Category Archives: Commerce

Unscrupulous people stealing financial information

When it comes to securing the data I have on my computers, I take the task seriously. I use Ubuntu and Windows on my laptop.  The Ubuntu installation is fully encrypted.  There’s a performance hit but I feel pretty sure that if my laptop is ever stolen or lost or needs service by a third party, I won’t be at risk of getting sensitive information stolen.  The Windows side is not (yet) encrypted but I do not use Windows intensively or for sensitive tasks so I’m not very worried about that.

Now, when I talk to other people about this, I’m told that I’m paranoid.  If I’m not keeping porn on my laptop, I have nothing to worry about.  If my laptop is stolen, no one will take time to look for banking information.  The techs who perform service are interested searching for porn, not financial details.  Basically, I’m told I’m worrying for nothing. (Now, logically-minded readers will have figured out that the flip side of this bad reasoning is that if I do worry about people snooping through my hard disk, then it means I must have porn on there.)

Well, well, it turns out that a Sky News undercover investigation that technicians do indeed look for financial information on the laptop they service and they try to use it to break into banking accounts.  OMG!  Who would have thunk?

The solution against unscrupulous technicians is to give them a clean drive: a drive which contains no sensitive information.  My point here is not that encryption is the solution but that unscrupulous people are indeed after your financial information.  Encryption is part of the arsenal of tools to protect against that.

Dear Cessna: Correlation is not Causation

Cessna has put out a piece of propaganda containing this gem:

Study after study shows companies operating business aircraft outperform competitors that don’t.

The implication is: buy a business aircraft for your company and you’ll outperform your competitors. Dear Cessna, is this really the logic you want to espouse? Has it occurred to you that maybe causality runs opposite to what you imply? Could it be that companies which are successful due to other factors are enough money to spend it on planes and on frivolous purchases? Does this seem possible? Maybe?

Yeaaahhh, I thought so.

Great Journalism: The Collapse of the Banking System Explained

I’ve been ranting several times here about how journalists in the US have abdicated their role. They’ve stopped asking the hard questions. Does this mean that all journalism has gone to hell? No. There are still journalists out there doing a spectacular job. I have for evidence an episode of This American Life about the collapse of the banking system. It is intelligent, clear and asks hard questions. Anybody who wants to understand the current crisis should listen to this.

The free market fallacy

A few minutes ago, I came across yet another AP news item about the current financial crisis in the US. The article reports that Barack Obama “said the final product must protect U.S. taxpayers and include a commitment to new regulatory reforms.” My first thought was “hell, yeah!” there has to be some sort of regulation to prevent this nonsense from occurring again. My second thought was “surely the free market advocates are going to come out of the woodwork to criticize this.”

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Pier 1’s Aggressive Direct Mailing Practices

Executive Summary: On November 28, 2007, I put in a request through CatalogChoice.org to stop receiving Pier 1’s catalogs. I visited Catalog Choice’s site on January 25th to find that Pier 1 refused my request. In effect, Pier 1 is refusing to collaborate with Catalog Choice. When I complained to Pier 1, the CSR told me that Pier 1 accepts requests to stop receiving their catalog only through the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) or if contacted directly but not through Catalog Choice. In my opinion, this clearly shows that Pier 1 has decided to adopt aggressive practices when it comes to advertising to potential customers.

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The Impact of Dead-Tree Magazines on the Environment

Chris Anderson, editor at Wired, posted a blog entry claiming the following:

So by this analysis dead-tree magazines have a smaller net carbon footprint than web media. We cut down trees and put them in the ground. From a climate change perspective, this is a good thing.

I can’t help but read his conclusion and his post as a self-serving rationalization to a) deflect the criticism raised against paper-based publishing and b) keep the status quo in place. In other words, the message is “publishers (and magazines such as Wired) are not doing something environmentally detrimental by relying on print-media.” There are several flaws in his logic. I’m going to concentrate on only a few of them here:

  • Most of what he puts up is conjecture and a lot of it is based on vague scenarios. Some of the guesses are clearly overoptimistic. It is true that the USPS would not disappear if print magazines did not exist but he sees the impact of print media on the USPS as essentially non-existent: “we print and bind that paper into magazines, which are delivered mostly by the US Postal Service, which runs the same routes whether they’re carrying our magazines or not.” Yes, but print magazines have to be sorted and carried by the mail trucks and mail workers. I can’t believe that if magazines were eliminated the USPS would use exactly the same resources they are using now.
  • The carbon footprint is not the only environmental impact of print publishing. He focuses on the carbon footprint because he wants to talk about the climactic impact but I think this is misleading. Other forms of pollution must also be taken into account. I doubt that print comes out ahead when the entire environmental impact is considered.
  • He points out that “trees take carbon out of the air”. But then he associates that benefit with the print industry only. Somehow, cutting down a tree and then planting another one, which is what the forestry companies should ideally do, is better than not cutting down a tree in the first place.
  • Even if the claim that “print publishing is carbon neutral whereas web publishing is detrimental” were true, the reality is that magazines like Wired and publishers are not currently doing one or the other. They are already doing both. What must be demonstrated is not that print publishing in the abstract is environmentally equal or better than web publishing in the abstract but that engaging in both print publishing and web publishing at the same time is environmentally equal or better than web publishing alone. To take one element of the production line as example, the comparison is not between printing presses on one hand and web servers on the other but between printing presses and web servers on one hand and only web servers on the other.

