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Fan Backlash: What’s wrong with Star Wars?

Posted in botch, business, california, movies by commorancy on July 6, 2018

the-last-jedi-theatricalI’ve been watching several YouTube channels recently… yes, I do watch YouTube. And yes, there has been a huge fan backlash against the latest Star Wars installment, The Last Jedi. Some of these channels outright blame the social justice warriors for the fundamental problem. I don’t agree. The SJWs aren’t to blame, Disney and Kathleen Kennedy are. Let’s explore.

The Original Trilogy

Episodes 4, 5 and 6 are arguably the best of Star Wars. These films were created and conceived by George Lucas. We got a tiny taste of the cutesy characters the Jawas and R2D2 in A New Hope and again with Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, but these characters were tempered to avoid becoming cartoons. As fans, we were able to mostly ignore these cutesy characters because they were limited in scope and/or served a genuine purpose (more than being cute). George then pushed the bounds again in Return of the Jedi with the Ewoks. These little cutesy bundles of fur were almost entirely “for the kids” and very much cartoons. Thankfully, the introduction of these cuddly characters didn’t entirely ruin the plot of the film. Yes, they were cute, but most of us were able to get over the cute-cuddly teddy bear nature of them. However, George was skating on thin ice with these characters. Many fans weren’t impressed. Still, Return of the Jedi worked as a sufficient ending to the original trilogy.

Thankfully, at the time, social media was non-existent. The only people who could effectively and loudly complain about it were the newspaper critics. The fans had no outlet for their own outrage. The Internet was just budding, email didn’t exist and neither did Twitter, Facebook or any other social site. Fan complaints traveled almost entirely by word of mouth (or via the convention circuit).

The Prequels

By 1999, when Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace premiered, email, text messaging, blogging and even early versions of social media began their rise to becoming ubiquitous. This is the time when fans finally had not only an outlet for their words, but people to read them. Not long after this period of time is when the term ‘social justice warriors’ would be coined. At this time, they were simply called, ‘keyboard warriors’.

When George introduced Jar Jar Binks, he took the cutesy cartoon idea to extremes producing one of the biggest pop icons of the era and simultaneously one of the most derided characters ever to grace the silver screen, let alone a Star Wars film. Many people have a love-hate relationship with Jar Jar.

Not only is Jar Jar very much a cartoon character, he’s also a politically incorrect figure in so many different ways. Not only in his voice, but in his manner of speech and in simply what he says. This is through no fault of the voice actor who portrayed Jar Jar. This is the fault of George Lucas. This is also where Star Wars effectively “jumped the shark”, but not solely because of Jar Jar. Oh certainly, Jar Jar heavily contributed to this, but writing a trilogy long story about the origin of Darth Vader is, well, pretentious. It really doesn’t take 3 films to show the entire Anakin Skywalker story.  That could have been condensed into one film leaving two others to show Darth Vader doing nasty things and birthing the rebellion. Instead of boring senate scenes about trade blockades (*yawn*), we could have been watching Darth Vader and the Emperor fighting the beginnings of the rebellion (much more interesting).

This is where George has not only fallen on that thin ice, he fell through it. This is where George finally got a taste of fan backlash. Backlash that he would have gotten a whole lot faster had social media existed when the Ewoks showed their cute little faces on screen the first time. No, he had to wait until the prequels were released to finally get a taste of what would become Social Justice.

It also didn’t help that George’s revisionist tendencies led him to re-release the original trilogy with updated CGI visuals and modified scenes. In combination with the prequels, this led fans to begin their disenchantment with the direction of the Star Wars film universe. Did it really need to be revised who shot first in the cantina scene?

The Disney Films

Because of George’s less than stellar trilogy story in the prequels (Episodes 1, 2 and 3), George felt downtrodden and unable to produce more Star Wars films. Ultimately, he sold the franchise to Disney.

By 2015, with the release of The Force Awakens, fans were more excited than skeptical. By this time, not only had social media well matured, we now have instant access to it anywhere. Yes, even in the theater while watching it. It was inevitable that people would post their reviews within minutes of exiting the theater, possibly writing it while they were watching. Initially, fan reviews of The Force Awakens were positive. However, as fans mulled over the film on social media and via other means, it became clear just out vacuous this first new installment really was.

