Maria left the chat

One of my pet peeves is online tech support chat in which someone or something on the other side cuts and pastes obviously canned responses that are only tangentially related to the actual questions being asked by me, the customer.

Today’s fun experience involves Maria, a human-impersonating-pseudo-lifeform on the other side of a tech support chat. After about 5 minutes of weird responses that looked like someone randomly selecting canned tech support responses, I decided to cut to the chase and get off the topic of their product and on to something a little more, um, human.

————————————

You:
maria, you’re not an actual person are you?

Maria:
I am an actual person
Please feel free to ask your questions

You:
do you know what a turing test is?

Maria:
no
what is it ?

You:
it’s an artificial intelligence test designed to perceive whether someone on the other side of a chat is a human or a computer.
based on all of your answers, you would fail the turing test
all incredibly canned and impersonal
it’s very off-putting and feels super weird on my side of the chat
just some feedback in case it makes any difference

Maria:
Hello and thanks for your interest in our services!

You:
exactly what I’m talking about…

Maria:
I personally appreciate your attention

You:
what does that even mean?

Maria:
ok what is that you want to tell me feel free now

You:
I personally don’t appreciate your impersonal canned responses. it’s just bad customer service. if there’s an actual person on the other side of this chat it should feel like it to the customer. Do you understand that?
now you say something like: “Yes dear customer we value your input — all circuits busy, please hold”
just trolling for actual signs of intelligent life here
nothing. okay.

Maria left the chat

Rudy: An iTunes love story

The following story is true. The names have not been changed. The guilty are still guilty. And named. The heroes are also named. As they should be.

This story begins in D.C. on a road trip with my wife about one week before arriving in South Bend Indiana for a conference I was attending on the beautiful campus of the University of Notre Dame. The plan was for us to spend one of our evenings in our hotel room eating popcorn and watching the classic Notre Dame football movie, Rudy. Since we were staying at the Morris Inn, just 200 yards west of the historic Notre Dame football stadium, and since my wife had never seen the movie, this seemed a fitting part of our stay beneath the golden dome.

On our flight from New York to Chicago, my wife asked me if we in fact owned the movie Rudy, and if so, whether I had thought to bring it. My response was that, No, we did not own the movie, and that I had, in fact, thought to bring it, but as I said previously, we don’t own it. However, no problemo, says I, because it should be blindingly obvious to the casual observer that all one should have to do to obtain a copy of Rudy is to step foot in the Notre Dame Bookstore. This was my plan.

On the second day of our stay at Notre Dame, I found a gap in the schedule and beelined to the Notre Dame Bookstore where I found multiple copies of Rudy on Blu-ray, but nothing on DVD. Another search by my wife turned up nothing. A third, more thorough search by me turned up a single straggling copy of Rudy on DVD, buried beneath some other Fighting Irish propaganda. For $26! You’ve got to be kidding me. Ha, bookstore prices. Of course. Not a problem. There’s a Walmart in this town, right?

That night we ate at a nice restaurant conveniently located near a Walmart in South Bend, and after dinner we made our way to the DVD section of the world’s most popular store. No luck. Ask the clerk. Ah, they only carry Rudy during the football season. Are you serious? This is South Bend, Indiana, for crying out loud! You’re telling me there isn’t a perpetual demand for Rudy at an arbitrary Walmart in South Bend Indiana on any arbitrary day in the off-season?! Alas, this was, inexplicably, the case.

Not to fear. I noticed a video rental joint not more than a few blocks from here. Surely they will have what we need. A quick stop, one question to the clerk, and the much sought after DVD was in my hands for the sum of 54 cents. We were in business.

