William's home for discarded gems and concepts-in-progress.

Welcome to William Van Winkle's blog, home for everything from notes on his latest ebooks to leftovers from his articles in CPU, Tom's Hardware, Smart Computing, and other media outlets. Check out his author pages at Amazon and Smashwords!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Being Deaf to Negativity

My Granddad encouraged me to read the classics of self-improvement during my teen years: Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale, etc. Somehow, Napoleon Hill was omitted from his roster. I'm finally reading (listening to) it for the first time now in the abridged version, although I'm liking it more than enough to go back for the five-volume work that was originally commissioned by Andrew Carnegie in 1925.

I came across a story in the book tonight that I thought I'd share with all of you. It's timely for the holidays. The author, Hill, was in a department store one day, standing in line at the customer service station. Before and behind him were mostly women, blazing with rage about some product or service that had gone bad. Hill describes the vitriolic hate that these patrons were heaping upon the lone customer service rep tasked with addressing their complaints. One after the next, these patrons would be hateful, irrational, and outright insulting, but the service rep met each of them with a smile, responded with care, and attentively sent each patron on her way to get a resolution. While each patron was busy spewing forth with her tirade, another employee sat behind the service rep taking notes. At some point before the end of the exchange, the note taker would pass a sheet to the service rep.

This greatly intrigued Hill, who admired the service rep's grace, charm, and patience. He sought out the manager and inquired about it. The manager explained that the service rep was stone cold deaf. She couldn't hear a word anyone was saying to her. The woman sitting behind her was taking notes on everything each patron was saying -- minus all of the invective and expletives. It was this note that the rep was using to guide the patron to a final resolution. Choosing a deaf person for the job was necessary, explained the manager. No one else could do it.

We all can benefit from more patience and willingness to hear the real story rather than the emotional obfuscation layered on top of it. I in particular need to take this lesson to heart, but perhaps it's something that all of us can keep in mind during the month ahead.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Amazon's Kindle Fire: So Misunderstood

My Kindle Fire arrived this afternoon, and now, after about two hands-on hours, it's time for some initial impressions.

But first, my dismay -- not with the device, but with the legions of online critics who had already written off the unit even before its launch. Their complaints often fall into a few buckets:

1. It's not an iPad. Very true. The iPad is 10 inches to Fire's seven, and the bigger screen is clearly preferable for watching movies. The iPad has a faster processor, a vastly more extensive app community, a better operating system, and triple the price tag, give or take. I agree with all of these points. However, Amazon wasn't trying to take on the iPad in the first place. The comparison is like condemning a Honda Civic because it's not a Lexus. Well...duh.

2. It lacks both a microphone and a camera (or two). I don't want a camera on my reading device. My smartphone has a camera. My PC has a camera. I don't need another freaking camera. I don't even like videochat in the first place. Not only does this omission leave Amazon room to grow its Kindle feature set later, but it keeps the device more focused on content enjoyment and not on interactive communication. This is a theme you'll see pop up once or twice more.

3. It only has 8GB of internal memory and no SD card slot for memory expansion. Right, so let's back up. Say you're Amazon. You've invested billions of dollars into building out one of the biggest cloud computing infrastructures and services on the planet. You host books in the cloud, store music in the cloud, stream movies from the cloud. You know beyond question that cloud computing is the future, and you want everyone everywhere to get used to relying on your cloud services, which, by the way, work amazingly well. So you build a content consumption device as a pipeline to these cloud services first and still provide some resources for local storage second. Yet many people insist on saying, "Why isn't Amazon building its device like every other tablet -- for local storage?" Because it's about the cloud, stupid. If you're not down with the cloud model, go buy something else.

4. The Kindle Fire is more expensive than several cheap, crappy Android tablet alternatives. This is also true. And for anyone who wants poor screen quality, no content ecosystem, no support, and the build quality of a pizza box, I say to you verily,  "Go for it."

The Kindle Fire lacks GPS, but being something of a privacy paranoid, I'm not sure this is a bad thing. (It still runs Google Maps without issue via the "Silk" Web browser, which will allegedly grow faster as Amazon logs users' browsing habits and strategically caches more pages.) In fact, my only hardware complaint is the omission of Bluetooth. I would like the ability to listen to audiobooks on my headset rather than wired headphones and perhaps add a wireless keyboard and/or mouse for use with Google Docs.