Yes, The Force Awakens feels like a Star Wars film, but it isn’t a Star Wars film in structure. It’s a J.J. film. After a few months of mulling over what The Force Awakens meant, it was quickly clear that it simply wasn’t what fans wanted.

Hollywood’s Affirmative Action Plan Initiative

Since at least 2014, the gender and ethnic equality war began in Hollywood in earnest. Since then, Hollywood has been sacrificing its screenplays and film profits (and projects) to the Hollywood Affirmative Action Plan Initiative (HAAPi — pronounced “happy”). Instead of telling stories as written with characters as created, directors and producers now feel the need to rewrite and cast politically correct ethnic and/or gender bending casts at the expense of producing a high quality entertaining film that will become a box office success.

Here are are two examples:

  • 2016’s Ghostbusters reboot was recast entirely with women in the lead roles
  • 2015’s Johnny Storm was recast as a black male against his white female sister in the latest failed Fantastic Four… not how the comic was written.

Both of these films I’d classify as box office bombs sacrificed to HAAPi. Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein have additionally been sacrificed to this movement. I’m not sure if the women of Hollywood intend to bring down the entire film industry or what exactly is their agenda, but trying these silly shenanigans in an effort to force a cast of women and ethnic minorities at the expense of a logical story is insane.

I am 100% for gender and ethnic diversity in casting … When. It. Makes. Sense. Don’t do it because you can, do it because the story requires it.

Do you want to make money or do you want to make a point? Let’s hope this trend ends before all of the studios in Hollywood end up bankrupt. On the other hand, perhaps it is time for Hollywood’s day to end.

The Last Jedi

To some extent, The Force Awakens’s sacrifice to HAAPi was both inevitable and thwarted. Because this was the first installment and these were brand new characters, we ignored HAAPi (for the most part). As excited fans, we were able to look past HAAPi and ignore any specific casting defects in starring roles.

However with The Last Jedi (helmed not by J.J. Abrams like The Force Awakens, but by Rian Johnson), this film not only succumbed to HAAPi, but slapped us fans in the face with it like a dead fish. Instead of casting smart, Johnson (and Kennedy) cast HAAPi. With Rose Tico, we ended up with an Asian female. There’s nothing specifically wrong with this casting choice if it had happened in The Force Awakens. Instead, because of HAAPi, this character was shoehorned into a main character role at a time when the character was not needed. This character was also shoehorned into a plot device that just didn’t work. In fact, the entire romp between Finn and Rose was entirely pointless for this film and wasted about 15-20 minutes of screen time. Perhaps the resistance ring Rose handed to the boy may have some level of significance in the final film… or it may not. That ring could have been given to the boy in so many other better ways by already established characters.

Also, why introduce Rose at all? She’s a wrench jockey who fixes things. She doesn’t appear to have force powers. What is she likely to bring to the story of any real importance? You can introduce a Rose-like character in a series like Clone Wars or Rebels because it’s a multipart series. There are so many episodes, characters need to come and go. In a trilogy, every character introduction counts. And, such an introduction takes away character development time from other characters. We already don’t know enough about Finn, Poe and Rey, we don’t need yet fourth character to have to get to know.

The reason Star Wars the original trilogy worked is primarily because of the triangle lead roles of Luke, Leia and Han. We had that triangle going with Finn, Poe and Rey. Yet, now we have Finn, Poe, Rey and Rose (?). This character has upset that triangle. If you’re going to do that, then the story should have introduced this character in the opening film to this trilogy.

The Rose problem exists entirely because, like 2016’s Ghostbusters and 2015’s Fantastic Four, The Last Jedi has been sacrificed to HAAPi to solve a perceived film deficiency, not because the story needs it. This time, however, fans were able to lift the HAAPi veil and see through it for what it is… sad. And so, the fan backlash ensues.

Star Wars is a fantasy series. Bringing Hollywood casting agendas into a film’s story isn’t what fans want to see. This not only insults the fans’ intelligence, it insults the fans. What else would Disney expect to happen? Using a franchise like Star Wars to further a Hollywood agenda is entirely insane. Disney and Kathleen Kennedy, you need to get your shit together and wake up. HAAPi is trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist and it doesn’t belong in Star Wars.