Back to the hotel, pop some popcorn (in the break room of the kitchen staff downstairs at the end of the hall — don’t ask), and settle in to watch the DVD on my MacBook. Approximately 10 minutes into the movie, as Rudy races with great emotion through his fellow high school seniors to hit the pad carried by his coach, the movie freezes. We stare at the grimacing Rudy, wondering if he’s going to knock the stuffing out of his coach after he unfreezes. The DVD player on my Mac gives up the ghost and dies. We restart everything, but we’ve lost about 10 minutes of the movie and the bulk of the plot setup. Unacceptable. We instead decide to watch Invictus (inspirational rugby movie, almost the same thing), and commit to plunking down the cash at the Bookstore the following evening.

One day later I scan the DVD shelf in the Notre Dame Bookstore, but find that the random copy of Rudy that I had rustled up a day before has apparently been snagged at what now seems like a bargain basement price of $26. We roll back to the hotel, somewhat dejected, unwilling to romp around town further trying to find a local establishment with enough Fighting Irish school spirit to stock a functional copy of the best Notre Dame football movie of all time.

This is when the voice of Steve Jobs comes into my mind, and I realize that there may yet be a way. I jump on iTunes, and quickly locate the heretofore elusive movie. For just $9.99 (which now feels like an absolute bargain) I secure a downloadable QuickTime movie, consuming only 1.29 GB of hard disk space in the process. No physical disc to secure in some random building in a random town. No plastic to scratch and corrupt. Just a file. Just bytes flowing through the tubes to my laptop and the movie playing for me in my hotel room.

In about the time it took my wife to secure popped popcorn (downstairs, down the hall, etc.), we were watching the elusive movie on my Mac. The beautiful thing is that it may as well have been on my iPad, sitting with the squirrels under the trees near Touchdown Jesus. But it happened to be in the hotel room, on my Mac.

As always, the brilliance of Apple is not, strictly speaking, the engineering (although that’s clearly necessary). It’s figuring out what I want to do, plus when, where and how I want to do it, and then just making it ridiculously easy for me to do that. Most companies ignore that little part because it doesn’t feel like academic or engineering rigor. It’s not “the hard stuff.” But at the end of the day, it’s really just about the only thing that actually matters.

Rudy! Rudy! Rudy!

Chick-Fil-A Labor Day Giveaway: FAIL!

I learned midday today that Chick-Fil-A was hosting a fairly bold and dramatic nationwide promotion for Labor Day: Show up = Free chicken sandwich. Nothing to buy. The only catch is that you had to arrive sporting the logo of your favorite sports team. No problem. After Saturday’s BYU-Oklahoma game (BYU 14, Oklahoma 13), donning some Cougars paraphernalia would be no sacrifice at all. :)

Chick-Fil-A Giveaway

My next task is to find a local Chick-Fil-A. I’ve seen billboards on the freeway so I know there’s one nearby, but I’ve never been to it. I then realize the brilliance of the promotion. Get everyone in the area to realize that there is a Chick-Fil-A nearby and build some local Chick-Fil-A love and loyalty with a fairly modest investment per customer on their part.

Turns out my local restaurant is in the food court of the University Mall in Orem, Utah. No problem, especially since we have five cousins from up north to return home anyway. Next I have to supply sufficient BYU logos for all 12 small people. Not a problem at our house. I raid my t-shirt shelf and we’re in business.

Next stop, Orem! Avoid Labor Day freeway parking lot by taking back roads. No sacrifice because we’re heading to Orem to feed 14 people for free just because we show up in BYU gear. Starting to feel some positive vibes about Chick-Fil-A.

Arrive at the mall outside the food court and 14 of us pile out of our 15-passenger van (yes, I do own one), all decked out like it’s game day. As we near the door, an interested bystander says to me casually, “Going to Chick-Fil-A? They’re all out.” I go, “No!” in sort of mock horror. He says, “They’ll give you a coupon. Just thought you ought to be prepared.” Hmmm. Well, understandable that they might run out with such an unrestricted giveaway, although far more classy to actually stock enough chicken to get through the day. I mean it’s still hours before closing. Well, let’s go get our coupons and see what they do to make lemonade out of this.