Speaking of which, Amazon's app store doesn't offer Google Docs or Dropbox, two services on which I depend every day. Fortunately, Amazon offers a free download of Quickoffice Pro, which not only ties right into both of those services but also Box, SugarSync, and others. It allows for easy viewing and editing of your Word and Excel files, PDFs, and more. As a writer, this will allow me to keep my Kindle Fire in my bag as a work tool and often leave my notebook at home.

Most of you don't care about this. You want to know about the experience of enjoying content on the device. So here are some initial impressions:

1. With a 1024 x 600 display, text and graphics look awesome. I've now put several books on the Fire, and they all look incredible, although my wife has to dial down the brightness quite a bit to be comfortable. I haven't tried any "enhanced" (interactive, animated) books yet, but I'm confident they will be quite satisfying. Are we taking a forward with color but two steps back by eliminating E Ink? For some, perhaps. I prefer the backlighting because most of my reading is done in a dim room before bed. My wife is more sensitive to light and prefers the more natural look of E Ink. If your principle use for a Kindle is ebook reading, then the monochromatic design may make more sense and save you $100 in the process. Personally, I prefer having more flexibility for a wider range of content.

2. The sound comes from two speakers in the top edge. I recommend digging into the EQ settings and choosing Rock for the best mix of bass and mid-range, but when I say "best," keep this in perspective. These are not Bose speakers. They sound worse than even the $10 beer can speakers included with $299 PCs. But they're better than nothing, and you even get something of a "wide" stereo effect. Unfortunately, this doesn't count for much when you rotate the Fire 90 degrees to watch movies.

3. I tried out the Prime free movie service, which is way simpler to use on the Kindle Fire than on any other Amazon-friendly device I've sampled (such as Google TV). In under 10 seconds, I had the movie Speed streaming at TV-level image quality. No dropped frames, no audio hiccups. Mind you, this was across the house from my router with only one Wi-Fi bar showing. That's pretty impressive.

4. I went to the Kindle Owner's Lending Library and checked out a book. It's really idiotproof. Just hit the button to borrow the title, exactly as you would to buy it. The book downloads in a few seconds and shows up in your library. If you try to borrow another one, you'll see a note saying that you've reached your borrowing limit for the month. You don't have to "give" the book back in 30 days, but you won't be able to check out another until the following month and you return the checked out title. The brilliance of this Lending Library is insidious. If you're enough of a reader to go through one ebook per month, and the average ebook costs, say, $6 or $7 each, then Amazon is giving you roughly $70 to $80 of free ebook enjoyment per year -- if you own a Kindle and subscribe to the $79/year Prime service. Mind you, Prime brings with it thousands of free streaming videos plus free two-day shipping on all Amazon-stocked physical goods orders. Amazon gives you a free month of Prime when you register the Fire, just to get you hooked. Now, I'm a Prime "guest" user on my wife's subscription, so I get the free shipping benefits already, but I don't get the Lending Library or videos. Will it be worth my family paying another $79/year for two full Prime memberships in order to get the extra benefits? This remains open to debate.

5. I went to my public library's site and borrowed a Kindle book. When I send library books to my Android phone via Kindle Manager, they arrive in only a few seconds. With the Kindle Fire, you have to go into the settings menu and hit Sync. It took me a few minutes of waiting for the books list to (not) refresh before I figured this out.

6. Overall, the Fire's interface is friendly and intuitive. I'm not crazy about how the home screen is dominated by a cascade of huge tiles showing your most recently open items. Once you've opened a couple dozen books, apps, songs, etc., it gets fairly cumbersome trying to scroll through these. Similarly, there isn't enough room in the Favorites area to stack your most commonly used items. I quickly found myself relying on the tabs across the top of the screen: Newsstand, Books, Music, Video, Docs, Apps, Web. This entails more tapping and hunting than if the Fire would have had a usual Android desktop, but it is what it is. I hope Amazon improves this soon.

