Copyright

All blog posts, unless otherwise noted, are copyrighted to the Author (that's me) and may not be used without written permission.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Working Class Blues

I rarely discuss work on this blog. However, after the last two and a half weeks or so, I need to vent.

I've been working a project since last summer/fall. It started as a three-month contract that got extended a couple of times until, right now, I'm working through the end of April. And that is likely to get extended to the end of May or June. This is all great news for our bank account, even if we have to put up with the headache of figuring out taxes for two countries.

The issue came up not quite three weeks ago. A new content guru came back to the project and became my primary resource for editing the 250 page manual I was working on. She is a very good reviewer, overall, and knows the content quite well, which is good. However, she decided with only a few weeks left that she didn't like the manual's standard layout and changed it. I mentioned that this was a pretty significant scope change and asked about the due date. After some hemming and hawing, I learned that the 2/21 due date was not really the due date; the main PM on the project had a built-in "just in case" week and the real due date was 2/28. He wanted me to shoot for the 2/21 date as best I could, but could find it acceptable if I went over a day or two.

She then made more scope changes to the document after another week. I cried foul and mentioned that these scope changes were making it difficult for me to hit that deadline, and I was worrying about the 2/28 deadline. We have to hit that deadline, they said. Do the best you can.

And then, with only a few days left, they decided that I needed to change all of the pictures/graphics in the document to something more like the end-client's devices. I'm a technical writer, not a graphic designer or artist. I mentioned scope change for the third time and got the same Do the best you can response back.

I worked every day from 2/7 through 2/26, including weekends and overtime on week days. The only reason I didn't work on 2/26 was because I was waiting for edits that I thought would arrive and never did. During that time, my content adviser and editor took each weekend off, left early on a number of days, and generally treated our deadline like it didn't matter or wasn't a concern, even though I was constantly being told it was a drop-dead date. This included telling me that she would work this last weekend, but she only answered two emails and only sent me a partial review of the content, and then did not check her email or "finish" her work until the start of her work week. I put finishing into quotes because she just "didn't get to" one entire section and will get to it the next time she's in the office... which is tomorrow, a day AFTER the deadline.

What I dislike about this is that, at this point in the process, I can't do work without her edits. She's the gatekeeper of the knowledge. Yet the PM of the project was holding me to due dates and deadlines without considering his own people's processes and participation requirements. Nor did this PM tell his workers that they needed to work the weekend or overtime in order to help me get the project done (or as close as we could come).

During the entire time I've been working this contract, each person involved has taken at least one vacation. The content guru I'm working with has taken two and has continued to work her "normal" schedule regardless of due dates and pressing needs.

I live by the old adage "improper planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part." However, due to conflicting values and direction by the overall PM of the project, they managed to make an emergency on my part with their lackadaisical responses to my needs and to the due dates. Luckily, working much overtime and being a generally conscientious guy, I managed to hit the deadline, as best as I can with missing sections. The sections my content adviser didn't get to are simply being marked in red as "to be determined" for now and we're moving on.

And, for the remaining projects upcoming, I'm going to be less willing to put in a great deal of overtime if my coworkers treat the remaining deadlines in the same manner. If they don't care, why should I? (Okay, that's not true; everyone who knows me knows that I will still do my best to be professional and will still strive to make deadlines. But I'll be thinking it and will likely raise a bigger stink about it going forward.)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Music for the Masses

Beginning last year I noticed that TV shows, TV movies, and theatrical releases all seemed to have the same problem: they didn't know when to shut up. By that I mean that so many TV shows and movies were filling every possible second with some sort of music or noise. It really came to the fore when my wife and I watched a few older films over the holidays.

It is my feeling that constant sound, especially a waxing and waning score, is a way for filmmakers to hide imperfections in their work. I seem to see this issue the most on long-running shows, shows with small budgets or unknown casts, and "B" movies. However, it is not just those that have the issue.

The reason for this post is that I watched the current Smallville episode last night via TiVo. I have enjoyed Smallville for most of its run, and this final season has, for the most part, been superb (for what it is, of course). However, every single episode this season, and in particular those directed by Tom Welling himself, have had a loud score rumbling over every single scene of every episode. This last episode, "Beacon," was especially bad for this: every scene with Alexander or Lionel had a heavy, driving, oppressive score overlaid. So loud on occasions that it actually drove out the background noise and impeded the main actors from being heard. Even the lighter moments at the end, as Clark takes another step toward putting on The Suit and taking his place at the head of the super-hero table had a lighter, but still overly loud, score on it.

