Random Thoughts – Randocity!

Game Review: Assassin’s Creed Origins

Posted in reviews, video game by commorancy on May 14, 2018

Ubisoft is still trying to milk this somewhat tired franchise. With each new iteration, they are making more and more mistakes and the games make less and less sense. Let’s explore.

Bayek and Aya

In Assassin’s Creed Origins, you play as the Magi hero Bayek. He’s a nobody really, but the game makes you think he’s somebody. Unlike Altair and Ezio, who were at least well respected for who they were in their respective communities, Bayek is a small-town-kid… kind of like Connor in Assassin’s Creed 3. Unfortunately, this plot device has already worn thin by this franchise. At least come up with something different.

Bayek’s wife / significant other is Aya. She only appears in the game in tiny sections and you do get to play as her (sort of) during a boat mission. However, you don’t get to do something truly unique and switch between (or choose to play as) either of the characters. Come on Ubisoft, get with the program.
Bayek-ACO

Bayek is conflicted all throughout the game because his kid was killed by who really knows for whatever unnecessary reason. This is intended to give Bayek motivation to become an assassin and kill for revenge.

Storylines

This is as good a time as any to talk about the stories presented. Bayek must find and kill 8 different individuals along the main quest. Most of them are temple priests who’ve done wrong… or at least, so the game tells us.

The side quests consist of fetch quests as well as assassination quests, occasionally taking the time out to do racing or fighting. The stories are average and uninspired for an Assassin’s Creed title. They can be fun the first few times doing it, but ultimately it’s the same things over and over. It would be great if Ubisoft could figure out a way to make the stories more dynamic, less fetch-questy or fighty and do something different. Yes, it does have assassin in the name of the game, but that doesn’t mean everything in the game needs to be a fight. The majority of the stories have nothing to do with assassinations. The ones that do are so weakly written, they might as well just tell you who to kill and put a map pointer. Why bother with the crap setup. Let’s just get to the activity and be done with it.

Fighting

Unfortunately, this is probably the worst part of the game. While Assassin’s Creed 2 practically got the fighting aspect 100% right, Assassin’s Creed Origin gets it almost 100% wrong. The fights are not in any way fun. Let me just make this clear. Fighting should be extremely fun in a game like this, but no. There are two tactics the enemies use that just drive me absolutely crazy. It doesn’t matter if it’s an animal or an NPC, they both use this tactic.

Backing Up as an AI combat strategy

While I realize walking backward could be used occasionally by an enemy, it is entirely overused in this game. This tactic always has the enemy moving just out of reach of even your longest weapon. There’s absolutely no point in this AI tactic. It wasn’t in any other AC game, why is it here? It just wastes time and serves to frustrate. This crap tactic is at the top of my least favorite AI fighting tactics in a video game. I’ve never played any other game where this tactic is used by enemy AI. I don’t even know how to rant enough on this particular tactic, but it drives me bat shit crazy.

Note, I’ve seen this tactic employed with human NPCs, lions, tigers, hyenas and practically any other ground combat. Ubisoft, get rid of this tactic. It doesn’t make the game fun, it only makes the combat incredible shite.

Shields

While I realize some NPC’s have shields, the only tactic to get around the bigger shields is try and flank the enemy (almost impossible because they turn around instantaneously) or try to press and hold with a large sword (power attack). The problem I have with these two suggested combat tactics is that they rarely ever work. Yes, the game gives them to you, but by the time you attempt a power attack, the enemy has either stabbed you repeatedly several times or knocked you on the ground and stabbed you. Press and hold attacks are worthless.

Worse, it’s almost impossible to break through a shield on an enemy. The strategy I end up using is climbing and performing a top down assassination over trying to do a break on a shield. Again, Ubisoft got this part totally wrong. Let me at least pull that stupid shield out of their hands and disarm them. Nope, no such feature in the game. Disarming an NPC is just a basic maneuver in any fighting simulator, why is it not here Ubisoft? How about letting me me break their shield in half? Nope, not here either. Shields don’t take damage.

Worse, when I try to use a shield, it’s not nearly as strong as when an NPC uses it. This is the dreaded one-sided fighting behavior that I absolutely abhor in games. If you’re going to make a fighting game, at least have the decency to make it a fair fight. When you tilt the fighting towards the NPC and away from the player, that’s just a shit tactic, Ubisoft.

Finally, shields should eventually break. If I keep hammering on it with my sword, the NPC shield should eventually disintegrate. Nope, these NPC shields are entirely invincible. I shake my head at this crap design.

Combat Mode

In this game, it’s way too easy to trigger combat mode and almost impossible to shut it down short of running far, far away… and even then that doesn’t work if the enemy is on a horse or in a chariot. For whatever reason, an enemy’s horse is always about 25% faster than yours. This is yet another unfair cheat tactic on the part of the game. Horses should either be of equal speed or … what the hell Ubisoft? … let us upgrade our horses to be faster than theirs. Yet another craptacular design failure.

Can’t break out of animations

This should be self-explanatory, but I’ll go ahead and explain it anyway. When you’re in the middle of combat, if you attempt to do certain moves, you can’t do anything else until the animation plays out in full. I’ve had enemies desync the game because I inadvertently triggered a long combat animation sequence that you cannot stop. Because there is no way to break out of an animation sequence, you always have to let it play out in full, enemies can come in and stab or hammer or poke you.

This is even more commonly frustrating because sometimes if you’ve got two or three enemies, they can gang up on you and prevent you from getting out of their fighting tactics. If they hit you in just the right order, even dodging is impossible because the taking wounds animations have to completely play out and cannot be broken out of.

This is crap game design. The player character should always be able to regain control over the situation without waiting for a long-ish animation to complete. All animations need to be broken out of and stopped.

Leveled Characters

So I get that Ubisoft finally added numbers and character levels to the NPC’s in the game. It’s been a long time coming. But, the way this is implemented is entirely and complete garbage… especially for an assassin.

Some enemies are, for all intents and purposes, invincible. These appear with a skull in a red shield above their head. I shake my head at this crap. To simulate real people, the hero should be able to assassinate anyone at any level. Knives don’t discriminate based on level. Assassination is assassination. Level doesn’t matter to a knife. Levels should only matter for melee combat where skill is involved. A stealth assassination from behind or above should always kill the enemy regardless of level. I should rain down from above, knock them down then assassinate any NPC in the game regardless of level. This is how a knife works, Ubisoft. Unfortunately, Ubisoft sets it up so that whenever an enemy is ‘too strong’ (or too high a level), they are invincible from either weapon’s attacks or knife assassination. In fact, a sword that might kill someone at your same level, an invincible enemy might take at most 90 damage.

Again, this crap drives me absolutely bat shit crazy. It’s such a crap design. Ubisoft, stop, learn and listen… and STOP playing these stupid games with your franchises. If you can’t do leveled characters right, then don’t do them at all.

Worse, there’s a preference that allows you to set NPCs to fight at or around your level. Yet, when you turn this setting on, it does absolutely nothing. Characters who were weaker are always weaker. Characters who are leveled way above you stay leveled way above you. If you’re going to add this setting to the menu, Ubisoft can you at least make it work?

Can’t Kill Citizens

In past games, you could kill civilians, but if you killed more than 5, the game would desync. In this game, you can’t even do this. They are simply unkillable. He’s an assassin. Blades should work equally well on enemies and on civilians alike. Go back to desyncing if you don’t want us doing it. Don’t just prevent the blades from working at all. What’s the point to this anyway? Why can’t we kill civilians if they get in our way? Stupid unnecessary design change and horribly unrealistic.

Horrible combat button placement

For whatever reason, Ubisoft has decided to muck with all of the previous combat button placement. In past games, attack was always on the ABXY or X⃝△▢ buttons in some manner. In Origins, Ubisoft decided to move them to the trigger buttons by default. Wait… what crap is this? Who ever designs games with attack on shoulder or trigger buttons? Thankfully, they offer an alternative mapping that at least puts them on X and Y. No, it’s not optimal placement, but it’s at least it’s on these buttons. Why would you put combat on X and Y over A and B? These combat moves should always be on A and B buttons (Xbox) or X and O buttons (PS4)… like every other game on the planet.

This is always called messing with a good thing and Ubisoft is now firmly guilty of screwing with this game just to screw with it and for no other reason. Bad design.

Smoke Bombs

In past games, you had the ability to get and drop smoke bombs at will. In this game, smoke bombs are tied to combat. To drop a smoke bomb in this game, you now have to perform some kind of combat maneuver, then following that maneuver, press the A button quickly to drop a smoke bomb. No No No NO NO! Dropping a smoke bomb should be a button on its own. Never tie it to a combat move. If I just want to drop a smoke bomb for no reason, that’s my choice. Stupid design.

Perfect Aim

This is one of those complaints I’ve had for a very long time and it keeps coming back time and time again. Every enemy has perfect aim and infinite line of sight. No one ever misses hitting you unless you’re overly good at dodging. Even then, arrows still seem to make their target even after dodging. Yes, you can use your shield to protect yourself, but if that works 50% of the time, you’re lucky. Some enemy is always knocking you back and typically enemies swarm making it impossible to use the shield effectively.

Swarming and moving out of range

Enemies in this game always want to come in swarms. When you climb to avoid the swarms, the NPCs (animals or humans) move just out of range of your ranged weapons if they can’t reach you. This means you can’t shoot arrows at them. This is plain out cheating by the developers. Don’t move NPCs just out of range because they can’t get to you. I’ve seen this tactic in other games and it is entirely unnecessary. Once again, stupid design.

Climbing Activities

As with other Assassin’s Creed games, climbing was the gimmick that made Assassin’s Creed work. It’s still in this game as well, but not explained as to how this character does it. He just does. As with other AC titles, climbing sometimes works, but sometimes doesn’t. It depends on what you’re trying to do.

In most cases, the camera gets in the way. Because climbing direction is heavily dependent on which way the camera is facing, when the camera randomly moves, you’ll end up careening off in the wrong direction and setting off a bunch of guards in the process. This is, in fact, one of THE most frustrating aspects of this game (and really, any AC game).

For utilitarian purposes, climbing works fine. For stealthy assassinations, I could swear that the game cheats and sends me careening right in the middle of a load of guards simply to alert them. I’ve learned never to use climbing as an assassination strategy unless there’s plenty of room to maneuver. Even then, it can all go horribly wrong.

Ignoring all of the combat problems, this is one of the games top problems. Though, I’ve had this complaint with just about every Assassin’s Creed game ever made. Though, this game seems to be worse about it than others.

Senu

In lieu of the previous semi-magical “Eagle Vision” that simply just existed, they replaced it with, you know, a pun. They give you “Senu”, a flying Eagle with ‘Vision’. It circles overhead like a vulture. When you activate Senu, you can control him to fly around and over various encampments to identify enemies, loot chests and various other identifiers.

Senu was an unnecessary addition to the game and does nothing to explain the other version of “Eagle Vision”. Instead, they should have simply used the tried-and-true Eagle Vision that had been long established in every prior game. It needed no explaining. Adding this eagle served no purpose other than to make a pun, which wasn’t funny. Senu could have been a great help if it could have not only stunned enemies, but actually damaged them by dive bombing them and/or pecking / scratching them. If you’re going to give us a companion (and since you’re already making this world completely unrealistic anyway), then while you’re at it, let us use Senu as a weapon against enemies right from the start. Such a waste.

Leveling Up

Yes, there is the ability to level up, but it’s so limited as to really not be helpful. You get enough experience points to level up timely enough, but it really doesn’t help make you stronger or better or faster most of the time. The majority of the perks are worthless. There are a few that help (poison darts, smoke bombs), but most don’t do anything to help make Bayek stronger, better or faster. In other words, the majority of the perks do nothing, with only a few having any real purpose. The few that do have purpose are so buried behind the ones that do nothing, you waste a ton perk points just to get to them.

Photo Mode

The photo mode in this game is nice enough, but doesn’t have near enough filters to make it worthwhile with depth of field being the best of the effects. Overall, it’s a nice enough feature, but it’s not worth playing this game just to use it.

Frame Rates, Audio Problems, Crashing, Lost Quests

Frame Rate Problems

One of the things I’ll say about the Xbox 360 versions of this game is that the frame rates were always consistent, particularly with climbing a synchronization point. When you get to the top, the camera circles the player character. This has always been a particularly smooth animation. Not in Assassin’s Creed Origins. Every single synchronization point animation is herky jerky and choppy… and this is at 1080p. I’m not even trying to run this game at 4K. I can’t even imagine what this animation looks like in 4K.

I only recently started playing this game because of a backlog of games I wanted to play first. I also thought that waiting would give Ubisoft enough time to patch stupid bugs. Well, they haven’t. This game is chock full of bugs and problems.

Lost Quests

This is a problem that also drives me insane. I’m playing along, select a quest and I’m on the way there to pick it up or finish it. There are two ways quests are lost here. The first way is I’m traveling a road and an invincible enemy appears and immediately spots me. Invincible enemies are an entirely stupid concept (see above), but they are also on horses that run far faster than mine does… which doesn’t make sense. So, they inevitably catch Bayek and desync. BTW, a single arrow shot or sword swing from an invincible enemy is nearly enough to desync. A second swing or shot and the game always desyncs. Upon respawning, the quest is gone. No where to be found. You can’t find it and you don’t know where it went.

The second place where quests get lost is when the game locks up and/or crashes. Upon restarting the game, the quest is gone. This one is just insanely stupid. It’s not like the game doesn’t have autosaves turned on all throughout. Even if the game just saved seconds before, the quest is gone. Worse, when you respawn, you can end up a long ways away from where you were.

I don’t know how many quests I’ve lost as a result of either of these two problems. Probably 15 to 20. This problem stems from the way this game chooses to save games (see below).

Audio Problems

This is a known problem. Ubisoft has had many reports of this problem going to late 2017. Yet, Ubisoft still hasn’t fixed this issue. I’ve run into it several times. After I’m done playing the game, I then sleep the Xbox One for a period of time. When I wake up the console, there’s no sound at all. When I attempt to change any audio settings in the game to bring it back, I only get an audio chirp about every 5 seconds. Note, the console itself has no problems producing sound as I get that from the Home screen and Cortana and other apps. This problem is entirely a bug in Assassin’s Creed Origins.

Crashing

Most games today crash occasionally. However, this game is well more buggy, crashing way more frequently than average. I’ve had hangs that turn into crashes. I’ve had hangs that recover. I’ve had random crashes with no hang. Since I’ve started playing, I’ve had at least one crash every 1-2 days. This game is not at all stable. Thankfully, the game saves frequently enough that you don’t lose what you’ve already collected. But, you may lose your active quest.

Game Saves

This game chooses to checkpoint save randomly. It makes a noise whenever it saves. I could really do without that noise. If you want to save a game, leave the noises off. Just save the game and put a visual notification. That’s all that’s needed.

You’d think that the game saves would do you a favor. In fact, they don’t. If you desync for any reason, you have to start whatever it was you are doing over from the beginning. The only thing that seems to be saved is chests you may have looted. These seem to remain looted after a desync. Other than that, your character respawns usually far away from the location where you were. This is annoyingly frustrating.

