Tag Archives: technology

#188: Downward Upgrades

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #188, on the subject of Downward Upgrades.

I have been playing a game on a “smart” cellular phone for the past few months–obviously not constantly, but in spare moments when I am stuck somewhere like waiting for the washer to finish or for the dog to decide to come back inside.  I’m going to name it, because this complaint is in some sense specifically their fault, although they are certainly far from unique in this.  The game is called My Singing Monsters, and it’s a sort of time-eating building game with some interesting twists, the best of which was that eventually I got to create my own songs using their tools.  I reached something around level forty-three or forty-four, which was far above anyone else I ever saw playing the game, the best of whom stopped playing around level thirty.

Then the game stopped working, and I know exactly why it stopped working, and in a very real sense it is the fault of the designer, and in another sense the designer is just doing what everyone does:  I was forbidden to continue playing unless I installed the latest upgrade, but the latest upgrade was too big for the memory space on my phone.

It’s not as if my phone is filled with junk.  I have seven “apps” (that’s short for “applications” but it means “programs”) that did not come as part of the original software–Netflix, but no saved video, Kindle with only two books at a time saved locally, a remote control for my bedroom television, my bank’s access program, a voice recorder for making quick reminder notes, a program that cleans junk off the phone and monitors its functionality, and a very small program that tells me what my phone number is when I look.  I had a couple other games, but I deleted them, and very much for the reason that I just deleted this one:  without me adding any new functions to my phone, the existing functions kept using up more and more resources.

This has been a habit of the software industry for a generation (well, in software terms that’s probably twenty generations, but it’s only a few decades).  Once upon a time making a program “better” involved writing it such that it used less space, had fewer command lines, and did as much with less resources.  Now it seems that making a program “better” means bloating it with more code to provide features the user never requested–if I’m using my phone for directions and I plug it into the power supply, that cleaner program shuts down the running map program and locks the screen; it did not do that when I first installed it, but included that “feature” which I consider a “bug” in one of the upgrades (and there is no option to disable it).

Of course, the hardware manufacturers are even more supportive of this practice in connection with phones than they were with computers.  At one time when the resource demand grew too great you could upgrade the computer–install a larger hard drive, more on board RAM, faster processor, better sound or video card.  With a cell phone, you can’t even add memory–oh, you can put in an SD card, but the system is designed to prevent you from running programs from it, so you can only store media there (I have a thirty-two megabyte card hosting a dozen photographs and a lot of empty space).  Ultimately if you run out of room on the phone you either have to delete programs or you have to buy another phone.  Industry hardware executives are of course hoping ultimately you will be forced to the latter.

So I hope that the My Singing Monsters designers hear that they lost a player because they upgraded beyond his phone’s capacity, and give some thought to whether it’s really worth making the program bigger to add features no one requested, and also that the rest of the cell phone software industry might take to heart the idea that in many cases the best way to improve a program is to make it smaller, remove worthless code and features, and have it accomplish what it is essentially made to do with a much lower use of system resources.

I’m also hoping for world peace, the brotherhood of all mankind, and a perfect hot fudge peanut butter sundae.  I might get one of those.

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#145: The New Internet Tax Law

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #145, on the subject of The New Internet Tax Law.

What the Supreme Court won’t hear can hurt you.

The Supreme Court declined to hear a case appealed from the 10th Circuit, Direct Marketing Association v. Brohl, which means that the decision of the appellate court stands.  That decision means that the state legislature in Colorado has found a loophole of sorts in a very important previous case, Quill Corp. v. North Dakota, 504 U.S. 298 (1992), which has been very important to Internet sales over the past one and a half decades, in a way that means you might have to pay your local state sales taxes on purchases you make over the Internet.

img0145amazon

Quill is effectively the reason you don’t pay sales tax on purchases you make over the Internet from retailers in other states.  It actually had nothing to do with the Internet–Quill Corp. was a mail order office supplies dealer in Delaware that shipped orders all over the country, and North Dakota sued to require them to collect sales tax on any products they sold to customers in that state.  The Supreme Court set up standards by which in order for a company to be required to collect sales tax for any given state, it had to have some kind of physical presence in that state–offices, warehouses, retail outlets, even possibly franchises.  Absent these, the state had no authority to impose obligations on a business located in another state.

What states did in the wake of Quill was in essence to add a line to their state tax forms instructing residents to declare how much they owed in unpaid sales tax due to purchases made out of state.  Oddly, very little was ever reported.

