A botched technology squeeze play: The story of Juicero

Not that long ago, Bloomberg reported on Juicero and the surprising revelation that the $400 juicing machine was, strictly speaking, unnecessary and produced results not much better than hand-squeezing the juice packs. From the article:

Juicero declined to comment. A person close to the company said Juicero is aware the packs can be squeezed by hand but that most people would prefer to use the machine because the process is more consistent and less messy. The device also reads a QR code printed on the back of each produce pack and checks the source against an online database to ensure the contents haven’t expired or been recalled, the person said. The expiration date is also printed on the pack.

So basically, the machine exists for sometimes giving you juice, and sometimes saying “Sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that”. Given the device costs $400, and the packs for it are priced with a similar needless markup (not to be confused with that needless markup), I really don’t see the advantage.

For some strange reason, I am reminded of the creativity that slot machine manufacturers used to get around laws, by disguising the slot machine as a vending machine for mints. Surprisingly, back in the era during which this was needed, it worked, though from what I remember reading the judges did wonder why so much machinery was needed for the simple task of vending mints. Indeed, I don’t see the issue with scanning QR codes by hand (with my phone, or perhaps with my laptop’s webcam), and looking up the result for a recall (the expiration dates are printed in human-readable form). Or, for that matter, I could pick my own produce and make juice using an old-fashioned juicer.

But then Juicero wouldn’t make any money, and we can’t have that, now can we?

I like technology. But there is a difference between using technology to solve problems, and making a technological solution in search of a problem. The Juicero machine takes its place right next to the failed DIVX discs and players as an example of the latter.

Phone usage billing over the years: revisiting “A truly embarrassing truth”

Around eight years ago, back in this blog’s infancy, I wrote a post about wireless phone billing practices entitled “A truly embarrassing truth for wireless phone companies”. A lot has changed since then, so I thought I would go back and revisit the original article.

Text messaging hasn’t really gone anywhere in eight years. Despite the rise of smartphones and that feature phones (sometimes called “flip phones” or “dumb phones”) are now the exception instead of the rule as they were about a decade ago, a lot of people still use text messages to communicate. The billing has changed too: most if not all plans in the current era are keyed around smartphone data usage, with the voice minutes and messaging thrown in for free.

(And a quick aside here: unfortunately, the quality of voice calls over the public switched telephone network (PSTN) has changed to match that “thrown in for free” bit. Early in the wired phone network’s history, dropped and misrouted calls, particularly long distance calls, happened on occasion. By the 1990s, though, such occurrences were unacceptable and had been engineered out of existence. I still consider it unacceptable in 2016 for calls over the PSTN to be dropped or fade out. It’s one thing for calls over an unregulated, strictly VoIP network to have this happen (Facebook Messenger, Skype, Ring.cx, etc), but the PSTN is simply supposed to be more reliable than that.)

The only phones where voice minutes and message aren’t “thrown in for free” as said above, are prepaid pay-as-you-go plans. Even on these, text messages have dropped back down to the slightly more reasonable level of 10 cents per message, even though a one minute phone call costs the same (at least on T-Mobile, the last provider I checked).

Thankfully, rates have more or less held steady and wireless phone companies have begun actually giving more for less as technology allows. This could be largely in part due to T-Mobile, which jolted the industry a while back by getting the handset subsidy *out* of the monthly rate, and as a separate line item where it belonged to begin with. This is fairer to everyone, and has opened up the realistic possibility of buying unlocked phones from third parties (at least on GSM networks). Now, one can upgrade phones when one desires (and one’s finances allow), rather than being stuck in a never-ending series of two-year contracts. It also means if one really likes a phone, one can keep it until it literally wears out or falls apart.

Who knows what the next eight years will bring us?

User groups and the chameleon of technology

Earlier this week, Dwight Silverman wrote a post in Techblog about the demise of HAL-PC which at one time was the largest computer user group in the US. The relevance of HAL-PC, and computer user groups in general, has become so low in recent years that many of you may be surprised that HAL-PC hung on in some form well in to the 2010s.

From the post:

Bill Jameson, a former board member who spoke by phone from HAL-PC’s South Post Oak offices, confirmed the decision. He reiterated the “changing society” theme in the email, saying “this society we live in now has a different set of interests and goals. Our type of organization is not included in that.”

