Saturday, December 23, 2006

It's a Festivus Miracle!

Everyone get out the Pole and start warming up for the Feats of Strength! It's time for us all to let everyone in our lives know how thoroughly they've disappointed us in the last year.

Happy Festivus. Happy Festivus everybody.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Product Review: Onkyo TX-SR674

Recently my dearly beloved Harman Kardon receiver, an AVR-120, committed seppuku. I was at home with my kids watching a movie, and suddenly there was no sound from the front left speaker. After much testing and troubleshooting, I concluded that the left front channel simply no longer worked.

I made a daring rescue attempt, replacing a 6800uf 16V capacitor that was bulging inside, but to no avail. The unit now sits alone on my work bench, a sad victim of some mysterious circuitry malfunction. I may still attempt further repair, but life must go on.

After an appropriate grieving period, I set to work on finding my next receiver.

I've had the Harman Kardon for about five years, and in that time the TV has been upgraded, numerous DVD players have come and gone, and the PVR that I built for our home has come into existence. In this time the AVR-120 has become sadly outmoded. It has some very nice features; optical and coaxial digital audio, and S-Video--an option nearly unheard of when it was new. But it has no idea what component video is, or HDMI for that matter, and it's never been particularly powerful. I was running it at the edge of its abilities when I would turn a DVD movie up to enjoy a loud explosion, or even try to hear a garbled bit of dialog.

In short, it's been time for a long time, but short of a system failure there was no way I could justify the expense of a new receiver to my wife. And so the failure that did indeed come and force the upgrade has been very much a mixed blessing. It's not the best nor the worst of times, but conflicting feelings are definitely at play here.

I've been using the replacement unit that I bought, an Onkyo TX-SR674, for about five days now. Overall I like it quite a bit, but this would hardly be a proper review if I left it at that. And there are a couple of problems, and I'm loathe to be derelict in my duty to report them. But I also won't settle for the simple "I like this, and I don't like that," approach. And so.

The last time I was on the market for a new receiver, the game was different. It involved visiting every home theater shop in the four or five cities nearest me, carefully pricing things out, carefully checking port configurations, taking note of models and brands, and haggling, haggling, until I felt that I had a reasonable price on a good system.

And that's how I got my Harman Kardon, which after all was said and done, was remarkably well suited to my needs for a time. And it served me well until it abruptly and mysteriously half-died.

I was buying online then, but only books and knick knacks, and the odd PC part here and there. I'd probably never spent more than $75 in a single online purchase then.

Nowadays, though, I wouldn't dream of making a trip to Circuit City or Best Buy my first step. I don't want some young sales guy telling me that what I want doesn't exist (this seems to happen every single time I go in search of something). I don't want to be upsold. I don't want to look at the price on the shelf and wonder if that's even in the ballpark of the best price I can get. I also don't want a damned extended service plan pushed on me, or to deal with the alarm going off as I walk out the door because the girl at the register doesn't know how to kill the anti-theft device, and on and on.

God, I love the internet.

My first stop was to cry for help at Metafilter. This was my post there, and I wore my angst on my sleeve. After some good advice and hardcore study, I narrowed it down to the Onkyo TX-SR674 that I already mentioned, talked Crystal into letting me buy it, and placed the order. Shipping was free but slow, and it was six days before I got my new receiver in a large box.

I began setting it up right away, but realizing that it would take an hour or two at least to do it right, pushed it off for a couple of days.

COMPLAINT 1: Not enough modes

The first problem with setup was presented when I realized that I have six (well, seven) video sources, and the receiver only allows four. I have DVD, Vid 1, Vid 2, and Vid 3 to work with. In the end, I decided to route my Home Theater PC through my plasma TV's VGA input for video, and use the receiver's Tape input for sound. This is not ideal.

COMPLAINT 2: Vid 4 is front panel only

Yes, the receiver has a Vid 4 mode, but the receiver does not allow programming the Vid 4 mode at all. It's for the front panel ports on the receiver, and nothing else can be routed to that mode. In what world is this a feature, Onkyo? Why don't you allow me to decide whether I want to use back ports for the Vid 4 mode? It sure would have made setup easier.

In addition to re-routing the HTPC video feed, I had to route my video game systems through the VCR in order to get down to the four video source maximum. I really hate that I had to do this, and it is my number one gripe about this receiver. I want enough modes that I can damned near fill the back ports and assign them all to a working mode, and I expect to be able to program all the modes however I want. For this reason, I really miss my Harman Kardon AVR-120.

I'm stongly considering buying a Nintendo Wii sometime soon, and I don't know how I'll connect it.

These two complaints are a big deal to me. Fortunately, they're the only two things that I really hate about this system so far. The rest of the review will skew positive.

The owner's manual says over and over again that the first thing you should do is run the automated speaker setup. I chose to connect devices first and I even played one device for a few seconds just to make sure that I had sound from the speakers. I figured that there's no point in running the automated speaker setup if I'll have to stop it half way through and re-check a speaker connection. It sounded awful, due to the non-calibrated state of the system, but at least I could tell that things were in working order.

Device setup is managed through an on-screen menu system that the receiver conveniently fed through the HDMI port to my TV. The manual indicated that not all models in the series will output menus to HDMI. But the TX-SR674 does, and that's nice. The menu for assigning which feed is linked to which mode is simple and only slightly confusing. I quickly found my error and got it right on the second try.

I'm happy to say that converting the DVI feed from my Gaming PC to HDMI and the HDMI feed back to DVI for my plasma TV works just fine, and the picture is gorgeous.

Likewise for the analog video upconversion--HDMI/DVI is the only cable from the receiver to the TV, and my VCR, NES and DVD players all look superb through the receiver. The NES (that's right, I have an NES and I play it) in particular looks better than ever before.

The remote that came with the receiver knew how to talk to my Onkyo six-disc DVD player out of the box. This is nice, but unnecessary, as I use a Logitech Harmony remote to control the whole shebang.

When the time came to do the speaker setup, I put the kids to bed and warned my wife that I'd need silence for 15 minutes or so. We live in a neighborhood that's on the quiet side, so I positioned the setup microphone and began the setup.

Not long into the first setup attempt, the microphone fell off if its perch on the couch, so I aborted the setup, repositioned the mic, and restarted the setup.

The second try took about ten minutes, requiring my input on the remote every two minutes or so, and gave no errors. Amazingly, it knew that the right front speaker is exactly 15 feet away from where I sit on the couch, and it also knew that the subwoofer, sitting right behind the right front speaker is 17 feet away. It had distances on all other speakers and it also automatically calibrated each speaker's appropriate relative volume to the rest of the system.

Very impressive.

I'm still fooling around with the surround modes, and the system's sound reproduction is excellent. I haven't really stressed it yet, but so far I haven't heard a whisper of distortion, and it's easily gone to very high volumes without maxing.

The receiver responds quickly enough to IR commands that I never have to tell my Harmony remote that I need "Help." This is unlike my Samsung plasma TV, which takes blasted forever to recognize commands and frequently misses them.


Executive Summary:

Pros-
  • Excellent video upconversion
  • Excellent sound reproduction
  • Automatic speaker setup (This is hard for anyone to get right, no matter what they tell you. Having it automated is a great feature.)
  • Remote works with other Onkyo devices out of the box
  • The HDMI and Component feeds are present and work well
  • Doesn't need a long lag to respond to IR commands

Cons-
  • Not nearly enough modes, or too many ports for available mode options
  • Vid 4 needs to get itself into a flexible frame

The pros are great, and the cons are critical but not fatal. Mixed feelings abound. Overall, it's a great but flawed system.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

What Daddy Does

I wish to speak for a moment to my two very dear friends, Stan and Eric, who are freshly-minted daddies to Alexander (July 16th) and Henry (August 9th), respectively.

I'm very happy for Stan and Eric, because until now all of my tales of adventures in daddying have been to them hearsay. Now they get to make some of their own stories.

My own son, Harrison, is now four years old. I won't bother to claim that my style of daddying is the best around, or even better than any particular person's style. But I will say that Harrison is a better boy than I was, and I believe that this is due both to his given nature at and before birth, and to the parenting he's received since.

Here I'll humbly offer some of my ideas regarding parenting. These are ideas and techniques that work for me, and nothing more. I think I'm right about a lot of this stuff, but you may not, and that's ok.

The first, and most important concept that Crystal and I have used is that we have discussed our childrens' actions and planned out what will happen when something is wrong. It's hard to be perfect with this, but if Harrison does something I don't like, I tell him it's wrong, and what the consequence will be the next time he does it. For the most part, he knows what will happen when he hits his sister, or when he speaks rudely to his mom, or when he refuses to go to time out. A lot of this won't mean much until your boys are 12-18 months old, though.

