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Amazon How-To: The ASIN

Posted in advice, Amazon, shopping, tips by commorancy on May 24, 2019

Amazon-LogoMany thousands of people shop Amazon daily. Did you know that every product at Amazon has a unique identifier? In most stores it’s called an SKU or stock-keeping unit. Amazon’s stock code is called the Amazon Standard Identification Number or ASIN. Let’s explore.

Product Identifiers

Every product stocked at any retailer uses a product identifier to locate that product in its database. In fact, many retailers have their own unique identifiers which are separate from such other identifiers as the Universal Product Code (UPC) or the Industry Standard Book Number (ISBN). In Amazon’s case, its unique identifier is the ASIN, not the UPC. The ASIN is visible on the URL of every product you view on Amazon. It’s a 10 digit code containing both letters and numbers. For example, a pair of cut resistant gloves has the ASIN of B012AFX9VY.

Many store products might have as many as two, three or even four unique identifiers. Books, for example, use the ISBN as an identifier in addition to the UPC code and Amazon’s ASIN. However, stores and online retailers typically use their own product identifier to identify stock in their system. For example, Target’s stock identifier is the DPCI code which goes back to Target’s original days of price stickering or tagging its merchandise with a Department, Class and Item… hence DPCI.

Even the UPC code, which is typically used at the register to ring up items, is simply translated to Target’s, Best Buy’s, Walmart’s or Amazon’s unique product identifier to locate the item and its price in its database.

How is the ASIN helpful?

Knowing the ASIN is useful because this quick identifier allows you to locate to a product on Amazon easily. If you’re on Amazon’s web site, you simply need enter the product ASIN into Amazon’s search panel and it will immediately bring up that item’s listing.

If you’re off of Amazon’s web site and you have the ASIN, you can easily craft a URL that will lead you to Amazon’s product listing in your browser. To craft a functional URL, is simple…

Append the ASIN number to the following URL: https ://amzn.com/ASIN … or in the case of these gloves: https://amzn.com/B012AFX9VY.

While that domain may seem strange, Amazon does own the amzn.com domain. This domain is actually intended to be used as a URL shortener for locating Amazon products in combination with an ASIN. Simply by post-appending the ASIN to this much shorter URL, you can feed this into your browser’s URL field and get right to the product’s details, pricing and all of that information. You can also use it on social media sites as a much shorter URL to aid with character limit restrictions.

Product Reviews

Many of us rely on Amazon’s product reviews to know whether the product is worth considering. Many of us also contribute to Amazon’s product review area for the products we purchase, particularly when we feel strongly about the item’s quality (good or bad).

Amazon has recently taken its website backwards in time (before Web 2.0). Amazon’s older editor was much more feature rich than its newest editor.

When writing product reviews, you could immediately search for items right in the ‘Insert Product Link’ area and then insert those product links and place them into your product review. Unfortunately, with Amazon’s recent interface change, Amazon web developers have inexplicably removed the insertion of product links via this former feature. Now, you have to know the product’s ASIN and craft a product link yourself.

Worse, you can only get access to this ‘Insert Product Link’ feature when you’re crafting a new comment on a product reviews, not when creating or editing a new product review. Odd. You don’t even get it when you edit a comment.

Here’s the latest search panel when attempting to insert a product link:

AmazonProductLink

As you can see, it’s odd. I mean, why even change it to this non-intuitive interface? Now you are required to open a new browser tab, go chase down the product using that separate browser tab, copy the URL then come back to this panel and paste it in and hit enter. That’s a lot of extra work which could be done (and was previously offered directly) in this panel. After that, it will either find the product and offer a SELECT button or fail to provide you with anything. And that “http ://…” nonsense is entirely misleading.

You can enter ASIN numbers right in this field and it will locate Amazon’s products from this panel strictly using the ASIN only, even though it does not indicate this in any way. No need to type in that silly http:// stuff. I’m not even sure why they want you to spend the time to go find and insert URLs here. Why can’t this panel search in Amazon’s product database directly with key words? Ugh.. Oh Amazon, sometimes I just don’t get you and your want to be obtuse.

Creating / Editing Product Reviews

Let’s move on. The new product review editor no longer offers a facility for inserting product links via a search helper tool. It’s simply gone. Poof. Nada. However, you can insert them if you happen to know the format, but you’ll have to manually craft them using the ASIN or ISBN.

If you’re wanting to add product links to your review, you have to now do it ALL manually. I’m entirely unsure why Amazon’s web development team decided to take this odd backwards step in its user interface, but here we are. You would think Amazon would be pleased to have people hawking additional products in their product reviews, but based on this step backwards, I’m guessing not. Either that, or someone at Amazon is clueless… maybe it’s a bit of both? *shrug*

Crafting Product Links in your Product Reviews

When you’re writing a product review and you realize you’d like to insert one or more product links into your review using the completely idiotic ‘new’ (and I use the term ‘new’ very loosely) and far less intuitive editor, you’ll need to craft them yourself.

The format of an Amazon product link is as follows:

[[ASIN:B012AFX9VY The Product’s Description Here]]

Example:

[[ASIN:B0792KTHKJ Echo Dot (3rd Gen) – Smart speaker with Alexa – Charcoal]]

The format of the product link is:

[[ID_TYPE:ID_NUMBER PRODUCT_DESCRIPTION]]

where

ID_TYPE = ASIN, ISBN or any other product identifier which Amazon supports
ID_NUMBER = The product’s unique identifier, like B012AFX9VY
PRODUCT_DESCRIPTION = The description of the product with spaces

Once you create a product link, you can use it in place of words and it will show a clickable link. Take note that there’s no space after [[ or before ]]. For example:

This product offers you two pairs of [[ASIN:B012AFX9VY Black Stainless Steel Cut Resistant Gloves]] for use in the kitchen.

once published, the sentence should translate to…

This product offers you two pairs of Black Stainless Steel Cut Resistant Gloves for use in the kitchen.

Questionable Changes

Because Amazon seems intent on sabotaging and gutting its own web user interface at the expense of important and useful features for shoppers, it’s possible that such product links may no longer function at some point in the future. You’ll want to try this out and see if this tip works for you. If it doesn’t work, it’s very possible that Amazon no longer allows product links inside its reviews. However, they are still available as of this writing. If you find that product links no longer work, please let me know in the comments below.

However, the https ://amzn.com/ASIN should continue to work unless Amazon loses or dumps this domain. Note that this feature doesn’t work when using https ://amazon.com/ASIN. Amazon’s primary domain of amazon.com is not set up to handle short ASIN link syntax. You’ll need to use the amzn.com domain instead.

If this information helps you, please leave a comment below. If not, then please leave a comment below and let me know that, too. Happy shopping and reviewing!

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Should we believe social media influencers?

Posted in advice, Google, scams, youtube by commorancy on May 14, 2019

There are many, many YouTubers (and Instagramers) who claim to profess knowledge of a given topic. By far, a vast majority are in the beauty industry. After all, beauty sells. Unfortunately, while they may be pretty, many have few brain cells in their heads. Let’s explore.

Social Media Sites: YouTube and Instagram

With the advent of social media sites, many young people have rabidly jumped on board to create content for these platforms. Some of these people (dare I say ‘kids’) have chosen to specialize in specific areas, like beauty products. I’ll focus on these ‘influencers’ in this article. Can these (or any) ‘influencers’ be trusted?

The short answer to this question is, no. These are young people (many aged between 18 and 21) who have acquired just enough knowledge to be dangerous. Yet, they in no way should be considered “professional”, let alone “knowledgeable”. I won’t name any names here. Even if I wanted to name names, there are actually far too many of these types of beauty channels to even point out a single one. Suffice it to say, there are many, many far too young beauty advocates on YouTube who may already have money, a palette of makeup and very strong opinions, yet actually have no skill or talent at all. Instead, with their limited talent at applying makeup, they have managed to amass a large following of young followers. Some have gained enough followers that they have been able to get product endorsements, sponsorships, monetization or have been approached to create product lines. Gaining followers is actually what they are good at, not applying the makeup, not creating the hairstyles, not selling makeup brushes.