It is to the point where I'm noticing it everywhere. Theatrical releases are not immune. We've seen a number of movies lately that seem to be driving the score home.Gone, it seems, are the days of a David Lean having the long shot of Omar Sharif riding toward Peter O'Toole on horseback with nothing but the sound of the wind in the background (an iconic scene that is often taught in film school) in Lawrence of Arabia.

I blame the current glut of super-hero and horror films on the market for this. Action movies in general and horror and super-hero movies in particular have a tendency to "fill the void" with music that is intending to elicit the reaction the filmmakers are trying to achieve. This is usually because they aren't good enough filmmakers to elicit that reaction using good technique (i.e., good acting, specific camera angles, well-written scripts, and real, actual sound effects, et al). Instead, we get jarring music meant to make us laugh, gasp, startle, or cry. It is rare these days for a movie to allow the audience to experience quiet, and hear nothing.

Matter of fact, with the exception of a film like, say, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, where the music is an integral part of the story and has "real world" sources throughout the movie (car stereo, live bands, jukebox, MP3 player, etc.), for the most part, a film has failed if you notice the score at all. If done right, the score should blend and heighten the impact of a scene without the audience being at all conscious of it.

Pay attention the to TV shows and movies you watch this week. See if you don't find at least a few that have an overwhelming score that simple will not the show/film breathe. I bet you find at least one.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Bell and Bell Mobility, Revisited

A while back, I told you about an exasperating incidence I had with Bell Mobility. A FB contact suggested that it wasn't actually Bell Mobility calling, but some other group that uses the Bell Mobility name, gets you to switch, and then you are part of their network.

As you can see in that previous article, I called Bell/Bell Mobility (I had to call both, because each side of the issue kept telling me that it wasn't their purview and I had to call the other). The Bell representative agreed with my FB source, and claimed that it wasn't Bell of any sort calling either, and that it was likely a scam. I was angry, and I insisted that she put our home Bell phone number and my Bell Mobility number as Do Not Call. She claimed it wouldn't help, because it wasn't Bell or Bell Mobility calling me. I insisted, and insisted that she do it for me right then and there and let me know when it was done. I was willing to wait. This required her to actually contact Bell Mobility herself, with my information, and do it for me.
As an aside: Companies "streamline" their call centers to the various divisions they have internally. It makes sense to them. But what they often fail to understand is that the customer is calling the company, they don't care about divisions. For example, in this case I had a Bell issue. They said "Bell Mobility" but were calling my home Bell telephony number. So I called Bell. And neither side wanted to own up or help me, because each side thought it was the other side's fault. You know what? I DON'T CARE! To me, it is a Bell issue and someone at Bell better fucking help me with it or I stop using Bell. It's that simple. I don't think I'm unique in that way of thinking, either.
After many minutes getting approval from her manager, calling Bell Mobility, working it out with them, and then doing it for our home number as well, she came back on the line and let me know it was done. She did gave me a parting, "But you'll still get calls, as it isn't us who are calling you." Fine, whatever. I was happy at the time.

Fast forward to today. Interestingly enough, ever since a few days after that conversation, I have not received the "scam" phone call from the India call center again. Now, it could be a WILD coincidence that my strong-arming Bell and Bell Mobility into placing our numbers on an internal Do Not Call list just happened to coincide with that scam India call center ceasing its operation but, since I know friends and family in the area are still getting those calls, I tend to doubt it.

What I'm learning via some other stumbles that Bell has made is that the company, basically, thinks its customers are stupid sheep that deserve to be fleeced. It tried to get UBB passed so it could fleece an entirely new set of customers. It has had some issues with the cable side of things, over-billing and changing packages so that people have to upgrade to continue getting the channels they used to. Basically, the company's name is mud in Canada, now more than ever. Yet they made earnings of $1.5 billion in 2009, with growth of between 6-10% in all sectors. However, since Bell and Rogers (with Shaw and Telus) have a virtual monopoly on TV, phone, and mobility in Canada and don't give a rat's ass about the people, because the people have nowhere else to go. And Canadians are too polite to sue.

Bell had better watch itself. You can only fleece the people so long before they will get wise, rise up, and take you down. The people seem to be at that stage right now. People are angry enough that they are actually talking about suing, which is practically heresy here. I hope it happens. I hope the people don't back down and keep pressing Bell to amend its ways and do the right things a company should be doing.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Home Run

I don't feel like I hit an electronics home run often. Usually, when I purchase anything electronics, I simply stop looking at my flyers and emails because I know that something better will be on sale within a week of my purchase, or whatever I purchased will have a massive price drop shortly afterward.