Harrison slept incredibly well for the first three months of his life. Most of the time, he let us sleep unless he was hungry. Once his tummy was full, he went back to bed and so did we. After the three months though, he would frequently wake up at night and want to play.

Crystal and I talked about this together, and decided that if we gave in to him at night and played with him or let him come to our bed, then he would get the idea that playing with mommy and daddy at night is ok.

And so for months, when Harrison would cry at night, we would go to his room and offer him a bottle. If he refused it we would leave. He would then cry until he fell back asleep because we wouldn't go in and play with him.

Sitting still and listening to her baby cry is one of the most agonizing things that a mother can bear. This is doubly true if she is still nursing, and the baby's cry makes her milk drop even though the kid isn't ready to eat.

Crystal was very courageous during this period, and by the time he was nine or ten months old, Harrison understood that bed time was bed time, and he could sleep, or babble to himself, or play with a stuffed bear in his crib, or look around, or cry...but crying wouldn't do anything for him. Sure, it would get us to look in and make sure everything was ok, but he'd still be in the crib. By the end of that first year, he only cried if he was hungry, because we'd taught him that crying means mom and dad think you need a bottle.

So I guess my dominant theme would be consistency. Ivan Pavlov and his wondrous dogs are often seen as examples of action/result behaviors and Maslow is handy when evaluating motivators and their effect on a being, but the sad truth is that your kid will not learn causality or modified behavior through skillful use of motivators as readily as a Golden Retriever will.

Kids are humans, and humans are incredibly complex, thinking animals. One of the notorious shortcomings (or glories) of the human condition is the ability to possess a stubborn will to do an action and expect the wrong consequence over and over again. And kids aren't even that simple, because they're not completed humans, they're developing humans. So whatever sensibilities they'll possess later probably won't apply just yet. Or the influence of these sensibilities may be spotty.

Your task then, new parent, is to be more patient and consistent than Pavlov ever was. Yes, classical conditioning works on kids, but at the cost of sweat and tears at a minimum, if not blood.

Volumes have been written about this stuff, but I'm not an expert, and in the end all I'm shooting for here is a congratulatory post with some few tips that might help, or could be (very justifiably) ignored.

And so, just a few small anecdotes:

I spank. I think that daddies who spank justly (and sparingly) are right, and I think that daddies who decide not to spank at all are also right. This is the serious side of spanking.

I've elevated spanking to a mythical physiological mandate, dubbing it "PRT", or Posterior Realignment Technique. I've also theorized that pockets of a certain enzyme form in the gluteus, and that this enzyme is only released into the bloodstream through spanking. When the child's brain is deprived of this enzyme, it rots. When a child behaves as if he or she is in possession of a damaged brain, PRT may be necessary in order to preserve what's left of the brain. This is the non-serious, mythological side of spanking.

When my kids come out of time out, or have been spanked, we always take a moment to talk about what went wrong, and they always get a hug from daddy. I also tell them periodically that time out and spanking are some of daddy's jobs. He doesn't like doing them, but he has to. (Of course, mommy also disciplines the kids and hugs them, but this isn't about her.)

I hug my kids and talk to them often. I keep busy with work, but I try to make sure that I've had a conversation with both of my kids every day, and I make sure to hug and kiss them every day as well.

I make a point of apologizing to my kids when I've done something wrong. We frequently talk about how daddies and mommies make mistakes, too. A couple of times, I've misunderstood the situation and wrongly spanked them. Spanking is a severe punishment to them, so I treat these mistakes and their feelings very seriously, and we talk about it until they feel better.

When I talk to them, I try to kneel or sit down so that we're eye to eye. It would be hard for me to understand or relate to someone twelve feet tall.

A while back I made a mistake in my business, and I came home feeling terrible. The kids had just been put to bed, so I went in and hugged Rachel for a while to feel better. She was mystified to see me cry, so I explained to her that "Sometimes daddies cry, too." She still likes to repeat to me that "Sometimes daddies cry."

Finally, I like to check on my kids as the last thing I do before I go to bed. I shift them so they won't fall out of bed, and I cover them up if they're cold, and sometimes I whisper into their sleeping ears, "I love you." Very rarely, they whisper back, "I love you too, daddy." Then daddy cries a little and goes to bed.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

How To Speak In Church

I frequently fantasize during church about standing in sacrament meeting and giving a talk about giving talks in church. Eric touched on this subject a few months ago.

A couple of Sundays ago after some consecutive bad speakers, I stole a sheet of paper from Crystal and made a point-by-point outline of some of the concepts that I would include in such a talk. Tonight I've knocked out eight items on a to-do list in front of me, and digitizing this sheet of paper is the last item on the list.

I'm putting the list to good use. I strongly believe that the Spirit you feel in a meeting is equally dependent on presentation as it is on content. I frequently tune out talks because they're being presented poorly. My mind can't help it; if a message's medium isn't working (in this case the speaker), then my brain has better things to think about, which it promptly gets to work doing. I'm assuming that any message you present in church will be of some importance, so why would you want me to ignore it?

Please, church speakers of the world, take the following tips in the spirit in which they're given. I want to hear and understand your message, and I want you and your audience to feel good about the way you present it. I'm not being mean, I just want what's best for everyone.

  1. Don't tell a "When The Bishop Called" story. I've never heard a good one, and I bet you haven't either. We know that you were called, we know that you had a feeling not to pick up the phone, we know that you didn't know what to talk about, we know that you're nervous, and we know that playfully threatening the bishop is fun. It's all been done. Write your own material.
  2. Slow down, look at your audience, look at your text as needed. I don't get a thing out of a breathless, page-long talk that you delivered in thirty seconds. I'm too dizzy! PRACTICE....SLOWING....DOWN. Especially if you know you're going to be nervous, and especially if you're a fast talker anyway. And it's completely ok to read a sentence from your notes, look at the audience, deliver that sentence thoughtfully, and then look back at your notes for the next sentence. At least this way I get to process the information, and you might look thoughtful.
  3. Don't apologize for your material. Present your message unabashedly, and if a story you want to use is told every six weeks or so in sacrament meeting, show a little respect for your audience and take a few minutes to say it another way. If you must use something that's overused, don't apologize, just present it better than usual and move on.
  4. Favor stories from your own life over stories from other sources. J. Golden Kimball was really cool, but I'd rather hear a story about you. You are a real, live person who I know (or could know) personally, and J. Golden and most of his ilk are dead. Telling your own story will allow you to build a relationship with your audience, let you give more detail, and help you avoid telling the same old story again (See rule #3).
  5. Use quotations in context. It's pretty tricky to misquote King Benjamin, but it's a lot easier, and a lot more common to quote him out of context.
  6. Vary your volume. It's ok to be quiet, and it's ok to be loud, as long as you do both appropriately.
  7. Bring or memorize a small amount of backup material. General Authorities frequently tout "Speaking by the Spirit." This is not making things up as you go. It's knowing your material and a little more so well that if you feel that a certain part of your talk needs to be dropped, you can do so and you'll have other material ready to fill the gap.
  8. When you use a quotation, pretend you're the person it came from and speak accordingly. When I quote Brigham Young, I stand up straight, look up a little, and speak in a booming voice. Brigham Young wasn't just a bunch of words, he was a large, visionary, opinionated man who was also a prophet of God. Don't short change him and others who provide your talk with meat.
  9. Quote, then explain. This is really important when you quote anyone who died before 1950 or so. Old English is hard, and your audience need help with what Paul just said in his epistle. Don't let them down.
  10. Don't be afraid to stray from your text a little. Decide that you'll say what the Spirit tells you to, even if it isn't written down. Don't rob your audience of what the Spirit just told you to say.
  11. If you find you're off topic, take a moment to find an appropriate place in your text to continue.
  12. Never apologize for silence or weeping. These are powerful, and apologizing trivializes them. If you wish, you may explain the silence or weeping. An explanation can magnify the strength because it helps the audience understand you.
  13. If your talk is instructional, have a few copies of your text or notes ready to give away.
  14. If you need a moment to gather your thoughts, thank your audience for their patience and don't apologize.
  15. Have a clear goal of what you want the audience to learn, think, or do from your talk. Make sure that this goal stays the same when you're writing the talk, and when you're delivering it.
  16. It's a good idea to memorize your talk, as this allows you to be more flexible. This takes lots of practice, and if you don't have time to practice giving it from memory 10 or more times, still practice it, but plan on using notes.
  17. If you're an expert on your topic, you might try standing and speaking without a written talk or notes. This is a skill that grows with practice, and atrophies quickly.
  18. It's ok to address the audience, and individuals in the audience, briefly.
  19. Create a summary sentence that you will deliver at the end of your talk. It should state your goal for the audience. This will let the audience set their own goals, and it will give your talk a sense of purpose.
That's my list. I'm also really fond of the rule of opening with a joke or a lie, and I usually follow it. I like to use a lie that's so outrageous that it's immediately recognized as a joke. Also, one of my mission presidents told us to always close testifying. I like to lock the testifying into the theme of my talk, but I've seen the shotgun approach work as well.