In fact, many of their ideas can be downright dangerous. What they are actually good at is…

Hawking Products

And… that’s not a reason to celebrate or follow anyone. As these “kids” become “personalities” on screen, what you’re buying into isn’t the their products, but their drama. Watching an 18 year old drag queen apply makeup like a pro may seem enthralling, but the reality is you have no idea how many times that person may have applied it until they got the application just perfect. Maybe they even hired someone to apply it on them pretending as though they applied it. As we all know, “Practice Makes Perfect.” No where is this concept more important than on YouTube. Yet, fakery is everywhere, even in these beauty videos.

YouTube videos make the application of beauty products seem like a breeze. What you aren’t seeing is all of days worth of practice and product testing that the YouTube “personality” (and I use that term very loosely) endured to make that video appear perfect. Even then, give them a few months and they couldn’t even reproduce that look, if they even produced it the first time. Who knows if they even really applied the makeup themselves?

Unfortunately, the goal of being a celebrity is the want of money. In fact, many YouTuber’s goals are to make money from the platform. That’s their #1 goal. It’s not about you, the viewer. It is about you, the consumer funneling money into their channel (and eventually into their products). Whether that money is via clicking advertisements or via Patreon or buying into their sponsored products.

This is why the once “down to earth” YouTuber turns into a flamboyant, loud, arrogant, controversial dramatic personality trying to get you to buy the latest Morphe brush set that you don’t really need. It’s about making THEM money and parting you from yours. It’s not about reality, it’s about sales and fakery.

Drama Advertising

YouTube drama and scandals are quite commonplace in the YouTube beauty arena. On the one hand you have a seeming drag queen who’s boisterous, loud and obnoxious. On the other, you have another large personality who feels they are also entitled. When the two clash, it becomes a huge social media blow up. It ends up all over Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and, yes, YouTube.

The scandal and drama fuels their channels with tons of new subscribers, viewers and brings their brand front and center. Effectively, it’s ‘dramadvertising’. The question is, is whether all of that drama is …

Fake

One of the problems with YouTube is that so much of what you see is fake. With perfect cuts between takes, filters, expensive lighting and cameras and, yes, even the perfect application of makeup, the camera can make someone appear flawless.

With the makeup (or more specifically, fakeup), when you turn the ring lights off and take that person out into natural lighting, not only will the makeup application look like crap, you’ll be able to see very crease, flaw and imperfection in the application. Even then, the makeup is so overbearing, you wouldn’t really want to wear it anyway. With the right lighting and cameras, you can hide just about any imperfection. With the wrong lighting, let’s just say that the personality is an amateur.

Additionally, much of the drama that shows up on YouTube is entirely fake and is staged as a publicity stunt. Just like YouTube celebs sometimes have seeming congenial collabs with one another, they can also script scandals in the same way. It’s so easy for two personalities to meet and agree (to publicly disagree), to make a scene on social media designed to get their channels more viewers, more divisive comments and basically stir the pot. Sometimes stirring the pot is the only way to gain more viewers.

Several large beauty personalities have tried this approach in the recent past. Again, I won’t name names as they don’t deserve to be named on Randocity. I won’t give them the satisfaction of increasing their channel’s membership at the cost of my time spent writing this article. No. If you want to find those scandals from the recent past, you’ll need to head on over to Google and do some searching.

Knowledge, Age and Acting

I’m not going to say there aren’t prodigies in this world. There are. Unfortunately, none of them are on YouTube hawking beauty products. What you see on YouTube is random, usually “pretty” young guys and girls who have gained a following because of their seeming talents. Oh, they have a talent, but it’s not teaching you beauty techniques. Oh, no no. The talent they have is parting you from your money and being a general scam artist.

At 19, I didn’t have enough knowledge enough in any subject to be considered “professional” at anything. These same aged personalities on YouTube are also in this same boat. If they have any knowledge, it’s likely because they paid for it by hiring someone to show it to them, or more likely, do it for them. That’s not knowledge acquisition, that’s acting… and not even very good acting at that.

In fact, anyone on YouTube who has a channel is acting. Some of that acting is, in general, for the betterment of the viewers by showing the viewers something interesting. This should be considered entertainment, not advice.

While I can buy into an actor on stage telling me a story, I can’t buy into an actor behind a camera trying to sell me Morphe brushes. This was tried in the 90s via many, many…

Infomercials

Before YouTube became a thing, infomercials ruled. The talent that might have jumped in front of a camera for YouTube instead did so for Guthy Renker or other similar production companies. These companies have hawked all sorts of garbage throughout the 90s and 00s on late night TV.

These things including psychic readings, beauty products, acne products, hair care products, kitchen gadgets and even money making books. The array of crap advertised on infomercials is as varied as it is endless. Thankfully, infomercials were typically one-and-done. Meaning, only one infomercial was ever produced and when its run finally ran out months (or years later), the product disappeared from the airwaves.

YouTube

With YouTube, we now have a situation where the same crap that was hawked via late night infomercials has moved to YouTube as a daily, biweekly or weekly “show” (again, I use this term loosely). Because many of these personalities produce their own material, the structure of the video is random and chaotic. The one thing that isn’t random is their want for money.

Worse, viewers seem to buy into this random chaos from a random “young” person. It makes them see more “real”. Don’t kid yourself, there’s nothing at all real about a guy dressing up in drag for a camera. That’s a show.

In all likelihood, when that “kid” gets home, the makeup, nails and hair all goes away and they go back to being average kid living with their parents. It’s all for the camera.

This is the fallacy of YouTube. It’s not real. It’s not genuine. It’s not even accurate. It’s fakery and deception at its finest. The “Hi Guys… I appreciate you so, so much” is so disingenuous, it makes me want to gag. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard a similar phrase from a YouTuber. It’s all superficial and fake. Many of these kids turned personalities are likely even mentally disturbed. Yet, they can somehow compose themselves enough in front of a camera to appear ‘sane’ and ‘normal’. These are people who are not and should never be role models, let alone ever consider befriending in real life.

Yet, companies like Morphe extend sponsorships to these damaged folks, not because they’re good role models, but because they have 1 million or more YouTube subscribers… in other words, for all of the wrong reasons.

What is your damage?

An age old question, but very applicable to many YouTube personalities. Far too many of them, in fact. I simply do not feel comfortable taking advice from someone I don’t know, let alone from a drag queen whose claim to fame is putting on flawless makeup using a social platform without any formal training. Really? You expect me to believe what you have to say simply because you’re “famous” or because you look like you know what you’re doing? No.

YouTube Fame

Many YouTubers seem to think that being famous on YouTube actually means something. It doesn’t. If you want to be famous, and I mean seriously famous, you train to become an actor and you get hired in a blockbuster a film or highly rated TV series… then put on a performance that wins awards. That’s fame. And, that’s fame for all the “right” reasons… including displaying actual talent.

Being on YouTube because you can run a camera isn’t fame. It isn’t even celebrity. If anything it’s considered being a “minor” celebrity… and that’s being extremely generous. Being on YouTube doesn’t require skill, it only requires a camera, an idea and your opinions. Again, I won’t name any channels because the point of this article isn’t to send you off to a YouTube channel to become a subscriber, it’s to point out the problems with YouTube as a platform… and where YouTube stands today.

It’s called YouTube with a YOU

There’s a ‘YOU’ in the name. Which means, it’s about you. The real you. Not about a sponsor. Not about your cat. Not about makeup. Not about advertising. It’s about YOU. I think the platform has lost its reason why it came to be. When YouTube became about making money and lost actually being about ‘YOU’, then it became yet another lame commercial platform to sell stuff. And, that’s exactly what it’s become. One big advertising platform… from the embedded ads in the videos to the ads served up verbally in the videos by the creators.

In fact, it should probably be renamed ‘AdTube’ as that’s what it has become. It’s not about the ‘YOU’, it’s about the ‘advertising’, making money and selling you, the viewer, something, anything.

I used to go to YouTube to find interesting people doing interesting things. To find funny, amateur videos. Today, it’s about selling you something and making the creator money. When I go into a video and within 1-3 minutes a strategic product placement appears, I click away. Too many videos are now following this format.

With YouTube’s crackdown on monetization, that’s making even the biggest channels less and less money. I’m all for that. If YouTube turned off monetization tomorrow, it wouldn’t make many creators happy, but it would bring the platform back to its roots… the reason the ‘YOU’ in YouTube exists.

