Archive for the 'Marketing' Category

Pushing more impressive-sounding names

March 16th, 2009

Everyone wants to feel good about themselves, and marketers want people to feel good about their products. So it’s understandable that people will tend to present things in the most impressive and positive way possible. At some point, though, this can get too much, and too annoying.

When you want to get someone to cut your hair, you go to a barber, right? Well, wrong. Has anyone even seen a barber shop in the last few years? We have hair stylists and hairdressers, and go to them in the hair salon. Sounds much more impressive. Also longer, heavier, and (for most of them) somewhat ridiculous.

Some people have gardeners who come over occasionally to take care of their gardens, right? Wrong again. These guys are now landscape engineers, landscape artists, or landscape designers. Sounds very important, for someone who often just maws the lawn, pulls out weeds, and trims the roses, doesn’t it?

When a pipe leaks at your house, do you still call a plumber, or are you already surrounded by various sanitation engineers ?

There are plenty of occupations that get the same treatment, and the amount is growing. Someone feels that the label for their work is not prestigious enough, not impressive enough, doesn’t make them feel as important as they think they are, so instead of just getting over it they decide to do something and reinvent themselves. Except not really. Because reinventing yourself involves changing what you do, but here they just change how they call what they’re already doing.

In the case of occupations, this is somewhat aggravated by the fact that sometimes those fancy sounding names are actually used for something. As in something else, a different profession, implying a different skill-set or training. Doesn’t stop anyone, though.

And it’s not only occupations. It’s spreading to other fields, sometimes to an absurd level.

For example, ingredients. Take a look at the ingredient list on a shampoo bottle, or shower gel. These things contain a large percentage of water. Except that you won’t find water listed anywhere. It sounds mundane. Cheap. It comes out of the tap, after all, so why would anyone pay for a concoction that includes it? No, instead all these bottles proudly list aqua as the main ingredient. It sounds much more dignified. Even if it’s just the Latin term for… water.

OK, rant over. Maybe I’ll go see if there’s anything interesting on TV[1]. Oh, sorry, I meant on the Home Entertainment Centre.

  1. Well, not really. I already know there isn’t, so why waste my time?[back]

Flat Earth – the second largest geographical method in the world

February 23rd, 2009

It’s very easy to be the second-largest anything in the world, when the first largest group is defined as everything that’s actually relevant, and you’re defined as everything else.

A very large forum/bulletin-boards website here in Israel, Tapuz (Hebrew only), recently opened a new forum about Classical Homoeopathy.

That by itself is fine. I mean, they do discuss pure nonsense in the forum, even dangerous nonsense given that they recommend to people not to take proper medical care for their problems, but a forum about homoeopathy can be expected to discuss homoeopathy.

What amused me was the launch publication they did in their other forums. They posted links to this new forum, with a text that can be roughly translated as:

Want to be exposed to the wonders of homoeopathy, the second largest healing method in the world?

And, well, technically it’s pretty correct. There’s the first largest healing method, being science-based medicine, that covers all sub-healing-methods that can be proven to work and heal people. And then there are the other healing methods, in this case grouped under the term Homoeopathy[1], the ones that give people a healing chance which is equivalent to the random chance of spontaneous recovery, or to the healing from a placebo effect.

Since all you have are the two options, it’s pretty obvious that the second is, by definition, the second largest of its kind in the world.

Being technically correct doesn’t make that statement semantically correct, though.

  1. Yes, I’m aware that Homoeopathy is just one kind of woo pretending to be medicine, and not the whole basket of them. In this case, however, the forum seems to happily deal with the others as well, and they clearly refer to it as anything besides actual medicine[back]

Canada is not part of the united states

October 28th, 2008

Weird Tales are offering a free PDF copy of their July-August 2008 edition, as a promotion and a way for people to properly sample the magazine without having to gamble on the money to buy it.

The subscription price varies dramatically based on whether you are subscribing from within the US, or internationally. And by “dramatically” I mean the price doubles[1] for international shipping.

And if you look at the subscription option for US addresses, they want to really make sure you are from the US. They have this sections under “fine print” (all emphasis in the source):

This offer is only for addresses within the United States. Other countries, please use our discounted international subscription options:

Which, well, makes sense. But immediately bellow that, they also have:


Which cracks me up. Are there really any Canadians out there who think that Canada is a part of the US? Real people, living in Canada, who actually believe that? And enough of them to make it an issue that justifies adding this to the page? That’s a weird tale right there.

And that’s not all. They also have a similar bit on the page for international subscription orders:


For anyone who wants to play spot-the-differences, in the US page the text says “You must use the international subscription option”, while in the international subscription page it says “You must use this international subscription option”. I guess it’s accurate enough, if also a bit amusing.

Apparently Canadians also either have much easier time reading in all-caps than the rest of us, or they generally enjoy being shouted at. Nothing else on those pages (except some very short headers, or “BUY” links) is in all-caps. HINT TO WEIRD TALES: DO NOT WRITE TEXT IN ALL CAPS. IT’S EXTREMELY HARD TO READ. AND IT’S RUDE. IF YOU WANT TO MAKE IT MORE OBVIOUS, USE A BIGGER OR STRONGER FONT. OK?

So, just to make it absolutely clear: Canada is not a part of the US. You might have been tipped by the fact that it has a different government, their own military force, a border, their own military force, independent legal system, their own military force, their own ambassadors and foreign relations, their own military force (it bears repeating, in case someone failed to notice), and so on and so forth. But if not, well, I’m glad I could join with Weird Tales and help to clarify matters.

On an unrelated issue (well, related to Weird Tales, not related to Canada), Weird Tales need to update the site link they print in the magazine. The free copy has in it at least 5 place where it asks you to go to That site just automatically redirects to their current actual address of An address which was registered in Nov 2007, so it’s not quite a last-minute surprise, I should add. It’s not broken, but it looks unprofessional.

And it’s not just the old printed magazines (though, frankly July-August 2008 isn’t that old), the old address is still listed on the site used to order the subscriptions. That’s an online copy, easy to change.

  1. $30 USD to $59.95 USD. That’s for 6 issues of Weird Tales, and apparently two special issues of H.P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror[back]

This is why you should let someone experienced do surveys. Or, well, not.

July 1st, 2008

Surveys are complex. There is a lot that you can do wrong. Actually, looking at many surveys around, there is a lot that is done wrong. Time after time.

