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Fallout 76 Rant: The Impact of Legacy Removal

Posted in botch, business, video game, video game design by commorancy on January 25, 2023

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While Pipe might be life in Fallout 76, the Legacy removal might actually mean the death of Fallout 76. While some gamers are praising the removal of Legacy weapons from Fallout 76, those who are impacted by this change might actually have the power to sink the Fallout series, and possibly even Bethesda itself. Let’s explore.

Misguided Maneuver

It’s clear that Bethesda is horribly misguided internally. On the one hand, I get Bethesda’s rationale behind the removal of these “illegal” mods from Legacy weapons. On the other hand, Bethesda’s rationale is entirely misguided and fails to take into account the real damage that has now been inflicted on the game and, ultimately, the game’s player base. The real question now is not whether the game is better, but whether Fallout 76, ironically a survival game, can survive this change.

One thing is certain, some players are reeling from this change and rightly so. Bethesda itself also doesn’t seem to fundamentally understand the player base which has been born out of these legacy weapons having been included in the game for literal years.

What is a Legacy Weapon? A Legacy weapon is any weapon that was formerly in the game and could be obtained through loot drops, but was removed from the loot drop list by Bethesda Fallout 76 devs in the game’s early years (loot drops removed around 2018-2019). This meant there was no way to obtain these weapons after the loot drops stopped… until Legendary Modules were introduced when Nuclear Winter began in 2019. Once these legendary modules were added, for a short time it may have been possible to craft such weapons on a crafting bench until the crafting of these weapons was also patched. Since then, these weapons have been unavailable.

Which Weapons were Removed?

The “Legacy” weapons to which this article refers are any legendary energy or plasma weapon with an explosive attachment. These explosive attachments have now been deemed “illegal” by Bethesda even though they were perfectly legal when they originally dropped. Such weapons could be obtained earlier in the game’s life legitimately, but today are no longer obtainable and are now marked as “illegal” by Bethesda’s Fallout 76 team. Weapons which have now been removed include:

  • Explosive Gatling Plasma
  • Explosive Laser Pistol
  • Explosive Laser Rifle
  • Explosive Gatling Laser
  • Explosive Flamer
  • Explosive Gauss Rifle
  • Explosive Gauss Shotgun
  • Explosive Gauss Minigun
  • Explosive Gauss Pistol
  • Explosive Tesla Rifle

All of the above weapons have had their explosive attachment removed by the Fallout 76 devs, turning many 3 star Legendary weapons into 2 star weapons.

Note, I won’t even get into the severe bugs introduced as a result of the removal of these Legacy weapons… bugs which have heavily impacted many rogues in addition to the Legacy removals. It’s not pretty for Bethesda or Fallout 76 right now.

Righting Wrongs

Once Bethesda knew these weapons shouldn’t have been included in the game back in 2018-2019, a patch should have been swiftly crafted and implemented then to remove these “illegal” weapons. This would have saved Bethesda this headache today. Instead, Bethesda waited and let this situation fester for going on nearly 5 years now. Not only did it fester, it actually born a whole new type of gamer in Fallout 76… a type of gamer willing to spend real cash money to not only obtain and own these “illegal” weapons, but who were also willing to pay Bethesda for Fallout 1st and pay Bethesda for Atoms to buy the Atomic Shop’s literal valueless junk.

Yes, this new type of gamer is the one who is literally propping up Bethesda’s Fallout 76 game. These are the gamers who are paying Bethesda’s bills, keeping Bethesda’s lights on and ensuring their staff remain employed.

Removing these weapons is literally a situation of “biting the hand that feeds you!”

Fallout 76 Gamer Types

When Fallout 4 began and also when Fallout 76 began, the primary type of gamers that Bethesda had hoped for were those interested in playing the game firmly on their “golden path”. In programming, a “golden path” is the path that most users will take when using any piece of software. This path is the path the engineers design the game for users to find and use. I dub these types of users the “golden” users. The vast majority of software users fall into “golden” users. Video game software users take a different route.

Gamers are somewhat different for this “golden path” approach for a number of reasons. The primary reason gamers are different is that video games entice children to play. By the very nature of this product being a video game, children are naturally one of the video game industry’s primary demographics… regardless of the game’s rating.

Let’s define children. Children include ages 8-17, with the primary age of most children playing ranging from 12-14. Because children don’t have a lot of life experience, their minds aren’t constrained by “adult” thinking. Children play games in ways that suit their fancy, which means children do not always remain on the golden path. In fact, in most cases, children stray from the golden path frequently in video games. Children actively try to poke holes in, find problems with and generally do things that an adult gamer might never think to try.

Children aren’t the only players doing this, however. Many adults can maintain this childlike poke and prod thought process well into their 30s. This leads to the next type of gamer I dub the “rogue” gamer.

Rogues vs Golden

Rogue gamers don’t follow the golden path laid out by the developers. These gamers intentionally and actively seek to find bugs, exploit holes and obtain “rare” objects in a game, including weapons. Almost every “rogue” gamer seeks to one-up their fellow player by finding something that their friend doesn’t have, whether that be a way to build under the map, go out of bounds or obtain a weapon that few other players have.

Rogue players don’t play the game as intended and are unwilling to follow EULA rules. They’re so flippant in the way they play the game, they actually don’t really care if their account gets banned or if Sony shuts their PlayStation down by disabling their PSN account, for example. In the gaming world, Rogues don’t care about the rules or abiding by them. With that said, they do care about finding the latest rare thing to have in the game.

The thing is, many of these rogue gamers come from well-to-do, dare I say wealthy families. This means they are willing to pay and pay and pay. They will pay for Fallout 1st. They will pay for Atoms in the atomic shop. They will even pay other players real cash money on places like eBay to buy rare in-game items.

In short, many rogue gamers keep Bethesda’s (and by extension, Microsoft’s) bills paid and the lights on. That’s not to say that every rogue gamer is wealthy enough to do this, but many are. At this point, I think you might understand where this is heading.

One thing that rogues typically don’t care about is the game itself or even the game’s story. They’re not playing the game because it’s Fallout and they’re not playing it because it has interesting lore or interesting quest lines, they’re playing the game because it’s an MMO, because it has multiplayer, because it has combat and because they can find and exploit heavy guns that no one else has. Rogues will only follow down a quest line because it unlocks their character to have or use something unique or better than someone else, not because of interest in the RPG aspect or the story.

Golden players, on the other hand, play the game by the rules using weapons considered legal within the game. These are also players who typically respect the Fallout canon, who are genuinely interested in the story being told, who play by the rules, who choose to play using guns the game provides and who don’t stray outside of the bounds simply because they find a loophole. These are dedicated Fallout players who’ve likely played many previous Fallout games, if not all of them.

Mixing The Two

These player types are not hard walled into two groups. Some players remain mostly golden, but go occasionally rogue when they deem appropriate. For example, some of Bethesda’s rigid game rules go too far. Some players become rogue when it’s necessary to bypass some of these Bethesda rigid rules, simply to save time, to cut weight down or for other reasons that help them play the game better.

Bethesda doesn’t get its player base

One thing is certain, Bethesda does NOT fundamentally understand who’s actually playing Fallout 76 and who is actually paying their bills. It goes even deeper than this.

Because there was a whole separate black market for these high powered “illegal” weapons, Bethesda completely overlooked this aspect of its game. Instead of taking advantage of these payers and bilking them for money, they decided to remove the weapons from the game.

It’s clear, you can either benefit from these players by making real money off of them or you can alienate them… and alienation is exactly where we are now.

Black Tuesday

On Tuesday January 24th, 2023, rogue players had to say goodbye to their “illegal” weapons. Bethesda removed weapon modules from the game, which during the 2018-2019 years were perfectly legal to own and use. This change sends not only a mixed message to players, it sends an exceedingly bad message.

It says that Bethesda really doesn’t give one crap about a huge segment of its very player base who are paying its bills, keeping its staff employed and keeping the game from going under.

This change is likely to be the beginning of the end for Fallout 76. Why?

Perplexed

Rogues are as perplexed and mystified by this late change now as anyone. For years these weapons were in the game and remained so. However, it’s just now that Bethesda decides to rid the game of these weapons?

Because these rogue players comprise a substantial portion of the revenue given to Bethesda for Fallout 1st and other pay-for-play features, it’s surprising Bethesda was so willing to risk losing that revenue and possibly even the entire game over this silly change.

Rogue players must now make a choice. They can either stay and play a hobbled version of the game using no special weapons or they can go find a new game where they can, once again, feel special and own special weapons. This is the actual real danger to Fallout 76. Rogues are fickle players. They only stay and play where they can find their “specialness”. If they can’t find and remain special, then the game is done and they leave it.

That’s exactly the crossroads at which Bethesda now finds itself. The question is, are there enough newbie players to keep the lights on and the staff employed? The answer to this question comes in how Bethesda chooses to respond.

High Levels and Endgame

After playing any game, not only have you amassed levels for your character, you have unlocked perks and skills. The problem is, once the quests have ended, what do you do with these skills? That’s fundamentally the problem with most games. You spend your time playing through the quest lines leveling up your player only to find that when you reach the end, all of that leveling up and those perks were for nothing… as there’s no endgame content.

Many gamers find little to no endgame content to utilize that high level skill. That means, you reach the end and you go find a new game to play.

Fallout 76 is only different in its endgame because it offers Events (and Legacy weapons). After the quests are done and there’s no more quest lines to follow, the Events and Daily quests are what’s left. These are repetitive activities that offer a slight chance for rare loot rewards. It also offers the chance to try out a new overpowered weapon.

Leveling up in Fallout 76, unfortunately, is mostly worthless. Because guns cap out at level 45 or 50, that essentially means your player is capped out at level 45 or 50, regardless of the level number your player may actually achieve. The only benefit to leveling up is to max out the Legendary perk cards, an addition that gives higher level players a tiny bit of an incentive to stay with the game.

Once a player reaches level 650-700, that player can easily have maxed out the Legendary Perk cards.  Max leveling these Legendary Perk cards sees a tiny bit more damage out of weapons, if utilized correctly. So then, what’s left after this? Not much, other than going Rogue and trying to find unobtainable, but overpowered weapons which formerly existed in the game.

While these weapons were once in the game circa 2019, they have since stopped dropping as loot long, long ago. That means that new players can’t easily obtain these overpowered weapons unless they monetarily buy them from another player. Hence, a player economy is born.

Initially, caps were the answer to this economy. Unfortunately, caps became mostly pointless as a currency in the game when Bethesda moved to bullion, scrip and stamps offering up the newest, most rare items. This is when players moved to selling these highly prized and overpowered weapons for real cash money, as in USD. Internet forums and trading boards came to exist to list and sell these weapons for real money.

In one fell swoop, Bethesda shut all of this down… the trading, the sales, the weapons, all of it. Without these weapons in the game, there are no more sales of them. You can’t sell what’s no longer in the game.

It goes way deeper than that. Not only did it kill third party sales of in-game weapons, it is poised to see a massive number of high level players abandon Fallout 76 and cancel their Fallout 1st subscriptions. Why play a game when there’s nothing special left?

Endgame content is firmly limited to Events. Unfortunately, in retaliation for these high powered weapons being in the game, Bethesda ramped up these events to be likewise overpowered. Without these weapons in the game, the events are STILL way overpowered…. to the point where these events are likely to FAIL the vast majority of the time when using standard weapons. Bethesda retaliated against the players by removing the weapons, but failed to reduce the overpowered nature of the events back to a level where standard weapons can be successful. Right now, these “golden” level 45 and 50 level weapons are not enough against these highly overpowered event enemies.

It gets worse, as players dwindle from the game due to natural attrition and now because Legacies have been removed, new players will be hard pressed to find enough higher level players on a server to take on the Scorchbeast Queen, the Titan or even Earle. These events are now so overpowered because Bethesda souped them up against Legacies, it’s near impossible to win these events with non-Legacy weapons, especially if a server has maybe 10 players on it.

Bethesda is definitely at a cross roads.

Microsoft

Now that Microsoft owns Bethesda, Bethesda is most definitely playing with fire. In fact, Bethesda’s choices surrounding Fallout 76 have always been questionable. Legacy removal is probably one of THE most questionable changes Bethesda has ever made for Fallout 76, considering when the problem actually started. Why does Microsoft matter? We’ll come to that answer in a bit.

For now, Fallout 76 is on the cusp. We don’t yet know the fallout (ha) from Bethesda’s meddling with Legacies. The point is, we cannot know how the rogue players will respond or how much financial damage these players who abandon the game can literally do to Bethesda.

It’s clear, without these Legacy weapons in the game, rogues who were playing Fallout 76 solely because these weapons existed will evaporate… and along with that, so will the income from Fallout 1st and all other income that keeps Fallout 76 afloat. Are the rogues a big enough population to make a dent in Bethesda’s income stream? My personal guess is, yes… at least for the longevity of Fallout 76. Without the rogues, Fallout 76 may be hard pressed to remain a viable entity, let alone Fallout as a franchise.

Does Fallout keep Bethesda afloat? It most certainly isn’t the only game that Bethesda publishes. However, Fallout 76 is currently the only Fallout franchise title available. In short, probably not.

Obsidian, another developer, was purchased by Microsoft in 2018, the same year that Fallout 76 released. Obsidian contains the remnants of Black Isle Studios, the original studio who developed the Fallout franchise. Because Microsoft now owns both Bethesda and Obsidian, it’s possible that someone at Microsoft could easily mandate the transition of the Fallout IP and franchise from Bethesda back over to Obsidian to handle.

Bethesda is clearly out of their depths with Fallout and they clearly don’t understand the franchise. Worse, they don’t even understand multiplayer systems in relation to Fallout. This first multiplayer Fallout game is probably the worst implementation that could have possibly been imagined. Partly this is due to its design goals, but partly it’s due to the inept team who couldn’t actually build a workable product… and here we are today. Because the Fallout 76 team failed to build a workable product, they’re now forced to remove a feature from the game that shouldn’t have been in it in the first place. Yet, that feature remained for nearly 5 years, solidifying them as legitimate in the game.

What Bethesda has done is tantamount to yanking a baby bottle from a baby after that baby has already begun to drink. If you didn’t want to give the baby bottle to the baby, it’s simpler not to do it up front than yanking it away after you’ve already given it to the baby. Heartless.

Can Fallout 76 tank Bethesda?

At this point, maybe not. What the loss of Fallout 76 will do is sour future gamers towards Bethesda games.

“Once bitten, twice shy.”

Few will step up to the plate again knowing the disaster that befell Fallout 76, especially once it disappears. Believe me, Fallout 76 WILL end. The question isn’t if, it’s when. After this Legacy removal, I believe Fallout 76’s end days are here. It’s just a matter of time before the remaining high level players (many of whom are now rogues) walk away and find a new game.

Gamers are fickle and these kinds of stupid maneuvers are ripe for rage quitting. Some die hard gamers will remain and play, but only for a short time until they become frustrated with the crappy standard weapons and find a new game to play. At a minimum, I’d certainly expect to see a rash of Fallout 1st subscriptions cancelled in the next 30 days.

The answer is that, alone, Fallout 76 likely can’t tank Bethesda. However, Fallout 76’s demise can most certainly make a big enough dent that someone at Microsoft (Phil Spencer?) retaliates against Bethesda through layoffs (Buh Bye Todd Howard), closures and by handing over various game IP to better equipped and better managed studios.

It’s clear, the current developers are ill equipped to understand what Fallout 76 should be. Let’s understand why…

Rogues, Games and Marketing

Rogues, whether a game studio likes them or not, are a market force. These are players who have money and are willing to spend it. A game studio can either embrace this fact, or go bankrupt trying to eliminate these gamers from the game. As they say, “Get woke, Go Broke!”

Bethesda is firmly in this latter camp. I don’t know what impetus is driving Bethesda’s management team and devs to take this “woke” approach, but clearly it’s not about trying to make money. Clearly, rogues represent real money sales. If a single player is willing to pay $20 or $50 or $150 real cash money for a single over powered weapon in the game, then Bethesda clearly isn’t actually trying make money. Who leaves money on the table?

Leaving an untapped market on the table is not only stupid, it’s probably one of the stupidest things I’ve seen Bethesda (or in general, a game developer) do.

Pay for Play

As much as gamers harp on the pay for play scheme, it’s a real thing, it exists and it needs to exist. Yes, buying an in-game weapon for real cash money is considered pay for play. You can’t deny that. Whether pay for play is good or bad thing is entirely debatable. One thing is certain. Pay for play makes money… and that’s exactly why game developers are in business, to make money.

In fact, pay for play already exists in Fallout 76 with Fallout 1st and Scrap Kits and Repair Kits and the list goes on. Even foodstuffs like Perfect Bubblegum and Lunch Boxes are forms of pay for play. Selling overpowered rifles for real cash money is just the next logical step.

At this point, Fallout 76 is almost 5 years old. When a game is brand new, perhaps pay for play isn’t something that’s needed. However, 5 years later with 95% of players at endgame, then pay for play is perfectly fine and, dare I say, necessary. It extends the life of a game. Anything that extends the life of a game I consider a good thing. It allows new players to step in and know their time won’t be wasted because the game must close down due to lack of players. It allows rogues and endgame players a means of keeping the game interesting and keep them coming back for more play. Anything that keeps players playing is a good thing. That alone continues to make money for Bethesda. I’d say that’s win-win-win all around. Everyone wins.

High Level Players, Veterans and a New Map

One thing that Bethesda has failed to take into account, in among Fallout 76’s many failures, is the failure of planning for high level players reaching the endgame. In The Elder Scrolls Online, this game’s devs seemed to properly plan for endgame high level players. In fact, ESO devs went so far as to convert level 100+ players into then new “Veteran” levels. For example, for every 100 levels, you got 1 Veteran level. A level 300 player would convert into Veteran level 3. These new Veteran levels were denoted by a Veteran symbol next to the player’s new rank, just above their head. This distinguishes Veteran players from low level players of a similar number.

In addition to being converted into Veteran levels, this change also unlocked the game to be played from the beginning using a new harder Veteran challenge level. Eventually, the devs even opened up a new Veteran level territory that required teaming up with other Veterans to handle this new difficult area. This area was so challenging, in fact, there was simply no way to solo it. The hordes were so difficult, you were forced to go in with a team even as a high Veteran level. While the lower level territories remained trivially easy for a Veteran, the Veteran territories were intensely challenging. Even group dungeons were incredibly challenging.

Likening this to Fallout 76, there is no way to liken this. While Fallout 76 devs are busy introducing silly and bugged out territories like Nuka World and slapping high level players on the wrist by removing legacies, the ESO devs (at about this same time in ESO’s lifecycle) were treating high level players like valued players and giving them more challenges. Effectively, the Fallout 76 devs are treating high level players like a nuisance when they should be celebrating players who’ve made it to level 600 or 800 or 1200 or 2000. This celebration should include rewarding these players, not chastising them.

If a player has given up a year or two of their life to play Bethesda’s Fallout 76 game and reached level 1000 (and who continues to actively play it), that’s a celebratory moment. Bethesda devs should be celebrating long standing players who continue to play the game instead of slapping these players on the wrist and saying, “Bad”.

ESO celebrated high level players the right way. Fallout 76 devs treat high level players like nothing more than a mere annoyance.

Here you have one team at Bethesda who fully understands and embraces their entire player base. On the other hand, you have an inept team who hasn’t the faintest clue of who their player base even is. I shake my head at this incredible disparity within the same corporation. It simply makes no sense.

Inept Developers

You’d think that if anything, The Elder Scrolls Online would have taught the Fallout 76 team some valuable lessons. Unfortunately, you thought wrong. It seems that these two MMO system teams do not at all communicate their valuable lessons from one team to the other.