YouTube should move the the highly commercial channels into a new network called AdTube. Get them off the YouTube platform and let YouTube go back to its roots. Turn AdTube into the network that allows these highly commercial, highly sponsored, advertising heavy videos (and channels) to operate. YouTube doesn’t need these. In fact, because YouTube has basically degraded so badly, it’s really just a matter of time before the platform ultimately implodes under its own weight and stigma. Google needs to make a choice and they need to make it fast.

Making Choices

We, as consumers, need to wake up and stop following (and buying stuff from) brainless YouTubers who have no skills or talents other than holding a camera. You have a choice to watch or click away. You don’t even have to visit YouTube. Use your own critical thinking and stop watching channels that have 5, 10, 15 ads along with paid sponsorships in the video. That’s not what YouTube is about, that’s what both YouTube and Instagram have become.

You don’t have to watch this drivel. You have choices. Turn it off and spend time doing something creative or with your friends or family. Learn something… like how to draw or paint or play a guitar. Pick up something that you can do and learn to do it. You don’t need to watch someone on YouTube to be creative. In fact, watching YouTube does the opposite of making you creative. It robs you of precious time that you could be learning a skill, craft or how to play music. Spend that time bettering yourself rather than giving your money to someone and wishing you could be like them.

In fact, you don’t want to be like them. They may appear wholesome and friendly on YouTube, but chances are they are far, far different from what they portray themselves to be. As I said, they’re actors putting on a character. It’s not real. It’s not genuine. It’s a character designed to rope you in and have you spend money on them.

Authentic YouTubers

Just to clarify, this article is not intending to rail against every YouTuber. I’m specifically calling out the big 1, 2, 10 and 50 million subscriber channels playing every trick in the book to get you to spend money. And more specifically, this article is aimed squarely at the beauty industry channels. These very large, seemingly successful channels are solely about one thing. Getting you to buy something. Chances are, if you do buy that something, that channel stands to make a hefty cut of the profits and you’re left with a mediocre product you likely can’t return and may not even be able to use.

If you want to buy products, do it at a store. Try the product out and then decide if you want it. Use your OWN judgement to see if it works for you. Don’t believe the hype a beauty channel spouts. Believe what you see in person… at a store.

I’m not at all saying not to watch YouTube or even Instagram with the right frame of mind. Consider all social media channels as strictly entertainment. If it makes you laugh or gives you some other emotional response, great. But, don’t get invested in the channel as if it were real or believable or even an authority. It’s none of that. It’s simply entertainment, plain and simple. In fact, this part applies to ANY YouTube channel. They’re all simply entertainment with fallible and inaccurate information offered in video form, even with the most well meaning of intentions. As the saying goes, “Take it with a grain of salt.” Which ultimately means, disregard the information as inaccurate and only watch as you would pure fictional entertainment. If the video content peaks your interest, go Google the topic and find out more from reputable sources.

From this perspective, YouTube is fine to watch… but don’t invest money into the channel or into products hawked on the channel solely because you feel some kind of responsibility to the channel creator or because you believe what they say. Definitely, no. Simply by watching a YouTube channel does not obligate you to anything. The creator spent time putting together the video, yes. But you have no obligation to give them any money in return for watching their content. It was on them that they created and posted. Don’t let the creator “guilt” you into feeling like you “need” to give them money. You don’t. You also don’t need to buy anything advertised on any channel.

If you do decide to donate to a channel or buy products from them, do it because you sincerely want to do it, not out of some sense of duty (or guilt) because you “watched” their videos. No, YouTube and Instagram and all other social media should be considered strictly entertainment. You don’t need to open your wallet to any social media influencer… and you probably shouldn’t.

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Security Tip: Spam, Bitcoin and Wallets

Posted in advice, banking, cryptocurrency by commorancy on April 22, 2019

BitcoinIn writing this blog, I encounter a lot of different spam comments every single day. None of this spam reaches the comment area of any blog article because of moderation and spam filtering. However, every once in a while I see a spam message that catches my eye and I feel the need to write about such traps. Let’s explore.

Today’s Spam

Today, I found this spam message and it spurred me to write this blog article:

Invest $ 5,000 in Bitcoin mining once and get $ 7,000 passive income per month

This sounds like a great deal, doesn’t it? Of course, this spam message arrived complete with a link to a website. I’ve redacted that part of this spam. The text is the most important part (or rather, the sleaziest part) and what I intend to discuss in this article.

Let’s dispel this one right away. You cannot invest $5,000 into a Bitcoin mining rig and get $7,000 a month in passive income. This is not possible. First off, Bitcoin is entirely volatile so values vary every minute. Second, you have to place your mined Bitcoin into a wallet somewhere. Third, a compute rig requires electric power, air conditioning and internet services requiring you to pay bills every month. Fourth, the maximum you could mine per month is a fraction of a Bitcoin.

Most mining rigs are lucky to make any money at all considering the electric bill cost alone. You must also pay your Internet service as Bitcoin mining requires regular check-ins with its sites to transfer the data processed during mining and download new data. Both the electric and internet bills are not at all inexpensive to own and will substantially reduce the value of any Bitcoin you might mine. There are also exchange fees to convert your Bitcoin into US Dollars (or vice versa), which will eat into the profits of your mined Bitcoin.

Mining

Bitcoin mining seems like a great thing. In reality, it is far from it. As I mentioned above, you need to not only invest in a specialty computer rig designed for Bitcoin mining, you also need to supply it with electrical power, heat dissipation (A/C or a fan) and internet service. In exchange for “mining”, you will occasionally receive tiny fractions of Bitcoin (when the bits align just right). When Bitcoin first began, the amount and frequency of Bitcoin given during mining was much higher than it is today. Worse, mining of Bitcoin will see less and less Bitcoin issued as time progresses. Why?

Bitcoin is a finite currency with a limit on the maximum number of coins ever. Once the coins are gone, the only way to get a coin is by getting it from someone who already has one. Even then, there’s a problem with that. That problem is called ‘end of life’ and, yes, even Bitcoin has an expiration date.

But… what exactly is “mining” and why is it a problem for Bitcoin? Mining is not what you think it is. This word imparts an image of men in hardhats with pickaxes. In reality, mining isn’t mining at all. It is a collective of computers designed to compute the general ledger of transactions for Bitcoin. Basically, each “mining” computer takes a small amount of potential ledger data given to it by an “authority” and then solves for the equations given. This information is handed back to the “authority”. The “authority” then compares that against all other results from other computers given the same data. If a consensus is reached, then the transaction is considered “valid” and it goes into the ledger as legitimate. This is the way the currency ferrets out legitimate transactions from someone trying to inject fake transactions.

There’s a lot more to it, but this is gist of how “mining” works. In effect, when you set up a mining computer (or rig), your computer is actually performing transaction validation for Bitcoin’s general ledger. In return for this calculation work, your computer is “paid” a very tiny fraction of Bitcoin… but not nearly enough to cover the real world money needed for the 24/7 constant computing. A Bitcoin payment is only issued during mining IF the calculation solves to a very specific (and rare) answer. And so begins Bitcoin’s dilemma…

Basically, if you take all of the fractions of Bitcoin you receive over a year’s worth of 24/7 general ledger computing, you might be lucky to break even once you take your electric and internet bills into account. However, you are more likely to lose money due to the rare incidence of solving the equation for payment.

Additionally, to store those fractions of Bitcoin from your mining activities, you’re going to need a wallet. If your wallet is stolen, well that’s a whole separate problem.

Bitcoin Logistics

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, many crypto wallets and companies that store wallets are entirely insecure. They “think” they are secure, but they’re not. They’re simply living on borrowed time. Too many wallet companies (and wallet technologies) have been hacked and have lost Bitcoin for many people. Because of the almost trivial vulnerability nature of a crypto wallet, owning Bitcoin is almost not even worth the risk. We’re not talking small amounts of Bitcoin lost. We’re talking tens of thousands of dollars “worth” of Bitcoin gone *poof* because the companies / wallets were hacked and Bitcoin emptied.

