Random Thoughts – Randocity!

Should I beta test Fallout 76?

Posted in best practices, botch, business, video gaming by commorancy on November 1, 2018

ps4-pro-500-million-dualshock-4-crWhile I know that beta testing for Fallout 76 is already underway, let’s explore what it means to beta test a game and whether or not you should participate.

Fallout 76

Before I get into the nitty gritty details of beta testing, let’s talk about Fallout 76. Fallout 76, like The Elder Scrolls Online before it, is a massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG). Like The Elder Scrolls Online which offered an Elder Scrolls themed universe, Fallout 76 will offer a Fallout themed universe in an online landscape.

How the game ultimately releases is yet to be determine, but a beta test gives you a solid taste of how it will all work. Personally, I didn’t like The Elder Scrolls Online much. While it had the flavor and flair of an Elder Scrolls game entry, the whole thing felt hollow and unconnected to the franchise. It also meant that Bethesda spent some very valuable time building this online game when they could have been building the next installment of the Elder Scrolls.

It is as yet undetermined how these online games play into the canon of The Elder Scrolls or, in Fallout 76’s case, in the Fallout universe. Personally, I see them as offshoots with only a distant connection. For example, The Elder Scrolls Online felt Elder Scrollsy, but without the deep solid connections and stories that go with building that universe. Instead, it was merely a multiplayer playground that felt like The Elder Scrolls in theme, but everything else was just fluff. I’m deeply concerned that we’ll get this same treatment from Fallout 76.

The Problem with Online Games

Online games have, in recent years, gotten a bad rap… and for good reason. The reason that this is so is because the game developers focus on the inclusion of silly things like character emoting and taking selfies. While these are fun little inclusions, they are by no means intrinsic to the fundamental game play of an actual game.

Games should be about the story that unfolds… about why your character is there and how your character is important in that universe. When the game expands to include an online component, now it’s perhaps tens of thousands of people all on the server at the same time. So, how can each of these characters be important to that universe? The answer is, they can’t.

Having many characters all running around doing the “same” things in the universe all being told by the game that they are “the most important thing” to the survival of that universe is just ludicrous.

This leads to the “importance syndrome” which is present in any MMORPG. As a developer, you either acknowledge the importance syndrome and avoid it by producing a shallow multiplayer experience that entirely avoids player importance (i.e., Fortnite, Overwatch, Destiny, etc) or you make everyone important each in their own game (i.e., The Elder Scrolls Online). Basically, the game is either a bunch of people running around doing nothing important at all and simply trying to survive whatever match battles have been set up (boring and repetitive) or the game treats each user as if they are individually important in their own single player game, except there are a bunch of other users online, all doing the same exact thing.

The Elder Scrolls Online fell into the latter camp which made the game weird and disconnected, to say the least. It also made the game feel less like an Elder Scrolls game and more like any cheap and cheesy iPad knockoff game you can download for free… except you’ve paid $60 + DLC + online fees for it.

I’ve played other MMORPG games similar to The Elder Scrolls Online including Defiance. In fact, Defiance played so much like The Elder Scrolls Online, I could swear that Bethesda simply took Defiance’s MMORPG engine and adapted it to The Elder Scrolls Online.

Environments and Users

The secondary problem is how to deal with online users. Both in the Elder Scrolls Online and Defiance, there were areas that included player versus environment (PvE). PvE environments mean that players cannot attack other players. Only NPCs can attack your player or your character can die by the environment (i.e., falling onto spikes). There were also some areas of the online map that were player versus player (PvP). PvP means any online player can attack any other online player in any way they wish.

In The Elder Scrolls Online, the PvP area was Cyrodiil, which was unfortunate for ESO. The PvP made this territory mostly a dead zone for the game. Even though there were a few caves in the area and some exploring you could do, you simply couldn’t go dungeon diving there because as soon as you tried, some player would show up and kill your player. Yes, the NPCs and AI enemies could also show up and kill your player, but so could online players.

The difficulty with Cyrodiil was that if another player killed your player in the PvP area, that player death was treated entirely differently than if they died by the environment. If another player killed your character, you had to respawn at a fort, which would force your character to respawn perhaps half a map away from where you presently were. If your character died by the environment or another NPC, you could respawn in the same location where your character died. This different treatment in handling the character death was frustrating, to say the least.

With Fallout 76, I’m unsure how all of this will work, but it’s likely that Bethesda will adopt a similar strategy from what they learned in building The Elder Scrolls Online. This likely means both PvE areas and PvP area(s). Note that ESO only had one PvP zone, but had many PvE zones. This made questing easier in the PvE zones, but also caused the “importance syndrome”. This syndrome doesn’t exist in single player offline games, but is omnipresent in MMORPGs.

MMORPGs and Characters

The difficulty with MMORPGs is that they’re primarily just clients of a server based environment. The client might be a heavier client that includes handling rendering character and environment graphics, but it is still nonetheless a client. This means that to use an MMORPG, you must log into the server to play. When you login, your character information, bank account, level ups, weapons, armor and so on are kept on the server.

This means that you can’t save off your character information. It also means you can’t mod your game or mod your character through game mods. Online games are strict about how you can change or manage your game and your character. In fact, these systems are so strict that if a new version of the game comes out, you must first download and install the game before they’ll let you back onto the server… unlike standalone games that let you play the game even if networking components are disabled. This means that you cannot play an MMORPG until your client is most current, which could mean 50GB and hours later.

This means that you’ll need an always on Internet connection to play Fallout 76 and you’ll need to be able to handle very large client downloads (even if you own the game disc).

Beta Testing

Many game producers like to offer, particularly if it’s a server based MMORPG, the chance for players to beta test their new game. Most online games allow for this.

However, I refuse to do this for game developers. They have a team they’ve hired to beta test their environments, quests and landscapes. I just don’t see any benefit for my player to get early access to their game environment. Sometimes, characters you build and grow in a beta won’t even carry over into the released game. This means that whatever loot you have found and leveling you may have done may be lost when release day comes. For that early access, the developer will also expect you to submit bug reports. I won’t do that for them. I also don’t want to feel obligated to do so.

Bethesda stands to make millions of dollars off of this game. Yet, they’re asking me to log into their game early, potentially endure huge bugs preventing quest progress, potentially lose my character and all of its progress and also spend time submitting bug reports? Then, spend $60 to buy the game when it arrives? Then, rebuild my character again from scratch?

No, I don’t think so. I’m not about to spend $60 for the privilege of spending my time running into bugs and submitting bug reports for that game. You, the game developer, stand to make millions from this game. So, hire people to beta test it for you. Or, give beta testers free copies of the game in compensation for the work they’re doing for you.

If you’re a gamer thinking of participating in beta testing, you should think twice. Not only are you helping Bethesda to make millions of dollars, you’re not going to see a dime of that money and you’re doing that work for free. In addition, you’re still going to be expected to spend $60 + DLC costs to participate in the final released game. No, I won’t do that. If I’m doing work for you, you should pay me as a contractor. How you pay me for that work is entirely up to you, but the minimum payment should consist of a free copy of the game. You can tie that payment to work efforts if you like.

For example, for each report submitted and verified as a new bug, the beta tester will get $5 in credit towards the cost of the game up to the full price of the game. This encourages beta testers to actually submit useful bug reports (i.e., duplicates or useless reports won’t count). This also means you earn your game as you report valid and useful bugs. It also means that you won’t have to pay for the game if you create enough useful, genuine reports.

Unfortunately, none of these game developers offer such incentive programs and they simply expect gamers to do it “generously” and “out of the kindness of their hearts”. No, I’m not doing that for you for free. Pay me or I’ll wait until the game is released.

Should I Participate in Beta Tests?

As a gamer, this is why you should not participate in beta tests. Just say no to them. If enough gamers say no and fail to participate in beta releases, this will force game developers to encourage gamers to participate with incentive programs such as what I suggest above.

Unfortunately, there are far too many unwitting gamers who are more than willing to see the environment early without thinking through the ramifications of what they are doing. For all of the above reasons, this is why you should NEVER participate (and this is why I do not participate) in any high dollar game beta tests.

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Rant Time: Bloomberg and Hacked Servers

Posted in best practices, botch, data security, reporting by commorancy on October 5, 2018

Bloomberg has just released a story claiming SuperMicro motherboards destined for large corporations may have been hacked with a tiny “spy” chip. Let’s explore.