The reality, which has become incredibly apparent, is that the Fallout 76 development team is wholly and completely inept; not just from a development perspective, but from a money making perspective. They don’t seem to understand the value of keeping ALL of the players happy and, most importantly, paying.

A game studio makes money by keeping people playing the game WHILE spending money. You don’t make money when you chase away your paying players. It’s pretty simple. Removing legacies from the game is a seminal chase-away-players moment. It’s also quite clear that the Fallout 76 developers and even the management team don’t get the real danger here.

Instead of embracing the legacies and the whole real money economy that’s grown up around these weapons’ accidental existence, Bethesda turns its back on the players by removing the weapons from the game. Not only has this shut down that entire real world economic situation (which Bethesda could have tapped), players who wanted these items have no reason to stay, pay and play the game any longer.

This means some walk away from Fallout 76 immediately and others leave slowly over time as they lose interest, “because it’s boring”. Some players, specifically rogues, must make their own fun in a game. Legacies were the rogue’s way of making that fun and cutting the boredom. Without the legacies, there’s honestly no reason for these players to remain playing the game… let alone spend any more money on it.

Business Lessons

While I hadn’t intended this article to become a business lesson, it’s moving quickly in this direction. Let me take this section to discuss this aspect of business operations.

Every college student should be required to take at least one or two business classes. What I mean here is that it’s vitally important for students learning software development to understand how their work impacts the bottom line of the company. Not all software features are good for business. There is no more clear illustration of that here than the removal of the Legacy weapons from Fallout 76. Adding new features can help out users. Removing features can easily cause people to walk away from your product.

This is where business classes come into play. Business classes teach students to have the smarts enough to realize that, “Hey, this feature that I’m being tasked to implement has a high chance of losing 70% of our PAYING clients!” Businesses must empower all employees to speak up when they see problems like this.

While software architects come up with ideas, they may not be privy to exactly how many people might actually be using a given feature. Before implementation of any feature that impacts the userbase, someone needs to put on the brakes and say, “Let’s pull the numbers of how many people are actually using this feature before rolling it out!” Sanity must always prevail in any software business. You can’t simply roll out a feature without understanding exactly how it might impact your existing bottom line.

This is why business classes, and more importantly, business intelligence and reporting is important. Blindly making changes without understanding the business impact can easily tank a business. Case in point, Musk’s incredibly poor handling of Twitter. Now we have yet another poor business case, Bethesda’s shitty handling of Legacy removals in Fallout 76.

Too Late

This article is written after-the-fact. Unfortunately, removing these weapons is more or less a done deal. What I mean here is that knowing the way that Fallout 76’s code is written, there’s no way to undo this change. Meaning, it’s easier to stop a code rollout before it happens than it is to undo a change already made. In many cases, it’s actually impossible to undo code changes due to the nature of the way it was rolled out.

At this point, Bethesda is stuck with this change, for better or worse. At this point, unfortunately, we’re probably at the “or worse” point. As I said above, we’re nearly 5 years into this game’s lifecycle. Instead of Bethesda celebrating high level player achievements, these players are being chastised and chased off by removing weapons these players relied on.

The point in becoming a high level player is to take the benefits that go along with that high level, which includes high damage weapons. That’s an expected staple of any game that supports having high level players. If level 1000 players are reduced to using weapons at the same level as a level 50 player, what’s the point in playing Fallout 76? In fact, what’s the point in leveling up beyond level 50?

Not only does this Legacy removal impact high level players, it impacts low level players because they know they can’t get these weapons in the future. That means that players who might have hung around to level their character up to level 1000 for the chance of getting one of these weapons might now get to level 100, quit and go buy something else. That drastically reduces the income of Bethesda… and by extension Microsoft.

When the Fallout 76 team could have embraced these weapons and monetarily leveraged the external market by retooling them to be legitimate and finding legitimate ways to sell and use them, the Fallout 76 team’s lack of business intelligence and foresight prevailed.

It’s anyone’s guess if Fallout 76 can recover from this change. My guess is that this Legacy removal will be the last major thing the Fallout 76 team does before the plug gets pulled on Fallout 76 by Microsoft. Bethesda, prove me wrong.

Compensating Controls

This final thought is yet another failure of business intelligence on the part of Bethesda management regarding the legacy removals. One idea that many game developers employ to soften the blow of any negative change is introduce a compensating positive change. For example, when something gets removed from a player’s inventory because of a policy change, the developer will offer up some kind of freebie for all of those players who are impacted. This can include free currency, a free new weapon, a freebie in the game store or something similar. This freebie offsets that player’s item loss in compensation.

Unfortunately, with this Legacy removal, Bethesda offered players no form of any kind of compensation for the loss of their weapon. They still had their weapon, yes, but severely altered. Bethesda might as well have removed the weapon as the weapon that remained is pretty much worthless. It’s surprising that Bethesda has offered up no compensation at all, but here we are.

For all of the above reasons, the rogues are likely to abandon this game entirely… perhaps even the franchise itself… said as if rogues even care about Fallout as a franchise. That leaves the golden players left to carry the weight, but unfortunately there are likely not enough of these golden players willing to shell out for Fallout 1st in the numbers needed to keep the game afloat. Thus, this change is likely to be Fallout 76’s death knell.

Way to go, Todd! Phil, if you’re reading this, you probably need to have a sit down with Todd to figure out what the hell is going on with the Fallout 76 development team.

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One Cockpit Pilot for Commercial Jets?

Posted in airline, botch, business by commorancy on November 30, 2022

low angle photography of airplane

The airline industry has continued reeling ever since the start of the pandemic. I won’t get exactly into why that is, but let’s just said that the Airlines caused this problem for themselves. As a result, pilot shortages are now seemingly commonplace. Commercial airlines are now seeking ways to reduce their pilot shortage, but not in sane ways. One idea is that pilots should be reduced to one in the cockpit. Let’s explore why this is probably the single worst idea that could be floated.

Health Problems

Let’s jump right into this disastrous idea and understand why one pilot should never be considered for nor allowed on any commercial carrier flights.

The #1 combined reasons why this practice should not ever be allowed is health concerns and redundancy. Having two pilots in the cockpit allows the second pilot to take over should the first one become incapacitated or incapable of flying. Effectively, having two pilots offers a backup system, human redundancy. Human redundancy is the difference between a successful flight and a crashed flight.

Think about it. If a single pilot in a single pilot cockpit becomes ill, incapacitated or worse, who’s going to fly the plane? Are the airlines going to require one or more of the flight attendants to have extensive pilot training so they can assume the role as pilot under this circumstance? That would mean that every flight would need to have at least one flight attendant who is qualified and capable of piloting that specific plane. How many flight attendants would be flight attendants if they were trained to be a pilot?

Short Flights

man flying helicopter

Some might argue that flights under an hour might offer the possibility of a single pilot cockpit. I contend the opposite. The flight duration does not reduce the danger level. For short flights, that danger level might even increase. Commercial jumbo jets do not run themselves. Like driver assisted motor vehicles, commercial jets require someone to read the controls and understand if the automated systems are functioning correctly.

With only one set of eyes on the controls, it’s easy to miss critical information. Additionally, cockpits are designed to have two sets of eyes and hands. One pilot cannot reach over and touch the far controls that would be handled by a co-pilot. Unless jumbo jet owners plan to retrofit the ergonomics of every cockpit’s controls to accommodate a single pilot’s reach, a single pilot might be required to stand up and move to the second station to mess with those controls. Yes, most controls are right in front of the pilot, some may not be on some cockpit designs. In other words, one size may not fit all in this scenario.

Still, short flights are just as dangerous as any longer flight.

Long Flights

For international flights which might be 13-20 hours, you can’t expect a single pilot to work that many hours continuously. That flight must have at least two pilots simply to handle the shifts require to prevent overwork fatigue. On top of that, pilots need breaks. Who’s going to watch the cockpit when he or she needs a nature break? A flight attendant?

For a single pilot cockpit, on long haul flights, is that pilot simply going to leave the cockpit to go take a snooze for hours? Yeah, for long haul flights, it’s simply not practical. At least two pilots are a must. There’s no other way.

Remote Control

photo of man holding remote control while looking upwards

Some have argued that having the ground control able to remote control the flight safely from the ground could become a workable solution for a one pilot cockpit. Right now, we’re nowhere near allowing flight control to safely control a jumbo jet from the ground to a safe landing. Should that become a reality in the future, perhaps pilot free cockpits might work.

There are literal dead spots between control towers that would see a jumbo jet crash. We simply don’t have reliable means to remote control a jet through its entire journey, particularly those flying over open ocean areas where radio contact can sometimes not even be available.

Airlines and Cost Cutting

Airlines can’t just cut the flight crew down to one and “hope for the best”. That’s entirely reckless. It doesn’t matter how young or fit or well or able bodied that a pilot is. Health conditions can come on suddenly and incapacitate someone at any age… even simply from eating a bad meal on board a flight. The point here is that if pilots are reduced to one, every airline is rolling dice in the hopes that nothing bad happens. It’s pretty much guaranteed that allowing a one pilot system would very likely lead to more deaths in the airline industry.

Overworked Pilots

If pilots think they’re being overworked now with this pilot shortage, moving to a single pilot cockpit is most definitely going to cause even more fatigue and burnout with the existing pilots. Being a single pilot in the cockpit puts all of the flight stress and pressure onto one person who could easily make a mistake without knowing it. That’s tough. If commercial airlines want to chase away pilots, moving to single pilots is most definitely the way to do it.

The whole point to a second pilot is for the second pilot to check the first pilot’s work and suggest any corrections. The point in a team is to manage the flight together and agree that everything has been done correctly or disagree and correct the problem. Without that second person, there is no possibility of disagreement.

There’s no way to call any airline safe who chooses to practice having only one pilot at the controls.

Flight Attendant Training

To become a flight attendant, a person must go through rigorous safety training which lasts weeks. Some training can last months, depending on the airline’s requirements. Flight attendants must also reaffirm their training at least once a year to remain certified with the FAA. This training consists of medical training along with safety exercises such as how to safely and quickly evacuate everyone from a plane in emergency conditions using the evacuation slides.

They also learn how to perform their duties and must take practice flights to better understand what’s required of them while in flight.

If a flight attendant is also required to know how to pinch fly a jumbo jet, that takes their training to a whole new level. As stated above, if they’re effectively required to get a pilot’s license, then why become a flight attendant?

Airlines must either force some flight attendants into pilot’s training or technology must catch up to allow for remote control piloting. Either road leads to obstacles for airlines… and may simply shift the problem to a different business area. While it might help to reduce pilot shortages, it may move those shortages to flight attendants or in flight controllers. It’s never a workable solution to think you can make one change and not affect a whole lot of other people down the line. That’s exactly what will happen here.

Would you fly a commercial airline with only one pilot?

Sound off in the comments below.

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Why I stopped using Twitter

Posted in botch, business, california by commorancy on November 25, 2022

a woman in red scarf holding a megaphone

Based on my recent article, Is the Demise of Twitter imminent?, I have outlined the reasons why I believe Twitter is very close to closing down entirely. While that is a reason not to use the platform, it isn’t my primary reason for leaving Twitter. Twitter has a lot more wrong with it than potential closure. Let’s explore.

Content Moderation and Trust

Let’s jump right into the heart of the reason why Twitter is in serious jeopardy. Any social network that offers User Generated Content (UGC) is at risk if the operators of the site are unwilling to handle that UGC appropriately.

Terms of Service (TOS) agreements and Acceptable Use Policies (AUP) exist to protect the site from lawsuits. Meaning, so long as the site adheres to the terms laid out in their agreements, then the site is said to be doing its fiduciary responsibility to its users.

TOS and AUP agreements define what is considered acceptable conduct by anyone who uses the web site. Most such agreements lay out that conduct such as hate speech, harassing speech, bullying, threats of violence, death threats and any conduct which is considered illegal federally or locally is prohibited on the web site. The article I mentioned above also touches on this topic.

Whenever a site is created that publishes such user generated content on behalf of its users, a site must make sure that the speech remains within the confines of acceptable use. That means offering such mechanisms as user reporting features (allowing users to report offensive content), automated scanning of content to detect such infringing content and a team of content moderators to remove or suspend users who willfully break the rules.

Why do these agreements exist?

Trust. These agreements are in place to help users understand that Twitter is a safe and trustworthy space. As long as the agreements are upheld, then users can know that Twitter is looking out for them. Without such agreements or, more specifically, knowing the agreements aren’t being enforced, then the safety level of the site drops precipitously, along with the site’s level of trust.

Politics and AUP

Recently, too many people on Twitter are now seeing everything through the a political lens. Specifically, the right wingers are now seeing everything they say through a political lens of free speech.

Let’s understand first and foremost that First Amendment Free Speech DOES NOT apply to Twitter or any non-governmental organization operating a social network. It never has. The First Amendment only applies to Governmental organizations and staff. While your local county official cannot abridge your freedom of speech or freedom of press, Twitter can.

Further, let’s understand that terms of service (conduct) agreements are not built with politics in mind. They are built by lawyers who are paid to provide legal services to corporations. These agreements are not political leaning. These agreements apply to everyone using the services equally. Anyone who infringes the agreement is subject to disciplinary action… yes, ANYONE.

Right Wing Activists and Lying

Right wingers have been completely jumping on the bandwagon that somehow Twitter is selectively applying its rules only to right wing activists and not to left wing activists. That would be unfair application of terms of service, but it’s also a false statement. That kind of false rhetoric is now a staple with right leaning conservatives. They’re willing to lie about nearly anything and everything. Why would social media be an exception? It isn’t.

Twitter has applied its rules equally to all people who infringe, left, right or center. It doesn’t matter what your political beliefs, if you put forth infringing content, you’re suspended or banned.

Left wing activists have also been banned from the platform. Thus, this right wing falsehood is just that, a falsehood… like many others. Yet, they keep saying it with careless abandon as though saying it multiple times will somehow make it true. It doesn’t.

As of this moment, right wingers are completely out of control on Twitter… running afoul of Twitter’s rules without any disciplinary action by Twitter staff. That’s not to say left wingers aren’t out of control, because they are also. In fact, there are a lot of apolitical people on Twitter simply playing games with Twitter’s rules because Twitter isn’t enforcing them…. and here is the problem in a nutshell.

Rules, Chaos and Crowd Sourced Moderation

Rules exist to stem the chaos and enforce trust. Without enforcement of rules, a social media site is simply a cesspool without trust… and that’s exactly where Twitter sits right now.

If Twitter had been designed to allow thread creators to manage and moderate user comments within their created thread, like YouTube owners can moderate comments on videos, then Twitter would be in a much better place right now.

It would mean that I, as a Twitter user, could dump off comments from my thread that break not only Twitter’s rules, but my own personal rules of decorum. Unfortunately, Twitter doesn’t afford that level of content moderation to the thread creator. That means relying on Twitter’s now non-existent staff. Of course, when that staff doesn’t exist, there’s no one there to do the moderation work that’s needed.

If Twitter had moved to crowd based moderation, the platform would be in a much better place. It wouldn’t need nearly as much moderation staff as thread creators could simply remove comments from threads they own. If someone chimes in with an insensitive, inappropriate or problematic comment, then “Delete” and the comment is gone. No Twitter staff needed.

In fact, this is the way social media needs to operate now and in the future. Twitter still firmly believes that it is Twitter’s staff sole responsibility to moderate content. That’s not doable when you have perhaps billions of messages being sent daily. A company can’t grow its moderation team to scale to this number of messages. It is also an antiquated idea that should have been gone years ago. However, at the time of Twitter’s conception, crowd managed UGC wasn’t really commonplace. Partly that’s something that wasn’t being done, but partly it’s because Jack Dorsey’s team didn’t have the foresight to realize staff moderation of billions of small messages was not humanly scalable.

In recent years, crowd managed moderation has become not only more acceptable, it’s become commonplace and even important. YouTube has allowed this for quite some time. It allows the channel owner to remove any and all messages from its videos that the content creator deems problematic. It firmly puts the burden of content moderation on the creator. That’s also a completely acceptable situation.

Crowd Moderation

Wikipedia has completely proven that crowd moderation of content works. As a company, you can’t afford to hire the thousands of people needed to scout billions of messages all over the platform. Instead, it’s better to empower content creators to manage a much smaller number of messages.

Reporting inappropriate comments is still available, however. This allows staff the opportunity to jump in and manage inappropriate content if the content creator reports a comment.

However, conscientious creators should be willing to hold and moderate comments prior to allowing them to be published. With Twitter, publishing is instantaneous with no advanced moderation possible. Considering the sheer volume of messages on Twitter, it might be almost impossible to handle a single hold-queue style moderation system. With a spam filter, it may be possible to separate the wheat from the chaff into more easily manageable piles.

Trust, Quality and Moderation

Here’s something that Twitter has needed for a very, very long time. Twitter is chock full of bad actors. Any bad actors who consistently write bad comments of low or questionable quality would see their comment moved into the “junk” moderation pile for the content creator to manage and/or report.

Such a system would allow Twitter to offer up content moderation for all of its content creators. Enabling content moderation places moderation in the hands of the content creator using a hold queue. This halts many instant responses, but it ensures higher quality comments. Comments are then examined and filtered into trust and quality buckets. High quality comments from more trusted individuals get placed into the pile the creator manages first. Successively lower quality comments from lesser trusted people get moved into successively lower moderation piles.

Content creators can both move comments from one pile to another and they can mark commenters so that future comments get placed into specific piles all the way to a block which prevents the user from commenting at all.

For example, piles might be labeled as:

  • Instant Publish
  • Mostly-Trusted
  • Semi-Trusted
  • Untrusted
  • Untrusted Junk
  • Junk

These 6 piles are a good starting place. Instant publish is for your most trusted followers. You know that these followers can be completely trusted to instantly publish a high quality comment with no holds. No moderation is needed for fully trusted people. For people who are mostly trusted, these comments go into the mostly-trusted pile for moderation hold. These are people who are very close to getting instant publish, but you still need to hold their messages because you want to read the comment first.

All other piles are reviewed at the sole discretion of the content creator. If the content creator chooses not to look through the remaining piles, then the comments get purged after 7-30 days on hold.

How does a user become trusted?

Trust comes from both following and adding a new button labeled ‘trust’ along with an assigned level (1-6). Following someone only places someone into the Semi-Trusted pile. Meaning, you’ve followed them so you’re assigning them the default trust of level of 3. However, you haven’t completely trusted them. This means you’ll need to moderate comment content.

As a user gets more and more messages posted out of moderation, the user will automatically move up the ranks of trust, eventually reaching Instant Publish unless the content creator explicitly sets the user’s trust level.

User trust levels can also be managed by interactions with others. A content creator can enable “inherit trust averages” to new followers. This means that user’s trust level is calculated and inherited based on past interactions. If a user has consistent bad interactions, been reported a number of times, been blocked by many people and so on, these bad activities affect the user’s inherited trust level and the user’s trust level goes down. Instead of being assigned a default of level 3, the user might inherit a level of 5 or 6.

Note, being blocked by lower trust level users doesn’t influence a user’s inherited trust. Only people of higher trust levels who block them influence the inherited trust level. This stops bad seeds from gaming this system and attempting to lower a person’s trust level by creating hundreds of accounts and blocking someone of higher levels of trust. The only trust levels that impact a user’s inherited trust level when blocked is if the blocking user has a trust level above 2. That means bad seeds would need to work their hundreds of accounts up to level 2 before blocking people to reduce trust. Even then, any user attempting to game the trust system will automatically be banned.

Note that there are effectively two trust levels at play. There is the inherited trust level of the user themselves, which is gained by behaving correctly, producing high quality content and, in small amount, by having someone follow you. The second trust level is set by a content creator. Even if a person is inherited with a 90% trust level, if they follow someone and comment, the content creator can set that 90% trusted user down to level 6 if they choose. That moderation trust level only applies to the content creator, but doesn’t impact the follower’s inherited trust level… unless many high level trusted people all mark that user down.