The Final Film

This film has not yet released as of this article. However, it’s almost certain that not only will this film bomb at the box office, it may end the franchise entirely. Disney would be wise to shelve this last film and any future Star Wars film projects until this whole thing blows over… and Disney, you need dump the current team working on it including Kathleen Kennedy.

Let the final film stew for a few years. Make the fans wait until they clamor for it. Make the fans want it. Putting it out right now is a recipe for box office failure. This franchise is already skating on thin ice because of HAAPi. It’s almost certain that the final film will also be sacrificed to HAAPi. Abusing HAAPi makes me (and many other Star Wars fans) very, very sad.

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What does “moving the plot forward” really mean?

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

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

Important Details

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

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

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

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

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

Character Motivation

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

Unimportant Plot Details

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

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

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

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

Introduction of Scenes

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

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

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

Montage Scenes

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

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

Write with Intention

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

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

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

Closing Threads

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

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

Visual Storytelling versus The Written Word

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

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

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

Writing for the Characters

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

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

Suspension of Disbelief

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

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

Cliché Tropes

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

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

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

Character Development

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

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

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

Identifying Plot Moving Details

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

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

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

Examples of Bad Storytelling

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

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

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

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

 

Shadow Profiling: Should I be concerned?

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

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

Facebook and Cambridge Analytica

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

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

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

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

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

Government Hearings

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

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

Facebook and Profiling

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

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

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

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

Reviewing Shadow Data

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

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

Request Shadow Data Removal

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

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

Continued Shadow Profiling

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

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

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

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

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Marketing, Facebook & Data Privacy

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

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

Email Marketing

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

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

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

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

Evolution of Email Marketing

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

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

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

List Management

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

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

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

Recipient Likes and Preferences

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

Evolution of Social Marketing

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

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

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

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

Facebook and Privacy

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

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

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

Data Privacy

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

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

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

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

Abuse

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

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

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

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

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

Protecting Your Privacy

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

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

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

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

Security Theater

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

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

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

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

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

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

Data Deletion and Right to be Forgotten Laws

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

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

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

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

Social Networks and Marketing

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

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

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

Marketing Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can Tesla survive?

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

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

Car Company vs Tech Company

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

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

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

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

Pushing Boulders Uphill

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

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

Expensive Bells and Whistles

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

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

Can Tesla Survive?

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

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

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

Tesla’s Failures

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

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

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

Tesla as a Commuter Car

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

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

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

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

Safety Track Record

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

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

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

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

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

What is an inclusion rider?

Posted in california, Employment, film by commorancy on March 5, 2018

As Francis McDormond spoke while accepting her Oscar, she left the audience with two final words, “inclusion rider”. What is it? Let’s explore.

Hollywood Contracts

Being a Hollywood actor, director, writer, cinematographer, producer or other cast or crew requires signing a contract with the production for employment. Contracts, as we all know, are legal agreements that you legally agree do whatever is stipulated within the contract. If you’re an actor, you’ll act. If you’re a producer, you’ll produce…. and so on.

However, there are also other items that can be added to contracts to make them sweeter, such as getting a percentage of the back end. The back end could include residuals from such things as box office sales, merchandising, video sales, rentals, etc etc. These can make whatever that person got paid even sweeter. If the production does well, that percentage of the back end could mean an even bigger paycheck. It’s always reasonable to try and negotiate percentages in productions, and while many lead actors and actresses try, getting that deal isn’t always possible. Negotiation of a back end deal is a form of rider. However, this is not the type of rider of which Francis McDormond speaks.

Affirmative Action

Before Affirmative Action began, minorities didn’t get their fair share of consideration during the hiring processes in many companies. Affirmative Action was created to ensure that employers remain equal opportunity for anyone who chooses to apply for a position. This means that an employer cannot turn away anyone for the position solely based on race, creed, color or natural origin (among others). The idea is that everyone must be considered for the position equally so long as they have the necessary skills and qualifications. What does this have to do with an ‘inclusion rider’? Everything..

Inclusion Rider

Hollywood is facing its biggest upheaval in many, many years. With the fall of Harvey Weinstein (and many others), Hollywood faces much scrutiny over unfair practices in productions against not only minorities, but also against women. In particular, McDormand refers to the fact that women have been unfairly treated in Hollywood for far too long. Not only in the sex object perspective, but also from a pay perspective. Francis McDormand’s comment conveys a ton of information in those two words.