My wife and I agreed to use one of my paychecks from my current contract to get me a laptop. This had multiple uses and reasons behind it:
  • First and foremost, it would get the software required for the current contract off my PC. Ever since installing it, my otherwise completely stable and never crashing PC has been crashing and achieving the dreaded BSOD.
  • It would allow me mobility, to take my work into the office for a consultation or training, etc. It would also allow me to take it with me and work from exotic locales, if my wife and I travel somewhere but I still need to do some work while we're gone.
  • It would allow me a separate machine that I could always reset to a "like factory new" setting after a contract, wiping away all traces of the work-related instals if needed.
I started looking. I didn't have many prescribed needs, but I knew I needed a maximum of memory, I wanted a 16" or larger screen due to some of the programs I would use as a technical writer (some of which will use all the memory and screen real estate you give them), and I preferred to have a dedicated graphics card.

We stumbled on a sale that had a Samsung NP-RF710 for $899. This machine had a 17.3" screen, 4 gigs of memory, a dedicated nVidia 330 graphics driver, an Intel i7 processor, and a full-sized keyboard. During my searches, pretty much all 17" and i7 or equivalent AMD processor machines were selling for between $1000 (cheap, no-name brands without dedicated graphics cards) and $1400, so to see one for $900, with those stats, was pretty incredible. In addition to that, it had USB 3.0 ports, the touch pad mouse had iPod-like capabilities, and the fastest wired/wireless networks.

We discussed it, and decided to pull the trigger. Neither of us were familiar with Samsung as a laptop maker, but we really liked the Samsung TV we had purchased recently and I said, "If they make great consumer TVs, how bad can their laptops be?"

I've been using the machine for a couple of months now. I am so impressed with it, you cannot believe it. The thing runs very cool and is extremely quiet. The graphics are superb, I have a nice, wide viewing angle on it, the i7 processor is fast. It has been able to run all of my tech writing software easily, as well as the various applications I need to install for this contract. I have yet to have a BSOD on the laptop.

I decided recently to run a Windows Experience test on both my PC and this laptop. The results were nearly identical, with my PC being slightly better in RAM and Graphics/Gaming Graphics, and the laptop actually beating my PC in processor (all other WEI numbers were identical). So, basically, I have a PC-quality machine that runs cool and quiet as my laptop.

What pleases me the most is that I haven't seen a laptop with equivalent stats sold as cheaply since that deal. It is refreshing to see that I a) got a great deal and b) actually got a very good machine, one that is working as well or better than advertised.

My wife and I will certainly entertain Samsung for laptops in the future. We have found it to be a quality product, sturdy, works as advertised, and without a lot of bloatware or adware. We are incredibly happy with the purchase and feel it has a made a big difference in my work.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

800**

There has been a huge uproar here in Canada regarding the UBB (usage-based billing) for internet use. In a nutshell, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can now charge between $1 and $4 for usage beyond very small caps on internet use. Now, that number doesn't sound like a lot until you factor in that they are charging you a dollar to four dollars for something that costs them less than a penny to provide. That is a markup of 100 to 400 percent!

The other problem is that they are making the caps very small, which all but guarantees the average user will go over their cap every month. The average seems to be around 25 gig a month cap on usage. That sounds like a lot until you start doing the math. Remember that this cap is on both uploads and downloads, so you have to account for what your PC sends as well as what you receive/download.