Sometime it’s the big stuff. Sometimes small.

Sometimes the surveys are not done to get answers, but to show what you want the answers to be, by skewing the questions. That’s bad for academic research, but very popular in politics.

And sometimes you really do want answers. Which is hard to do right. Ask the wrong question, ask them in the wrong way, or give the wrong options for answers, and the results may not say what you think they do, or may be impossible to analyse properly. That’s why there are those who deal professionally with surveys, know the theory (and, hopefully, statistics), have done it many times before, and should be able to avoid most of the mistakes.

They usually don’t do the really big mistakes.

A very long birth yearThey do, however, often do small, or really incomprehensible, mistakes. I guess finding a professional can be a problem as well.

Take, for example, a survey currently being run by iPerceptions , for InforWorld and ComputerWorld.

Both these clients are one client, belonging to the same company. And they do very similar things. So the surveys are practically identical (I did the ComputerWorld one originally, and just now noticed they also run it for InfoWorld. I progressed a little bit, and they’re the same questions in the same order with the same possible answers. Just the name of the company in the survey changed).

This survey has some strange points.

One main problem was that they apparently forgot that some questions may not apply. There was one (maybe 2-3) question where they did have an option to indicate the question is not relevant, or that I don’t know or can’t judge. For all the rest, and there were many of them, I was asked to rank the sites on many criteria, some of which really didn’t interest me and I didn’t know. But the options were just to rank.

Assuming that I’m not the only person who goes through a site that has many different sections, and doesn’t know (or use) all sections, this means that the answers they receive are worthless. What do you pick when you don’t know, or can’t rank? Do you say that it was excellent, since you don’t know it’s bad, causing a potential problematic part to appear good? Do you rank it as very lousy, since it didn’t do anything for you, thereby causing a potentially excellent service to appear bad? Do you rank it in the middle, trying not to judge either way, but still making anything really good, or really bad, seem more average and undeserving of attention?

This is why these things usually contain an answer to state that this question isn’t relevant for you, and you don’t have a real answer for it. But here, no. Good luck to them in the later analysis.

A second point is much less severe, but far more amusing and baffling.

In the personal details, at some point they asked for year of birth. And provided a field to type the year number in. With a maximum of 500 characters. Yes, you read that right, 500 characters to answer the question “In what year where you born?”. They also made the text box large enough to type a small essay in.

What sort of an answer where they expecting? Hmm… Maybe…

That’s a tough question, there. I don’t know what year I was born in. It was a cold, harsh, dark year for my family. My parents were moving a lot. I don’t have no birth certificate, ’cause they were always running from them cops. Who need a stinking certificate? My mom knew I was born. And I had a tough childhood, so people tell me I look 40, but I bet I’m younger. I don’t remember much from those years, really can’t say. Is this important? If it is, I can try remembering, just let me know. Yes?

That’s not a true story (for me, anyway), but it does have exactly 500 characters. For comparison, writing something like 2008, or 1912, takes 4 characters (as does “NOYB“). They could have even been generous, cover all their bases, and give 5-6 characters (You know, for time travellers, or for really really old people). Maybe 3 digits more, for a space followed by “AD”, in case they’re actually worried? A little longer still, so they can get “year of the dragon”? Why the heck 500 characters?

You want to know what’s even more strange? This is in the third part of the survey. In the first part they already asked most personal questions (gender, business, people working in same company, etc), including one about age. But there they just gave several age groups (e.g. 24-35 or something like that), so I suppose they really needed the birth year too.

Then again, if they ask for birth year, why bother asking for age? Odd, that.

Well, I was in a nice mood (this was more amusing than annoying), so I decided I’ll let them know. At the last page of the survey they had a link to provide feedback. I was actually impressed with that, since sometimes I have comments, and nobody official to tell them to. This was nice. Or so I thought.

It was a mailto style link, that contained an email address, and a prepared subject line with the code/number of this survey (Good idea, so they won’t have to wonder what survey it was, and I won’t have to try and describe it too much to ensure they identify it).

There was just one main problem with it. The email address they provided? It wasn’t correct.

I sent a message. I got back a bounce.

<>: does not like recipient.
Remote host said: 553 mailbox is restricted (Mode: normal)
Giving up on

Impressive. This is a company that specializes in running surveys. In getting feedback from people for their clients. Except they can’t seem to arrange to get feedback for themselves.

It seems like a typo. The “1″ in the email address does not belong. I checked later on their site, and this address is listed there, without the “1″, in their contact page. But, well, by that time I was out of the helpful mood, and into the annoyed and unimpressed one. Which I think is perfectly understandable.

If you can’t handle bidirectional text, don’t show bidirectional text

July 1st, 2008

Some ad companies think they can get better results by targeting the ads to the viewers. Some strategies are matching the ad with the viewed page, while others try to target the audience in different ways, based on location or language. Which makes sense.

One problem is finding the country of origin of the viewer. Most companies seem to have solved that by pretty accurate geotargeting. Though some, of course, are still stumbling in the dark. For example, as a Jew living in Israel, I still occasionally get ads for Muslim dating sites. Or for various deals which are only relevant to US residents. But these are becoming more rare.

When they do detect a location, the basic step is only to show ads relevant to people from that location. That’s the basic step, which most have been doing (or trying to do) for a while.

Ad with the Hebrew text going backwardThese ads often don’t only change content, but language as well. If the advertised product is sold internationally, people from different countries may pay more attention to ads in their own language[1].

One way to do it is to have a set of pre-made ads, and show them according to the location.

Another way, for those wanting to be more… efficient? is to have a single ad, with several localized text strings that can change inside this ad according to the source.

In theory, it’s nice. There is a need to keep only one copy of a picture, or interactive program, and yet still someone from the US will see English, and someone from, say, France, will see French. The main needed investment is to get the text lines translated into the relevant languages.

And then you have those that go the extra mile (backwards, usually, though) and pick languages that are harder to handle. They do the whole design with languages that go left to right, like English, and then put in right-to-left text, like Hebrew or Arabic.

In many of those cases that I saw, they then forget that the text has to be added to the pictures a little differently. And they don’t bother to show the finished result (calculated ad with the language) to someone who knows the language. They probably just verify the initial text strings, thinking that nothing can go wrong since the same exact text will go into the image.