Overall, the Fire is everything I'd hoped for. It's a solid, high-quality, easy, and dependable pipeline to the cloud services I want. Also, I should point out that I own a Nook Color. The Nook is a good device and in some ways better than the Kindle Fire. However, I've held off on buying much content for it because, as a book lover, I still have this crazy idea that I'll "own" my book collection decades from now and be able to let my children and grandchildren enjoy the purchases I'm making today. Whether deluded or not, this begs the question: If I'm going to invest hundreds or even thousands of dollars into content in the coming years, which platform do I trust to be around for the long haul: Nook or Kindle? 

After that question, these ridiculous quibbles over SD slots and memory seem entirely misguided and short-sighted.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Read It and Weep: The College Textbook Shakedown

Reader Jenica Rhee noted by Rewriting the Textbook Market? Smashing! post over on my Architects of Tomorrow blog, which is devoted to my tech leader interview books. She offered me the following infographic (permalink here), and I found it too fascinating to resist. If you've ever wondered why college textbooks are so insanely priced and why change is so slow to come to this market, read on...

Textbook Shakedown
Via: OnlineEducation.net

Friday, November 4, 2011

My Final Bank of America Experience

Bank of America Plaza - Atlanta, GA
It is done.

After several years and six accounts, I have closed everything I had going with Bank of America, save only for the lingering credit card, which will be switched as soon the new one comes through at OnPoint Credit Union. I had this switch-over in progress before I became aware of November 5th being Bank Transfer Day. My own switch happened today by coincidence.

I felt guilty while sitting down with the B of A rep. She was a charming young lady of about 30, and she began with the usual spiel about, "Oh, I'm so sorry to hear you'll be leaving us. Is there anything we can do...?"

No, the time for that is long past. From the sudden appearance of checking account fees in 2008-2009 to those fees increasing without notice to the recent $5 swipe fee debacle, all I see from B of A as a service vendor is an unending string of nickle and dime extractions meant to squeeze every electron of economic energy possible from we coppertops. None of these fees have ever provided me with a positive customer experience or service enhancement. None.

So I told the lady, "Every single employee I've ever dealt with at B of A has been exemplary in terms of kindness and helpfulness. It's your company that I can't stand anymore, and I'm taking my money to a place where profits are given back to regular people."

Something in her look told me I could ask another question so I did. "The bonuses that banks pay out every year," I said. "Do all employees get a bonus, or only the executives?"

Her features hardened and she leaned back. "Just the executives," she said. Then, "No, that's not true. On years when we surpass quota, the employees get a bonus. I get $250. But it's taxed as a bonus, so I see...maybe $100 of it. For the year."

In contrast, Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan drew $9.05 million in stock awards earlier this year. That's on top of his $950,000 salary.

I asked my banker how much bank employees make. She shook her head ruefully.

"Tellers start at $10 an hour," she said. "They go up to $12. A personal banker might make $13 or so an hour. The assistant manager could do $15 -- $17 tops." A mixture of anger and fear crept into her voice, and I could tell that times were tough for her, even having a job at which she worked six days a week. "You know, I drove by Carl's Jr. the other day, and they're hiring at $12 an hour. You would think that the people you're trusting with your thousands of dollars would get paid more than just a couple of bucks over minimum wage."

You would think.

I took my final cashier's check across the street to OnPoint Credit Union and deposited it in my new account. I asked the teller how much they make.

"We start at $15 an hour," she said smiling. "And the insurance? I have to pay more for my family -- 20% of the premium for my kids -- but just for me? I'm 100% covered." Then she added, "I worked for Bank of America 30 years before coming here. I don't miss them at all."

So I feel better. Not just because I took my money away from an insidious, corruptive, blood-sucking juggernaut. (I mean really, do you seriously think that B of A won't find a quieter way to extricate that $5 pound of flesh from its customers every month?) I feel better knowing that the profits made from my money for the credit union will not only go toward keeping loan rates low for clients, they'll also provide a better quality of life for the employees who work hard every day and deserve a decent paycheck.

If you want to walk the walk, if you want to help the few financial institutions that don't seek to twist laws for their own profits, that create good jobs, that are trying to help you and not drain you into poverty, put your money in a credit union. Yes, I know it's a pain to switch all of your stuff over. Yes, you'll need to print out and/or save all of your records, because banks like B of A will kill off all of your online records access on the same day you close your accounts. But please...it's worth it. I'm OK with enduring a week or so of inconvenience for a much greater good.