Now, let's think about this a moment, especially for those who claim "well, I don't download much, this won't affect me":
  • Do you have or use an OS, utility, and/or productivity software/suite you use? These programs all need regular maintenance/updating to keep your machine safe, to fix errors, and to improve existing or provide new functionality. Microsoft OS (any), Microsoft Office, Internet browsers, and personal programs on your machine all have this capability now. Those add up, especially if you use online games (which typically patch every week).
  • Do you IM, Tweet, or use a social networking site regularly? Each time you send or receive a message, you are adding to your usage total. While the amounts of data sent and received by the average person are small, they add up quickly especially in light of the other uses.
  • Do you send emails with attachments? Do you receive emails with attachments? Again, most emails by themselves are small usage amounts toward the cap. However, you add in those pictures from/to your Aunt Mildred, those PDFs you sent for work, etc., and suddenly you are taking megabyte chunks out of your usage. And, remember, usage is bidirectional, so sending and receiving both hit your usage cap!
  • Are you any sort of online game player? Whether it be an MMORPG, a cooperative/competitive first-person shooter, that game you like on Facebook, or even online gambling, those sites have to send packets to and receive packets from your PC. Again, they are small amounts, but they are nearly continuous and add up fast toward a usage cap. However, if your game needs to do an update-- all bets are off. A new release MMORPG-style game can frequently have multiple megabyte downloads. I've seen downloads for some of my games in the hundreds of megabytes to even a gig. When some recent games converted from paid to Free To Play, they had huge downloads.
  • Are you starting or have you been using "the cloud"? For example, do you use an online site to backup your machine or save your photos? Do you like and use those nifty online Tools, like Google Docs or Yahoo Calendar? Do you use features of an online site, like the Character Builder from Wizard.com to make and print your Dungeons & Dragons characters? Do you do online banking, bill paying, or similar? All of these are, again, small usage hits to your overall cap.
  • Do you work from home, even occasionally? Think of all the IMs, emails, PDFs, time spent on your work VPN, etc. that  you do while you're home. Each one of those is now another ding toward your cap limit.
  • Do you have TVs, printers, a TiVo (or other DVRs), a Blu-ray player, use VOIP phones, that are connected to the internet? Guess what, each of them is going through your ISP to upload and download information, and all counts toward your usage cap.
  • Lastly, do you like to stream video from online sites, or via the web to your internet-compatible devices? If you use Netflix (or similar) to stream movies, you enjoy trolling YouTube for the latest thing, or simply go to a TV network's site to catch that episode of that show you like that you missed last week, all of these are huge hits on your usage. The average movie from Netflix is in the 1 to 4 gig range, depending on quality (Standard versus HD) and length. Hour long TV shows can be up to around 1 gig.
Now, of course, most people don't fall into one of those areas above. Most people do online banking, enjoy IMing and emailing, maybe do a little gaming of some sort. Everyone knows/has that one person who sends pictures and videos to everyone in their email list on a weekly basis. And, all of a sudden, 25 gig doesn't seem so large any more. And you notice that in these examples I didn't even mention illegal downloading of movies or TV shows from peer-to-peer sites. That is because, even without doing something like that, you can easily and quickly surpass usage caps. These UBB laws do NOT target the "highest users" (i.e., the illegal downloaders) as the lawmakers are always trying to convince people.

Let me show you how easy it is to go over your use limits just performing legitimate internet use:

On an average day, between my work use and home use (IMing, email, some game playing, online banking, cloud use, etc.), I am using about 500 meg. This is on the average day. A few days ago, Windows 7 wanted to update (usage was just over 1 gig). Last week, on the same day, two of my online games and my browser updated (total of 2.5 gig of usage). I've started using an online, secure backup site for documents and photos after my wife and I experienced a hectic and expensive situation where a hard drive failed. Nearly all of my banking is done online. I IM with friends and family on a daily basis. I have a FaceBook account. All of this adds up: in the space of the last two weeks, I've hit approximately 30 gig of total internet usage. Which means that I would be paying between $1 and $4 per gig until the start of the next billing cycle with our current ISP. And all of this doesn't even take into consideration my wife's internet use.

Image a family of four, with two teens (the son loves online gaming, the daughter loves tweeting/FaceBooking and sharing photos/videos), one of the two parents works from home at least a few days a week, and the family as a whole likes to stream a Netflix movie on Friday nights and have a family movie night. There are at least three PCs of various sorts in the house, and all of them need updating regularly. A family like this could easily go beyond 25 gig each week! Let's say they average 30 gig per week and don't realize they need to make a change when that first bill arrives. That means that they went over their 25 gig limit the first week, and for the next four weeks racked up a staggering 95 gig of additional usage. At $1-$4 dollars, their bill will be a whopping $95 to $380 more than they are used to and on top of their standard ISP monthly amount (probably around $50+). And all of this is pure profit to the ISP, as it cost them <$0.95 to provide that 95 gig of extra use.

The other side to all of this is that the owners of the internet backbone/network (Bell and Rogers, predominantly) also get to charge those smaller ISPs who are "piggybacking" on their network more for the privilege. This means that those smaller ISPs now have to charge more for the same service as well as instituting UBB. This effectively stifles any competition the big two have, and expands how much the big two can charge their own customers as well.

Canada is already near the bottom of all industrialized nations for internet charges compared to use. Canadians will become Oliver Twist, going up to their big, bad ISP and asking, "Can I have some more, please?" And, if we back up the money truck to their doorstep, they might allow it.

At a time when other countries are laying the foundation for a totally fiber optic internet network (Australia, among others) and other nations are passing laws that internet is a right (Denmark, et al), Canada is taking a huge step backward that will limit competition, limit creativity and job creation, limit growth, and further anger its citizens. It doesn't make a lot of sense.


**In case you're wondering, the title refers to the number of posts on this blog.