The end result? Extremely unprofessional advertising, when all the words in the text, or even the whole sentence, go backward, letter by letter. ( !stoidi diputS )

Like this image taken from an ad I saw on several websites. It was on a page together with at least one more different ad, by the same advertiser, that contained the exact same problem.

Did I mention that it looks extremely unprofessional, silly, and pathetic? Because, well, it does. And it definitely gets you thinking that if they managed to screw the ads so bad, on something so basic, what else didn’t they bother to pay attention to, and was it important?

So, the advertising company (the one putting the ads, I don’t know who designed them) is , which redirects to ValueClick Media. Nice name, not so much value to the advertiser.

I thought I’d be nice, and let them know. So I went to their site, got the Contact page, and looked for an email address, or a form. No email address, but there is a contact form. A contact form where the required fields include things like phone number, company, location, how I heard about them, and so on.

This may be alright (OK, not really) for people who are potential customers. But for someone who just wants to do them a favour by dropping a quick helpful note? Completely unacceptable. I shouldn’t have to work, and provide lots of details, just to try and help them.

Required fields should be the message content, and a quick subject. Maybe not even the quick subject. Asking for email address is also fine, if the message may need a follow-up, but that should be left to the discretion of the person sending the message.

And this company is supposed to make money by selling things to people?! By marketing?! That’s supposed to be their strong side? Funny.

  1. Personally it annoys me, and I always feel more comfortable when it’s English, rather than Hebrew or other language, if I read on a computer, but I’m really not representative here[back]

Release notes should really include the release notes

September 18th, 2007

A new version of the Firefox browser was released today. A minor update from version to version

Even more minor than that, actually, since what came out was just an RC version for testing. Sometime in the past I downloaded an update that was considered a beta or RC, so I’m on the list to keep getting them on the automatic updates.

The problem is that there was no information provided on what exactly the update includes, and what is the purpose behind it. The release notes page did not contain any relevant info (I’m not promising they won’t change the page in the future. It doesn’t contain the info now, and haven’t for quite a few hours so far).

It had lots of other things, the general outline they put on each release-notes page. But the actual release notes, what was changed from the last version, no. Nothing.

There wasn’t even any link to a page where this information could be found. Because, well, in theory it would have been that exact same page.

That’s a very very poor way to roll out an update. If you ask someone to install a new version of a software, and especially if it’s a beta/RC that you want people to test and provide feedback for, you have to tell them why and what has changed.

Seems very sensible to me. Apparently doesn’t seem so sensible to some of the people in the Mozilla foundation. Don’t get me wrong, they’re doing a great job, and Firefox is terrific. But most people don’t follow all the bugs and progress on every single application they use, so it’s far from obvious what an update is for.

I do hope they’ll do better next time. I’m more than willing to install updates, but I need to know why.

In this particular case, if someone is interested, it’s a single fix for a single security vulnerability. Well, a potential whole class of problems, but only a single known point. Which was now actually more of a problem with the Quicktime plug-in (on Windows) and not in Firefox itself, but in this case it’s a good idea to fix it in Firefox as well, to prevent any future problems from the same direction. You can look at the actual bug report for more technical information, if you really want to.

Don’t bother people who are not your users

August 29th, 2007

I just got a message from Yahoo letting me know that they’ll be shutting down the Yahoo Photos service soon.

The stated purpose of which was to let me know that I need to take out the pictures I stored in Yahoo Photos and move them elsewhere.

Except that, well, I don’t have any pictures in Yahoo Photos.

I tested it a while back. Once. I just put a couple of pictures there, saw the behaviour, and then removed the pictures.

Haven’t used the service in over a year, I believe.

And in any case, I don’t have any picture there. When I tried to follow their link to go to my pictures, just to verify, it didn’t show me any picture either.

So I know I’m not using the Yahoo Photos service. And Yahoo knows I’m not using the Yahoo Photos service. In this case, what exactly was the point in their email?

How not to try and foil spam detectors

August 22nd, 2007

Senders of email spam keep working on ways to have their spam messages pass through spam filters. The idea being, naturally, that a spam that got caught before someone reads it will never generate revenues.

And sadly enough spam that does gets read by real people sometimes does generate revenue. That is why they still keep sending them.

But there are two important things for the spammers to to do there.

  1. As I mentioned, they need to try and make it hard to automatically flag the message as spam. That way the message may pass on to the recipient, who may actually read it.
  2. The spam message has to be readable to the person receiving it. Otherwise there is also no way to get money out of it, so why bother sending the message in the first place?

Sometimes, however, they get too creative. So much that the message is almost entirely unreadable to a person.

For example, an excerpt from a “stocks” spam message I received recently:

C,Y’T'V con’tinu+es i-t_s stead-y cl.imb f_o-r t’h-e s econd w_eek. S,tock re,porti-ng site-s acros_s t*h-e boar,d a-r,e issuin+g
sto*ck watc’h notic._es. R’e*a_d t-h’e ne’ws, l.o,o*k at t-h e numbe-r.s, a.n.d g+e t on C.Y_T’V as it kee ps i,t-s clim-b going .
Busines*s NewsNow h.a,s re.l’eased C,Y*T+V as feature.*d Sto,ckWa’tch.

It’s readable, barely, but you have to really try.

When someone opens a message which is just full of text like that, the first reaction is that it’s total gibberish, and people would erase it without even trying to read it.

Amusingly enough, this did not pose any problem for the spam filters, which caught it easily. I found it going through the spam folder, not my inbox.

The poor[1] spammer got it all wrong.

  1. Sadly enough that’s probably not a financial statement. Nor does it express genuine sympathy on my part[back]

Special gift, now at a low cost!

August 22nd, 2007

Gift, for a priceSome people have a hard time understanding the concept of a gift, or free. This usually happens in marketing and sales departments.

Case in point, this latest special offer from my credit card company. I saw these images (in Hebrew) today, and both are for the same offer. The first comes from their website and the second from an email they sent.

The large line happily informs their customers that they’re getting 50 ILS as a gift.

The smaller line below it clarifies that the gift can be obtained in exchange for 2,000 points.

Gift, for a priceThese points are a standard credit card deal. You buy stuff with the card, you get points/stars/whatever. And you can get discounts and special[1] offers in exchange for these points.

So now they have a special deal, where you can buy something else with those points. A gift. That’s right, you can pay them to give you a gift.

Someone should buy them a gift – a dictionary.