“Most of our members are older,” Jameson said. “The cultural norms we group up with are pretty much gone, and as a consequence the organization has not sufficiently adapted to this new culture.”

What led to this? Let’s take a look back to the 1970s and early to mid-1980s when computers were a new thing, and an era before the vast majority of people had access to the Internet. Most computer-to-computer communication was done via modems over analog telephone lines. Through most of these two decades, 9600 bits per second (bps) modem speeds were a long-chased ideal, with 300, 1200, and 2400 bps being much more common. In the place of the Internet, there were bulletin board systems (BBSes) and amateur email networks like FidoNet.

But more importantly, there was no hitting the power switch, waiting a minute, and coming back to a full color graphical user interface, and clicking on a few things to launch whatever software one wanted to run.  There was the DOS prompt, or on earlier computers a BASIC interpreter (some of the really exotic models didn’t even had that, but only had a Forth interpreter or even just an assembler). There were no mice during this era for the most part, much less something to move a pointer to and click on. If one wanted the computer to do something, one typed it in. Typing was an unmistakable prerequisite to computer literacy, with knowing MS-DOS commands or their equivalent on one’s platform following closely behind. Most people learned a little programming, even if it was MS-DOS batch files or writing short BASIC programs, out of necessity.

Most importantly, though, the line between programmer (today more often called “developer”) and user was much blurrier than it is today (I’ll cover this in more depth later). And this is where user groups came in, where the more advanced users would teach those newer to computing how to get the most out of their gadgets. User groups are the reason technology is not feared as it once was by those who lived through the era in which they existed and were largely relevant.

Fast forward to the mid-1990s. Microsoft came out with Windows 95 and with it there was no separate MS-DOS product any more, it was all graphical and you had to dig for the MS-DOS prompt if you still wanted it. At least through Windows 98 there was still a fair amount of MS-DOS compatibility (I think Windows 98 still had the ability to boot into a “command prompt” as they call it to run older MS-DOS software). But before too long, the command prompt would become harder and harder to find, and at least Microsoft would rather have you believe it is simply less useful in modern times (I personally believe Microsoft themselves made it that way on purpose). Instead of being something magical, computers take their place next to the TVs and stereo systems at stores like Best Buy and Target. For the most part, computers are just another appliance now. It makes as much sense to have a computer user group as it does a refrigerator user group or toaster oven user group.

On one hand, it still amazes me that once back in 2008 or so, I found a still-usable computer sitting out by the dumpster, and the main reason for this was that there was some kind of issue with the Windows XP install. Rather than try to fix it, this person dumped it and bought a new one. That computer eventually became a firewall/router which served us well for a good 3 years plus, though those who know me will (correctly) guess the first thing I did was wipe the Windows XP install and replace it with OpenBSD (4.9 or 5.0, I think, but I could be wrong). On the other, it’s a rather sad reflection on the public’s attitude to computers, and just how much ease of use has taken a lot of the magic out of learning how to use a computer.

I use a graphical interface now, though I have not kept Windows installed on any computer I’ve considered “mine” for at least 12 years now. While I am not quite at “a mouse is a device used to point at the xterm you want to type in” it’s rare that I don’t have at least one command line open somewhere. In at least one situation on a computer that wasn’t “mine” where getting rid of the installed copy of Windows wasn’t an option, I kept an Ubuntu install on a thumb drive and booted that instead of Windows when I needed to use that computer. The installation failed several times in weird and not-so-wonderful ways, but I got it back up and running almost every time. (The one time I didn’t? The thumb drive itself (not the Linux kernel finding filesystem errors) started throwing write protection errors. I got the surviving important data off that drive and at least temporarily used a different (very old and underpowered) computer exclusively for a while.)

Personally, I’ve never lost sight of the magic behind computing. I’ll admit it, I get a thrill out of installing a new operating system on either brand-new or new-to-me hardware, which I’ve done for every system up until the last one I received new (the one I’m writing this post on). This one was ordered custom-built and with the operating system (Ubuntu GNU/Linux 11.04) already on it for three reasons: first, because for once, it was a realistic option to buy a computer with Ubuntu pre-installed; second, I needed to make immediate use of the computer as soon as it arrived; and third, it was a different thrill to experience the closest equivalent to how most people today get a store-bought PC. The great job Canonical (the company behind Ubuntu) has done even trying to mount some kind of challenge to what is a damn-near-monopoly by Microsoft deserves a post all its own (which I may make sometime in July).

