Monthly Archives: January 2015

Software Upgrades Are Often Bad

TurboTaxMichael Hiltzik over at The Los Angeles Times reported this morning, Intuit Changed TurboTax This Year, Triggering an Enormous Customer Uproar. What they did was pretty bad. The base $59.99 TurboTax has always included the filing of schedules C (small business expenses), D (capital gains), E (suplemental income) and F (farm income). These are pretty common forms, even for relatively poor people. But if you need these forms, Intuit will charge you $30 or more on top of your initial investment. This is a pretty obvious cash grab. And a stupid one too. People have other options like TaxAct and any number of online services. But it appears that there are a lot of people running companies who can only see as far ahead as their next quarterly bonus. Of course, in this case, such shortsightedness backfired — since 23 December, the share price has dropped 9.2%, and that’s after a modest rebound this morning.

I’m sure that Intuit will weather this storm. But it brings up some broader issues regarding software. The most obvious one is that taking away functionality is a bad thing. Probably the best thing you can say for free market capitalism is that it drives down prices over time. So when you adjust for inflation, that huge high-definition television you buy today will cost you less than some tiny black-and-white television you bought back in 1965. So what is Intuit doing by providing a lesser product for the same price? They are raising the price but trying to fool the public. It certainly would have been okay for them to come out with some kind of minimal TurboTax, but that would have had to sell for less money. And like I said, this was just a cash grab.

A bigger issue to me is the cost to users of software changes. I’m still scarred from the major UI change that Microsoft made to Office 2007. And don’t get me started on Windows 8. It isn’t that I don’t like to learn new skills. It is that learning new ways to do things you already know how to do is time consuming and thus costly. As a result, Office 2007 made me switch to Open Office (free download), and I’ve never regretted it. Similarly, Windows 8 has made Will and me seriously consider how we can get Linux to work for regular computer users.

I’m not saying that software updates are a bad thing. There are times when they make sense. But in commercial software, updates are usually a business decision: the company needs to make some more money. For 99% of the software users, the enhanced capabilities that the new version provides will not be used. But even if the user wants the “latest and greatest” or, in fact, needs it, the company could at least not change things so that old skills must be abandoned.

Intuit screwed up in an especially egregious way. But the basic thing they did is standard procedure in the computer business. In general, these companies don’t want to make you more productive. Your productivity is irrelevant to their mission. They want to sell you a new piece of software and if that costs you hours or days of productivity, not problem! That isn’t their business.

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Hackers Could Crash Your Car — But Don’t Worry

Timothy B. LeePeople tell me that they don’t like the idea of self-driving cars. I mean, who is to say that they wouldn’t screw up? I understand the concern, but it is probably uncalled for. At one time, I was employed writing software to follow a given car from a video feed. It was a difficult problem. And I don’t think anyone has ever perfected it. But the truth is that even though the computer program wasn’t perfect, it was better than I was. So the question shouldn’t be whether self-driving cars are perfect; it should be whether they are better than us humans.

A bigger concern is that our cars could turn against us. I don’t mean in the way we saw in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. I mean in the way that your computer will sometimes turn against you by doing things you don’t want it to do and not doing the things you want it to. I’m talking about viruses. I’m talking about hacking. Over at Vox this afternoon, Timothy B Lee wrote a fairly long article about our future, The Next Frontier of Hacking: Your Car. He noted that coming technologies will make driving better in numerous ways, “But it’s also going to make it easier for tech-savvy troublemakers to cause serious harm — or even car crashes.”

Acura TLXThis isn’t complicated. If you want a car that allows you to call up the manufacturer and get you car remotely unlocked when you’ve locked your keys inside, you are accepting the risk that some hacker will figure out a way to use that same technology to steal your car. Or more frighteningly, if you want a car that can automatically drive you to your destination, you are accepting the risk that some hacker will figure out a way use that technology to kill you. Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? Well, it doesn’t even have to be like that. You may remember the episode of Futurama where the crew go back 1940s earth — “Roswell That Ends Well.” The lack of GPS causes them to crash land. Be careful what technologies you depend upon!

Lee summarized a recent study that shows just how vulnerable modern cars are:

In one attack, they created a malicious music file that, if played on the car’s stereo, would let the hackers gain control of the car’s computer systems. In another, they demonstrated that they could hack into the diagnostic equipment used by auto mechanics using its wifi connection, and from there install malicious software onto vehicles being serviced.

