||||From time to time, certain topics come up
that call for a rant. They ought to have a full page about them,
like some of the others in paulkienitz.net. Yet no rant page is written,
because it takes too much time or too much research. So I'm left
with an opinion to state, and no rantage to back it up with. This
page's purpose is to act as a
New material will be added to this page aperiodically at the top... sort of like a blog, only less exciting. Once in a while, one of the items will expand to become a real rant page. For example, my California electricity crisis page, which eventually became the regular feature Enron & Friends, started out as a lowly micro-rant.
Eventually I split the micro-rants into pages by topic categories. The other pages are:
There have been a lot of bad license agreements that we've all been obliged to click "I accept" on, but this one has a new feature that makes it a real prize. It's the agreement for Aetna's "Account Gateway" feature. Not only does it go on at interminable length while saying very little, but it includes this condition, which I don't think anyone's ever tried to enforce on me before:
"You agree that we may display advertisements and promotions of all kinds on the Web site and you agree not to disable any technology required or utilized to serve or display such advertising."They think they can prohibit me from using an ad blocker when viewing their site! What next -- billboards that it's illegal not to look at?
The whole thing is already full of dysfunctional lawyerness. For instance, they take around a hundred words just to say that hyperlinking to other sites does not constitute an endorsement. (You see, if they'd used only fifty words, some tiny loophole might have slipped through that would allow a malicious customer to hold them liable for endorsing something.) What we have here, I think, is not a legal department working to help the company do its job better, but lawyers making up imaginary threats to scare their employers with so they can look useful by "solving" them. There's no other reason for half the gibberish in this agreement (and many others like it). This kind of already dysfunctional lawyering is, I suspect, the sort that extends easily into including illegal and/or unenforceable restrictions into agreements, like the ad-blocker restriction above. I've heard reports that many of the more restrictive clauses in common license agreements have been ruled to be without legal force -- for instance, the classic "opening this envelope constitutes agreement" line -- yet companies continue to use them.
You think the endless constraints and restrictions that various organizations pointlessly impose on their customers and employees -- often in ways that make no sense or actively interfere with them doing their jobs well -- for "liability" reasons, are because Americans are lawsuit happy, and they've really been forced by court rulings to tie themselves up this way? I don't think so. We've got a whole class of legal experts here who have found a lucrative niche for themselves by cultivating an atmosphere of institutional paranoia and cowardice that is not based on reality. By scaring their customers with phony legal dangers, and selling a sense of security to the kind of bureaucrat who will opt for absolute minimum risk regardless of how it affects the ability to do the job, they reinforce their own aura of indispensability even as they do more harm than good...
And once I got into the Aetna Account Gateway, it turned
out to have nothing to it. It's mostly a clutter of random "portal"
crap that I can get anywhere on the web, and all it apparently offers is
a place to put in links to where your financial information really is,
and dates to remind you of bills. I just sent in an email asking
for my brand new account to be cancelled, and mentioned that whoever wrote
the Terms and Conditions needs a ride on a 17th century ducking stool.
(By the way, the ad blocker I'm using is the Adblock extension for Mozilla Firefox. When using IE, I use AdShield, which isn't nearly as good. Firefox, like all the Mozilla browser variants, can block the majority of ads without any extension. Adblock just improves it further.)
UPDATE: And how much of the public perception that citizen lawsuits are out of control is actually coming from corporate propaganda outfits like these? Around my town there are billboards that say "Lawsuits: the American Disease". What a load of crap. The current efforts to elevate a privileged ruling class over the rest of America -- an effort currently led by George W. Bush -- has as one of its holy grails the removal of ordinary citizens' rights to sue the wealthy and powerful. They have already nearly succeeded in taking away that right in Texas, and efforts to impose more lawsuit restriction (they call it "tort reform") on the rest of the country are continuing.
LATER UPDATE: I've now switched to Mozilla
Firebird as my main browser, which has ad blocking built in (except for
Flash ads). I stil use IE and AdShield from time to time.