No dice on the lemonade. I roll up to the counter while the other 13 Cougar fans in my party stand back so as to not create a mob scene at the register. Girl in the uniform sees us and says, very apologetically, “I’m sorry, we’re all out of free chicken sandwiches.” I then calmly reply, “We’ll take 14 coupons then.” She raises her eyebrows, I gesture behind me toward the cheering section, she coughs up the coupons. This is the moment when the Fail emerges. Out of curiosity I ask her if they’re completely out, or if I can still buy a chicken sandwich if I really want one. Just call it a hunch on my part. She says that, yes, in fact, I can still buy a chicken sandwich. Apparently it’s just the free ones that they ran out of. The ones you buy they still have in stock. Yikes.

I take my 14 coupons and then I look at her and say with that gentle but slightly condescending grandpa tone of face that I’m trying to perfect, “You know, if I were running the show here, I’d give away the chicken sandwiches until there wasn’t a single sandwich left for sale.” To her credit, she gives me a pained and knowing nod and says, “I know. I agree.” Much smarter play on her part than whatever management was thinking.

Meanwhile, the good cheer is just gone. I was planning on spending no cash for dinner, and now I’m standing in a food court with 12 hungry kids in tow, and the teenage boys are getting that vacant look in their eyes like they’re about to kill something large and eat it raw if necessary. I now realize that I’m about to fork out greenbacks to feed this crew because I am a doofus with no backup plan. Of course, I’ll be danged if I’m going to now go back to the Chick-Fil-A counter and order 14 chicken sandwiches (the ones you pay for, which are, in fact, in stock). So instead we slide over and cause a near riot situation at the Taco Bell counter and drop $40 there plus another $12 for my wife and me at whatever it is in the food court that’s trying to be Panda Express. 50 bucks down and all I have to show for it is a detour plus 14 coupons for mythical chicken sandwiches.

Memo to Chick-Fil-A management: If you’re going to play an incredibly bold marketing game, then play the game boldly. Stock enough chicken to feed the entire community, because in a college town people are definitely going to show up for free food. When you run out, start giving away other stuff, whatever you’ve got. It’s a make or break day. When your cupboards are completely bare, and you’ve given away the last french fry, put up a huge sign saying something like, “Thanks for your love, [your city name here]! You cleaned us out!” and then stand there cheerfully handing out the coupons to anyone that walks by with a logo on. Act like it made your day to get cleaned out by the locals on Labor Day. If that wasn’t your point, then why run such a gutsy promotion in the first place?! Instead, you come across looking chintzy when you could have been a hero and really built some customer affection. My wife is a sucker for this sort of thing, and you had her right up until, “You can still buy one if you want.” I’m not seeing her as a regular after this.

Memo to myself: Figure out a way to motivate my lab students using coupons for free chicken sandwiches…

quietube: YouTube without the distractions

Like a lot of things I encounter surfing “the InterWebs” these days, I have a serious love/hate relationship with YouTube. The positive value is fantastic. The negative skank factor is a huge turn-off, and frankly… almost impossible to turn off. Even when you visit a video with redeeming value, there’s inevitably some goofball from Peoria using the comments section to demonstrate via effusive expletive his lack of expressive verbal power. So dumb. So unnecessary. And let’s not forget the video response spams enticing the viewer to explore skanky content, and the “related” videos on the side, in case there wasn’t enough skank elsewhere on the page.

Enter quietube (www.quietube.com). The concept (and the execution) is brain-dead simple. Go to the page. Here’s what you’ll see.

quietube.png

Drag the little box that says “quietube” to the bookmark toolbar in your browser. The next time you are looking for something on YouTube, as soon as you find it, just click the “quietube” button in your bookmark toolbar, and you’ll be taken to the same video on the quietube site, where you’ll see… (drumroll please) … just the video. No comments. No video responses. No skank. You can then copy the URL of this quietube version of the video and email that link to friends and family, knowing that you are providing them with some cool and/or valuable entertainment without thrusting them into a skanky Internet back alley.