Trust levels are the means by which the bad actors go to the bottom of the pile and good actors bubble to the top. To date, no social networks have instituted such a trust system. Instead, they have chosen to allow chaos to reign supreme instead of forcing users to learn behavioral norms when interacting on social networks. Enforcing behavioral norms is something social media desperately needs.

Trust Numbers

Implementing a trust numbering system would also add more control by users and content creators alike. Users who insist on being untrustworthy, to lie, to generally be toxic will see their trust numbers reduced. It doesn’t matter if it’s a celebrity or a nobody. Trust numbers are what people will judge. Like any score system, it can be used to allow users to auto-block and auto-ignore users who choose to have trust cores below a certain threshold. If a comment from a user with a trust level below 50 would appear on a timeline, a rule saying hide comments from users below trust level 50 would automatically weed out toxic comments.

More than this, if a user has a less than 50 trust score, a content creator can make a rule that prevents low score users from commenting at all. In effect, the trust score auto-blocks the user from comments. If the user wishes to make a comment, then they need to do the right things to raise their trust score. A trust scoring system is the only way for users and content creators to know that they can be safe on a platform like Twitter.

Chaos now reigns at Twitter

Because Elon Musk has decided to cut over half of Twitter’s staff, there’s really no one left to enforce much of anything on Twitter. In effect, Twitter is now overrun by untrustworthy, lying, conniving bad actors. It is these toxic people who don’t deserve to have any interactions at all. They are the absolute dregs of social media. These are toxic people you would never interact with in person, yet here they are on full display on Twitter.

Because Twitter has no moderation staff left to manage these bad seeds, the platform is overrun by people of bad intent. These are people who insist sowing seeds of chaos and doing as much damage as possible all with providing no value to the platform. Their comments are worthless, bordering on toxic and are sometimes even dangerous.

With no moderation team, there’s no one at Twitter who can review these comments for their toxicity, let alone do anything about it. Worse, Elon Musk is pushing a “new freer” Twitter, which simply doubles down on this level of toxicity all over the Twitter platform.

If Twitter were to introduce a trust and moderation system as described above, Twitter could forgo the moderation staff, instead letting content creators manage these bad seeds to push them off of the platform. Such a moderation system would also take a huge burden off of Twitter’s staff. Bad seeds would eventually disappear when they find their comments don’t get published. They also can’t claim Twitter is a fault because a content creator moderation system would mean people of all political persuasions would be kicking these bad seeds to the curb.

There’s really no other way for Twitter to manage such bad seeds other than a crowd managed moderation system like the above. Unfortunately, Twitter’s staff is dwindling at an astonishing rate, including the very software engineers needed to design and build such a system.

If Twitter wants to become a platform about trust and safety, it needs to institute a mechanism that enforces this philosphy, like the above content creator moderation system. Without such a system, Twitter remains chaos.

Toxic People

Toxic Symbol

Toxic people are everywhere, but it seems that social media like Twitter attracts them in droves. I don’t know why other than the anonymity that seems afforded. Suffice it to say that while Twitter was relatively toxic prior to Musk’s takeover, the content moderation staff took care of a lot of that toxicity through suspensions and banning.

Unfortunately, Musk seems to have reversed that stance and is now allowing (and even condoning) toxic people back into Twitter who were formerly removed. That means Twitter is now becoming even less of a safe and welcoming space than it formerly was. Toxicity now prevails. Toxicity is something no one needs in their life, least of all on Twitter. Toxic people are draining for all of the wrong reasons.

  • Toxic people waste your time — Toxic people ask you to do stuff for them while providing nothing in return. Even if you do spend the time providing what they request…
  • Toxic people always criticize you — Wasting time on someone toxic, they will turn that wasted time against you by arguing and criticizing what what you provided was not what they requested.
  • Toxic people spread negativity — Even after trying to talk to them to convince them, they will still turn it back around on you as a negative, as though you did something wrong. You didn’t.
  • Toxic people are jealous — The most likely reason they interacted with you in the first place is that they are jealous of what you have. In order to make themselves feel better, they will argue and downplay over whatever they are jealous… or they will try to make you feel jealous by claiming they have something that they don’t actually have.
  • Toxic people play the victim — Instead of accepting their own faults and failings, it’s always someone else who is to blame for them. If you happen to get in their way, you will become the victim over their having been victimized by you. That goes back to being jealous. If they are jealous over something, they will blame you for their being victimized by their own jealousy.
  • Toxic people are self-centered — This is a form of narcissism. How bad the narcissism is depends on them, not you. This means that not only are they likely to blame you for them being a victim, it all revolves around them, never around you. These people never see you as anything more than a punching bag to inflate their own ego.
  • Toxic people really don’t care — In other words, they argue with you because it inflates their ego, but honestly they don’t care about you or how you feel as long as it makes them feel better. It’s a form of manipulation.
  • Toxic people will manipulate you — This is another form of narcissism. It all ends up revolving around them. Most toxic people don’t care about your feelings at all. All they care about is getting whatever they want out of you. If that’s money or a ride or food, they’ll do or say whatever makes that a reality. On Twitter, you have to be cautious as money is really the only motivating factor. If Twitter enables money transfers, expect these toxic people to turn into scam artists.

Twitter currently enables, facilitates and now condones these toxic types of people on Twitter. Not only will they waste your time, they will attempt to play the victim game as though you caused them to be the victim. They will always claim that you are the one who is wrong and they are the one who is right. There is no middle ground, concession or compromise with toxic people. It’s always them and no one else.

If you feed into their garbage, you are likely the one to be harmed by them. Don’t allow it. As soon as you see someone like this, block them instantly. Don’t interact with them. If Twitter isn’t willing to handle toxic people, you have two choices, block and hope they don’t come back using another account or stop using Twitter.

Leaving Twitter

What Twitter currently means for sincere AUP-abiding content creators is increased effort to block toxic people, which actually does little to stop that user’s toxicity. They simply move to other victims to vomit their toxic rhetoric, with those users being forced to block them also. In other words, there’s nothing at all a standard user or content creator can do to stop toxic people from being toxic on Twitter (other than blocking that person for themselves). The best a legitimate person can do is block these toxic people for themselves alone, but that doesn’t make any impact on that toxic user’s account. Even reporting such an account today is likely to go ignored by Twitter. Musk appears to have no interest in holding rule breakers accountable.

A trust system would change this game. Meaning, users who insist on being toxic get to share in their consequences of being toxic. The more toxic they become, the more their account gets moved to the bottom. When the account gets down to a certain threshold, this allows Twitter to review these accounts for being a problem… thus requiring far less staff.

Unfortunately, Twitter has now placed this time suck burden onto each user to block, mute and dump users and to clean up the mess after. I don’t have time for that. Not only is that a complete waste of my time, I’m not being paid by Twitter to do it. It also means Twitter is not a safe or welcoming space. Spending my time managing my account only affects my account alone. It doesn’t in any way stop those toxic bad seeds from laying siege to other users on the platform. Since Twitter has no staff to manage these toxic bad seeds, Twitter is simply a chaotic cesspool of the lowest social media dregs all running amok in a quagmire of chaos. No one is safe from these toxic people.

If you’re looking for a safe and trusting space where you can feel like the social media site is looking out for you and your best interests, Twitter is not that place. Twitter has now become literally the worst, most toxic environment you could join right now, second up only to Facebook. Twitter doesn’t care about trust or safety or protecting you. They’re only interested in letting toxic social media users run roughshod all over everyone else.

For the reason of toxic users and Twitter actively choosing to be unsafe, I am off of Twitter. I simply cannot condone using a platform where the management is more interested in allowing chaos to rule over offering up appropriate safety measures for its users to use against toxic people.

Twitter’s Safety Rating

Safety: 1 out of 10
Toxicity: 10 out of 10
Recommendation: Avoid until Twitter closes or Musk figures it out

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Is the Demise of Twitter imminent?

Posted in botch, business, california by commorancy on November 20, 2022

red blue and yellow textile

With Elon Musk’s $44 billion hostile takeover of Twitter now closed, it’s clear that Musk is way out of his depth operating this social media platform and with that inexperience, this platform is very likely to die. Note, this is an unfolding story. Please check back for new updates to this article over Twitter’s latest blunders. Let’s explore.

Twitter as a Microblogging Platform

The rise of Jack Dorsey’s Twitter was rather unexpected considering its severe limits, such as its initial 140 character limit which was later doubled to 280 characters. Small messages are akin to SMS messages and I suppose that’s why so many people readily adopted this character limit.

Twitter has gained a lot of “people”, but unfortunately has also gained a lot of “bots”… which at this moment appear to far outnumber actual live people.

Blogging platforms, like WordPress.com on which this article is hosted, allows users to mostly say whatever they like. However, saying things isn’t without problems. Sure, free speech is important on blogging platforms, but what can be said isn’t without bounds. There are, in fact, TOS limits that prevent certain types of speech. For example, there are rules against hate speech, perpetuation of misinformation and disinformation and there are even laws against certain types of speech like “fighting words” and “defamation”. Free speech most definitely has its limits. Free speech is also not without consequences.

Freedom of speech is not truly “free” in the sense that you are free to say whatever pops into your head. You do have to consider the ramifications of what you say to those around you. One classic example is yelling, “Fire” in a crowded theater. That’s a form of trolling. It is most definitely not protected speech and could see the perpetrator fined and/or jailed for performing such reckless activities. Yes, freedom of speech has limits.

Those limits can be defined both by laws and by Terms of Service agreements. If you sign up for a service, you must read the Terms of Service and Acceptable Use Policies carefully to determine where the boundaries begin and end. Running afoul of Terms of Service rules can see your account restricted, suspended, banned or deleted. Such suspensions and bans can be limited to a few days or the action could be permanent. It might even see your account removed from the platform depending on the egregiousness of the action.

Suffice it to say that Free Speech, as I reiterate again, has limits and boundaries. You are not allowed to say whatever you want when using private company services. Other violating examples include such speech as death threats, threats of self-harm or of harm to other people, bullying, harassing others, inciting people into violence, stalking others or any other activities which are considered illegal or condone violence upon others.

Freedom of Speech

Many people hold up the first amendment as though it’s some sort of shield when using platforms like Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. The First Amendment is not a shield! Let’s examine the text of the First Amendment to better understand where and how it applies:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Let’s break it down. “Congress shall make no law” firmly states that the limits of the First Amendment are strictly on the Congress and, by that same extension, all Government entities. The Constitution strictly governs how the U.S. Government operates. It does not cover protection of speech for private businesses at all. Thus, the text of this amendment does not apply to how Facebook, Twitter or any other social media site operates unless that service is wholly or partially owned by the Government. How the First Amendment applies is by preventing Government workers, including any branch of the government, from abridging speech either written (press) or verbal (protests).

For example, using sites operated by the U.S. Government, such as the FTC’s call for comments area, the First Amendment fully applies. If you say something that may become publicly visible on such Government web sites, your speech is protected by the First Amendment. However, if you say something on Twitter, a site not owned or operated by the U.S. Government (or any government), your speech is not protected by the First Amendment, but instead is governed by Twitter’s Terms of Service agreement and/or any other associated agreement(s).

Too many people believe that First Amendment free speech rights apply to private enterprise, but it does not. While most speech is allowed on these platforms, some speech forms are not and those that are not are clearly written into the Terms and Conditions to which you must agree by opening an account.

For example, Twitter only allows impersonation of accounts as parody when the parody accounts are clearly labeled in specific ways. This Twitter rule restricts your freedom of speech in very specific ways. Meaning, you are not allowed to impersonate an account in a way that makes it appear as if you are genuinely the person you are attempting to impersonate. If you don’t label your account according to Twitter’s rules, your account is considered in violation and will be disciplined accordingly.

The First Amendment doesn’t restrict this type of impersonation activity, however. Other state or local laws might restrict such impersonation activities, but the First Amendment does not. However, Twitter does restrict this activity via its rules to which you must agree as part of using its services. There are other such activities which are also considered in violation of Twitter’s rules which can also become apparent after you violate them.

In other words, Free Speech on Twitter is firmly at the whims and rules of those who operate Twitter… rules that can be changed at a moment’s notice.

Twitter as a Viable Platform

Prior to Elon Musk’s takeover, Jack Dorsey (and his successor team) operated the platform in a way that many political pundits believed to be unfair to certain parts of the political spectrum. Politics are generally divisive. After all, there are two parties and each party believes they are superior to the other. I won’t get into who’s right or who’s wrong politically, but suffice it to say that the rules must apply to political activists in the same way as any other person using the platform.

Unfortunately, Musk is now seeking to shield political activists from Twitter’s rules. Instead, choosing to not hold any political activists accountable to Twitter’s established rules.

For example, Musk has recently chosen to reinstate Donald Trump’s account to Twitter. Donald Trump intentionally and willfully violated Twitter’s rules in the past. Yet, because Musk now owns Twitter, he has forgiven Donald Trump those past transgressions and has reinstated his account. This is a very clear example of how Musk chooses to break Twitter’s own rules at Musk’s own whim.

“Rules are made to be Broken”

This is an old saying, but it’s one that has no place in Social Media. If rules only govern some people, but not others, then there can be no ethics or justice. Rules must apply to all or they apply to none. Selective rule application is the basis for no rules at all. That’s how law works. If law enforcement fails to enforce laws on some criminals, then laws mean nothing. Likewise, if rule breakers can get away with breaking rules, then rules mean nothing.

Twitter has firmly moved into ethically questionable territory. If Musk thinks that selective application of rules to some people, but not others, is a recipe for success, then Twitter is truly no platform anyone should be using. It’s part of the reason I am no longer using Twitter. I have walked away from the platform and will not return. Here’s another example of Musk applying selective rules.

Musk’s Selective Rules and Instant Rule Changes

With Kathy Griffin’s suspension, Musk has made it clear that Musk makes the rules and no one else. This means that if someone does something that Musk doesn’t like, he’ll instantly rewrite the rules to satisfy his own whims. That’s actually called a moving target. Any user who ends up rubbing Musk the wrong way might end up with a suspension simply because Musk decides he doesn’t like whatever it was and he’ll then rewrite the rules instantly to make that activity against Twitter’s terms.

He did that with Kathy Griffin. She parodied Musk in a way that Musk didn’t like, then Musk retaliated by strictly applying Twitter’s terms, but more than this, he also rewrote Twitter’s rules by not giving her the 3 required warnings. Instead, he gave her zero warnings and instant suspension. Twitter’s rules about warnings are clear. You’re supposed to get at least 1 warning in advance of suspension. Kathy Griffin didn’t get that. She got the boot from Musk without any warnings at all.

Again, that’s a moving target. If you don’t know what the full rules are, you can’t abide by them. Sure, Kathy should have read the terms of impersonation more closely to prevent even getting warned. However, Musk should have read Twitter’s terms and upheld those rules by warning her before suspension, not change the rules on a whim. Both Musk and Griffin are guilty of not following the rules.

For Twitter users, it means Musk can instantly rewrite Twitter’s rules without warning and then suddenly a user is in violation. That’s no way to run a site. The rules are written in advance so we all understand them and have a fair chance at abiding by them. Instant changes mean there’s no way to comply with randomly changing rules simply because you can’t know what they are or what they could become if Musk gets triggered.

App Store and Twitter about to Square Off

[Update 11/25/2022] Twitter’s new “freer speech” rules combined with its lack of enough staff to manage the deluge of hate speech on Twitter is leading Twitter down many wrong paths. In addition, Elon Musk is also complaining about losing between 15% to 30% of its $8/mo subscription fees to Apple and Google when purchased in-app.

Because Apple is also now investigating Twitter’s latest “freer speech” maneuvers, Twitter is poised to potentially lose its app listing in the Apple Store over Twitter’s own inability to abide by its App Store agreements with Apple. Apple is already investigating if this is the case now. If Apple shuts Twitter out of the app store, Google is likely to follow suit for similar reasons. That leaves Twitter with no new users. Existing Twitter app owners can continue to use the Twitter app, but new users will be shut out. That means new users will be forced to use a browser to consume Twitter.

An app store removal is an even bigger blow to Twitter than the mere loss of 15-30% to Apple’s and Google’s in-app purchase fees. Elon Musk is playing with fire by not honoring its own Terms of Service agreements against both previous and current violators, a fact that could lead to an app store removal. Instead, Twitter is also giving former violating accounts “amnesty” allowing them to be reinstated. App store agreements require that apps providing services must adhere to Apple’s app store has rules against apps which don’t properly handle hate speech and other objectionable content.

With Twitter’s more lax rules around objectionable content and reduced “freer speech” filtering, Twitter is very likely now in violation of Apple’s developer rules. Such an app store removal would have a devastating effect on Twitter’s bottom line, especially after advertisers have begun abandoning the platform. When even Apple staffers are abandoning Twitter, that doesn’t say good things for Twitter’s longevity:

Over the weekend, Phil Schiller, the former head Apple marketing executive who still oversees the App Store, apparently deleted his widely-followed Twitter account with hundreds of thousands of followers. —cnbc.com

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Twitter’s Demise

wrong-wayIn addition to all of the above, Musk has saddled Twitter with mountains of debt numbered in the billions of dollars. Some people speculate that it’s $13 billion because that’s what banks have issued Musk in loans. However, that doesn’t take into account the “investors” who Musk didn’t pay out or private investor loans from people who aren’t banks. Twitter’s debt is likely well higher than $13 billion, it’s just that $13 billion is what we can visibly see. Since Twitter is now private, Musk is not obligated to report anything to anyone about the Twitter’s total debt burden or any of its other finances.

One thing is certain, Twitter (and by extension, Musk) was required to pay out all shareholders to take Twitter private. That payout delisted Twitter’s stock and made Twitter a private company. If Twitter was in debt at around $1 billion prior to the takeover, Twitter is likely carrying at least 20-30x more debt now. If Twitter couldn’t make ends meet prior to Twitter’s takeover, there’s absolutely no way Twitter has any hope of doing that under Musk’s “leadership” (and I use this term quite loosely).

When attempting to reduce expenses in any company rapidly, there are only so many places to begin. The first place is in staffing. Staff reduction is low hanging fruit and it’s relatively easy to let staff go to stop at least that cash hemorrhaging quickly. It’s also the first place where Musk chose to begin. Nine days after taking over Twitter, Musk let half of Twitter’s staff go. But that’s not where the staff changes end. That’s just the beginning. In amongst Musk’s crass jokes and public displays about these staff reductions on Twitter, Musk continues to reduce staff every single day. There’s no way to know when Musk will be satisfied with the staff reductions. In fact, he could eliminate every single staffer and still not reduce expenses enough to keep Twitter from running out of money.

Other places to reduce after the above low hanging fruit include real estate (i.e., leases), employee perks and travel expenses.

Employee Perks

Musk has also taken aim at employee perks. Musk has claimed that it cost Twitter upward of $400 to feed each employee per day at the Twitter’s onsite employee cafeteria. While that claim is bold, it’s not really backed up with actual information. Though, Musk has claimed that less than 10% of the company participates in that free food program. If that’s true, then…

My assumption is that the cafeteria continues to buy enough food to feed an overly large lunch crowd every day, yet much of that food goes to waste as employees don’t show up. That’s really a food expense and food prediction problem.

If you want to operate a cafeteria, you have to buy enough food to handle future crowds. You can’t buy only enough food to handle 10% of the employees because then you’ll run out of food when 20% of the employees show up. The first option for this free food perk is to shut it down. If you don’t want to pay for the food expenses of a cafeteria, then you don’t run a cafeteria or you run it more intelligently.