Then he takes a study of the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm as confirmation that his guesses were right. But there are problems here too:

  • Anderson says:

    [The study] compared printed newspapers to people reading those newspapers on the web, and concluded that for the same time reading (30 minutes) the printed newspaper has a lower carbon footprint.

    However, he conveniently fails to mention that only in the European scenario was web reading for 30 minutes better than print. The researchers also crunched the numbers for a Swedish scenario and found that print was worse than everything else.

  • This difference between the European and Swedish scenarios brings to mind a problem with the study. There is no formal discussion of error. It seems to me that whatever estimates the researchers came up with should have had some percentage of error associated with them. There is presently no formal way to know how reliable their numbers are. They do not formally explain how the dependent variables would be affected by variations in independent variables that they used in their study. If they had over or under estimated the energy consumption of web servers by 1%, how would this affect the results? What about all the other variables that are part of this study? This is not insignificant because some models are very susceptible to show large variations in output even for small changes in the input values. In other words, it is possible that if their guesses are a off even by a little, the results could be dramatically different. The difference between the European and Swedish scenarios suggests to me that their model is indeed fragile.
  • How does this apply to the US situation? Given the difference between the European and Swedish scenarios, I’m not keen of extrapolating the results to the US scenario.
  • Because publishers are not about to turn back the clock and go print-only, the question for me is “is it environmentally detrimental for a publisher who publishes electronically to maintain its print publishing operations in addition to the electronic operations?” I think the answer is yes. Anderson’s musings do not convince me to think otherwise.

Giving away the content freely is good for business

Well, there you go! Here is proof that Digital Rights Management and attempts to control copies of intellectual property does not help business. Paulo Coelho put online “pirate” copies of his own books and that made sales soar. I’m taking Coelho at his word that there is no other explanation for the increase in sales than the fact that he book available freely on the internet. His sales went from close to nil (1000 copies a year is nothing) to being a bestseller (millions of copies a year!). And these are sales not just copies that people downloaded for free. See the writeup at Torrent Freak for the details. This real world experience completely refutes the received wisdom that to maximize profits, publishers must prevent people from freely copying intellectual works. Not only that but the question which comes to my mind is if Coelho’s sales were so poor initially and he was able to make them soar by offering free copies of his book, then what benefit did he get from working with a publisher? Even, if he did get a benefit from working with a publisher did that benefit outweigh the costs? Because, as we all know, publishers do not provide services for free.

Here we have an instance of the content creator willingly giving away his work for free, so the author is able to give us the real deal about sales figure and how making the work available freely affected them. However, in cases where the work is leaked illegally, the publisher is left to build a narrative as to what happened. Usually, that narrative is based on the bunk notion that all illegal copies are lost sales. So they figure the book has sold X copies and Y copies were downloaded illegally. Then they consider Y to be a net loss. In other words, in a world where free copies are not available the book would have sold X+Y copies but because of copying, it sold only X and so they lost Y in profit. They do not consider that perhaps the situation is more like Coelho’s. Granted, the Y copies were made illegally. But maybe if they had not been made at all, the total sales would be a number much smaller than X. So in a world where free copies are not available, the sales would not have been X+Y but would have been Z where Z is only a small fraction of X. So in the end, without the free copies they would have lost much more than Y.

The story here is that doing away with DRM and lowering the cost of access helps making the work visible. With so many movies, books, games, tv shows available out there, being visible is most important because if people do not know the work exists, they will not even consider buying it. DRM and high prices are the prime obstacles against visibility. It is high time to recognize this.

Kudos to Dell for their recycling efforts

I typically write about Dell to point out what I perceive to be problems with the way they conduct their business. Today, however I want to point out Dell’s involvement with recycling used computers. Ideally, Dell’s involvement should not be needed. There should be easily accessible recycling facilities everywhere and citizens should have enough environmental awareness to take action. My wife and I are lucky to live in a city where there are well advertised recycling facilities that accept computers. Not everyone has such luck and then there are some people who won’t think about recycling until a big name like Dell makes a fuss about it. So kudos to Dell for facilitating the process.