You need to understand that this isn’t a YouTube replacement. You can’t go to quietube and surf YouTube from there. But you can at least watch without undesirable garbage, and send links to YouTube videos with greater safety.

As an example, I present to you, one of my favorite viral videos of all time, “Charlie Bit My Finger,” courtesy of quietube.

For the Twitter community and others concerned with URL length, you can click the link entitled “TinyURL for this page” and be taken to TinyURL which will deliver you an even shorter link to the same video. So for the TinyURL afficionados, you can check out the example video here.

Internet slogan for the decade with no name: “Less is more.”

Memo to the industry: There’s a market for non-skanky content. :)

The BCS and the “grass ceiling” or “Welcome to the NCAA. No you can’t play for it all.”

The single most glaring inequity in the Biased Cash System is the “grass ceiling” that grants to a little more than half of the teams in college football the right to play for a national championship, while the other half simply doesn’t get to. You have a situation this year with currently six teams from four non-BCS conferences in the top 25 (four have been in the top 11, three in the top ten), and at most one with automatic access to a big money bowl game come January. That’s bowl game, not to be confused with having a chance to play for it all. Meanwhile mediocre (but anointed) conferences get to send their barely-ranked champ to a large payout bowl as long as they can muster six wins. Repeat in your mind… This is not a problem. Have some Kool-aid.

In 2004 the season ended with four undefeated teams. Of the three anointed teams with a right to play for it all (USC, Oklahoma, Auburn), two were given the chance to suit up and let the players and coaches decide who was best. Auburn got shafted (no sympathy — they’re in the family by their own choice). The BCS Kool-aid vendors spouted about Utah getting to play Pitt in a BCS bowl as proof that “the system works.” Works for whom?! USC and Oklahoma play for the crown while undefeated (and never-challenged) Utah got to play Pitt, mediocre champion of the mediocre (but BCS-anointed!) Big Least. If your goal is to keep the championship inside the family, then the system works. Urban Meyer had to go to Florida to put a national championship on his resume. Can’t do that in the Mountain West. Not permitted by the cartel. You got to play Pitt for $13M. The system works. You should be happy. Go home and celebrate that we let you ride at the front of the bus. Once. The system works. You love big brother. The system works. More Kool-aid?

The poster children for why the BCS is not only broken, but monopolistic, segregated, and un-American are (this year) Utah, Boise State, Ball State, (and in years past) Marshall, Tulane, and every other great one-loss team in the NCAA College Football Non-National Championship Division that went home after the holidays without having a prayer of playing for it all (or even showing just how good they really were).

If the BCS were Microsoft we’d already be in anti-trust hearings.

Burger King — Most Valuable Bag?!

It’s Saturday night, I’m on the way home with approximately half of my kids, it’s late, I have no idea what to feed them once I get home, so I make a semi-irresponsible decision to buy burgers at the local fast food joint rather than whipping up something more nutritious and cost effective in my own kitchen.

This is when I hit pay dirt, and realize it’s been far too long since last I blogged. About anything.

I’m sitting with the kids, inhaling my Whopper Junior (trademark, copyright, patent pending), when I begin to read the brown paper bag that the food came in. Don’t ask. I’ve been a compulsive reader since I was first a reader, and I sort of read anything that passes before me, mostly out of instinct (and compulsion).

To assure you that I’m not making this up, I’ve included a photo of the side of said bag.

Most Valuable Bag

MOST VALUABLE BAG

Huh? OK. I’m game. Let’s read on.

In football, the “twelfth man” is a crowd that helps a team to victory through cheer.

What the?! Yeah, I know what the “twelfth man” is, but “helps a team to victory through cheer”?! Who writes like this? Nobody that follows football. Now the “Valuable Bag” has my full attention.

This bag, emblazoned with a #12 on its bottom, is like the twelfth man of your lunch.

The twelfth man of my lunch?! Helping my lunch to victory through cheer, no doubt. Of course, this is dinner, but let’s not get too picky.