Monday, July 17, 2006

ROCI #6: Fans Who Buy Tickets Own The Show (Logan City Fireworks)

Those are powerful memories. I wrote about them more than I had planned, so this Rule Of Customer Interaction is a separate post.

This will be a special ROCI, as I’ll be emailing a copy of the post to Logan Utah’s Mayor, Randy Watts. If there’s something you’d like to tell Mayor Watts, his contact page is here. Mayor Watts, if there's something you'd like to say here, I'll be happy to post anything you send me, good or bad. My contact information is available elsewhere on this blog, and you also have my information in my email to you. I sincerely hope that you find time to talk to us.

The Logan fireworks shows written about in the previous post were formative for me, and they still hold a special place in my heart. But as sad as I am to say it, I think I’ll only attend one more year before giving up on Logan.

A lot has changed about the show in the last several years. Some of the changes are good:
  • The stadium’s been remodeled, and there’s a new ticket booth.
  • Security personnel now check every bag and cooler entering the stadium for alcohol, glass and weapons. The show in 2002 was a very paranoid affair, but paranoid was popular at the time, so it’s forgivable.
  • Logan City cops now direct traffic out of the parking lots. They fell down a little this year, but the last few years have been a much smoother experience where getting out of Logan is concerned.
But there are also bad changes:
  • The gate opening times keep getting moved back, forcing people to stand in line longer. I should be able to walk in with a purchased ticket at 5:00 PM and save seats for my family. This year the gates opened at 7:30.
  • They don’t open the ticket office until 30 minutes prior to the gates opening. What’s the deal? I can’t give you money until the line I’ve been standing in for two hours is a half mile long? Why?

These are small complaints. What I really want to talk about here is the show itself. The show is killing my experience, and I want to talk about it in an open forum (such as this one), and create an opportunity for Mayor Watts and anyone else of his choosing to talk about why things are the way they are, and possibly see things get better.

So let's get right to it.

First, nobody sounds good in a stadium, guys. The only person who sounds like he should in your pre-fireworks programs is the announcer (Craig Hislop?), and even he doesn’t sound good, he just sounds like you expect a football announcer will sound.

This year you had Imagine, a Beatles cover band perform. I saw Imagine at the Dee Events Center at Weber State University a few years back, and they killed. They really looked and spoke like the Beatles, and the music sounded just like my Dad’s Beatles LPs (and my MP3s). They were great.

But in your stadium, they sounded like crap. And when the utterly forgetable band you brought in last year couldn’t carry a tune to save their lives, of course the stadium acoustics didn’t do them any favors.

Simply put, your shows for the last six years or so have been agonizing, and there’s a very simple way you can make it better. Please, please, I beg of you, turn the damned volume down. One quarter to one half of the volume you’ve been using would be acceptable, if not ideal. I would be able to hear my family. I would be able to talk to my kids. I would still be able to hear the band, and the announcer, and Miss Cache Valley loud and clear.

And most importantly, I’d have the choice of putting in my ear phones and listening to an audio book instead of the terrible band, or the good band that sounds terrible in your stadium, or the kids who’ve written fawning pieces about the beauty of democracy that brims with clich├ęs and non-sequiturs.

Please don’t misunderstand me; democracy is great, kids are great too, and even a band that sucks needs to eat. But I paid cash to get into that stadium to see fireworks, and I don’t want to lose my hearing over it, and I do deserve to have the choice of what to listen to.

But short of wearing can-style hearing protection with earphones underneath the cans, there's no way I can listen to the medium of my choice instead of your PA system. And it just shouldn't be this way. I should be able to enjoy the show even without 85% hearing loss.

Next, let’s talk about your tradition of honoring those who have served in the military. This is a good tradition, and those who have served deserve recognition. I voluntarily served in the Air Force, and nearly died there. I have strong feelings of sacrifice, loss, and pride associated with the experience.

I appreciate being honored for this, as I’m sure many others do. So why did you wait until dark this year, to play the songs of our military branches, when we couldn’t see the people we were honoring? Did someone lose the almanac?

And you goofed again, perhaps even worse when the fireworks were finally underway. First, “Anchors Aweigh,” the Navy’s song played to fireworks. Then, “The Marine Corps’ Hymn” played to fireworks. Then, “The Army Goes Rolling Along” was played to fireworks. And then, instead of playing “The U.S. Air Force Song” (more commonly and incorrectly called “Off We Go Into The Wild Blue Yonder”) you played “Stars And Stripes Forever!”

Who overlooked the fact that the Air Force will be far better represented in numbers at any given show in Utah than any other military branch? Who decided that no one would notice, and if they did notice, they wouldn’t care?

You honored me in the dark and then neglected to play the song of my military branch alongside the other military songs with fireworks. I'd rather you just skipped the whole military lineup, rather than doing this.

I love the Logan fireworks show. The Fourth of July and my birthday nearly coincide every year, and each year, I drive my family up from Layton and make an event of the entire day of the show. I spend money at Willow Park, at local restaurants, local gas stations, local grocery stores, at Logan Lanes, and then I pay to get into USU Stadium.

But I could just as easily spend that money in Provo, and begin a new tradition of taking my family to the Stadium of Fire.

I’d rather not. I like Logan, even if the much-touted Fireworks West shows are decidedly not what they used to be, and even if Main Street is busier every year, and even if it takes a little longer to get home every year. I don’t know of another place in the world quite like Willow Park. The LDS Tabernacle downtown is an amazing piece of art history in its own right. And I’ve never been as fond of a campus as I am of USU’s, nearly in the mouth of Logan Canyon.

I really want to keep coming back to Logan. Please fix my fireworks show so that I can do so.

Rule Of Customer Interaction #6:
  • Running a public show for profit is all about selling an experience, and the old saw that one person talking represents a multitude of other silent people is never truer.
  • But sports fans get their own entire section in the newspaper, so when ticket sales take a dive, Larry H. Miller has a pretty good idea where the problem is.
  • If you're in a special market, such as a seasonal one, or one that doesn't get much customer feedback, it's important to listen to the feedback you get and act quickly. Damage control in this situation is inherently reactive, and will always be too late for many who gave up because they didn't know who to contact, how to contact them, or what to say.
  • The legalese on the back will never say so, but a customer's ticket is a tiny piece of vested ownership in your event. Show them that you care, or they'll buy stock in someone else's endeavor.

If You're Wondering What Drives Jake...

Apologies to the blogosphere; June and July are my very busiest months. I've had a couple of surges in business, a birthday, a family vacation, my daughter's birthday, several fireworks shows, and Guilder to frame for it. I'm swamped.

I know that apologizing for lack of posts is one of the big blogging no-no's, so I'm sorry for that, too. Damn, I just did it again.

Thanks, Eric, for the birthday post. I'm sorry I didn't post in reply sooner, I really meant to, but see above.

EDIT: This is not an ROCI. This one got too long, so the ROCI will be my next post. The ROCI, like this post, will be about fireworks shows.

I attend a few a year. I've attended the Clearfield show for the last four years or so (this year it got rained out), and I see the Weber State University show about every three years. I went to the Clinton City show for about four consecutive years there, and I've been to Kaysville and Layton shows also.

But the show that I most avidly attend is the Logan City show in USU's Aggie Stadium. I've been there for the last 17 consecutive shows or so, except for the two years I was in Milwaukee. My annual schedule for Logan usually consists of:
  • Lunch at an old A&W in downtown Logan (if there is such a thing).
  • A tour of Willow Park and the Willow Park Zoo on the southern skirt of Logan.
  • A couple of frames or a couple of racks or a combination thereof at Logan Lanes.
  • A final stop at Albertson's or Smith's on the way to the stadium for drinks and snacks.
  • Find a parking spot that we can get out of quickly at USU Stadium. We have a traditional lot.
  • Wait in line for a couple of hours at the gate, as they keep moving back the gate's opening time.
  • Enter the stadium, find our seats (which are dictated by preference and tradition), and save seats for the rest of the family.
  • Eat the dinner that my parents bring in exchange for us saving them good seats.
  • Wait for the show.
  • Enjoy the show.
  • Drive home.