What is the point in a game save if not to recover exactly where you left off? Ubisoft, checkpoint saves are stupid. Get rid of them. Let us save exactly where we are and let us save at will. Let us start right back where we left off… in the middle of battle if necessary. Don’t throw us a long distance away and make us start that activity completely over. Stupid design

Graphics and Sound

While the cities and NPCs are ironically unrealistic in their actions, the visual world itself, particularly the sand dunes, the deserts and the oases are look reasonably realistic. Bayek’s character model is particularly well done. The same for the anime character seen in “Gift from the Gods” quest. I’m not even sure what that quest was about, but the character was straight out of a game like Final Fantasy. For less than 5 minutes on the screen, someone spent an inordinate amount of time modeling that character for the game.

The underwater action is well done and the water movement is better than most games of this type. As with most games today, these hyper-realistic game engines fall down in many small ways… specifically, low res models. While the lighting is well done, the statues and other models are just too low poly. Worse, the flags at the top of the temples are downright horrid. They fly and flap fine, but the edges of the flags look like something out of an 8-bit SuperMario game.

There is one sound thing that drives me insane in this game. It’s when Bayek has to constantly prompt the gamer to go do whatever urgent task is at hand. I don’t need or want that prompting. At least let me turn it off from the settings menu. Additionally, the enemies constantly taunt that the player’s imminent demise. I don’t want to hear this either. Let me shut off those taunting remarks from the enemies. These audio comments are entirely worthless. Either that or turnabout is fair play. If they NPCs can taunt, then let me taunt back with Bayek. Either that, or shut that stupid and repetitive taunting off.

Overall

The game play mechanics are average. When the mechanics work, they work okay, but occasionally the collision detection is intensely bad. I can see the weapon connect with the enemy, yet nothing. This means extra work just to kill an enemy because the game didn’t detect it. Sometimes it means desync and forced restarting. The enemies who use the back up tactic just drive me absolutely insane. This tactic needs to be removed from the NPC combat AI. It doesn’t serve any purpose other than to frustrate. It doesn’t make the combat harder, it’s just plain stupid.

The stories are twice told tales that don’t really lead anywhere of any specific nature. The only story that ties it all in is when you exit the animus with Layla… Layla being a cheap knockoff of Lucy from Assassin’s Creed. However, what is she really doing there any the first place? We’ve already established the animus as a commercial thing that people can buy and use at home. Why are we going back to these coffin shaped devices? The only storyline that seems to tie it all in are the too few and far between temples were Bayek enables a pedestal which talks of Desmond and the imminent world destruction… not that Bayek will understand any of that… nor does he ever make any comments under his breath afterwards.

Worse, all of that modern day gibberish was likely introduced by the animus as a bug rather than being an actual genetic memory from Bayek’s original story. Yet, Ubisoft completely ignored this leaving the gamer to assume that Bayek actually encountered that information. Sure, I believe he may have visited those temples, but I don’t believe he actually encountered that information during the reign of the Pharaohs. Why should I believe this? The story gives me more reason to believe the animus added that story element than Bayek actually having encountered it for real.

This game could have been much, much better.

Graphics: 8.9 out of 10
Sound: 6 out of 10
Game Saves: 1 out of 10
Gameplay: 4 out of 10
Controls: 4 out of 10
Combat: 3 out of 10
Stories: 5 out of 10
Stability: 2 out of 10

Final Rating: 4.5 stars out of 10

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How much data does it take to update my PS4 or Xbox One or Switch?

Posted in computers, updates, video game console by commorancy on May 10, 2018

It seems this is a common question regarding the most recent gaming consoles. Let’s explore.

Reasons?

  • If the reason you are asking this question is because you’re concerned with data usage on your Internet connection or if your connection is very slow, you’ll find that this answer will likely not satisfy you. However, please keep reading.
  • If the reason you are asking this question is because you want to predict the amount of data more precisely, then skip down to the ‘Offline Updates’ section below.
  • If the reason you are asking this question is because you’re simply curious, then please keep reading.

Xbox One, PS4 and Switch Update sizes

The PS4, Xbox One and Switch periodically patch and update their console operating systems for maximum performance, to squash bugs and to improve features. However, this process is unpredictable and can cause folks who are on metered Internet connections no end of frustration.

How much data will it need to update?

There is no way to know … let’s pause to soak this in …

How much data is needed is entirely dependent on how recently you’ve upgraded your console. For example, if you’ve kept your console up to date all along the way, the next update will only be sized whatever the newest update is. With that said, there’s no way to gauge even that size in advance. Not Microsoft, not Sony and not Nintendo publish their update sizes in advance. They are the size they are. If it fixes only a small set of things, it could be 50-100 megabytes. If it’s a full blown point release (5.0 to 5.1), it could be several gigabytes in size. If it’s a smaller release, it could be 1GB.

If your console is way out of date (i.e., if you last turned it on 6 months ago), your console will have some catching up to do. This means that your update may be larger than someone who updates their console every new update. This means that if the base update is 1GB, you might have another 1GB of catch up before the newest update can be applied. This catch-up update system applies primarily to the Xbox One and not to the PS4 or Switch.

Xbox One vs PS4 vs Switch Update Conventions

Sony and Nintendo both choose a bit more of an one-size-fits-all update process when compared to Microsoft. Because of this, we’ll discuss the Xbox One first. Since the Xbox One is based, in part, on Windows 10, it follows the same update conventions as Windows 10. However, because the Xbox One also uses other embedded OSes to drive other parts of the console, those pieces may also require separate updates of varying sizes. This means that for the Xbox One to update, it has a process that scans the system for currently installed software versions, then proceeds to download everything needed to bring all of those components up to date.

Sony and Nintendo, on the other hand, don’t seem to follow this same convention. Instead, the Switch and PS4 typically offer only point-release updates. This means that everyone gets the same update at the same time in one big package. In this way, it’s more like an iPhone update.

For full point-release updates, the Xbox One also works this same way. For interim updates, it all depends on what Microsoft chooses to send out compared to what’s already on your Xbox One. This means that the Xbox One can update more frequently than the PS4 by keeping underlying individual components updated more frequently if they so choose. This is why the Xbox One can offer weekly updates where the PS4 and the Switch typically offer only quarterly or, at least, much less frequent updates.

Size of Updates

If you want to know the size of a specific update, you have to begin the update process. This works the same on the PS4, the Xbox One or the Switch. This means you have to kick off the update. Once you do this, the download progress bar will show you the size of the download. This is the only way to know how big the update is directly on the console.

However, both the PS4 and the Xbox One allow you to download your updates manually via a web browser (PC or Mac). You can then format a memory stick, copy the files to USB and restart the console in a specific way to apply the updates. This manual process still requires you to download the updates in full and, thus, uses the same bandwidth as performing this action on the console. This process requires you to also have a sufficiently sized and properly formatted USB memory stick. For updating the PS4, the memory stick must be formatted exFAT or FAT32. For updating the Xbox One, it must be formatted NTFS. The Nintendo Switch doesn’t provide offline updates.

Cancelling Updates in Progress

The Xbox One allows you to cancel the current system update in progress by unplugging the lan and/or disconnecting WiFi. Then turning off the console. When the console starts up without networking, you can continue to play games on your console, but you will not be able to use Xbox Live because of the lack of networking.

Once you plug the network back in, the system will again attempt to update. Or, you can perform an offline update with the Xbox One console offline. See Offline Updates just below.

You can also stop the PS4 download process by going to Notifications, selecting the download, press the X button and select ‘Cancel and Delete’ or ‘Pause’. Note, this feature is available on 5.x PS4 version. If your PS4 version is super old, you may not have this option in the Notifications area. You will also need to go into settings (Xbox One or PS4) and disable automatic updates otherwise it could download these without you seeing it.

How to disable automatic updates:

With that said, you cannot stop system updates on the Nintendo Switch once they have begun. Nintendo’s downloads are usually relatively small anyway. Trying to catch them in progress and stop them may be near impossible. It’s easier to follow the guides above and prevent them from auto-downloading.

Also note, any of the consoles may still warn you that an update is available and prompt you to update your console even if you have disabled automatic software downloads.

*This setting on the Nintendo Switch may exclude firmware updates, your mileage may vary.

Offline Updates

Xbox One

The Xbox One allows you to update your system offline using a Windows PC. This type of update is not easily possible with a Mac. Mac computers don’t natively support formatting or reading NTFS properly, but there are tools you can use (Tuxera NTFS for Mac).

To use the Offline System Update, you’ll need:

  • A Windows-based PC with an Internet connection and a USB port.
  • A USB flash drive with a minimum 4 GB of space formatted as NTFS.

Most USB flash drives come formatted as FAT32 and will have to be reformatted to NTFS. Note that formatting a USB flash drive for this procedure will erase all files on it. Back up or transfer any files on your flash drive before you format the drive. For information about how to format a USB flash drive to NTFS using a PC, see How to format a flash drive to NTFS on Windows.

  1. Plug your USB flash drive into a USB port on your computer.
  2. Open the Offline System Update file OSU1.
  3. Click Save to save the console update .zip file to your computer.
  4. Unzip the file by right-clicking on the file and selecting Extract all from the pop-up menu.
  5. Copy the $SystemUpdate file from the .zip file to your flash drive.
    Note The files should be copied to the root directory, and there shouldn’t be any other files on the flash drive.
  6. Unplug the USB flash drive from your computer.

PlayStation 4

You can also update your PS4 console offline using Sony’s system updates. Here’s the procedure for PS4 offline updates. Note, the USB memory stick must be formatted either exFAT or FAT32. The PS4 doesn’t support any other types of stick formats. This means, if you buy a USB stick intended to be used on Windows, you will need to reformat it properly before you can use it on the PS4.

Update using a computer

For the standard update procedure, follow the steps below.

The following things are needed to perform the update:

  • PlayStation®4 system
  • Computer connected to the Internet
  • USB storage device, such as a USB* flash drive
  • There must be approximately 460 MB of free space.
    • On the USB storage device, create folders for saving the update file. Using a computer, create a folder named “PS4”. Inside that folder, create another folder named “UPDATE”.
      PC Update
    • Download the update file, and save it in the “UPDATE” folder you created in
      step 1. Save the file with the file name “PS4UPDATE.PUP”.
      Download Now Click to start the download.
    • Connect the USB storage device to your PS4™ system, and then from the function screen, select Settings (Settings) > [System Software Update].
      Follow the on-screen instructions to complete the update.
  • If your PS4™ system does not recognize the update file, check that the folder names and file name are correct. Enter the folder names and file name in single-byte characters using uppercase letters.

Nintendo Switch Updates

Nintendo doesn’t offer offline updates at all. The Nintendo Switch only supports Internet updates. There is currently no way to download or update your Switch via USB stick or SD card. The Nintendo Switch is the newest of the consoles, so it’s possible that Nintendo could offer an offline update mechanism some time in the future. However, knowing Nintendo, don’t hold you breath for this feature.

Offline Updates are Point Release Only

These offline update processes apply point-release updates only and not interim updates. Interim updates must still be applied directly from the console. Interim updates scan your system, find what’s needed, then download the patches. This can only be done directly on the console. This means you could find that after installing a point release, the Xbox One may still require an additional update or two.

Updates and Internet Connectivity

Game consoles require updates to keep them current. The primary reason for most updates is to keep yours and your friend’s games in sync when playing multiplayer games. This prevents you from having a network edge over another player. When all game consoles are running the same version, all multiplayer activities are on the same playing field.

For this reason, Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network (PSN) require all users to update to use networking features. If you declined or postpone any updates, both the Xbox One and the PS4 will deny you access to networking features. You must update both the console and the games to continue using networking.

If you don’t intend to use the network features such as multiplayer or leader boards, then you don’t need to worry about this. However, if you’re not using the networking features, then there’s no reason to buy Xbox Live or PSN. So far, Nintendo doesn’t yet offer a network capable of multiplayer gaming like Xbox Live or PSN, but as soon as they do I’m quite sure they will enforce the same requirements.

Pushing off Updates

While you can postpone updates to your console, it’s not always the best idea. I get that some people are on metered networking connections and can’t afford to download 20GB sized updates. But, at the same time, this is how consoles work. If you’re looking for a console that supports offline updates, then you’ll want to look at the PS4 or the Xbox One. You might want to skip the Switch if this is a show stopper for you.

As we move into the future, these consoles will continue to assume more and more connectivity is always available. Don’t be surprised to find that both the Xbox One and PS4 discontinue their offline update feature at some point in the future.

Though, Sony will still need to provide a way to install the operating system when a hard drive is replaced. However, that won’t help you with updating your console offline.

If you have a reason to want to know your download sizes more precisely, other than what I mention above, please leave a comment below and let me know.

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A history of the DIVX DVD

Posted in botch, business, movies by commorancy on April 29, 2018

In 1998 (almost 20 years ago), a new DVD rental format arrived named DIVX (aka Digital Video Express). It purported to be a DVD rental format that had no late fees and the media didn’t need to be returned… at least those were the benefits purported to the consumer. What they didn’t tell you was that you would need to buy a brand new expensive DVD player to play them. Let’s explore.

DIVX versus DivX

To get this confusion cleared up quickly, DIVX was a brand name assigned to a new DVD rental standard introduced by Circuit City and the entertainment law firm Ziffren, Brittenham, Branca and Fischer in 1998. However, it’s not entirely clear what problem Circuit City was trying to solve by introducing the DIVX rental format when DVD was already useful enough for rentals.

The DIVX brand name, introduced by Circuit City, bears no relationship to the DivX or Xvid video encoding standards. Even though there is no relationship by Circuit City to the DivX encoder, there is a slight reverse relationship from the DivX encoder to the DIVX brand. In fact, the original name of the DivX encoder was actually DivX ;-)

Yes, this encoder name included the winking smiley. This smiley was actually a nod (and sarcasm) towards Circuit City’s then soon-to-be-defunct DIVX rental standard. Here’s what the DivX Wikipedia article says of the early days of the video encoder named DivX ;-).

DivX ;-) (not DivX) 3.11 Alpha and later 3.xx versions refers to a hacked version of the Microsoft MPEG-4 Version 3 video codec (not to be confused with MPEG-4 Part 3) from Windows Media Tools 4 codecs. The video codec, which was actually not MPEG-4 compliant, was extracted around 1998 by French hacker Jerome Rota (also known as Gej) at Montpellier.

So then, what does DivX ;-) have to do with the DIVX DVD format? Not much other than DivX ;-) making a tongue-in-cheek poke at Circuit City’s DIVX rental format. Hopefully, this clears up any confusion around this convoluted naming.

DIVX as a rental standard

The primary impetus to build the new DIVX rental standard by Circuit City was probably brand recognition. At the time, Circuit City was considered the second largest electronics retailer behind Best Buy. The Circuit City management was obviously willing to do anything to become the number one electronics retailer, including dreaming up technology ideas that didn’t need to be built. Meaning that by 1998, Blockbuster had the rental market sewn up. However, Circuit City sought to disrupt that by trying to create a new standard that not only simultaneously upset Blockbuster’s cart, but introduced a new format that would bring more recognition to the Circuit City brand (and, of course, generate more hardware and rental sales). As a side note, Circuit City was also the second largest appliance retailer behind Sears at that time.