Bloomberg’s Claims

Supposedly the reporters for Bloomberg have been working on this story for months. Here’s a situation where Bloomberg’s reporters have just enough information in hand to be dangerous. Let’s understand how this tiny chip might or might not be able to do what Bloomberg’s alarmist view claims. Thanks Bloomberg for killing the stock market today with your alarmist reporting.

Data Compromise

If all of these alleged servers have been compromised by a Chinese hardware hack, someone would have noticed data streaming out of their server to Chinese IP addresses, or at least some consistent address. Security scans of network equipment require looking through inbound and outbound data logs for data patterns. If these motherboards had been compromised, the only way for the Chinese to have gotten that data back is through the network. This means data passing through network cards, switches and routers before ever hitting the Internet.

Even if such a tiny chip were embedded in the system, many internal only servers have no direct Internet access. This means that if these servers are used solely for internal purposes, they couldn’t have transmitted their data back to China. The firewalls would prevent that.

For servers that may have had direct access to the Internet, these servers could have sent payloads, but eventually these patterns would have been detected by systems administrators, network administrators and security administrators in performing standard security checks. It might take a while to find the hacks, but they would be found just strictly because of odd outbound data being sent to locations that don’t make sense.

Bloomberg’s Fantasy

While it is definitely not out of the realm of possibility that China could tamper with and deliver compromised PCB goods to the US, it’s doubtful that this took place in the numbers that Bloomberg has reported.

Worse, Bloomberg makes the claim that this so-called hacked hardware was earmarked for specific large companies. I don’t even see how that’s possible. How would a Chinese factory know the end destination of any specific SuperMicro motherboard? As far as I know, most cloud providers like AWS and Google buy fully assembled equipment, not loose motherboards. How could SuperMicro board builders possibly know it’s going to end up in a server at AWS or Google or Apple? If SuperMicro’s motherboard products have been hacked, they would be hacked randomly and everywhere, not just at AWS or Google or whatever fantasy Bloomberg dreams up.

The Dangers of Outsourcing

As China’s technical design skills grow, so will the plausibility of receiving hacked goods from that region. Everyone takes a risk ordering any electronics from China. China has no scruples about any other country than China. China protects China, but couldn’t give a crap about any other country outside of China. This is a dangerous situation for China. Building electronics for the world requires a level of trust that must exist or China won’t get the business.

Assuming this alleged “spy chip” is genuinely found on SuperMicro motherboards, then that throws a huge damper on buying motherboards and other PCBs made in China. China’s trust level is gone. If Chinese companies are truly willing to compromise equipment at that level, they’re willing to compromise any hardware built in China including cell phones, laptops and tablets.

This means that any company considering manufacturing their main logic boards in China might want to think twice. The consequences here are as serious as it can get for China. China has seen a huge resurgence of inbound money flow into China. If Bloomberg’s notion is true, this situation severely undermines China’s ability to continue at this prosperity level.

What this means ultimately is that these tiny chips could easily be attached to the main board of an iPhone or Android phone or any mobile device. These mobile devices can easily phone home with data from mobile devices. While the SuperMicro motherboard problem might or might not be real, adding such a circuit to a phone is much more undetectable and likely to provide a wealth more data than placing it onto servers behind corporate firewalls.

Rebuttal to Bloomberg

Statements like from this next reporter is why no one should take these media outlets seriously. Let’s listen. Bloomberg’s Jordan Robertson states, “Hardware hacking is the most effective type of hacking an organization can engineer… There are no security systems that can detect that kind of manipulation.” Wrong. There are several security systems that look for unusual data patterns including most intrusion detection systems. Let’s step back for a moment.

If the point in the hardware hacking is to corrupt data, then yes, it would be hard to detect that. You’d just assume the hardware is defective and replace it. However, if the point to the hardware hack is to phone data home, then that is easily detected via various security systems and is easily blocked by firewalls.

The assumption that Jordon is making is that we’re still in the 90s with minimal security. We are no longer in the 90s. Most large organizations today have very tight security around servers. Depending on the role of the server, it might or might not have direct trusted access to secured data. That server might have to ask an internal trusted server to get the data it needs.

For detection purposes, if the server is to be used as a web server, then the majority of the data should have a 1:1 relationship. Basically, one request inbound, some amount of data sent outbound from that request. Data originating from the server without an inbound request would be suspect and could be detected. For legitimate requests, you can see these 1:1 relationships in the logs and when watching the server traffic on a intrusion detection system. For one-sided transactions sending data outbound from the server, the IDS would easily see it and could block it. If you don’t think that most large organizations don’t have an IDS even simply in watch mode, you are mistaken.

If packets of data originate from the server without any prompting, that would eventually be noticed by a dedicated security team performing regular log monitoring and regular server security scans. The security team might not be able to pinpoint the reason (i.e. a hardware hack) for unprompted outbound data, but they will be able to see it.

I have no idea how smart such tiny chip could actually be. Such a tiny chip likely would not have enough memory to store any gathered payload data. Instead, it would have to store that payload either on the operating systems disks or in RAM. If the server was cut off from the Internet as most internal servers are, that disk or RAM would eventually fill its data stores up without transfer of that data to wherever it needed to go. Again, systems administrators would notice the spike in usage of /tmp or RAM due to the chip’s inability to send its payload.

If the hacking chip simply gives remote control access to the server without delivering data at all, then that would also be detected by an IDS system. Anyone attempting to access a port that is not open will be blocked. If the chip makes an outbound connection to a server in China and leaves it open would eventually be detected. Again, a dedicated security team would see the unusual data traffic from/to the server and investigate.

If the hacking chip wants to run code, it would need to compiled it first. That implies having a compiler in that tiny chip. Doubtful. If the system builder installs a compiler, the spy chip might be able to leverage it, assuming it has any level of knowledge about the current operating system installed. That means that chip would have to know about many different versions of Linux, BSD, MacOS X, Windows and so on, then have code ready to deploy for each of these systems. Unlikely.

Standards and Protocols

Bloomberg seems to think there’s some mystery box here that allows China to have access to these servers without bounds. The point to having multi-layer security is to prevent such access. Even if the motherboards were compromised, most of these servers would end up behind multiple firewalls in combination with continuous monitoring for security. Even more than this, many companies segregate servers by type. Servers performing services that need a high degree of security have very limited ability to do anything but their one task. Even getting into these servers can be challenge even for administrators.

For web servers in a DMZ which are open to the world, capturing data here might be easier. However, even if the hacker at SuperMicro did know which company placed an order for motherboards, they wouldn’t know how those servers would ultimately be deployed and used. This means that these chips could be placed into server roles behind enough security to render their ability to spy as worthless.

It’s clear, these reporters are journalists through and through. They really have no skill at being a systems administrator, network engineer or security administrator. Perhaps it’s now time to hire technical consultants at Bloomberg who can help you guide your articles when they involve technical matters? It’s clear, there was no guidance by any technical person who could steer Jordan away from some of the ludicrous statements he’s made.

Bloomberg, hire a technical consultant the next time you chase one of these “security” stories or give it up. At this point, I’m considering Bloomberg to be nothing more a troll looking for views.


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How To: Killing Apps on iOS and Android

Posted in Android, Apple, best practices, howto by commorancy on September 4, 2018

Kill_AppsHere’s a quick how-to tutorial. This tutorial will show you how to kill running applications on your Apple or Android phone or tablet device. Let’s explore.

Killing Apps

You might be asking, “Well, why would I want to do that?” There are times where apps misbehave or hang leaving a dead app on your phone or tablet. These can drag down the performance of your phone. For this reason, killing an app allows you to restart them to get them working again. Without further adieu, let’s get started…

Apple iOS

To kill apps on iOS 11, it’s simple. For Apple devices that have a home button (this excludes iPhone X), double click the home button. The home button is the button located at the bottom or side of your device (depending on orientation). It’s the only front facing button on the bezel. With the device logged in, double click this home button.

For the iPhone X, the line at the bottom kind of acts like a home button. From the line at the bottom, with your finger drag upwards to minimize the apps into a stacked list. This is similar to double clicking the home button.