Because while you can’t actually eat it, the meal you are about to enjoy wouldn’t be possible without this MVB.

Um. OK. Several problems here. First of all, the dangling “it” leaves me wondering whether it’s the meal or the bag that I can’t actually eat. A few seconds of thought, plus one re-parsing of the sentence, leaves me with the inevitable conclusion that it’s the bag that I can’t actually eat.

But now, a logical fallacy has stopped me mid-Whopper (trademark, copyright, patent pending). This meal wouldn’t be possible without the bag?! What about the traditional “For here? Or to go?” question, which, if answered, “For here” would cause the food to be served on a plastic tray, rather than in a bag (valuable or not), thus providing an existence proof against the claim that the meal I am about to enjoy wouldn’t be possible without this MVB? Huh?! What about that, SmartBag?!

Still one thing sticking in my craw. The Most Valuable Bag claims that emblazoned on its own bottom is “#12″. This I gotta see…

#12

Multiple problems. 1) Is this what you would really call “emblazoned”? 2) “12#”? Don’t you mean “#12″? I think “12#” would, strictly speaking, be read “twelve pounds,” which makes no sense whatsoever. 3) What the heck does “1-5″ have to do with anything? Is this the snap count? An expression that evaluates to -4? The number of eligible receivers? 4) If “12#” is “emblazoned,” what do you call “1-5″ which is similarly “emblazoned” on the bottom of the MVB, but in a font size twice as large?

What can all of this possibly mean?! I’m struggling with explanations.

I can only come up with one possible takeaway from this experience…

Whenever possible, don’t outsource your advertising campaign to non-native English speakers who don’t follow football, and have never actually ordered fast food from your establishment.

Second possible takeaway… During this Fall football season, the Most Valuable Blog recommends that you help your team to victory through cheer. Twelve pounds. Negative Four.

Cuil Internet Search Engine — Um… Not found?

My friend and former student John Jenkins alerted me to the following potentially embarrassing design flaw in the newest entry in the search engine wars. The challenger — Cuil (pronounced Cool), designed by former Google engineers and touted by them as a vastly superior search engine.

I’ll let John’s text from the email he sent me introduce the flaw:

First rule of creating an index of web pages to search: make sure to include your own web page.

cuil.JPG

iPhone screen capture

I haven’t blogged much about my iPhone. (OK, lately I haven’t blogged much about anything…) But the latest firmware release (2.0) to my iPhone provides me an amazingly slick and valuable tool — screen capture of the iPhone’s display.

First of all, doing it is amazingly simple. You hold down the home button for a second and then press the off/lock button (on the top right of the iPhone). The picture of the display is saved in the photos. From there you can do whatever you can already do with pictures on the iPhone, such as email them.

So why would I use this? I can imagine a number of situations. An obvious one is simply any situation in which you’d like to show someone how cool your iPhone looks when it does whatever. Very useful for bloggers, educators and obnoxious Apple aficionados of every ilk.

Another involves the really helpful utilities on the iPhone, like the built-in Google maps feature. Imagine you are on the road while your friend is trying to figure out how to get to your lunch meeting location (in this case Nicolitalia Pizzeria in Provo, Utah — possibly the best authentic Italian pizza place in the valley). Imagine further that your friend is not cool enough to have an iPhone with the built-in Google maps feature. You go to Google maps on your iPhone, type in the search string “Nicolitalia pizzeria, provo, utah,” find a map of the place. You find that the built-in Google maps pin places Nick’s in the middle of University Parkway. No problem, you drop a second pin yourself and drag it right into the parking lot in front of the destination. You now snap a picture, and email it to him from your phone. Your friend is momentarily enlightened. Lunch goes off without a hitch. He will be more consistently enlightened when he springs for his own iPhone and when he becomes a regular at Nick’s.