Here’s the Circuit City’s DIVX promo video (skip to 0:17 to begin an unrealistic family scenario, press 1 to skip the intro entirely or jump to 4:19 to begin use case demonstration). Don’t feel obligated to watch the whole thing.

Now, let’s watch this training video to better understand how then CEO Richard L. Sharp saw DIVX’s future within Circuit City. Pay close attention to his statements during the opening segments of this video. Again, don’t feel obligated to watch the whole thing.

Unfortunately, Circuit City’s management goals were way too ambitious and overconfident. They also dropped into a rabbit hole with this DIVX venture that took them away from their core retail business and caused them to spend millions to create and support a format that didn’t live up to the hype. In fact, it might even be considered that failure of the DIVX format ushered in the downward slide of Circuit City into oblivion. While Circuit City was a reasonable electronics retailer, they didn’t have any presence in the video rental market. When they introduced DIVX, the assumed strategy was to add $4-5 rentals and boost DVD player sales in the Circuit City and Good Guys stores. The management team thought that this rental business would somehow take them to the next level. If only they had adopted standard DVD rentals instead.

As shown in the demo, DIVX boasted a 48 hour rental period with no need to return the disc when the rental period ended. However, to use DIVX, you had to invest in a brand new type of DVD player that also supported the DIVX format. Tada! Here’s the catch. This is also where Circuit City comes into the picture. You’d have to run on over to your local Circuit City (or one of several other retailers owned by CC, like Good Guys) to buy one of these newfangled DIVX DVD player doodads. A doodad that might cost you $100-150 more than a DVD player without DIVX. At least, this is what the management at Circuit City hoped you would do.

This idea for introducing this new format was a huge misfire for Circuit City. In addition to the picture quality problems described just below, the DIVX player contained a modem that required the player to dial-up and register itself before you could play any DIVX discs. It also apparently dialed-up twice a day to register any new purchases and download advertisements. This modem required a physical telephone line plugged into the unit to dial home. This then authorized not only your player, but supplied the player with the necessary information to authorize playback of a rental disc you recently picked up. This concept all worked reasonably well, except for the fact that several privacy groups felt that this dial home feature meant that Circuit City (or whomever) could keep tabs on your viewing habits. Little did we know then exactly how much spying would become commonplace with sites like Google and Facebook. Anyway, that privacy concern didn’t help boost efforts to sell DIVX into main stream. Of course, it wasn’t the only problem.

Poor Movie Quality

The actual DIVX DVDs themselves failed to contain the more advanced features found on a standard DVD, such as 16:9 anamorphic widescreen needed to fill a large flat panel. DIVX movie discs also failed to contain alternate audio commentary and extra features commonly found on standard DVDs. Instead, these DIVX DVDs simply contained 4:3 cropped pan and scan versions of the film… a subpar version. This was a huge misfire for the format. When you can get a better looking film on standard DVD, why would you rent the crappier DIVX format for $5? Yet more consumer dilemma.

Consumer Misunderstanding

Because a DIVX DVD appears to be a standard DVD (it looks the same), some consumers didn’t understand that they needed to buy a new player to play the DIVX media. Instead, they bought the DIVX disc, took it home and inserted it into their regular DVD players only to find that it failed to work. They would then find that they couldn’t return the disc because it was open. The misunderstanding of this new format caused grief among would-be consumers and left a sour taste for this format. This problem only served to fracture the DVD market. Worse, who’s willing to buy a brand new and expensive DIVX player just to recover a $5 loss? Not many. This problem didn’t serve Circuit City well.

It seems that Circuit City’s commercials likely didn’t much help clear this misunderstanding. Let’s watch a Circuit City commercial from this era with that same guy from the Demo reel:

There were also a number of commercials released during 1998 and 1999 that failed to mention DIVX at all… like the following commercial from 1998. You’d think a company like Circuit City spending millions to try and force adoption of their new brainchild would advertise the DIVX format on every commercial, if even only a mention at the very end. Nope. You can’t sell something if you don’t market it.

Landfill Problems

One of the touted benefits to consumers would be throw-away discs. You’d spend $4-5 for each disc, but you didn’t need to return any discs after the 48 hour watching period was over. This also meant no late fees. You simply tossed the disc into the garbage can. This idea was to hit Blockbuster where it hurt. Blockbuster was the king of late fees at the time. A few months after introduction of this idea, Circuit City stores set up recycle containers to entice users to recycle used DIVX discs at Circuit City stores instead of throwing them into the trash. Not sure how well that worked.

Licensing Issues and Retailers

As a result of Circuit City’s involvement with DIVX (along with a legal team), for other retailers to sell DIVX compatible players required paying a licensing fee to Circuit City. As a result of the licensing fees, Best Buy and other retailers shunned the players choosing to avoid paying those fees. It’s no wonder, either. Why would you ever agree to pay another retailer money just to sell one of their products? You wouldn’t. This was a completely foreseeable miscalculation by the Circuit City management team.

This meant that Circuit City and other stores owned by Circuit City ended up the sole sellers of these players (and the DIVX format). Without wider support via other retailers, this format really had no hope of surviving. Circuit City should have dropped the idea for licensing fees quickly just to get better entrenchment for the format. It’s not like it wasn’t already costing Circuit City a mint to keep this format alive. Stupid is as stupid does.

Movie Studio Support

On the plus side for the format, because of what studios considered weak protection technologies associated with standard DVD (CSS), many studios jumped on board with the DIVX’s CSS + Triple DES protection standard. This boosted the initial ~20 titles when it arrived in summer of 1998 to well over 400 titles by early 1999. Some early studio adopters were 20th Century Fox, Disney and Dreamworks. Wikipedia says:

The initial trial of the DIVX format was run in the San Francisco and Richmond, California, areas starting on June 8, 1998. Initially only a single Zenith player was available, along with 19 titles. A nationwide rollout began three months later, on September 25, with players and 150 titles available in 190 stores. In total 87,000 players were sold during 1998, with 535,000 discs across 300 titles being sold.

The studios felt that the DIVX format offered a more solid encryption technique to protect their movie content. I’m sure they did. Due to the arcane structure needed to authorize the movie rental, it meant jumping through hoops just to get your movie to play. The movie studios love making consumers jump through hoops to play their content.

This quick studio adoption rate was a bone of contention because some studios began exclusively releasing their films onto the DIVX format instead of DVD. This issue caused further problems for the format and more consumer backlash erupted and threatened to fracture the industry into a new format war.

On the other hand, Sony and Warner Home Video, which at the time apparently comprised up to 40% of the movie rental market, refused to release their movies on DIVX. The primary reason for this refusal was that both of these companies had a stake in the success of standard DVD format. Supporting the DIVX standard would be a conflict of interest.

By spring of 1999, the number of titles had increased to over 410. Little did Circuit City or the consumers realize the end was near for DIVX. Due to mounting pressures and costs, Circuit City didn’t realize how much of an albatross that DIVX would become. There was just no way Circuit City could go this new format alone without wider industry investment and consumer acceptance.

Overconfidence

Circuit City’s biggest mistake was its heavily miscalculated financial ability to support this newly created format. After all, Circuit City is a retailer, not a tech innovator. Driving a new tech format through a retail company already has many hurdles and reputational issues to overcome. Circuit City was also too confident in its ability to entice other retailers to make this format succeed. Those retailers didn’t bite. Even in 1998 when this format came about, Internet RFCs were still a thing. Circuit City entirely avoided the RFC and Whitepaper approach that had become commonplace to announce new technologies. Instead, they launched this format without much fanfare hoping that the party train would show up. It didn’t.

Because of all of the above and including backlash from consumers and lack of retailer support, Circuit City way overestimated its ability to get this format adopted… and why would anyone want to adopt this format? With licensing fees, there was no incentive for non-affiliated retailers to adopt some other retailer’s idea as practical or realistic… especially when the standard DVD already provided a better rental and sales format.

Without the necessary support by consumers and other retailers alike, the format was doomed from the go. By the summer of 1999 (just 1 year after it launched), the format officially died on June 16th, 1999 (almost exactly year since it had launched). However, due to format commitments to existing consumers, it would limp this format along until 2001. Wikipedia writes of the DIVX demise:

The format was discontinued on June 16, 1999, because of the costs of introducing the format, as well as its very limited acceptance by the general public. It was shot down by Blockbuster Video stores not wanting to carry it. Also Circuit City announced a $114 million after-tax loss, and Variety estimated the total loss on the scheme was around $337 million. Over the next two years the DIVX system was phased out. Customers could still view all their DIVX discs and were given a $100 refund for every player that was purchased before June 16, 1999. All discs that were unsold at the end of the summer of 1999 were destroyed. The program officially cut off access to accounts on July 7, 2001.

Retail, DRM and Tech Innovation Don’t Mix

Due to the conflict of interest between the Circuit City chain, other retailers, licensing and this new format, there was ultimately no way this idea could survive. Circuit City made so many missteps along the way to adoption, the format was doomed from the outset. Even the management should have been able to foresee this event. If Circuit City had spun off the DIVX idea into a separate holding company that Circuit City had founded and enticed other retailers in (to avoid licensing requirements), the standard might have had a chance of surviving. While DRM was a relatively new thing in 1999, consumers could already begin to see how it could become a problem in the way they viewed content with DIVX (and other formats).

The Future of the Movies at Home

Even if DIVX had managed to make the slightest dent in the rental market (hint: it didn’t), the future of Internet streaming movies would have still seen to its demise. Even in 1997, a year before DIVX came to exist, Reed Hastings was in the process of setting up Netflix. By 2002, Redbox led the downfall of Blockbuster through it’s DVD rental kiosks. Some people blame Netflix on the death of Blockbuster, but it is firmly the self-service and low cost nature of the Redbox kiosk that ushered Blockbuster out the door. Yes, Netflix started Blockbuster’s problems, Redbox nailed Blockbuster’s doors shut. Blockbuster simply couldn’t compete with $1 DVD rentals at a time when Blockbuster was still charging sometimes $5 per disc. Netflix chose a per month plan fee with limits and was (and still is) charging well more than $1 per disc that Redbox adopted. In fact, Redbox is still the best deal going for both DVD and Blu-ray rentals, even though their prices have somewhat increased.

Getting back to DIVX, Netflix’s movie streaming, along side Redbox, Amazon, Hulu, Vudu, Crackle, YouTube, YouTube Red and others would have killed the DIVX DVD format anyway. Ultimately, DIVX didn’t have a place in the market or a problem to solve. It was already behind the times when it was introduced by a company that didn’t have the capital to invest in the longevity of such a format.

In short, Circuit City bit off well more than they could chew with DIVX. Today, these DIVX players are essentially worthless for playing DIVX format discs. Because the players could play standard DVD format discs also, this is their only redeeming point.  There’s no way to authorize the players or discs as the service has been dismantled. If you have any DIVX discs in your collection, they can no longer be played as there’s no way to authorize the players or discs.

Even today, DVD is so way behind the times when compared with UltraHD 4K, even that would have killed DIVX in short order. Ultimately, even if DIVX had managed to survive longer than 1 year on the market, it would have eventually died because of movie streaming services. There was just no way for DIVX to compete with that. However, it died long before that happened simply because of Circuit City.

Final Death of DIVX

The DIVX format supported limited viewings as well as unlimited viewings (DIVX Silver). Limited viewings of a disc were based on your rental period. Unlimited viewings cost more and was known as DIVX Silver. Why this is important is that the players still needed to dial home to verify the viewing of each play of the movie. After June 30, 2001, the DIVX service was shuttered including the dial home feature. For those who had purchased into DIVX Silver for some of their films, they could request a refund before the service was shuttered. This meant that any further viewings of DIVX movies after June 30, 2001 were impossible, rendering the DIVX format and the DIVX portion of the players useless.

The LA Times wrote of DVIX’s failure on June 17, 1999:

But the venture never connected with consumers and represented a major miscalculation of both the market and the video industry by the nation’s second-largest consumer electronics retailer.

The failure of Divx is an embarrassment for Richard Sharp, chief executive of Circuit City Stores. Sharp fought an uphill battle to promote the venture, which became a significant drag on Circuit City’s bottom line.

Sharp declined to comment Wednesday, but the market cheered the decision to junk Divx. Circuit City’s stock closed at $90.38, up $8.38 on the New York Stock Exchange.

 

A Cautionary Tale

This whole DIVX situation serves as a cautionary tale for early adopters of technology when produced by a company that’s never been in that business. This is particularly a problem considering the DIVX players required so much constant hand-holding with home base. If that home base connection were unavailable (i.e., Circuit City closed the service), the  movies would stop working, which is exactly what happened in the end. Why would you, as a consumer, want to buy into a media format that’s so heavily dependent on a third party’s continued success. The other problem is that the players chose to use a phone line instead of phoning home over the Internet. Of course, had the format lived, it would have been relatively trivial to introduce new players that supported Internet always-on capabilities.

The real cautionary tale here is that consumers should never early adopt into entertainment content that relies on phoning home to authorize each viewing. One could argue that Netflix is a form of this, but I’d argue it isn’t. When you use Netflix, the movie is either there or it isn’t. There’s no pulling-the-rug-out-from-under tactics. Meaning, you leave your media sitting for a few months only to find that it will no longer play. Standard DVD movies have never required authorization per play. However, Blu-ray technology has instituted a somewhat similar phone home approach, but so far this hasn’t been an issue. However, should Sony die or the servers cease to exist that enables a specific Blu-ray to function, we could find that Blu-rays become coasters at some point in the future like the DIVX media.

If you happen to own a DIVX player and any DIVX media, know that it’s dead and it’s not coming back. There is really no way to revive it. The decryption keys and the authorization service that allowed each movie to work have long been dismantled. As far as I know, there has never been anyone willing to reverse engineer this phone home service to allow old DIVX media to play. Though, why bother? The movies were mostly of inferior quality. Other than as a novelty of showing a functional DIVX movie off on a YouTube electronics history channel or possibly for nostalgia, there’s no other legitimate reasons to want to watch DIVX movies today.

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Shadow Profiling: Should I be concerned?

Posted in botch, business, california by commorancy on April 25, 2018

Recently with Facebook’s fall from grace, another issue has surfaced at Facebook: Shadow Profiling. Yes, you should be concerned. Let’s explore.

Facebook and Cambridge Analytica

With Cambridge Analytica, Facebook got caught with its pants down. Facebook allowed Cambridge Analytica, a known data broker, to mine data from Facebook’s network at a time when Facebook was vulnerable to such attacks. Facebook has been, for years, skirting every privacy initiative. In fact, Facebook didn’t want to implement any privacy controls, truth be told. They wanted to keep everything as open and accessible as possible. On the one hand, I can understand this… because it makes it easier for people to find other people. On the other hand, people’s data is their own. These are two parallel lines that will never meet.

I won’t go into every single little problem that Facebook has run into along the way, but suffice it to say that Facebook has taken baby steps to implement privacy. In 2014 when Cambridge Analytica did its mining, Facebook hadn’t implemented many controls to prevent such data mining attacks via their APIs. In fact, one might even call Facebook egregiously wilful in not implementing such data protections. Sure, they had implemented some in their web UI for user-to-user control, but not on the backend where businesses operate.