This year we added a stop in nearby Smithfield during the day to hit the Pepperidge Farms outlet. Now I have Mint Milanos and Goldfishes to last another week at least.

The day that I go to Logan for the fireworks show is hands-down, one of my top two favorite days of the year. I honestly look forward to it all year, and have a hard time sleeping the night before. Yes, I know that I'm an adult now. Shut up.

What few people outside of politics know is that city fireworks shows are money-making enterprises. Sure, shows in the dark ages before ROI was a buzz-acronym were probably hosted solely for the public enrichment, a la "Music Man," but these are animals long extinct.

The Logan show in particular is a booming endeavor. I know this first-hand, as I was once a peripheral part of that machine.

You see, my family were light rope pioneers. Fifteen years ago, when light ropes were a brand-new novelty, my Dad saw a market for them at firework shows. So he bought a few hundred and tried selling them at a couple of shows. The very first light rope you saw at a fireworks show in Utah was probably ordered, activated, and sold by my Dad and I.

We did this on contract with the organizers of a couple of shows, and we did it on the fringes of some other shows, carefully staying off of the official show grounds so that we wouldn't be bothered by organizers with law-enforcement types standing behind them.

Finally, we landed at the Logan show. My Dad made some calls, spoke to the people who could cut a deal with us, and we got booths. And it's a good thing we got booths, because navigating the crowd was a risky proposition in those days. Now the light rope guys walk around with the tubes full of them, and they get takers every now and then. But we were mobbed. Our booths were surrounded, and we couldn't take money as fast as the crowd was shoving it at us. We'd sell out and desperate fathers would beg for the light ropes we'd forgotten we were wearing.

We'd usually sell out right before the show, take a few minutes to clean all the cash out of our booths, sit down just in time to see fireworks, and then go straight to the business office on the southeast corner of the stadium with our lunchboxes stuffed full of cash.

Then, with a stadium representative present, we'd sort the cash, count it, and the stadium would take their cut...I think it was 30% of our gross. This process alone would take more time than preparing and selling the light ropes, and then watching fireworks combined ever took; two to three hours.

The Domino's Pizza booths at the stadium would always have unsold pizzas, and I'd usually leave the stadium with ten to fifteen personal pizzas that would go in the downstairs fridge, about four feet from my bedroom door at home. It was summer, and in the week or two after the show, I enjoyed a pizza and a (glass!) bottle of Dr. Pepper whenever I pleased.

On the way home from the stadium, my Dad and I would always stop at a certain gas station downtown and put gas in the car while we made sure we still had our filled-to-bursting lunch boxes and laughed about the night's events. I'd usually request a soda and some jerky at these stops, and my Dad would see no reason not to be generous.

I get so emotional thinking about the years we sold light ropes. I think that it was at these shows that I came to understand the difference between the people selling hot dogs and nachos, and the people in the management offices, or the entrepreneurs in the crowd who looked and worked just like everyone else. The people in the booths would get a check in two weeks and a bad complexion from the fryer. The people with their own businesses went home with golden lunch boxes and the pizza equivalent of spoils of war.

It’s no wonder that I don’t work well for other people. I’ve seen what’s on the other side of that curtain.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

A Quick Trivia Question

A super-paranoid company offers a wireless network to its employees within its building. Of course, they implement all the latest security measures: WPA, VPN, MAC filtering, and disabling SSID broadcast. They also have all computers patched with the latest versions of all software.

Assuming that you can get into the building, what would be the easiest way to disable their wireless network?

Friday, June 23, 2006

Justice in the IT World

Wow. This will be my first post in quite some time. I hope it's good.

So today I was browsing a forum I frequent, and I ran across a thread discussing this. I warn you, it's a long read, but certainly worth your time if you like stories about getting people to do the right thing.

For those too lazy to read it, here's a brief synopsis: This guy (Evan)'s girlfriend lost her T-Mobil Sidekick, which two people picked up and decided was theirs. the couple take pictures of themselves which are instantly uploaded to T-Mobil's database and suddenly Evan finds out who has the sidekick. the site is very like a blog in that he uses it to follow his plight to get the Sidekick back. Two weeks later, after grappling with the NYPD who won't even help the guy until they feel some massive media pressure, the girlfriend finally gets the sidekick back.

Anyway, the whole story stuck me as I have a very strong sense of justice. It's amazing to me how much resistance this guy faced, both from the thieves and from THE FREAKING POLICE WHOSE JOB IT IS TO BRING CRIMINALS TO JUSTICE, just to get a stolen sidekick back. Even better, he turned down numerous offers to have ads on his site, which would have made him thousands of dollars. The only way he made money was through a donation through paypal, which was only to cover costs.

We need more people like Evan.

Peace.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Subtle Changes

So, you may have noticed that some things have changed a little.

First, the blog's name has changed slightly, as you can see above. As well as Phischkneght has served our group, I've set sights on bigger things. Bigger things means more people, and lots of people are intimidated by words they can't pronounce. Thus, the change to FishNet Tech. The URL to the blog will remain the same for now.

Also, we're limited as to what we can do with this web page. I'd like to have the ability to make commerce happen here, and as long as we're hosted by Google as a blog, that won't happen. And so, looking forward, I've bought www.fishnettech.com. Nothing is there yet, so don't bother clicking.

I have a grand vision for FishNet Tech, but not all the blanks are filled in yet, and it's too complex to state here anyway. Many of the chief players in this vision have already been spoken to, but if you feel you should be part of the vision, pull me aside and we'll talk.

Please note that none of this will happen overnight. You're not going to come to read a post next week and see a whole different page. And it's important to me that we maintain the same community attitude that we've fostered all along. So, please keep posting, keep commenting, and most of all, keep reading and referring your friends.

Last week I started running Google AdWords in the top bar on the blog. I got to choose the colors, and I tried to choose a color palette that wouldn't be annoying.

But I had a good laugh when I spotted this ad, right above my post bashing SCO:

So if you're having problems with SCO Unix, you poor sap, there's your ad.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

ROCI #5: Corporate Make-Believe (SCO Group, Outback Steakhouse)

Oh, speaking of Utah Mormons in business who make their colleagues look bad...ever heard of a guy named Darl McBride?

This particular tale of woe involves calling your core demographic thieves and then demanding money from them. Sort of sounds like RIAA, doesn't it?

I'm going to summarize SCO's (or rather Darl's) Big Idea here. I'm NOT going to get into proving claims right or wrong, or the specifics of code, or anything technical at all. This is a business strategy post, not a technical one. But, for more information about the nuts and bolts of SCO's gambit, you can check out Groklaw, and their extensive coverage of it. I would start here.

Once upon a time there was a company called Caldera. Caldera was one of the rights-holders on UNIX source code, along with Novell and The Open Group.

Caldera had a CEO (and founder) with a funny name, Ransom Love. In 2002, Caldera got a new CEO, again with a funny name. This was Darl McBride. Darl changed the company's name to SCO Group (stands for Santa Cruz Operation, for where the company was founded).

Darl had a big idea, which I was going to refer to as “Darl’s Big Idea That Will Either Make Oodles Of Money Or Kill SCO,” but the acronym DBITWEMOOMOKSCO is just too unwieldy.

So, Darl's Plan goes like this: "We’ve got UNIX, and our own flavor of Linux, but instead of buying our Linux or Unix OSes, people are using free distros (Linux distributions). How can we get people to start paying us for Linux instead of getting and using it for free? What if," Darl continues, "we claimed that the guys who wrote the core of the Linux OS stole some of our code? Then we could insist that every copy of Linux in use in the world has our intellectual property in it! And then we can demand money from everyone in the world who uses Linux!"

And so The Plan was born. SCO’s first task was to find someone to sue with really deep pockets so that a win in court would bring in a lot of cash and tell the world that SCO means business.

  • On March 6, 2003, SCO filed a lawsuit against IBM for $1 Billion.
  • On January 20, 2004, SCO filed a lawsuit against Novell for Novell to surrender all claims on UNIX.
  • On March 3, 2004, SCO filed a lawsuit against AutoZone for breach of contract with unknown punitive damages.
  • On March 3, 2004 (yes, the same date), SCO filed a lawsuit against Daimler Chrysler for breach of contract with unknown punitive damages.

These suits have uniformly not gone well for SCO, and the reason is very simple. SCO’s claims were complete fabrications, and the judges involved with these cases each has an entire cerebral cortex at his disposal.

Now SCO is a curse and a joke among techies worldwide. The SCO brand, once relatively unknown, is permanently damaged among those in the very industry SCO claims to serve. Now that’s a tough crowd.

