Thursday, April 28, 2005

A Social Security Solution

Okay, I've been hearing a LOT about Social Security lately, specifically about George W. Bush's desire to partially privatize it.

There are good and bad things about this idea. Each side wants everyone to pay attention to their arguments and ignore the other side's.

On the one hand, partially privatizing Social Security will help meet the financial demands of the system. Social Security is expensive. I mean, REALLY expensive. If I recall correctly, I think it's the second largest expenditure from our nation's budget. Although Democrats and Republicans argue over exactly when benefits will be cut, almost all do agree that the day will come in the not-too-distant future. The system is unsustainable as it is, and it will have to be changed one way or another at some point.

On the other, I have some serious concerns about privatizing Social Security. The first is short-term costs. You see, most people have the mistaken impression that Social Security is some sort of account that they have been paying into over the years, and when they turn 65, they'll get that money back. Oh how wrong that notion is! In fact, Social Security is a tax, just like any other. The money you pay in isn't being saved for you, it is mostly being paid out to the people who are currently on Social Security now. If Congress put an abrupt end to Social Security today so that you could save your own money for retirement (i.e. a full implementation of the privatization plan), the people who are currently on Social Security would suddenly be cut off after having paid into the system for all of their working years. The money that was funding their monthly check--your Social Security tax--is now going into your private retirement account! I can't tell you how frustrated I get when I explain that to people and they say something like, "They have to give me that money back, I've been paying it all these years!" No, they don't, and demanding your Social Security tax money back is about the same thing as demanding the money back that you have paid in income taxes and sales taxes over the years because it was your money. Maybe it was your money, but it's already been spent by your crazy Uncle Sam!

Also, I am concerned about the possibility of people losing their retirement money. Right now, in spite of how the system does need some sort of reform, Social Security is a guaranteed payment. You will get x dollars a month, no matter how smart or how stupid an investor you are. If you take away that guarantee, you will have people who invest their money badly, and come retirement age, they'll end up with a lot less money than they need to live. What happens to them? Do they get thrown out on the street, subsisting on welfare? Has that really improved our system or saved us anything? I think not.

I'm stymied about the first problem. The fact is that any money you take out of the Social Security system will have to be made up for somehow. Since I'm adamant that we shouldn't run a budget deficit (which we already are), government would have to find a way to cut spending elsewhere to come up with the dough. Government cutting spending? Ha!

The second problem is easily enough solved, though. The answer, I think, is simple. Let people invest their money, and when they get old enough to start taking it out, if the amount is less than Social Security would have been, subsidize the difference.

I know, conservatives are thinking, What!? Government pay people for making bad investments? Damn straight, for a couple of reasons. First of all, you're already taking away a benefit that they have been paying into all this time, and these people deserve some sort of assurance that they won't get screwed for it. Second of all, assuming that most people will not invest badly or the market tank too much, it will be very little money, way much less than the current second highest government expenditure.

Besides, it's a moot point, right? According to conservatives, everyone will make more money with private accounts, so under this type of plan, government will never have to actually spend any money on this, right? Right?

Well, that's my humble contribution to the solution. Now if we can figure out some way to pay for it without exploding the deficit (which Bush's plan doesn't address), then maybe we'll have a plan that I can sign on to.

Friday, April 22, 2005

The Days of Yore...

Tonight, I've decided to post something a little more upbeat (or more likely, offbeat), something truly random that just floated through my brain.

You know what is fun? Role playing games. Yeah, I mean computer games too, but mainly, I'm referring to the old pencil-and-paper games epitomized by Dungeons and Dragons in the 1980's. I fondly remember messing around with the game with some neighborhood friends when I was in elementary school. I long for the days when my poor wizard's life hung by a thread, completely at the mercy of some hidden information known only to the godlike Dungeon Master.

In college, I met another group of folks who loved role-playing games. One guy who lived across campus from me was particularly good at running sessions. Mike would always really get into the part: talking in corny accents, giving us pre-prepared maps, and the like. Man, that was fun, and I really got into it.

Sadly, I think that no one new to the genre today really understands what it was about in those days. In our new age of computer game masters and their unrelenting adherence to the mechanics of the game, all the games have become roll playing games. People no longer play for the enjoyment of escaping to a different world in a different time, they play with the unmitigated desire to win. Everything seems to boil down to stat-maxing and power-leveling. It's all about finishing this story arc to get the next cool weapon. It's about being able to kill people in PvP combat and avoid being killed by someone just like you with a slightly more powerful character.