Just a little gripe I have to unload... There is a Bay Area Rapid Transit stop which is labeled "Coliseum / Oakland Airport". It is right next to the Oakland Coliseum, connected to it by an overhead walkway... but it is nowhere near the airport. Instead, it is the terminus for a shuttle bus called AirBART, which is a private company, not part of the BART system.
AirBART used to be decent. You gave the driver one dollar and he whisked you and your luggage to the airport terminal. But things have gone downhill. First of all, the price is now two dollars -- which makes it, for me, more expensive than the BART trip to the Coliseum station is. But worse, you have to buy tickets out of a special machine. This creates problems in different ways depending which direction you are going.
At the station end, what you have to do is buy a two dollar ticket from a regular BART ticket machine. You can't charge two dollars off your regular BART ticket; you have to buy a separate one. BART tickets have their current value encoded in a magnetic strip, and the machines also print the current value on the front... but since it's the magnetic strip that gets you onto the trains, the printers for the human-readable number are often not well maintained, and produce blank or illegible printings. The ticket machines work quite reliably for the trains, but AirBART does not have a magnetic strip reader; it relies on the driver to read the number printed on the front of the ticket. If it's illegible, he pretty much has to take your ticket on faith... or he might tell you to get another one, leaving you ripped off for an extra two dollars.
At the airport end, the trouble is different. Here, there is a special ticket machine that prints a clearly legible paper ticket... but the machine is completely unreliable! Here is what happened the last time I used it:
I put in a dollar bill. It slurped it inside and sat and did nothing. I stuck in another bill. It pulled it in a little way, backed it out a bit, and gradually sucked it in with a series of back-and-forth motions. Then it displayed a credit of one dollar, total! I tried pressing Coin Return; no effect. I pushed an unlabeled green button; nothing happened... but after some time, it spit out a ticket for "partial payment, one dollar." I then tried to get it to give me a second one dollar partial ticket. I had no more one dollar bills, so I had to use quarters. But it would not issue a ticket for four quarters; it would only give back the coins. So I put in four more and got a two dollar ticket. I then tried giving the partial ticket to the person next in line, suggesting they put in a one dollar bill and get another partial ticket. The machine then decided its dollar bill mechanism wasn't working and flashed a "Coins Only" message. I left the one dollar ticket sitting on the machine and as far as I know, nobody ever found a use for it. So the ride cost me four dollars, because the ticket machine has more bugs than a wino's flophouse... and they delivered me one minute late to catch the current northbound train. For that matter, I missed one AirBART bus during the time I spent wrassling with the machine.
At this point, unless you have a ton of luggage or are in a huge hurry, you're better off just taking the county bus.
Another consumer complaint: As bad as Pacific Bell Internet, my former (thank god) ISP sucks, they have just reached a new level of suction. I canceled the remnants of my account a month ago, by which time it served no purpose except to redirect a few web page hits and collect spam. The nonrefundable time I'd paid for ran out on August 11, and the account disappeared the next day, on schedule. Then... I got a phone bill, which included a charge of $220 for another year of internet service, to be automatically charged to my bank on August 25, for a dialup account that was already nonexistent! I called the phone company billing service; the phone answerer could only understand my explanation of the problem after multiple attempts. She redirected me to the Pac Bell Internet customer service (the place that got an exposé written about it in a local paper; where half of the phone answerers are "supervisors" so that when you say "Let me speak to your supervisor", the call is simply transferred to the next desk) where the phone answerer was at least able to understand the problem and make the correction without needing a bunch of explaining... but she then told me it might take three months for me to get refunded the money I had never owed! She told me that the way to stop the charge was for me to be the go-between between Pacific Bell Internet and the Pacific Bell phone company, telling them my "case number" and getting them to put a "hold" on the charge until the form she had filled out for me could get there two or three months later.
Having already spent twenty minutes on the phone, making me late for work, at this point I ran out of politeness. I mean, at my current ISP, this kind of mess would have been fixed in three minutes, not three months. I'm afraid I raised my voice somewhat, and said things like "There is no excuse for this... you are telling me to do your job for you, because you can't -- because your forms and procedures can't do a perfectly simple thing like carry a message from one building to another in the same company in under three months. This is perfect proof that canceling my account is completely the right thing to do." (And this is all true, there really is no excuse... if I were running a company and the manager of my customer service department produced performance like this, I'd fire him.) She didn't react at all to this; she remained as calm and professional and smooth after this as before. What that tells me is that she's used to getting this all the time -- that this reaction is normal for Pac Bell customers.
