if they see you focus on the monthly payment as the most important vector, they’ll swizzle the deal by making the payment term longer, or lifting your down payment. Other variables that come into play are your trade-in (but you’ll generally get stiffed on that), any options or extended warranties they’ll try to tack on, or the interest rate you’ll pay. Effectively it’s the old shell game con – and they try to appease you by meeting the one or two numbers you won’t waffle on, but do so by being vague about others.

Of course, all of these terms are available when you’re signing the contract, but by that time, backing out of it can be physically or psychologically challenging, if your brain can clearly process all of the key paperwork being thrown at you.

I don’t necessarily wish I could go back and talk the young man out of buying the Jeep, per se. But I would really like to know more of the metrics involved in the dealer’s side of the negotiations. I suspect that the dealer was primarily playing with the payment term or the down payment.

Many purchases, like a car or a home, can easily become driven primarily by emotion rather than logic. Some salespeople will prey upon this. Never be afraid to walk away from a potential purchase if your emotions are guiding you, and not your brain.

*This dialog happened on February 1. Car dealers are famous for offering deals that expire at the end of the month, as that’s often how sales bonuses from manufacturers line up.

**That the dealer told him this was extremely suspect. I don’t think I believe it. It’s possible, but doubtful. Instead, I think the date given to him was arbitrary, to try and close the deal.


31
Oct 15

Simulated gambling in the App Store? The only winning move is not to play.

From the arrival of Apple’s iPhone App Store, they’ve elected to keep the platform, shall we say, “Family Friendly”.

While the guidelines for developers who elect to sell their software through the App Store are always evolving, they seem much more constant and consistent versus when the store first opened. In general, it’s still about keeping it a warm fuzzy place, while allowing some evolution so the App Store can grow and thrive. Apps which which violate terms include those that offer pornography, violence (simulated or other), targeted defamatory or offensive content at a given race, ethnicity, or or culture, or include objectionable content. What’s objectionable? Ask Apple, as they use the Potter Stewart school of content screening. Things like Metadata+ and Ephemeral+, which provide information unavailable anywhere else, but which could be found “unpleasant” by some, are not available on Apple’s platforms. Personally, the justification of that is ridiculous, but that’s a matter for another day.

Instead, I want to talk about “simulated gambling” games. This week, I found myself on the App Store search page, and noticed among the Trending Searches, the string “777”. As someone who flies regularly (but doesn’t gamble), I was curious what this even was. I clicked, and I couldn’t have been more disappointed. I clicked the link, and discovered an endless parade of “simulated” slot machine games.

What’s really both fascinating and terrifying to me is how much the Trending Searches space seems to include “simulated gambling” titles at night, and how many of the Top Grossing apps in the App Store are simulated gambling.

I really dislike that much of the iOS ecosystem has become overgrown by free-to-play (F2P) apps and games. I’ve started referring to these as free-to-p(l)ay instead, as because they generally require you to pay if you want to actually get to the most desirable content or levels in the title. I’ve only ever interacted with a handful of F2P games, and as a general rule, they are basically a Skinner box that conditions the user into paying for content in order to receive gratification.

Here’s where the problems begin, though. I believe there are basically two ways to classify titles in the App Store that offer in-app purchase (IAP):

  1. À la carte IAP
  2. Bottomless IAP.

À la carte IAP apps offer one price for entry (either free or some base currency), and then a set menu of items that can enable a set collection of functionality within or interconnected to the app. For example, a drawing app could offer a set of pens or brushes, or a range of colors. The point is, a given amount of currency will buy you a set piece of functionality. One could argue that you can IAP subscribe to services and that can be ongoing, but I contend that is still a set currency over time.

Bottomless IAP apps, on the other hand, have an almost endless supply of offers to exchange currency for downloadable content, “lives”, “coins” or other virtual (but financially worthless) tchotchkes to help you progress within the app (game). While the apps may have a cap on how much can be spent over time, many offer ridiculously expensive IAP items that can be repeatedly purchased, ideal for targeting and manipulating impressionable individuals. These are the IAP titles that we’ve all heard about, where people of all ages get duped into paying real dollars, without realizing how big the financial hole is that they’ve created for themselves. Many of these simulated gaming titles offer IAP items up to US$99!

I have two problems with “simulated gambling” apps in the store. In reverse priority order:

  1. They might be violating numerous gaming laws around the world
  2. They are preying upon people, including those dealing with real-world gambling addiction problems.