After Cambridge Analytica performed its mining operation, Facebook claims to have plugged-that-hole the same year to prevent any further Cambridge-Analytica’s from doing the same thing. Likely, they saw what CA had done and realized they were gamed and closed the hole. Of course, too little, too late. And, they didn’t disclose this fact to the public. It wouldn’t be until 2018 (4 years later) when Facebook got caught.

I won’t get into just how close Cambridge Analytica was to Facebook between then and now (hint: they occupied the same office space in 2016), but suffice it to say that Facebook was well aware of Cambridge Analytica and what business line they are in. To feign ignorance about another business using your network is so disingenuous as to be a lie.

This is all the pretext that opened the door to further scrutiny for Facebook.

Government Hearings

As a result of Facebook’s conduct back in 2014, many governments have interviewed (and will continue) to interview Mark Zuckerberg over Facebook’s conduct at that time. In that process, many side things have been uncovered. One of those things coming to light is shadow profiling. What exactly is shadow profiling?

A shadow profile is data collected about you without your knowledge. It might be data from public records, it might be personally identifying information such as email address, phone number, birth date, home address, social security, public information you share on Facebook or Twitter or Amazon. In Facebook’s case, they are collecting data about you via photos of you (facial recognition), through text messaging through WhatsApp and via other messaging means. Even simply visiting a site where you do have a login and where Facebook hosts comments is enough to gather data about you. The list goes on and on.

Facebook and Profiling

Let’s understand that many companies have shadow profiles on you, not just Facebook. Facebook is obviously one in a long list of companies that perform shadow profiling, but don’t kid yourself, Facebook is not alone in this practice. Companies such as LexisNexis, insurance companies and credit bureaus collect this information. In fact, credit bureaus hold a mountain of personal data so important that even the tiniest leak could cause immediate irreparable damage to those affected. Damage such as identity theft. Theft that, in fact, could be so bad you’d need to have a new social security number issued (along with all of your credit card numbers, phone numbers and the list goes on). Equifax found this out the hard way… and, I don’t think we’re done with these credit bureau hacks yet. It’s only going to get worse.

I digress. There are many companies that collect data about you without your knowledge. Facebook just got caught at it after this information was unceremoniously disclosed. But, don’t kid yourself that Facebook is alone in this. Google does this also. In fact, Google probably has more data on you than even Facebook has… even if you’ve never ever had a Google account. Why? Because you’ve inevitably sent email to someone@gmail.com or to a domain hosted by Google.

Google has already said they scour emails for content that helps target advertising to the Google user. If they’re scouring emails, they’ve inevitably found your email address, your phone number, address, first and last name and on and on. Google doesn’t have to do anything with this data, but it is almost certain that they store it for use later. Why? Because if you ever do create an account, they’ll already have data on you and things you like. It will make targeting ads to you much easier.

Don’t kid yourself, Facebook isn’t the only company keeping shadow profile data on people who do and don’t use their networks.

Reviewing Shadow Data

Unfortunately, to review or delete any data that Facebook has collected on you, you must first create an account. As soon as you do that, they’ve roped you in. Once you create an account, you can then download the data and see what they’ve collected. Then, you can go through the request Facebook to delete that data and your newly created account.

However, that means you are firmly in their system. Even when you ask to have your data deleted, Facebook is under absolutely no obligation to delete any data from their systems. The only thing they need do is make it not visible through their APIs and Web UI, but that’s like hiding your iPad under your bed. You can’t see it, but it’s definitely still there.

Request Shadow Data Removal

So, you’ve decided to create an account so you can request deletion. Even if Facebook does delete some data, there’s no guarantee they’ll delete every copy of it. Companies today utilize many technologies to manage, mine, extrapolate and handle user data. These systems include short term storage (hard drives), long term storage systems, multiple copy offsite backup systems, local hard drives, AWS glacier, billing systems, text based log files, marketing and advertising systems and even analytics systems such as Splunk or Kibana.

In fact, companies today have so many systems storing bits and pieces of your personal data, it’s nearly impossible for a company to actually delete ALL of your data. There will be some amount of your data that will continue to exist in at least one system somewhere on their property. That’s a guarantee. Chances are, it will exist in a whole lot more places then one.

Continued Shadow Profiling

Even if you do request your data to be removed by Facebook, it’s an entirely fleeting effort. Why? Because as soon as you’ve logged in and requested deletion and they do so, Facebook will continue their data collections efforts right after. Your request for deletion is a single point-in-time request. That request isn’t perpetual going forward. It’s a one-shot-deal. Facebook will continue collecting data on you going forward from that point. It is then entirely pointless to request deletion because within 1 year, they will have collected it all again.

In fact, there is no way to permanently request Facebook to not shadow profile your data. It is left up to you to recreate your account and request deletion every year. You may not even be able to do this more than once. Once you’ve deleted a Facebook account, that placeholder may be held in a locked state preventing you or anyone else from opening it again. At this point, any data they may have collected after you’ve requested deletion is entirely locked out from you.

For this reason, I’d suggest not requesting data deletion at all. At least, not until some laws come into effect that require Facebook and similar companies to stop shadow profiling and permanently delete data from any shadow profiling efforts.

Note that if you have even one friend who continues to use Facebook and you interact with that friend on any Facebook property (text messages, email, etc), Facebook can continue to pull that data on you and create / add to your shadow profile. Don’t think you’re safe by logging in and requesting deletion. If you’re dissatisfied by this outcome, reach out to your state representatives and request them to introduce legislation to regulate this practice.

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Marketing, Facebook & Data Privacy

Posted in botch, business, california by commorancy on April 14, 2018

FacebookLockHow is marketing related to Facebook and data privacy? These all fall under the same umbrella. Should you be concerned? Yes, you should be. Let’s explore.

Email Marketing

Let’s start with email marketing first, the precursor to social marketing. I’ve worked in the email marketing industry for the last 17 years at an operational level. I’ve worked on general email systems for over 25+ years. So, I fully understand at all levels how email and email marketing works and what is required to make it continue to work in today’s world.

Email marketing became a “thing” in the mid-late 1990s in earnest. Before that, people dabbled in email marketing to the chagrin of many early internet users. It was around this time that the term ‘spam’ was coined to denote unwanted / unsolicited email.

Over the years, email marketing has evolved into a big business with firms now utilizing marketing automation systems. These systems help you marketers manage their email marketing campaign efforts.

In the beginning, as a marketer, you had a list of emails and you sent content to those addresses. The content was the same to each user. There was no thought to personalization, tailored content or privacy of any of this data. Emails were sent using cron jobs via command line tools using Sendmail. This was initially the most basic form of email marketing. This would have been in 90s.

Evolution of Email Marketing

By the 2005, email marketing had evolved from its simplistic roots into more sophisticated systems using dedicated email marketing software from companies like Port 25 and OmniTI. These email server solutions facilitated the trend of building sophisticated marketing automation UI systems on top of these robust, fast, scalable and customizable email delivery systems.

By 2018, these underlying email softwares now include the ability to send push notifications to apps and also offer sophisticated clustering systems to allow for highly scalable, highly available infrastructure offering incredibly fast delivery times.

On top of these infrastructures sit today’s marketing automation solutions. These systems offer such features as list management, drip marketing, recipient nurturing, automagic feedback reporting and detailed reporting of how each campaign is doing.

List Management

Back in the early days, list management was a chore. You had to deal with adding and removing new entries yourself manually. In reality, few marketers ever practiced real list hygiene. Most would add new entries, but never remove people who didn’t want to see that content. It was just too much of a hassle culling through thousands of email addresses. This is why email marketing got such a bad rap. Marketer didn’t take the time to remove users from their lists.

As of today, it is now legally required to remove recipients timely from lists in most countries. If you don’t remove addresses timely, your company (and possibly even you personally) may be held liable for failure to remove an address.

If you use a legitimate email marketing company today (one that upholds legal compliance), they will automatically handle opt-out requests for every email you send. No need to worry about if you’re compliant as email marketing firms automatically add links to handle all of this for you, as long as you use their database.

Recipient Likes and Preferences

Email marketing has a huge drawback (well, two actually). The first and biggest drawback, the inability to understand the user’s likes and wants. There’s just no real way to get that level of detail out of a particular recipient simply because email interactions are so few and far between. You can’t get what you need out of email marketing to effectively target each individual user in a way that makes sense for their likes, product preferences, location and personal information…. at least, not without using more advanced features like drip marketing and advanced real-time feedback. Email marketing is typically just too hands-off for this type of experience. Enter the second problem…

Evolution of Social Marketing

The second drawback is that while email marketing today is still a very valuable form of communication, it is becoming old and dated technologically. Email clients haven’t been updated in a very long time, technologically and interactively speaking. Basically, the features that were commonplace in email by the late 90s are still the standards that we’re rocking today. In other words, email clients don’t support updated technologies like video and audio content right in the email. You have to click to a web page to see this type of interactive content. The best an email can do is an animated GIF, and that’s of little consolation when you’re wanting to offer much, much more interactive content.

In comes social media. Sites like Twitter and Facebook and Snapchat and, to some degree, even YouTube offer better ways to find like-minded folks and advertise to them. Marketers also have a lot of the same tools at their disposal, like list upload to find their existing users on Facebook. Unlike email which is pretty much a one-way system, social media offers two way interaction. People share their family information, their favorite products, their favorite restaurants, their friend information and so on. All of this sharing means more ways for marketers to mine that information about a specific individual. This information is, in fact, a gold mine for advertisers. It means that instead of the mostly one-way interactions and guessing with email, advertisers can now utilize the two way interactions of social media and find out what a user likes very quickly.

Amazon follows this trend with its own systems by targeting users with product ads that third parties purchase. It’s a way to target users with products and services the user is most likely to be interested in.

Of course, these are not perfect systems. There’s still a certain amount of guessing involved. Social marketing are only offering seemingly relevant best guess suggestions based on other people’s social and purchasing habits. However, social guesses at least based on actual data of purchase history and other shared information, rather than a near completely blind guess that email marketing uses.

Facebook and Privacy

In order for these suggestion systems to work, they must have enough information about your buying habits, what you already own, how many people are in your family, their ages, if you have pets, what car you drive and so on. The more companies know about your personal habits, the more they can target products that make sense to you. It’s a catch-22 though. The more they know, the more dangerous it is for you. Sharing your personal information means someone could learn about you and your habits and then steal your identity.

Enter Facebook. Facebook collects all of this data and more about you. They then mine this data on behalf of their advertisers. Advertisers submit their product(s) to Facebook for advertisement on its platform. The system then finds folks, based on their shared content and interests and displays an ad for a product you might be interested in. If you talked about cancer in a wall post, an ad might pop up for oncology services.

This heavily personalized advertisement system is a far cry from the old cold guess email marketing. However, social marketing was born from the idea of email. Email has now been trying to catch up and compete with this more interactive and interest-based advertising system. Unfortunately, email is firmly entrenched in the past. It’s great for individual communication. For predictive communication, email sorely lacks. Worse, it’s not likely to ever catch up in this area. Though, it’s still a good medium when combined with social marketing. Meaning, if you can mine people’s interests out of social platforms, you can then target them with products and services via email.

Data Privacy

Here’s where Facebook has failed time and time again. When someone uses a social platform to share information, it is expected that that information will remain private and only be shared with those folks whom have been allowed to see it. Or, more specifically, shared with people licensed to see it based on the agreed terms and conditions.

However, Facebook only offers a very basic permissions system. Extensive permissions systems have been available on operating systems for years. Yet, Facebook’s platform didn’t start out that way and still isn’t anywhere close. Facebook started with no privacy at all. Your data was published for everyone to see. As time progressed and people complained, Facebook added more and more user controllable permissions.

For each step that Facebook took, it consisted of tiny baby steps. They’d add incremental protection of that data, just enough to satisfy a single complaint. But, they’d leave plenty of other data exposed. As they would take more baby steps, they would implement one more control, then another, then another and on and on to where we are today. Instead of designing a system that offered robust privacy from the beginning, Facebook opted to build it piece by piece as they went along… sometimes backtracking in certain areas,

While Facebook’s user privacy controls were fairly robust by 2014 (user to user), Facebook still didn’t have much in the way of privacy when using its application programming interface (API). Developers could sign up and extract data via this API with far fewer boundaries. It wouldn’t be until later when Facebook, yet again, took another baby step that they would limit what developers could extract. By then, it was too late for Facebook to do anything about Cambridge Analytica, a company whose data brokerage business model is all about selling collected data.

Abuse

Email marketing has long recognized abuse to be a big factor in the industry. Handling abuse is what distinguishes good actors from bad. Sites such as Spamhaus exist to watchdog and prevent such email abuse and enforce industry best practices. While email marketers have had to grow much more knowledgeable about email marketing best practices, Facebook is entirely new territory for marketers with no such outside policing as Spamhaus. Even new email tools such as DMARC, DKIM and SPF have grown to help protect and legitimize the email marketing industry. Nothing like these exist for social marketing.

While Spamhaus helps to protect and prevent unwanted spam from random third parties, there is no such watchdog to protect your data from unwanted prying eyes within companies like Facebook or Twitter. With email abuse, there are also organizations like MAAWG to also help manage that email abuse. Again, there’s nothing offered on Facebook, except whatever Facebook decides is necessary. You’re at the mercy of Facebook to give you those tools, and currently their solutions are limited and swayed entirely to Facebook’s best monetary interests.

On the one hand, most people are very protective of giving out their email address to random people. Yet, on the other these same folks are completely willing to log into Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Whatsapp and Twitter and give up their every day lives, their pet’s name, their employer, their spouse’s name, their location and sometimes even their phone number, email address or other personally identifying information (PII). Worse, Facebook now requires the use of what appears to be a valid First and Last name, though you can put any data you want into those fields and there’s no way for Facebook to verify this. Other social platforms don’t require this. This Facebook requirement ensures the lack of privacy and that users can be targeted by outside third parties. It also ensures that data can be e-pended by outside parties.

Abuse of email has real tangible penalties behind it. Abuse of social networks only has a single company behind it, like Twitter or Facebook. There are no industry standard watchdog groups out there helping guide marketing organizations towards best practices. In fact, such a watchdog group couldn’t really exist because, unlike email, there are no sanctions that could work to stop bad actors short of asking their ISPs to stop routing traffic for those companies. Such a move would likely be met with a huge legal backlash from the company. After all, the ISP did sign contracts to supply service to Facebook. If they cut off peering to them, Facebook would have them for legal lunch. Nope, there’s no sanction against a company like Facebook that could work. Not even a lawsuit could be all that effective.

Instead, these unstoppable organizations are in it to make money off of your data. For this reason, this is why companies like Cambridge Analytica can come to exist on Facebook and steal 87 million (or more) users’ data. This is why there’s nothing Congress can do to Facebook. No laws means nothing to enforce. The only thing Congress (or each state) can do is enact laws to protect each person’s data and force Facebook to become legally compliant with those laws. Of course, Facebook might face other laws they could have run afoul, but because the US has no real data privacy laws, there’s nothing here to enforce… even with companies like Cambridge Analytica.

Protecting Your Privacy

Only you can protect your privacy and your data. You can’t leave it to companies to do this for you… particularly if you live in the United States. If you want to share everything you do with the world, then you can’t easily protect your privacy. Note that even if you never put a single piece of personally identifying information online, you still may have shared enough other minimally identifying information that when put together, someone can eventually identify you.