  1. usually so special as to be entirely unworthwhile, but that may just be me. Still, this offer right here comes to 0.025 ILS per point, and that’s actually a good rate. After years of using the card I think I’m not even at 10,000 points. You get the drift[back]

Just as lousy

July 6th, 2006

I don’t entirely understand a new wave of commercials that seem to be hitting us lately.

Ideally the purpose of a commercial is to try and convince customers that your product is good for them, and that it’s better for them than competing products.

Newer TV and radio commercials, for quite a few years now, often just try to work by pushing the brand name. These commercial don’t actually say anything about the product, but instead make a lot of noise in the hope that the name will stick to people’s memory.

But this latest batch are just plain odd. Oh, the basic premise is clear enough, they tell people that they’re cheaper than the competition. If you’re just as good as the competition, but cost less, it’s an advantage. It may not be suitable for all people, especially those more concerned with quality than with money, but it works.

These ones, though, don’t say they’re just as good as the competition. They say they’re just as bad as the competition. These commercials pick aspects of the quality of their product, or service, which are known to be bad, and which annoy and trouble customers. And they explicitly say that it’s a problem and it’s bad.

But instead of saying they’ll improve, they just say that it’s the same with the competition, but that they cost less than the competition. So why pay more to get the same lousy product?

It does make some sense, in the specific cases where all alternatives are indeed crappy. But is this really the sort of branding companies want? For people to think of them not only as the cheapest, but as bad, lousy, and crappy?

How El-Al’s online check-in worked in real life

April 25th, 2006

In my previous post I mentioned trying El-Al’s new system of online check-in through the Internet before reaching the airport, the few problems they had with the procedure, and some of the expected benefits.

Now I’ve actually taken the flight, and got to experience the results in the airport. The short version is that they get lots of points on intent, but still fail miserably on execution.

The first, and most direct, benefit was supposed to be the ability to skip the regular check-in lines. Since people who went through the online procedures already made their seating/food/etc selection, they can use a quicker queue to only send the luggage. That’s the theory anyway.

The printed check-in paper had a note stating we need to go to a specific check-in desk (number 78 in this case) instead of the regular check-in desks used for the flight.

But the big electronic billboard in the airport, listing the gates for flights, included gate 78 as well. It was right up there on a listing of “All flights” together with a few more general desks. Meaning that we all went to that line, but regular passengers for regular check-in did so as well.

In my case, for a example, two people in front of me were this older woman who seemed to have lots and lots of problems, and a younger relative who seemed to have lots of issues of his own. Our line actually became the longest queue at some point, because the few people from online check-in all went there, but other people could distribute themselves based on queue length.

One woman behind me on the line even complained quite loudly that she could have saved time by not doing the online check-in. And the sad thing is that she was right.

A couple right behind me were there for regular check-in. People tried telling them that this is a line for people who only did the online check-in, but they pointed to the large electronic billboard, and said that this line is good for them as well. And the sad thing is that they were right as well.

What’s worse, at some point the woman working at that desk started to almost cry to a supervisor that she’s also taking regular people, and she can’t hold under all that pressure, and that the queue is getting too long, and they have to do something. I would have felt really sorry for her if I weren’t so busy being one of the people annoyed at having to wait so long in the queue that was supposed to be the fastest.

Eventually the came up with a temporary solution. They managed to find another clerk to open another desk, and someone arrived to tell us that all the people who did the electronic check-in should go to desk 75 now.

This was of course a temporary solution, since all the people who didn’t arrive yet would all still come to desk 78. In the future they should probably just have a different listing for it on the billboard, which they can change in real time. They can’t change printed paper, though.

Another point of confusion was that they also recently started with the idea of E-Tickets. Plane tickets that you can print from their site. Which are an entirely different thing from the boarding pass you can print during the online check-in. Except that, naturally, it doesn’t feel that different to people. There were a few who figured that since they printed their tickets online, then they did their online check-in.

We moved to desk 75, and gave our luggage to the person operating it. And they gave us a real boarding pass instead of the one printed online. They also verified with us again the seating arrangements and the other details. Which is to say, the procedure took about the same exact time as a regular check-in, since we went through the exact same procedure.

Well, not entirely. This was longer. Because of the other benefits that online check-in had, the coupons for a free coffee and a discount at one of the stores. They said that they had to give us a coupon for the coffee.

Actually, they asked each and every one of us if we printed the coupon during the check-in, and each and every passenger told them that the printed document did not include a coupon. So we were directed to desk 77 to take a coupon for the coffee.

The woman there again asked if I didn’t already had a coupon. At that point I thought maybe the reason for me was that I did it by phone, and the support tech didn’t fax it to me. And that there were other technical problems preventing it being printed for all the other passengers near me. What I didn’t know and, much worse, the El-Al people there didn’t know was that these coupons were not offered for printing at all.

I was given a coupon for a free coffee, and went on. I didn’t realize how clueless they all were, so I didn’t think to ask them for a coupon about the 25$ discount at the duty-free sports shop. I assumed that they know their procedure, that the coffee requires a coupon (since it’s hard to track) but that the discount will be given by presenting the printed boarding pass which we all still have. Since they didn’t mention it, but were sure to mention the coffee coupon, this was a reasonable assumption. Reasonable, but wrong.

But let’s stick to the coffee for now, before getting back to it. The coupon was for a free coffee at the Arcaffe stand in the duty-free area.

The duty free in the new terminal in the Ben-Gurion airport has a central area containing most of the duty-free shops, and a few concourses radiating from it into the gates. Arcaffe has a stand in the central area, so I reached there, and showed them my coupon. And the man there told me that the coupon only applies to the second stand they have on concourse D.

Not that big a problem, since it’s not a long walk (and in that particular case near the gate I’ll have to take anyway), but somewhat annoying. They’re the same network, and should be selling about the same thing, so I can’t see the sense in the separation. Plus, this was not listed on the coupon page.

Oh, and if you took a look at that map, notice that the Ben-Gurion airport site has managed to misspell Arcaffe in English. I just saw that, and I must say I’m not impressed.

Later on I went to the Arcaffe location on the D concourse, showed them the coupon, and asked what it included. I expected that, as this is a deal/coupon, it will basically be a small cup of a regular coffee, or somesuch.

So I was pleasantly surprised. The employee at the shop told me that it covered all the various kinds of coffees they have. And it covered both the smaller sizes and the larger sizes.