Once in the stacked list, kill any specific app or all apps as follows:

  • Press and hold your finger on top of one of the stacked app screens and with a fluid motion, drag your finger to the top of the screen.
    • If you perform this motion correctly, the screen will disappear. The app is now killed.
    • If you notice the screen moving side to side and not up and down, you dragged sideways.
    • Scrolling side to side lets you selectively choose which app to kill. Try again to pull the app screen upwards.
    • If you touch the app screen once, it will bring that app to the foreground.
    • If you touch the background outside of the app, it will bring you to your home screen of icons.
  • To kill all apps, perform this motion on each and every stack app screen until there are no more left.
  • No, iOS does not provide a ‘kill all’ feature. You must kill app separately. Note, you can’t hear the double-clicking of the home button. Here’s an iOS demonstration:

Android

To kill apps on Android 6.x or above, you’ll need to locate the double rectangle button either on the bezel of your phone or on the display of your phone (at the bottom). This double-rectangle button drops you into the screen that shows you all of your currently running apps.

Click this button, then follow along based on the videos:

Obvious isn’t always

Because Apple and Android have both hidden this feature behind cryptic buttons, it isn’t sometimes obvious how to do this. Also note that even if you reboot your device, the apps may still continue to run from the state where they formerly were. To kill an app and start it fresh (particularly on iOS), the only way is to kill the app as described above. I find that, for example, I regularly have to kill Hulu as it likes to hang.

Good Luck!

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Workplace Crime: Should I talk to HR?

Posted in best practices, business, Employment by commorancy on August 10, 2018

This is a common question and doesn’t have a fast answer. Let’s explore.

Sexual Assault in the Workplace

I’ll talk about this one right up front as it’s front and center news. While this tends to be more common for females than males, both genders can experience this issue. What should you do if you’re groped at the workplace in an inappropriate way? The first question you’re probably asking is, “Should I contact HR?”

The answer is a resounding, NO. Do not contact HR and try to complain there first. In fact, unless you’re a manager, you should entirely avoid complaining to HR. Why? Let’s explore deeper.

Human Resources works for Management

This is an important concept to understand about corporate business. The HR team works for management, not the employees. Many people have a misconception that the HR team is an advocate for the employee. This is entirely false. The HR team members, no matter how friendly they appear, are not and will never be an employee advocate. Only you can be your own advocate (and any attorney you hire). Your employer’s HR team looks out for #1, which is the business and management team.

If the activity you experienced is sexual misconduct and resulted in bruises, marks or injury, then visit a hospital and take photos of the injuries first. Call 911 if necessary. If situation involves rape, then you’ll need to have the hospital perform a rape kit. When you are able and out of immediate danger, you should call the police and file a police report against the person by describing what happened to you in the police report. Always ensure you are out of immediate danger before contacting anyone.

Next, find a lawyer who can represent you in this matter. If the lawyer finds merit in a lawsuit against the accused (or your company), it’s up to you to decide or not to proceed with the case. Of course, you’ll want to make sure you understand the consequences and the monetary costs of pressing such legal action, particularly against high paid executives and your employer.

Once you have filed both a police report and you have a lawyer, only then should you involve the HR team and give them notice of the event. Even then, you should only contact your HR team after discussing this strategy with your lawyer.

The HR team’s responsibility is always to find reasons to discredit you and sweep the event under the rug. Once a police report is filed and you have a lawyer, the HR team can no longer play the protect-the-company game easily because the police are now aware. The HR team is not law enforcement, but they always want to avoid lawsuits at all costs. They exist to make sure the company’s image remains clean and friendly. If it gets publicized that staff are being sexually assaulted in their workplace, their hiring efforts will cease. No one will want to work at a company that wilfully puts employees into harm’s way while on the job. No, it is in HR’s best interest to ensure the employee making the accusation is terminated and discredited. HR may or may not terminate the accused depending on the position held within the company.

For example, if the person being accused of sexual misconduct is a manager, director, VP or C-level exec, it’s almost certain the accusing employee will be targeted for termination. The accused will likely remain at the company. As I said, it’s important to understand that the HR team’s obligation to the company is to protect the management team and the company against lawsuits.

Targeted for Termination

While whistleblowers have protection when working in government jobs, no such protections exist for private corporations. If you whistleblow as an employee of a private corporation, the company is well within their rights to terminate your employment with or without cause. This is particularly true if your employment is considered AT-WILL. Of course, you can also sue the company for wrongful termination. The HR team is well aware of this position as well.

To avoid a wrongful termination lawsuit, the management team will sideline you into a position where you cannot succeed. This will then force you to perform badly and force management to put you onto a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). Because you have no way to succeed on this PIP, you’ll fail at all of the success goals while on the PIP and, at the end of the improvement period, you will be ushered to the door. This is a common practice to get rid of troublemakers and avoid wrongful termination lawsuits.

If you whistleblow and end up on a PIP, you’re being groomed for termination. You should take this as a huge hint to move on.

Termination and Lawsuits

When you’re terminated, you may be asked to sign legal documents stating you won’t sue the company or that you’ll agree to arbitration. Simply ignore the documents and don’t sign them. The company cannot withhold your pay as extortion for signing those documents. If they try this, this is illegal and you can sue them for withholding your earned pay. A CEO can even be personally jailed for willfully withholding your pay even if it was someone else in the organization who made that decision. Your company must pay you the hours you worked regardless of what you sign going out the door.

Also, being terminated doesn’t absolve the company from any legal wrongdoing. If you have a pending lawsuit against the company, being terminated doesn’t change the status of that pending lawsuit. You are still free to pursue any lawsuits you have open. In fact, being able to document termination in a retaliatory way may even strengthen your lawsuit.

Guilt, Lawsuits and your Career

If you witness or you become a part of an illegal activity in the workplace (i.e., sexual misconduct), it is on you to determine how you want to handle it. You can do nothing and let it drop or you can take it to the police. It’s your choice. Too many companies get away with far too much. If you witness or experience anything illegal while on the job, you should report it to the police and consider a lawsuit.

As I said above, if you attempt to go to HR first and ask them to address your concern, instead you will likely find you are being accused, sidelined and treated as the criminal, not the person who performed the misconduct. Why?

The HR team and its management is hired by the CEO and executive team. The HR manager likely reports directly to the CEO or the CFO. As a result, they take marching orders from the CEO. If an employee makes an allegation against a manager or above, the CEO will want to quash this as quickly and as quietly as possible without investigation. To do this, the HR team will state they are investigating, but instead they will begin watching the employee who made the report closely. Even the tiniest slip or mistake will be blown way out of proportion and the accuser be reprimanded. This may lead to a PIP as described above or possible immediate termination.

Basically, if you reach out to the HR team for help, you may find that it is you who are now the target against the ire of the company. Unfortunately, once the executive team paints a target on the back of an employee, it’s only a matter of time before the accuser is gone.

Throw Away Employees

Unfortunately, corporate business is cutthroat about making money and ensuring that that outcome continues. CEOs and the executive team will stop at nothing to make sure business continues as usual. The executive team is not your friend at any company. They are your boss. As a boss, they will do whatever it takes to make sure their business succeeds, regardless of what that means to you.

The only employee in any organization considered important enough to keep on the payroll is the CEO. All else are expendable… and this is especially true of troublemakers. By making an accusation of sexual misconduct against anyone, you may be labeled a troublemaker in your personnel file. If your position is easily replaced, you’ll soon be gone and they’ll fill it with someone else.

For this reason, if you’re alleging sexual assault, you have to make sure to legally document everything including physical evidence of it. The only way to do that is contact the police. Then, hire a lawyer. Only a person whom you are paying can help you to bring justice. The HR team has no incentive to bring justice on your behalf as they are not paid by you. The HR team has every incentive to ignore you and maintain status-quo because they are paid by management.

Illegal Activities

Illegal activities are not limited to sexual misconduct. It also includes embezzlement, money laundering, insider trading, cooking the books, theft, vandalism and any other willful act by an officer of the company. If you witness any of these, you should still file a police report and then talk to a lawyer.

Skip talking to the HR team as they will only cast suspicion on you, try to turn it around on you and/or target you for termination. It is their job to kill these problems as quickly and as quietly as possible using any means necessary. Being able to get rid of problems quietly is the difference between a good and a great HR team. Don’t ever think the HR team is on your side.

HR Perks and Employee Happiness

This goes hand in hand with all of the above. Unless you’re on the management team, the HR team is not your advocate. Yes, HR is there to keep the employees happy, but only on their terms. When a non-management employee brings a problem to the attention of HR, watch your back. This means, never disclose your internal company problems to an HR team member. Sure, you can be friendly and sociable, but always keep the HR team at arm’s length when discussing personal or job related matters. This also means you need to know whom is married to whom in your organization. You don’t want to vent a bunch of personal issues to a co-worker only to find out they are married to the an HR manager or HR employee at your company. Word gets around fast in HR.