I’ll admit, I don’t like cars or driving. So from my standpoint, this all sounds pretty cool. Not that I would ever want to harm anyone. But the idea that a car could be hacked by giving someone a free copy of that new Taylor Swift album is the kind of whiz-bang stuff that techies just love. Other people skydive or, you know, have friends. Of course, it’s important to have people around who find this stuff fascinating. Because it is deadly serious:

Perhaps the most alarming vulnerability was in the car’s emergency-assistance system, which uses a cellular network to communicate with emergency response personnel in the event of a crash. The UCSB and UW researchers found that hackers could call the phone number associated with this system’s wireless connection and play a series of tones to activate the car’s modem and then hack into the vehicle.

Once hackers gain control over a car using any of these methods, they can do a lot of damage. They can activate the vehicle’s internal microphone and eavesdrop on conversations that take place inside. They can unlock the doors and disable the vehicle’s security mechanisms, making car theft easy.

Worst of all, attackers could cause the car to crash. A couple of years ago, for example, security researchers Charlie Miller and Chris Valesek demonstrated the ability to use the internal network of a Ford Escape to disable the brakes. They were also able to violently jerk the steering wheel of a Toyota Prius. If an attacker did these things while someone was driving down the highway, it could get people killed.

It’s important not to freak out. At least not yet. At this point, software in cars is not standardized. Hacker attacks would have to be custom made for a particle car. But the trend is toward making cars more and more like computers — just as happened to phones before them. And the car companies are slowly learning that they have to take this kind of stuff as seriously as they do crash tests. But ultimately, the changes that are coming will make cars better and safer. It’s important to remember that. Cars are infinitely safer than they used to be and they will continue getting safer. But it would still suck if some Ukrainian hacker made you drive into a ditch.

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Don’t Let Myth Drive Your Choices

Steve JobsNot that long ago, I found myself working at a high tech start-up. It was amazing. The company had been started by a brilliant if eccentric man who had new ideas every day. And I worked along side a hardware genius who could make just about anything work. I, of course, was doing the software. And we did some amazing things. But we ran out of money. And so the company was taken over by a bunch of would-be real estate tycoons. They forced the brilliant creator out, brought in their incompetent friends, and proceeded to destroy the company. They didn’t know anything about technology. About the only thing they knew about how high tech start-ups were managed was that everyone worked long hours in a garage.

To some extent, they were right. When I was writing the base code for our application, I spent months sleeping at the “office” because all I did was code. I loved working on that. There really is something special about working on a project that is unlike anything else in the world. What the real estate folk didn’t understand is that this is all about self-actualization. When they came in and dismantled what we had built and turned the high tech start-up into a reseller of someone else’s products, all the creative initiative was drained from the best people at the company.

But still, I would hear from these deluded tycoons that the problem with the company was that everyone wasn’t working 80 hours per week in the garage. They, of course, worked very little. When they were in the office, they were checking out the prices of boats. But they thought they were William Hewlett or Steve Jobs. What they never realized was that these guys were actual engineers. They did the actual work. Or at least they did in the beginning when they worked out of a garage.

So I have extremely mixed feelings about Aaron Sorkin’s new Steve Jobs biopic. Because the reason that people, like the real estate guys, think so highly of Steve Jobs has nothing to do with the work that he did in that garage. Wanna see the garage? Of course you do!

Steve Jobs Garage

I have a fair amount of respect for what Jobs and Steve Wozniak did in that garage. It was cool. But why is it that Jobs is held up as a major figure in American life and not Wozniak? After all, Wozniak was the true computer genius. It’s simple: Wozniak isn’t a billionaire. So regardless what the story is that Sorkin tells in this upcoming movie, it will be about the myth of “Steve Jobs: billionaire,” not “Steve Jobs: guy who helped out while Steve Wozniak created the Apple-1.” To me, Steve Jobs is that guy who created an extremely litigious company that held back innovation in the computer industry. (Don’t worry: I say even worse things about Bill Gates!)

There’s a difference between people who really get things done and make the world a better (or at least more interesting) place, and people who are just really good at self-promotion. It is the ultimate question you have to answer when you are buying anything, but most definitely anything having to do with computers. Are you going to be like the would be real estate tycoons and buy into the myth. Or are you going to see reality. Being blinded by myth is an extremely costly choice.

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Gateway SX2802-07 DVD Eject Button


What we’ve got here (is failure to communicate! sorry) … is the uncooperative DVD (optical drive) button on a Gateway SX2802-07, which can be easily fixed.

This unit does not want to eject a DVD and it has nothing to do with the functionality of the drive itself, it has to do with the way the button Eject button on the chassis is made. This is what the inside of the front panel looks like, on the portion which is of concern to us:


What I did was take the button out (carefully), take similar plastic from a VHS tape housing and glue a small flat piece to the angled end of the button. Then used nail clippers to trim it down to size and a jewelers file to shape and smooth it, to wind up with an 8th inch extension of the button end, so it looks like this:


If you try this repair, be very careful not to snap off any tabs inside the panel and not to lose the springs that make the button stay up.

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