As a general rule, Apple’s guidelines on apps that include gambling state:

“Apps that offer real money gaming (e.g. sports betting, poker, casino games, horse racing) or lotteries must have necessary licensing and permissions in the locations where the App is used, must be restricted to those locations, and must be free on the App Store.”

and

“Apps that use IAP to purchase credit or currency to use in conjunction with real money gaming will be rejected”

So “gaming” apps like simulated slot machines are in an interesting wedge. They ride a fine line, seemingly all following the first guideline, and making themselves free for download, but with the opportunity for the consumer to bleed out significant cash through bottomless IAP. They can’t ever convert any winnings in the app to actual real-world winnings, or arguably they’d violate the second term.

Now here’s where things get interesting. Let’s take a look at that first term more closely. These apps are supposed to be licensed according to the location where they are used. This is a distinct problem to me. Though these are “simulated gaming”, I believe that since they are simulated slot machines (among other categories of gambling available in the App Store), they should follow the jurisdiction where they are used.

Thing is, there are very specific rules in many jurisdictions on what the payout must be for a given device used for a given category of game. For example, on the Las Vegas strip on the percentage of cash that must be paid out to gamblers, which ranges from 88.06% (penny slots) to 93.69% (US$1 slots). Arguably, the old line that “the house always wins” isn’t completely true. But statistically, it isn’t going to be you, either.

But these games are all “simulated”. There is literally no opportunity for payout. Any winnings are generally returned as an opportunity to play again. There are no winnings. None. Arguably, by being a “simulation”, these titles do not need to abide by payout terms within the locales they are being used. But as they aren’t real gaming, I personally feel Apple should reconsider having this category of title in the store at all.

Gambling addiction is a real thing. People get sucked in by the lure of easy money, and can quickly lose more than they had to begin with. The National Council on Problem Gambling has an interesting survey, the 2013 National Survey of Problem Gambling Services discusses how much money is spent on gambling addiction services across the U.S. The App Store lets consumers link credit cards to IAP. By offering bottomless IAP, these titles are effectively allowed to shake out the wallets of vulnerable consumers to an extent they cannot financially bear.

The problem with these “games”, is that they play upon the same emotions as real slot machines, luring the consumer into wasting untold dollars on a game that is completely unwinnable, financially. To quote the movie WarGames, “The only winning move is not to play.”

My contention is that if games offering simulated gambling must be allowed on the App Store at all, they should not be allowed to offer bottomless IAP, or perhaps even offer IAP at all. Take a look at this game review from a user of top-tier “simulated slot” game Slotomania from Playtika Games (A division of Caesars Interactive Entertainment):

Slotomania

That makes me so sad. These games offer no redeeming value (literally). From Playtika’s own Terms of Service (linked incorrectly within their App Store entry, by the way):

“The Service may include an opportunity to purchase virtual, in-game currency (“Coins”) that may require you to pay a fee using real money to obtain the Coins. Coins can never be redeemed for real money, goods, or any other item of monetary value from Playtika or any other party. You understand that you have no right or title in the virtual in-game items, spins or Coins.”

These titles are all about killing time while burning your wallet at the same time. They’re all about taking money from the easily impressionable – youth, adults, retirees… across the board. When I posted on Twitter about simulated gambling, a follower of mine replied back with the following:

“grandma uses her iPad 2 almost exclusively for slot apps. :*(“

If Apple is going to hold up the App Store as a family friendly place for commerce, with reasonable consumer protections, I think they need to re-examine what role, if any, simulated gambling apps with IAP are allowed to play there.


27
Sep 15

The Apple Watch is perfect. On paper.

This week, I’m doing something that I don’t remember ever actually doing before. I’m taking back an Apple device, for a refund.

After spending less than a week with the Apple Watch, I have to say, I’m disappointed. A bit in the device. But more in Apple. The software is simply not done. Perhaps it’s my use of a 5s as the host device for it. Perhaps my expectations are too high. Perhaps I’m right, that it’s not ready for prime time. Regardless, it’s definitely not worth the price of entry in the device’s current condition. As Nilay Patel said, “If you’ll like toys, you’ll like it.

As I checked out at a grocery this week, and performed my first Apple Pay transaction, the  following interchange happened between the cashier and myself:

Her: “Ooh. Is that it (the Watch)?”

Me: “Yes.”

Her: “How do you like it?”

Me: “It’s okay. I’ve only had it for about a day.”

Her: “What can it do?”

Me: <silence/>

I hesitated, struggling to really list out the things that the Watch could do that were relevant to me. It was in that moment that I think I switched from “I think I’ll return it.” to “I’m going to return it.” I understand that apparently most normals are quite happy with their Watches, and that only technophiles (if you can still call me that) like myself found all the foibles in the way the device works.