As an example, if your company offers company paid counseling as a perk, you should avoid using it. Instead, you should find your own personal counselor and pay them for services yourself. If you disclose anything to a company paid counselor which could be misconstrued as a problem for the company, the HR team may be able to obtain this information outside of any doctor-patient privilege. Because of this, this could give the HR team ammo to terminate your employment. Always be very, very cautious when using such company sponsored counseling services. When the company is paying the bill, they may have made legal arrangements to obtain information that an employee might disclose.

This information can be kept in your employment file and potentially used against you should the need arise. Careful what you say, particularly to company paid counseling services.

Managers and HR versus Employee

Yes, the management team and HR will gang up on you. As an employee, the HR team always takes the word of a manager over the word of an employee. This is fact. There is no such thing as justice or equality in corporate business. The HR team represents the management team without question. If, for example, you accuse a manager of sexual misconduct and that manager tells HR that the accuser made it all up, that’s where the accusation ends. Worse, the manager can then retaliate against you through the HR team’s blessing. There will be no further investigation nor will your accusation receive any further review. However, your work efforts might find undue scrutiny, micromanagement and manager meddling. If you press the point, the HR team will likely begin the sidelining and termination process at the manager’s request.

Even if the HR team requests such complaints come forward, never assume that submitting your complaint to the HR team will result in any satisfactory outcome for you. It won’t. Instead, you will need to rely on the legal system to work for you. This is the reason you should make a police report as soon after the incident as possible, preferably the same day. Visit a hospital if you are injured so they can medically help you and document your injuries. Then, find a lawyer who specializes in whatever you witnessed or experienced and talk to them about your case. If you have been assaulted or raped in the workplace, you should visit the RAINN web site or call RAINN at 1-800.656.HOPE to find out what to do next.

If you choose to try to reach out to the HR team and find that it all backfires on you, you can’t say you haven’t been warned.

Disclaimer: None of this article is intended to be construed as legal advice. If you have legal questions, you should contact an attorney near you who specializes in the crimes you have witnessed or experienced. If you are a victim of sexual assault and/or rape in the workplace, visit RAINN to find out what to do.

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Unlimited Vacation: Blessing or Curse?

Posted in best practices, business, vacation by commorancy on July 23, 2018

I don’t usually get into discussing workplace stuff because it’s relatively boring. However, Unlimited Vacation is one perk that is really, really needs discussion. Let’s explore.

Perks and Jobs

I get it. I understand why companies offer perks. They have to offer perks for talent acquisition reasons such as:

  1. Companies must keep up with competition — If a company doesn’t keep up with what other companies are offering, they lose talent during recruiting
  2. Companies must offer perks that seem inviting — Again, this is a talent acquisition feather-in-the-cap sort of thing. It’s something the HR team can cross off the checklist of things to entice candidates
  3. Companies must offer perks that are inexpensive — Companies don’t want to give away the farm to offer a specific perk

What kinds of perks can you typically find in tech companies? You find perks like the following:

  1. A stocked kitchen — This includes soda, coffee, tea, milk / cream and then for food, this can include fruit, nuts, chips and cereal
  2. Bagel Friday — This perk includes donuts and bagels on Friday
  3. Lunches — Some companies offer subsidized and/or free lunches one or several days of the week

Those are all food related, however, other perks include:

  1. Day Care or reimbursement
  2. Commute expenses
  3. Free parking
  4. Tuition Reimbursement (job related)
  5. Training / certifications (job related)
  6. Paid sick days
  7. Paid vacation
  8. 401k
  9. ESPP (if public company)
  10. Company holidays

These are the HR type of benefits that many companies offer. Many of these have a real dollar based cost to the business. However, there’s a new perk that seems great, but really isn’t for several reasons. That perk is ….

Unlimited Vacation

This ‘perk’ (and I use this term loosely) is now becoming popular in businesses. Why? Because it doesn’t cost the business anything to implement and may actually save the company some money (or so companies think). On paper, the idea seems enticing, in reality it’s a pointless benefit to employees and actually encourages more employees to take vacation which may hinder productivity and deadlines.

Why is this benefit so bad? This benefit is pointless because there is no way any employee can actually use it in its unlimited capacity. If you were to try, you’d be fired and walked from the building. I don’t know of any business that doesn’t require approval for vacation from a manager. Even if you could request excessive amounts of vacation, it’s unlikely your manager would approve it. But, within reason, you can request time off and here’s where it begins to break down for employers.

The only people who can even use this benefit as unlimited are those who are in management positions, who don’t have to report their own vacation usage. In other words, subordinates won’t be able to use it, but managers will (and they will use it frequently).

This is one of those perks that will be abused by those in charge. Those not in charge will be penalized whenever they attempt to use it in any unlimited way.

Vacation Time

In general, asking for vacation time off is tricky. It must always be coordinated with ongoing projects, team commitments (i.e., on-call), other team member time off and holidays and requires manager approval. Even people who end up out sick can interrupt or force rescheduling of vacation time off.

Don’t be tricked by this perk, it doesn’t make vacation time off any more accessible and, in fact it is entirely designed entirely for …

Ripping off Employees

There are two fundamental problems with Unlimited Vacation. The first problem is that the benefit (ahem) is being implemented as a cost saving measure to rip off employees when they leave a company (and is designed to appear to save the company many thousands of dollars). This issue really only affects long term employees. You know, the ones who have devoted several years to your business. But now, you’re going to give them the finger on the way out the door? Smart.

With standard paid time off (PTO), you are allotted a certain amount of hours that accrue over time. Let’s say for every year of service that you complete, you will accrue up to 1 week off (with a maximum of 2 weeks that can be held in total). After 2 years of service, you’ll have those 2 weeks accrued, assuming you never take time off. If you leave the company after 2 years without taking any vacation, you’ll be paid out your accrued PTO balance for the 2 weeks that you didn’t take. That’s two weeks worth of salary you’ll receive upon exit, in addition to any other salary owed.

With Unlimited Vacation, that vacation payday goes away. Since it’s now unlimited, there’s no more time accrued and no more PTO to pay out for any employee. The only thing that payroll needs to keep track of is how much time you’ve used solely for timekeeping purposes. When you exit a company offering Unlimited Vacation, you won’t receive any vacation pay because they are no longer accruing any. This means that when you were formerly paid 2 weeks of PTO, with Unlimited Vacation you now get $0.

Unlimited Vacation is then an HR cost-cutting measure entirely designed to screw exiting long term employees over so companies no longer need to make any vacation payouts.

Here’s where the second problem begins. As employees realize this screw-over job and to make up for the lack of accrued time, this means employees will need to take as much vacation as is allowed without getting fired in the process. Since you can’t accrue, you now need to use.

Accrued PTO vs Unlimited Vacation

Businesses don’t seem to understand the ramifications of this perk on its workforce. The first ramification is that employees with accrued PTO no longer get the exit vacation payday. This is significant when exiting your employer and moving on. But, this only occurs on a termination event. Employees should remain cognizant of this event, but even more employers should remain cognizant of how this will change how vacation is used. As an employer, it means you need to understand how to retain your workforce better.

Here’s the second problem in a nutshell. PTO encourages employees to stockpile their vacation and rarely take it. Up to 50% of the workforce does this. However, Unlimited Vacation encourages employees to take as much vacation as they can legitimately get away with.

With PTO, employees might work and work and work with little time off. With UV, more employees will take more time off, thus working less. This is something that HR and management will need to understand about this benefit. If the point is to get people to take more time off, then UV is the answer. If you’re trying to encourage people to stay at their desks and work, PTO is the answer… but has the end payout.

It really all depends on how you want your staff to work. If you want people at their desks not taking time off, then PTO is your answer. If you want people constantly taking time off, then UV is your answer. Sure, UV saves you on the exit payments, but at the cost of people taking more time off throughout the year. It does one more thing.

The up to 50% of employees who rarely take time off will change their work ethic to include significantly more time off. Since they know can no longer stockpile and get that payday when leaving, they will now be encouraged to take time off to make up for that loss of money. This means that a workforce that you relied on to work excessive hours to make ends meet will no longer continue that trend in your business.