The cost difference to them is of course much smaller than the cost difference on the menu presented to customers, so being consumer-friendly like that is a smart move, and one that I liked. Since it’s a deal with El-Al however, I wonder based on what price are they charging El-Al. It has to be a fixed price per coupon…

So this one benefit turned rather very well. Now back to the sports store, which turned out not to be quite as simple.

I went to check the store. Now, the deal there was a 25$ discount for any purchase above 100$. Meaning that the coupon is only useful if I actually find something there that I want to buy in those amount.

The store contained sports gear (mostly clothing and such), and shoes. Actually it looked a lot more like a shoe store than a sports store.

I didn’t need any of their sport gear, but I did manage to find a very nice pair of New Balance shoes which were comfortable and looked good. And since I can actually use another pair of shoes, that was alright. They cost 109$ (Which is the same as the retail price in the US, so is cheaper than the retail price in Israel), which made them a relative bargain at 84$ after the discount.

I reached the checkout counter, told the clerk there that I did El-Al’s online check-in so deserve a discount, and showed her the printed (and faxed) boarding pass.

She asked for a coupon (You guessed that was coming by now, right?).

I told her I was not given a coupon, and was not told that there’s a coupon. I asked if the printed boarding pass isn’t enough as a proof that I did the online check-in. She called a supervisor to ask, and gave the reply that they get the money back from El-Al on the coupons, so as far as they’re concerned the coupons are like money during the purchase, and they can’t go on without it.

Very annoying, and something I did not expect. Though maybe, given the state of confusion in other aspects of this check-in experience, I should have. So I asked her to keep the shoes at the counter, and went to find someone from El-Al who could give me my coupon.

I went to the information desk, and the guy there said El-Al has a lounge (King David’s Lounge, intended for first-class and business class passengers) with El-Al’s people there which I can try and talk to. I went there, and the woman at the counter sent me one further door outside to their Passenger’s Support counter.

In I went, and was greeted by a young man working there (called Yehuda, or Yoav, or somesuch. I asked him later, but forgot to write it down, and the name got a little fuzzy in my memorry). I said that I didn’t get my coupon/voucher for the 25$ at the sports store, and he looked at me quizzically and asked what I was talking about.

Turns out that this El-Al employee, which they placed there for passenger support, was not even notified about their online check-in procedure. Not only did he not know about the coupons, he wasn’t even aware they had online check-in. At all. This is a major screw-up from El-Al’s side.

I explained to him about it, and showed him the printed boarding pass, and the page saying that doing the online check-in should entitle me to that discount. He checked for some things on his computer, apparently didn’t find anything useful, and called a supervisor.

Now, the coffee coupon was a pretty simple thing. Could have been easily reproduced by a home printer, and looked like it has been photocopied. So I expected they’ll just tell him to print a copy of the coupon at his station, and that would be it. No such luck. It requires an “original” coupon (which turned out to be of the same simple-print and photocopied quality. of course).

And they didn’t have them in any location inside the duty free. They had to send a stewardess in from outside with it. Meaning that she’ll have to go through all the security check points, and whatever else people have to do to get into the terminal. Not a quick process.

Not quick at all, actually. It took over 25 minutes. He told me it would take a while, so I went to do other things in the terminal. But his time estimates were way off, at about 10-15 minutes, so when I came back to ask what’s going on (He did take my phone number and said he’d call me, but I decided to go back and check in person) he still didn’t have anything.

Because of the long delay, and the fact that my boarding pass was closing, he went with me back to the store, and tried to ask the saleswoman at the counter if she’ll accept his personal guarantee as an El-Al employee that he’ll give her the coupon later. He showed her his ID and everything. But, as we expected, she said she couldn’t and will require an actual physical coupon.

Eventually a stewardess came rushing in. carrying a huge pile of pages with the coupons. He took one, wrote my details on it, handed the page to me, and that was that.

At that point there were a few other El-Al employees in the Passenger Support area. They asked what that was about, and he explained it to them. They too never heard that El-Al had this online check-in option.

All in all I’d say that this could be a good thing, but they really have to pay more attention to their procedure, and iron out all the kinks. The guy at the support counter was extremely nice and tried to help, but the overall experience has been extremely amateurish and disorganized…

In this series (El-Al online check-in):

  1. Offline online check-in
  2. How El-Al’s online check-in worked in real life

Offline online check-in

April 17th, 2006

I’m flying for a short business trip abroad soon. The airline, El-Al, has a new feature: allowing passengers to do some of the check-in procedure from home, through the Internet.

This has the advantage of possibly saving time if the airport is busy. And it is certainly expected to be busy now, since it’s a holiday season.

It also allows to select a meal type (if some special meal, such as vegetarian, gluten-free, etc, is required), and select the seat. Which probably isn’t that big a deal for people going through travel agent, as they can do that in advance as well. But I suppose people arranging flights by themselves, or whose travel agent is lazy, can use that.

It also has, for now, a separate station/line for luggage. So until this becomes popular, the lines may be shorter. An advantage which will quickly go away once it becomes more popular, and the lines will even out.

Though, still, some of the questions involved with the check-in will be spared, since they were already answered. This isn’t much on a personal basis, since filling it out on the web isn’t much quicker than talking to a person at the station. But it counts on a line, since you don’t also have to wait that time for all the people in front of you.

Actually, yes, the advantages are there, but aren’t that big. So for now, since it’s a relatively new service, they’re also offering some minor bonuses for people who use this service (A free cup coffee at one of the airport coffee-shops, and a 25$ discount for purchases over a 100$ in one of the duty-free shops). For them it has the advantage of reducing loads from their people at the check-in counter, so if they can save a salary it should be worth it.

I decided to take advantage, and try the new service.

The first screen asked for the last name, and the ticket number. In my case an electronic-ticket, also printed through their website. Or, more correctly, printed through their site by my company’s travel agent, and faxed to us. And yes, it’s always amusing to have a printed page containing underlined “click here” links. Somehow clicking on the paper doesn’t help.

That went well, and I reached a second screen. This one allowed changing the listed last name (Which I don’t quite get), allowed to enter a frequent-flier number for people who have them, asked for the phone number, and had a long list for meal types.