For example, if you visit Starbucks every day to take a photo of your coffee cup each morning, someone could find that particular Starbucks and stalk your movement there. They could hear you give the cashier your name or other personal information. They might listen for your name to be called. They might bump into you intentionally to make you drop your stuff. They might watch you get into your car and take down your plate number. They might even follow you home. This is why sharing your everything you do online can be dangerous.

Even if you never give your real first name, last name, address, phone number or other information, you (or your friends) may have shared enough photos, locations and friend information to eventually identify you. This information isn’t considered personally identifying information alone, but when pieced together, it is. With enough data pieced together, someone might find out who you are, where you live, your address and possibly even your phone number… maybe even other data such as SS#, CC# or anything else were they to obtain some of your mail.

This is, of course, all made worse by companies like Facebook that don’t take data privacy seriously and only produce half-baked “security theater” mechanisms designed to look like they protect you, but that in reality they don’t. You’re continually putting your data into the hands of folks like Mark Zuckerberg who has, time and time again, shown that his platform cannot be trusted to store personal data.

Security Theater

While email marketing now has a robust set of industry checks and balances, technological measures, industry watchdogs, laws and best practices… social marketing offers very limited controls. The reason for this 1) it’s so young, 2) it doesn’t interact with third parties like email and 3) Systems like Facebook won’t offer such controls. Email must interact with many unrelated parties along the way to get your email to an inbox. Social marketing has a captive audience inside a single platform operated by a single company, whether inside of Twitter’s network or Facebook’s network or whomever.

This means that while email marketers must comply with laws, technical standards, best practices and other data collection and use controls, sites like Facebook face far fewer data handling laws. This means that your data is effectively open to the highest bidder. Yes, Facebook claims to have taken strides to help protect and safeguard your personal data, but you don’t know if that’s true or not. No one audits Facebook to make sure these claims are, in fact, true.

With email marketing, it’s crystal clear when a customer uses an inappropriately collected list. With Facebook, there is no way to know whether your data has been appropriately or inappropriately used because Facebook gets to make the rules. Rules that can change one day to the next.

I’ve worked for enough high tech companies to know that most companies create lot of security and data privacy theater in place of actual mechanisms. Meaning, they state in their policies that they do something, but the technological measures to back up those policies don’t always exist. This facade, otherwise known as “theater”, is what let’s companies get away with policy breaches unaware. It’s usually driven by a case of “Easier said than done”. Implementing technical measures to enforce a policy isn’t always easy, particularly if said data is terabytes in size. Instead, companies perform it on a case-by-case basis. It also might take them weeks to complete the task. The policy is may be written into the legal terms and conditions. However, when a customer actually wants to know if that policy is enforced, the company will then manually enforces that policy on that person’s data, assuming they even give you an honest response to your question.

You’d be surprised to find that this situation happens a lot more often than you might be aware. Even many legal teams are unaware of this situation in their own companies. They think that what’s in the policy is always carried out every time. In fact, that’s not true much of the time. This is simply because legal teams rarely carry out internal audits to ensure that written, published policies are being followed internally. Even then, some legal teams are both aware and complicit in allowing the technical teams to not follow the policies to the letter.

I would also be remiss by not mentioning that some legal teams write data policies without informing the necessary internal teams of the policy changes or additions. Without buy-in and support from the appropriate technical teams, the written word can’t always be translated into functional technical procedures. This means that the legal team is out of step with what is technically feasible. Legal teams should always propose and write policy in conjunction with the teams that must support those policies. As a lawyer on an in-house legal team, you can’t just write policy because it sounds good and then assume it can be implemented easily. That doesn’t always work. Hence, security theater.

Data Deletion and Right to be Forgotten Laws

Here’s the outcome of security and data privacy theater. If you request a company to delete your data, you won’t know if your data has been irrevocably deleted. Many companies hang onto long term backups for exceedingly long periods of time. This means that while your personal data may no longer exist on a live hard drive and may not longer be visible via a web interface, it could still exist on a long term data backup solution the company uses. It might even exist via an API system. Note that some data backup solutions exist on live disks, such as using the Cassandra or Elastic database system or even such reporting systems like Splunk or Elastic’s ELK. Some of these internal systems may never or rarely get purged. Even basic text log files, which may contain some or all of your personal data, may be retained for years due to Sarbanes Oxley and other data retention requirements.

Early in the life of email marketing, you might not expect to be unsubscribed. Today, laws require email marketers to remove your email address from their list within 10 days. The word remove is subjective. The actual term is unsubscribe. Even after unsubscribing, the company can continue to hold onto your email address in their database so long as they never email you. In fact, an opt-out request is simply to unsubscribe you from their mailings. It doesn’t ensure your email address will be deleted from their list. This is how your email address can accidentally be mailed again in the future despite a previous opt-out request.

Data deletion has no laws in effect in the US. US companies are not obligated to delete your data even if you so request it. They can leave it on systems within their organization. This, unfortunately, leaves your information vulnerable to data breaches by unauthorized persons. This is why you can request a company to delete your data and later find out your data was involved in a data breach years later. Or, you may find identity theft from a data breach where you had asked a company to delete your data. There are no laws that require companies to delete data when requested… at least, not in the United States. In the UK and EU, the right to be forgotten laws have been written and will apply to UK and EU citizens under the GDPR. Whether those laws continue to exist after Brexit in the UK, I’m unsure. Canada appears to be working towards (or has enacted) a similar data purge law for its citizens.

However, no such ‘right to erasure / right to be forgotten’ law has been enacted in the US. Companies in the US are still free to store and keep your personal data for as long as they see fit. Yes, even after your deletion request. This means that your data is still at risk of a data breach, even after you’ve requested Facebook, Snapchat, Whatsapp, Instagram, YouTube, Google or Twitter to delete your data. US companies are just not obligated to irretrievably delete your data. Even in the EU, the laws may not fully protect you from irrevocable deletion of your data. Meaning, it may be enough for a company to actively delete visibility of your data on their web site, but that doesn’t ensure irrevocable erasure from all media in that company’s possession. Worse, as long as that data never surfaces in the future, that company can hold onto it… even if they are considered ‘breaking laws’. The only way to make sure irrevocable deletion occurs is by adding incredibly stiff penalties when the laws are willfully broken.

Social Networks and Marketing

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Whatsapp and more bank on their ability to collect your data, store it and use it freely. As long as you digitally agree to their terms and conditions regarding their data collection and use, then you have little recourse against them when a situation like Cambridge Analytica occurs.

In email marketing, selling of lists has been taboo for years and has always been considered an email marketing dubious practice. In fact, list purchasing is considered one of the worst email marketing practices. In Social Marketing, no such rules have been laid down. Facebook has been hitting these walls one-by-one since at least 2008. Each time, they put up yet another road block to stop that particular practice (aka, baby steps). Facebook doesn’t want to stop these practices, they’re just forced to by public outcry, the media and the government each and every time.

They knee-jerk by enacting new policies each time, but only because of duress. Policies, I might add that email marketers have been adhering to for years. Policies that now have laws like the CAN-SPAM Act and individual state laws. Yet, here we are again, reliving this same abuse pattern over again in another form.

Marketing Today

Marketers have always wanted to do the least work possible and gain the most money from their efforts. That’s the whole reason email marketing exists. That’s the reason advertising exists. They want to create the most effective campaign and Facebook allows them to do this with their personalized marketing.

Cambridge Analytica took that one step further. They mined Facebook’s data and stored it in their own offsite database. A database that Facebook claims they thought had been deleted. They then combined that data with other data to create an even more comprehensive profile of each person. Yes, even more comprehensive than Facebook alone. If they had first and last name along with at least one piece of identifying information, they could have gone to LexisNexis and gotten even more identifying information. Who knows, they might have?

Marketers today are looking for the easiest way to target ads to the people they need. Hence, the reason Cambridge Analytica can even exist as an organization. There are many, many data brokerage services available to buy list and user data. Data that can be populated into databases and targeted with ads. Most of these outside brokerage services sell with the intent of using email marketing, but there may be more today that are using Facebook to present their ads. Cambridge Analytica is but one in many data brokerage services that exist on the Internet. You can bet many others also exist and may have taken advantage of Facebook’s situation, just the same as Cambridge Analytica.

That Facebook claimed to believed that a data brokerage service, whose sole business is in selling data, would ever delete data they had legitimately collected from Facebook is entirely naïve and disingenuous. Facebook had to have known the business Cambridge Analytica was in at the time they were extracting data from the platform. One only needs to visit Cambridge Analytica’s web site for a few minutes to understand their line of work. Even then, if you weren’t certain, you could certainly pick up the phone, call them and ask what it is they do. Companies are always eager to talk about their line of business, particularly if they think they’re about to make a sale.

Ad targeting is not going away and is only likely to grow as artificial intelligence systems grow. The data privacy issue will continue to be ever more important as time goes on. To protect yourself, you must ask yourself, what should I share and what should I not? For example, publishing a single cute puppy or kitty photo or video is probably fine. However, many cameras today also add EXIF data to store location data and possibly other information about where and when photo or video was created. Data that might be used to link you to that photo. However, taking a photo every day of your cup of coffee might reveal things about the location that you visit (names, people, location identifiers, etc). These are things when you need to be cautious before posting. Even if the photo appears innocuous, you might want to think twice because someone else might see something that you don’t see.

Social platforms, while fun, are big business for their owners. Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s all fun and games. Those games and fun have a price to pay. That price is what they get to do with your user data. As has been said, if the service is free, you are the product… or more specifically, your data.

Consumer Tips: How to navigate the Toys R Us liquidation

Posted in best practices, business by commorancy on April 1, 2018

If you’re thinking of visiting Toys R Us to take advantage of the store closing liquidation sales, this is your safety guide. Don’t throw your money away at Toys R Us, make every dollar count. Let’s explore.

Giving Gifts

Toys R Us’s liquidation is All Sales Final. The first tip is pretty straightforward. If you’re looking to buy a gift for a child, you are trying to stock up for the holidays or for any other rainy day reason, keep in mind that you cannot return, exchange or refund anything you purchase at this time. For gifts, this can be critical, particularly with children. You should always make sure that the person who receives that gift can return or exchange it if they don’t like it. Purchasing from Toys R Us on liquidation, you forfeit the return option.

Even if the gift is to be given while Toys R Us is still open, there are no refunds or exchanges. So, be aware that whatever gift item you choose is theirs to keep forever. You might want to be prepared to perform an exchange with your own money. Note that this can become an uncomfortable situation.

If you know there’s a possibility that your gift might be returned, you should buy from Amazon, Target or Walmart instead which leaves that option open for the recipient.

No Returns, Refunds or Exchanges

This goes hand-in-hand with All Sales Final. If you purchase items from Toys R Us during liquidation, you may get a great deal, but at the cost of no refunds, returns or exchanges. Make absolutely certain that what you buy is absolutely something you intend to keep.

Whether or not you intend to give the item as a gift, you should open the item and check it thoroughly. Do it in the store if at all possible. If it has batteries, make sure to test the item for functionality. You may not be able to test a battery powered item in the store, however. They may not allow you to remove the item from its packaging in the store to perform this test. You may have to take it home and check it there. By that time, you’ve already purchased and it’s too late if it’s defective. If you’re in doubt, leave it at the store.

If you do find a dead or defective item, you will need to contact the toy manufacturer directly and work your exchange through the manufacturer. Keep your receipt. This exchange process could take a whole lot more time than if you bought at a store still accepting exchanges.

Consider your purchases during a liquidation carefully. Do not purchase Toys R Us gift cards… but this should go without saying.

Extended Warranties

If you decide to buy an expensive item that could break easily, you should ask of Toys R Us to offer you a SquareTrade warranty plan. This will ensure you can get a replacement after Toys R Us closes. In preparation for this article, I spoke with a representative at SquareTrade who confirmed that they will continue to honor all SquareTrade warranties purchased at Toys R Us. If you do decide to invest in an expensive item that is prone to defects or breakage, you should also consider purchasing a SquareTrade warranty during liquidation.

Video Games and Video Game Consoles

Purchased video game content is a reasonably safe investment during the Toys R Us liquidation. It’s rare that a disc or a cartridge is defective.

On the other hand, purchasing a video game console or other video game hardware is a bad idea. If you must purchase one, purchase a SquareTrade warranty at Toys R Us to go with it (assuming they are still selling these warranty plans). If it’s not SquareTrade, then you should call the plan service provider before you check out at the store to ensure that insurance plan will continue to cover your purchase after Toys R Us closes for good.

Without an extended service plan, you have no replacement policy if it’s defective or gets broken. Be very cautious of buying video game hardware from Toys R Us during liquidation without a warranty. Though, you can try to work through the manufacturer warranty, it’s sometimes only 90s days. During liquidation, this is the one time where you should consider the purchase of a third party warranty, at least for purchases like video game consoles… particularly the Nintendo Switch which is portable and prone to being dropped.

However, certain types of lesser expensive video game hardware, like controllers, wires, Amiibo, cases, pens and other similar $30-$50 items are safer to buy, particularly when they are marked down 50% or more. However, consoles themselves, like the Nintendo Switch, Xbox One X and PlayStation 4 are not considered good investments from a liquidation sale.

I’d also suggest to avoid buying these devices from eBay as well because many will flood eBay listings from sellers who went to Toys R Us just to cash in on these low prices. If you’re thinking of buying a console from eBay, ask where it was purchased. Be wary if it’s from Toys R Us.

Dolls, Action Figures and Non-Battery Toys

Toys that don’t require batteries and don’t have complex moving pieces are some of the safer items to buy. They offer less defects and are more likely to last the test of time than RC vehicles, video game consoles, battery powered electric child cars, electric skate boards and other custom battery items.

Consumer Safety and Toy Recalls

Toys R Us was very good at keeping up with safety recalls. Unfortunately, they are going out of business. This also means that any toys you purchase during the liquidation that later fall under a recall, you can no longer return to Toys R Us. Like the All Sales Final discussion above, consider that items like cribs, baby items and other possible dangerous infant and toddler toys won’t have any place to go if they are recalled, especially if your baby gets hurt. Though, the manufacturer might honor a return or exchange, you will not be able to do so at Toys R Us. You will also not be able to make any legal claims of injury to Toys R Us once they have closed.

Safe or Unsafe Investment?

Here is a list (not exhaustive) of items that I consider safe, somewhat safe and not safe for a liquidation purchase so long as you fully understand that you cannot return or exchange them at TRU.

Note, safe, somewhat safe and not safe represent what I consider as a “safe purchase” (i.e., getting value for your money vs. throwing your money away), these labels do not describe whether the toy or item itself is safe for use by a child. You will have to determine toy safety yourself.
 