If you think that people will continue the same type of vacation behaviors they used with PTO when on UV, you’re mistaken. People will use what they are owed. If they are encouraged to take time off, they will whenever possible. This means that for the folks who rarely (if ever) took PTO days will now begin scheduling more time off throughout the year. That’s not because it’s unlimited, but because they understand that they no longer get the payout at the end. This compromise ensures they get the equivalent benefit and that means scheduling and taking time off. There’s entirely nothing the HR team can do about this change in vacation usage behavior when on the Unlimited Vacation plan.

It’s a use-it-or-lose it situation. If you never take vacation with PTO, you can justify it with the payout at the end. If you never take vacation with UV, not only do you get no time off, you get no payout at the end. It’s simple math. No payout at the end means using more vacation time to get the equivalent benefit. Employees aren’t stupid and they will realize this paradigm shift and compensate accordingly.

This outcome will happen. You can even watch your employees behaviors after you convert from a PTO to UV system. I guarantee, your employees will notice, understand and modify their vacation schedule accordingly. This may impact your business, so caveat emptor.

Good or Bad?

That’s for each company to decide. More employees taking more vacation is good for the employee and their morale. But, it may negatively impact the productivity of your business. With PTO, people not taking vacation means more productivity. With UV and more vacation time off, this likely means less productivity. It might mean a happier and less stressed workforce, but it likely also means less work getting done.

I’m not saying any individual will take excessive time off. No, I’m not saying that at all. That’s simply not possible. What I am saying is that if 40-50% of your workforce never takes time off under a PTO plan, you will likely find that number reduces to less than 10% of your workforce not taking time off with a UV system. That’s a significant amount more people taking time off throughout the year than on a PTO system.

If you delude yourself into thinking employees who don’t take vacation time off will continue a PTO trend on a UV plan, your HR team is very much mistaken. I can also guarantee that if managers deny vacation requests to keep employees at their desks, this too will backfire and your talent will leave. This will become a catch-22 problem in your business.

As an employer, you spend a lot of money hiring talent. You also spend a lot of money holding onto that talent. Why jeopardize all of that with a policy like UV that won’t really do what what you hoped it would? On paper, it seems like a great cost saving policy. In practicality, it will likely backfire on your company’s productivity efforts and cost you more money in the end, but not for the reasons you think.

Conversion Process

You may find that if you are converting from some other vacation system to unlimited that people do continue their traditional habits. However, that will change over time both as turnover happens and as people realize their loss of PTO payout. Once employees wake up to the realities of the new system, the amount of employees requesting and taking vacation will increase.

A UV policy will make it more difficult on the managers to juggle vacation timing, fairness and who can take what when. This will increase manager load by taking them away from managing projects and deadlines to managing the minutiae of juggling even more staff vacations.

Hourly Employees versus Salary Employees

This type of perk works best in salaried environments. With hourly employees, trying to offer a perk like Unlimited Vacation won’t really work well. This is particularly true of employees working in a call center or similar type environments. With salaried tech workers, this kind of benefit may work for you with the caveats that have been thus far described.

Startup or Established Company

If you run a startup, you should stay away from the Unlimited Vacation policy entirely. It won’t do your business any favors. Sure, it’s more cost effective, but only when long term employees leave. If you’re a startup, you won’t have long term employees to worry about for a while. Your duty is to entice your talent to stay, not leave. If you have a problem with a revolving door of staff, then you have a much bigger problem than a benefit like Unlimited Vacation. The problem for a startup is that a UV plan encourages more people to take vacation more often rather than stockpiling it for use later. Again, more workload for a manager to juggle vacation schedules rather than handling projects and deadlines.

In a startup, a UV policy means more people taking time off. This isn’t what you want when you need all hands on deck to keep the business afloat. You want most people at their desks and readily available at all times. When people take vacation, they expect to be cut off from their job including no email, no pager and no contact. And, rightly it should be. If you’re on vacation, you’re on vacation. PTO plans encourage staff to accrue now and take time off much, much later, perhaps years later. With a UV plan, this  encourages more people to take vacation regularly. Not exactly what you need in a startup. PTO works for a startup because employees stockpile and then once the business is off the ground years later, they will then take their vacations. This is why PTOs are actually better for a startup than a perk like UV.

If your business is established with 500 or more employees, then implementing an Unlimited Vacation policy might be worthwhile depending. With larger numbers of staff, there’s more opportunity for someone to cover an employee who’s out. This means if your 40%-50% staff who are stockpiling decide to start taking vacation in increasing numbers, you can withstand this change in your workforce behavior.

It’s up to you to decide how to operate your business, but PTO vs UV is one perk you should thoroughly investigate and then weigh all pros and cons before implementing it. Don’t do it simply because it might (or might not) save you some cash when employees exit. Do it because it’s the right plan for your business’s current operating goals.

 

What does “moving the plot forward” really mean?

Posted in best practices, botch, california, storytelling by commorancy on June 17, 2018

This is a good question and it’s a question that many recent screenwriters and storytellers have lost sight of in their zeal to create blockbuster entertainment. Let’s explore the answer to this question.

Important Details

What is good storytelling? Good storytelling is the ability of the writer to keep the audience’s interest, develop interesting characters, tie story details together and all while keeping the story moving. How does this all work?

It means that if you introduce something into your story that’s important enough to call your audience’s attention to it, then it’s important enough to bring it around later and give it closure. It’s as simple as a character pulling a box of cereal from the cabinet, spilling it into a bowl and putting it away all in the span of a page or two. That’s a quick open and close to that box of cereal. Not only is it an important character detail… “the character likes cereal”, it can be used as metaphor for your character (spilling the beans or in other foreshadowing ways).

If it’s important enough to understand that the character likes cereal, then it’s important enough to bring that plot detail back later. It’s also important to use this plot device. If a character pours a bowl of cereal, have them at least take a bite. You don’t pour out food as a thing to do. You do it because you’re hungry.

It’s can also be as detailed as a character buying a car at the beginning of the story and driving it cross country to their destination. It’s the thing that helped the character get where they needed to go.

There’s lots of story reasons that make both that box of cereal or that car important in the larger story and to carry the story forward. It’s that realization later that, “Oh, now I understand why that [insert thing] was shown to me 30 minutes earlier.”

Character Motivation

Characters need motivation to do the things they do. If the movie is about a missing child, then the parent as a main character has a goal of getting the child back. Their motivation is then doing whatever it takes to make that happen. Motivation is a critical plot point that many fail to understand or use properly. Without proper character motivation that the audience can understand, the story doesn’t work.

Unimportant Plot Details

Recently, many stories are breaking the “moving the plot forward” rule and are writing and presenting details that don’t have any follow up or, indeed, any relevance to the story.

In murder mysteries, these “seemingly unimportant details” are important to throw the audience off and make the audience assume the wrong thing about who did it. Typically, murder mysteries either quash or validate all of those seemingly unimportant details in the end to explain how it was done. In a fantasy story, including these types of details only serves to slow (or stop) the plot and bore the audience. Worse, when the audience looks back over the story as a whole, they realize that they wasted 15 or 20 minutes of their lives on details that didn’t progress the story.

This is important, particularly when telling a story that needs to make sense (specifically if it’s part of a series of books or films). If you’re writing for a film, you need to treat each film is a standalone entity and as a whole, never as a part of a set. The only time a detail should be left open is at the very end to create a cliffhanger. Cliffhangers should only be introduced at the very end of a story, never in the middle of your story. However, foreshadowing is a form of a seemingly unimportant detail, but that can be easily overlooked because of its lack of context for the audience at the time.

A cliffhanger introduced in the middle of the story makes you look like an amateur author. That is, someone who can’t be bothered to close all ends of presented details. If you don’t close details, you better make it appear to be intentional. Otherwise, it’s an amateur move.

Introduction of Scenes

Many movies today introduce scenes into films that have no followup and no explanation. If you’re planning to have your characters do something in a scene, that scene must be important for something in the future.

For example, if your characters need to go to the grocery story to pick up something, then make the grocery store scene count in some way. The characters meet someone there who imparts an important story detail or item (even if hidden). Use the scene as important to the story. If showing the grocery store is important enough to describe in detail, then it should be important enough to advance the plot. Otherwise, cut the scene out. Simply explain the characters have left for the store at the end of one chapter and have the characters arrive back from the store at the beginning of the next chapter and skip the grocery store environment altogether.

The point is, if a scene is important enough to include and describe in detail, then the scene should impart important plot details that move the story forward.