And it’s because someone got a brilliant idea that should never have left the boardroom. And I mean this: There are great ideas, even terrific ones, which must die on your desk if you want to stay in business.

And on top of that last thought, make-believe is a dangerous game in business. Its consequences can be catastrophic, as seen above, but they can also be miraculous. As is the case with Outback Steakhouse.

You fall into one of two categories. You’ve either eaten at Outback or you haven’t. And if you haven’t, you probably think that going to Outback for a meal will be an Australian experience. This Australian experience has been brilliantly marketed, using tools like radio ads with actors sporting an Aussie accent, logos with kangaroos, and…well, that’s about it.

So that’s all it takes. An accent and a kangaroo, and you’re convinced that this place is Australian. That’s what I thought the first time I went to Outback. I sat at the table, and looked at the walls, decorated with boomerangs and pictures of Paul Hogan. And the menu was littered with Australian place names and “Throw that chook on the barbie 'cause it’s good tucker, mate, and watch your step about the wallaby.”

So, I’d seen it. No reason to go back, because that was Outback’s version of Australia and I had experienced it. Done. And then my meal arrived, and it was delicious.

My meal arrived, and it was delicious. And now when I think of Outback, I don’t think of Australia. The Australia schtick worked exactly as many times as it needed to: Once. Now I go because I like the way they cook steak, and cheese fries, and ribs, and whatever else I order there. And I’ve been there a lot.

The Australian-ness of Outback is all a fantasy. It’s not real. It’s not meant to last. Outback’s management understands that it won’t. You’ll only go once for the ambiance, and if you go back at all, it’s because of great service and great food. But without Australia, Outback is just another steak house. And it makes all the difference to them.

Rule Of Customer Interaction #5: When I was a kid, my dad would sometimes say; "Make your words soft and sweet, for you may soon have to eat them." And corporate make-believe really only comes in two flavors: 1.) Fantasy, and 2.) Deception.
If you deceive your customers, they'll do anything in their power to stop giving you money. But if you give them the right fantasy, and then chase that with something real that's even better than the fantasy (like excellent food, service, dependability, etc...), they'll look for opportunities to let you serve them.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Link Roundup #2

I really liked the last one. So here we go again!

TOWEL DAY IS NEXT WEEK. This May 25th is the five year anniversary if his death, so plan accordingly. I'll be getting my internets installed that day, so I'll likely have a bit of an audience for the affair, comprised of the Comcast installers and my in-laws.

This guy does Tesla Coils. Really, really big Tesla Coils. Lots of purple plasma ahead. My dad helped me build a Tesla Coil when I was in junior high. I think we should build another.

Are you confused about Net Neutrality? ASK A NINJA. Come on, like you know better than a ninja. I mean, he's a ninja, man.

And finally, a funny dance video. No, you'll like this. Really.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Don't Ya Just Love a Good Sandwich?

Hi, I'm Julianne. I'm new. For those of you who may not know me or how I came to be a member of Phischkneght, I'm Krys' wife and Jake's little sister.

When Jake started the ROCI I really took an added interest in what was going on. I like when companys are good to me. All it takes is one bad experience to lose a customer for life.

I asked Jake if I could post so that I could talk about one of my favorite places to eat: Great Harvest Bread Company. I love the place. The Great Harvest on Harrison Blvd. is my favorite. Its conveniently located just half a block from Jamba Juice. What more could you ask for than a fruity pick-me-up and a warm slab of nice, fresh, hot-from-oven-bread?

Their customer service is fabulous. They're always glad to see me, even if its at 7:30 in the morning. The bread is always fantastic. (Krys goes in every Wednesday for the pumpkin bread with chocolate chips. I go on Fridays for the nine-grain.) Get this: they started making sandwiches.

I wasn't feeling well the other day and I sent Krys out for food. He came back with the most amazing roastbeef on wheat sandwich I have ever had. It was perfect. It was exactly the sort of sandwich I would make for myself if I had the stuff. The beef was tender, savory, and plentiful. The lettuce was crisp and fresh. The tomatos were just ripe enough, and they put on avacado spread. Yum. I felt a lot better after that sandwich.

We went back again not long after. We got soup. I love this about this company, if you get some of their very tasty soup, they'll give you a slab of fresh-baked bread to dip into your bowl.

The best thing about it? The cost. It only costs about $6 for the whole shebang. Trust me, its well worth it.

Friday, May 12, 2006

ROCI #4: Corporate Suicide (Totally Awesome Computers)

At first glance, it's hard to know where to begin with TAC. But when I think about it a little more, it's immediately clear: Dell Schanze.

There's been a fair amount of TAC, and more specifically, Schanze bashing on this blog, but I really believe we can take some even-handed lessons from the demise of TAC, and I intend to glean them herewith.

First, this: What do TAC and Enron have in common? Denial. Great big, heaping servings of it. Both of these companies had people at the very top telling their subordinates, "Calm down, everything's fine." Enron and TAC each hid money problems and tried to save the farm by ripping off customers. And Ken Lay and Dell Schanze both insist to this day that they've done nothing wrong, in spite of mountains of evidence to the contrary.

The difference between Ken Lay and Dell Schanze? Shareholders. If Schanze had brought TAC crumbling down with thousands of shareholders to face after doing so, then Dell's claimed need to carry a gun might not be the simple self-delusion that it is.

And before we go on, I'd like to make this clear: I am not anti-gun. I'm anti-stupid.

Dell cares more about guns than he ever cared about TAC. Lay cares more about money than he ever cared about Enron.

And that's sad, and it's a bad sign for a business. A CEO or President position in a company is a commitment that you'll live and have priorities in accordance with the best interests of the business. I shouldn't be CEO of Apple Computer, because I like Windows, and recommend it to my friends. Maybe it's ok for a data-entry drone to go in every day, do his job, and hate the company all the while. But the guy at the top must care.

And even more importantly, he has to have a clue. Ken Lay was approached by his staff within Enron who had concerns about accounting practices. They were dismissed.

I know former members of Dell's inner circle. They told him to stop talking about guns. Stop carrying a gun. Stop putting gun stickers on your trailers. Stop being so crazy in front of media types. Stop buying time on late night TV to talk about religion. Stop comparing yourself to Joseph Smith and Jesus Christ in public. But as you can see below, Dell just doesn't get it.



And so, Jake's Rule of Customer Interaction #4 is a Special Dell Schanze Edition.

ROCI #4: If your staff are telling you something is wrong with the way you're running the company, SOMETHING IS WRONG. You've probably made smart hiring decisions, and if you haven't, then none of this matters anyway. You must listen to the people who have concerns. That's your job. In other words: Don't let your company die because you can't listen or change. If necessary, step down and let someone better suited to the job run the company.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Just What is "Critical" Anyway?

I don’t do Windows Updates as often as I should, but I did so today. I was a bit surprised at one of the critical updates that it wanted to install on my machine. It was Windows Genuine Advantage Notification (KB905474). The description says, “The Windows Genuine Advantage Notification tool notifies you if your copy of Windows is not genuine. If your system is found to be a non-genuine, the tool will help you obtain a licensed copy of Windows.”

What I don’t get is why this is a critical update. Sure, Microsoft would like me to have it, but what’s in it for me? My definition of a critical update is one that improves the security of my machine. There is no compelling reason given for me to download this tool and let Microsoft decide whether the version of Windows that I own really belongs to me. If they are going to cut off updates after determining that I have an invalid copy of Windows, then they should tell me at update time, rather than have me download something that will annoy me to no end if it fails to work properly.

So, until it really becomes critical, it doesn’t get downloaded.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

A Consumer's Perspective: The Hungry Bear

When I first started my job, I would often go to lunch with my father at The Hungry Bear, a pizza buffet place in Layton. The pizza wasn’t great, but for the price (and that it was an all-you-can-eat buffet) it was very good. The store is decorated with bear-related items like a large wooden bear, large stuffed bear hides, and a large diorama of a den. Clearly they have had a lot of fun with the theme, and the place has generally had a friendly, welcoming atmosphere.

But business hasn’t seemed to go well for them. They have a large store, but it isn’t ever full, and usually is nearly empty (at least at lunch time; dinner may be busier). Over the course of several visits, we noticed a steep decline in quality and the service. Instead of having several pizzas up at a time, you’d be waiting in line for pizzas that would disappear in moments. The ingredients seemed to be of lower quality, and they were cutting back on cheese (one of the fundamental ways of detecting a cheap pizza is to look for lots of places without any cheese cover). It didn’t take long before we stopped coming.