Colorado had a new idea.  They could not require out-of-state businesses whose only connection to the state was through electronic communications and independent shipping companies to collect taxes for them–but could they require such companies to report the amount of such tax that was owed?  If you in Colorado spent a thousand dollars to have Amazon ship you books, movies, or whatever you bought from them, you were legally required to let the state know, and to remit the unpaid twenty-nine dollars (2.9%) sales tax–but if you neglected to mention it, the State of Colorado would be unable to determine that without legal action such as a warrant to open your banking records.  Under the new law, though, Amazon would be required to let the State tax board know of your thousand dollars worth of purchases, so that when you failed to mention it the state could send you a bill with penalties for tax avoidance.

New York’s Data and Marketing Association, an industry group (formerly the Direct Marketing Association), sued the state in the name of the executive director of its Department of Revenue several years ago when the law was enacted, and got a stay while the matter was being litigated.  It has now run its course:  the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals has decided that the law is not an “undue burden” on out-of-state retailers, and the Supreme Court has decided not to hear the case, so that ruling stands within the Tenth Circuit and will probably be followed by other circuits.

The law has some specific limits.  It only applies to retailers with at least one hundred thousand dollars in gross sales to customers within the state, so it’s not going to impact your e-bay resale business unless you’re doing a lot better than most.  However, it is fairly certain that other states will be passing similar laws–it is estimated that Colorado will be able to collect over one hundred seventy million dollars a year in previously unpaid sales tax revenue, and numbers like that are undoubtedly going to appeal to legislators elsewhere.  It is less clear how important the definition of minimum gross sales within the state is to the decision, so it may be that some states will place the bar much lower with the result that small Internet retailers are going to have a hard time knowing where they are required to report what.  Meanwhile, language in the denial of certiorari (that means the written decision not to hear the case) from Justice Kennedy suggests that the Court might consider overturning Quill and allowing states to demand that retailers selling to state residents through such means collect and remit sales tax on all purchases.  Tennessee is already in the process of passing such a law, which might make it the test case in a few years.

Whatever else can be said, it is clear that the landscape of Internet marketing just changed significantly.  You can no longer avoid paying sales tax by ordering from out of state.

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#92: Electronic Tyranny

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #92, on the subject of Electronic Tyranny.

I encountered an article–I did less than read it, but more than scan it–which ironically was apparently written by an expert in social media working with LinkedIn, if I understand aright, explaining why she had shut down her Facebook account.  She also had decided to deactivate her smartphone for several hours each evening.  She explained that it had been taking over her life, and now she finds she has much more time for more important things, like her writing and in-person personal interactions, relationships.

I apologize for being bored.  I use Facebook as my primary mode of communications, but I do understand the problem–and I understand it because I faced it and addressed it long before Facebook was an issue.  In fact, there was a name for this problem when it was a much smaller problem.  It was called The Tyranny of the Telephone. We have the same problem, only bigger; and the same answers address it, only modified for the new shape.

img0092Telephone

By the early 1960s, telephones were ubiquitous; it was probably earlier than that, but that’s a time I can remember, and it’s important for another reason.  Almost every home–certainly almost every suburban home–had one, and people used them for all kinds of things they previously did in person, like making appointments with doctors and talking to friends and selling life insurance and magazine subscriptions and promoting political candidates.  There was a weak attempt at establishing a standard of courtesy, such as when you called someone the first thing you should say is who you are, but this did not really take hold.

What was unexpected about the phone was the way in which it took over our lives. You could be entertaining sixty people spread across three rooms at a family gathering, but if the phone rang whoever was calling would expect, and get, your undivided attention for however long they chose to stay on the line, almost never asking whether it was a bad time.  You could be deeply involved in a work project, but if the phone on your desk rang you suddenly were interrupted by whoever was at the other end, for whatever reasons they had for wanting your involvement in what they were doing.  It was unlike any social interaction previous to it. If someone knocked on your front door and you were busy, you asked them to wait. If someone called on the phone, you asked everyone else to wait.

Around that time, in the early 1960s, my father, who at that time was an engineer with Western Union, attended a major telecommunications industry conference.  The president of AT&T was the keynote speaker.  For those who don’t know, prior to the antitrust breakup in the 1980s which allowed the launch of other long distance telephone services and ultimately the creation of independent local telephone companies, American Telephone and Telegraph was the phone company.  They provided nearly all local and long distance telephone service throughout the United States, and their Bell Labs was one of the leaders in electronic development and experimentation (I believe they invented transistors and were among the first to work with fiber optic data transmission).  In his keynote address, he spoke of many of the technological advances in telephone technology he perceived as coming within the decade, many of which did come in that time while others fell away for lack of interest for a few decades.  He predicted call waiting and call forwarding and caller ID, picturephones, and telephones with remote service that you could carry with you into the wilderness.  As he finished, he said that he could foresee the day when if you wanted to speak with someone you could pick up a phone, dial one number, and if he didn’t answer you could be pretty sure that he was dead.