Really long list, compared to what I expected. I guess there are plenty of people with unusual requirements for their meals. Sadly enough there wasn’t an option to choose a non-kosher meal, but that’s not really a surprise given that El-Al is the official Israeli airline, and have to keep kosher. They did, however, have a few meals designated as extra-kosher and such.

And I tried to get to the next page. I was greeted with an animation letting me know that the check-in is in progress, and asking me to wait.

A message which was shortly replaced by another one, telling me that the online check-in failed, and asking me to call their office (with a phone number). The number was for support on the online check-in, so calling it an office wasn’t exactly right, but never mind.

Since I was using Firefox as a browser, and not Internet Explorer, and there are still sites designed badly enough to only work in Explorer, I decided to open explorer and try again. Same error. But the screens along the way looked better. So the site is badly designed, but at least designed to be functional. Functional at the times when it is actually working, that is, which wasn’t the case here.

I called the number. A nice girl answered and asked how she can help me.

I detailed the problem to her. She asked for the flight details, to check for the flight times. The online check-in option is only valid at a specific time range before the flight, so they probably assume most problems are the result of people trying to do it too early. Though, frankly, if the error message for that is the general error I received, instead of a specific message explaining the problem, then the site is even worse designed than I thought.

After checking a little, and seeing that everything should be in order, she said that maybe they are having some temporary problems at their end, and that I should try again a little later. I pressed her for a more exact estimate, of how later is later enough (Not wanting to try later, and talk to them again being told that I did it too soon), and she said to try in about two hours.

Two and a half hours later (spares are important) I tried again. Same thing.

I called again, and this time it took a while before the call was answered. But the one answering was the exact same girl. Which could be chance, or could be an indication that they don’t have too many people there in the online check-in support department.

She even remembered me.

After explaining to her that the problem didn’t go away, she asked for more details, and said she’ll try to do the check-in from her own station, and will see how it goes.

She reached the page with the meal types and phones, put in everything, hit the button to go to the next page, and… after a few seconds I heard her say a very surprised “Oy”, followed by a still surprised statement of “It happened to me too!”.

It made me want to say something like “Of course it did, dear. There was nothing I could have done wrong until now to ruin it. It can’t be that I just can’t enter my phone number correctly, is it?” . But she was really nice, and it wasn’t her fault, so I didn’t.

She then put me on hold, while she went to check it out. This took quite a while.

After getting back, and apologizing for the delay, she said that she managed to do it on her station. I asked what’s the trick, and she told me that they really did had a problem at their end, which they now found and fixed. She also thanked me for reporting the problem to them. This, of course, make me suspect that the system is rarely used so far, or someone else would have stumbled upon it previously. It’s not like I was doing something very unique after all.

She then verified with me the seating arrangements. Actually, she quoted a seat number and asked me if that’s alright. It was quite apparent she’s not used to doing check-in with customers. Anyone who isn’t well familiar with the layout of the plane, and I’m not, won’t know what the seat number indicate. Seats numbers on plane are, sadly, not standard. So I just asked her the relevant details, and confirmed that everything is alright.

She then finished my online check-in, from her station, printed it, and faxed me the resulting boarding pass.

In this case they didn’t really save any manpower by having me do the online check-in. More like a phone-in check-in, actually.

So now I’ll go on a flight, with a do-it-yourself ticket that was faxed to me, and a do-it-yourself boarding pass that was also faxed to me. Life’s amusing sometimes…

In this series (El-Al online check-in):

  1. Offline online check-in
  2. How El-Al’s online check-in worked in real life

Amazon gives special treatment to abortion

March 22nd, 2006

One feature which is being increasingly offered by search engines is automatic spelling suggestions. Usually for a term that doesn’t return results, but also for terms which return fewer results than other similarly-spelled words.

This happens with general search engines, but also with some stores that allow customers to search their stock. Stores like Amazon. And it makes perfect business sense. They want to sell. And anyone running a search may want to buy. So if someone may want something a little different than what they typed, at least offering to amend the search is the way to go.

As sometimes happens, though, they ran afoul of another case where the usual automatic algorithm naturally fails to take into account politically charged terms. In this case a search for “abortion”, while returning the results for the search, suggested a corrected spelling of “adoption”.

And, as often happened, someone who saw this decided to ignore the fact he was working with a generic algorithm, and complain about the affront.

Amazon, in response, manually changed the result page not to suggest this correction. This was even the correct thing to do. In this particular case it is extremely unlikely that someone will make this particular mistake as a simple typo. Offering a usually-unhelpful correction is a little annoying, and should go. And with this specific search, if they can prevent customers, even a few customers, from getting offended, that’s a good thing.

What bothers me is the reason they provided:

But the company says it ditched the question because the e-mailer raised a valid question. People who type in the term “adoption” don’t get a prompt asking: “Do you mean abortion.”

What? They cancelled it because the correction wasn’t symmetrical? Not because it was a mistake not likely to happen? Not because it was politically charged? Not because it could drive away a few customers? But because the other direction wouldn’t have gotten the same correction offer?

That seems absurd. These things are hardly ever symmetrical. They shouldn’t be. If I run a search for “splling” I want to get back a “did you mean spelling?” question. If I run a search for “spelling” however, I would be surprised to be offered to search for “splling” instead.

This sort of search isn’t exactly a dictionary search, but the same logic applies. It should try to offer more common spellings as correction to less common ones. If a lot more people are searching for “adoption” than are searching for “abortion”, then as far as the algorithm is concerned offering a correction from “abortion” to “adoption” will make perfect sense, while offering a correction in the other direction will not.

Same thing, depending on how the algorithm works, if there are many more items in stock that would fit a search for “adoption” than there are that would fit “abortion”. One way correction is proper, the other isn’t. It will merely inconvenience searching customers with irrelevancies, a lot more times than it would help them.

Cases where it would be proper to offer corrections both ways would be extremely rare. Maybe if there are two search terms which are very similar, and both extremely popular. This doesn’t really happen a lot. Even if it does happen, it’s not the rule but rather the exception.

And Amazon knows that. They have to know that. Their technical people, and their marketing people, know that. So making a public statement to the contrary is odd. Especially when the likely real reason isn’t problematical. It doesn’t require hiding. Nobody would take it hard that Amazon want to give customers better search results, and want to avoid offending customers.

Is the sense of having to hide real and nefarious business reasons so strong that they can’t go out with the real reason even when the real reason is perfectly valid? What does it say about the times when what they say does make sense? Should we understand they’re hiding something then too, because that’s the way they work? Peculiar…

Three strikes and you’re ou…tragous.