Today, we decided to give them another shot. It’s been about a year since we had last eaten there, and there was some hope that things had turned around. The parking lot had only a few cars in it, which doesn’t bode well, but when we got inside, we found nearly the same store that we had enjoyed (prior to the decline). The owner and at least one regular employee were both there, and there was enough pizza for the dozen or so people there. I noted a few changes from the earlier days:

First, instead of plastic plates that had to be washed, they had paper plates. These are the thin, cheap ones, and not the classy Chinet variety. They aren’t as good, and certainly not as solid. Greasy pizza and breadsticks quickly soak through, but if it is keeping them solvent, then it’s probably a good place to cut back without skimping on the important stuff (cheese).

Second, they always had at least one whole pizza up, but each pizza they made had about four varieties on it. They were part cheese, part pepperoni, part meat lover’s, and part supreme. Every time a new pizza came up, you knew that there would be something you liked, and typically there would be something for you whenever you went back to the buffet. Granted, this is a step back from when they would ask you what kind of pizza you wanted as you came in (so they could be making the kinds the customers liked), but it accomplishes the same effect, and in a way that keeps things flowing better.

Third, the bathroom wasn’t so vile. In the past, I couldn’t stand to be in there, but now I just feel a general sense of being in a place where people sometimes don’t wash their hands.

I know that this all sounds like back-handed compliments, but basically this is a nice, economy pizza place, and I commend them for doing what they can to make it work without selling cardboard pizzas. I have always liked the people there, and I hope that they succeed.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Phischkneght's 200th Post! YAY!

Pleasure first, then business. Tonight's post? A LINK ROUNDUP! YEE-HAW!


This Russian page with examples of cloned Disney animation cels left me flabbergasted. The one at the bottom, involving Robin Hood and Snow White is amazing.




I humbly ask that you consider doing your part to Fire Orrin Hatch. He's not technology friendly, and he's got a competitor for Senate this year who I think will do great things if he wins: Pete Ashdown. Please take a look.



I lifted the above photo from a post over at Creating Passionate Users. If learning how to market is at all interesting to you (Crystal, I'm looking in your direction), then have a glance at this.

What do you know? There is intelligent life in the music industry. Just not in the RIAA. Musical artist Jane Siberry has decided to let customers pay what they feel her music is worth to them, and then download that music in non DRM encumbered MP3 format. And the kicker is that she's written a letter to her fans saying that if they don't want to pay, they can just accept the music as a gift from her. And then she gives payment statistics right on the site. I think I'll scrounge up a little cash and buy this album.

Here's an excellent article by the authors of Freakonomics about a highly-paid statistician who quit to sell bagels on the honor system in corporate offices. He never gives up his statistics work, even in bagel mongering, and learns a lot about people, and businesses, and honesty in general. Highly recommended.

Finally, if you'd like to see Phischkneght get burned all to hell by Martians, click here.

-------------------

I never said that all posts from here on out would be ROCI's.

And Leon, Eric, Krys...have you all forgotten how to write? Eric does have an excuse: His own blog. But still, that's not a very good excuse. I hope you guys don't feel that I've hijacked this blog and that it's all mine now. "Forum" is still in the name, and I hope that it can remain so.

CORRECTION: Subway's free stuff now costs roughly twice as much as before, not more than twice as much as before. They changed the point structure so that 75 points now buys you a 12" sandwich, instead of 90 points. I've got about two free ones left.

I've heard nothing at all from Tasty's, which makes me wonder if Lane ever got my business card to the upper management-types at Tasty's. I'll have to go back soon and inquire.

And last of all, this really and truly is Phischkneght's 200th post. This is a thought that simply tickles me. Maybe I'll do a podcast or something in celebration. Maybe.

Monday, May 08, 2006

ROCI #3: Tiered Excellence (Leatherman)

I used to be a Swiss Army man. I didn't go anywhere without my Swiss Army knife in my pocket.

As a scout camp staffer, this served me relatively well, except for two things: 1) I always ended up losing my knife, and 2) pliers were always a problem.

I lost two nice Victorinox knives on my mission, and shortly after I came home, I found myself looking for something better. I still remember standing at Gart's Sports poring over all the potential knife selections.

I finally found a Leatherman that I liked. The price was close to what I would have paid for a new Victorinox (the finer Swiss Army brand, in my opinion), the tool seemed well-milled, and I felt that it would end up more useful than my previous choices had.

Since then, I've bought four or five new Leatherman tools. I like them. I use them hard. I wear mine everywhere but church and bed. I currently carry Leatherman's premium offering, a Leatherman Charge XTi. I won't go into the features here, but I think it suffices to say; this tool does more than grab stuff and cut stuff.

What I really want to talk about here is Leatherman's use of tiering. All of Leatherman's tools are made of basically the same stuff. Sure, some titanium handles here and some really hard steel there make for small differences, but by and large, it's all just plain old stamped steel.

When I bought my Charge XTi, I gave my Leatherman Wave, their former premium product, to my Dad. I love my Dad, and I was proud to give him such a fine tool.

The Leatherman Charge and the Leatherman Wave are almost exactly the same tool. The main difference between them is that the Charge has about 1.5 ounces of titanium that makes up the handles instead of the standard steel that they normally use. I just checked, and titanium runs about $11.00 a pound, which translates to about $1.03 for 1.5 ounces. The blades and bit options are a little fancier on the Charge, and I'm guessing that the extra fanciness raises production costs by $5 or so, at the maximum, per tool.

So, at the outside, we're talking a $6 difference in actual cost between these two tools. Take a moment to guess the price difference between them on Amazon. Go ahead; you'll probably be pretty close!

It's about $25. I was willing to pay the extra $25 (actually more because the tool was new at the time) for the updated premium product because of fancier blades, titanium handles, and gee whiz factor.

Now, please observe the humble Leatherman Kick . It has the same Leatherman plier jaws as almost every other Leatherman model. It's made of the same steel. The knife blade is every bit as sharp as the factory-new edge on a Wave or Charge. And yet, it only costs $30.

It costs $70 less than my current Leatherman, and I'm confident that the company still makes a pretty generous margin on this item. And the Charge can't possibly cost $70 more to produce.

Likewise, the Leatherman Micra (pictured below), Pulse, and Core lines provide different features, price points, and similar build materials and quality.

You see, Leatherman wants you for a customer no matter how much you want to spend. If I only want to blow $25 on a knife that will jet around on my keychain, Leatherman has me covered. If I just want to buy someone a functional gift for under $50 that won't get scoffed at, Leatherman has a place for me. If you happen to be a MythBuster, you tote a Leatherman Wave. If you're an alpha geek and you pack a Leatherman Charge XTi, you paid $100 or more for your you-can't-get-this-at-Wal*Mart grin.

And tiered products are everywhere:
  • Dell wants you to spend money with them whether you're looking for an entry-level laptop for $450 or a fully-loaded XPS gaming laptop for $4832. (I pulled this price directly off of www.dell.com just now.)
  • The movie theater charges you for a tiered experience. Want to see the movie on opening day rather than in a dollar theater? Want popcorn? Soda? Video games? These are all experiential add-ons that the theater knows some people are willing to pay for and some aren't.
  • Why do some MagLights take six "C" cell batteries while others only need two of them? Product tiering.
  • Why does Sony offer me 150 TV models between the 1.5" portable LCD TV for $75 and the 52" DLP High-Def set for $7500?
  • Why are there so many different Nintendo GameBoy models?
  • Why are there about 8 different kinds of Coke at the supermarket?
  • Why is there a big Wal*Mart in my city that's a couple of miles away and a little Wal*Mart that's only two blocks from my house? (Hint: Prices are not always the same at these two Wal*Marts.)
  • Why do private schools exist at all? (Sometimes a whole business is a single tier.)
What I left out above about Leatherman is that I have used their warranty. Did you know that Leatherman's standard warranty is 25 years? 25 YEARS! If my son breaks my Charge in 15 years when he's 19 years old, Leatherman will replace it for free.

Again, if the kind of business insight you need is "Offer an excellent product and give really good warranty service," then this is not the place for you. Clearly, running a market-leading business must involve the concepts embodied above. But to really kick some proverbial ass in the marketplace, it will sure help to have a firm grasp on this:

Jake's third rule of customer interaction:

Tier your product in such a way that you will serve budget, mainstream, and premium users. This will keep customers on the premium end from going to a competitor for features and quality, and it will keep customers on the budget end from looking to competitors for a better deal. It will also establish brand loyalty because it encourages customers to buy more products for different locations and tasks, complete collections, and transition to different product tiers.

Monday, April 24, 2006

ROCI #2: Customer Dialog (Tasty's Donuts)

I always think so much more clearly when I've written things down.