Lately, I've been playing an MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) called City of Heroes. I really do like it a lot because it is such a clever idea and a great implementation of that idea. However, even in what I consider the best of the modern role-playing games, there is a lot lacking. You see, I'm a superhero in the game, defending the citizens of Paragon City against evildoers with all sorts of nefarious plots. A noble goal, but it's hard to feel very heroic when all of your conversations are limited to things like, "Hey, can you help me with a sewer run? I'm trying to get to level 38 and need to farm some krakens. We don't need to kill the hydra, because I'm only two bubbles away."

If this were a traditional role-playing game of old, my character's response would be something along the lines of, "Level 38 of what? If there are kraken in the sewers, we need to quickly send out an alert on the comm channels to fight this menace! And why would we not kill a hydra if there is one there? It could cause untold mayhem in the city! And what are these 'bubbles' of which you speak?"

Unfortunately, I'm usually only four or five bubbles away from leveling myself and getting a cool new superpower, and such responses are usually met with comments like, "nvm weirdo, i'll find someone else." They totally miss the point. Even the self-professed role-players in the game usually degrade into game-speak a large part of the time. I've tried to lead missions before while role-playing exclusively, refusing to engage in game-speak, and I'm not sure the other people in the group knew what to think. They seemed to enjoy it, if for no other reason than it was different, but the game mechanics were still a major factor in their gameplay. No one was willing to sacrifice experience points for, well, the role-playing experience.

I don't know, maybe I missed my calling. In college, I was forced to take a fine arts class as a requirement of graduation. Most people suffered through a quarter of music appreciation, but I wanted to do something a little different. I took a class called "Acting Workshop for Non-Majors." In the class, we mainly created improvised scenes that focused on a specific topic of the day, such as setting, props, character, and dialog. I had a blast because improvising was a lot like playing a role-plaing game minus the maps, miniatures, and dice. All I had to do was imagine I was someone else, at times someone totally unlike myself, and do what they would do. I got an easy A in the class (okay, I guess there was still an element of "winning") and it was by far the most fun I had in any class.

Who knows, after posting this, maybe I'll look around to see if there is a local role-playing group around town. Sure, people might think it's weird and geeky, but that's never stopped me from doing stuff like that before. And damn, it sure is fun!

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Cable vs. Satellite

The good, the bad, and the ugly.

I admit, I'm a televisaholic. I LOVE television, and I have since I witnessed the crazy antics of Big Bird, Tom and Jerry, Gilligan, and all the others. A while back, when my old Zenith finally bit the dust, I bit the bullet and got what I consider to be a really nice television. It's a Sony 34" HDTV, and it truly is a thing of beauty. The only problem is that I had DirecTV service, and at the time, if you had an HDTV, you had to make a choice: HDTV or TiVo service. Having never really witnessed HDTV in action, I decided that I really like my TiVo service better, so it was a no-brainer: I can live without HDTV a little longer.

Well, now DirecTV has an HDTV DirecTV service with TiVo service included. (I call it HD DirecTiVo, for short.) But if you want it, there's a hefty price tag. They don't let you lease the receiver, so you have to pay $1,000 for the box up front, plus an extra $11 a month for the service. For that wad of cash, you get 12 high definition channels. That's right, $1,000 plus $11 a month for TWELVE channels. God, I want HDTV, but there's no way I can even come close to justifying that. (Especially considering that five of those channels--the broadcast networks--are available to me, even without satellite or cable service, via an "over-the-air" antenna, which is how you get those five channels from DirecTV anyway...)

Enter Comcast, our local friendly cable company. Comcast has a comparable service, but they allow you to lease the box, and you don't need an over-the-air antenna. For this, they charge an extra $10 a month to their cable service. So for about the same price as I'm paying DirecTV every month, I can get HDTV channels, too. So far, so good, or so I thought. I called and ordered installation last Friday to check it all out. Yesterday, a technician showed up and installed the cable boxes. The first thing I did, of course, was tune in to some of the HDTV channels. I've got to admit that they're mind-numbingly gorgeous. The picture is better than anything I've seen on a television before. However...

It didn't take me long to figure out why I switched away from cable in the first place. I tuned in to some of the standard definition channels, and the signal is absolute crap. I mean crap to the point of having a rabbit ears antenna would be better. This is the dirty little secret of all those cable companies when they're pitching their "digital" cable service. Only SOME of the channels are digital. All of the standard cable television fare--broadcast networks, CNN, ESPN, Sci-Fi, etc. are analog channels, not digital. This means that's not any better than the cable service you've grown up with and loved for the past thirty years. Only some of the newer channels and the premium movie channels are digital. On satellite television, ALL channels are digital by necessity, so the quality of the picture is much higher than the analog channels offered by the cable companies.