Montage Scenes

There are many ways to show passage of time. On the pages of a novel, you can do it between chapters simply by explaining the date and time when appropriate. On screen, it’s simple enough to show passage of time through a montage of daily activities. Instead of deep diving into every activity, you simply show a quick succession of scenes that show details (shopping, driving, running, tennis, etc). Whatever the scenes are, they should impart character details that lead up to wherever the plot is heading. It isn’t important to show everything the character does, but it may be important to know some of the daily activities a character enjoys doing when developing a character.

Again, if it’s important enough to show the details, it’s important to use this information to advance the plot. When it’s important to show a bunch of details in quick succession, this can be done through montage scenes without character dialog. In fact, tension scenes and montage scenes without character dialog are a whole lot more effective than characters talking or arguing.

Write with Intention

The point to all of this is, as a writer, you need to write with intention. Make every word you write count towards the plot. If you write a scene that doesn’t make sense, doesn’t follow logic, is out of character or doesn’t impart any new or relevant information, cut it. Scenes that stagnate the story make the writer seem distracted and amateur. Write with relevance, write with detail, write with intention.

Sure, go ahead and write and get your story done. But, be prepared to edit and trim those sections and details that don’t affect the plot. If you’re writing an action story, then you want to keep the action going. Having your character stop and spend 30 minutes in a cemetery bereaving a loved one doesn’t move your story forward. Cut it. The only time you could use this is if your action character goes to the cemetery looking for bad guys. Setting this location up for an action scene is fine, but just going there not to do anything, that’s story death.

Always keep your story genre in your mind when writing. If you’re writing a murder mystery, then keep on that track. If you’re writing an action fantasy story, then make sure it stays true to that. If you’re writing a family drama, then stay true to that. Don’t hop around genres hoping to hit gold. The audience will not only end up confused, they won’t know what’s going on. Stick to your genre.

Closing Threads

If you bring up a story detail early, be sure to close it later. What that means is, when writing your story, keep a list of open story items and then find the best places to close them. If you can’t find a place to close a detail, get rid of it from the story as it’s an unimportant detail.

For example, if a character drops their car off at a mechanic at the beginning of the story, then make sure the character picks it up later. It could be at the very end of the story or it could be anywhere along the way. Just make sure it happens. If the audience gets to the end of the story and is still left wondering what happened to the car (or why the car detail was included), you’ve failed as a writer. If you leave two or three of these plot devices open, it makes you look amateur. Close all open threads in meaningful ways and at appropriate times.

Visual Storytelling versus The Written Word

In a novel, it’s important to describe very detailed descriptions of a scene, of the character’s dress, demeanor, looks and so on. When writing for the screen, let the visual elements do the talking. You don’t need to have characters describe what they are seeing or doing. It’s redundant and unimportant and can be seen by the audience. The only time this works is if a character is talking to another character on the phone or over a radio. Here it’s important because not only is the audience finding out what’s going on on the other end of the phone, more importantly, so is the character.

It’s more important to have the characters unfold their stories themselves rather than catering to the audience. In visual mediums like film and TV, let the camera describe the scene. Don’t have the character (or a narrator) do this unless the character is blind or in some other way handicapped and needs this information. It has to make sense for the character in the story. Never cater to the audience by describing in visual medium. In the written word, it’s required to describe all of the details because the audience won’t have any other way to get this information.

In a way, a novel is just the opposite for descriptions than visual medium. You almost have to be too verbose when composing for the written word. When composing for film, you want to be the least verbally descriptive as possible. Let the audiences see the wonder themselves.

Writing for the Characters

The story is always about the characters, never about the audience. Sure, you can have the character break the “fourth wall” if it’s an important story detail (i.e., a running gag). The problem is, breaking the “fourth wall” takes you out of the story and is firmly rooted in writing gags for the audience. If you take your story seriously, then don’t do this. For some stories and characters, it works fine. For anyone writing a story where the characters are the most important thing, then don’t write gags for the audience.

Humor is fine when it’s between the characters, but when it becomes the characters interacting with the audience, this stops the story and makes the audience realize the gag (and loss of suspension of disbelief).

Suspension of Disbelief

To rope an audience into your story, writing solid, believable characters is the key. It doesn’t matter what the characters are doing or where they are placed, it matters that the audience believes the characters can do those things in those places. This is a powerful concept that is also the key to good storytelling. Doing even one thing that ruins this suspension of disbelief ruins your story. It’s the thing that can make or break your writing efforts. This concept is the quintessential key. Having an audience suspend their disbelief and buy into your fanciful world is the magic of a successful story.

For example, using a fourth wall gag can make or break your story. It also requires a certain kind of story to succeed. In other words, adding such a fourth wall gag makes your life as a writer much more difficult. If you’re not accustomed to what goes along with such a gag, you should avoid it. I’d also recommend avoiding it because it really does nothing to progress the story and it does much to discredit your story up to that point.

Cliché Tropes

Let me say right now that nothing today is original. There is always something that can be found as derivative of something else. As a writer, you have to accept that notion going into your story. What makes your story original is not the setup, or the locations or even the plot, but how your characters deal with their situations. Characters are what drive stories. Yet, tropes are what make stories fanciful and, sometimes, fun to watch. Using them isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Overusing them, however, most certainly can be bad. Using a trope here and there can make the story familiar to the audience. Familiarity allows for the audience to latch onto your story faster and ‘get into it’.

There are lesser used and more frequently used tropes. You should avoid the frequently used tropes and focus on those that are lesser used. Having your characters doing something a little bit unexpected or unpredictable can make the story work better. Tropes add predictability to the story. This can be a good thing when you’re trying to lead the audience off the track of what the characters are really doing. This allows you to trick your audience into believing one thing, when the characters are actually doing something else. Some audience members will see right through that, though. You have to expect that.

I’m not saying not to use tropes, just use them sparingly and at appropriate times. Again, write with intention. Make every word and thought count. If you’re including it, make sure that it serves a purpose (even if it’s a cliché trope).

Character Development

This is probably the most important element to establishing suspension of disbelief. Grounding your characters in a reality that your audience can understand goes a long way towards getting your story off of the ground. Basically, you want to properly introduce your main characters at appropriate times. Your main characters should, unless the story warrants it, remain throughout the entire length of your tale. They may face adversity, trials and even risk life and limb, but they should survive the tale.

Killing off your established characters is not only a waste, but usually unnecessary. On the other hand, secondary characters can be treated with all of the careless abandon that you choose. If they live for a page, so be it. If they fall off of a cliff, so be it. If they disappear and reappear in the story, so be it. It’s entirely up to you how you handle secondary characters.

When building your main characters, it’s important to understand their motivations, wants, likes, dislikes, hobbies and desires. You can unfold these along the way, particularly when it’s important to move the story forward. With secondary characters, you don’t go nearly as deep. Secondary characters are, for all intents and purposes, scenery. They’re there to show that other people live in this same universe, but they don’t need to be fleshed out to exacting detail.

Identifying Plot Moving Details

If you intend to flesh out a secondary character with heavy detail, then you should make them a main character or avoid fleshing them out. The home life and kids of a cashier at the above grocery store is an unimportant detail. It slows down the plot and story pacing to learn more of this character when she serves no future purpose in the plot. If the cashier doesn’t swoop in to save the day at the end, then there’s no point in including heavy detail about that character.

This is how you identify useless versus useful plot points. If you introduce a plot point and it comes around later, then the point of introduction did move the story forward. If you introduce a plot point and it never comes around later, then it didn’t move the story forward. Anything that doesn’t serve to move the story forward should be cut from the story.

This is why you need to read and re-read your story several times front to back. Then, let other people read it and offer feedback on your story’s logic. If you’re a one-man team writing a story without getting outside feedback, then your story is likely nowhere near as good as you think it is. It takes other people to help you find the weak spots and fix them. Constructive criticism is always your friend. Use it to improve your stories. The final advice is, never take your first story draft as your final. Nothing is ever written perfectly the first draft. Not even this blog article.

Examples of Bad Storytelling

I didn’t include any real entertainment production examples in this article because I want it to remain as an objective guide to would-be storytellers rather than as a rant against any specific entertainment production, even though those productions well deserve the rants.

With that said, I do intend to write a follow-up article with examples identifying recent entertainment story failures and call out why and how they failed. I will also mention that this problem is not limited to film and novels. It also rears its ugly head in video games and in TV series. I will also mention that some bad storytelling isn’t always the direct fault of the writer. Though, the writer is somewhat culpable. Instead, it can be because of politics within the production (i.e., inclusion riders). Sometimes characters or specific actors are forced into a story, not because they were there, but because the producer wants it in the production. This forces the director to introduce something that shouldn’t be there and throws off the entire story’s logic. Note, I do classify this politically correct shoehorning as a failure in writing.