For an example of a more intelligently run cafeteria, the cafeteria could publish its menu a week in advance. Employees who wish to order a meal for any given day submit their orders early. The orders would be accepted up to two days before to prevent people ordering a week’s worth of food in advance, but never show up to eat it. They also can’t order the “day of” because a cafeteria can’t operate that way without over ordering. This then allows the cafeteria to know a few days in advance how much food to order to handle that day’s lunch orders. This limits the food order costs to only those who order meals and only to the amount foods needed to create those ordered meals.

The cafeteria could add on a limited number of extra meals beyond those that were ordered to handle a limited number of walk-ins as well as replacement meals, just in case.

Alternatively, Twitter could contract with a meal provider like Eat Club, which essentially does the same as what I describe above. You order your meal up to a couple of days in advance. This allows Eat Club to only need food enough to cover the meals ordered. It also means that Musk doesn’t need to operate a cafeteria at all, removing food costs and all cafeteria staff.

Beyond smartening up food costs of a cafeteria, other perks may also be targeted for removal, such as child care, reimbursement of certain types of expenses and other employee benefits which are costly. The public may never know about the other perks that get eliminated unless Musk states them publicly or employees speak up, but that’s unlikely because Musk has likely required an NDA for all employees.

Moving Twitter’s HQ

To reduce yet more expenses, the next place for a CEO to look is to expensive office leases. Twitter operates in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the nation, San Francisco, California. Worse, Twitter operates in San Francisco city proper. While San Francisco has, at least in the past, been amenable to offering tax incentives and subsidies to companies willing to remain in San Francisco, there’s no way to know if Twitter benefits from those.

Unfortunately, San Francisco does not extend those tax breaks and incentives to individuals who work in the city. San Francisco is one of THE most expensive places in the nation to live and work. That’s why so many people commute into San Francisco rather than actually living there… that and the crime rate in SF is astonishing. If you work in San Francisco and commute there, expect to spend at least $340 per month simply for a parking space every day. And no, most companies operating in San Francisco won’t pay parking expenses for employees. That’s simply a pay cut you deal with when working at San Francisco companies. The same lack of reimbursement goes for gas expenses or choosing to ride BART or Caltrain every day.

What this expensive lease means for Twitter staffers is that eventually Musk is likely to move Twitter’s HQ to Texas along side Tesla’s HQ. That means that staffers will eventually be forced make the decision to move to Texas or find a different job in California. This mandate has not yet come down from Musk, but looking ahead to the future, this is very likely Musk’s trajectory. That all assumes Twitter doesn’t fail long before a move.

Bankruptcy

Twitter may not quite yet be on the verge of bankruptcy, but only because Musk apparently still seems to have some liquid cash stashed somewhere to pay Twitter’s bills. He may even be using some of his own personal cash to prop Twitter up at this point. Considering that many advertisers have left Twitter, which is made worse because the previous management team failed to secure pre-buys for advertising in 2023, Twitter is about to come into a cash crunch very soon. No advertisers means no ad revenue. For this reason, Musk has his hands tied trying to keep Twitter from running out of cash. Hence, Musk’s $8/mo plan to try and keep Twitter afloat. If Twitter runs out of cash, it’s all over.

There are very likely no banks willing to extend Twitter yet more loans amid the billions that Twitter has already leveraged in Musk’s ill advised buyout. Musk knows this. That’s throwing good money after bad.

Once Twitter’s liquid cash runs out, there’s no way to pay the server bills or staff or electric bills or any other bills. Considering how drastically and rapidly Musk is cutting, Twitter’s cash flow situation must be relatively dire.

What that all means is that Twitter is very likely just weeks away from bankruptcy, which is dependent on Twitter’s cash burn rate. As I said above, Musk may be dipping into his own personal wallet to fund Twitter at this point. If so, it’s understandable why Musk is cutting so deeply and so rapidly. Who wants to prop up millions in cash burn every day? Musk is wealthy, but that’s not a smart way to use (or rather, lose) money.

[UPDATE] It looks increasingly likely that Twitter will need to file bankruptcy. This New York Times article explains that some of Twitter’s bills are now going unpaid. That’s the first step toward not being able to pay any bills.

But once Mr. Musk took over the company, he refused to reimburse travel vendors for those bills, current and former Twitter employees said. Mr. Musk’s staff said the services were authorized by the company’s former management and not by him. His staff have since avoided the calls of the travel vendors, the people said….

Twitter’s spending has dropped, but the moves have spurred complaints from insiders — as well as from some vendors who are owed millions of dollars in back payments. —New York Times

Yeah, this is a bad sign. If vendors are now going unpaid, that indicates lawsuits from just about every angle are imminent against Twitter. It’s also a matter of time before Musk stops paying other critical bills.

Check Mark for $8/mo

yellow dead end sign during day time

One additional thing that Musk has banked on to increase revenues over Twitter’s loss of advertising revenue is to charge users $8/mo for Twitter. Not only was Twitter free to use in the past, the compensation for using Twitter was Twitter’s free access to the IP content generated by its users.

Instead, Musk has forgotten and ignored that gentleman’s agreement between Twitter users and Twitter, instead choosing to try to make money off the backs of its content creators. That would be tantamount to YouTube charging its content creators monthly for the privilege of creating content for YouTube. It’s a ridiculous ask.

The Check Mark verification system originally instituted by Twitter was intended to prove that those with a check mark are who they say they are. Unfortunately, by reducing this feature to an $8/mo plan and because more than half of Twitter employees have been sacked, there’s effectively no one left at Twitter who can actually verify someone who buys the $8/mo plan.

That fact was born out when Musk released the not-ready-for-primetime feature to the public before it was ready, let alone tested. A bunch of bad actors all paid $8 and then began impersonating nearly every celebrity that you could possibly think of. This then forced Musk to halt the program, but not before much damage had been done to the platform and the reputation of the “new” Check Mark program.

Musk was forced to shut down the subscription plan in an attempt to revamp it. So far, the fixed plan has not been released. Those who purchased and who played games were left holding the bag when they were unable to change their usernames back. Irony shines hard on bad actors for being bad actors. Anyway, Musk is a loose cannon and this is clear example of that. Musk was so desperate to make revenue, he was willing to release an unfinished feature that was easily gamed by the bad actors on Twitter.

Worse, it has brought even more bad actors to the platform and those are now beginning their own tirades. Yet, Twitter is now so understaffed and because the bad actors know this, they are running rampant all over the platform harassing, trolling, spewing hate speech and there’s no one there watching or enforcing. Twitter is literally a cesspool. If we thought Twitter was bad under Dorsey, it’s 1000 times worse under Musk… and Musk literally doesn’t care.

Above all of this, Musk plans to prioritize tweets for those who pay and de-prioritize tweets for those who don’t. Meaning, if you pay, you get placement and visibility. If you don’t, your tweets don’t get seen. More than this, Musk even admitted to hiding tweets that he doesn’t like. I’ve even seen this behavior. Hidden tweets are not new. Thread creators can hide tweets of those they don’t like. This goes one step beyond hidden tweets. This allows Twitter to hide tweets silently. No one knows tweets have been hidden unless you go check. Even then, you can’t know it’s been hidden unless you see certain behaviors within Twitter’s UI. Your tweet could be visible one moment and invisible the next, with no notification.

This behavior goes way beyond benign and lands well into nefarious territory. There is zero difference between suspending people over bad tweets and hiding people’s tweets from view without warning or notification. They’re both forms of oppression and speech suppression by an overly wealthy man-boy who simply becomes triggered too easily. This cliché comes to mind, “Out of the frying pan and into the fire!” Which leads to…

The Rise of Oligarchy in Journalism

Make no mistake, even 280 characters is considered a form of journalism. However, because users aren’t journalists, they aren’t bound by journalistic ethics. Meaning, bad actors believe they can say anything they wish, sometimes even doing so willfully to test the boundaries for how far they can take their speech.

Regardless, wealthy individuals are beginning to buy up these large platforms for their own egocentric interests. For example, Rupert Murdoch purchased Fox News (and other similar news outfits) to push his own personal political agendas. Later, after Warner Brothers Discovery purchased CNN, we’ve come to find that billionaire John Malone is a large stakeholder in this new CNN acquired outfit. The latest, of course, is billionaire Elon Musk who has now purchased Twitter, yet another more or less news outfit. Even Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has his own biases which get injected into Facebook’s operation… and yes, Zuckerberg is also considered a media influencing oligarch.

Oligarchy is now firmly entrenched in our media sources in ways that are not amenable to providing unbiased news sources. With Fox News’ right leaning bent at the hand of Rupert Murdoch and now CNN’s more-or-less right leaning bent with John Malone and Musk’s somewhat right leaning bent with Twitter, more and more news organizations are becoming right wing news sources because of these right wing billionaires.

Yet, the government is doing nothing to halt or stymie this harm to consumers. Overall, right wing propaganda is getting more and more intense, with these right wing news organizations spewing false propaganda claiming it is the left who is doing the damage? It’s not left wing billionaires buying up news sources. Note, there is another blog article here yet to be written which is born out of this section, look for it soon.

I’m not saying that left wing or right wing political slants are at all good business for media. However, it appears that the vast majority of false disinformation is coming from right wing media. False information that is perpetrated as truth, particularly about left wing politics.

I’m not here to get into who’s right and who’s wrong. I’m simply disclosing that the political discourse in many media platforms are now being swayed by right wing billionaires. This is to the loss of professional unbiased journalism. It will have to fall to small blog article sites, like WordPress, that are independently run not by right or left wing billionaires where news can be had in unbiased ways. That assumes that right wing billionaires don’t buy up these blogging sites, too. Unfortunately, too many people are willing to listen to these biased news organizations thinking they are both unbiased and purport truth when, in fact, they do neither the vast majority of the time.

Alternative Platforms

While there isn’t a clear winner for a Twitter replacement, some are in the works while others are trying. For example, both Tribel and Mastodon are giving it a good college try and likely have seen an influx of traffic since Twitter’s wobbly last few weeks.

One might also consider Truth Social were it not simply a playground for Donald Trump’s exceedingly fragile ego. If you go over to Truth Social, expect to be barraged by ads. Also, don’t expect to be able to say anything negative about Trump or any of his sycophants or you’ll be banned. Freedom of speech is most definitely not alive and well at Truth Social.

As for Tribel and Mastodon, read their terms and conditions closely before opening an account. Tribel, for example, requires you to agree to hand over all rights to any Intellectual Property (IP) that you upload into Tribel. You forfeit all rights for anything you submit to Tribel. Twitter’s terms allow you to retain ownership, but give Twitter rights to use it. However, with Musk’s haphazard behavior, anything is now possible. I simply can’t trust that Twitter is a safe space any longer.

One possibility is waiting for Jack Dorsey’s BlueSky social which is based on a decentralized system like Mastodon. However, there’s no way to know if Dorsey’s BlueSky will become the defacto Social Media site like Twitter was. However, it may be worth waiting for BlueSky to see if it can become a sufficient replacement for Twitter.

For now, there’s no real leader in social media… unless you trust Facebook and its ilk completely (i.e., Instagram and WhatsApp), which I personally do not. Facebook, or more specifically Meta, has proven itself time and again to be a completely untrustworthy organization. And now, Twitter has fallen into this same trap of being entirely untrustworthy.

Overall

Twitter is a train wreck unfolding right before our eyes. Musk says he wants Twitter to succeed, but his actions say the opposite. From his lackadaisical application of Terms and Conditions to random suspensions to sacking half of Twitter’s staff without understanding that there’s no one there to moderate the platform.

Because of all of these factors, Twitter has effectively become a free for all for bad actors. By ‘Bad Actors’, I mean people who are intent on causing mischief, trolling, attacking people and being general nuisances all without any supervision. In effect, the crazies are running the show at Twitter and Musk clearly doesn’t care.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the hours needed to spend babysitting Twitter trolls. Prior to Musk, at least 50% of the time you could have civilized discourse between various people. Now, there’s almost no one willing or able to have civilized discourse on Twitter, instead choosing to attack, troll or vomit random memes in hopes of solely getting a rise out of someone… simply to pick a fight.

I don’t have time to become a babysitter for Twitter babies. That’s Twitter’s job, not mine… and Twitter is not doing it. Twitter doesn’t pay me to do that work, yet I’m expected to deal with it? No.

As long as Twitter can’t get their shit together, I’m out. I simply can’t spend hours babysitting a Twitter account to continually mute, block and report thousands of users for inappropriate behavior. I don’t even want to think about what celebrities are going through right now with perhaps tens of thousands or millions of followers. Twitter is simply a disaster.

One thing is certain, there will be a dedicated chapter written over “How not to run a business” in business school textbooks for Musk’s incredibly shitty handling of Twitter.

Once Twitter folds, the best thing I can say about it is, “Good riddance to bad rubbish.” I’ll also say that, for the record, it does appear that Twitter is on the brink of collapse. Clearly, Musk didn’t perform his fiduciary responsibility to ensure Twitter’s books were solid before making an offer to purchase. Instead, he harped only on the excessive number of bots on the platform. If Twitter was in this dire of a financial situation prior to the purchase, that should have been enough for Musk to squash the purchase contract. Who agrees to buy a financially insolvent company?

Musk, if you’re reading… finger-512.


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Elizabeth Holmes: Why aren’t more CEOs in prison?

Posted in botch, business, california by commorancy on August 23, 2022

close up shot of scrabble tiles on a white surface

On the heels of Elizabeth Holmes’s conviction for four counts of fraud, the question begs… Why aren’t more startup CEOs in prison for fraud? Before we get into the answer, let’s explore a little about Elizabeth Holmes.

Theranos

Theranos was a technological biomedical startup, not unlike so many tech startup companies before it. Like many startups, Theranos began based out of Palo Alto, California… what some might consider the heart of Silicon Valley. Most startups that begin their life in or around Palo Alto seem able to rope in a lot of tech investors and tech money. Theranos was no different.

Let’s step back to understand who was at the helm of Theranos before we get into what technology this startup purported to offer the world. Theranos was helmed by none other than Elizabeth Holmes. Holmes founded Theranos in 2003 at the age of 19, after she had dropped out of Stanford University. In 2002 prior to founding Theranos, Elizabeth Holmes was an engineering student studying chemical engineering. No, she was not a medical student nor did she have any medical training.

Clearly, by 2003, she had envisioned grandiose ideas about how to make her way in the world… and it didn’t seem to involve actually completing her degree at Stanford. Thus, Theranos was born after having she had gotten her dean, but not medical experts at the school, to sign off on her blood testing idea.

Medical Technology

What was her medical idea? Holmes’s idea involved gathering vast amounts of data from a few drops of blood. Unfortunately, not everyone agreed that her idea had merit, particularly medical professors at Stanford. However, she was able to get some people to buy into her idea and, thus, Theranos was born.

From the drawing board to creating a device that actually does what Holmes claimed would pose the ultimate challenge, one that would see her convicted of fraud.

Software Technology

Most startup products in Silicon Valley involve software innovation with that occasional product which also requires a specialty hardware device to support the software. Such hardware and software examples include the Apple iPhone, the Fitbit and even the now defunct Pebble.

Software only solutions include such notables as Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Office and even operating systems like Microsoft Windows. Even video games fall under such possible startups, like Pokémon Go. Yes, these standalone softwares do require separate hardware, but using already existing products that consumers either own or can easily purchase. These software startups don’t need to build any specialty hardware.

Software solutions can solve problems for many differing industries including the financial industry, the medical industry, the fast food industry and the law enforcement industry and even solve problems for home consumers.

There are so many differing ideas that can make life much simpler, some ideas are well worth exploring. However, like Theranos, some aren’t.

Theranos vs Silicon Valley

Elizabeth Holmes’s idea that a few drops of blood could reveal a lot of information was a radical idea that didn’t, at her young age of 19, have a solution. This is what Elizabeth Holmes sought to create with Theranos.

Many Silicon Valley startups must craft a way to solve the problem they envision. Whether that be accessing data faster or more reliably to creating a queuing system for restaurants using an iPhone app.

It’s not so much the idea, but the execution of it. That’s where the CEO comes into play. The CEO must assemble a team capable of realizing and executing the idea they have in their head. For example, is it possible to create a device to extract mountains of data from a few drops of blood? That’s what Elizabeth Holmes was hoping she could create. It was the entire basis for the creation of Theranos.

Investors

To create that software and device, it takes money and time. Time to develop and money to design and build necessary devices using R&D. A startup must also hire experts in various fields who can step into the role and determine what is and isn’t possible.

In other words, a CEO’s plan is “fake it until you make it”. That saying goes for every single startup CEO who’s ever attempted to build a company. Investors see to it that there’s sufficient capital to make sure a company can succeed, or at least give it a very good shot. Early investors include seed and angel investors, where the money may have few if any strings and later stage investors such as Venture Capitalists, where there are heavy strings tied to the money in the form of exchanging company ownership in exchange for money.

Later stage investors are usually much more hands-on than many angel or seed investors. In fact, sometimes late stage investors can be so hands-on as to cause the company to pivot a company in unwanted directions and away from the original vision. This article isn’t intended to become a lesson for how VC’s work, but suffice it to say that they can become quite important in directing a company’s vision.

In Theranos case, however, Elizabeth Holmes locked out investors by creating a …

Black Box

One thing that Silicon Valley investors don’t like are black boxes. What is a black box? It’s a metaphor for a wall that’s erected between a company’s product and any investors involved. A black box company is one that refuses to share how a startup company’s technology actually works. Many investors won’t invest in such “black box” companies. Investors want to know how their money is being spent and how a company’s technology is progressing. Black boxes don’t allow for that information flow.

Theranos employed such a black box approach to its blood analyzer device. It’s actually a wonder Theranos got as much investor support as it did, particularly for a CEO that young and, obviously, inexperienced when insisting on a black box approach. That situation is ripe for abuse. At 19, how effective could Elizabeth Holmes be as a CEO? How trustworthy and responsible could a 19 year old be with millions of dollars of funding? How many 19 year olds would you entrust with millions of dollars, after they had dropped out of college? For investors, this should have been a huge red flag.

There’s something to be said for the possibility of a wunderkind in Elizabeth Holmes, except she hadn’t proven herself to be a prodigy while attending Stanford. Even the medical experts she had consulted about her idea clearly didn’t think she had the necessary skills to make her far-fetched idea a reality. A chemical engineering student hopping into the biotech field with the creation of small, almost portable blood analysis machine at a time when commercial blood analysis machines where orders of magnitudes bigger and required much more blood volume? Holmes’s idea was fantastical, yet clearly unrealistic.

However, Theranos’s black box, dubbed the Edison or miniLab, was a small piece of equipment about half the size of a standard tower computer case and included a touch screen display and blood insertion port. How $9 Billion Startup Theranos Blew Up And Laid Off 41%

Unfortunately, this black box was truly a black box in all senses of the word, including its actual case coloring. Not only was the Edison’s innards kept a strict company secret, its testing methodologies were also kept secret, even from employees. In other words, no one knew exactly how the Edison truly worked. No, not even the engineers that Theranos hired to try to actually make Holmes’s vision a reality.

Theranos and Walgreens

By 2016, Theranos had secured a contract with Walgreens for Walgreens to use Theranos’s Edison machine to test blood samples by medical patients. Unfortunately, what came to pass from those tests was less than stellar. It’s also what led to the downfall of Theranos and ultimately Elizabeth Holmes and her business partner, Sunny Balwani.

The engineers that Theranos hired knew that the Edison didn’t work, even though they hadn’t been privy to all of its inner workings. Instead, what they saw was those tiny vials of blood trying to run samples on larger blood testing machines like the Siemens Advia 1800.