While there might be some reputable and secure wallet storage companies, you have no idea how secure they really are. Because it’s cryptocurrency, once the Bitcoin has left the wallet, there’s no way to get it back. It’s the same as if someone stole your wallet out of your pocket or purse. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.

Further, because Bitcoin’s wallet technologies are so hackable and because it holds real world value into convertible fiat currencies, like the US Dollar (and other currencies), there’s a real and solid motivation for hackers to find ways to get into and pilfer Bitcoin wallets from unsuspecting owners.

The Downsides of Bitcoin

As a miner, you’re paid in Bitcoin. Bitcoin has limited uses in the real world. There are some places that accept Bitcoin, but they’re few and far apart. Most places still only accept the local currency, such as the US Dollar in the United States. For Bitcoin to become a functional currency, it would need to be heavily adopted by stores and businesses. Instead, today most places require you to convert Bitcoin into the local currency. This is called exchanging currency and usually incurs fees for the exchange. You can’t put Bitcoin into a traditional bank. You can’t use it to pay most bills. Any business wanting to remain in business would need to convert any Bitcoin received into USD or similar. The conversion fee could be 1%, 2% or up to 10% of the transaction. There might even be a separate fixed transaction fee. These fees begin to add up.

All of this reduces the value of Bitcoin. If one Bitcoin is worth $1000 (simply used as illustration), you could lose up to $100 of converting that single Bitcoin to $1000… making it worth $900. Because Bitcoin is entirely volatile, a Bitcoin worth $1000 today could be worth $100 tomorrow. For this volatility reason and because of electric and internet bills, the idea of making $7000 in passive income in a month is not even a reality. If you could receive one Bitcoin per month via mining (hint: you can’t), you might clear $7000 (assuming one Bitcoin is worth $7000 when you go to convert). Chances are, you’re likely to get far, far less than one Bitcoin per month. More likely, you’ll get maybe 1/10th (or less) of a Bitcoin in a month’s worth of computing … barely enough to cover the cost of your electric bill… assuming you immediately cash out of your Bitcoin and use that money to pay your bills.

Insurance and Fraud

The US government insures bank and savings accounts from loss via the FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation). No such governmental insurance programs cover Bitcoin (or any other cryptocurrency). Until or unless the US government issues its own digital currency and extends similar protections of the FDIC to banks storing those digital currencies, today’s decentralized cryptocurrencies are simply the “Wild West” of currency.

What “Wild West” means is that anyone who owns cryptocurrency is at risk of loss no matter what means is used to store your Bitcoin. Your coins are as secure as the weakest link… and the weakest link (among many) appears to be the wallet.

Cryptography and Security

Many crypto “banks” (though I hesitate to even call them a bank) claim high levels of security over your Bitcoin wallet. Unfortunately, your wallet is always at risk no matter where you store it. If it’s on a self-contained card on your person, that can be hacked. If it’s at a currency exchange service, like Coinbase, it can still be hacked (in a number of ways).

The problem with crypto “anything” is that (and this is the key bit of information that everyone needs to take away from cryptography) is that cryptography was designed and intended to offer transient “short term” security.

What I mean by “short term” is that it was designed to secure data for only as long as a transaction requires (usually a few seconds). An example is using an app on your phone to perform a transaction with your bank. Your logged-in session might last 5-10 minutes at most. Even then, a single communication might last only a few seconds. Cryptography is designed to protect your short burst transmissions. It would take a hacker well longer than that short transmission period to hack the security of your connection. By the time a hacker had gained access, your transaction is long over and you’re gone. There’s no way they could change or alter what you’re asking your bank to do (unless, of course, your device is compromised… a completely separate problem).

Bitcoin, on the other hand, is required to be secured in a wallet for months, years or potentially even decades. Cryptography is not designed for that duration of storage and protection. In fact, cryptographic algorithms become weaker every single day. As computers and phones and devices get faster and can compute more data, these algorithms lose their protections slowly. It’s like when rains erode soil on a mountain. Inevitably, with enough soil eroded, you’ll have a landslide.

With crypto, eventually the computers will become fast enough so as to be able to decrypt Bitcoin’s security in a matter of weeks, then days, then hours, then minutes and finally in real-time. Once computers are fast enough to hack through a wallet’s security in real-time, nothing can protect Bitcoin.

This is the vulnerability of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. Once computers hit the threshold to instantly decrypt Bitcoin’s security (or, more likely, Bitcoin’s wallet security), then Bitcoin is all over. You can’t store something when computers can gain unauthorized access in a few minutes. This law of diminishing cryptography returns is the security fallacy of Bitcoin.

Of course, Bitcoin developers will say, “Well, we’ll upgrade the Bitcoin cryptography to last longer than the then-current processing power”. It is possible for developers to say and potentially do this. But, that could still leave YOUR wallet vulnerable. If your wallet happens to be stored in an older cryptographic format that is vulnerable, then what? You may not even know your wallet is being stored in this vulnerable way if it’s stored at an exchange like Coinbase. That could leave yours and many other’s wallets hanging out to dry. Unless the currency exchange shows you exactly the format your wallet is being stored in and exactly the strength of cryptography being used, your wallet could very well be vulnerable.

Note that even the strongest encryption available today could still contain vulnerabilities that allow it to be decrypted unintentionally.

Bitcoin Uses

Probably the only single use of Bitcoin is as part of a balanced portfolio of assets. Diversifying your portfolio among different investment strategies is the only real way to ensure your portfolio will continue to grow at a reasonable rate. This is probably one of the only reasons to legitimately invest in Bitcoin. However, you don’t need to outlay for a mining rig to do it. Some investment firms today now allow for investment into cryptocurrencies as part of its investment portfolio offerings.

Still, you’ll have to be careful with investing in cryptocurrencies because there can be hidden transaction fees and conversion fees involved. These are called “loads” in the investing world. This means that you might invest $50, but only receive $40 in Bitcoin. That $10 lost represents the “load”. If you sell out of Bitcoin, you may also receive yet another “load” and again lose some of your money in the exchange. You have to take into account these “loads” when you choose to invest in certain funds. “Load” funds are not limited to Bitcoin. These exist when investing in all sorts of funds including mutual funds and ETFs.

However, Bitcoin (and other cryptocurrencies) can be valuable as part of a balanced portfolio. Of course, Bitcoin would be considered a Risky type of investment because of its volatility. Depending on how your portfolio is balanced, you may not want to invest in something as risky as Bitcoin. Not all portfolio management companies (i.e., Schwab, E*Trade, Ameritrade, etc) may offer cryptocurrency as an investment strategy. You’ll need to check with your specific company to determine if Bitcoin is available.

End of Bitcoin

Because Bitcoin is finite in total numbers of coins, eventually computing the general ledger will no longer pay dividends. What I mean is, once the Bitcoins run out, there will be no way to pay the miners. Bitcoin currently pays miners from the remaining ever diminishing pool of Bitcoin. Once there’s no more Bitcoins in the pool, there’s no more payments to the miners. This means that Bitcoin is dead. No one is going to continue to spend their expensive electric and internet bills on computing a general ledger that offers no dividends. No general ledger computations, no transactions.

This means that eventually, miners will stop mining. Once a critical mass of general ledger computation stops, computing Bitcoin transactions may become impossible. This will be the death of Bitcoin (and any other cryptocurrencies that adopt the same mining payment model). You can’t spend a Bitcoin as liquid currency if there’s no way to validate a transaction.

Some people think that it might require Bitcoin to completely hit zero, but it doesn’t. Once the remaining pool gets small enough, the algorithm gives out ever smaller amounts of payment in return for computing. At some point, spending thousands of dollars on a rig to gain a few pennies worth of Bitcoin every month won’t be worth it. Miners will shut off their mining activities. As more and more miners realize the futility of their mining efforts, fewer and fewer will mine.

When a compute (or lack thereof) critical mass is reached, Bitcoin will be in a crisis. This is the point at which the value of Bitcoin will plummet, taking with it many “paper Bitcoin millionaires”.

If you own Bitcoin, you need to watch and listen carefully to this part of the Bitcoin world. In fact, we are likely already on the downward slope of the bell curve for Bitcoin computing. How far down the bell curve is unknown. Unfortunately, as with most investment products, many people hold on far too long and get wiped out. It’s best to sell out while you know the currency holds value. Don’t wait and hold thinking it will infinitely go up. It won’t.