The Watch isn’t without positive attributes. I just don’t feel that they outweigh the negatives.

What’s good:

  • As a bauble, it is gorgeous. I bought the stainless Watch, with the new, more traditional Saddle Brown Classic Buckle. As a piece of jewelry, I think it looks really good. (Although my 14YO would tell you that my free opinions on style are worth what you pay me for them.)
  • As a watch, it’s pretty good. I mean, it keeps time, and the interchangeable faces are fun for a bit.
  • Given the space, the user interface works pretty well.
  • When it all works, there are some neat conveniences that you can’t do (or can’t do as easily) with an iPhone. Apple Pay and other Wallet (nee Passbook) features on your wrist are handy. But not “OMG!” useful.
  • There’s a pretty amazing supply of Apple Watch apps that already exist. (See caveat to this, below.)

I was really hoping I could come up with some more positive aspects here. But honestly, I’ve run out already.

So… what’s bad about Apple Watch? In no explicit order:

  • It is very expensive, for what it does. My mind boggles that Apple has sold any of the Watch Edition models.
  • Updating sucked. It took over an hour and a half to install the 500MB update from my iPhone. That is inexcusable.
  • It’s heavy. I’ve got tiny T-rex arms, but the weight of the Watch on my ulnar styloid (the bump of bone on the outside of your wrists) was painful after only a few minutes.
  • It’s slow. In tandem with my 5s, there are far too many beach balls waiting for apps to launch. This may get better over time as apps are updated for the new version of the OS. But I fear that it may be indicative of the real resource constraints on such a small device. Time will tell.
  • I had hope that Watch would make my Phone better. That is, it would add utility to my phone. Instead, because of the app model, it made my phone’s battery life horrible.
  • The version of the SpringBoard shell used by the Apple watch is atrocious. I have small fingers, so don’t have much trouble selecting apps. But the UI of the Watch comes the closest to being the “sea of icons” on iOS that Microsoft derided for so long. Doing anything rapidly on the watch with this UI is… complicated.
  • Too many app developers don’t seem to understand what the Watch is, and is not, ideal for. I guess that’s both a good and bad thing. But to the caveat I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of apps for the Watch – many of which aren’t even on Windows Phone. But there’s a lot of crap – it seems many developers are lost in the wilderness.
  • It shows every single fingerprint you place on the face.
  • The packaging for the Apple Watch is… overwhelming. There’s plastic on plastic on plastic. Wrapping device subcomponents in one-time use plastic is horrifically wasteful.

The former product manager (and former development manager) in me sees how we arrived at this point. The Apple Watch team was established long ago, and started on their project. At one point, pressure from above, from outside, from investors, who knows… forced Apple to push up a launch date. The hardware was reasonably ready. But the software was a hot mess.

Traditionally, Apple excelled when they discarded features that weren’t ready, even if competitors already did them in a half-assed way – winning over consumers by delivering those features later when they’re actually ready. Unfortunately, you often get a product manager in the mix that pushes for a feature, even if it can’t really be implemented well or reliably. The Apple Watch feels like this. It offers a mix of checkbox features that, yes, you can argue, kind of work. But they don’t have the finish that they should. The software doesn’t respect the hardware. In fact, it’s giving a middle finger to the hardware. Even WatchOS 2 fails to deliver adequate finish. The list of features that the Watch promises sound nifty. But actually living with the Watch is disappointing. It isn’t what it should be, given the Apple brand on the outside. I expect better from Apple. Maybe next time.


22
Sep 15

You have the right… to reverse engineer

This NYTimes article about the VW diesel issue and the DMCA made me think about how, 10 years ago next month, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) almost kept Mark Russinovich from disclosing the Sony BMG Rootkit. While the DMCA provides exceptions for reporting security vulnerabilities, it does nothing to allow for reporting breaches of… integrity.

I believe that we need to consider an expansion of how researchers are permitted to, without question, reverse engineer certain systems. While entities need a level of protection in terms of their copyright and their ability to protect their IP, VW’s behavior highlights the risks to all of us when of commercial entities can ship black box code and ensure nobody can question it – technically or legally.

In October of 2005, Mark learned that a putting a particular Sony BMG CD in a Windows computer would result in it installing a rootkit. Simplistically, a rootkit is a piece of software – usually installed by malicious individuals – that sits at a low level within the operating system and returns forged results when a piece of software at a higher level asks the operating system to perform an action. Rootkits are usually put in place to allow malware to hide. In this case, the rootkit was being put in place to prevent CDs from being copied. Basically, a lame attempt at digital rights management (DRM) gone too far.