March 22nd, 2006

There’s this guy called Chaym Hecht who sometimes gets on the air with a series about some big problem in the country, and proceed to throw lots of hype and possible-nonsense about what he considers to be a terrific solution that will end the problem.

Personally I never watched any of these shows, and there are enough people making noise out there that I didn’t find any reason to give him more attention than I give the rest.

Today, however, I received a forwarded email from a friend, regarding another project of his. The big problem this time is crime, or more specifically the high rates of property crimes, and the potentially insufficient enforcement.

The email contained a link to the show’s site (Hebrew only, sorry), hosted under the site of the television network which broadcasts his show. Something which one would expect will give some credence to what is said there. Sure, people sometimes get their facts a little wrong, but a reputable television network won’t put pages full of outright lies, hype, and misinformation, right? Well, wrong.

I was actually amazed by how much nonsense they managed to stick into so little text. And that’s what is supposed to convince people to support his idea. They even have a petition page there, allegedly going to the ministers of justice and internal security, and to the law committee in the Knesset. So what’s on the site is supposed to be enough for people to be able to declare that they agree and support the suggested legislation.

Now, my problem isn’t exactly with the proposed legislation. That is, I don’t support that law he’s suggesting, but that’s not why I’m writing this post. People have a right to suggest law I don’t support. What they shouldn’t do is present background and supportive facts which are not true and not factual.

The law he suggests is presented as being similar to the Three Strikes law in the US, where judges should be lenient on a first offence, strict on a second, and have a mandatory large jail time for a third offence. And it shows some info about the law in the US, which is supposed to convince us it will be a good idea to do the same here.

Except that much of the information presented is false. And that the laws, while similar on the outline of escalation for three offences, are different in their most important characteristics.

The main page tells us that the proposed legislation could reduce crime rates by 50 percent. This value is taken from another paragraph on the page, telling us that after two years from when the Three Strikes law was accepted in the US the crime rates there dropped by 50 percent.

A second page is then provided with some background information about the origins of the law in the US. That page discusses… California. No mention of the fact that Washington approved such a law first. It only talks about California. And tells it like it was enacted there first. Not critical, but not exactly true.

I just mentioned it to get the dates, for that two years reference. Because that page mentioned it being enacted in California in 1993, and mentions President Clinton making it a US Law in 1995.

It’s not clear if we should expect a 50% reduction in crime rate in California between 1993 to 1995, or between 1995 to 1997. Let’s look at both, and try to find out.

First, here’s a site dedicated to supporting the Three Strikes law in California. We can expect them to be biased, but we can expect them to be biased in favour of the law. That is, showing the highest possible improvement, the highest possible reduction in crime rates. And what do they say on their front page (emphasis mine)?

California’s crime rate is down 32.7% versus a 13.0% drop for the rest of the nation! New York state added 34,000 police to achieve an even greater reduction than California – 33.4% in the 6 major categories.

32.7% is a very nice figure. It’s not 50% however. Not even close. And, as they themselves note, the law enforcement is important, but it’s the investment in enforcing the law, not merely having a Three Strikes law. Put more cops, you get lower crime rates.

They even post nice comparisons, over the five years from 1993 to 1998, showing countries with the Three Strikes laws, and without. And you can see for example Connecticut, with the law, getting a 18.6% reduction, while Arkansas, without this law, getting a 21.3% reduction. Doesn’t say that the law isn’t helping, but it does say that the law can certainly not account for the entire reduction, maybe not even for most of it.

And still no mention of that 50% figure. And if two of these years would have had such a drastic improvement, they would have been mentioned. If they can have a page in 2006 showing the five years until 1998, then I’m sure they could have just as well shown two years, if those had a much more impressive crime reduction number. Remember, this site is really pro the law.

But let’s not trust them to be biased, let’s check more facts, for the exact years we want. Let’s check the year-by-year crime rate statistics provided by the FBI through the Disaster Center.

Year Index Violent Crimes Property Crimes
1993 2,015,265 336,381 1,678,884
1994 1,940,497 318,395 1,622,102
1995 1,841,984 305,154 1,536,830
1996 1,660,131 274,996 1,385,135
1997 1,569,949 257,582 1,312,367
1998 1,418,674 229,883 1,188,791

Anyone notices a two year period there in which the drop was at 50% ? I don’t see it either.

Never mind the number, there’s a much more obvious way to see the lack of such a big jump. The Office of the Attorney General of California has a few charts with information about crime in the state. Like this lovely graph, showing crime rates over all the relevant years, with a separation between violent crimes and property crimes. What does this graph show? It very clearly show that property crime rates started to drop before 1993, although violent crimes seem to change at about that year. It also shows that the drop is for less than 50%, and that there weren’t any two years there with a much higher rate than the others around them.

Or, to put it bluntly, that 50% figure is an outright myth. Where did they take the figure? I don’t know, but I have two options. One is that they just made it up, since it sounds impressive. The other is that it has something to do with this Attorney General statement, from 2002, on the drop in crime rates in California in the 1990′s:

Between 1991 and 2000, California’s overall crime rate plummeted 50 percent. The homicide rate fell 47 percent. California’s crime rate made history in 1999 with the largest one-year drop ever, 14.9 percent. During the decade of the 1990s, California’s violent crime rate declined at almost twice the rate of the rest of the United States.

Except that it talks about the entire decade, not any specific two years. And mentioned the largest drop to be in 1999, surely quite a few years after California, and other states, enacted the Three Strikes law. And it mentions that the crime rate drop there is the lowest in the US, while California is far from being the only state with the Three Strikes law. That petition site of Mr. Hecht mentioned 24 other states, implying they all saw similar crime drop rates… Guess what? They didn’t. Not a one.

That statement says some more, though:

There is considerable debate among criminologists about which strategies were most effective in the 1990s. Some point to helping at-risk youth, getting guns out of the hands of criminals and tougher sentencing laws. Others point to more police on the streets, community policing and the abatement of the “crack epidemic.” Still others point to the economy, after-school programs and other prevention programs.

Anyone else missing the line there saying that the drop was mostly due to the Three Strikes law? It’s there under “tougher sentencing”, I imagine. Doesn’t seem to be the focal point from this, though.