Eventually, Bitcoin will die because of its finite number of coins and its heavy reliance on “mining”… which “mining” relies on offering dividends. When the dividends stop being of value, so will end the mining and, by extension, so Bitcoin will end.

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Gaslighting in the Workplace

Posted in advice, Employment, workplace by commorancy on April 10, 2019

Gaslighting is nothing new, but is a term that may be new to some. However, when it appears in the workplace, particularly from a boss, it can lead to exceedingly an difficult workplace situation. Let’s explore.

Gaslighting and How To Recognize It!

Gaslighting is when a co-worker or boss says something on Monday and then says, “I never said that” on Tuesday. Effectively, it’s lying. Its saying one thing (or even making a promise), then claiming that thing was never said.

What’s the purpose of this behavior? To attempt to make you, the receiver, believe what they want you to believe and to avoid the ramifications of whatever it is they said earlier. Some claim it’s a form of manipulation or that it is used as control tactic to confuse. I personally believe it’s a way for that person to get out of trouble or avoid being held to a promise. It’s a self-centered way of thinking. While it might be used for manipulation purposes, I believe it’s more self-serving than it is to control another person. However, this behavior can be either intentional or inadvertent due to a medical condition. Either way, it’s a problem for you, the receiver.

Co-workers and Gaslighting

If you’re working with a gaslighting co-worker (non-management peer), the situation can be a bit more simple to handle. Simply request that you don’t work with that person. Most companies are willing to separate folks with personality conflicts to avoid HR issues, so request it. However, be sure to explain to your Human Resources team member that the person is gaslighting you regularly. Make sure they understand the severity of gaslighting (a form of lying) in the workplace and that it has no business in a professional working relationship. Lying in any form is an unacceptable practice, particularly when it comes from folks in positions of trust. It also brings in the issues of business ethics against this person.

Lying and trust are exact opposites. If the person is willing to lie to colleagues, what are they willing to do with clients? Point this out. However, if you do point this out to HR, be aware that they can confront that person about this behavior which might lead them back to you. This person, if charming and charismatic enough, may be able to lie their way out of it. So, you should be cautious and exercise your best judgement when considering reporting a person, particularly if the person is pathological.

Bosses and Gaslighting

Unfortunately, if the gaslighting is coming from your boss or your boss’s boss, it’s a whole lot more difficult to manage. You can’t exactly ask to be moved away from your boss without a whole lot of other difficulties. In fact, many times, there is only one boss who handles your type of position within the company. If you find it is your boss who pathologically gaslights you, you may need to consider moving on from that company as there may be no other choice if you wish to continue working in your chosen career.

Gaslighting and Toxicity

Any form of unethical behavior against another employee should immediately be a huge red flag for you. If you can spot this early, you can make your employment decision quickly. If, for example, you can spot a toxic situation within the first 1-3 months, you can justify to a new prospective employer that the job role wasn’t what was promised and you left of your own accord during the probation period. That’s true. Toxicity in the workplace never makes for a positive working environment. Part of the job is not only what you do for the company, but how others interact with you within that environment. If one doesn’t meet the other and it’s found to be a toxic workplace, then the job role did not meet an acceptable criteria for employment. This means that the job role wasn’t what was promised. It’s not just about what you do, it’s about the interactions with others within the environment.

Any workplace with toxic co-workers is never a positive place of employment and, thus, not what was promised in the interview and on the job description. The problem with toxicity in the workplace is that it’s not easy to spot quickly. It can take several months for it to manifest. Sometimes, it will only manifest after staff change roles. If you walk into a company with high turnover, you might find the first couple of months to be perfectly fine until a new manager is hired.

Interview Flags

You should also take cues from your on-site interview. Many interviews offer telltale signs of toxicity. It may not even be from the people in the room. It may be from the receptionist that you meet when you arrive. Listen carefully to conversations when you’re sitting in a lobby or interview room waiting for the next interviewer. If the environment is chaotic or the interviewers are disenchanted with their job role, walk away. You can even ask pointed, but subtle questions in the interview to the interviewer. For example:

  • “How long have you been with the company?” — Short stint? They can’t tell you enough about the company.
  • “Do you like your job?” — This should open the door for venting.
  • “Is there anything you might change about what you are doing?” — This will further open the door for venting.
  • “How long has this position been open?” — Jobs that have been open a long time may signal problems.

These are examples of pointed questions trying to draw out disenchantment from the employee. Employees who always remain positive about their work conditions and the workplace likely means the company is worth considering. Employees who vent and turn negative quickly likely indicates disenchantment with their position. You might want to reconsider. However, even questions like this aren’t definitive. If the employer directs their interviewers to remain positive no matter what, you won’t know about this policy until much later. Always be cautious in the interview room… but definitely use your question time to draw out possible disenchantment as discretely as possible. If an employee wants to vent about the conditions, let them. It’s a sure fire sign you probably don’t want to work there.

Once employed, your next stop might be…

HR Complaints

You may think that taking your complaint to the HR team is the best idea, particularly if it’s your boss who is gaslighting you. Unfortunately, you’d be wrong. The HR team works for the management team and this includes working for your boss. This means that your boss actually has more power with the HR team than you do as a non-management employee. Complaining to the HR team could also bring your boss’s wrath down upon you. In fact, the HR team may become complicit in your boss’s gaslighting (and unsavory) tactics, which may seem like both your boss and the HR team are ganging up against you. That view wouldn’t exactly be wrong.

If your boss is willing to lie to you, he or she is willing to lie to others, including the HR team. There’s ultimately no end to this person’s deceptive ways. This means that reporting your boss to HR could actually backfire on you. It could get you written up, placed on probation, have disciplinary action levied against you up to and including termination. There’s no end to what your boss could do to you if you report their behavior to HR. The HR team will backup your boss, not you.

If your boss or any management team member is gaslighting you, you should avoid complaining to HR. The only time you should make your way to HR is if it’s coming from a co-worker peer who is not in management. Non-management coworkers are the only people where HR doesn’t have a conflict of interest. For these folks, report away.

For management gaslighters, you’ll need to consider other options… such as employment elsewhere or a change in position (move to a different boss, preferably not under the same chain of command) or possibly legal action if the behavior is illegal.

Evaluating Management Power

If you do decide to complain to HR over a management team member, you need to consider that person’s power and support within the organization. Many of these gaslighters are not only gaslighting their own staff, they’re two-faced with their bosses. The problem is getting these people caught in their own web of lies and deceit. That can be a tall order as two-faced individuals attempt to establish strong trust with their bosses. Many times they succeed which can make it extremely difficult to break down that trust.

Unfortunately, many managers who are willing to gaslight you are also willing to do whatever it takes to point the blame elsewhere, perhaps even towards you. For example, I’ve had bosses who made dire mistakes and cost the company downtime and money regularly (at least once a week). Yet, when they end up in their weekly management meetings, the blame runs downhill. Their trust runs deep, so their bosses continue to believe their lies. Meaning, lies and deception keeps this manager employed with his underlings getting the blame (getting a few of them fired). That, or he lied and claimed it was a system error or blamed the crash on the developers or software.

This manager should have been fired at least 6-8 times over, yet each time he managed to worm his way out of the situation by either pointing blame at others or claiming system problems. I know full well it was his fat fingers that pulled the trigger and caused the outage (I saw the logs), yet this information never got to his manager in a way that required him to terminate this employee. He was considered “too valuable”. In fact, he wasn’t valuable at all. He was a severe liability to the company. Not only did he cause regular system outages, he was an HR nightmare making not only inappropriate comments in the workplace, he was completely tactless and had no people skills at all. He was definitely one of those folks who should have been considered dangerous, yet he was in a management position. He was even promoted several times!

What can you do about gaslighting?