But I think it’s a sad commentary on the state of computing that most computer users in this decade will never even think that building their own computer is a realistic option, much less doing their own operating system install, much less realizing there are many other choices for operating system besides those which come from Microsoft (or Apple). There is a certain degree of intimidation to overcome when it comes to staring down an empty computer case and the components that will go into it. I was there once myself; I once built a new 80486DX/33 and barely had a freaking clue what the heck I was doing. It helped that I had a friend at the time to guide me through the tricky parts (over the phone). Today’s hardware is, if anything, much more friendly towards do-it-yourself builds: RAM chips, CPU chips, power supply connectors, and SATA (hard drive) connectors are all keyed to only go in one way; the only thing decreasing is the number of people actually willing to pick up the screwdriver.

(Quick sidenote here: Apple never did embrace the idea that users could build their own computers. For better or worse, Apple has positioned themselves as sort of a “luxury brand” of electronics. The only thing worse than Microsoft’s near monopoly is that it’s impossible to buy components and build one’s own iMac, or even buy an Apple computer without Mac OS X. Apple has actually made it a EULA violation to run Mac OS X on unlicensed hardware, even though today’s “PC compatible” computers can run it. This is one reason I point to when I say that I believe Apple has been more harmful to the state of computing than Microsoft has been.)

Another sad commentary is the rather rigid wall that’s been built between “user” and “developer” (what we used to call “programmer”). Even “power user” doesn’t have quite the same aura it once did, and it’s used as a derisive term more often than one might otherwise think (and way more often than it should be, in my opinion). I find myself slamming into this wall on many occasions, as there are things I’d like to be able to do as a user, which I research and find out one needs to actually be a developer to do them. (Which sometimes means it’s impossible or going to be much harder to do than it need be; other times, I simply want to say “no, this shouldn’t be a developer feature, I’m just a user who wants to make full use of the technology.”) For example: Windows (which has lineage back to MS-DOS) no longer comes with a BASIC interpreter. Another example: Neither Windows nor Mac OS X come with compilers suitable for writing one’s own software. (Microsoft makes no-cost versions available for download, but they aren’t easy to find, and in all likelihood are a thinly disguised excuse to get one bumping into the limits and then shelling out money for the “real” compilers.) It is in fact expected that most users will simply spend amounts of money (which can run into hundreds, thousands, or even ten thousands of dollars) on the appropriate pre-written, shrink-wrapped, proprietary software. This is great for the stockholders of Microsoft, Apple, and other members of the proprietary software cartel like Adobe. It’s lousy if one’s “just a user.”

Just because it’s tasteless doesn’t make it child porn

This is one of those stories. The kind that gets my blood boiling. The kind where I read it, take a step back from the computer, pour myself another glass of my beverage of the evening (tonight, it happens to be iced tea), shake my head, and say “Wow.”

Dr. Marty Klein’s blog Sexual Intelligence features this story of Evan Emory. Evan did something that, in all honesty, is patently devoid of anything resembling good taste or decency. Frankly, typical college fraternity exploits are in better taste than this.

From Dr. Marty’s article (by the way, in keeping with my convention of referring to the “good guys” by first names, I hope nobody minds if I call him that):

Last month, Evan received permission to play a song for a first-grade class. Under the watchful eye of their teacher, Evan sang “Lunch Lady Land” and, with school permission, videotaped the event. So far, everyone wins.

This stupid jackass goes home, edits the video, and splices in shots of himself singing sexually explicit lyrics, so it looks like he’s singing that to the kiddies. The lyrics, by the way, are not about them. He apparently thinks it’s hilarious–sophomoric humor on steroids. Three days ago he puts it up on YouTube with the disclaimer that “no actual children have been exposed” to the song.

The blog post goes on to state that Evan has been charged with, in essence, making kiddie porn, and is facing 20 years in prison. And this is the part I take exception to. As tasteless as this as, I don’t think he should be subject to criminal sanctions. Has he entered the “I deserve to have the pants sued off of me by angry parents” zone? Most definitely. Does his reputation deserve to be tarnished for a good long while? Damn right.

Does Evan deserve to be tagged “child pornographer” and get stuck checking the “yes” box next to “have you been convicted or pled guilty or no contest to a felony?” on job applications for the rest of his life? No way.