UPDATE: The charge came back on my next bill! They are once again going to deduct the additional $220 from my bank account! This calls for some ass-kicking... I mean really, you can't let people get away with crap like this.
LATER UPDATE: It wasn't until the fourth bill that the charge was removed -- actually, it was left on the bill but balanced by a credit. The best they could offer to get me through that period was to shut off automatic payment until then.
What is it with regional phone companies? I hear
all the same horror stories about Verizon, Qwest, and so on... The
good news is that cell phones are starting to give them some real competition.
LATER: Except now the cell companies are starting to buy each
STILL LATER: Except now the cell companies are starting to buy each other up...
Somebody has managed to publicize yet another exotic theory for the mysterious explosion in 1908 in Tunguska, Siberia -- in which a fireball from the sky, apparently a meteor, detonated and flattened trees over a thousand square miles, but left only a tiny trace of meteoric residue on the ground. The new theory is that it was made of "mirror matter", a largely invisible and impalpable form of matter which some physicists think must exist, and must account for some of the missing "dark matter" in the universe. The classical mirror matter theory says that it interacts with normal matter only through gravity, so a normal rock and a mirror rock can pass right through each other. But a new version of the theory says they would interact just enough -- like one millionth as much as normal matter does with itself -- for a mirror meteor to heat up and detonate in our atmosphere. These guys (led by Robert Foot of the University of Melbourne) want to send an expedition to Siberia: the thirty-sixth mounted by various scientists and not-quite-scientists. They think they may be able to find huge truckloads of mirror matter buried in the ground. Good luck.
Shall we open a betting pool on what the Tunguska explosion
will turn out to be? So far, the nominees are:
- large stony meteor, or small asteroid, that evaporated in the explosion
- comet, or large meteor made of ice
- much smaller meteor made of antimatter
- small black hole, which presumably made a second explosion when it came out the far side of the Earth
- a peculiar kind of earthquake which generated glowing plasma in the atmosphere
- meteor made of mirror matter
- flying saucer blowing up due to engine malfunction
- test of secret weapon invented by Nikola Tesla
If you have any more theories I've missed, let me know about them. If you believe in any of the above, tell me why. My money is on a chunk of ice... but on the other hand, some chemical investigations seem to show isotopic residues of a stony meteor.
UPDATE: Robert Foot sent me mail saying
"i think you would benefit learning more about the subject" of mirror matter,
with a link to his site.
I used to really like my nifty semi-new Ford Contour. It was slick and efficient and it handled so nice. But now it's dead as a doornail, and I'm kind of wishing I hadn't been so rash as to risk buying an American car. With only 55K on the odometer (only 13K of which are mine), it blew a head gasket or something and let its coolant run into the cylinders, where it corrodes the cylinder walls and, if circulated with the oil, wrecks the bearing surfaces. I am in the process of opening up the engine to see whether it can be salvaged. I'm guessing at this point that the answer is probably no.
A recent consumer's guide to used cars rated my model ('96 Contour GL) as "below average" in reliability, and listed all years of Contour as "used cars to avoid". Two years ago, when I bought the car, it had not yet been given these negative ratings. It looked okay back then -- certainly better than, for instance, the Chevy Malibu.
A Canadian friend of mine says that up there, many people gripe about the Contour's model twin, the Mystique, and call it the Mercury Mistake. Ford has now discontinued the model in the US, though the original European version (called the Mondeo) is still sold. In Britain the Mondeo is advertised as (get this) "more limousine than saloon." I suppose the Contour was more or less squozen out by replacing the Escort with the somewhat heavier and faster Focus, leaving an insufficient gap between it and the Taurus to fit in another model. The fact that it drives better than either of those apparently was not relevant.