This is a difficult question to answer. Depending on the situation, you have several options:

  1. If it’s coming from a non-management co-worker, report them to HR and your manager and ask to avoid contact with this person.
  2. If it’s coming from a management team member to whom you report, you have few options other than to quit and move on.
  3. If it’s coming from a lower management team member to whom you DO NOT report, report them to your immediate manager. Depending on your manager, this may go nowhere. Management typically supports other management regardless of how egregious another management member’s behavior.
  4. If it’s coming from an upper management or a company executive to whom you DO NOT report, again, you have few options. Reporting upper management or executive behavior is almost impossible to see action done. Though, you might be able to report the behavior to the Board of Directors if it’s egregious enough. Like the HR team, the Board of Directors is there to support the management team.. no matter their behaviors. If you choose to report, you’re likely to get no response from the Board of Directors as they’re likely not willing to confront that executive.

There may be other scenarios not listed here, so you’ll need to use your own best judgement whether or not to report the situation.

Company Therapists

You might be thinking you should use one of the company counselors to vent your frustrations. The trouble is, it’s possible that the counselor is obligated to report all findings to the HR team. If you wish to vent to a licensed therapist or psychiatric professional, do so you on your own dime. Choose your own therapist. Don’t use the company’s counselor hotline that’s part of the company perk system. You might find that your conversations have ended up in your personnel file.

Toxic / Hostile Workplace

If the corporate culture is such that it endorses gaslighting (and other inappropriate behaviors) and the company chooses to do nothing about it, then this is probably an ingrained corporate culture. You should consider this a severely toxic and unhealthy workplace. Depending on how you’re treated, it might even be considered hostile. The only choice you have is to exit this job and find another. Toxic corporate culture is becoming more and more common. Unfortunately, there is no one you can turn to in an organization when the corporate culture is this level of toxic, particularly at the upper management level. When the CEO, CFO, CTO and such executives know, don’t care and do nothing to rectify a toxic workplace, this is definitely the signal that you need to move on. You can’t change a toxic corporate culture, you can only get away from it.

Toxic workplaces may be difficult to recognize until you’ve been in the position for at least six months. This is one of those situations where you don’t want to leave the position at the 5 month mark because it will hurt your resume. It also means you’ll need to stick with your employment at this toxic company for at least 7 more months to reach the 1 year mark. Hopping to a new job at the 1 year mark is at least better (and more explainable) on a resume than hopping at 5 months.

This situation can be difficult, particularly if the job environment is highly toxic. Just try to make the best of the situation until you can reach your 1 year anniversary. If the situation is far too problematic to bare and the behavior is not only egregious, but illegal, you should contact a lawyer and consider…

Legal Action

The HR team’s number 1 job is to avoid employment related legal actions at all costs. This means that should you file a lawsuit against your company as a hostile workplace, you’ll be up against your HR team, the company’s legal team and the company’s executives. If you’re still employed when you file such an action, you might want to consider moving on quickly. The HR team (and your boss) will make your life a living hell during and after a lawsuit.

In other words, you shouldn’t consider legal action against a current employer for employment violations. Instead, you should plan to leave the company immediately before you file your lawsuit.

Filing a lawsuit against a former employer will counter HR issues you might encounter while still employed, but be very careful here as well. Any lawsuits against employers can become known by your current employer and mark you as a legal risk. If you’re willing to file a lawsuit against one employer, your current employer’s HR team could then see you as a lawsuit risk. Make sure you fully understand these risks before going up against a former employer for employment violations.

Gaslighting itself isn’t necessarily something that can justify a lawsuit on its own. If it’s part of a pervasive corporate culture endorsed at all levels of management, it could be considered a hostile workplace. In this case, you may have legal recourse against your employer, depending on what they may have done and how pervasive the behavior while employed. You’ll want to educate yourself regarding what is and isn’t a hostile workplace before considering such a lawsuit against an employer. You should also consult with a lawyer for your specific situation. Even then, if you do find that it is considered hostile, you’ll still want to consider such a lawsuit carefully. If your litigation finds its way back to your current employer, you may find yourself in an untenable situation with your current job.

Basically, if you do file a lawsuit against a previous employer, you should keep that information as private as humanly possible. Do not discuss the lawsuit with anyone at your current company no matter how much you may want to. If you have mutual friends between both companies, this may not be possible. Consider this situation carefully before filing such a lawsuit. Note that you may not even know that mutual friends exist until your litigation information is disclosed to your current employer’s HR team.

As with most industries, HR staff members comprise a reasonably small circle of individuals even in large metroplexes. There’s a high probability that at least one person knows another person between two large corporations, particularly if they’re in the same line of business. Always be cautious and never discuss any pending litigation except with your lawyer.

Corporate Culture

Unfortunately, corporate cultures are laid in stone by the founders and the current management team. Sometimes corporate cultures, while seeming to be positive and well meaning, can easily turn sour by corporate corruption. Again, you won’t know the exact extent of your company’s corporate culture until you’ve been working at a company for at least 5 months. Sometimes it takes much longer. Sometimes it requires listening carefully to your CEO’s comments at internal company meetings.

Gaslighting is one of those things that shouldn’t ever be endorsed as part of corporate culture, but it is a behavior that can be misconstrued by pathological individuals based on corporate ideals and is also shaped by management team meetings. These are management meetings where the upper management meets with key individuals to evaluate their weekly contributions to and assess performance for the company. Many times, the face the CEO puts on shows a cheery and charismatic attitude when in public. When behind closed doors, this same CEO becomes a vulture, picking and cutting at each manager’s weaknesses systematically and ruthlessly… many times using rude, crude, crass, yet flowery, condescending language. They might make inappropriate sexual comments. They might even gaslight.

As a result, these bosses who are regularly subjected to these kinds of hostile C-Team interactions can learn that this is the way they also should manage their own teams, particularly managers who don’t have good people skills and who must lead by example. Yet, they know that such flowery, condescending language would get them in hot water with HR and employment law, so they adopt other compensating mechanisms such as gaslighting and outright lying… behaviors that aren’t easily caught or reported, behaviors that can be easily dismissed as innocuous.

As a result, rough and rugged CEOs who lead using a whip-and-chain approach teach their underlings the value of whips and chains instead of managing by positive examples. This can lead borderline personalities to interpret this whip-and-chain approach as the corporate culture to adopt when managing their own staff.

While this explains the root cause behind some manager’s reasons to gaslight, it can never excuse this behavior. In fact, nothing excuses unprofessional behavior. Unfortunately, far too many bosses are promoted beyond their capacity to lead. These managers may be knowledgeable in their own job skills, but many managers have no training in management and have no people skills at all. Instead of learning by training (because many companies don’t offer such people training), they must learn by example. They turn to the CEO to show them the “example”, even if that example is entirely misguided.

Unfortunately, far too many companies do not value people skills as part of their management team’s qualifications. Instead, they look for people who can kiss butts appropriately and deliver results, regardless of what that takes. Meaning, if gaslighting is the means by which that manager delivers results, then the upper management is perfectly happy to look the other way using “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies. I agree, it’s a horrible practice… but there it is.

Overall

As a non-management team member, your options are limited if you find your manager is gaslighting you. On other other hand, if you find a peer regularly gaslighting you to get ahead, you should report this pathological behavior to both your manager and your HR team. If you perform peer evaluations of those individuals, then you should report this behavior on those peer evaluations.

If the behavior goes beyond a single person and extends pervasively to the organization as a whole, then this is a corporate culture toxicity. It may also signal a hostile workplace situation. At that point, you may want to consider a new job and, if the behavior is particularly egregious (and illegal) across the company, file a hostile workplace lawsuit against that employer. Personally, if a company is toxic, I leave and let them wallow in their own filth. I then write a scathing review on Glassdoor and leave it at that. Filing lawsuits are costly and even if successful, don’t always fix the root cause of corporate toxicity, let alone gaslighting… which isn’t even considered a problem needing resolution by most companies. Even if you win a lawsuit, you won’t necessarily make that company a better place. Consider lawsuits as a strategy only if you’re trying to get money out of that company you feel has wronged you.

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The FTC is investigating pay-to-win loot boxes

Posted in advice, video game design, video gaming by commorancy on December 4, 2018

img_3728.jpgThe FTC is investigating video game loot box issue that was so prominent in Star Wars Battlefront II and in many other games. Is it a form of gambling? Let’s explore.

Pay to Win?