Toy Type Liquidation Safe Purchase? Contains Battery? Reason
Dolls Safe No
Motorized Dolls Not Safe Yes Prone to defects and can be unsafe
No store warranty
Bicycles Somewhat Unsafe Depends If you’re buying for a gift, unsafe.
If you’re buying to use now, perhaps.
If it has a battery, unsafe.
TRU may or may not offer assembly.
Use your best judgement.
Motorized Electric Kid Cars Not Safe Yes Batteries can be defective
May not be able to find replacement battery
No store warranty
Action Figures Safe No
Plush Animals Somewhat Safe No Depending on what it’s made from,
it may be safe or unsafe. Choose carefully.
Vinyl Figures Safe No
Hot Wheels Safe No So long as the Hot Wheels contain no batteries
Lego Safe No So long as the Legos contain no batteries
Motorized Toys Not Safe Yes Avoid motorized or electronic toys
Video Games Safe No Games themselves are rarely defective
Video Game Consoles Not Safe Maybe Could be defective
No way to exchange
No store warranty
Choose 3rd party insurance plan if you must buy
Video Game Controllers Somewhat Safe Yes Typically okay along with certain accessories.
Barbie Safe Depends If the Barbie doesn’t contain a battery,
this should be safe. If it contains a battery,
make sure the doll is working before
leaving the store.
Baby Toys Depends Depends For safety reasons, I do not recommend buying
baby toys and items via liquidation sales.
Diapers Safe No
Cribs Not Safe No Cribs can be dangerous for infants.
Purchase at a store where you can return.
Car Seats Not Safe No Car Seats can be dangerous for infants.
Purchase at a store where you can return.
Skateboards Safe No
Electric Skateboards Not Safe Yes  Avoid because of custom battery (replacement)
RC Vehicles Not Safe Yes  Avoid because of custom battery (replacement)
Tablets Somewhat Safe Yes  If Apple, you can rely on Apple. If another brand, avoid.
Wrapping Paper / Party Safe No
DVDs and Blu-ray Safe No
Toys To Life (Amiibo) Safe No
Headphones Not Safe Depends  High chances for problems
Toys R Us Exclusives Somewhat Safe Depends Avoid with custom batteries
Wooden Toys Somewhat Safe Depends

 
Use Your Best Judgement

The above is not an exhaustive list, so always use your best judgement if it’s not listed here. If the toy contains no battery at all, it should be fine. If the toy contains or uses standard AA, AAA, C, D or button cell batteries, you’re fine. If the toy contains a lithium ion and/or custom battery, you should avoid purchase. Any toy that contains a custom battery may have been custom made for Toys R Us. This means you may find it difficult or impossible to find batteries later. House brand or Toys R Us exclusive toys requiring refill packs should be avoided. Toys and products for infants should be avoided for safety reasons. The only product I would suggest is safe for an infant is diapers and possibly formula as long as it’s a name brand, not a house brand.

Tablets and electronics should be avoided if not from Apple or another recognized brand. If it’s a house branded electronic item, avoid.

Toys R Us Exclusives

Toys R Us Exclusives are now considered rare. However, that doesn’t mean they’re a good investment. Pop figures are fine, exclusive Barbies are fine and exclusive Hot Wheels are fine (see the list above). However, any exclusives that require something that you can only get at Toys R Us (like batteries or refills), you should avoid purchase.

Toys R Us Geoffrey toys

These are likely to be some of the rarest toys available. If you want a piece of memorabilia to commemorate Toys R Us, you should head over fast and pickup whatever Geoffrey items you can find. If you’re looking for plush, you might have to ask at the service desk.

Happy Deals and good luck!

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Remix Time: I Don’t Think About You (Dazed Mix)

Posted in music, remixes by commorancy on March 28, 2018

Every once in a while, I like to remix tracks. Here’s my Dazed Mix of I Don’t Think About You by Kelly Clarkson. This is dance pop mix of her track of the same name. Credits: A capella vocal by Kelly Clarkson, backing music track by Klearnote.

The original song is on her 2017 album, Meaning of Life. This is a very good album by Kelly. The original mix of I Don’t Think About You has relaxed piano backing track. On this album, there are also a number of other very good tracks including Love So Soft, Medicine and Would You Call That Love.

Pick up your copy of Kelly Clarkson’s Meaning of Life at iTunes or Amazon.

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Can Tesla survive?

Posted in business, california by commorancy on March 28, 2018

Investors have been overly exuberant about Telsa. By that I mean, because Tesla set up shop in Silicon Valley rather than Detroit, many investors see Tesla as a ‘tech company’. Folks outside the Bay Area, however, see Tesla as a car company. Let’s explore.

Car Company vs Tech Company

For whatever reason, too many people see Tesla as a tech startup. The fact is, Tesla is in no way a tech startup. It is a car company. Tesla has, so far, provided no new tech to the world. Cars, in fact, are not in any way new technology. Worse, there’s nothing new about Tesla’s cars that have not been done before. The only claim to fame that Tesla has is its partnership with the Lotus design team to design and help produce the Tesla Roadster. If the Roadster looks amazingly like a Lotus Elise, now you know why. But, paying for someone else to design your vehicle’s interior and exterior isn’t innovative, it just means you have money.

Let’s also consider even though Tesla decided to go electric in its vehicles early on, it is by no means the first electric vehicle to market. Tesla’s decision wasn’t without a significant amount of peril or adversity, adversity that continues to this day. For example, gas powered cars have huge infrastructure around the globe to buy fuel. In 5-8 minutes, you’re fueled up and ready to go again for hundreds of miles on a single tank. Unfortunately, charging electric vehicle batteries is a laboriously slow process by comparison. Sure, even with a Tesla Supercharger, you’re still stuck charging your vehicle for at least 30 minutes to get a 65% charge (about 170 miles). If you want a 100% charge, you’ll be there a whole lot longer. If it’s not a Supercharger, then plan to spend a whole lot more time there.

If the 30 or so minutes you must wait is at a time when it’s convenient (i.e., you’re stopping for dinner anyway), then that’s great. If it happens to be when you’re pressed for time, you’re not going to be a happy camper. If you don’t plan your trip properly or if you get tripped up by construction, you may find yourself off course without a charging station handy. Then where are you?

So far, all of the things I’ve mentioned above have nothing to do with tech and everything to do with usability. Specifically, car usability. More specifically, car usability with regards to electric vehicles which charge slowly and offer very little nationwide infrastructure. This is the adversity that Tesla is up against.

Pushing Boulders Uphill

Tesla has a long way to go before the US has electric infrastructure at a saturation where electric cars can even come close to replacing gas powered cars. That’s not to say it can’t happen sometime in the future, but Tesla is pretty much alone in this and has given up several times along the way. Yes, Nissan, Toyota, Mini and Chevy have all introduced electric vehicles, but they are the outliers. They aren’t pushing for nationwide charging coverage. These vehicles have not yet become the bread-and-butter vehicles that keep these brands afloat. Every car manufacturer, other than Tesla, sells gas powered vehicles. With Tesla’s electric-only approach, it is sink or swim… and currently, Tesla is pretty much just treading water. Tesla hasn’t even tried hedging its bets by producing an alternative fuel assist hybrid to augment its slow recharge times and offer a vehicle with much longer distance. In fact, by not embracing such a strategy seems to be terribly remiss on their part.

For Tesla, this should be considered self-imposed adversity. Why not invest in producing a car that accepts natural gas, gasoline, alcohol or even hydrogen? I think we’ve already seen that Tesla has pretty much pushed the limits of its electric vehicle paradigm as far as it can go.

Expensive Bells and Whistles

I can hear the throngs of Tesla owners now… groaning at this article. Wake up! You bought a $100k commuter car. Sure, it has that nice 17″ (now dated) display in the middle of the dash and a few interior niceties, but it’s a car. A car is a car is a car. It takes you from point A to point B. Does it matter what bells and whistles it offers inside? You’re not buying the functionality of the technology, you’re buying the functionality of the car. Worse, it’s not that this technology hasn’t already existed in a car before Tesla and it will definitely exist in many cars in the future. Just look at the Prius. It’s not 17″, but it definitely had an in-dash display from the beginning.

Don’t be fooled by the Silicon Valley hype. Tesla isn’t a tech company, it is a car company. They don’t offer innovative technical solutions or innovative technical products. They offer a car (or rather, many models of cars). A car, I might add, that is from a brand that has yet to prove itself as a long term car brand. Let’s take the Saturn car brand as a prime example. When Saturn came about, its claim to fame was all of the hand-holding and attention they gave new car owners. Where is Saturn now? Dead. The company ceased producing cars in 2009 and closed its doors in 2010. Its sales model wasn’t sustainable. Its cars were mediocre.

Can Tesla Survive?

Is Tesla’s model sustainable? That depends on Elon Musk. Once Elon finally admits to himself, his employees and the rest of the world that Tesla is, in fact, a car company and not a tech company, he will be able to realize what he needs to do to take Tesla to the next level. The problem right now is that many investors in Tesla see them as a tech stock, not a car company. Tesla is not a tech stock. Let me repeat that. Tesla IS NOT a tech stock. Don’t fool yourself that Tesla is anything other than a car company, like any company out of Detroit or Japan or anywhere else in the world where car manufacturing exists.

Fundamentally, Tesla has been battling the infrastructure issue. Elon simply hasn’t been able to gain any substantial traction for Tesla’s electric plan throughout the continental United States. Sure, there are Tesla Supercharges in select areas, areas requiring you to plan your trip well in advance to ensure you can find chargers all along the way. If you find yourself off the Supercharger path, you could literally end up stranded in the middle of nowhere with no way to get a charge. If your car happens to break down, then what? Better have AAA with its longest distance towing option as you might find yourself sitting in the cab of a tow truck being hauled to the next Supercharger station.

Infrastructure has not been a friend at all to Tesla. Let’s understand a little better why. Electric cars, while they are clean vehicles, are not clean on the environment. Instead of pushing the pollution out of the tailpipe, it is now being pushed out of the exhaust stacks at electric generation facilities. Tesla (and other electric car makers) need to understand that the pollution doesn’t stop, it just moves to a different location. If California’s electricity were produced from 100% clean, renewable resources, I’d be writing something different here (at least for California). Instead, that’s a pipe dream. California still receives much of its electric generation from fossil fuels which is used to charge up a Tesla (or any electric plugin vehicle), less than ideal for pollution. This is why the government hasn’t hopped on board with bringing electric infrastructure to the forefront. On top of that, there’s no incentive from gasoline producers to push this agenda. So, where would those incentives come from? The government (and ultimately, all of us via our tax dollars). I don’t want to have to pay to build a huge electric infrastructure raising my taxes.

Tesla’s Failures

Ultimately, Tesla had planned to introduce a battery swap program to help reduce charge times. However, Tesla had to admit that this was a failed pipe dream. They were forced to drop the idea entirely. This is where Tesla made is first and most important mistake. Apple releases products that it feels are good for users. They don’t care if people like or dislike them. That was Jobs’ MO. He decided on behalf if the public what we should like. If you didn’t personally like it, you went someplace else. Tesla should have introduced the battery swap option in spite of the complaints, costs or problems. Push the idea out regardless. Drive the market to adopt the idea instead of caving into market pressures. This is where Elon completely differs from Jobs and Apple. Though, Jobs was arguably a marketing visionary. Elon is, at best, a huckster. There is literally nothing visionary at all about the Tesla cars being produced. Modern yes, visionary no.

Once you understand the difference between the words “modern” and “visionary”, you’ll quickly understand that what makes a Tesla vehicle attractive is its amenities. These same types of amenities are those that drive the sales of Lotus, Lamborghini, Maserati, Bentley, Cadillac, Mercedes Benz and even Lexus… i.e., luxury car brands. Tesla is less about being an electric vehicle and more about becoming a luxury car brand. Luxury is why you buy Tesla. That’s why you buy any type of luxury car. Again, don’t kid yourself. It’s not the technology, it’s the luxury. Luxury, I might add, that comes with a fairly steep price (both monetarily and time wise). Yes, it costs around $60k-$100k, but that’s not the half of it. You also spend a fair amount of time not even being able to use the vehicle because it’s hooked to the charger. With a gas powered vehicle, its downtime is measured in minutes. With Tesla, its downtime is measured in hours. When I say downtime, I’m strictly talking about the time it takes to ‘refuel’ it, not mechanical breakdowns which are a whole different bag.

Since most people don’t have Superchargers available at their homes, they are subject to longer charge cycles. This means you need to plan for this. Don’t come home on low charge and forget to charge it. You’ll be in a world of hurt the following day when you need to get to work. Tesla is a car brand that isn’t completely worry free. You must take the time to plan your day and when to charge. If you forget even once, you’re going to be late for work.

Tesla as a Commuter Car

Considering all of the above and the ~256 mile range on a charge makes Tesla not ideal for long distance travel, at least not without proper trip planning. It’s a great about-town car, but for long distance travel, I’d suggest owning a vehicle with a gas charger. A gas charger vehicle means you can stop at any gas station to refuel the power generator. Our alternative fuel infrastructure may not be optimal today, but it is the infrastructure we are stuck with for the moment. Trying to find alternative fuels like propane, hydrogen or natural gas could leave you just as stranded as electric alone. With a gas car, you can travel anywhere there is a gas station and refuel in minutes. This infrastructure is far and wide and everywhere.

Ultimately, this lack of electric infrastructure relegates Tesla vehicles to commuter cars as their best use case. For me, justifying spending $60-100k for a commuter car is way too much. Consider that for those of us who also live in apartment complexes means leaving our expensive Tesla vehicles sitting idle on dark parking lots to fully charge, then walking away. Not ideal. You pretty much have to own a home and install a Tesla specific charger to get decent charge times and know your car is safe. It’s also fairly inconvenient leaving your car sitting on a parking lot for several hours only to have to go back when it’s done and pick it up.

Many apartment complexes are way behind the times, but they are not the exception. Let’s consider the infrastructure that Tesla has built since the first Roadster was introduced. Let’s just say, it’s not much. It’s better than it was, but it is no where near where it should have been at this point. This is there reason Tesla will fail unless they change their ideas and embrace the fact that they are not only car company, but a luxury car company. This is the reason other car companies will do better than Tesla with their everyday electric vehicles. Tesla is a luxury brand that only families of a certain affluence can afford.  Vehicles like the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt are the everyday electric cards. These are vehicles that are both affordable and offer better value for the money than Tesla’s short distance expensive luxury vehicle.

Oh, but the Model X has gull wings you say? Really, that’s something you’re going to argue? Ok, let’s argue it. If you have kids, these doors are entirely unsafe for little fingers. Sure, Tesla may claim safety features, but do you really trust your kid’s little fingers against an electric door closing mechanism? Go ahead, I dare you.

Safety Track Record

Tesla is a fairly new car company founded in 2003. It never produced cars before 2006. Its first vehicle is the Tesla Roadster. Tesla has had difficulties keeping up with demand for the Roadster. Its first commercially successful vehicle was the Model S introduced in 2008, Tesla’s second model vehicle. Other models have since followed. And yes, I realize the ~$33,000 Model 3 is on the way… but they’re having production problems with this model. It could be years before you see your preorder.

Basically, what Tesla is making is all new without the benefit of years of manufacturing experience. This means that testing safety features in its vehicles may not be a top priority. Let’s consider the safety of lithium-ion batteries when in a crash. Actually, let’s scale that back a little. Just by poking a hole into your cell phone’s lithium-ion battery will cause noxious fumes, possible fire and/or explosion. Let’s scale that up to electric cars. If the battery in your Tesla is compromised due to an accident, you could easily find your car on fire, electrocuted or in an explosion. While this is not exclusive to Tesla’s electric cars, the size of Tesla’s batteries could make them particularly unsafe. It could also mean that if you’re injured in a Tesla, first responders may need to secure their own personal safety against your vehicle’s battery before using the jaws-of-life to extract you from the vehicle. This precious time lost could mean the difference between life or death.