Basically, the reason I bought a Ford instead of a Honda
is because the local Honda dealers include an extra item on the price sticker
that looks something like this:
|Just Because We Can:||
Or on V6 models:
|Just Because We Can:||
The asshole there offered me a three year lease for practically the cost of a whole car, after I'd specifically told him I had no interest in leasing. Then he wasted an hour of my time jerking me around instead of making a serious price offer.
Given this situation, the savings of owning a more reliable car with higher resale value didn't look like they'd actually save me any money. If I do this repair on the cheap, i.e. with a used engine from a wrecker, I may still come out ahead of what I would have paid for a better car. But that doesn't mean I gotta like it. I have to smell that lemon-fresh scent when driving it. I am disappointed with Ford. I'm left with a general feeling that can be expressed as, "Fords suck; the only cars that suck worse are GMs and Chryslers."
I'm rediscovering just how annoying working on cars is, and how particularly annoying modern cars are. A friend of mine recently went car shopping (and got a Ford Ranger), and I am reminded of how annoying car buying is. It does look rather as if there is no such thing as a good car dealership.
UPDATE: the engine was not corroded inside, and is now fully repaired. But it took many weeks and I had to pay a mechanic friend quite a bit to do the hard parts. As for Ford sucking less than GM and Chrysler, it turns out that in the last couple of years, new leadership at Ford has created some internal corporate turmoil, one consequence of which has been that Ford's rate of quality problems has risen above GM's and Chrysler's. From what I hear, a '96 Ford like mine is probably going to be a lot more solid in the long run than a '99 or '01 Ford.
In Europe, the Mondeo has been made larger for the '01 model year, and there are rumors that it will come back to the US as a replacement for the Mercury Sable, so the Sable and Taurus will no longer be twins. There are also rumors that a new version of the Mazda 626 will be based on it. By all accounts this would be a substantial improvement for either car. More remarkably, the new budget model from Jaguar (the X-type, about $30,000) is actually a fancy version of a Mondeo with all-wheel drive added. That they could do this shows how cool a design the Mondeo is.
FURTHER UPDATE: The new leadership at Ford has been thrown out.
HANDY HOUSEHOLD HINT: If a mechanic tells you that your Ford vehicle needs an expensive new MAF sensor, or even if you just get a Check Engine light that isn't due to misfiring, try soaking the little wires inside the old MAF sensor with brake cleaner (non-chlorinated). Many a poorly running vehicle has regained its youth with this simple treatment. This may also apply to many non-Fords. Do it carefully -- those wires are delicate. Do not, for instance, put a spray can nozzle right up near them.
REDUCING THE SCENT OF LEMONS: On the Ford Contour, water pump failures are a problem, especially in the V6 "duratec" engine. If you have the front of the engine opened up, to change a timing belt or whatever, change the water pump too even if the old one still works. On the 4-banger "zetec" engine, change the timing belt idler pulleys -- they're too small and their bearings often wear out faster than the belt does. This advice also applies to newer cars that use the zetec, notably the Focus and the Escape. If you have a problem with a Contour, ask about it on contour.org.
UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: A version of the new
larger Mondeo has returned to the US as the '03½ Mazda 626.
It comes with a new 2.3L four-banger that replaces the zetec, or the 3.0L
version of the duratec (an engine used in some Tauruses and in the Jaguar
X-Type). There are rumors now that it will replace both the Sable
and the Taurus, now that it is large enough.
I just ran afoul of AOL censorship without even being on AOL. A reader of my anti-boob job page was participating in an AOL forum debating breast implants, and posted the url. AOL deleted the message because the url pointed to something they considered "unsuitable" for AOL users to view. Which is hilarious, because that page draws something like 70% of its traffic from AOL anyway! The reason it was found unsuitable, apparently, was that it contained a couple of expletives -- either that or because of the pictures. The censor, as seems to be typical, would not say what specific part they found offensive even when directly asked, but just hid behind canned generic official language.
Now I hope I don't have to spell out how crazy it is to have to censor the "adult" content out of a discussion on a subject that is already an adult topic and relevant only to adult readers. The only thing crazier is to have an ongoing discussion focused entirely on breasts and assume the people in it aren't ready to see a picture of one.