The attached photo is my live demo of how this actually works. Yes, I did in fact email this to myself from my iPhone. Yes, that is in fact Nicolitalia Pizzeria. Yes, they do in fact have the best authentic Italian thin crust pizza in the valley. And now you have a map to get there…

If you see me there, say “Hi.” :)

Nicolitalia Pizzeria

Low-tech fix for the PowerPoint autorecover problem

Back in July, I wrote about an unbelievably frustrating bug in PowerPoint 2004 for Mac. I got burned back in July and lost a very productive several hours of work. Tonight I’m banging away late at the office because I’m back in the classroom tomorrow at BYU and I’m not quite ready for prime time. For reasons that I’ll refrain from explaining fully, I needed to do some work on PowerPoint again. I started in, shocked anew at how inferior the Mac product is to PowerPoint for Windows (which I consider an excellent product, by the way), but that’s a side note. Just a little way into my renewed PowerPoint adventure, I remembered the painful episode of death from last summer, and decided to protect myself this time. The answer of course, is to manually save often, but my problem is that I get into flow and suddenly an hour or so has gone by and I haven’t saved anything.

The answer is my handy dandy Pyrex kitchen timer. I actually keep this thing in my office for various situations in which I want to manage my time, remind myself when some time period has passed, or wake myself up after an uncomfortable nap in my chair, whatever.

Pyrex timer

The Pyrex kitchen timer has one simple but cool feature that I’ve come to value. If you set it for a particular time (say 5 minutes), it will beep when the time runs out (naturally, so that’s not the cool part). If you press the “Start/Stop” button just one time, the timer will stop beeping and launch the timer again. So in practice, here’s what I did. I set the Pyrex timer for 5 minutes. As soon as it beeps, I press ‘Apple-S’ to save, and press the button on the timer. Then I keep working until it beeps again. Repeat until project complete. It turns out to have been fairly non-invasive in terms of my flow, and an emotional lift in terms of my sense of well-being while using PowerPoint for Mac.

Punch line: Just about 15 minutes ago, after spending a very productive hour working on some slides, and literally about 30 seconds after the last time I had manually saved, PowerPoint 2004 for Mac puked its guts out just like in July, offered to restart and fix everything, and then came back devoid of prior content, happy and lobotomized. Other than having to manually reopen the file (of which PowerPoint 2004 for Mac disavowed all knowledge), I’m back and productive… In a sort of “my software package hates me and wants to ruin my productivity” sort of way.

Don’t Believe the Hype: The 21 Biggest Technology Flops

Don’t Believe the Hype: The 21 Biggest Technology Flops by David Haskin

This is a very interesting collection of alleged over-hyped tech flops, put together by Computerworld. Some of these are specific products that clearly bombed (e.g., Microsoft Bob, the Apple Newton), while others are broad areas that may yet materialize into something extremely cool (e.g., virtual reality, smart appliances). In any case the main point is not just that the technologies flopped, but that they failed to live up to the hype. At the very least, it’s thought provoking with respect to design. Always easier to see misguided or over-anxious design in hindsight.

Here is the list:

  • Apple Newton
  • Digital audio tape
  • DIVX
  • Dot-bombs
  • E-books
  • IBM PCjr
  • Internet currency
  • Iridium
  • Microsoft Bob
  • The Net PC
  • The paperless office
  • Push technology
  • Smart appliances
  • Virtual reality

Runners-up

  • Apple Lisa
  • Dreamcast
  • NeXT
  • OS/2
  • Qube
  • Speech recognition
  • WebTV

They then put it to a vote of their readership, and the losers were (drumroll please)…

  1. Microsoft Bob
  2. Dot-bombs
  3. The paperless office
  4. DIVX
  5. Iridium

The follow-up article is actually as interesting as the initial, including rants and raves from their readership about flops that should have been included but weren’t (Windows Vista, Zune), those that were not viewed as flops at all by some significant cross-section of readers (OS/2, virtual reality), and those that were very controversial (Y2K, flop or success?!).

If I had a great deal more time on my hands right now, I’d love to dive into each of these legendary once-hyped technologies and discuss in greater detail. Meanwhile, your comments are welcome.