When the engineers, Erika Cheung and Tyler Shultz, confronted Holmes and Balwani about the Edison machine’s lack of functionality and about being asked to falsify test results, they were given the cold shoulder. Both Cheung and Tyler decided to blow the whistle on Theranos’s fraud. Cheung and Schultz both left Theranos after whistleblowing to start their own companies.

Ultimately, Theranos had been using alternative medical diagnostic technology in lieu of its own Edison machine, which the Edison clearly didn’t function properly and neither did the third party systems with the amount of blood that Holmes stated that it required.

This left patients at Walgreens with false test results, requiring many patients to retest with another lab to confirm the validity of Theranos’s results.

Elizabeth Holmes Fate?

In January of 2022, Elizabeth Holmes was found guilty of 4 counts of fraud. However, the jury acquitted her of all counts involving patient fraud… the patients were, in fact, hurt the most by Theranos’s fraud. The jury awarded monetary rewards to the investors, not to the patients who may have been irreparably harmed by her machine’s failure to function.

Why aren’t more CEOs in prison for fraud?

While the Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes case is somewhat unique among Silicon Valley startups, it is not completely unique. Defrauding investors is a slippery slope for Silicon Valley. Once one company is found perpetrating fraud on investors, it actually opens the door up to many more such cases.

Taking money from investors to attempt to bring a dream to life is exactly what CEOs do. However, Theranos (and Elizabeth Holmes) between 2003 and 2016 couldn’t produce a functional machine.

Most CEOs, given enough time and, of course money, can likely produce a functional product in some form. Whether that product resembles the original idea that founded the company remains to be seen. Some CEOs pivot a year or two in and change directions. They either realize their initial idea wasn’t unique enough or that there would be significant problems bringing it to market. They then change direction and come up with a new idea that may be more easily marketable.

Startups that Bankrupt

In the case of Theranos, other startups that go bankrupt could signal the possibility that CEOs may now be held accountable to fraud charges, just like Ms. Holmes. The Elizabeth Holmes case has now set that precedent. Taking investor money may no longer be without legal peril directly to company executives. If you agree to bring a product to market and are given investor capital to do it… and then you fail and the company folds, you may find yourself in court up on fraud charges.

Silicon Valley investors do understand that the odds of a successful startup is relatively low… which is why they typically invest in many at once. The one that succeeds typically more than makes up for the others that fail. If more than one succeeds, even better. It’s called, “playing the odds”. The more you bet, the better chances you have of winning. However, playing the odds won’t stop investors from wanting to recoup losses for money given to failed startups.

The Elizabeth Holmes case may very well be chilling for startups. It’s ultimately chilling to would-be CEOs who see dollar signs in their eyes, but then months later that startup is out of cash and closing down in failure.

CEOs and Prison Time

Elizabeth Holmes should be considered a cautionary tale for all would-be CEOs looking for some quick cash to get their idea off the ground. If you do manage to secure funding, you should be cautious with how you use that cash. Also always and I mean ALWAYS make sure the progress in building your idea is shown to your investors regularly. Let them know how their investor money is being used. When software is available for demonstrations, show it off. Don’t hide it inside of a black box.

Black boxes have no place in startup investing. As with Elizabeth Holmes, she’s facing up to 20 years in prison. However, her sentence has yet to be handed down, but is expected to be no less than 20 years. Though, it’s possible she may be given the possibility of parole and the possibility of a reduced sentence for good behavior… all of which is up to the sentencing judge.

Elizabeth Holmes opened this door for startup CEOs. It’s only a matter of time before investors begin using this precedent to hold CEO founders to account should an investment in a startup fail.

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Can the Steam Deck succeed?

Posted in botch, business, gaming, portable by commorancy on February 28, 2022

SteamDeck1I’ve not yet had my hands onto this new Valve bad boy of a handheld, but I still want to give my first impressions of this device with its base $399 price tag. Let’s explore.

Handhelds in Gaming

Before I jump into my opinion of Valve’s new Steam Deck, let’s take step back in time to understand this device’s origins. I’m sure you may already be aware of many of the devices listed, but for those who may be new to some of them, I’ll list them below.

Handheld gaming began with Nintendo going as far back as early 80s with the Nintendo Game & Watch series of handheld gaming devices. These were single game devices that played very simplistic games, such as Fire and Ball. These simplistic games had you doing very simplistic things, such as with Fire, catching people as they tumble out of a burning building or in Ball, juggling balls.

Nintendo realized the magic of these small single-game handhelds and introduced the more flexible cartridge based GameBoy. Using cartridges, this handheld gaming unit offered the ability to switch games out and play many different games, up to as many as cartridges were made. It also offered game play on the go in a compact format.

Since then, we’ve seen a number of portable gaming handhelds in the subsequent years including:

  • Gameboy Color
  • Gameboy Color Clamshell
  • Atari Lynx
  • Sega Gamegear
  • Nintendo DS
  • Nintendo 3DS
  • Neo Geo Pocket
  • Sony PSP
  • Nokia NGage
  • Sony Xperia Play
  • Sony PS Vita
  • NVIDIA Shield
  • Nintendo Switch

and now we have the Steam Deck to add to this list. I didn’t include the Nintendo Wii U because while it had a portable element in the Gamepad, it simply wasn’t possible to play games strictly on the Gamepad on-the-go.

The Reviews

The early reviewers of the Steam Deck call it groundbreaking. Yet, the Steam Deck doesn’t solve any of the fundamental problems of handheld consoles of this variety. So, how exactly is it groundbreaking? It isn’t. It has one huge limitation that makes it fall far short of “ground breaking”. It’s also buggy as all get-out in far too many places that matter. Let’s take a closer look at the Steam Deck. SteamDeck2

From the above image, it looks like a fairly standard kind of handheld with …

  • A large touch screen
  • Two thumbsticks
  • A D-Pad
  • ABXY buttons (using the Xbox Controller layout)
  • A ‘Steam’ button
  • A ‘…’ menu button
  • Two shoulder and two trigger buttons
  • (new) Two trackpad buttons below the thumb sticks
  • (new) Two additional buttons (View and Options) between the thumbsticks and the D-Pad and ABXY buttons.
  • Power, volume up (+) and down (-), headphone jack, USB-C port and reset buttons are on the top edge.

This console runs Linux, or rather SteamOS, apparently. I’m uncertain why Steam chose to go with Linux on this handheld when choosing Windows would have been a much more compatible option. I mean, every single PC game would operate right out of the box on a handheld built on Windows. My only thought is that Gabe Newell didn’t want to fork over a bunch of cash to Microsoft to make this console a reality. Using a Linux based SteamOS meant cheaper outlay and no royalty fees.

Unfortunately, that design choice immediately sacrifices game compatibility right out of the gate. No where is this more apparent than when you attempt to play some games, which simply crash outright. Seeing as this is Linux based, it must use a Windows compatibility stack. The SteamOS apparently uses the open source Proton for its Windows compatibility stack, in similar form to Wine (Wine Is Not an Emulator). In fact, Proton’s Windows compatibility is based on Wine, but is being developed and improved by Valve and CodeWeavers. If you’ve ever used Wine, then you know it’s not ready for everyday use the vast majority of the time. Valve’s Proton layer may be better, but it can’t be that much better than Wine.

One thing I’ll say about compatibility is that it can work great one minute and suck hard the next. It’s entirely dependent on so many tiny little things to line up. Instead of fighting with compatibility layers, the Steam Deck could have run Windows directly and avoided all of these compatibility problems. Assuming the the point is to play Windows games, then why fake Windows when you can use the real thing? If the Steam Deck had at least been given the option of loading Windows as its operating system, then a buggy Windows compatibility layer wouldn’t have been required.

Pricing

The Steam Deck isn’t cheap. Let’s examine the Steam Deck’s pricing levels:

Screen Shot 2022-02-28 at 11.08.47 AM

For $399, that gets you an entry level handheld device and a carrying case. I’m assuming the Steam Deck also ships with a power cord and power brick, but it’s not listed in the above. If you want the top end version of the Steam Deck, you’re going to fork over $650 … more once you’ve bought accessories and games and paid taxes.

Let’s put this into perspective. For $499 ($100 more than the Steam Deck’s base model), you can buy a PS5 or an Xbox Series X. Both are true gaming consoles, but not handhelds.

PlayStation Vita, NVIDIA Shield, Nintendo Switch

All three of these consoles are the most recent iteration of touch screen “tablet” handhelds. These are the handhelds that should have been able to perform the best. In fact, the NVIDIA Shield should have been competitive with this console. Although, the Shield is now several years old at this point.

However, the Shield tried exactly what the Steam Deck is now trying. To bring PC gaming to a handheld. Yet, for whatever reason, it hasn’t ultimately worked.

That’s not to say that the Steam Deck won’t have some success, but ultimately it likely won’t succeed in the way Gabe hopes. It’s not for lack of trying. This format has been tried multiple times each with varying degrees of success, but none so runaway as to call it massively successful. As I said above, though, there’s one huge fail in the Steam Deck’s design. I’ll come to this shortly.

Of all of them, Nintendo’s Switch is probably the closest to a ‘runaway success’, but it’s still not winning the handheld space. What is? The Smartphone. Why? Because of it’s multifunction purpose. You can play games as easily as answer the phone as easily as book your next flight to Aruba. A phone supports always on data and, thus, gaming can take full advantage of that fact… making carrying around a phone the easiest gaming handheld available. On top of this, smartphones are updated about every year, making them 100% compatible with your current software, but allowing them to run that software much more fluidly. Gaming handhelds, like the Steam Deck, are lucky to be updated once every 3 years.

The point is, the handheld market is dominated by smartphones, not gaming handhelds. The reason for this, as I stated above, is clear. Not to mention, the battery life on phones, while not perfect, is about as good as you can expect in that sized device. It lasts all day, at least 8 hours. Many phone batteries can last up to 12 hours.

Handheld Gaming Battery Woes

Handheld gaming devices, at best, offer about 2 hours of play time with the best games. That’s a problem with the Nintendo Switch, the PS Vita, the NVIDIA Shield and, yes, even the Steam Deck. The point is, 2 hours of play time is simply not enough when you’re attempting to become immersed in a brand new game. All immersion is immediately broken when you see that sad red flashing battery icon letting you know your battery is about to die.

Sure, you can then find a wall outlet to plug into to continue your gaming, but that can be a hassle. This is also the fundamental problem why such handheld gaming consoles don’t sell as well as they should. You can’t produce fabulous looking games at a rock stable 60 FPS gaming experience when you’re limited to 2 hours of play time. The OS must then play internal conservation tricks with frame rates, CPU power levels, GPU power levels, shutting hard drives down and so on. These power saving techniques mean better battery life, but poor gaming performance. It also gets worse as the battery runs down. Less amperage and voltage means limiting CPU and GPU computing speeds.

This problem exists even with the Nintendo Switch, but Nintendo has taken a balanced approach by reducing the resolution to 720p when playing on the console’s screen. Moving the Switch to OLED, though, likely means even better battery life. An LCD screen backlight is a huge power drain. When using OLED, each LED in the screen uses much less overall power than a full sized backlight. Unfortunately, OLED also raises the cost of the unit simply due to its inclusion. Basically, to get a small amount of battery savings from an OLED display means the consumer shelling out $50 more ($349) to replace a Switch that you may already paid $300 previously.

Display Technology

Unfortunately, Valve chose not to use OLED to help save battery power for the Steam Deck. Instead, Valve chose to build it with a TFT LCD screen with a backlight. Let’s talk about the screen for a moment. What type of screen does the Steam Deck offer?

  • 7-inch touchscreen
  • 1280 x 800 (16:10)
  • 60 Hz
  • IPS (In-Plane Switching)
  • Anti-glare etched glass

This is a decent screen type for handheld. Consider, though, that the Nintendo Switch offers OLED at 1280×720 (720p) at $349, meaning that the screen on the Steam Deck is only 80 pixels wider. However, even were the Steam Deck to ship with an OLED screen, the CPU and GPU are the power hungry hogs in this unit. Yes, the Backlight does consume power, but not at the same rate as the CPU and GPU. An OLED screen might buy the unit an additional 15-45 minutes of play time depending on many factors for how the screen is used. Meaning, the fewer pixels lit, the less power it takes to drive the screen.

On a handheld, OLED should always be the first consideration when choosing a display, if only because of the backlight power savings. For a TV monitor, OLED’s benefits are inky blackness in dark areas.

I give it to Valve, though. You gotta start your design somewhere and LCD was the easiest place to start the Steam Deck, I suppose. Let’s hope that the next iteration, assuming there is one, that Gabe considers the power savings an OLED screen affords in a handheld design.

Can the Steam Deck succeed?

Unknown, but probably not this version. Did I mention that one huge flaw in this design? It’s still coming. Though, based on its current specifications, I’d give it a relatively low chance for success. Why? Because a gaming-only piece of hardware swimming in among a sea of smartphones doesn’t exactly indicate success. Oh, the unit will sell to various die-hard gamers and those who really want to be out-and-about gaming (ahem). But, those die-hard gamers are not going prop up this market. If that were to happen, the PS Vita would have succeeded. Yet, it hasn’t.

The only reason the Nintendo Switch has done as well as it has isn’t because of the Switch itself. It’s because of the franchises that Nintendo owns: Super Mario, Donkey Kong, Pokémon, Animal Crossing, Super Smash, Zelda, Mario Party, Kirby, Metroid and so on. These franchises drive the sales of the device, not the other way around. Nintendo could put out the worst piece of handheld garbage imaginable and people would still flock to it so long as they can play Pokémon.

Unfortunately, the Steam Deck doesn’t have legitimate access to these Nintendo franchises (other than through emulation after-the-fact). The Steam Deck must rely on games written for SteamOS or that are compatible with SteamOS. Even then, not all of these Steam games work on the Steam Deck properly, because they were designed to work with a mouse and keyboard, not a console controller. In essence, putting these games on a Steam Deck is tantamount to shoving a square peg into a round hole. Sometimes you can get it to work. Sometimes you can’t.

Ultimately, what this all means for the Steam Deck is a mixed bag and a mixed gaming experience.

Games Should Just Work

Consoles have taught us that games should simply “just work”. What that means to the gamer is that the simple act of opening a game on a console means that it launches and plays without problems. Though, recently, many games devs have taken this to a whole new and bad level… I’m looking at you, Bethesda.

With the Nintendo Switch, for example, games simply just work. The Nintendo Switch is, if nothing else, one of the best handheld gaming experiences I’ve had with a handheld. Not from a battery perspective, but from a “just works” perspective. I can’t even recall the last time I ran a Nintendo game that crashed outright back to the dashboard. Nintendo’s games are always rock solid.

Unfortunately, for the Steam Deck, that experience doesn’t exist. Some games may work well. Some may work halfway. Some may crash part way through. Some games won’t launch. The experience is a mixed bag. This poor level of experience is exactly why the Steam Deck may or may not succeed. That and the Steam Deck’s one big flaw… yes, that info is still coming.

When paying $400-700 for a gaming console, you expect games to play. Yet, even though the game is listed on the Steam store doesn’t imply the Steam Deck will run it. That’s a fairly major problem with the Steam Deck.

Instead, the Steam Deck folks need to create a tried and tested list of Steam Deck games and limit only those games to being visible, available and playable on the Steam Deck’s interface. Basically, the unit should prevent you from seeing, downloading and attempting to play any game which has not been thoroughly tested as functional on the Steam Deck. This vetting is important to bring the Steam Deck back into a similar stable play experience to other handhelds, like Nintendo. If a game doesn’t work, you can’t see it or download it on the Steam Deck.

This “games just work” mentality is an important aspect to a gaming handheld like the Steam Deck. It’s a make or break aspect of marketing this handheld. It’s not that difficult to limit which games can be seen and downloaded. There’s absolutely no reason why this handheld shows games that knowingly don’t work or that are knowingly unstable. Yes, such limits will reduce the amount of games available, but will improve the overall play experience of this device for buyers.

When spending $400, we’ve come to expect a specific level of sanity and stability. This goes hand-in-hand for the price tag, even for the Steam Deck.

Yet, reviewers have stated that their review models have experienced a completely mixed bag. Some games that work, work well. Some games that were expected to work, haven’t worked at all. Some games that worked well have crashed the following day of play. This problem all comes back down to the Proton compatibility problems mentioned earlier.

Success or Failure?

At this point, it’s too early to tell, but one big flaw will likely prevent full success. However, let me dive right into my own opinion of this handheld console. My first observation is that the Steam Deck is physically too big. I understand that Steam wanted it to have a big enough screen with the Steam Deck, but its simply too big and bulky. With the added bulk of the controls, it simply becomes oversized.

Instead, how I would handled design of this platform would have been to use a separate remote joystick. Design the screen to be a simple tablet display with a hefty fan, kickstand and no controls on the tablet at all (other than volume, power, reset and headphone jack). Then, have a separate joystick that can be charged and carried separately. This does a couple of things. Joysticks with separate batteries mean no drain on the console battery under use. Additionally, a battery in the joystick could be hefty enough to be used as a supplemental power source, which can be tapped by the console to extend its battery life once the console is out and about. Having a separate battery means longer play time, thus carrying a separate and charged joystick means extra playtime.

Separate joysticks also feel better in the hand than attached joysticks on handhelds like this. The wide spaced joystick always feels somewhat awkward to use. This awkwardness can be overcome after using it for some time, but I’ve never really gotten past the awkwardness of the Nintendo Switch. I always prefer using the Pro controller over the attached JoyCons. The mechanics used to drive the sticks in a small form factor like the Steam Deck are squashed down and usually don’t feel correct. Using a full sized joystick, these awkward sizing and design issues don’t exist.

With the PS Vita, this spacing problem was less of a problem due to the smaller screen. Though, playing games with the smashed-flat thumbsticks on the PS Vita always felt awkward.

I do get having an attached controller, though. For places like on a train or a bus or in a car, it may be difficult to use two separate devices. Thus, having a controller built-in solves that problem in these few situations. Yet, I don’t know if I’d hamper a handheld device’s size simply to cover a few limited places where having a separate controller won’t easily work. The vast majority of out-and-about play locations would allow for using a controller separately from the LCD screen base, which can be propped up or even hung.

However, these are all relatively minor problems not likely cause failure of sales of the device. The major problem with this device is its lack of additional functionality. For example, it’s not a phone. You can’t make calls using the device.

SteamOS also seems to also offer limited productivity apps, such as word processors, video editors and so on. It does have a browser, but even that seems limited because of the limited controls. You’d have to pair a keyboard if you want more functionality.

Because SteamOS is based on Linux, there’s limited commercial software available for Linux. Unlike MacOS X and Windows, where the vast majority of software is being written, Linux doesn’t have many of these commercial software options. To run Windows apps requires a compatibility stack like Proton, to which those problems have been discussed above.

The Steam Deck goes way deeper than not being a phone, though. It has no cell phone data capability at all. I’ve been teasing the Steam Deck’s biggest flaw… so here it is. No on-the-go always on networking. Meaning, there’s no way to play multiplayer games while out and about without carrying additional devices. Which leads to….

Multiplayer Games?

Don’t go into the purchase of a Steam Deck for any purpose other than single player offline gaming. Know that you won’t be making cell phone calls nor have any easy always-on data options available. If you want data while out and about, you’re going to need a WiFi network handy, to carry a MiFi hotspot with you or use your phone as a WiFi hotspot. This means you’ll need to carry a second device for playing any games which require multiplayer. Because too many games these days require multiplayer always-on Internet, the Steam Deck substantially misses the boat here.

Even still, using a phone or MiFi hotspot may limit your speeds enough to prevent the use of multiplayer in some games. If you try to use a Starbucks or Target store WiFi, you may find that gaming is blocked entirely. This is a huge downside to this device for out-and-about multiplayer gaming. Basically, the only games you can play while out and about are single player offline games only, not multiplayer. While some offline games are still being made, many games now require online Internet at all times, regardless of whether you are playing multiplayer. As more and more game devs require always online status, this will limit the usefulness of this model of the Steam Deck over time.