How much better? Well, see for yourself. I took photographs with my digital camera of the satellite picture and the cable picture of a scene. (That's Cleavant Derricks, who plays Rembrandt Brown on Sliders.) Unfortunately, this is no exaggeration, this is what it looks like in honest-to-god real life:

The top picture is satellite, the bottom cable. Which would you prefer? Even at the low resolution I used for this blog, the difference is painfully obvious. The cable technician worked on this problem for around an hour and a half while he was here. He changed the connectors at the street, the connectors on my house, and adjusted a bunch of stuff, all to no avail. Before he left, I was able to show him side-by-side the difference between the Comcast service and DirecTV. He said that yes, the Comcast service was significantly worse, but he had done all he could and that at this point, I need to place a service call. (More on that in a second.)

Another complaint I have is with the Comcast guide. Before I rant, I'll post a couple of more pictures for comparison. Before you read on, look at the pictures and see if you can figure out what I don't like about the bottom one:

Like everyone else, I HATE advertisements. I grudgingly accept them when people are giving me stuff for free or at a lower cost. But I PAY for cable service. They're already making money off of me through my monthly service fee. That's not good enough, though. They want to make even more money from paid sponsors, and to hell with what I--a paying customer--think about it.

And what do I get for these ads? Less than nothing. Notice that on the DirecTV guide, I have a nice little picture-in-guide that allows me to keep watching the channel even when the guide is up, and a VERY nice summary of the show that is selected. Also notice that I get to see what is on over the span of an hour and a half. On the Comcast guide, I get nothing but ads and the ability to see what is on right now. Sure, I can navigate around in the guide, but to see what is coming on in an hour, it takes me a lot more button presses than it does on the DirecTV guide. The reason? Because Comcast is greedy and wants to force ads on customers that are already paying. To me, that's inexcusable.

A few other screwy things have gone wrong, too. Comcast screwed up my order. When I placed the order, I told them I wanted the Digital Gold package, with HBO and Showtime. I didn't get either. And now, the second cable box on the television in my bedroom isn't working. I get nothing but static on it. If I plug the cable directly into the television, I can see the analog channels I receive (in all their crappy quality), which means that the cable connection is fine. When I plug it into the cable box, I can see menus (as evidenced by the picture of the guide above), which means that the connection between the cable box and the telvision is fine. The problem has to be with the cable box itself, which stopped working around three hours or so after it was installed.

So today, I called Comcast with all of these complaints. I told them that they're going to have to fix at least the reception problem and the cable box problem or else I'll cancel my service as fast as I ordered it. (Fortunately, I haven't canceled my DirecTV service yet!) They're sending a technician out this Saturday between 2:00pm and 5:00pm to hopefully fix these problems. While on the phone, they did enable the HBO and Showtime channels. I really don't understand why they didn't have that taken care of before the technician left. Also, I still don't get some of the HD channels I'm supposed to even with what they did over the telephone, so hopefully the technician that comes out will take care of that, too.

I guess we'll see, but right now, I'm really skeptical. I do know that DirecTV announced in September of last year that they will be dramatically improving their service this year with the launch of two new satellites that will pipe out enough HDTV local television to forego the need for an over-the-air antenna. Also, industry insiders are saying that DirecTV is planning on dumping TiVo to make their own personal video recorder box. If they do, maybe they'll come out with new leasing plans that will allow one to get these boxes at an incremental monthly cost instead of paying a massive wad of cash up front. With both of these developments, I will seriously reconsider the HD DirecTV DVR service then.

I'll post an update later on what happens when the Comcast technician comes out.


When I called Comcast to complain about how much my cable service sucks, and after explicitly telling them that I was very tempted to go on and cancel my service after only a single day, the lady asked me with complete sincerety if I was interested in Comcast's high-speed Internet service. I couldn't help but laugh. The nicest reponse I could come up with was, "Let's just see if you can get the cable service working first."

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The Perils of Software Activation

You know, I really do respect software developers and intellectual property rights. I am also keenly aware of how bad a problem piracy is. I won't try to defend people who use illegal copies of software on their machine, as I firmly believe that if you are not willing to pay for software that you do not use, then you should find an alternative. (ahem... open source... *cough*!)