Basically, when writing your story’s setting, make sure to represent all ethnic groups and genders equally or face the consequences if your story is ever optioned for the big or small screen. Otherwise, expect your period piece’s story logic to fall apart when an ethnic cast is chosen to play a small white mostly male mid-America town set in the 70s.

Note, there is tons more that I could write about this topic. However, this guide is simply intended as an ‘Intro Guide’ on good storytelling. If you would like me to flesh out this article in more detail, please leave a comment below about what you would like to see included.

 

Consumer Tips: How to navigate the Toys R Us liquidation

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

[UPDATED: 7/13/2018] If your TRU hasn’t yet closed, it will sometime this month. This article remains as a legacy to TRU. Buh-Bye TRU and thanks for all the fun.

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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Rant Time: Adobe VoCo’s ethical dilemma

Posted in best practices, botch, business, california, ethics by commorancy on February 28, 2018

I have to wonder about Adobe’s business ethics at times. First, there’s Photoshop. While I can admit that photo editing has a legitimate purpose, such as correcting red eye or removing telephone lines or removing reflections of the camera man from a photo, there is the much seedier and ethically murky purpose for Photoshop. Now comes Adobe VoCo. It is a product idea that does for spoken audio what Photoshop does for images. Let’s explore this YouTube clip from 2016:

Skip to 3:18 for the meat of this video.

VoCo’s Use Cases and Ethics

Though, yes, I will concede that the demonstration above was funny and we all laughed, the demonstration has a deep seated ethically murky undertone once the laughing stops. In fact, that’s what prompted this blog article.

Unlike Photoshop which has actual real world use cases (yes, other than making models thinner and glowier for the cover of Vogue), VoCo is one of those unnecessary tools that, while cool in theory, makes Adobe seem that it’s now in the business of causing world disruption instead of actually solving creative problems. After the ethical problems created by Photoshop, Adobe has to know the ethical quandary it introduces by bringing the VoCo audio editing tool to market. Adobe decides to go ahead with demoing this tool anyway. So much for business ethics. Instead, Adobe should have patented and shelved this product idea and never shown it off.

There’s no effective real world use case for this product other than for making someone say things that they actually didn’t say. The only use case where this technology might even be somewhat useful, depending on output quality, is in the voice over industry where an actor might be unavailable at a time when a line needs to be changed to fit continuity better. The voice over industry is the only industry where VoCo could have even the smallest glimmer of hope of a use case. This is such a tiny niche market segment to introduce this tool in such a public spectacle way.

The only other use case would be to sample all of the audio from a particular dead actor or actress’s productions and then recreate lines of new spoken dialog based on that. Again, this is one of those entertainment areas that fits firmly into the uncanny valley, particularly if the spoken lines are attached to a CG actor. Again, this is not a substantial use case in my opinion and is most definitely creepy. It’s definitely not a big enough use case to warrant this public release spectacle. Do we really want to see Marilyn Monroe or Elvis brought back to life on the big screen using CG and VoCo dialog?

There is no other legitimate use case for this product. It’s like Adobe intentionally wants to flaunt its lack of ….

Business Ethics and Self-Editing

Businesses today have no ability to self-edit or recognize ethics. That is, stop ethically bad product ideas from making it to the market. Just thinking about this product and how it could possibly be used, it doesn’t have legitimate use cases (other than the voice over use case I mentioned above). However, there are perhaps thousands of illegitimate uses for this tool. Let’s list a few of them, shall we:

  • Falsifying a deposition to make the person being deposed say something they didn’t say
  • Falsifying a statement of non-confession to make a person confess to a crime when they didn’t actually confess
  • Falsifying a phone conversation
  • Changing any spoken words from non-incriminating to incriminating evidence

In legal circles, the use for this tool is ripe for abuse and has use cases as wide as the Grand Canyon and as deep as the Mariana Trench. In other words, while VoCo has no substantial legitimate use cases, it has thousands of illegitimate use cases. There is no way Adobe couldn’t see this. There is no way for Adobe to feign ignorance about this tool or the ethical problems it imposes if released.

Legal Evidence

Some have theorized that this tool would become just as Photoshop has. Basically, because evidence can now be manufactured in products like VoCo, it means that audio evidence would no longer be easily admissible. While that idea has some soundness to it, the legal system is not always technically savvy and can sometimes move at a snail’s pace. Eventually, the courts and lawyers will be on board with this ‘manufactured evidence’ sound clip idea, but not before several someones are incriminated over manufactured evidence that isn’t caught in time.

Some have theorized that Adobe should watermark the sound clip. The difficulty with audio watermarking is that it ruins the audio. No one would buy a professional audio tool that intentionally makes the audio sound bad or introduces something that is audibly noticeable, strictly because Adobe wants to insert a watermark to legally cover their collective butts. No. No one would buy a tool that causes damage to the audio output. This means that only a silent kind of watermark could be introduced. Such a watermark would consist primarily as a tag within the saved audio clip file. Any tags introduced in a save file can easily be stripped away by converting the audio clip to a new format or by playing the audio clip back and recording it on analog equipment. In fact, a whole industry and set of tools would likely appear to strip out any watermarks imposed by Adobe onto the saved files.

Unless there is a substantial way to identify that the clip has been edited, and I don’t know how Adobe could even solve this problem fully, VoCo is a tool that would end up more abused than legitimately used.

Flawed Product Ideas

While this is somewhat of a cool technological advancement, it doesn’t need to exist. It doesn’t need to exist because it has basically one limited use case. I’d argue that as a production runner, you can just wait until the voice actor becomes available and ask them to re-record the lines you need. That is, instead of using a tool like this. A tool like VoCo might save you some time, but by demanding such a tool for your use, it means the rest of the world must also endure the consequences of a world full of falsified evidence. Is that the world you want to live in? Evidence that could even be used against you, the audio editor. No, thanks.

However, it’s clear that prototype code has been written based on the video above. This means that Adobe could release such a product into the wild in the future. Thankfully, as of this article in 2018, this product does not yet exist. Unfortunately, Adobe has already opened Pandora’s box. A working prototype means that any coder with leanings towards audio engineering could produce a similar tool and release it into the wild without the help of Adobe. Thanks Adobe.

It is as yet unclear when or if this product could ever be released. Note that this video segment apparently showcases experimental product ideas (products that may never see the light of day) and not actual products. After all, such a legally murky product would have to clear Adobe’s legal team before release. Considering the many negative use cases for such an audio editing product and the legal liability that Adobe might endure as a result, I’d hope that Adobe’s legal team has shelved this product idea permanently.

Agree or disagree? Please leave a comment below. Also, don’t miss any new Randocity articles by subscribing to this blog via clicking the blue follow button at the top right.

Rant Time: Snapchat’s update failure

Posted in best practices, botch, california by commorancy on February 14, 2018

In business, the quest is always to provide the best most consistent user interface (UI) and the easiest user experience (UX) possible. Sometimes, that doesn’t always work as planned. Sometimes, it outright fails and backfires. Let’s explore.

Flickr

Before 2014, Flickr had a very useful grid layout. Sometime during 2013/2014 Marissa’s then team decided to “reinvent” Flickr. They gave it a facelift and then rolled it out to much user ire. While it’s every company’s right to make design changes to their application as they see fit, it can also spell doom to an application. Flickr was no exception. After Flickr updated their app in 2014, this drastic UI change immediately drew the anger of thousands of Flickr users. Yet, Flickr still hasn’t changed anything substantial in spite of the massive number complaints. The UI is still the disaster it was designed to be and does not in any way offer what it formerly did.

The formerly well spaced grid layout was convenient and easy to use in that it showed how many views of each photo at a glance. With the new tight grid interface of random sized images, you now have to drill into each and every photo separately to find the views of that specific photo. Sure, you can use the statistics page to see which photos are most popular or most interesting, but that’s of little concession when you simply want to see how well your most recent photos are doing at a glance. In short, the latest Flickr interface introduced in 2014 still sucks and Yahoo has done nothing to right this wrong. I’d venture to guess there are fewer users using Flickr now than ever, particularly with newer apps such as Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook… and speaking of Snapchat…

Snapchat’s Update

As of February 10, 2018 and taking a page from Flickr’s playbook, Snapchat decided to roll out a brand new interface to its app. An update that has, just like Flickr, drawn the ire of many of its app users. Some users are lamenting this new interface so much, they are seriously contemplating app deletion. Because of the app’s unannounced surprise layout, some Snapchat users were unable figure out how to post causing them to lose their streaks (a way to measure how many consecutive days a user has posted). Some users streaks have been running for several hundred days. Others are just ranting about what they don’t like about it. Here’s what some Twitter users are saying:

What a disaster. Do these companies even perform basic usability testing before a release?