In late October, Mark researched this, and prepped a blog post outlining what was going on. We talked at length, as he was concerned that his debugging and disclosure of the rootkit might violate the DMCA, a piece of legislation put in place to protect copyrights and prevent reverse engineering of DRM software, among other things. So in essence, to stop exactly what Mark had done. I read over the DMCA several times during the last week of October, and although I’m not a lawyer, I was pretty satisfied that Mark’s actions fit smack dab within the part of the DMCA that was placed there to enable security professionals to diagnose and report security holes. The rootkit that Sony BMG had used to “protect” their CD media had several issues in it, and was indeed creating security holes that were endangering the integrity of Windows systems where the software had unwittingly been installed.

Mark decided to go ahead and publish the blog post announcing the rootkit on October 31, 2005 – Halloween. Within 48 hours, Mark was being pulled in on television interviews, quoted in major press publications, and was repeatedly a headline on Slashdot, the open-source focused news site over the next several months – an interesting occurrence for someone who had spent almost his entire career in the Windows realm.

The Sony BMG disclosure was very important – but it almost never happened. Exceptions that allow reverse engineering are great. But security isn’t the only kind of integrity that researchers need to diagnose today. I don’t think we should tolerate laws that keep researchers from ensuring our systems are secure, and that they operate the way that we’ve been told they do.


07
Sep 15

How I learned to stop worrying and love the cloud

For years, companies have regularly asked me for my opinion on using cloud-based services. For the longest time, my response was one about, “You should investigate what types of services might fit best for your business,” followed by a selection of caveats reminding them about privacy, risk, and compliance, since their information will be stored off-premises.

But I’ve decided to change my tune.

Beginning now, I’m going to simply start telling them to use cloud where it makes sense, but use the same procedures for privacy, risk, and compliance that they use on-premises.

See what I did there?

The problem is that we’ve treated hosted services (née cloud) as something distinctly different from the way we do things on-premises. But… is it really? Should it be?

It’s hard to find a company today that doesn’t do some form of outsourcing. You’re trusting people who don’t work “for” you with some of your company’s key secrets. Every company I can think of does it. If you don’t want to trust a contract-based employee with your secrets, you don’t give them access, right? Deny them access to your network, key server, or files shares (or SharePoint servers<ahem/>). Protect documents with things like Azure Rights Management. Encrypt data that needs to be protected.

These are all things that you should have been doing anyway, even before you might have had any of your data or operations off-premises. If you had contract/contingent staff, those systems should have been properly secured in order to avoid <ahem/> an overzealous admin (see link above) from liberating information that they shouldn’t really have access to. Microsoft and Amazon (and to a lesser extent at this point), have been putting a lot of effort into securing your data while it lives within their clouds, and that’s going to continue over the next 2-5 years, to the point where, honestly, with a little investment in tech and process – and likely a handful of new subscription services that you won’t be able to leave – you’ll be able to secure data better than you can in your infrastructure today.

Yeah. I said it.

A lot of orgs talk big about how awesome their on-premises infrastructure is, and how uncompromisingly secure it is. And that’s nice. Some of them are right. Many of them aren’t. In the end, in addition to systems and employees you can name, you’re probably relying on a human element of contractors, vendors, part-time employees, “air-gapped” systems that really aren’t, sketchy apps that should have been retired years ago, and security software that promised the world, but that can’t really even secure a tupperware container. We assume that cloud is something distinctly different from on-premises outsourcing of labor. But it isn’t really that different. The only difference is that today, unsecured (or unsecurable) data may have to leave your premises. That will improve over time, if you work at it. The perimeter, like that of smart phones has since 2007, will allow you to secure data flow between systems you own, and on systems you own – whether those live on physical hardware in your datacenter, or in AWS or Azure. But it means recognizing this perimeter shift – and working to reinforce that new perimeter in terms of security and auditing.

Today, we tend to fear cloud because it is foreign. It’s not what we’re all used to. Yet. Within the next 10 years, that will change. It probably already has changed within the periphery (aka the rogue edges) or your organization today. Current technology lets users deploy “personal cloud” tools, whether business intelligence, synchronization, desktop access, and more – without letting you have veto power, unless you own and audit the entirety of your network (and any telecom access), and admin access to all PCs. And you don’t.

The future involves IT being proactive about providing cloud access ahead of rogue users. Deciding where to be more liberal about access to tools than orgs are used to, and being able to secure perimeters that you may not even be aware of. Otherwise, you get to be dragged along on the choose your own adventure that your employees decide on for you.