I've decided to trade in my Subway Club points for free sandwiches, and start going to Tasty's instead whenever possible. Half of why I've decided this is in the previous post about Subway. In general, I don't cough up enough positive company reviews on this blog, so here's one for the books.

Tasty's Donuts (motto: Try Me, I'm Tasty!) is a Utah-based donut and sandwich shop franchise. In the last five years or so, they've worked really hard to upscale their locations. It's worked. The Tasty's in Layton is spacious, comfortable, and has 1950's-era poster-sized family photographs on the walls with bags of Tasty's donuts photoshopped in. The brand is zany and lovable. When I was in high school, they had a regal donut mascot with arms, legs, eyes, and a crown.

Ah-hah! I guess he's still around!


I forgot about the scepter and bow tie. How could I be so silly?

Anyway, it's a great brand, but that's not why we're here. We're here so that I can tell you why I love Tasty's.

  1. Their sandwiches are really good. The produce is more fresh than at Subway, the meat tends to be cut thicker, and the bread is really great. Subway bread is good, but rises a lot and ends up really fluffy and tall. Tasty's bread isn't heavy, but it's substantial enough to hold a sandwich together and it has the added bonus of you can fit it in your mouth.
  2. Their donuts are really good. Krispy Kreme doesn't have a thing on Tasty's. They're that good.
  3. The service is always great. It doesn't matter if I drive up or walk in. Tasty's employees treat me like the gold that I am, whether they recognize me or not. (I'm still nobody, anyway.)
  4. When they mess up my order, I point it out and they make it right.
No matter how good your business is at what it does, you'll screw up from time to time. Proper handling of customer complaints can define your brand.

One day about two years ago, I ordered lunch at the drive through at Tasty's. After I left, I discovered the wrong size sandwich in my bag, and no free donut. I called the phone number on the receipt expecting someone at the store, and instead got Tasty's corporate office.

The guy on the line asked what the issue was, and I explained that the store had messed up my order. He asked how much I had spent, I said it was about $6, and then he took my address. The next day, there were six Tasty Bucks in my mailbox. Amazing.

On Friday, I went to Tasty's for lunch in the middle of a busy day. The lady at the register is friendly and chatty, and when I handed her my business credit card, she and I began talking about business. It was a delight to talk to her.

Today, I made sure to go back. There was a teenaged guy at the register. He greeted me positively, even giddily. When I chuckled at his exuberance, he kept it right up, and appeared to have a wonderful time serving me. Tomorrow I'm stuck having lunch in Salt Lake, but you could put pretty good odds on my ending up at Tasty's on Wednesday.

Here's the bad news. Tasty's may be on hard times. I don't know this for sure, but I do keep my eyes open.
  • They closed a store near Weber State University recently. I was sad to see it go, but I did go there often, and I never saw the place full. The Layton store frequently fills up.
  • They've pulled gelato from the stores. I never once saw anyone order some. I'm not sure if this is belt-tightening or just pulling the plug on an idea that didn't fly.
  • Their web site is completely offline. You can pull Google caches of parts of it, but they let their domain name expire in October of 2005.
But this is interesting. Again, I know nothing, I'm on the outside. I've just noticed the above and I'm connecting dots. Maybe correctly, maybe not.

What's interesting about it is what it means if they are in trouble. Tasty's has not made me suffer for their hardships. If I were any other customer, I probably wouldn't have noticed the three points above, and would leave the store with my meal thinking nothing is unusual at all.

Tasty's is obeying the first rule (Don't punish customers for internal problems). Subway did not. Tasty's costs a little more. I don't care.

--------------

Now. That was a really great review, especially from me. I lean critical in my musings, and I'm very picky. Having said that, I'm going to offer advice to Tasty's.
  • Re-open your web page. What I saw in the Google cache was creative and cheerful. Well done, but now it's gone. To folks like me, your web page is your front door. Give me a place to link when I say nice things about you.
  • Don't change a thing with your staff hiring and training. They're great. Especially the older lady at the Layton store. She's courteous and clever.
  • Consider adding free Wi-Fi hotspots to your stores. When I was a student at WSU Davis campus, I'd frequently stop in for a meal and leave. If you had free Wi-Fi, I'd have stayed and eaten more (and left more cash in your register).
  • Give me options for a healthier 6" bundle. Drop the donut, make my soda a bottle of water, and replace my fries with something that won't harden my arteries.
  • Get a little more creative with the sandwiches and breads. Can you make a bread with cheese baked onto it like Subway? Can you offer me a sandwich with cream cheese like Einstein's? Can you do something entirely original and surprise me?
Tasty's is doing a lot of things right, which is why I've been so nice here. I'm excited about making the Rules Of Customer Interaction a regular thing, but at the same time, "Be cheerful and have a good product," is just far too obvious. If you need that rule enumerated, then you probably don't need the rest of them anyway.

So I'm writing this episode's ROCI in the hope that Tasty's will follow it and sell like crazy, and take the bigger guys' customer bases right out from under them. Here it is:

Jake's Second Rule Of Customer Interaction:

A customer talking about you is an opportunity for dialog, brand growth, company refinement, and bottom line enhancement. Don't let such opportunities slide by. Gather people who are good at exploiting opportunities, and find a way to turn it to your benefit.

The added benefit of this rule is that it turns ground already covered into a rule. Now I can sleep at night.

UPDATE:


Today I ended up at Tasty's for lunch, as predicted. The giddy teen mentioned above was at the register again, and it turns out his name is Lane. Welcome to the blogosphere, Lane. And the older lady there mentioned above is Teresa, according to Lane.

I handed him a card with a TinyURL address on the back that points here, and told him that I'd written about the store on my website. He offered me a free donut. DO YOU SEE WHY I LOVE THIS PLACE? He actually gave me two free ones. Thanks, Lane!

I wanted to clarify one more thing: I sincerely hope, and would readily believe, that Tasty's is just fine financially. Since I wrote this post, I've heard unflattering things about the franchisee that ran the Harrison Tasty's, and they seem to make sense. The gelato thing was probably just a good business decision. The closed website is the big question mark for me. I hope that if we hear from someone high in the Tasty's hierarchy, they'll have something to say about that one.

-Jake.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

New Regular Feature: Jake's Rules Of Customer Interaction

I'm frequently peeved at the clueless ways in which the big boys deal with customers. Sometimes, it's just one store, or just one region, and sometimes the stupidity envelopes the entire chain.

I'm just guessing here, but I'm pretty sure that I'm bothered by this often enough that I can begin writing about it regularly. If I can do that, then I can make my own little guide. Thus, "Jake's Rules Of Customer Interaction."

My motivation for writing this is not only to get my views out there. Oh sure, I'd love it if the business world dropped everything and read my posts to get a pulse of what's going on out there. But that isn't going to happen. What I really want is insurance against a coming age of similar cluelessness. I know a lot in bursts, and sometimes I forget a lot of really important things that were once fresh to me. I want a place to read from a younger, more in-touch-with-the-consumer-mindset, clueful me. And that is this place. Off we go!

A semi-relative is getting married. She, and her semi-relatedness are unrelated, and her husband is mostly irrelevant also. Mostly.

He used to work at a Subway near my former home in Clinton. This was the period of 2000-2002 or so. At the time, Subway as a chain (as I got the story) was having a problem with stolen rolls of stamps.

You probably already know this, but Subway had for years a loyalty reward program that dealt with filling a card up with stamps and trading it in for free food. You had to make purchases to get stamps, unless you found a way to steal a roll of stamps from a Subway restaurant. Then you'd have a free 12" sandwich for every 12 stamps (or was it 10?) you licked and stuck to Subway Club cards.

I've heard that for a while, you could even buy counterfeit stamps on Ebay and pull the same scam with the same result.

As I was told, for a time each Subway location was to determine on its own what to do about stamp fraud. Some stores made no changes, and some decided to punish customers.

I'm not going to sugar coat this. The Subway stores that did anything but business as usual were punishing customers for an internal problem. This is an extremely unwise business strategy.

In light of this threat, the Clinton store first made the policy that only stamps from that store would be honored. I worked, went to friends' houses, and went on other trips at the time, and I'd generally end up with stamps from three or four Subway locations on each card. But my home Subway no longer wanted my stamps. I was unhappy, and I told the store manager as much. But why listen to customers? What do they know?

Next, this Subway decided that they would keep the Subway Club cards in a recipe box at that Subway. If you were a customer and you wanted a stamp, then you would have to put your name, address, and phone number on a card so that they could pull your card out of the box and apply the stamps themselves the next time you came in for a sandwich.

The privacy implications alone make my libertarian heart scream. I chewed on the manager for a while, and told her that I wouldn't be coming back unless they fixed it.