You’re exposing your family’s safety to Tesla each and every day you drive it. Ford, Chevy, GM and even Toyota are brands that have existed for decades. These companies fully understand the concept of proper safety design and of recalls, lawsuits and defects. Unfortunately, Tesla has only had just a few years to gain this knowledge. Yes, they have hired seasoned industry vets to help get their vehicles to be their safest quickly, but the question isn’t what they added, but what they missed. They’re a new car company with new growing pains. Sure, you can hire expertise, but can you be sure of what you missed? Who really knows? Tesla has been relatively lucky that they have not yet seen an egregious safety failure on all of their vehicles. The question is, have they done it right or have they been lucky or it is just a matter of time?

Worse, could Tesla survive such an huge safety recall in all of their vehicles? Who really knows? Sure, their company is highly valuated, but that doesn’t mean they have the cash to support a massive lawsuit or an expensive recall. Ultimately, when you buy into Tesla, you’re buying into all of this. You should think long and hard about whether this is the car for you. Don’t buy it because it drives nice or because the seats are comfortable or because dashboard looks cool, buy it because it makes the most sense for your budget, the way you intend to use it and your family’s safety.

Can Tesla survive? This depends on whether they can truly get beyond their ‘tech company’ mentality. Tesla is a car company. At some point, they’ll have to admit this. Once they admit this, then they can truly begin to take their cars to the next level. If not, then perhaps Tesla is just a flash in the carburetor.

CanDo: An Amiga Programming Language

Posted in computers, history by commorancy on March 27, 2018

At one point in time, I owned a Commodore Amiga. This was back when I was in college. I first owned an Amiga 500, then later an Amiga 3000. I loved spending my time learning new things about the Amiga and I was particularly interested in programming it. While in college, I came across a programming language by the name of CanDo. Let’s explore.

HyperCard

Around the time that CanDo came to exist on the Amiga, Apple had already introduced HyperCard on the Mac. It was a ‘card’ based programming language. What that means is that each screen (i.e., card) had a set of objects such has fields for entering data, placement of visual images or animations, buttons and whatever other things you could jam onto that card. Behind each element on the card, you could attach written programming functions() and conditionals (if-then-else, do…while, etc). For example, if you had an animation on the screen, you could add a play button. If you click the play button, a function would be called to run the animation just above the button. You could even add buttons like pause, slow motion, fast forward and so on.

CanDo was an interpreted object oriented language written by a small software company named Inovatronics out of Dallas. I want to say it was released around 1989. Don’t let the fact that it was an interpreted language fool you. CanDo was fast for an interpreted language (by comparison, I’d say it was proportionally faster than the first version of Java), even on the then 68000 CPU series. The CanDo creators took the HyperCard idea, expanded it and created their own version on the Amiga. While it supported very similar ideas to HyperCard, it certainly wasn’t identical. In fact, it was a whole lot more powerful than HyperCard ever dreamed of being. HyperCard was a small infant next to this product. My programmer friend and I would yet come to find exactly how powerful the CanDo language could be.

CanDo

Amiga owners only saw what INOVATronics wanted them to see in this product. A simplistic and easy to use user interface consisting of a ‘deck’ (i.e, deck of cards) concept where you could add buttons or fields or images or sounds or animation to one of the cards in that deck. They were trying to keep this product as easy to use as possible. It was, for all intents and purposes, a drag-and-drop programming language, but closely resembled HyperCard in functionality, not language syntax. For the most part, you didn’t need to write a stitch of code to make most things work. It was all just there. You pull a button over and a bunch of pre-programmed functions could be placed onto the button and attached to other objects already on the screen. As a language, it was about as simple as you could make it. I commend the INOVATronics guys on the user-friendly aspect of this system. This was, hands down, one of the easiest visual programming languages to learn on the Amiga. They nailed that part of this software on the head.

However, if you wanted to write complex code, you most certainly could do this as well. The underlying language was completely full featured and easy to write. The syntax checker was amazing and would help you fix just about any problem in your code. The language had a full set of typical conditional constructs including for loops, if…then…else, do…while, while…until and even do…while…until (very unusual to see this one). It was a fully stocked mostly free form programming language, not unlike C, but easier. If you’re interested in reading the manual for CanDo, it is now located at this end of this section below.

As an object oriented language, internal functions were literally attached to objects (usually screen elements). For example, a button. The button would then have a string of code or functions that drove its internal functionality. You could even dip into that element’s functions to get data out (from the outside). Like most OO languages, the object itself is opaque. You can’t see its functions names or use them directly, only that object that owns that code can. However, you could ask the object to use one of its function and return data back to you. Of course, you had to know that function existed. In fact, this would be the first time I would be introduced to the concept of object oriented programming in this way. There was no such thing as free floating code in this language. All code had to exist as an attachment to some kind of object. For example, it was directly attached to the deck itself, to one of the cards in the deck, to an element on one of the cards or to an action associated with that object (mouse, joystick button or movement, etc).

CanDo also supported RPC calls. This was incredibly important for communication between two separately running CanDo deck windows. If you had one deck window with player controls and another window that had a video you wanted to play, you could send a message from one window to another to perform an action in that window, like play, pause, etc. There were many reasons to need many windows open each communicating with each other.

The INOVATronics guys really took programming the Amiga to a whole new level… way beyond anything in HyperCard. It was so powerful, in fact, there was virtually nothing stock on the Amiga it couldn’t control. Unfortunately, it did have one downside. It didn’t have the ability to import system shared libraries on AmigaDOS. If you installed a new database engine on your Amiga with its own shared function library, there was no way to access those functions in CanDo by linking it in. This was probably CanDo’s single biggest flaw. It was not OS extensible. However, for what CanDo was designed to do and the amount of control that was built into it by default, it was an amazing product.

I’d also like to mention that TCP/IP was just coming into existence with modems on the Amiga. I don’t recall how much CanDo supported network sockets or network programming. It did support com port communication, but I can’t recall if it supported TCP/IP programming. I have no doubt that had INOVATronics stayed in business and CanDo progressed beyond its few short years in existence, TCP/IP support would have been added.

CanDo also supported Amiga Rexx (ARexx) to add additional functionality to CanDO which would offer additional features that CanDo didn’t support directly. Though, ARexx worked, it wasn’t as convenient as having a feature supported directly by CanDo.

Here are the CanDo manuals if you’re interested in checking out more about it:

Here’s a snippet from the CanDo main manual:

CanDo is a revolutionary, Amiga specific, interactive software authoring system. Its unique purpose is to let you create real Amiga software without any programming experience. CanDo is extremely friendly to you and your Amiga. Its elegant design lets you take advantage of the Amiga’s sophisticated operating system without any technical knowledge. CanDo makes it easy to use the things that other programs generate – pictures, sounds, animations, and text files. In a minimal amount of time, you can make programs that are specially suited to your needs. Equipped with CanDo, a paint program, a sound digitizer, and a little bit of imagination, you can produce standalone applications that rival commercial quality software. These applications may be given to friends or sold for profit without the need for licenses or fees.

As you can see from this snippet, INOVATronics thought of it as an ‘Authoring System’ not as a language. CanDo itself might have been, but the underlying language was most definitely a programming language.

CanDo Player

The way CanDo worked its creation process was that you would create your CanDo deck and program it in the deck creator. Once your deck was completed, you only needed the CanDo player to run your deck. The player ran with much less memory than the entire CanDo editor system. The player was also freely redistributable. However, you could run your decks from the CanDo editor if you preferred. The CanDo Player could also be appended to the deck to become a pseudo-executable that allowed you to distribute your executable software to other people. Also, anything you created in CanDo was fully redistributable without any strings to CanDo. You couldn’t distribute CanDo, but you could distribute anything you created in it.

The save files for decks were simple byte compiled packages. Instead of having to store humanly readable words and phrases, each language keyword had a corresponding byte code. This made storing decks much smaller than keeping all of the human readable code there. It also made it a lot more tricky to read this code if you opened the deck up in a text editor. It wasn’t totally secure, but it was better than having your code out there for all to see when you distributed a deck. You would actually have to own CanDo to decompile the code back into a humanly readable format… which was entirely possible.

The CanDo language was way too young to support more advanced code security features, like password encryption before executing the deck, even though PGP was a thing at that time. INOVATronics had more to worry about than securing your created deck’s code from prying eyes, though they did improve this as they upgraded versions. I also think the INOVATronics team was just a little naïve about how easily it would be to crack open CanDo, let alone user decks.

TurboEditor — The product that never was

A programmer friend who was working towards his CompSci masters owned an Amiga, and also owned CanDo. In fact, he introduced me to it. He had been poking around with CanDo and found that it supported three very interesting functions. It had the ability to  decompile its own code into humanly readable format to allow modification, syntactically check the changes and recompile it, all while still running. Yes, you read that right. It supported on-the-fly code modification. Remember this, it’s important.

Enter TurboEditor. Because of this one simple little thing (not so little actually) that my friend found, we were able to decompile the entire CanDo program and figure out how it worked. Remember that important thing? Yes, that’s right, CanDo is actually written in itself and it could actually modify pieces that are currently executing. Let me clarify this just a little. One card could modify another card, then pull that card into focus. The actual card wasn’t currently executing, but the deck was. In fact, we came to find that CanDo was merely a facade. We also found that there was a very powerful object oriented, fully reentrant, self-modifying, programming language under that facade of a UI. In fact, this is how CanDo’s UI worked. Internally, it could take an element, decompile it, modify it and then recompile it right away and make it go live, immediately adding the updated functionality to a button or slider.

While CanDo could modify itself, it never did this. Instead, it utilized a parent-child relationship. It always created a child sandbox for user-created decks. This sandbox area is where the user built new CanDo Decks. Using this sandbox approach, this is how CanDo built and displayed a preview of your deck’s window. The sandbox would then be saved to a deck file and then executed as necessary. In fact, it would be one of these sandbox areas that we would use to build TurboEditor, in TurboEditor.

Anyway, together, we took this find one step further and created an alternative CanDo editor that we called TurboEditor, so named because you could get into it and edit your buttons and functions much, much faster than CanDo’s somewhat sluggish and clunky UI. In fact, we took a demo of our product to INOVATronics’s Dallas office and pitched the idea of this new editor to them. Let’s just say, that team was lukewarm and not very receptive to the idea initially. While they were somewhat impressed with our tenacity in unraveling CanDo to the core, they were also a bit dismayed and a little perturbed by it. Though, they warmed to the idea a little. Still, we pressed on hoping we could talk them into the idea of releasing TurboEditor as an alternative script editor… as an adjunct to CanDo.

Underlying Language

After meeting with and having several discussions with the INOVATronics team, we found that the underlying language actually has a different name. The underlying language name was AV1. Even then, everyone called it by ‘CanDo’ over that name. Suffice it to say that I was deeply disappointed that INOVATronics never released the underlying fully opaque, object oriented, reentrant, self-modifying on-the-fly AV1 language or its spec. If they had, it would have easily become the go-to deep programming language of choice for the Amiga. Most people at the time had been using C if they wanted to dive deep. However, INOVATronics had a product poised to take over for Amiga’s C in nearly every way (except for the shared library thing which could have been resolved).

I asked the product manager while at the INOVATronics headquarters about releasing the underlying language and he specifically said they had no plans to release it in that way. I always felt that was shortsighted. In hindsight for them, it probably was. If they had released it, it could have easily become CanDo Pro and they could sold it for twice or more the price. They just didn’t want to get into that business for some reason.

I also spoke with several other folks while I was at INOVATronics. One of them was the programmer who actually built much of CanDo (or, I should say, the underlying language). He told me that the key pieces of CanDo he built in assembly (the compiler portions) and the rest was built with just enough C to bootstrap the language into existence. The C was also needed to link in the necessary Amiga shared library functions to control audio, animation, graphics and so on. This new language was very clever and very useful for at least building CanDo itself.

It has been confirmed by Jim O’Flaherty, Jr. (formerly Technical Support for INOVATronics) via a comment that the underlying language name was, in fact, AV1. This AV portion meaning audio visual. This new, at the time, underlying object oriented Amiga programming language was an entirely newly built language and was designed specifically to control the Amiga computer.

Demise of INOVAtronics

After we got what seemed like a promising response from the INOVATronics team, we left their offices. We weren’t sure it would work out, but we kept hoping we would be able to bring TurboEditor to the market through INOVATronics.

Unfortunately, our hopes dwindled. As weeks turned into months waiting for the go ahead for TurboEditor, we decided it wasn’t going to happen. We did call them periodically to get updates, but nothing came of that. We eventually gave up, but not because we didn’t want to release TurboEditor, but because INOVATronics was apparently having troubles staying afloat. Apparently, their CanDo flagship product at the time wasn’t able to keep the lights on for the company. In fact, they were probably floundering when we visited them. I will also say their offices were a little bit of a dive. They weren’t in the best area of Dallas and in an older office building. The office was clean enough, but the office space just seemed a little bit well worn.

Within a year of meeting the INOVATronics guys, the entire company folded. No more CanDo. It was also a huge missed opportunity for me in more ways than one. I could have gone down to INOVATronics, at the time, and bought the rights to the software on a fire sale and resurrected it as TurboEditor (or the underlying language). Hindsight is 20/20.

We probably could have gone ahead and released TurboEditor after the demise of INOVATronics, but we had no way to support the CanDo product without having their code. We would have had to buy the rights to the software code for that.

So, there you have it. My quick history of CanDo on the Amiga.

If you were one of the programmers who happened to work on the CanDo project at INOVATronics, please leave a comment below with any information you may have. I’d like to expand this article with any information you’re willing to provide about the history of CanDo, this fascinating and lesser known Amiga programming language.

 

Toys R Us: Say Goodbye to an Era

Posted in botch, business, tanking by commorancy on March 14, 2018

tru-logoFor many, we grew up with Toys Я Us as the go to place to find that cool new toy, game, doll, action figure, Teddy Ruxpin, train set, learning toy, crayons, movie or even video games. Times are a changin’ folks and Toys R Us is now finds itself way less than one Barbie away from permanent closure. Let’s explore.

Update from the News Desk — 2018-03-14

Toys R Us headquarters has apparently informed all US and UK employees on Wednesday, March 14th that all US and UK locations would be closed, a move that would lose 33,000 jobs. This would be one of the biggest retailer liquidations. CEO David Brandon intended to file paperwork to begin the liquidation proceedings on Wednesday.

From small to BIG to defunct

In the 70s, I remember toy stores primarily consisting of smaller retailers in malls, usually carrying Lincoln logs, wooden toys or learning toys. While I didn’t mind visiting these places, they felt more like a library than a toy store. They also didn’t carry much of the things that I liked. It wouldn’t be until sometime the mid-70s when a Toy R Us opened near my house. That’s when toy shopping all changed, at least for me.

I’m sure my parents hated taking me to Toys R Us,  just as so many parents do. For us kids, it was like a day at Disneyland: a gold mine, a treasure trove, a place of dreams. Unfortunately, the parents were having none of it… or at least, as little as they could walk out of the store carrying. Good on them, but that didn’t make Toys R Us any less magical to a 8-10 year old. We loved it, we loved going there and we especially loved it when we got to take something home with us.

