Things That Suck

Some nasty developments of which the planetary citizen should be aware

Last updated 1999.06.16

There are two things in this world that really annoy me (well, actually, there's far more than just two things, but these two are right among the top 1000 or so):

  1. People who exploit the ignorance of other people,
  2. People who refuse to take the time to educate themselves so that they will be immune to the wiles of the previous group.

Take, for example, Microsoft (a pathetically easy target, escpecially these days, but why not?). Anyone with rudimentary experience in programming knows that nearly all of Microsoft's products are junk, particularly its "operating systems." Yet Microsoft is the undisputed winner of the OS wars. Why? Because not enough people took the time necessary to learn how to critically evaluate the products Microsoft offered. The result is that we're all stuck with Windows now.

So, this page is an attempt to point out things I feel you need to be aware of if you want to protect your future, and to point these things out succinctly so that you may be well-informed in a minimum amount of time.

This page will expand and contract as circumstances dictate.


Unsolicited Commercial EMail ("Spam")

I probably don't have to evangelize this one very much, as odds are that you already agree with my position on this issue: Spam is evil and must be stopped.

There are free-speech issues involved, to be sure, but I think it's interesting to observe that free-speech issues are the only issues involved. There are no other legitimate arguments that can be brought to bear in favor of spam. I also suspect, after a minimal amount of digging, that one will discover that spammers care about the First Amendment precisely to the extent, and no further, that it allows them to clog the network with their unwanted drek.

Let me emphasize that point: Spam is universally unwanted. Further, spammers know this. And even in the face of this overwhelming disdain for their activities, they persist in dispatching to people's email accounts advertisements that spammers know are not wanted. This behavior is, at best, childish; at worst, sociopathic.


CAUCE: The Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email
The most prominent organization fighting spam on the Net.


Update 1999.06.16

Why the strikeout text? Because I'm pleased to say that, on 16 June, 1999, Digital Video Express, LP, the company behind Divx, announced that it was ceasing operations, and that the Divx format was dead. According to their own press release, consumers stayed away in droves. See the Divx homepage for the press release.

This is the kind of thing that can happen when people become informed. Let's do more of it!

Put simply, Divx is Pay-Per-View taken to an absurd extreme. Divx is similar to DVD in that the movies you obtain will be in the form of a disc, like a CD. Unlike DVD, Divx will require you to pay a fee every time you want to view a Divx disc.

The special Divx player will contain a modem that will telephone the Divx central computer and report the movies you've viewed. The central computer will then issue billing orders to your credit card. The Divx consortium have offered no guarantees that your viewing habits will be kept private.

I find this whole concept offensive because the needs or desires of the consumer were clearly not a consideration. All that was considered was how to maximize earnings for the movie studios. In my estimation, DVD is already a tremendous boon for the movie industry, since DVD manufacturing costs are a fraction of those for videotapes, thus affording them wider profit margins. But noooo.....


Digital Video Express, LP
The official Web site of the Divx consortium.
The National Organization to Ban Divx
A bit extreme in its tone (Divx doesn't need to be banned, it just needs to fail abysmally in the market as informed consumers stay away in droves), this site remains a good resource for information and opinions putting the case against Divx.

Shrinkwrap License "Agreements"

Nearly all software sold in retail establishments today comes with a contract. This contract, typically called a "license", imposes limitations on what you can and can't do with the software. These contracts also typically take ownership of the program away from you and return it to the vendor. This contract is put in force between you and the vendor when you install the software; your signature is not required.

This kind of thing is not all that uncommon. The movie ticket you buy typically has a number of terms of purchase printed on the back ("Thou shalt not videotape the performance," etc.). However, if you take the time to read a typical software license, you'll find that you're at the unpleasant end of an extremely unbalanced contract.

One example of this imbalance is the limitation of liability of the vendor. They basically absolve themselves of all responsibility for any misdeeds perpetrated by the program. However, the converse is not true; you are expected to observe a large number of covenants, some of them quite unreasonable, and are vulnerable to unlimited liability should you be found in breach of the contract.

It raises Caveat Emptor to what I feel are unreasonable heights. It's a complex issue, to be sure, but I feel very strongly that it's something you need to think about.


By Reading This Article, You Agree to Subscribe to This Magazine for 25 Years
A (longish) editorial I wrote putting the case against shrinkwrap licenses.

Digital Balkanism

This is probably a rather esoteric issue to most people, but ever since I started working for Be, Inc. as a graphics driver writer, I now face this problem almost every day.

My job is to write software that pokes and prods graphics cards into creating images on your screen. Each graphics card must be poked and prodded differently (because designers have different and evolving ideas about how to make things good/fast/cheap). The only source for this information is the card manufacturer.

Let me give you an example of how such conversations typically go when I ask for programming information:

"Hi, I'd like information on how to program your card."
"Use the Windows programming interfaces."
"I'm not using Windows. I'm writing a driver for your card for BeOS."
"We don't support BeOS."
"I know that. I want to write a driver myself for BeOS."
"Our tech support department isn't equipped to handle that."
"It doesn't need to be; I'm a smart guy. Could you send me the documents describing how to program the hardware-level registers on your card?"
"We can't release that information."
"Why not?"
"It's proprietary."

Once they invoke the magic word "proprietary," the coversation pretty much comes to an end.

I'm completely bewildered by this thinking. I mean, what's the point of selling anything to someone if you refuse to tell your customers how it works? It's rather like buying a new car, and then discovering that the manufacturer won't tell you how to drive it. Oh, they'll offer you a trained chauffer, but what if all their chauffers only speak Gaelic?

This deliberate balkanization of digital products serves no purpose that I can readily discern. The typical justification for this attitude is to prevent competitors from "stealing" their technology. People with extensive experience in the computer and electronics industry understand this argument to be groundless. Remember the Good Old Days when your TV and radio came with a complete schematic?

I feel that the only thing that has changed since the Good Old Days is that, with the rapid acceleration of technological development, full consumer access to complete design and programming information has become more crucial, since products are typically obsoleted and orphaned within the span of 24 months.

Holding on to technical specifications like they were the Crown Jewels doesn't stop "thieves" (a term used more for its emotional overtones than its accuracy) from "stealing" their techniques, and just makes life harder for honest guys like me.

Call the manufacturers of your computer hardware and ask for the hardware programming specifications. Even if you can't write a byte of code to save your life, ask for it, anyway. You paid for the hardware, after all; you should know how it works.

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Copyright © 1998 Leo L. Schwab. All Rights Reserved.

Leo L. Schwab / Digital Spellweaver /