However, I do have some serious qualms with the practical aspects of one of the most common methods of keeping people from using illegal copies of software: software "activation." In case you're not familiar with what this is, it works as follows. When you install software that requires activation on your computer, the software "calls home," usually by using the Internet to contact the company that publishes the software. The software then transmits a sort of password, usually based on details about your machine. A simplified example would be the software adding up how fast your CPU is, how big your hard drive is, how much memory you have installed, and send that number to the software publisher, which then provides a key to the software based on that code.

If you give your legal software to your friend to install, it won't work, because his machine has different numbers, and the password won't match. However, this scheme is ruthless in its assessment. If you buy another computer and install the software, guess what--the software you paid hard-earned cash for will no longer work! At the very least, you will be forced to call the software publisher and try to convince them that you need the software activated on your new computer, at which time you will probably be asked some harrassing questions and feel like some sort of criminal for simply buying a new computer.

At the very worst, you may be told something along the lines of "You're only allowed to use the software on the original computer, buy another copy," at which time you're SOL. That's right, the industry that whines so persistently about people "stealing" software has effectively just stolen back software that you paid for!

Here's the icing on the cake: There is a sizable contingent of people who are dedicated to the task of "cracking" protected software. That is, if you're smart enough to acquire an illegal copy of software that requires activation, there's a 99.9% chance that you're also smart enough to download a small illegal patch that changes the software so that it no longer NEEDS activation. The end result is that while this activation scheme provides intermittent hassle for legitimate users, it provides very little protection against the type of theft that these companies are worried about.

So what is the answer? I may not be smart enough to have The Answerâ„¢, but I am smart enough to know that it is actually better accept the fact that a lot of copies of your software will be installed illegally than to piss off your paying customers and STILL have a lot of copies of your software installed illegally.

I don't know who the first company was that started requiring activation, but Autodesk's AutoCAD was doing it in 1995, forcing customers to call a telephone number during regular business hours in order for the software to work. As a consultant, I was endlessly frustrated by not being able to install an industry-standard CAD application after hours, when most of this type of work is done! Microsoft is the company that popularized this practice. Windows XP requires activation, as does Microsoft Office and several other Microsoft applications. The reason I'm writing about it this moment is that I would really like to buy a piece of software called TMPGEnc XPress, but they not only require activation, now they're requiring that the software continue to periodically call home for license validation!

I sent the following e-mail to the company just to see what kind of response I get. I suspect it will be something along the lines of, "Like it or lump it," but I am genuinely curious as to how the company addresses the serious downsides of keeping their own users from using legally bought software. And after using their software for a trial period, I'm also genuinely interested in buying a copy, but I am very hesitant to do so, given that for purely non-technical reasons, I could easily be denied my use of it in the future. Here is the e-mail, and I'll post a follow-up if I get a response:

I am considering purchasing a copy of TMPGEnc 3.0 XPress, possibly with a copy of the DVD Author 1.6 software, but I have some questions regarding the periodic license validation. I am referencing the information provided in the following link:

Specifically, I have three main concerns:

First, as I tend to test a lot of software for personal and professional purposes, I frequently make and restore hard drive images on my computer. I have had some trouble with software that periodically "calls home" in the past in that sometime in the normal course of using my computer, a software key or other piece of information is updated, then I restore my hard drive to an earlier image, after which the software no longer believed it was validated. Can you please elaborate on exactly what information is retrieved when TMPGEnc renews its license validation as I would like to ensure that such a situation does not arise?

Second, as a matter of course, I frequently upgrade and swap hardware in and out of my PC. Over the course of the past year alone, for example, I have at various times swapped out my motherboard, CPU, three hard drives, upgraded my DVD burner to a dual-layer model, and added memory to my system. In your explanation of the license validation, you say, "The identifier key is unique for each computer..." This has bitten me with several products in the past that require activation and/or maintain validation in that over the course of time, the software stopped recognizing my system as the same system on which the software was installed. I actually was forced to stop using a legally purchased software application when the company demanded information from the original purchase that I no longer had available. How does Pegasys handle this situation when it occurs?

Third, although rare, I have also had software stop working when the company that requires validation went out of business. At that time, I was forced to acquire an unreliable (and possible dangerous) hack to the software to enable it to continue functioning. Although I am certain that you do not wish to ponder this contingency, what guarantee do I have that should Pegasys cease operations or stop supporting this product in the future, that I will be able to continue using it?