Anyway, I compromised by making a second copy of the page with expletives altered and little censor band-aids over the nipples in the pictures. I have no idea what point there is to putting a little patch over each nipple, but this modified version got past the AOL censor. (It appears to have substantially increased the amount of hostile mail I get, too -- this forum reached more pro-implant advocates than I was reaching before.) The main page now has a little warning at the top that directs you to the alternate page if you want your information bowdlerized.
I do not consider this page to be just as good as the original. My main intent is to dispel the illusion-based thinking that commonly underlies people's desire to get implants, and getting people to look with their eyes wide open at the real outcome. Doing that requires sticking the message right into your face without euphemisms, indirection, or politely averting our eyes. Anything that hides part of the truth for the sake of maintaining mental comfort simply reinforces habits of believing in conventional myths and advertisers' fantasies instead of the reality in front of you. In other words, writing with a certain amount of "shock value" is, for some readers, important for being able to get across the substance of the argument. There are plenty of more dully written pages out there that say some of the same things, and many people have already seen and ignored them. Different readers are reached by different styles. Which means it is important to have a diversity of approaches available out there, rather than require everyone to fit one standard of propriety. For some readers, my rougher approach is exactly right... some have written to me saying "Your web page opened my eyes more than anything I've read so far," and "You can imagine the shock and horror on my face while I was reading your words, I realized... holy shit! he is absolutely right!" For these readers, a bit of confrontational language gets them to notice and acknowledge what, on some level, they knew all along. On the other hand, those who remain attached to getting implants very often cling to a layer of illusion and distorted perception... leading their friends to say things like "Most of [my acquaintences with implants] have very ugly boobs, but they think they look great."
I'm not alone in seeing the problem as one of illusionary thinking: Dr. Donnica Moore, a women's health expert, says that (as paraphrased by Oprah in a question which she affirmed as a correct statement of her beliefs) "Women who want breast implants usually have this delusional idea that having small breasts is the one flaw that has kept them from... any success." Moore herself says "The mindset is: if I only had bigger breasts, I'd get the job, I'd get the part in the play, I'd get the man, I'd get the respect."
AOL's "protection" of users is a bad joke. They do a poorer job of protecting your privacy than anyone but the advertising-based free ISPs. From what I hear, AOL users get more adult spam in their mailboxes than users of plain vanilla ISPs get. Anyone who participates in services like AIM chat rooms or anything else that isn't monitored every second gets constantly exposed to adult language. When sexual predators look for children on the net, AOL is their number one resource, the first place to look. If I had kids, I would consider them much safer on a no-name local ISP than on AOL. AOL's efforts to protect kids have largely failed -- maybe even backfired. So the only thing their censorship accomplishes is to interfere in communication between adults, usually to the annoyance of all parties in the discussion. It's time for them to put that effort into genuinely protecting kids -- keeping porn spam out of kids' mailboxes, protecting kids' privacy, and so on. Once that's done, you can leave adults alone.
Later: I now have some figures for how many readers of the boob job page bother to view the censored version... about three percent. Of course, some readers are too clueless to follow the warning pointer... so occasionally I get mail from someone who reads the uncensored version and then complains to me about the language in it.
UPDATE: I recently learned that it is in
fact official AOL policy that the list of words they consider grounds for
censorship is confidential and not to be revealed to anyone outside of
the group that is enforcing them! Does that make any fucking sense
at all?!? Nobody who asks for specifics about why a given item is
deemed censorable, or about what changes would make it acceptable, is ever
given an answer.
A month or so ago I had an item in here griping about
the lameness of certain expensive motorized exercise equipment, particularly
powered treadmills that could do fancy tricks like raise and lower their
inclines in mid-use and follow weird uneven speed patterns, and which cost
$1000 or more. Shortly afterwards I started to doubt my conclusions
and removed the item. Now I have to pull a full about-face and say
that for us who are over forty, an expensive motorized treadmill can be
a great thing. I still reject the auto-lift weird simulated ups and
downs, but having a motor that knows how to gradually speed up, maintain
a pace for a given time, and then gradually taper off is useful.