Geoffrey

I was never a super big giraffe fan, but Geoffrey was a fun and charming mascot constantly pointing out cool new things in the store. I would come to see Geoffrey as cute mascot designed to help me find new stuff. Not always, but a good bit of the time. Sometimes he was just present, like Mickey Mouse. That Giraffe always made me smile because I knew that I was at that magical place, like Disneyland but local. Over the years, Geoffrey began being used less and less by TRU, but he’s still considered their mascot.

Every once in a while, Toys R Us would offer an enter-to-win a fill-your-cart shopping spree. I always wanted to win one of those as a child, but alas never did. To think what I would have filled my cart with. The mind boggles, if only because some of those toys are considered highly collectible today. Though, those toys most assuredly would not have remained closed in their packaging after making their way home.

Growing Up

As I grew into my 20s, got my own car and job, my relationship with Toys R Us changed. No longer was it that magical place, but it now had firmly become a store and I was a consumer. Still, it was a place to go to find that hot new toy that everyone’s talking about. It also became the place to find computers and video games. If I couldn’t find it at Target or Kmart or, later, Walmart, I could almost certainly find it at Toys R Us or Kaybee or Children’s Palace (competitors at the time) and to a much lesser degree FAO Schwarz. Toys R Us was always the first place to go, then the others as they were less reliable.

Dominoes

As the competitors fell over one at a time, first Children’s Palace in 90s, FAO Schwarz in early 00s, then in the middle 00’s, Kaybee Toys, Toys R Us was still standing and, in 2009 would acquire the FAO Schwarz brand, but would sell it off in 2014. It was (and currently is) the place to go to find all things toys. Unlike Target and Walmart that choose to stock limited toy items, Toys R Us (like the previous Children’s Palance and Kaybee) still carries aisle after aisle of wide ranging toys you can only find at Toys R Us. You simply can’t find this selection of toy items at a discount department store. This is why I always ended up at Toys R Us in search of fun, exciting new things.

The Mistakes

Throughout the later years, I’ve grown a love-hate relationship with the Toys R Us chain. Not only because I worked there for a short time while in my 20s, but also because the management does a lot of things that don’t make sense. For example, Babies R Us. For a time, Toys R Us stores devoted half of their space to baby goods. I don’t have a baby, so there’s no interest in that. Yet, Toys R Us decided to kill half of their store space to devote to these products. This meant, less space for toys, games and other items.

I understand that the management wanted to expand their selection into babyland, but it was a mistake to take away valuable Toys R Us aisle space to devote to all-things-baby. This, in my opinion, was one of the biggest mistakes the Toys R Us management foisted upon its stores. That was, until they finally spun Babies R Us into its own stores and gave it its own space.

Later, the management decided to do away with separate Babies R Us stores and chose to abut the two stores together for one seamless one-store experience. That was at least better than taking away shelf space from an already cramped toy store, but even that was unnecessary and, in my opinion, a mistake. They can be next to each other, but walled off and separate stores with separate stock and separate staff. I know why they did chose to hook them together. They did it so they could use one set of checkout lanes, one set of cashiers and one set of staff to stock both stores.

The X

At around the time that Babies R Us was coming into its own as a separate store chain, Toys R Us decided to change its shelving layout. Instead of the more logical long rows running from the front to the back of the store (with middle store aisle breaks) which made it easy to find everything, the store layout designer decided to change the aisles to be side to side and then create X shaped rows in the middle of the store. Not only were these rows much harder to navigate, the layout of the aisles were crippled as a result. This layout made finding things incredibly hard and it seemed like they had less shelf space.

Not only was everything now moved around haphazardly, it made finding what you’re looking for overly hard. Meaning, now you had to navigate the whole store looking at everything just to find that thing.

Maybe the designers thought this was a good idea? It wasn’t. This is the second mistake from Toys R Us management.

Overbuying and Stocking the Wrong Toys

I don’t know how many times I visited Toys R Us in the 90s only to find the same toys every time I visited, sometimes months apart. These we affectionately call peg warmers. This mistake continues to plague Toys R Us to this day. Not only did Toys R Us have incredible buying power way back when, they just didn’t use it to their advantage. Instead, they would continually overbuy on dud toys and not buy enough on the hot toys.

You can’t sell toys that you don’t have in stock. For example, Cabbage Patch kids. When that craze hit, they couldn’t keep them on the shelves. You’d think Toys R Us could have negotiated with the manufacturer and buy 10x the amount they originally bought… simply so they could fill the demand. Sure, there might be a drought while the manufacturer created more, but eventually they would have enough stock quickly to satisfy demand. Alas, they didn’t and the shelves remained bare until the toys were so cold you couldn’t even give them away. Too little, too late.

Further, Toys R Us needed to let the local managers order stock for their specific location to stock toys that are regionally hot. Not every toy sells the same in every store, yet Toys R Us felt the need to send cookie cutter stock out to every single store. If you walked into a Toys R Us in any state, you’d see identical stock. Each store manager needed to be given free reign to specifically order stock in sizes that made sense for amount of local demand they were seeing for a given toy item. If they couldn’t keep a specific skateboard stocked, then the manager should be able to order the proper amount to cover the local demand from their store. In fact, stores that couldn’t sell the item should have shuffled the stock over to stores where the demand was high. That’s smart inventory management. Nope.

Store managers should also be able to nix slow selling items from their shelves and replace it more hit items. Why continue to carry that obscure toy that you can’t even clearance out when you can sell 100x as many Tickle Me Elmos? Having great selection is fine as long as you’re not stocking 50 of an item you can’t even give away. Again, smart inventory management people. Stock them in small quantities, sure, but not in the quantities that each store was getting. Shuffle extra stock to other stores that have none. Remember, I worked there, I saw the stock amounts in the stock room.

Nope. Toys R Us continued to make this mistake year after year.

Over-expansion

Nearly every business thinks they should open as many stores as physically possible. But, you can’t do this when most of your stores are operating in the RED. Toys R Us was no exception. This chain continually felt the need to open new stores rather than trying to shore up their existing stores and get them each to an individually profitable status. If the management had stopped their expansion plans and, instead, focused their efforts on making each store profitable by the end of Q1 each year, Toys R Us would not be in this predicament.

Dated Store Displays

Not too long ago (perhaps early 00s), Toys R Us did away with the X aisle layout and converted them back into horizontal rows once again. However, the aisles now run left to right in-store rather than the original front to back design (which was arguably its best floor plan). Unfortunately, their fixtures are all incredibly dated pegboard and 70s style metal fixtures. They look like they’re straight out of a 70s store… even when the store is brand new. Maybe these are the cheapest fixtures they can buy? No idea, but they don’t look modern.

The store is also incredibly jam packed with stuff. The shelves are always full of stock yes, but it doesn’t help when the stock is old and is sitting on dated shelving units lit by 70s style fluorescent lighting fixtures.

The Business

Here’s Toys R Us’s primary operational problem and the problem that ultimately leads to where we are today. Toys R Us always relied on the holiday shopping season to pull its stores into the black. Meaning, Toys R Us always operated its stores in the RED through 80-90% of the year hoping for the holiday season to pull each store up and out and operate in the black for that year. This was the chain’s primary mistake. This operating model had been ongoing since the 80s. This was the way that TRU intentionally chose to operate its stores. This was also entirely their biggest operating failure and it’s the mistake that is now what’s threatening closure and costing TRU its business.

In addition to operating in the red, Toys R Us also didn’t wield its buying power to get the best possible credit terms, the best possible deals and the best possible return arrangements. If a toy doesn’t sell, package it up, send it to another store that can sell it or send it back to the manufacturer for full or partial credit. Let the manufacturer deal with that stock rather than trying to organically clearance out items on the shelves years later. No, get these old toys off of the shelves to make way for new toys. Fill the shelves with toys that can sell and that will pay the bills.

If you can’t pay your bills, you can’t stay in business. Business 101. Yet, Toys R Us management felt that they were above these rules. The management team felt they could continually run their stores in the red without ramifications. Well, fate has now caught up with you, Toys R Us.

Being Acquired by Private Equity Firms

Because of the way Toys R Us chose to operate its stores, it could not support being acquired in this way. This acquisition was entirely shortsighted on the part of the private equity companies involved and they (and us consumers) are the ones who are now paying the ultimate price.

In 2005, Toys R Us was acquired by a set of private equity firms. These firms included KKR & Co., Bain Capital and Vornado Realty Trust in a $7.5 billion buyout deal. These three companies (and their investors) sank $1.3 billion of their own funds into the purchase, leaving the rest of the purchase price of $6.2 billion to be made up in loans. These loans saddled Toys R Us with an over $6 billion debt burden. A debt that, because of the rather nonsensical business model that the stores had been following since the 80s, could never be recouped. All of this leads to…

Bankruptcy

In late September 2017, Toy R Us filed for bankruptcy protection against its creditors. This means that its creditors can no longer go after Toys R Us for not paying bills. It also meant that the loans left over from that terrible 2005 buyout deal could no longer collect on those loans. Of course, in return for this court issued bankruptcy protection, the company has chosen Chapter 11 to work through a plan to reorganize in a way to get themselves back to profitability and pay their creditors over time before time runs out. For the Toy R Us management, that meant finding a suitor to buy the business… because, of course, they couldn’t be bothered with actually trying to restructure the stores in a way to make them profitable. Oh, no no no.. that’s just too much work.

What? Are you kidding? Are you really expecting some well funded company to swoop into this ailing business holding onto a mountain of debt and offer to buy you? Really? The way that TRU operates is textbook operating procedure for failure. It cannot continue to operate in the way that it does. Even closing half of the stores may not be enough to solve this operating problem. It’s only surprising that it took this long for this toy chain to make it to this point. I expected this day to come a lot sooner.

Toy Collectors and Toys R Us

I full well expected to see Toys R Us fail in the 90s.  However, Star Wars saw to it to keep Toys R Us in business. The Star Wars collectors came out in wild abandon to snap up tons of revamped Star Wars merchandise for not only the previous trilogy (including the Orange and Green carded Power of the Force series). These toys still remained hot even after 1983’s Return of the Jedi cooled down. It all heated up again when the Prequels began in earnst in 1999 (toys beginning to appear in stores about a year earlier). Toys R Us got a reprieve from their red ledger problems due primarily to Star Wars collectors, Hasbro and a few other unrelated hot toys during the 90s (Tickle Me Elmo). Almost every year, there was some new fad that kept Toys R Us’s year end strategy in check. Though, this strategy would ultimately fail them when, in the last 10 years or so when there just haven’t been those must-have toys or collectible Star Wars toys. Even the Zhu-Zhu pets weren’t enough. Even the latest Star Wars trilogy from Disney has not had the merchandising power that the 90s saw. Though, Disney isn’t crying over what they have sold.

In fact, I’d venture to guess that the 90s collectors have all but stopped collecting and have moved on with their lives… which put a huge crimp in the Toys R Us budget. In fact, during the collector heyday of the 90s, Toys R Us did their very level best to chase away the collectors. Much to their own chagrin, they succeeded in doing so by the mid-2000s. It also doesn’t help that collectors can now buy full cases directly from places like Entertainment Earth, which no longer meant the need to scour the pegs at Toys R Us in the wee hours of the morning. You could order cases directly from the comfort of your own home, then see them delivered to your doorstep.

Amazon and Online Shopping

Because of the power of the Internet, Amazon and eBay, it’s pretty easy to find that hot toy at more reasonable prices. Yes, Toys R Us is still a staple in the current shopping landscape. When it closes, both Amazon and Entertainment Earth will simply pick up where Toy R Us left off without missing a beat. If anything, I’d suggest that Amazon pick up the Toys R Us branding at a fire sale during liquidation and rebrand the Amazon toy section to Toys R Us. Keep the TRU brand alive, but not with all of that bloated store baggage. Then, dump the Babies R Us brand entirely. You can still sell baby things, but branded as Toys R Us.

Toys R Us Closing

As I said, I have a love-hate relationship with Toys R Us. I do enjoy visiting and seeing what’s new, but every time I walk into a store, I’m confronted with the dated shelving and decoration, the continual nagging reminder of just how careless the management is and how much of a wasted opportunity that Toys R Us had to be the become the biggest profitable toy chain in the world. Yet, they’ve failed.

If Toys R Us can manage to pull a rabbit out of a hat at the last minute and keep the lights on, I’ll be fine with that. Sadly, I think this is likely where it will all end for Toys R Us.

Gift Cards or Rewards — Use em’ or lose ’em

toys-r-us-gift-cardIf you have any remaining unused gift cards from Toys R Us, be sure to visit a store now and use them immediately. Don’t wait until after Toys R Us begins closing its stores.

Likewise, if you have any rewards points left on your rewards card, log into Toys R Us Rewards, issue certificates and use them up now. Same for Babies R Us Cashback Endless Rewards program. Otherwise, forfeit your chance to convert those points into dollars. Representatives for Toys R Us have said that they will honor gift cards, rewards points and cashback programs for 30 days. The 30 day clock likely began on Wednesday March 14th, when they filed their liquidation paperwork with the court.

I guess in an odd way, I do kind of get that shopping spree after all, and many years later. I just found that I have over 2500 points in my rewards account. That equates to a $100 shopping spree.

For my $100 in rewards points, I got a Nintendo Monopoly set, a Care Bear Grumpy Bear, Two Schliech Geoffrey branded figurines, 5 different Halo Hot Wheels, a Pit Amiibo, a Pain-Yatta Skylander, a Playmation Vision figure and two Geoffrey branded reusable shopping bags. I ended up paying $9 to cover the tax. I also bought a $5 Geoffrey gift card and immediately used it to get dock protector straps for a Nintendo Switch. I wanted the Geoffrey branded gift card as a souvenir. I’d also previously purchased the day before, two Geoffrey 18″ plush and one Geoffrey plush gift card holder, which I’ll put that used Geoffrey gift card in.

Returns and Exchanges During Liquidation

Check any purchased merchandise thoroughly for defects the same day you buy it. If there are any problems, return it the same or next day and exchange it. Don’t wait even a few days to exchange as you may not be able to find the same item. According to Toys R Us representatives, all sales are final. This means, no refunds. However, they may continue to honor exchanges for a period of time. If you’re uncertain of any of this, ask for details at the service desk before you buy.

If you’re thinking of shopping for gift items, you might want to buy elsewhere. Buying a gift for someone could mean the gift recipient can’t return or exchange the item. You don’t want to force a gift onto someone when it’s not something they want only for them to find they cannot return it.

Be that Toys R Us Kid one last time

If you grew up visiting and are as fond of Toys R Us as I am, I’d suggest for you to take a few minutes out of your day and visit your local Toys R Us to reminisce about the good ole days. Once the liquidation sales start, they’re quickly going to look like half-filled shells of a store. Note that the deadline for Toys R Us to find a buyer is early April of 2018, so visit them quick. You have less than a month.

You might even want to pick up a souvenir, such as a plush Geoffrey, to remember what was Toys R Us and what it meant to us as kids. If you want a plush Geoffrey, ask at the Customer Service desk. It seems they keep them there for some reason.

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