Instead, Valve needs to rethink this design of the Steam Deck. Valve should include a cell phone radio so that this unit can join a 5G network to enable always-on networking. This is a huge miss for the Steam Deck… one that shouldn’t have been missed. Multiplayer gaming is here to stay and pretty much so is always online Internet. As I said, many game devs require always online Internet.

The lack of a cell phone data network on the Steam Deck limits out and about play for far too many games. Ultimately, the novelty of the Steam Deck’s handheld’s remote play basically limits you to playing multiplayer games in and around your home or at places where you know high speed online gaming is allowed, which isn’t very many places. Even Hotels may limit speeds such that some online games won’t function properly. Thus, the lack of always-on Internet actually undermines the portability of the Steam Deck, making it far less portable for gaming than one might expect.

Instead, Valve needs to team up with a large mobile carrier to offer always-on data networking for the Steam Deck that also allows for full speed gaming. Thus, this would mean including a built-in cell phone radio that offers purchasing a data plan offering high-speed 5G always-on network multiplayer gaming. Once this is achieved, only then could this device be considered ‘ground breaking’. Without this always-on networking capability, the Steam Deck handheld is firmly tied to a past where fewer and fewer offline games are being created today.

Success or Failure Part II

Circling back around… the Steam Deck, while novel and while also offering access to the Steam library of games may not yet be all that it can be. This handheld needs a lot more design consideration to become truly useful in today’s gaming circles.

Some gamers may be willing to shell out $399 to play it, but many won’t. The limitations of this unit far outweigh it’s usefulness as a modern handheld console. Back when the PS Vita offered two versions, WiFi only version and a Cell Phone version, that was at a time when multiplayer gaming was still not always online.

Today, because many games require always-on Internet, not having a cell phone network available on this gaming “tablet” (yes, it is a tablet), is highly limiting for multiplayer gaming. Multiplayer gaming isn’t going away. If anything, it’s getting bigger each year. Choosing not to include or offer a cell phone data version of this tablet is a huge miss.

My guess for success of this specific version of the Steam Deck is that its success will be limited. It will sell some, but only to very specific gamers. I seriously doubt that it will be considered “ground breaking” in any substantial way, particularly after missing the general purpose nature of a tablet combined with including an always-on a cell data network feature.

I felt this way both with the Nintendo Switch and with the NVIDIA Shield. Both of those tablets have done okay with their respective markets, particularly Nintendo’s Switch. It’s done exceedingly well, but only because of Nintendo’s major game franchises and because none of those franchises (other than Mario Kart) require heavy networking. The Shield, like this tablet, has only done okay in sales. Not great, not horrible.

If Valve wants to sell this gaming tablet as it is, it needs to strike while the iron is hot and while this tablet is new. Advertise the crap out of it everywhere. Because it’s new, people will be interested to have a look. Many more will buy it because it’s new. Eventually, all of the above limitations will be apparent, but only after people have paid their cash and already purchased it.

Personally, this unit has too many limitations for me to consider it. If this gaming tablet offered both cell phone data options AND full Windows gaming compatibility, I might have considered it. It isn’t enough to offer many from the Steam library of games. It also needs to offer the fundamental basics for multiplayer gaming.

For example, you wouldn’t be able to play Fallout 76 while out and about without access to a high speed MiFi hotspot. Thus, you also won’t be able to play multiplayer games like Fortnite, Overwatch or Destiny using a Steam Deck while riding a train to work. The lack of a multiplayer always-on data network is huge miss that ultimately undermines the usability of the Steam Deck and is also its biggest design flaw; a flaw that shouldn’t have been missed by the Valve team at the Steam Deck’s price tag.

Overall, I can’t personally recommend the purchase of the Steam Deck as a portable modern gaming device strictly because of its lack of thoughtful design around multiplayer gaming while on the go. However, the Steam Deck is probably fine if used as a home console device using a wireless controller while hooked to a widescreen TV and connected to a home high speed WiFi network. It may also be worth it if you intend to use it primarily to play offline single player games or if you intend to use it as a retro emulator for 80s and 90s games. Still, it’s way overpowered for the likes of Joust, Dig Dug or Defender.

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CEO Question: Should I sell my business to a Venture Capital group?

Posted in botch, business, howto, tips by commorancy on February 5, 2022

person with keys for real estate

This may seem like a question with a simple answer, but there’s lots to consider. The answer also depends on your goals as CEO. If you’re here reading this, then you’re clearly weighing all of your options. Let’s get started.

Selling Anything

A sale is a sale is a sale. Money is money is money. What these cliché statements lack in brilliance is more than made up for in realism. What these statements ultimately mean is, if the entire goal of selling your business is to make you (personally) some quick money, then it honestly doesn’t matter to whom you sell.

Selling your company to your brother, a bank, another corporation or, yes, even a Venture Capitalist group, the end result is the same: a paycheck. If your end goal is that paycheck and little else matters, then you can end your reading here and move forward with your sale. However, if your goal is to keep your hard built business, brand and product alive and allow it to move into the future, I urge you to keep reading to find out the real answer.

Selling your Company

Because you are here reading and you’ve got some level of interest in the answer to the question posed, I assume, then, that you’re here looking for more than the simple “paycheck” answer. With that assumption in place, let’s keep going.

Companies are complex beasts. Not only does a company have its own product parts that makes the company money, companies must also have staffing parts, the people who are hired to support those product parts and maintain those new sales.  Basically, there are always two primary aspects of any business: product and staff. As a CEO, it’s on you to gauge the importance levels of each of these aspects to you. After all, your staff looks to you for guidance and they rely on you for continued employment. There’s also your legacy to consider and how you may want to be remembered by the business (and history): positively, negatively or possibly not at all.

Reputation

Let’s understand that in countries like China, reputation or “face” is the #1 most important aspect of doing business. I don’t mean the business’s reputation. I mean the person’s own reputation is at stake. If the person makes a critical misstep in business, that can prevent future opportunities. In the United States, however, “face” (or personal reputation) is almost insignificant in its importance, especially to CEOs. Short of being found guilty of criminal acts (i.e., Elizabeth Holmes), there’s very little a CEO can honestly do to fail their career.

Indeed, I’ve seen many “disgraced” CEOs find, start, and operate many more businesses even after their “disgrace”. It’s even possible Elizabeth Holmes may be able to do this after serving her sentence. As I said, in the United States, someone’s business reputation means very little when being hired. In fact, a hiring business only performs background checks to determine criminal acts, not determine whether the person has a success or failure track record at their previous business ventures.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because no matter what you do as a CEO, the only person you have to look at every day in the mirror is you. If you don’t like what you see, then that’s on you. The rest of the industry won’t care or even know what you’ve done in the past unless you disclose it.

Venture Capitalist Buyouts

At this point, you’re probably asking, what about those Venture Capital Buyouts? Are they good deals? That really all depends on your point of view. If you’ve put “blood, sweat, tears and sleepless nights” into building your business from literally nothing to something to be proud of and you still hold any measure of pride in that fact, then a Venture Capital group buyout is probably not what you want. Let’s understand the differences in the types of buyouts.

  1. Direct Business Buyouts — These are sales made directly to other businesses like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and the like. These are sales where the buyer sees value in not only maintaining the brand and products under that brand, but building that brand as a sub-product under the bigger buyout company. With these kinds of buyouts, your product will live on under that new company. Additionally, the staff have the option to remain on board and continue to maintain that product for the new company for potentially many years. This kind of buyout helps maintain the product and maintains “face” among staff members. This kind of buyout rarely involves resale and, after the acquisition dust settles, is usually seen as a positive change.
  2. Venture Capital Buyouts — This kind of buyout is an entirely different beast. Venture Capitalists are in the purchase solely to make money off of their “investment” as a whole. The business itself is the commodity, not the products sold by the company being purchased. No. Venture Capital buyouts are a type of investor who buys a “business commodity” to “fix up” then “flip” to make their investment return. Thus, Venture Capitalists don’t honestly care about the internals of the products or solutions the company offers, only that those products / solutions become marketing fodder for their sales cap. Venture Capitalists do weigh the value in the products prior to the purchase, but beyond that and once the purchase completes, the business is treated not as an ongoing concern, but as a commodity to be leaned out, fixed up and made attractive to a buyer. This kind of buyout always involves resale. This fact means that remaining staff must endure acquisition twice in succession, probably within 1-2 years. This kind of buyout is usually viewed by staff (and the industry) as a negative change.

Thus, the difference between these two types of purchases is quite noticeable, particularly to staff who must endure them.

Undervalued

[Update 2/8/2022] Everything up to this point has only implied what this section actually states. I’ve decided to explicitly state this portion because it may not be obvious, even though I thought this information was quite obvious while writing the initial article.

Bottom Line: If a Venture Capital group is considering a purchase of your business, know that what the VC group is offering is only a fraction of what your business is actually worth. They can’t make money if they pay you, the seller, the company’s full value. Keep in mind that the VCs consider the business a “fixer upper”. That means they will invest “some” money into the business to “dress it up”. How that “dress up” manifests isn’t intended to turn your business around, however. What “dress up” means is investing money to make the business look pretty on paper… or, more specifically, so the books look better. That means they’ll pay an accountant to dress up the numbers, not pay to make your business actually better. Though, they will cut staff and then pull out the whips to make sure everyone sells, sells, sells so the business appears to have better year-over-year profits. When a prospective buyer looks at the books, the buyer will notice improved numbers and, hopefully, be willing to fork over double (or more) what the VCs paid to buy the “company” from you, the original seller.

Even the smartest, brightest, most intelligent CEOs can be taken in by the lure of a Venture Capital Group company purchase offer. Know then that what VCs have offered you isn’t what your company is actually worth.

Ultimately, it also means that you as the seller are being taken for a ride by the VCs. You can dress up your own company and do exactly as the VCs. Then, find a direct buyer willing to pay double what the VCs offered, which will make you twice as much money AND remove the VCs entirely from the picture as an unnecessary profiting middleman.

Acquisition Woes

Being the acquired company in an acquisition is hard on staff. Lots of questions, few answers and during the transition there’s practically silence. It’s a difficult process once the deal closes. It only gets worse. Typically, the then CEO becomes a lesser executive in the new firm. However, most times the CEO changes position not because they want to, but because the buyout contract stipulates a 6-9 month transition period and obviously most companies don’t want two CEOs. Though, I have rarely seen transitions that agree to co-CEOs. It’s an odd arrangement, though.

This means that the newly demoted executive is only on board to complete the transition and receive 100% of their contractually agreed buyout payment. In fact, most buyout contracts stipulate that for the CEO to receive their 100% payout, they must not only remain on board in a specific position for a specified period of time, they may also be required to meet certain key performance indicator (KPI) metrics. So long as all goals are met, the contract is considered satisfied and the former CEO receives 100% payment.

However, if some of the goals are only partially met, then reduction of payment is warranted. Such other metrics may include retaining key staff on board for a minimum of 6 months. If any general staff have ever gone through a buyout and have received a special bonus or incentive package, that’s the reason. The incentive package is to ensure the CEO’s KPI is reached so that the contractually defined buyout payment is paid at or as close to 100% as possible. This is also why these acquired executives can get both grumpy and testy when they realize their KPIs are in jeopardy.

Trust

Let me pause for just a moment to discuss a key issue, “trust”. While contracts stipulate very specific criteria, such as payment terms, not everything in a buyout is covered under the contract. For example, the acquiring company’s executives can find anything they wish wrong with the KPIs to reduce payment. Contracts usually do not contain intent clauses that hold the acquiring company execs accountable if they “make up” flaws in the agreement that don’t exist. It is ultimately the acquiring executives who decide whether the KPIs have been met, not the incoming CEO. If you trust these people to be morally and ethically sound, then you have nothing to worry about. However, because Venture Capitalists aren’t always practical in what they do and are driven by the need to see a return on their investment, they could find faults in the KPIs that don’t exist, solely to reduce payments. Basically, you’ll need to be careful when extending trust. Meaning, you must place full trust in those VCs willing to purchase your company. This means, doing your homework on these people to find out where they’ve been, who they’ve worked with and, if possible, get references. Let’s continue…

Buyouts with Strings

Every buyout has strings attached. No buyer will purchase a company outright for straight up cash without such strings. Such strings ensure the company remains intact, that key staff remain on board and that the product remains functional. These are handled via such stipulated “insurance policy” clauses in the form of KPIs applied to acquired CEO and executive team. These KPIs, when reached, allow the business seller to receive payment for reaching those KPIs. Were key staff to leave and the product have no knowledgeable or trained staff left to operate the product, then the purchase would be useless and the product would fail. For a buyer, requesting such insurance policies in the contract is always a key portion of buyout contracts. Expect them.

Saving Face

Circling back around to Venture Capital group buyouts, it’s important to understand that the point of such a buyout is for those “investors” to return their investment sooner rather than later. The sooner, the better. That means that their point in a company purchase by a Venture Capital group is not to take your business into new and bigger directions by dumping loads of money in and growing it. If they dangle that carrot in front of you, know that that’s absolutely not how these deals work. Don’t be deceived by the dangling of this carrot. This carrot is absolutely to get you to sell, but will almost just as definitely not pan out… unless it’s contractually obligated.

On the contrary. They’ve spent loads of money already simply buying the company. They’re not planning on dumping loads more cash into it. Instead, they plan to lean it out, get rid of stuff that wastes money (typically HR, insurance and such first), then move onto erasing what they deem as “useless” staff and wasteful costly third party services (ticketing systems, email systems, marketing systems, etc).

As for staff cuts, this means asking managers to identify key staff and jettisoning those staff who aren’t “key”. This usually comes down in the form of a mandate that only X people can be kept on board out of Y. For example, 10 people may be employed, only 3 may stay. Who will you pick? That then means jettisoning 7 people from the staff roster.

You won’t know this aspect going into the deal because they won’t have made you privy to these “plan” details. It also likely won’t be in the buyout contract either, unless you requested such a buyout stipulation. It’s guaranteed you’ll find out this plan within 10-20 days after the deal closes. As I said, the Venture Capitalists don’t look at it as an ongoing business to help flourish, they look at it as commodity to lean out, pretty up and hope for a high priced buyer to come along.

Venture Capitalists understand that it does cost some money to make money, but they’re not looking for a money pit. The purchase price is typically where the money pit ends. You shouldn’t expect an infusion of cash as soon as the Venture Capital firm closes the sale, unless such investment has been stipulated in writing in the purchase contract. Of course, you are free to take some of your own sale money and invest it into the business, but I don’t know why you’d do that since you no longer own the company.

What this means and why this section is labeled “Saving Face” is that eventually you’re going to have look into the face of not only the 7 people you had to fire, but the 3 people left and explain what’s going on. These situations are extremely hard on morale and makes it exceedingly difficult for those 3 who stayed on to remain positive. Surviving a huge layoff cut is not a win. In fact, it’s just the opposite. It’s also not simply a perception issue, either. Such a huge layoff places an even bigger burden on those who remain.

The 3 who remain feel as though they’ve lost the lottery. Now those 3 must work at least 10 times harder to make up the work for the 7 who are no longer there. Honestly, it’s a lose-lose situation for the acquired company. For the venture capitalists, it doesn’t matter. They’ve leaned out the company and the books now “appear” way better and the business also “appears” far less costly to operate in the short term. “Short Term” is exactly what the VCs are banking on to sell the company. This makes the “business” look great on paper for a buyer. As I said, the quicker the Venture Capitalists can flip their investment and make their money back, the better. The VCs are more than willing to endure hardship within the acquired company to make the company appear better for a buyer. As the saying goes, “It’s no skin off their noses”.

Technologists vs Venture Capitalists

Being a Venture Capitalist and being a Technologist are two entirely separate and nearly diametrically opposed jobs. It’s difficult to be both at the same time. As a technologist-founder-turned-CEO, the point is to build a business from scratch, allow the business revenues to help grow the business further and expand and build a reputation and customer base. Building a business from scratch is a slow road to a return on investment, which typically takes many, many years. That investment takes years to accrue, but can make an executive a lot of ongoing money. Just look at Jeff Bezos and Amazon. It can and does work.

As a Venture Capitalist group buying companies, the point isn’t to build a business. It’s to buy already built businesses as “commodities”, lean them out, make the books look great, then sell them for at least double the money, usually in months, not years. If the VCs dangle a “five year plan” in front of you, claiming to grow the business, please re-read the above again. To spell it out, there’s no “five year plan”, unless it randomly takes the VCs that long to line up a buyer. That’s more of an accident than a plan. The VCs would prefer to line up a buyer far sooner than 5 years. The “five year plan” rhetoric is just that, rhetoric. It was told to you, the seller, to keep you interested in the buyout; not because it is true.

If the “5 year plan” carrot is dangled in front of you, then you need to have the VCs put up or shut up. What this means is, make them write the “5 year plan” investment explicitly into the purchase contract. If they are legitimately interested in growing the acquired company, they should have no problems adding this language into the buyout contract. This will also be your litmus test. I’d be highly surprised to actually see VCs contractually agree to adding such “5 year plan” language into the purchase contract.

As I said above, these two types of jobs are nearly diametrically opposed.

One method slowly builds the company as a long term investment opportunity, the other uses the existing whole company itself as a commodity to sell quickly as a fast return on an investment. As a CEO, this is what you must understand when considering selling your business to a group of Venture Capitalists.

If you want your business and brand to continue into the future and have a legacy listed in Wikipedia, then you want to keep your business going and growing. Once you sell your business to VCs, the brand, product and, eventually, staff will all disappear. Nothing of what you built will remain. Selling to a Venture Capital group likely ensures that this process happens in less than 1 year.

Selling to a direct business, the brand naming may hang around much longer than 1 year. It’s really all about whether you care about your legacy and your resume. You can’t exactly point to producing a successful business when nothing of it remains. Selling the company makes money, yes, but has a high chance of losing everything you’ve spent loads of time building. Unfortunately, Venture Capital group purchases almost ensure the fastest means to dissolution of the brand and of that time spent building your business. Still, a paycheck is a paycheck and you can’t argue with that in the end.

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Smart Bulb Rant: Avoid Bluetooth + Alexa Bulbs

Posted in Amazon, botch, business by commorancy on November 28, 2021

LED BulbHaving worked with a number of smart Internet of Things devices (IoT), mostly light bulbs and hubs, I’ve come to learn what works and what doesn’t. Let’s explore.

Smart Hubs

Overall, the smartest value for your money is the purchase of a smart hub with light bulbs, such as the Philips Hue system. Why? These smart hubs use a mesh network that is separate from your WiFi network. These systems also have their own custom iOS apps that allow for extreme customization of colors, scenes and grouping. These hub-based devices also don’t require or consume IP addresses, like WiFi bulbs, but there are drawbacks to using a smart hub based system.

The biggest drawback is that smart hubs require an active Internet connection be available 24×7. When the Internet goes down, the smart devices, including light bulbs, don’t work well or at all. This is where WiFi bulbs typically shine, though not always. Controlling WiFi bulbs almost always works even with the Internet down when the mobile app is written properly. However, some mobile apps must check in with the mothership before enabling remote control features. Which means… the lack of Internet connectivity makes it difficult to control your devices other than manually. The good news is that most of these light bulbs work correctly by using the light switch on the lamp. This means you can still turn lamps on and off the “old fashioned way” … assuming you have electric power, of course.

The second drawback is that these systems are subject to interference by certain types of wireless systems such as some Bluetooth devices, wireless routers and cordless phone systems.