About six months later, I went back in. An employee there (might be the guy that's getting married) said he hadn't seen me in a while and thought I'd never come back. I asked him if the store had corrected its course, he said no, I left. I haven't been to that Subway since.

"But what about the new Subway Cards?"

Now when I go to a Subway, I hand a plastic card with a mag stripe on it to the clerk, and he/she puts a point onto it for every whole dollar I spend at the restaurant. I like Subway sandwiches a lot, and I generally carry 600-700 points on my card at any given time. Sometimes I use a few of them, but mostly I just let them rack up. The kid running the register frequently utters something like "OMGWTF?" when he/she sees how many points I have, and I usually make a joke about saving up for the Subway Cadillac. This is how we play our game. But is it ok?

There are two problems with the new card program.

First, if you pay attention, the free stuff actually costs more than double now. Six 12" sandwiches used to earn me 12 stamps, which amounted to a free 12" sandwich. If a 12" sandwich runs $5-7, then I spent $30-$42 for each free sandwich. Now a free 12" sandwich costs me 90 points, which is easy, because that means $90 whole dollars spent at the register, not including the change I spent on each purchase. If my purchase total came to $4.92, that's 4 points according to their rules.

So I'm being rewarded less than half as much, or I'm paying more than twice as much for the same reward as before. You can see it how you choose. Either way, Subway is getting screwed less (no stolen stamps), and I'm getting screwed more.

Second, Subway brought in the sandbags when the storm had already done the damage. The Clinton store management had already left me outraged and not spending money at Subway with no solution in sight. Subway had already punished their customers for a good couple of years before the first new Subway Cards were being handed out. They lost money because they couldn't swallow the idea of giving away a few more fraudulent sandwiches before they could get the new program in place.

Thank you, Krys, for helping me put words to the above idea.

Subway, Subway. For all your "Doctor's" this and "Fresh" that, you and all the king's marketers couldn't have seen this coming? Maybe I'm giving you too much business even today, in the age of digital points.

And so I give you, and all the world, and most of all me:

Jake's First Rule Of Customer Interaction:

Don't punish your customers for internal problems. Solve them from the inside out, and make the solution apparent to the customer only when absolutely necessary.

And thus it is written. Good night, brothers and sisters.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Hey, Look Over There, It's Free Advertising!

And that's what this post is all about, indirectly.

More to the point, this post is about openenness, respect for customers, brand growth and defense, and web savvy. And I'm going to do all this in less than five yards of column inches. Substantially less, I hope.

Here's the problem. I've used this blog over the last two years to call several businesses to repentance regarding customer handling and nonsensical internal practices. Archos, Baja Fresh, Acronis, Video Professor, and others have received fairly thorough bashings from me here, in this semi-public forum (anyone can read here, only a few can post here, anyone can comment here).

All of these companies have made obvious and embarrassing mistakes in reply to these posts, chief among these being simply ignoring the post.

The one exception, Acronis, made nearly as embarrassing a mistake in allowing a first-tier agent to post his not-so-well thought out rebuttal to my post, spelling mistakes and all, here for all the world to see.

Now this is just sad. Aren't any of these companies familiar with a neat little up-and-comer called Google? Right, gotcha, I know I'm not a huge PageRank contender. But other people are, and they're writing about these companies and not getting responses. And even more importantly, maybe someday my blog will be higher up in the PageRank stats.
Q: What then?

A: It will be too late, and that's worse than it sounds. There are two negatives here. I call them the Shame and the Real Tragedy.

The Shame is that I won't get my question answered. My readers and friends will wonder why the company wasn't smart enough to answer my question. They'll ask me if I ever heard back from that company, and when the answer comes back no, they'll think twice about doing business with that organization. That's the Shame; lost sales more or less up-front because the company powers simply don't care enough to have people watching for this sort of thing and taking care of it.

But as the name implies, the Real Tragedy is much worse, and it involves the differences between doing nothing, and doing something, and doing something great.

Let's use Acronis as an example. My complaint was that their hard disk management software wrecked my server. That's reason enough to trash talk the company, but I'm an even-handed guy, and I wanted to see if they would care enough about the issue to re-sell me on the company.

They did something, albeit poorly, and they deserve credit for that. To their discredit, they attempted to pass the buck, stating that it was the fault of Windows that Windows wouldn't boot any more after using their software. This is pretty ridiculous on its face, but if you'd like all the gory details and my point-by-point debunking of their reply, you can find the post here.

There are many ways to do a thing well, and there are many ways to screw a thing up. Our example, Acronis, had an abundance of choices that they had already made before I came along that would determine how I was dealt with.

And so my first proposal is this: Get your company to make a uniform policy on dealing with blog and forum posts and be proactive when dealing with brand attacks. The proactive thing is too smart to have come from me. See the above link for more about that.

Acronis' policy at the time was: "When a blogger complains in a public area of the internets, do nothing." I know this, because their tech support agent was clearly acting on his own, and had the company made a policy for this situation, I would have been given a response that at very least had been run through spell check first.

And that spell checked public reply would have been a step in the right direction. You can pretty much fill in the blanks on how they could have made the situation better for me and them all at once, or if you can't, you can see the suggestions I wrote at the time in the post linked to above.

That they didn't do this is not the Real Tragedy. The Real Tragedy is that they didn't do more than this. It really is a shame, because people are making all kinds of money on the net these days by doing unusually brilliant things. What about this....

Dear Jake-

We're so sorry you had a problem with Disk Director. Perhaps you're right about having a warning message before performing operations that may break Windows. Thank you for bringing our attention to this problem. We'll have our developers look at it right away.

Because we appreciate your help in this matter, we'd like to give you a free license for any one software product that we offer, and we'd also like to give the first 25 of your readers who comment to this post a free license for Acronis Disk Director, the premier disk utility available today, for free.

Simply send us their names and email addresses when you've collected the 25, and we'll send them license keys and download links.

Best Wishes,

Some Internal Functionary,
Acronis Software

THIS IS NOT A NEW IDEA! It's just a really smart idea that no one has tried since the first time. The makers of X1 Desktop Search had a problem when Google announced their own desktop search product, which was free. So X1 teamed up with a blogger and gave away 100 licenses to people who 1.) Linked to that post from their own blog, and 2.) posted a comment with their blog address and the email address to send the license to. It was brilliant. Jason Calacanis, the guy who owned that blog, got a boost, X1 Software got a boost, and I got a free X1 license worth $75. If you look, I'm commenter #55.

Now, 1.5 years later, I still recommend X1 Desktop Search over Google Desktop Search to anyone who asks, even though I still have never used my free license! EVER! That's almost embarrassing, but it isn't the point.

The point is that X1 had a huge competitor with a free product to contend with, and instead of doing business as usual, they did something outstanding. And now they're thriving. Curious, isn't it?

I propose that the Real Tragedy of ignoring user forums and blogs is not simply losing a few sales or displeasing a few geeks. It's losing the opportunity to make your brand outstanding by being different and innovative.

1.5 years ago, I would never have paid $75 for desktop search software. But now I'm considering using my X1 license, and if I didn't already have one, I'd consider dropping $75 on one. Why? Because there are enough people who feel that X1's product is so much better than Google's product that they're willing to pay the $75, and maybe if they're willing to spend that much on it, it's really worth it. Or it could just be that they're still around because they did something bold in the shadow of Google's 800 lb. software gorilla.

Archos missed a chance to talk to a card-carrying geek about what he wants to spend money on when it comes to an MP3 player.

Baja Fresh missed a chance to talk about what went wrong when they catered my party. Now they won't know why I've never gone back.

Acronis could have graciously admitted that their software broke my server, and creatively fostered goodwill. They missed that boat.

John Scherer of Video Professor has an opportunity to shine staring him in the face, but I've not heard a peep from him or any of his people.

CEOs must hire creative people to develop, market, and support a product. If you are the CEO, why not choose one of these creative geniuses to spearhead an initiative to manage your online brand? Have your genius do a daily Google search for new mentions of your product, and proactively reach out to those complaining. Don't let the ranters turn you off of making a bad review better. Make sure that there is special routing for messages coming in from people who want to hear from your company in a forum or blog. Create dialog with these people and find pain points in your product to fix. Be an eager listener to your customers if you want them to stay as customers.

Most of all, I liked writing this above so I'll repeat it: make your brand outstanding by being different and innovative.

Now, if I can just find that X1 Desktop Search license key...

UPDATES:

I found my X1 key, and I'm closer than ever to installing and trying it.

Also, I fixed the above link to Jason Calacanis' blog where the X1 contest happened.