The issue with loot boxes is that people feel ripped off by them, particularly after having already spent $60 for a big named video game title. If you spend $60 to buy a game, the implicit nature of that already hefty price tag is that it covers everything needed to play and win the base game without any additional payments. Any additional downloadable content (DLC) that appears later has a separate price tag. We understand this aspect of DLC. You can buy DLC if you want, but it’s not necessary to pay for DLC to win the base game. DLC is a tried-and-true model and it works to extend the gaming experience, but is not necessary to win the base game. Not everyone likes DLC, but as long as the DLC is created as separate world components, it’s fine.

When loot boxes were introduced, you might end up spending another $60 in addition to the already spent $60 to for the random chance to gain rare weapons or armor or level-ups that are not available in any other way and which are required to progress in the game.

The argument by game developers is that these pay add-ons are not strictly necessary. It depends on how you interpret that statement. It may not be strictly necessary to play the game, but it may make the game experience less enjoyable and possibly even problematic. If you plop down for the loot in the loot boxes, then your experience becomes much easier and better. Loot boxes turn games into a pay-to-win model.

Pay-to-win games to me are not fun. There’s no challenge in plopping down $5 here and $5 there just to get past a level or a boss or whatever it is holding you back. The challenge is and should be in the base game, not in buying add-ons needed to win. If the add-ons become the game, then the base $60 you paid is seen as a rip-off.

Smart Phone Games

Pay-to-win games have been available on the smart phone market for years and that’s fine. These games are typically free to download and free to play to a point. You only run into pay-walls when you want to progress beyond certain points or to buy more lives. Again, most phone game apps are designed around a pay-to-win model. However, there’s no challenge in paying to win a game. Paying to win only depends on how much money you are willing to spend. It’s just a money making scheme.

In the free download app model, you’re not paying an initial $60 to download the game. You’re paying nothing. This means there’s no base expectations set. So then each micro-transaction does help cover the developer costs of producing that free game. In the AAA $60 game arena, you’ve already paid for the development costs and you expect a fully functioning game in return for that $60. That’s the expectation of paying $60.

For example, adding loot boxes to Star Wars Battlefront II was simply a money grab by EA and nothing more. Everyone expected this loot to drop as a result of completing levels. No one expected that you’d have to pay to buy level up cards in addition to the already spent $60… cards that you might not see for many, many hours of play if they ever drop at all. Cards that are needed to unlock key pieces of the game.

Rethinking this Model

Fundamentally, game producers need to think long and hard about the pay-to-win model. Personally, I don’t like it and I will never be a fan of pay-to-win. You pay for the game itself, not for the ability to win it.  You should win the game or not on your own skill as a game player. For a $60 price tag, the game should drop all necessary loot or, if absolutely necessary, offer some kind of in-game credit system that you can spend towards the loot crates as you progress. Many games do give in-game credit that are awarded at level’s end that can be used towards ‘buying’ loot. You can also spend real money to buy those same credits in a store. This gives you two ways to ‘buy’ loot in the world. You can play the game and win credit or you can pay for it. The difficulty is when the game only drops the tiniest amount of credit within the game and then expects you to make up the difference with real money. Again, pay-to-win and I am so not a fan of this.

If you’ve already paid $60 to buy the game at the store, then don’t throw down real money loot boxes in front of the gamer and expect people to open their wallets and be happy about it. Real cash microtransaction loot boxes, again, turn the game into a pay-to-win model.

The argument here is that loot box costs offset the already expensive price tag of video game production. I counter argue that if a game now costs $80 or $100 or $120 per copy to develop, then simply raise the price of the game in the store accordingly and leave out the unnecessary loot boxes. No one says that a developer must sell a game at $60. They can price it at whatever they need to recoup their costs. If they can’t recoup their costs of a game at a $60 price tag, then perhaps they shouldn’t be in the video game business. Or, perhaps they should have kept to a lower budget production. However,  they are also free to raise the price of their game of they want to build bigger, flashier and more expensive games.

Other Alternative Systems

Let’s take a page from the toys-to-life games area. If developers want to offer a level-up swag system for the game, then do it through physical trading cards you can buy at Target or Walmart. Then, use a code on the card to load the card into an app linked to the game. This then gives you legitimate reasons to go buy the cards at the store. It also means anyone can go buy these cards to enhance their game experience… and you’re getting actual collectible trading cards for your money.

It also means the retailer can put the cards on sale and offer discounts on them. Digital cards coming from loot boxes purchased in-game are a waste that can only be used once and have no value after the game ends. It’s just money lost in addition to whatever you paid for in the game itself. Physical trading cards hold their value long after a game becomes a fond memory running on a Raspberry Pi emulator years later. It also means you can trade or sell these cards to others who might value them and at least recoup some of the money spent towards the game. Some of the cards might even become extremely valuable. A video game copy will never have that value.

Having cards produced into 5 or 8 card blind packets means the consumer gets to discover what cards they got and they can trade them with their friends if they get duplicates. It’s a real world way of adding value to the game and a shareable component, but at the same time offers a real world tangible component. Having these cards should also not be necessary to win the game, but they can be used to gain access to weapons, armor and character stats that might otherwise take a lot of grinding to obtain. All physical cards sold in blind packs should be discoverable in the game itself. But, they may contain exclusives that aren’t necessary, but add fun value to the game.

I’m a much bigger fan of using add-ons like real world trading cards than using in-game digital loot boxes… as long as these items are not needed to win the game. Pay-to-win needs to stop in general and these pay-to-win systems definitely have no place in a game sold at $60.

Are Loot Boxes a form of Gambling?

Here’s where some people feel that there’s a problem with loot boxes within video games. If you pay real USD to purchase a loot box, then you’re paying for the ‘chance to win’ something rare. In fact, when you pay for a loot box at all, it can be seen as a form of gambling strictly because of the ‘chance to win’ aspect. If the loot boxes drop on their own for free, there’s still a chance to ‘win’ something rare, but you’ve paid nothing for it and this would not fall under gambling. Gambling is when you pay money for a chance to win.

The paying of real USD to ‘win’ in-game loot is THE bone of contention and is the part in all of this that is seen as a form of gambling. Paying money to win anything is technically a form of gambling. It could also be considered a form of a lottery, much like a scratch card. Because lotteries are considered illegal unless operated by official state organizations, placing an illegal lottery into a video game could result in legal problems for video game producers. As a result, many people view for-pay in-game loot boxes as a form of gambling and in need of regulation under US gambling laws. Because gambling, at least in the US, is only allowed by persons 21 years of age or older, placing pay-to-win ideas into a video game designed to target minors and underage persons could be a problem for the video game industry. It also means the game should, at the bare minimum, put an M rating on any game that includes this mechanism.

These games could also be considered a form of early conditioning designed to teach children about gambling early and get them addicted to its risk-reward system. Because many video game companies also hold stakes in gambling operations, such as producing gambling machines for Las Vegas or actually own stakes in casinos, loot boxes could become very problematic for video game companies.

On the other hand, gambling usually entails winning money, not prizes. In Vegas, you pay to win money. At Dave and Busters, you pay to win prizes. So far, playing games to win tickets at an arcade has not fallen under gambling laws. However, you’re winning tickets, not prizes. The only random chance involved is how many tickets you win. In an arcade, simply playing the game is guaranteed to give you at least one ticket, usually more. The tickets are then redeemed for prizes of your choice. It’s not exactly a random chance kind of thing like a loot box. In addition, arcades use the payment given towards playing a game of skill which then gives you tickets. Giving tickets after playing a skill game that you can redeem is not exactly like paying for a loot box in a game with random chance to win its contents. Loot boxes are much more like a slot machine or lottery scratch card than they are like Dave and Busters skill-game ticket model.

I’m hoping that the FTC will find that any payment of real money towards ‘winning’ in-game loot is ruled as a form of gambling. This would mean that instead of paying for blind random chance boxes, that video game producers would have to set up a store and sell you exact items needed in the game. No ‘random chance to win’ involved. Either that or they must continue to drop the loot boxes in-game at no cost. Better, don’t drop loot boxes at all. Just create a store and sell us the the things we need… that, or use the suggested trading card system sold separately outside of the game.

If the FTC rules that the loot box is considered an illegal form of lottery, this mechanism could no longer be added to video games. I’d be fine with that outcome too.