However, to be able to utilize voice control, such as with Google Home, Alexa or Apple’s Siri, this requires the Internet. The same for most smart apps. Though, I have found that Hue’s iOS or Android app can sometimes control lighting even with the Internet offline. However, without the Internet, the hub may perform poorly, work intermittently or fail to take commands until the Internet is restored.

While the Internet is online and functional, however, control of lighting and devices is easy and seamless. Not always so with…

Bluetooth and Alexa

Recently, some IoT LED bulb manufacturers have begun designing and using smart LED light bulbs based strictly on Bluetooth combined with Alexa. These Bluetooth based lights also don’t require or consume IP addresses, unlike WiFi bulbs. After all, Echo devices do support Bluetooth to allow for connecting to and controlling remote Bluetooth devices. The problem is, the Echo’s Bluetooth can be spotty, at best. Mostly the reason that Bluetooth is spotty is that it uses the same frequency as many home cordless phone systems (as well as WiFi routers and other Bluetooth devices). Not cell phones, mind you, but those old 2.4Ghz cordless handsets that sit in a charging base. Because these phone systems burst data periodically to keep the remote handsets up-to-date, these bursts can interfere with Bluetooth devices. Note that this can be major a problem if you live in a condo or apartment where adjacent neighbors could have such cordless phone systems or routers. Unfortunately, these bulbs can end up being problematic not only because of cordless phones.

Likewise, if you live in a large house with a number of different Echo devices on multiple floors (and you also have these cordless phone handsets), the bulb randomly chooses an Echo device to connect to as its Bluetooth ‘hub’. Whenever a command is issued from any Echo to control that light bulb, these devices must contact this elected Echo ‘hub’ device to perform the action. This could mean that the light bulb has hubbed itself to the farthest device from the bulb with the worst connection. I’ve seen these bulbs connect to not the closest Echo device to the bulb, but the farthest. As an example, I have a small Echo dot in the basement and this is the unit that tends to be elected by these bulbs when upstairs. This is also likely to have the most spotty connection and the worst Bluetooth reception because of being in the basement. There’s no way to ensure that one of these bulbs chooses the best and closest device without first turning off every Echo device except the one you want it connected to… a major hassle.

In the end, because the bulb chooses randomly and poorly, you’ll end up seeing ‘Device Malfunction’ or ‘Device Not Responding’ frequently inside of the Alexa app. If you click the gear icon with the device selected, you can see which Echo device the bulb has chosen. Unfortunately, while you can see the elected device, you cannot change it. The ‘Device Malfunction’ or ‘Device Not Responding’ messages inside of the Alexa app mean that the Alexa device is having trouble contacting the remote device, which is likely because of interference from something else using that same frequency (i.e., cordless handsets or routers).

This makes the purchase of any Bluetooth only LED light bulbs an exceedingly poor choice for Alexa remote control. Amazon can make this better by letting the user change the hub to a closer unit. As of now, the Alexa app doesn’t allow this.

Hub based Systems

Why don’t hub based systems suffer from this problem? Hub based systems setup and use a mesh network. What means is that the devices can all talk to one another. This means that instead of each device relying on directly connecting to the hub, the devices link to one another to determine which device in the mesh has the best connection to the hub. When the hub issues commands, it goes the other way. The command is sent down the mesh chain to a better connected device to issue the command to the destination bulb. This smart mesh network makes controlling lights via a hub + mesh system much more reliable than it would otherwise be without this mesh. The Philips Hue does use 2.4Ghz also to support the ZigBee protocol, but the smart mesh system prevents many connectivity problems, unlike these Sengled Bluetooth LED bulbs.

This is exactly why purchasing a Bluetooth-based light is a poor choice. Because these BT light bulbs don’t have enough intelligence to discover which Echo device is closest and has best connectivity and because it cannot talk to just any Echo device, this leaves the light bulb prone to problems and failure.

Sure, these BT bulbs may be less costly than a Hue bulb, but you get the quality you pay for. Alexa’s Bluetooth was not designed or intended for this type of remote control purpose. It’s being sledgehammered into this situation by these Chinese bulb manufacturers. Sure, it can work. For the most part, it fails to work frequently and often. It also depends on the bulb itself. Not all bulb electronics are manufactured equally, particularly when made in China.

If you find a specific bulb isn’t working as expected, the bulb is probably cheaply made of garbage parts and crappy electronics. You’ll want to return the bulb for replacement… or better, for a Hue system / bulb.

Color Rendition

These cheap bulb brands include such manufacturers as Sengled (shown in the photo) … a brand commonly found on Amazon. Because these bulbs are made cheaply all around, but separate from the BT issues already mentioned, you’ll also find the color rendition on these LED bulbs to be problematic. For example, asking for a Daylight color might yield something that ends up too blue. Asking for Soft White might end up with something too yellow (or a sorry shade of yellow). These are cheap bulbs made of exceedingly cheap parts through and through, including cheap LEDs that aren’t properly calibrated.

Asking for Yellow, for example, usually yields something more closely resembling orange or green. That would be fine if Alexa would allow you to create custom colors and name them. Unfortunately, the Alexa app doesn’t allow this.

Whatever colors are preset in Alexa are all the colors you can use. There are no such thing as custom colors inside of Alexa. If you don’t like the color rendition that the bulb produces, then you’re stuck. Or, you’ll need to replace the bulb with one that allows for custom color choices.

Bulbs purchased for a hub based system, like the Philips Hue bulbs, typically offer a custom iOS or Android app that allows for building not only custom colors and presets, but also custom scenes that allow for setting individual bulbs separately, but as a group. The Alexa app wasn’t designed for this granular lighting control purpose and is extremely lean of options. Everything that the Alexa app offers is set in stone and extremely rudimentary for lighting control. The Alexa app is designed as a can-opener, not as a specific tool. It does many things somewhat fine, but it doesn’t do any one thing particularly well.

Purchasing these BT Alexa-controlled LED lights is a poor choice overall. If you want the flexibility of color choices and color temperatures, you buy a bulb system like Philips Hue, which also offers a custom app. If you’re looking for something on-the-cheap but which allows quick control, then a Sengled or Cree or GE smart bulb might fit the bill. Don’t be surprised when the bulb fails to control at all or produces a color that is not what you were expecting. Worse, don’t be surprised when the bulb’s LED driver fails and begins to flash uncontrollably after a month’s use.

Updated Dec 7th after Amazon Outage

Today, Amazon Web Services (AWS) had a severe outage that impacted many different services including Ring and, yes, Amazon’s Smart Home features, including Alexa + Sengled bulbs. In fact, the only system that seems to have remain unaffected (at least in my home) was the Philips Hue system. Alexa was able to properly control all of my Philips Hue lights all throughout the day.

However, Alexa failed to control Kasa, Wemo, Wyze and even its own Bluetooth bulbs like Sengled. Indeed, pretty much most of my lights were unable to be controlled by Alexa throughout the duration of the outage, which was pretty much all day.

Amazon was able to isolate the failure root cause, but it still took them hours to recover all of the equipment needed to regain those services. This failure meant that it was impossible to control smart lights or, indeed, even my Ring alarm system.

Smart lights are controllable by switch. Shutting the switch off and back on will illuminate the light. You can then switch it off like normal. However, that also means that if the switch is off, Alexa can’t control the light. You must leave all lamp fixtures in the on position for the lights to turn on, off and dim by Alexa. If you turn the light switch off, then the smart features are no longer available and the lamp will display “Device is Unresponsive” in the Alexa app.

Failures

In fact, this “Device is Unresponsive” error is the exact failure response I saw throughout the day in the Alexa app during the failure. How does this all work? Alexa is powered by Amazon Web Services servers. These servers store data about your lamps, about your routines, about your Alexa usage and, indeed, about how to control your devices. Almost nothing is really stored on any given Echo device itself. Some small amounts of settings and a small amount of cache are utilized, but only to keep track of limited things for short periods of time. For example, if you’re playing music and pause, Alexa will keep track of that pause pointer for maybe 10-20 minutes max. After that time, it purges that resume information so that the stream can no longer resume.

All information about Alexa’s Smart Home devices is stored in the cloud on AWS. It also seems that state information about the lights (on, off, not responding) is also stored in AWS. When the connectivity stopped earlier on the 7th, that prevented connectivity from Alexa to those servers to determine the state of the information. It also prevented Alexa from controlling those specific devices handled strictly by Alexa. Because Alexa skills seemed to be handled by those servers, Alexa skills were unavailable also.

However, some services, like Ring, are also hosted on AWS. These servers seemed to have been impacted not only affecting Alexa’s interface to those services, but also preventing the use of Ring’s very own app to control its own services. Yes, it was a big outage.

This outage also affected many other servers and services unrelated to Alexa’s Smart Home systems. So, yes, it was a wide ranging, long lasting outage. In fact, as I type in this update, the outage may still be affecting some services. However, it seems that the Smart Home services may now be back online as of this writing. If you’re reading this days later, it’s likely all working again.

Smart Home Devices and Local Management

Using a hub Smart Home system like the Philips Hue hub system can allow for local management of equipment without the need for continuous internet. This means that if the Internet is offline for a period of time, you can still control your lighting with the Philips Hue app using local control. While you can control your lights with your switch, it’s just as important to be able to control your lighting even if your Internet goes down temporarily.

What this all means is that investing into a system like a Philips Hue hub and Philips Hue lights allows your smart lighting system to remain functional even if your Internet services goes down. In this case, Philips Hue didn’t go down and neither did my Internet. Instead, what went down was part of Amazon’s infrastructure and systems. This had an impact on much of Alexa and Alexa’s control over Smart Home devices. However, even though this was true of Alexa skills and Alexa controlled devices, Philips Hue remained functional all throughout.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that investing in a Philips Hue system is the best choice, but clearly in this instance it was a better choice than investing in the cheaper Alexa-only bulbs, which remained nonfunctional throughout the outage.

If there’s any caveat here, it’s that Smart Home systems are still subject to outages when services like AWS go belly up for a time. If you’re really wanting to maintain the ability to control your lights during such outages, then investing in a system like Philips Hue, which seems to be able to weather such outage storms, is the best of all worlds. Unfortunately, the Alexa only Sengled Bluetooth bulbs were the absolute worst choice for this type of AWS outage.

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Rant Time: It’s time for Gutenberg to go.

Posted in botch, business, rant by commorancy on October 9, 2021

woman in white shirt showing frustration

As the title may suggest and as a WordPress.com blogger, I’ve given up using the Gutenberg editor for articles. Let’s explore exactly the reasons why.

Gutenberg, Block Editing and Calypso

One of the biggest selling points of Gutenberg (the latest WordPress editor, first released in 2018 and headed up by Matias Ventura) is its ability to have literal text blocks. Each paragraph is literally a square block that is separate from all other blocks. The blocks allow for movement with an arrow up and down. The point to this movement system is to allow for easily rearranging your articles. At least, that was the main selling point.

In reality, the blocks are more of a chore than a help. I’ll explain this more in a bit. When Gutenberg first launched, it replaced the previous editor, Calypso, which was released in 2015. Calypso loaded extremely fast (in under 3 seconds you’re editing). Typing in text was flawless and simply just “worked”. When Calypso first released, there were a number of performance issues, some bugs and it didn’t always work as expected. However, after several updates over the initial months, all of that was solved. The slowness and performance issues were completely gone.

Before Calypso arrived, there was the much older “black colored” editor that was simple text-only editor. Meaning, there was no ability to graphically place or drag-move objects. Instead, you had to use specific HTML tags to manually place images and use inline CSS to get things done. It was a hassle, but it worked for the time. The big update for WordPress was that Calypso would bring modern word processor features and a more WYSIWYG type experience to blogging. Calypso did that exceedingly well, but in an occasionally limited way.

Unfortunately, Calypso had a short lifespan of about 3 years. For whatever reason, the WordPress.org team decided that a new editor was in order and so the Gutenberg project was born.

Gutenberg Performance

The real problem with Gutenberg is its performance. Since its release, Gutenberg’s block-building system has immense overhead. Every time you type something into a block, the entire page and all blocks around it must react and shift to those changes. Performance is particularly bad if you’re typing into a block in the middle of an article with many other blocks. Not only does the editor have to readjust the page on every single keystroke entered, it has to do it both up and down. Because of this continual adjustment of the page, keystrokes can become lagged by up to 12 seconds behind the keyboard typing.

Where Calypso’s typing performance is instant and without lag, Gutenberg suffers incredible lag due to its poorly conceived block design. Gutenberg has only gotten worse over time. Unlike Wine which ages and gets better every day, Gutenberg gets worse every day. There are literally hundreds of bugs in the Gutenberg editor that have never been corrected, let alone the aforementioned severe performance issue.

Classic Editor

You might be asking, “What editor are you using?” Technically, I’m using Calypso inside of Gutenberg because there’s no other option than the antiquated “black editor”. When Gutenberg came about, they had to find a way to make old articles written in Calypso compatible with Gutenberg without having to convert every single article into the new Gutenberg block format. To do this, the Gutenberg team included Calypso in the block called the “Classic Editor” block. It’s effectively a full version of Calypso in a single block.

The Classic Block type is what I’m now using to type this and all new articles. I must also say that every character I type into the Classic Block is spot on in speed. No lags at all. Typing is instantaneous. However, with Gutenberg, typing words into a Gutenberg “paragraph” block can see text show up literally many seconds after I’ve typed it… sometimes more than 10 seconds later. I can literally sit and watch the cursor make each letter appear after I’ve stopped typing. It’s incredibly frustrating.

Few typists are 100% accurate 100% of the time. This means using the backspace key to remove a double tapped letter, add a missing letter or rewrite a portion of text is required. When you’re waiting on the editor to “catch up” with your typing, you can’t even know what errors you made until it finally shows up. It’s like watching paint dry. It’s incredibly frustrating and time wasting.

Editor Performance

Gutenberg’s performance has gotten progressively worse since 2018. By comparison, Calypso’s launch performance suffered when it was first released, taking 10-12 seconds to launch. The Calypso team managed to get that under control within 6 months and reduced the launch time to under 2 seconds. Literally, you could go from a new browser tab to editing an existing or brand new article in under 2 seconds. Gutenberg’s launch performance has remained consistent at ~10 seconds and has never wavered in the many years since it launched in 2018. And… that 10 seconds all for what? An editor with horrible performance?

Gutenberg launched with “okay” block performance years ago, but in the last 6 months, its performance level has significantly degraded. Literally, the Gutenberg paragraph block, the mainstay of the entire Gutenberg editor, is now almost completely unusable in far too many circumstances.

If you’re looking to type a single short paragraph article, you might be able to use Gutenberg. Typing an article like this one with a large number of paragraphs of reasonable length means slower and slower performance the longer the article gets, especially if you need to edit in the middle of the article. That’s not a problem when using the Classic Block as the article has only one block. It’s when there’s an ever growing number of blocks stacking up that Gutenberg gets ever slower and slower. Gutenberg is literally one of the most horrible editing experiences I’ve ever had as a WordPress blogger.

Gutenberg’s Developers

As a user of Gutenberg, I’ve attempted to create bugs for the Gutenberg team in hopes that they would not only be receptive to wanting these bug reports, but that they would be willing to fix them. Instead, what I got was an ever growing level of hostility with every bug reported… culminating in myself and one of the Gutenberg developers basically having words. He accused me of not taking the right path to report bugs… but what other path is there to report bugs if not in the official bug reporting system devoted to Gutenberg’s bugs? This one entirely baffled me. Talk about ungrateful.

Sure, I’m a WordPress.com user, but the WordPress.com team doesn’t accept bug reports for Gutenberg as they have nothing to do with Gutenberg’s development. They’ll help support the WordPress.com product itself, but they don’t take official bug reports for sub-product components. In fact, I’d been told by multiple WordPress.com support staffers to report my bugs directly into the Gutenberg project bug reporting system. That’s what I did. I explained that to the developer who suddenly became somewhat apologetic, but remained terse and condescending.

Let’s understand one thing. WordPress.com is a separate entity from the WordPress.org Gutenberg development team. The two have no direct relationship whatsoever, making this whole situation even more convoluted. It’s a situation that WordPress.com must workout with WordPress.org. As a blogger, it’s not my responsibility to become the “middle man” to communicate between these orgs.

Any development team with this level of hostility towards its end users needs to be reevaluated for its project values. Developers can’t develop in a bubble. They need the feedback from users to improve their product. Developers unwilling to accept this feedback need to be pulled from the project and, if their attitude does not improve, be jettisoned. Bad attitudes need to be culled from any development project. It will only serve to poison the end product… and nowhere is this more abundantly clear than in the Gutenberg editor. This editor is now literally falling apart at the seams.

WordPress.com is at a Crossroads

At this point, WordPress needs to make a choice. It’s clear, the Gutenberg editor can’t last. WordPress.com must make a new editor choice sooner rather than later. Gutenberg is on its last legs and needs to be ushered out of the door.

If that means re-wrappering the entire editor so that the Classic Block becomes the only and default block available, then so be it. I’d be perfectly happy if WordPress.com would make the Classic Block not only the default editor block type when entering a new editor, but the ONLY block type available. After all, everything that can be done with individual blocks in Gutenberg can be done in the Classic Block.

Then, refocus the Gutenberg development team’s efforts to improving ONLY the Classic Block. Have them drop the entirety of development for every other block type from that horrible Gutenberg editor product.

Blocks and Gutenberg

Let’s talk about Gutenberg’s design for a moment. The idea behind Gutenberg is noble, but ultimately its actual design is entirely misguided. Not only has Gutenberg failed to improve the editor in any substantial way, it has made text editing slower, more complex and difficult in an age when an editor should make blogging easier, faster and simpler. All of the things that should have improved over Calypso have actually failed to materialize in Gutenberg.

The multiple block interface doesn’t actually improve the blogging experience at all. Worse, the overhead of more and more blocks stacking to create an article makes the blogging experience progressively slower and less reliable. In fact, there are times when the editor becomes so unresponsive that it requires refreshing the entire editor page in the browser to recover. Simply, Gutenberg easily loses track of its blocks causing the editor to essentially crash internally.

None of this is a problem with the Classic Editor block because editing takes place in one single block. Because the Classic Editor is a single block, Gutenberg must only keep up with one thing, not potentially hundreds. For this reason, the Classic Editor is a much easier solution for WordPress.com. WordPress.com need only force the Classic Block as the primary editor in Gutenberg and hide all of the rest of Gutenberg’s garbage blocks that barely work. Done. The editor is now back to a functional state and bloggers can now move on with producing blog articles rather than fighting Gutenberg to get a single sentence written. Yes, Gutenberg is that bad.

Bad Design

Worse, however, is Gutenberg’s block design idea. I really don’t fully understand what the Gutenberg team was hoping to accomplish with this odd block design. Sure, it allows movement of the blocks easily, but it’s essentially a technical replacement for cut and paste. How hard is it really to select a paragraph of text, cut it and then paste it into a different location? In fact, cut and paste is actually easier, faster and simpler than trying to move a block. Block movement is up or down by one position at a time when clicked. If you need the block moved up by 10 paragraphs, then you’re clicking the up button 10 times. And, you might have to do this for 5 different paragraphs. That’s a lot of clicking. How does that much clicking save time or make blogging easier? Cut and paste is always four actions. Select the text, cut, click cursor to new location, paste. Cut and paste has none of this click-click-click-click-clickity-click BS. Of course, you can cut and paste a whole block, but that sort of defeats the purpose of building the up and down function for movement, doesn’t it?

Instead, I’ve actually found in practice that Gutenberg’s alleged more advanced “design” actually gets in the way of blogging. You’d think that with a brand new editor design, a developer would strive to bring something new and better to the table. Gutenberg fails. The whole cornerstone and supposed “benefit” of Gutenberg’s design is its blocks. The blocks are also its biggest failing. Once you realize the blocks are mostly a gimmick… a pointless and a slow gimmick at that, you then realize Calypso was a much better, more advanced editor overall, particularly after using a Classic Block to blog even just one article.