Design Fails

The old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Literally, what problems was Snapchat trying to solve with this update? If you’re planning on a UI and UX redesign, you better throw in some bones for the users to go with it. Give people a reason to want to use the interface and they’re willing to overlook other minor inconveniences. Without such bones, it ends up as merely a change for change’s sake without offering up any useful new features. Burying UI components in ever deeper layers is not more UI efficient and does not offer up a better user experience. I’m not even sure what Snapchat was thinking when they decided to roll out this UI update.

Test, test and more testing

Here’s where the rubber meets the road. If you make a UI/UX change without adding anything useful into the app for the end user, what have you accomplished as a designer? The answer is, nothing. As a designer, you have failed. Changing a UI design requires careful consideration, even more careful planning and product usability testing. This means actually giving your app to your primary target demographic and letting them use it for a few days. Let them tell you what’s wrong with it, what they like and what they dislike. Do this long before putting the new update in the app store for general release. If you do this, you can avoid the problems that Flickr and Snapchat faced with their UI and UX redesigns. If you don’t do this, you end up in the news. Failure is not an option, but so many companies fall into this trap not really knowing how to get out of it.

Rollback Plan

If the Tweet above is true regarding that support team reponse stating that there is no way to roll back, then that’s a failure on the part of the application’s designers. You should always design a rollback plan into your releases. You can’t know what may fail as a result of a release, so offering a rollback plan should always be part of a release.

If you fail to test and fail to include a rollback plan, you’ll end up just like Snapchat (and Flickr) … that is, in the news for all the wrong reasons. What this says is that the Snapchat design team should be fired and replaced. Failure is not something any company needs to endure, especially when that failure is so visible and makes your company look inept…. and it was all preventable. In this day and age, there is absolutely no reason why companies release software into the wild that angers its user base in this way. Seriously, that is such an amateur move, it’s a wonder such companies even remains in business. Worse, after such a seriously amateur move and after the dust settles, you may not have much of a business left. Your app is your lifeblood. Screw it up and you’re done.

Overconfidence

Snapchat clearly doesn’t understand its audience. Teens are some of the most finicky users on the planet. It doesn’t take much for them to dump something and move onto the next better thing. Changing a UI interface that angers so many of them is the quickest way to lose the userbase you’ve spent so much time and effort attracting. Perhaps Snapchat will realize its mistake and correct it pronto? Perhaps it will pull a Flickr and let users suffer through with the horrible new design and not change it. With Flickr, Yahoo at least had some leverage because of all of the professional photographers entrenched in the service. Where would they go? With Snapchat, the company does not have this luxury. Snapchat isn’t a required service like Flickr is to professional photographers. This fail could easily lead to the demise of Snapchat.

It’s time for Snapchat to seriously consider all of its options here, but let’s hope they come to the right decision and rollback the interface and rethink it’s UI and UX design. Best of all, maybe they have learned a valuable lesson in software design… test your interface on your primary demographic before you ever consider a release.

Can Bitcoin’s bubble burst the economy?

Posted in best practices, economy by commorancy on January 10, 2018

Yes! Let’s explore.

Housing Bubble

Back in 2007, what drove the home mortgage collapse was a combination of factors, but one of the biggest factors that tipped the scale was speculative home buying. That is, people who would double or triple mortgage their homes to pay for secondary homes. When the home mortgage market unraveled, all of those multiple homeowners lost everything. Not only did they lose their secondary homes, but they also lost their primary residence and they ended up bankrupted to boot. I’ve heard tales of people who had taken out 3 or even 4 different mortgages on their home to pay off secondary homes. When those ARMs came due, it all came tumbling down. I know one person who, at their height, owned up to 4 homes and ended up living out of an RV when the home mortgage collapse was over. Do you want to end up being that person?

Bitcoin and the Crypto Bubble

Behaviors don’t change. The fastest way to get a pile of cash is taking out a new mortgage on your home. Today, my belief is that what’s driving up Bitcoin and Ethereum is speculative buying from people who don’t have money to spend. People who are using credit cards and second or third mortgages to buy into these markets thinking they can make a quick buck. The real danger is, of course, when Bitcoin collapses and these folks cannot pay off those loans.

Will Bitcoin collapse? Upward rises on investment products at the unprecedented level that has come to Bitcoin is not sustainable. In fact, Bitcoin’s actual value is no where near the sky high prices that it’s currently seeing. There will be a correction. How deep that correction goes is up for debate. However, it doesn’t really matter how deep it ends up. It only needs to be deep enough to put speculators underwater on their loans forcing them to fail to repay their additional mortgage(s) they used to buy into the Bitcoin market.

It would only take a small correction to wipe out speculators using risky loan vehicles as money sources. It only takes a limited number of speculators to fail to start the dominoes falling.

Economic Danger

The red flags are here and they’re waving boldly. Yet, of course, no one is looking at them. If a Bitcoin correction begins to collapse those speculator’s second and third mortgages, it will take with it first mortgages and the home mortgage market may face yet another collapse. What tertiary triggers fail after that is unknown. Does AIG still sell derivatives? Do other insurance companies? Are there other risky investment vehicles tied to these second and third mortgages that could topple Wall Street yet again? Are there risky investments tied to Bitcoin?

We don’t know. What we do know is that Bitcoin (and the rise of the secondary crypto currencies) could easily knock over the first few dominoes after a correction and start the economic decline. The danger is here and it’s very real.

Word to Speculators

Unless you invested in Bitcoin back in 2011 or so, you’re too late for this party. If you’ve recently taken out loans (no matter the source) to fund a Bitcoin investment, you need to get out of it as rapidly as you possibly can and pay off that loan. Holding onto Bitcoin hoping for long term millions is most assuredly going to backfire on you and ruin your financial world.

My best guess is that you have about 5 months before the whole thing topples. Yes, it could take a little longer or it could be sooner. What starts that topple is anyone’s guess, but it will happen. Having Bitcoin go from $1700 to $17000 to $21000 in less than a year is insane. Anyone in their right mind knows that investments don’t grow that fast. Something nasty is afoot. Do you want to find out the hard way? If so, invest more, but don’t say I didn’t warn you when your world collapses.

Economy and Investment Ties

Unfortunately, economic markets are tied together in very loose, but established ways. When a collapse of any single investment vehicle begins, it takes with it all kinds of other unrelated investments and markets. This means that even your IRA which is investing in vehicles unrelated to Bitcoin will take a hit when Bitcoin collapses. Why? because institutional investors who’ve just lost a pile of cash on Bitcoin will sell out of their holdings in their other investments (which your IRA may be investing in) to make up for their Bitcoin losses and/or to pay off speculative loans they lost money on. This will drive down those unrelated markets and cause IRAs and other similar investment accounts to lose significant value.

If we could see into the future, it would be easy to tell you when to sell out of your holdings in your IRA and wait for the wrath to end. Unfortunately, there is no such crystal ball available. You will need to use your best judgement when you feel is the best time. No one can predict that for you.

There is simply no way to know just how deep this cut will go when the correction occurs. It all very much depends on where the money is coming from that’s driving up Bitcoin (and other crypto). Right now, that information is not transparent at all. But, it is nearly guaranteed that some of the money is coming from Wall Street institutional investors, investment funds and possibly even banks and insurance companies. And… this is the biggest danger to unrelated investment vehicles.

Even if you don’t have a single dime invested in Bitcoin, that won’t necessarily protect your finances and investments from exposure to a crypto bubble burst.

How do I protect my finances?

The short answer is, it’s not easy. Because the markets are so closely tied and there’s so much institutional investing made all over, you can’t know who’s exposed to Bitcoin. The only real way to protect your financial future is to sell out of the markets and wait it out. But, no one can tell you when is the best time to sell. You just need to watch Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies closely and then wait to see what happens. However, by the time you realize that it’s time to sell, it may be too late. Earlier, in these cases, is always safer. However, too early also means you may lose gains you could have realized if you left your investments in place. So, it’s ultimately your call when to choose the best time to protect your financial future.

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