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Stranded by the Airline

Posted in advice, smart, tickets, travel by commorancy on November 5, 2018

Photo of departure board courtesy of BlaneTraveling by air is one of the most common means of travel and it usually goes without a hitch. But, what happens when an airline leaves you stranded due to technical problems? Whose responsibility is it? Let’s explore.

Stranded at the Airport

I’ve seen articles similar to this one discussing a 77 hour delay from Orlando to the UK. The difficulty I have with these situations is that many travelers seem to expect the airline to cover for or provide food, lodging and other accommodations while stranded.

A family stated of the British Airlines delay:

The passengers were treated inhumanely, all we wanted was some food and drink, somewhere to sleep and to be kept informed – and they failed on all counts no matter what they claim.

Other than being kept informed, is the rest the airline’s responsibility?

When you book your tickets for passage aboard a flight, you expect that flight to take place within the defined ticket times. If the flight can’t make those times, you should be notified by the airline of realistic timings when or if the next flight can make. It should also be the airline’s responsibility to find another plane as quickly as possible to make good on the flight. If a plane cannot be found quickly (i.e., within a few hours), then the airline should book you onto another carrier to get you to your destination. One way or another, they should make good on a flight within 24 hours. That’s a reasonable amount of time. I know we all want resolution in an hour or two, but sometimes that’s not possible.

If a flight cannot be located until the following day, then the airline should inform you of that information ASAP so you can find a hotel and make accommodations for a stay over. Who pays for that hotel should be you, the traveler… at least at that moment in time. You can negotiate reimbursement of those accommodations should the airline extend that courtesy, but don’t expect it right then (or at all), like some of the people interviewed for this article.

This BBC article describes a detailed account of what happens when travelers make the wrong assumptions about airline delay responsibility. This article describes that British Airlines left people stranded at the airport made worse by being in NY (which NY is always notoriously short on accommodations, unless you’re willing to drive to Newark or Queens or farther). Apparently, this wait took 77 hours. The flight was supposed to depart on Thursday and ended up departing on Saturday arriving on Sunday. The delay took slightly over 3 days in total.

Who has Responsibility?

For a 3 day delay, whose responsibility is it to make sure that you are fed, have shelter and have the basic necessities for living? It’s certainly not the airline’s responsibility. Travel problems are rare, but they do happen. YOU are the traveler. YOU need to accommodate yourself. It’s YOUR responsibility as the traveler to make sure YOU and your immediate co-travelers are accommodated. For example, if you have a family of four, expect that you will have to go find a hotel and pay for it out of your own pocket. This means having a phone handy or a device capable of using the Internet and WiFi. Use the airport WiFi if you have nothing else available. Just make sure you have an Internet capable device or a working phone with you.

Don’t expect the airline to do anything for you other than provide you with a flight. Unless the airline is holding you hostage on the plane on the tarmac, you can’t expect anything from the airline. When you’re at the airport terminal waiting, you need to assess your own accommodations and take action yourself.

It’s always worth asking the airline for help, but don’t expect the airline to do anything for you. The airlines are not obligated to do anything other than see to your flight. Sitting around at the airport complaining that the airline is not seeing to your personal needs is called over-dependence. You can only depend on yourself to manage your own personal welfare. You can’t throw your person at an airline and expect them to become your personal caregiver. It’s not their responsibility. It seems a lot of people completely misunderstand this aspect of airline travel. Your ticket also doesn’t require them to do this. You take care of you. At some point, you will need to understand taking this personal level of responsibility for yourself while traveling.

The only time that the airline is responsible for your welfare is when you are actually in your seat on the plane. That’s the only time when the airline needs to accommodate you and your needs. When you are sitting in the terminal awaiting a plane, you are firmly on your own. It’s not the airport’s responsibility nor is it the responsibility of the airline.

Stranded for Days

Being stranded by an airline is rare, but it can happen for various reasons. Reasons that may not make you happy as a stressed out traveler, but that are unavoidable by the airline. This is part and parcel of traveling by budget flights these days. Airlines are running their routes very, very lean. Meaning, they don’t have extra planes or personnel should the need arise. This means that you could be waiting hours or even days before a plane might become available should your original flight’s plane end up out of service.

As a traveler, you need to bring along enough money for (or have the means to handle) unexpected delays. If the delay extends beyond a few hours, it then becomes your responsibility to handle your own personal needs up to possibly even forfeiting your old ticket and booking separate travel arrangements yourself. In fact, if time is important to you, then you should already be looking for alternatives within 15 minutes of finding out about the delay. Don’t wait. You can always cancel the arrangements, but it can be difficult to make arrangements if you wait even 3 hours. If you need medical treatments, medicines, food, baby formula or other accommodations, you absolutely cannot expect the airline or the airport to see to those needs.

I realize airlines might string you along by saying “an hour longer” via the terminal attendants. However, by hour 6 or 7 of that stringing, you need to request a straight answer from the airline. If they’re unwilling to give it to you, it means it is time to seek your own alternatives. You can continue to wait if you like, but that’s on you. If waiting gets to the 24 hour mark, then you have waited far too long. At 8 hours, you definitely need to seek your own accommodations for food and lodging and perhaps even alternative transportation to your destination. Even at 3 hours of waiting (unless expressly stated on the ticket as a 3 hour layover), you should have already spent that time seeking alternatives.

You can spend time later fighting with the original airline carrier about refunds or other issues, but it is up to you to take care of yourself and see to your own needs and comfort. Throwing yourself at an airline, then complaining about it won’t make matters better. You’ll also have wasted a lot of time when you could have had hotel accommodations a lot sooner. Sure, you may not have planned for that extra time or that extra hotel, but traveling isn’t always problem free. At 24 hours waiting, the airline can’t expect you to hang around the terminal waiting forever for their plane to arrive. Even 8 hours waiting is expecting too much of travelers.

If you don’t have enough money to cover either alternative flight accommodations or a hotel (until your flight becomes available), I might suggest that you probably shouldn’t have traveled in the first place. You should always have enough money to realistically cover a few extra days including food, lodging and any other basic needs when traveling, just in case.

Airline Courtesy

The problem with many travelers these days is that far too many people think that the airline has 100% responsibility for their welfare the moment they enter the airport. That that ticket you’re holding is some kind of magical device that grants the airline 100% ownership of your person until you step off at your final destination.

This belief is 100% false. That ticket is simply a travel voucher. It lets you onto the plane and offers you passage to the end destination. When a plane is not available for that flight, the airline may be irresponsible in its notifications of when you might be able to travel, but you cannot expect the airline to begin accommodating your personal needs for the duration of that long delay.

That’s not part of the ticket you paid for. Perhaps this issue requires a special line of travel insurance. Perhaps the airlines (or booking agencies) need to offer delay insurance where you pay extra in case of delay. The delay insurance should cover accommodations at a local airport hotel for the duration of delay. It might cover for a single meal voucher for each person up to a specific amount. It might even cover for transportation to and from the hotel.

If you paid for such insurance (were it to exist), then if a delay occurs, you know exactly how it will be handled, exactly what you’ll get, exactly what the airline’s responsibility is to you and that your needs will be taken care of. It also means the airlines will be forced to support and accommodate travelers who buy this delay travel insurance. It means that the airlines must notify and then hold the plane until all insurance travelers are back at the airport, through security and on the plane after the plane is finally available (within reason, of course). Adding delay insurance means that instead of sitting around waiting, you now have definitive rules that must be adhered to by the airline personnel and when those accommodations kick in.

If it costs $50 to check a bag and $30 for each carry-on, what makes you think an airline is going to see to your food and lodging accommodations during a long delay? Are you expecting it out of their own ‘courtesy’ for free? I don’t think so. Those days are over. Adding delay insurance, on the other hand, means that you have paid for and know exactly what you’re going to get if an airline has a delay like British Airlines.

For now, no such separate delay insurance exists. Until such insurance exists, you need to see to your own welfare and make sure you have enough money when traveling to do so, even when stranded at an airport because of an excessively long airline delay.

As a side note, some travel cancellation insurance plans may include trip delay coverage. But, these delay benefits kick in under very specific conditions and may not cover a scenario like British Airline’s 3 day delay. If you’re curious if a plan might cover such a delay, you should contact a travel insurer to find out more.

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