Since I got a treadmill, the problems I was having with maintaining regular
exercise have vanished. It's easy enough to do every day and useful
enough so I'm already having more energy every morning and losing a few
pounds. For a young person, jogging is all you need -- and if you're
old, a walk is all you need. But for someone about forty, often neither
a jog nor a walk is a helpful option... especially if you're too embarrassed
to do an all-out "power walk" where people can see you. Fortunately,
when you're forty is usually when you have the most money...
Okay, this isn't news, but I just thought I'd mention
that putting stickers onto fruits and vegetables that you eat the skins
of really sucks. Unfortunately, we can't effectively threaten to
boycott such fruit, because most of the grocery stores that sell produce
that way actually don't make any money off of it; it's a loss leader to
bring you into the store. What we need is a good media stink over
the practice, but who is there who doesn't have some more important issue
The worst trend in software today is "skins". Any shareware program that features "skins" is not worth downloading, because if you do try it out you'll end up deleting it within twenty minutes, and any commercial program that adds skins (or "themes"), like Microsoft Media Player 7 or Netscape Navigator 6, will turn a usable program into a worthless piece of stinking waste matter. As well as making for bad interfaces, there generally seems to be a peculiar incompatibility between having skins and being able to work properly.
Hey Steve Case, have you noticed how much people hate Netscape 6? The AOLization of this once fine program has driven away users in droves, and it's mainly because of the use of skins. And Bill Gates, have you noticed that on a lot of our machines, Media Player 7 just doesn't work for many of its tasks? We might expect this in a shareware offering where a fancy interface has to come at the expense of effort in other areas, but Microsoft doesn't have any excuses in that area. The lesson for other software makers is clear: avoid skins like the plague, they will kill your product. Of course, in Microsoft's case, whether the program works or not is largely irrelevant to how widely it gets used.
UPDATE: The butt-ugly interface of MS Office XP, which my company just got a beta of, does not seem to have skins in it, but it seems to be drawing its appearance from the fashion trends set in motion by skinned programs. Basically, they're getting rid of the simple and universally accepted "3D shading" look in favor of something flat and blotchy and unattractive just because it's new. It's sort of an AOLized look... only a dingy corporate version with all the fun and kid stuff taken out. Presumably Windows XP will look the same way. And since they have a monopoly, it will be like the days when women's fashion was dictated around the world by a handful of Parisians -- we'll have to live with the new style whether we like it or not. Trying to update old accepted styles is fine if you're not a monopoly... but when you are one, maybe you should ask us first, and go in small steps.
ANOTHER UPDATE: Speaking of Media Player, have you noticed how awful the Movie Maker included in Windows ME is? Many of its deficiencies stem from the fact that it uses a new video-file format called .WMV, which is the third or fourth attempt by Microsoft to promote a new video format, and is a significant downward step in quality from their last couple of tries. Converting a good MPEG to WMV will noticeably lower the quality even if you turn the WMV bit-rate up to the most extreme setting, and playing it back requires ten times as fast a computer. Their "recommended" setting is worthless except for postage-stamp sized pictures. At this point, everybody realizes that MPEG format is better in every way than any of the proprietary formats promoted by Apple and Microsoft -- and even people who use Microsoft's AVI format tend to use the DivX codec, which just puts an AVI wrapper around MPEG content. Microsoft seems to be thinking along lines something like this: the last format was great (we presume), but it wasn't great enough to get people away from the non-proprietary MPEG standard, therefore we have to try another one, or else people will be using stuff that doesn't tie them to any of our products, and we can't have that. But the more they proliferate alternate formats, the less reason there is to use any one of them, especially when they have drawbacks as severe as those of WMV. The Movie Maker program itself is terribly designed in other ways, of course, and is prone to freezing up in infinite loops that suck up all your CPU cycles... but the part of it that is irredeemably flawed to the bone is the .WMV file format.
I suppose, to be fair, I should mention that RealPlayer and all its variants suck too. And by coincidence, they've gone to a skinned look. But in this case, they have always sucked since the dawn of time, so the skins didn't change anything.
There is one skinned program that people used to name as an example of one that didn't suck: Winamp. But they aren't making that claim any more...
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