An inclusion rider is a legal addition to a contract, specifically, a movie production contract, to ensure that women are fairly compensated and properly represented within the production. However, there’s a whole lot more veiled in these two words. In particular, McDormand’s comment was intended toward the Hollywood A-Listers who command not only a high salary, but a lot of negotiating power when it comes to their employment contracts.

Basically, an inclusion rider means hiring folks into the production in all capacities that represent all ages, creeds, colors, races, lifestyles, genders and so on. Unfortunately this also means sometimes shoehorning cast members into a production who don’t fit the story or setting of the film. For example, the most recent Fantastic Four is a very good example of the use of an ‘inclusion rider’ on the cast. This production hired a black actor for Johnny Storm. This is so far out of place from the original FF comics, it actually made no sense. Basically, that film version took extreme liberties from the the source material of Fantastic Four and rewrote that Susan Storm was adopted into a black family! This was never the case in the comics. In the comics, Susan and Johnny Storm were actual siblings, not adopted siblings and not from a mixed race family. Unfortunately, the production shoehorned in this black actor into this role without thinking through if it made any sense to the source comic material. This is when an ‘inclusion rider’ goes way too far and gets in the way of the casting for the production. To be fair, that casting mistake (and it was a relatively big one) was actually one of the lesser problems with that film version of Fantastic Four. Though, it didn’t help either.

The second example is Star Wars: The Force Awakens. J.J. Abrams intentionally requested a diverse set of ethnicities to be represented in the Star Wars reboot. However, because these stories didn’t exist, casting these characters wasn’t as big of a problem like The Fantastic Four. However, by The Last Jedi, the production had shoehorned the newest character, Rose, played by the Asian female actress, Kelly Marie Tran. Apparently, the production thought they didn’t yet have enough ethnicities represented and threw in yet another another character at a time when the production already had too many characters in the cast. The Rose character just doesn’t work. Sure, they added an Asian female actress, but that was too little, too late for the China audience. China had already written off the latest Star Wars as stupid way before Rose joined the cast. The casting of Rose did not in any way help sway China to accept these newest Star Wars films.

Is an inclusion rider good or bad or even necessary?

I’ll leave that for you to decide. However, from my perspective, the source story material should always rule the roost. An inclusion rider should never attempt to shoehorn diversity in actors or actresses simply because it’s politically correct. If you’re a producer who’s adapting an existing novel to the big screen that contains primarily white male characters as the leads among similar background characters, you shouldn’t recast them using to black, Asian, Latino or female roles just because of an inclusion rider. You should also not include extras who are demographically out of place or who don’t make sense for the source story. The source material should always be upheld for casting as the source story dictates. If you can’t cast a film the way the book is written, you should find another book to translate to film that fits your casting ideals.

Rewriting the source material’s story just to fulfill an inclusion rider is not only heavy handed, it’s insanely stupid, insipid and likely to cause the production to flop. The characters in a book are written to be a certain way and that’s why the story works. If you’re adapting that book to film, you should make sure that you’re being faithful to the source material which doesn’t include changing genders or the ethnicity of any character in a book just to fulfill an inclusion rider. Stick with the source material or expect your movie to fail at the box office.

See: Fantastic Four (2015) and Ghostbusters (2016) to understand just how badly ‘inclusion riders’ can affect your final product.

If you’re writing an original story for film, then by all means write the story so that the characters can be cast in the way that makes the most sense for your production’s inclusion riders. But, don’t bastardize an existing book or adaptation just to fill the cast with random genders and ethnicities that don’t make logical sense for the story or the setting.

As for whether an inclusion rider is even necessary is entirely up to the actor to negotiate. If you feel it’s important for your participation in the film, then yes. But, what’s really more important is you doing your best work possible with the cast who’s hired. Putting unnecessary demands on the producers might, in the long run, hurt your career longevity. That decision, however, is entirely up to you.

Best Production Possible

As a producer, don’t tie your production’s hands unnecessarily by adding stipulations that limit the potential quality of your project. You want your project to succeed, right? Then, keep all of your options open. Adding an inclusion rider that limits your hiring practice may, in fact, limit your production’s chances of succeeding. Don’t limit your production solely to hire under-represented minority groups. Do it because it makes sense for the film’s story and to make that story’s setting more authentic, not because you have an inclusion rider present.