I’ll relay the best personal anecdote I have here. My late grandfather (he passed away in 2002) was an avid photographer. We had a trailer out in the country where we’d go on some weekends, which was a good three-hour drive from Houston. (We were able to receive Austin and San Antonio TV stations, if that helps give you an idea of about where it was.)

Anyway, one of the aftermarket modifications to this semi-permanently-parked trailer was a porch built around two sides. We’ll call them the north and east sides, with the front door on the north side. On the east side, there was a water spigot that extended some couple of feet above the porch. Just the perfect height.

So my grandfather got the idea to do some trick photography. He had me pose in front of the spigot and cup my hand about crotch-high, with my pants still on and zipped up. With the spigot turned on, a picture taken from the right angle would look like I was urinating, with the spigot and pipe leading to it nowhere in sight. (And, I might add, with an unrealistic stream for someone my age.)

I’m not sure what became of the picture, and yes, I will admit it was in pretty poor taste. But I thought it was hilarious, and I’m assuming my grandfather did too. The drug store photo clerk probably got a chuckle or three as well. (This is back when we still had Eckerd drugstores, which incidentally is quite probably where he took this roll to be developed.) I don’t consider myself abused from this incident. Not in the least. We made a picture together that was as funny as hell, even if my grandmother and whatever other relatives that saw it disapproved.

The only reason I can tell this story today is because my grandfather can’t possibly face any legal action for it, having passed away some eight years and change ago. And I think that’s sad. But to answer the question I know some of you are asking, no, I don’t think he would have posted it to Flickr, at least not as publicly viewable.

And of course, I wouldn’t dare take a similar trick photography picture of my kids today. It is a shame that we as a society have literally gone crazy with the passange and enforcement of sex-related laws. In fact, there are so many silly laws based solely on intent, solely on “he/she thought it was a minor, therefore he/she is guilty.”

It’s a real shame otherwise good people like Evan Emory find themselves facing felony charges, for things that in all honesty shouldn’t be crimes. And again, this shouldn’t be a crime. Ripe fodder for a barrage of civil suits, yes, but not a crime.

Again, Dr. Marty hits it on the head:

Which child was sexually abused? None.

What harm has any child experienced? None.

If any child has been “harmed,” has that child been “sexually abused?” No.

So, two points in conclusion.

Even though he does not deserve a felony conviction for it, and I honestly hope the charges are dropped, shame on Evan Emory.

However, the real villians here are the superintendent, John B. VanLoon; the principal, Lowell Whitaker; and prosecutor, who curiously is not mentioned by name in any of the news stories I was able to dig up. They deserve a much bigger “shame on you.” At least ten times as big, if not a hundred. So, shame on Mr. Whitaker, Mr. VanLoon, and the still-anonymous Muskegon County prosecutor. And shame on everyone who wants to see Evan get a criminal conviction on a charge he does not deserve.

The most important audio innovation?

The Telegraph reports on Sony’s Walkman topping a poll conducted by the British tech magazine T3 for the most important audio (music) innovation of the last 50 years. The patent-encumbered MP3 codec (compression format) came in second, followed by the Apple iPod, the CD, and the original (free) Napster.

Which brings us to what is completely missing on the list:

  • Diamond (later SONICblue) Rio: the original portable digital audio player introduced in 1998. Without the Rio and myriad others to follow, there wouldn’t have been an Apple iPod.
  • The cassette tape format: Ditto. The Walkman would not have been what it was without the prior success of the cassette format (originally designed for dictation). The cassette was introduced in 1963, and easily qualified for inclusion.
  • Ogg Vorbis codec: This is at least as important as MP3; Vorbis is not patent-encumbered and with the reference encoder and decoder available under a BSD-style license, one may now include compressed audio in games without paying royalties to the MP3 patent holders.
  • Creative Sound Blaster: Prior to the widespread availability of the Sound Blaster card and clones, sound coming out of a PC was restricted to the internal speaker, called the “squeaker” and myriad derisive names by PC gamers of the era. (Arguably, the sound sampling capabilities of the Commodore Amiga could be said to be the forerunner of the Sound Blaster.)
  • Advances in the technology of headphones, most notably in the last 20 years. (Wikipedia’s article on headphones states headphones were actually invented in the 1920s; those headphones are crude by today’s standards.)