Change for Change’s Sake

Here’s a problem that’s plagued the software industry for years, but in more recent times has become a big, big problem. With the rush to add new features, no one stops to review the changes for functionality. Product managers are entirely blinded by their job requirement to deliver something new all of the time. However, new isn’t always better and Gutenberg proves this one out in droves. Simply because someone believes a product can be better doesn’t mean that the software architects are smart or creative enough to craft that reality.

We must all accept that creating new things sometimes works and sometimes fails. More than that, we need to recognize a failure BEFORE we proceed down the path of creation. Part of that is in the “Proof of Concept” phase. This is the time when you build a mini-version of a concept to prove out its worth. It is typically at the “Proof of Concept” stage where we can identify success or failure.

Unfortunately, it seems that many companies blow right past the proof-of-concept stage and jump from on-paper design into full-bore development efforts. Without a proper design review by at least some stakeholders, there’s no way to know if the end result will be functional, useful or indeed solve any problems. This is exactly where Gutenberg sits.

While I can’t definitively state that the Gutenberg team blew past the proof-of-concept stage, it certainly seems that they did. Anyone reviewing Gutenberg’s blocks idea could have asked one simple question, “How exactly are blocks better than cut and paste?” The answer here is the key. Unfortunately, the actual answer to this question likely would have been political double-speak which doesn’t answer the question or it might end up being a bunch of statistical developer garbage not proving anything. The real answer is that this block system idea doesn’t actually improve blogging. In fact, it weighs down the blogging experience tremendously.

Instead of spending time writing, which is what we bloggers do (and actually want to do), we now spend more time playing Legos with the editor to determine which block fits where. As a blogger, an editor should work for us, not against us. Spending 1/3 of our time managing editor blocks means the loss of 1/3 of our time we could have been writing. Less time writing means less articles written.

Because blogging is about publishing information, speed is of utmost importance. Instead of fumbling around in clumsy blocks, we should spend our time formulating our thoughts and putting them down onto the page. For this reason, Gutenberg gets in our way, not out of our way.

At a Crossroads — Part II

Circling back around, we can now see exactly WHY WordPress.com is at a crossroads. The managers at WordPress.com need to ask this simple question, “What makes our bloggers happy?” The answer to this question is, “A better and faster editor.”

Are Gutenberg’s failings making bloggers happy? No. Since the answer to this question is “No”, WordPress.com managers need to realize there’s a problem afoot… a problem which can be solved. Nothing requires the WordPress.com platform to use Gutenberg… or at least the block portions of it. Because there exists a solution in the Classic Block, it would be simple to launch Gutenberg directly into a locked-in version of the Classic Block and not allow any further blocks to be created… essentially dumping the vast majority of Gutenberg.

This change reverts the editor back to Calypso and effectively does away with Gutenberg almost entirely. Though, this is a stop-gap measure. Eventually, the WordPress.com managers will need to remove Gutenberg entirely from the WordPress.com platform and replace it with a suitably faster and more streamlined editor, perhaps based on a better, updated version of Calypso. It’s time for this change. Why?

If the Gutenberg team cannot get a handle on crafting an editor that works after 3 years, then Gutenberg needs to be removed and replaced with an editor team actually willing to improve the blogging experience. WordPress.com needs to be able to justify its sales offerings, but it’s exceedingly difficult when you have what should be the cornerstone of the platform, the editor, working against you. This makes it exceedingly difficult for new would-be buyers to literally spend money for WordPress.com platform. Paying for an editor that barely works is insane. WordPress.com managers can’t be so blind as to not see this effect?

The bottom line is, how do you justify replacing an editor with an under 2 second launch time with an editor that now has a 10-20 second launch time? That’s taking steps backwards. How do you justify an editor that lags behind the keyboard typing by up to 12 seconds when the previous editor had no lag at all? Again, steps backwards. Isn’t the point in introducing new features to make a product better, faster and easier? Someone, somewhere must recognize this failure in Gutenberg besides me!! Honestly, it’s in the name of the product “WordPress”. How can we “press words” without an editor that “just works”?

WordPress.com, hear me, it’s time to make a change for the better. Dumping Gutenberg from the WordPress.com platform is your best hope for a brighter future at WordPress.com. As for the WordPress.org team, let them waddle in their own filth. If they want to drag that Gutenberg trash forward, that’s on them.

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Review: Is Fiverr a scam?

Posted in botch, business, scams by commorancy on October 8, 2021

conceptual photo of a money scam

Fiverr is one in a new generation on “Work for Hire” sites (sometimes known as freelancer sites) that have recently sprung up, while they’re also hoping to turn a big profit off of the backs of buyers and sellers. Let’s explore whether Fiverr is a scam or legitimate.

Work For Hire

While Fiverr might think it is something kind of special, it isn’t. There have been plenty of “Work For Hire” kinds of sites throughout the years going back to the early 2000s. There’s nothing really new about this kind of site.

To explain more, Fiverr’s “Work For Hire” marketplace has two distinct type of visitors: Buyers and Sellers. This means that a person visiting the site could be one or both of these roles.

As a buyer, you visit the site looking for a specific kind of service to buy. For example, maybe you would like to have someone write a blog article for you. You can then find an author/seller who is selling such a service, then contract their services at an agreed price, place an order, then wait for delivery of the article… at which time payment is due.

As a seller, you use your talents to place your authoring services up for sale and reap monetary rewards (such that they are) for providing a needed service to the buyer community.

It’s a reasonable idea and a potentially great business model, if such a site is correctly designed. Here’s where Fiverr fails hard.

Buyers

As with any site of this type (or really any site in general that offers logins and passwords), certain expectations are set (and must be met).  Any site with user logins must be willing to maintain and manage these user logins themselves, including appropriate application of Terms and Conditions by taking action against violators, abusers, harassers and scam artists. After all, it is Fiverr’s servers and system, therefore it falls on Fiverr to ensure users of the service act according to the Terms and Conditions while using that platform. This is a very basic expectation that all sites must meet.

For example, when you create a Google account, there’s an expectation that Google will both vet and maintain its new user signups appropriately. For the most part, Google does this well… except when the individual is under 13 years of age. That means that when Google identifies someone violating its rules of conduct (usually laid out in Terms and Conditions and/or Terms of Service documents or possibly other documents also), it will take action against a violating account up to and including termination from the service. However, Google has refrained from either detecting or deleting accounts created by users under the age of 13, for whatever questionable reason. I digress.

Along these same lines, Fiverr’s management is not only exceedingly naïve, they’re extremely inexperienced in running a user signup based platform like Fiverr and it shows. Why? Because the site’s weak signup system and rigid Terms and Conditions forces far too much of Fiverr’s buyer vetting work down upon its sellers. Instead of taking care to properly manage its buyers, it forces sellers to shoulder that responsibility and take this work onto themselves. As someone so rightly said, “Ain’t nobody got time for that”.

Sellers

As a seller, you would think that your primary job and focus is to sell your service to would-be buyers. While that is a portion of what a seller is expected to do on Fiverr, Fiverr’s unreasonable and overreaching Terms and Conditions require the seller to take on a whole lot more burden than they should, such as Buyer vetting, Buyer management and, yes, being “Academic Police”.

One egregious mistake in Fiverr’s Terms and Conditions is its overreaching “Academia” clause. One might think, shouldn’t we protect academic institutions and/or students? Well, no. Academic institutions are responsible for protecting themselves. Students are responsible for protecting their own best interests. It’s no one’s responsibility to protect any specific academic institution or student than that academic institution itself.

How does this impact sellers? Great question. Let’s get started answering this loaded question. There are 3,982 degree-granting institutions of higher learning as of 2020 according to US News. Nearly 4,000 institutions exist…. 4,000! That’s a lot.

This number is important to realize because Fiverr’s Terms and Conditions require sellers to become “academic police” for each and every one of those nearly 4,000 institutions of higher learning. Oh, but it gets so much worse.

Every single one of those institutions has by-laws and rules regarding code of academic conduct. Students attending are required to agree to that code of conduct upon enrolling in any one of those institutions. For example, rules against plagiarism is a typical code of conduct which may be found at many, if not most, of these institutions. It is beholden to the student to read, comprehend and understand this code of conduct for their specific institution upon enrollment.

However, for sellers on Fiverr, Fiverr’s Terms and Conditions effectively deputize sellers to become “academic police” for any or, indeed, all of these nearly 4,000 institutions of higher learning. This means that should a buyer show up at your seller doorstep, you must become responsible to make sure that buyer (who might be a student) isn’t violating a university’s academic code of conduct by buying something from you.

Not only that, Fiverr expects the seller to determine intent of every buyer… such as somehow magically deriving that a buyer is a student at one of those nearly 4,000 universities (or way less likely, even grade school), but also that the magically-derived “student” is buying the service with the INTENT of turning the resulting product in as their own work. Intent is something a seller cannot possibly determine or be expected to determine, let alone if the buyer is a student. Intent is difficult enough to determine and, more importantly, prove by defending and prosecuting attorneys in criminal court trials. How and, more importantly, WHY is a seller expected to determine intent for a site like Fiverr?

That’s like asking a gun dealer to be held responsible for intent of every gun sold. Thankfully, in the United States, there’s the PLCAA federal law that prevents this exact situation for gun dealers. Under the PLCAA, gun dealers cannot be held responsible for how a gun is used after it has been sold… which means, gun dealers cannot be held responsible for a buyer’s intent.

Fiverr’s Naïvety

Oh, it gets worse. Because there are so many institutions of higher learning not including grade schools, the seller would need to visit each and every one of those institutions of learning, THEN be required to read and understand each and every one of those rules of academic conduct for each of those ~4,000 institutions. That could take years. As I said, NAÏVE and insanely impractical.

Again, WHY is the seller responsible for this work? As a seller, I’m there to sell my services, not become police for for-profit higher education institutions.

Education Institutions

If schools have a problem with student conduct, that’s between the institution and the student. Fiverr, nor its sellers under it, has no role in this. That Fiverr has decided to take on the burden of becoming a police force for these mostly for-profit organizations is bewildering. Worse, that Fiverr expects the sellers to become that police is even more bewildering.

Work for Hire

In a discussion with a very naïve set of support representatives for Fiverr, a conversation ensued over this very same “academic police” issue. Essentially, the representative tried to make it seem like the seller is at fault by 1) not knowing the buyer is a student, 2) that a seller should know a student INTENDS to plagiarize and 3) that sellers are somehow responsible for that student’s plagiarism.

Let’s get one thing CRYSTAL clear. There’s no “plagiarism” under Work for Hire. The representative stated copyright infringement was also involved. There’s also no “copyright infringement” under Work for Hire. That’s not how Work for Hire copyrights work. If someone commissions and buys a work, such as writing a book, writing software code or any other software goods, as soon as the deal is closed, the delivered goods are considered as “Works Made For Hire”. The copyright office is very specific about this type of work and how copyrights apply to these works.

Works sold under “Works Made For Hire” see ALL copyrights turned over to the buyer as though the buyer created the work themselves. Meaning, as soon as the deal closes and those soft goods are delivered, the copyrights are fully, completely and legally owned 100% by the buyer. THIS is how “Works Made For Hire” copyright law works. From that link, here’s an excerpt that states that copyright law for  a “work” (when made for hire) applies…

When a certain type of work is created as a result of an express written agreement between the creator and a party specially ordering or commissioning it

That’s exactly what Fiverr does… allow for commissioning a work using express written agreements. Thus, all works delivered from Fiverr are considered as “Work for Hire” and, thus, all copyrights are owned by the buyer upon delivery.

Academia, Works for Hire and Fiverr

Unfortunately, these concepts are like oil and water. They don’t want to mix. Academia wants students to create their own works. However, “Work for Hireallows a student to buy a commissioned work, turn it in as their own work without legal issues and without plagiarism. Legally, under a “Work for Hire”, a student buyer owns the rights just as if they wrote it themselves. Therefore, no such plagiarism or copyright issues exist with “Work for Hire”. It might be an ethically poor choice on the student’s part and it might even deprive the student of much needed learning experience, but there’s nothing legally at fault here; not from the seller and not from the buyer.

Were the student to copy (not buy) a work from someone else and turn it in as their own, that’s plagiarism and copyright infringement. Keep in mind that plagiarism is not a ‘legal’ term. It’s an academic term typically bandied about when a student turns in a work they didn’t author themselves. However, commissioning someone and paying them for their efforts as a “Work for Hire” is not technically considered plagiarism and is most definitely not copyright infringement. While it might be ethically questionable for the student to take a “Work for Hire” route to complete an assignment, it doesn’t violate copyright laws and it isn’t plagiarism so long as the work was crafted by the seller as an “original work”.

Sellers Part II

With Fiverr, they’ve explicitly decided to place the burden of these “academically ethical” misdeeds onto the seller rather than onto the buyer / student. Let’s understand the problem here. Fiverr is not an academic institution. Fiverr, as far as I know, has no ties to academic institutions. Yet, Fiverr has crafted a Terms and Conditions policy that greatly benefits these for-profit academic institutions at the cost of requiring sellers to read and understand THOUSANDS of school policies to know if a potential buyer is violating any specific school policies.

WOW! Can you say, “overreaching?” I knew that you could. This situation is not only a ridiculous ask of sellers, it’s insanely complicated and time consuming and is highly unethical… all to sell a blog article, a work of fiction or a computer program on Fiverr?

None of this should be a seller responsibility. That’s Fiverr’s responsibility. A seller’s responsibility should end at selling their service. Violating school policies is the student’s responsibility to their school. The student agreed to their school’s conditions of attending that academic institution. The Fiverr seller plays no role in a student’s decisions. If a student intends or, indeed, violates a school’s enrollment conditions, that’s on the student to take the consequence. Fiverr should be completely hands-off of this process.

As I said, Fiverr’s management team is extremely naïve, gullible and unethical. That insane naïvety forces sellers to be incredibly overburdened as a long-arm-of-the-law for for-profit academic institutions combined with taking responsibility if a student violates a school’s academic policies. If an academic institution wants to task Fiverr sellers to become “academic police”, they can pay for that service like universities do for any other service.

Institutions of Higher Learning

Most higher education facilities (Universities and Colleges) are typically for-profit organizations. If they weren’t for-profit, they couldn’t keep the lights on, employ hundreds of instructors, janitors, staff AND buy desks, computers, buildings, land and so on. That Fiverr has taken the dubious and questionable step of writing into their Terms and Conditions a clause that favors these for-profit organizations is extremely questionable. Of course, one might ask, “Well, what about grade schools?”

Grade school is a whole separate bag and one where Fiverr shouldn’t actually ever see buyers for a number of reasons. The first and foremost reason is that grade school kids shouldn’t have credit cards to be able purchase items on Fiverr. The vast majority of grade school kids are at an age that prevents owning a credit card. A child might own a “learner” Visa debit card managed by their parents or perhaps a Visa gift card, but if Fiverr is accepting these payment cards without verifying age, Fiverr might be breaking other laws. For example, many grade school children are under the age of 13, which means that if Fiverr is allowing children under the age of 13 onto Fiverr’s platform, Fiverr is almost assuredly in violation of COPPA. Even minors under the age of 18 and who are still in grade school should be disallowed from making Fiverr purchases. In fact, only legal adults should be allowed to purchase services on Fiverr.

No, any application of “academic police” almost 100% both implies colleges and universities almost exclusively… which are most definitely for-profit organizations.

The above “academic police” situation would be tantamount to Fiverr adding a clause to its Terms and Conditions that holds sellers responsible for credit card fraud from buyers. Sellers aren’t “credit card police” any more than they should be “academic police”. Sellers have zero control over the payment system(s) that Fiverr employs and uses. Requiring such a condition for seller usage is not only backwater, it’s insanely stupid and definitely states exactly how inept the management team at Fiverr actually is.

Why would sellers be responsible for credit card fraud of a buyer when the seller has zero to do with that payment, that card or, indeed, the payment system? Sellers don’t get access to any of that card information. Thus, credit card management, just like academic management, is Fiverr’s responsibility.. and rightly it should be. It is on Fiverr to determine if a buyer is a student. It is on Fiverr to restrict and prevent purchases from students, not the seller.

If a seller is not a student at all and is not attending any academic institution, that seller holds exactly ZERO responsibility to any academic institution. Because Fiverr’s Terms and Conditions foists this agreement onto the seller is disingenuous, highly dubious, insanely stupid and, because of the time required to manage it, highly unethical. Everyone can understand the “credit card fraud” issue, so why is “academic fraud” any different here?

Low Wages

As a completely separate issue, but one that’s extremely relevant for sellers at Fiverr is how much money can a seller expect to make?

As a tech worker, the average wage to write code or build software, at least in the United States, is at typically between $30-70 per hour depending on experience, language, the type of code being written and so forth. That’s a lot for an hourly rate, but that’s the going rate in the United States.

Because far too many buyers on Fiverr are from Israel, Pakistan, India and other middle east countries where wages are very depressed, the expectation of costs of providing these services is extremely low. Meaning, instead of the normal going rate of ~$40 per hour, you’re expected to drop your fee down to $5 per project. Ironically, I think that’s why they named the site “Fiverr” because a “fiver” is all you’re going to get (less actually). I think you see the economic problem here. This brings me to my next point.

Commissions and Fees

Fiverr gets its money both coming and going. What that means is that for every “gig” sold (what they call a listing), Fiverr takes a 20% cut from both the buyer AND the seller separately. That’s a total of 40% cut for Fiverr from every single project sold. Let’s put a dollar value on that. For a $5 order, a seller will receive $4 with $1 going to Fiverr. A buyer will spend $6 to cover the $5 seller cost seeing $1 going to Fiverr. That’s a total of $2 that Fiverr made from that $5 sale.

This means for that $5, the seller doesn’t actually get $5, they get $4 (less after income taxes). You might spend 2 or more hours working on a project to receive less than $4? That’s way less than even minimum wage. So then, what’s the incentive to sell on Fiverr if nearly every buyer expects to spend $5 for almost any project? Yeah, that’s the real scam here.

Scam

Let’s get to the heart of the matter. Is Fiverr a scam? Clearly, Fiverr’s team is naïve and doesn’t understand the service they are offering. However, the overly expensive 40% commission that Fiverr takes combined with its overreaching Terms and Conditions, which is clearly designed to favor educational institutions over its sellers, and because the low price expectation from mostly middle east buyers leads the platform into extremely scam-ish territory.

Is it a scam? I don’t think the founders intended for it to be, but at this point it almost certainly is a scam. There are similar sites, like Upwork, that seemingly operate in a somewhat more legitimate way, yet those sites still choose to employ the overly high 40% commission system. However, because Upwork attracts more legitimate clientele over the “middle east crowd”, setting up listings on Upwork is more likely to lead to a better wage than when using Fiverr.

Bottom Line

Don’t go into Fiverr expecting to make a lot of money. Because of the mostly “middle east buyer crowd” who expects rock bottom prices that Fiverr seems to attract, because there’s few controls for sellers to protect themselves, because sellers must become “academic police” for for-profit educational institutions, because of the incredibly high 40% commission and because the actual income is so low, I’d class Fiverr as “mostly a scam”.

I strongly recommend avoiding this site unless Fiverr’s management team can get their act together and clean up all of these issues. Instead, if you’re looking for other “Work for Hire” type sites, try Upwork or CrowdSpring or, better, put your resume on LinkedIn and attempt to get legitimate actual employment with a real livable wage. However, if you enjoy frittering away literal hours of time for less than $5, then by all means head over to Fiverr.

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