Hiring Values

As for your behind-the-scenes production crew, by all means, hire as diverse as you possibly can. The more diverse the better. As with any business, and don’t kid yourself that a film production isn’t a business, diversity in hiring applies just as much the crew as any other employee in any other business. Diversity in hiring should be included in any capacity that your film needs. Of course, these folks are all behind the camera. However, hire smart, not diverse. This means that you don’t hire just because you want diversity. Hire because the person has the right skills for the job… which means, don’t turn away well qualified Caucasian candidates just because you want to hire diverse. Hire each one of your positions because the candidate offers the skills you need to get the job done, not because of an inclusion rider. Hire for skills, not diversity.

For the cast members in front of the camera, always hire the cast that makes the most sense for the story and produces the most authentic results. Don’t hire diversely just to fill a quota because you feel that an ethnic, lifestyle or gender group is underrepresented on film. That’s the wrong reason to hire a cast. Hire a cast that makes proper sense to tell the story. If that means diversity, great. If it means all white females or all black males, then that’s what the story needs. The story should dictate the cast, not an inclusion rider.

Original Hollywood Sign photo by raindog808 via Flickr using CC 2.0 license

Rant Time: Adobe VoCo’s ethical dilemma

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

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

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

VoCo’s Use Cases and Ethics

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

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

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

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

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

Business Ethics and Self-Editing

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

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

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

Legal Evidence

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

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

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

Flawed Product Ideas

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

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

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

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

Rant Time: Snapchat’s update failure

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

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

Flickr

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

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

Snapchat’s Update

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

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

Design Fails

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

Test, test and more testing

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

Rollback Plan

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

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

Overconfidence

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

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

Rant Time: eBay and shipping fees

Posted in botch, business, california by commorancy on January 30, 2018

This one will be quick. Today is the day I decided to do a little shopping and hopefully find a bargain online. Once again, foiled. Why? Let’s explore.

Bargain Shopping

I open a browser and go to eBay. I go there because I typically expect to find reasonable prices on most things. Sometimes I can find item prices at substantially reduced prices from Amazon. However, today wasn’t one of those days. I began searching for a specific item and I actually found it. In fact, I found the item at a very reasonable price. I even found the same item on Etsy with this very same listing problem. The problem wasn’t the price for the item, but it was in the shipping costs. I’ll skip mentioning this specific item because it’s not really relevant to the article. I’ve seen this problem on and off for many different items over the years. I’ve finally decided to rant about this problem.

While I can find the item I want at $5.99, I see that the shipping fee is $18.00 (or sometimes higher). What ridiculousness is this? Why am I expected to pay 3x the price of the item in shipping fees? No, I just won’t do that.

Stop These Listings

I don’t know what goes into that $18 cost, but many times I see the item is shipping within the US to a US address. Yes, I realize that FedEx and UPS and even the USPS (to an extent) aren’t always inexpensive for shipping. But, who in their right mind would pay $18 to ship an item that costs $5.99 or less? Not me.

It’s time that Amazon, eBay and Etsy stopped these listings. There is no reason to force would-be buyers to weed through useless listings like these to find someone who’s willing to offer a much more reasonable shipping fee. It would be a simple matter for these sites to decline to list items whose shipping fee exceeds 1x the cost of the item. When it gets to 3x the cost of the item’s price, it’s way too high and a waste of a listing. How many people would really pay that?

Maybe there are some people out there desperate enough to pay that high a cost for shipping, but I’m not one of them. I firmly believe that to be any kind of a deal, the shipping fee should be equal to or lower than the cost of item being listed. If shipping costs exceed the price by more than 1x the item’s price, the listing should be refused. Or, alternatively, make the default search filter remove listings with unnecessarily high shipping fees. For the people really interested in paying high shipping costs for an item, then click a checkbox to enable searching these. Yes, it is time to penalize sellers trying to price gouge through shipping fees.

Shipping Scam and Advice

I do realize that for a time there was a scam going around that sellers would back load the cost of the item into the shipping costs. So, instead of listing the item at a reasonable price, they would list the item for $.99 and then back load the item’s cost into the shipping and handling fee at something like $19.99 or similar. The reason for this is that it makes your product seem low priced until people looked at the shipping costs. It was simply a way to game the search listing sort engine. I’m sure that the seller thought they could trick someone into thinking they’re paying $.99 by not looking at the shipping fee. That’s a very old trick. A trick, in fact, that eBay is so well aware of, all of their listings now tell you shipping costs up front right in the search listing page. As a seller, it does you no good to try and trick the system using such tactics. Instead, it only makes you, as a seller, look like you’re trying to pull a fast one.