I certainly appreciate that Pegasys has put a lot of time and effort into the creation and maintenance of TMPGEnc 3.0 XPress. It performs very well, and I am sorry that my trial period of use for the software will expire in a few short days. I am impressed that it has become somewhat of a standard by videophiles and the pricing is very competitive with other comparable products. However, as I am sure you can understand, if I do purchase your product, I want to ensure that I am making a decision for the long-term use of your software. Any useful information you can provide to answer my concerns would be greatly appreciated.



I received the following response today. I don't know whether or not I'll purchase the software. On the one hand, I've tried it, and it really is a good product. On the other, I really don't want to support this type of activity because of the reasons stated and becuase I feel that it only serves to add hassle to legitimate users. Anyway, I'll let you decide for yourself what you think. Here it is:

Thank you for your interest in our software.

When activated, manually or automatically, the validation routine sends to our server your license key and some information aimed to individualize the host machine. Returned key contains the validation and time information. There are 2 possible cases regarding disk image swapping. The first is your latest disc image contains data from a previous validation period so the validation system will ask you to renew. The second case is the image contains data from the current validation period, the software should start without asking.

You can change everything, but in some cases the validation routine may have to recalculate a machine key and send it to our server along with your license. Enventually this is the server that decides to validate or not. Unless you keep changing your machine and system within a relatively short period you should not have problem to gain the validation. In the worst case just contact us and we reset the server.

We do our best to keep the business running, but we do not what tomorow is made of. In case we disappear the validation system will certainly to continue to function independently since other software or content makers are starting to use it. If we have to close everything, server included, I do not know we will do but will take the best possible decision for our users.

If you have more questions do not hesitate to contact us.

UPDATE (May 3, 2005)

Well, I sucked it up and bought the software. I really didn't want to because of the whole license validation issue, and if I had the time and energy to put into using an open source tool, I certainly would have. Unfortunately, the open source tools in this particular area (transcoding video files) are still a little skimpy and very not-user-friendly, something I hope that people a lot smarter than me are working to rectify. As soon as I can switch, I likely will. But in the meantime, as I said, I am using the software and therefore am obligated to pay for it.

Plus, the guy did bother to send an individual response, which counts for a little something, even though I don't like the answers. I do, however, like his phrase, "...we do not what tomorow is made of." I think I'm going to start using that one. I'm thinking of going to see a movie this weekend, but I don't know what tomorrow is made of.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Time to change the clocks again...

I hate Daylight Saving Time. No, loathe may be a better word. Seriously. For the life of me, I can't figure out how someone actually came up with this harebrained idea and why anyone would actually like it enough to actually do it.

I can imagine a bunch of people sitting around ruing how miserable it is in winter that the sun sets earlier. One of them (a fellow by the name of William Willett, in fact) pipes up, "Hey, I have an idea, let's just pretend that it's an hour later than it is, so tomorrow at this time, it will actually be an hour earlier!" The others agree, and so they go about their business, pretending that it is an hour later than it actually is.

So far, we just have a few nutjobs walking around with their clocks set an hour ahead of everyone else's. But somehow, these nutjobs managed to convince government to go along with them (okay, maybe that part isn't so hard to figure out), which in turn imposed this lunacy on everyone else. Why weren't these people mercilessly mocked and shamed back into normalcy?

So now, we have Daylight Saving Time. We just sprung forward, which means that we're pretending it's an hour later now. What it really means is that once a year, everyone has an automatic excuse to be late for work. Some of them probably forget to set their clocks back. All of them claim to have forgotten. Everyone else looks at them in sympathy and agrees, "Yes, that's understandable." It also means that the sun doesn't come up until around 7:00 in the morning where I live. Since I work the night shift, that means that I'm really tired and driving home in the dark just when traffic is getting heavy with the morning rush hour. Since I work with a lot of people in different time zones, it also means that I have to get used to writing EDT after all times instead of EST, and then changing back in six months.

All of that sounds like minor inconveniences, but what really irritates me is that they're caused by an utterly ludicrous concept. Not too long ago, someone commented on Slashdot that noon is in theory supposed to be the time of day when the sun is more or less as high in the sky as it will get, and midnight is, well, the midpoint of the night. Not any more, we have government to redefine the concepts of noon and midnight. Now, they're just arbitrary times of day, like 9:17am or 6:38pm. If we don't like when those times are in reality, we can just arbitrarily change them!

Well, I think that's stupid. I think that if you don't like when the sun rises and sets, you should complain to God for making it that way instead of trying to dink around with my clocks. You may think an extra hour of sunlight when you get home is nifty, but I hate that that I've lost an hour of sunlight in the morning, and I have nature and thousands of years of human history on my side.