What the president of AT&T did not understand then was the possibility that most of us sometimes and some of us most of the time would rather not be readily available to anyone and everyone, that we would want to disconnect from the world for a while, be voluntarily incommunicado.

And the problem with technology like the telephone is that it connects us.  Of course, that is exactly what it is supposed to do, but we do not always want to be connected.  That, though, is not a problem with the technology; it is a problem with us.

I say I understand the author’s problem, but am bored by it because it is old news.  In the late 90s I installed maybe all the popular instant messaging programs–ICQ, AIM, Yahoo!Messenger, MSN Messenger–and made myself available to anyone looking for me.  I was, after all, designer of a recently published game, and I needed to be available to answer questions–and I had launched several then independent web sites on time travel, D&D, Bible, law, and more, and needed to be available to people with questions about those.  What I found in the main, though, was that if you were visibly “on” such networks, it was like attending a large house party–people would see that you were available and assume that you had nothing better to do than chat with them.  I didn’t want to be rude, but I was at work trying to get web pages posted, new worlds written and edited, a novel completed, and more.  I would try to get these people to come to the point, to ask their question, to get past the pleasantries–only to realize there was no point, no question, only pleasantries from people who were bored and wanted to talk.

My response then was as drastic as that of the current author:  I shut down all those programs.  I’m not sure whether I could find the passwords and user names if I wanted them now, and I’m not sure which, if any, still operate, but I removed them from my schedule and found indeed that I had a lot more time, and a lot less contact with some people.

I went through something similar with electronic mail.  Every day I would download a large quantity of e-mail messages, attempt to discard anything that I could tell was obviously Spam (something at which I have improved), and then read through the substantial remainder and write responses to most of them.  Some would take perhaps not hours but certainly dozens of minutes, explaining complicated issues in temporal anomalies or answering a Bible question that had real personal meaning to a correspondent, and I would send these missives as soon as they were complete.  Then when I had finished all the mail that had been downloaded, I would hit the download button again, and get more–usually at least some of it replies to letters I had just sent, often requiring additional substantive responses.  This would happen several times every day, and my e-mail engagement would take several hours of my work time.

This time I handled the problem more intelligently.  My first step was not to download the second time–that is, if I downloaded mail at two in the afternoon, anything that hadn’t arrived by then would wait for the next day.  I did this because I realized that some people were using e-mail as if it were an instant messaging program, and I had eliminated instant messaging programs because they took over so much time in my life.  These e-mail conversations were doing the same thing.  Cutting them to one message a day saved a lot of time.  It saved so much time that I gradually cut it back further, first to every other day, then to a regular schedule of five times in a fortnight.  Eventually I realized that anyone who needed to reach me urgently either had my cell phone number (very very few, it was intended for emergency texting) or could reach me through Facebook.  Anyone who sent me an e-mail was not in that big a hurry to get an answer, and today I check e-mail about once a month, plus or minus a couple weeks.  I’ll get to it eventually.  It’s not usually that important, and I don’t need to let it take over my time.

I poke my nose into Facebook several times a day.  I was recently gifted with a smartphone, and added the Facebook apps so I can check when I am not at my computer.  However, I control my Facebook–I don’t look at my feed or try to follow what my friends are doing, and they know that I am unlikely to notice anything posted that is not in some way directed at me (a private message, a post to my wall, or a post in which I am tagged) or made in one of the few groups which have priority in my preferences.  I don’t have to delete Facebook to control it; I have to control myself.

The electronic world has the potential to consume our lives, to take time from other more important activities.  That has been true since its beginning, with gramophones and nickelodeons, radio and telephones, television, video games, personal computers, bulletin board systems and online services, cellular phones, Internet and e-mail and smartphones, and whatever comes next will undoubtedly be the same only more.  We can be the Luddites trying to cut ourselves off from its progress, but it does not stop that progress and does not improve us nearly as much as learning to control ourselves so we can use such advances as Facebook wisely.

Deleting your Facebook account strikes me as a desperate attempt to get control of your life, along the lines of those in earlier times who removed their television sets and had their phone service disconnected.  The problem is that you are letting it control you; the solution is to learn to control it.

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