If you have something to sell, be honest with your prices and your shipping costs. People prefer honesty over trickery. If you know your shipping and handling is going to end up at $40 for a $5 item, don’t even bother to list the item in that way. It’s not worth it. This also makes you look inept. It would be better to front load your costs into the item itself and then reduce your shipping costs. In fact, you might as well just include the cost for the item plus the shipping costs together and state that it’s free shipping. You’re likely to attract more buyers this way than attempting to back load your costs into the shipping and handling fees.

Ridiculousness Abounds

Over the last several years, I’ve seen more and more of these kinds of shipping ripoff listings. These sites need to crack down on the listings with overpriced shipping and stop them (or, at least, filter them out by default). When I go shopping, I’m always looking for a deal. If as a seller, you can’t provide me with a deal at least as good as stores in my local retail area, then don’t show me those listings at all. Few people would want to pay 3x or higher in shipping costs for a seemingly low priced item. It’s just not a sustainable product offering.

If you have put items up on eBay or Etsy and sold them with a shipping cost 3x higher than the price of the item, sound off in the comments below. I’d like to know if you were able to sell that item or if the listing expired. My guess is that the listing expired. If you did sell the item, I’d like to know if your buyer was satisfied or dissatisfied with what they spent on shipping fees. I’d also like to know how many people returned the item once they found out the actual shipping costs.

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Why you should NOT use Disqus on your site!

Posted in botch, business, california by commorancy on October 26, 2017

What is Disqus (pronounced discuss)? This is a service that purports to offer an embedded comment / discussion service to your blog or website. Seems like a good feature, but let’s explore why this service shouldn’t be used.

Discussion Forums

Any good blog site or article site should offer a way to allow for comments. However, I find far too many sites that don’t offer comments at all. This is not the focus of this article, but it is one of my pet peeves. Should you choose to add a discussion or comment service, you should not consider using Disqus at all. Why?

Every good discussion package should offer a way to moderate posts and see every post that’s been submitted to your article. I believe that while Disqus does offer moderation, it also has a built-in spam detection package that hides posts from you that have been detected as spam. The problem with using Disqus, is that not only is their spam detection heinously faulty by filtering out many valid posts as false positives, Disqus does nothing about it. This means that as a site owner, you could be losing many, many valuable and valid comments to Disqus’s spam detection system.

As a site owner, you won’t even get to see those detected posts to know they were even there. They are simply hidden in the user’s profile on Disqus who posted their comment. Secondarily, the person leaving the comment can do nothing to get their comment unspammed. Once it’s detected by Disqus’s spam filter, that comment is lost for all eternity. Disqus staff not only does not monitor these failures,  they do nothing about them. Disqus offers a comment platform and they can’t even do that job.

If a user clicks on the This is not spam button, nothing happens. The post is not reposted. No one at Disqus looks at the comment. No one approves it. So, the comment remains in perpetual limbo solely on the user’s Disqus profile.

Disqus as a Discussion Service

As a site owner contemplating embedding Disqus as a comment platform for your site, you want to know that your reader’s comments appear timely and fully. This is guaranteed not to happen with Disqus. You don’t want to use a half-baked discussion system thinking you’re actually getting to see all comments on your posts. With Disqus, I’d guess at least 50% of all comments left on an article are lost to Disqus’s extremely stupid spam filtering system. That number might even be higher than that. If you actually want to see all participation on your posts, you should find another system to enable comments on your articles. DO NOT rely on the Disqus platform as they WILL lose valuable comments from your readers… comments that you will never see.

If you really value reader feedback and participation, do yourself a favor and DO NOT USE Disqus as a platform. Until this company actually gives a damn about your users and actually gives you the tools to manage every user response (spam filtered or not), you should find another service to add discussion feedback to your articles that you post.

Better, lead your users your other social media site where open discussions are, in fact, permitted without the draconian spam engine that Disqus currently employs to hide and censor valid and valuable comments from you.

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