OK, change of subject. That show site has another page, giving some statistics about the crime rates in Israel. Some is taken from the police, stating that there’s a an attempt at thefts, roberry, break-ins, etc, every 44 seconds. And such rates for murders, rapes, and drug trafficking and usage. That serves to illustrate that there’s a problem, so fine. Though I doubt very much we’re worse off than some US states with a Three Strikes law.

But then they go on to list, on the same page, results from a survey they did on the show. 68% of Israeli citizens have had a break-in, or had their car stolen, apparently. Notice, this is not according to the police, this is according to the survey. Guess what? People who didn’t have any such problems are less likely to want to participate in such a survey.

Also, according to this survey, 69.6% protect their houses against burglaries. I assume this includes putting locks on the doors, and installing an alarm system. If so, it sounds to me like it’s way too low, and should be much much higher. Even in areas where crime is extremely rare it’s still good sense to keep your house, and your possessions, secure.

Another fascinating bit from this survey, only 9% believe that the police is capable of handling property crimes. Not sure what handling means, but that numbers seems… practically meaningless. Lack of faith in the police is nothing new. And is usually true even when the police operates spectacularly. Still, I’m willing to accept most people don’t have much faith in the police. Fine. Why is that relevant? Guess who will have to track down the people committing the crimes if a Three Strikes law will be enacted? Right, the police. Guess who will have to keep track of how many times they were charged with the crimes? Right again, the police.

As far as I could see the proposed law does not include replacing the police, or even restructuring the police. If anything, it only deals with the idea that judges are too lenient with people who they find guilty of repeatedly committing property crimes. The law doesn’t deal with actually tracking and arresting them, nor does it deal with the ones not found guilty (For lack of evidence, or other reasons).

93.9% of the people asked do not agree to a condition where thieves deserves compensations when they are hurt during their “job”. Is that terribly irrelevant, or am I missing something here? This is a much bigger problem in the US than here. Any real cases like that here are extremely rare. And, most importantly, this has nothing to do with the Three Strikes issue, or with generally the crime condition in Israel. At all.

And last, 87.6% believe that thieves should be incarcerated for a long duration. No mention how long is long. And are we only talking about someone entering your house, taking all the electronics, jewels, and silverware, and then trashing the place? Because in the way this is written, that also applies to someone who swipes a money bill you leave on a counter in a bar unattended.

All in all, lots of survey info which is not relevant, and not really informative. The only purpose it serves, especially under a heading of “Crime Status in Israel”, is to aggravate people, and make them annoyed. Because annoyed people will be more inclined to think that yes, there’s a problem, and this solution of making sure the guilty will be punished is good. Except that, as I said, it doesn’t say anything about the actual crime conditions, or about the effectiveness of the suggested law.

Mob inflammation techniques, pure and simple.

OK, having gotten through the measly background, the adrenaline pumping techniques, and the false factoids on how good the concept is, there’s the page detailing the exact suggestion. Though “detailing”, and “exact”, may be too strong to refer to the the four very short paragraphs. And yet, this is all there is, and what people are expected to sign a petition saying they want to become law. Nearly as good as saying “I trust Mr. Hecht, just ask him what the law should be, and don’t bother me with specifics”.

The page starts with the claim that the system is focused on property crimes, because these crimes are the crime base in Israel (No, I’m not sure what crime base is supposed to mean either, it’s not like anyone wanting to commit a violent crime has to commit some property crimes to build it on). And as an example of how more common they are (Personally, if violent crimes were more common than property crimes, I’d be really worried) we are told that in 2004 property crimes were 64% of the crimes in Israel.

Remember that nice graph from the Office of the Attorney General of California? Go take a second look. Or, if you don’t trust your ability to get ratios from graphs, go check the data tables. Now, did you get the impression that in California there are, or were when the Three Strikes law was enacted, more violent crimes than property crimes? No, I don’t see it either. I see a ratio much bigger than 64%, actually.

So we want to base the law on their law, but change it to deal with property crimes and not violent crimes, because we have a bigger problem with property crime than they had? That’s what the site is saying. But it’s obviously not true, and a complete non-sequitur. If simple property crimes don’t seem like a good call for this law to people having such a law for years, why would that be enough for us to think it’s a good idea here?

The second paragraph deals with the suggestion for first offence. During the first offence judges will be required to consider all the extenuating circumstances when sentencing. Though of course they will still be allowed to jail the accused for the maximum 5 years allowed under the law. Then the paragraph goes on to present the condition as it is today. It being that only 6% of property felons are sentenced to jail.

That 6% is presented as too small, and a problem. But the new suggestion claims to only change the current law by forcing the judge to consider all extenuating circumstances. So, if only 6% are jailed now, it can be expected that less than 6% will be jailed there. It is the idea behind the law, that since second and third offences are harsh, first offence will be easier for someone with an excuse. But sticking this 6% problem there is exactly counter to the point. He’s presenting it as a problem, together with a suggestion which will make this particular alleged problem worse.

And there’s no mention of what exactly does the statistic refer to. Big crimes, small crimes, attempts at theft and burglary or only the real things? It doesn’t even say if those 6% are from the people convicted as guilty, or only of people accused.

The third paragraph deal with second offence. For a second offence there will be a mandatory four months jail time, no probation. Currently, it says, only 11% are sentenced to jail.

This is not detailed enough. Some things deserve jail time, some don’t. Some more, some less. This is why judges have discretion. And the Third Strike law, while intended to reduce this discretion for third offences, isn’t supposed to do it for a second offence without any ability to reconsider. This suggestion, as is, doesn’t even treat cases where the required jail time would be longer than four months. Four months for everything, and that’s that. The end. I do assume they allow a judge to set longer sentences, if not shorter, and if not any other sort of rehabilitation techniques, but it doesn’t say it. So again, the petition is to support a law which is either flawed, or with details the supporters don’t know.

The fourth, and last, paragraph deals with third offences. Anyone convicted in a third offence will be sentenced to three years in jail. And there are a bunch of exclamation marks there, tucked up to help put people in the right mood.

All in all, not very inspiring, unless you got here already mad enough not to think about what you’re reading.

And all this, the push for a Third Strike legislation for property crimes, when California, for example, is considering making their own law even more lenient for non-violent offences, is very out of place.

California, the state that launched a national get-tough-on-crime movement with its “three strikes, you’re out” measure in 1994, is poised to reconsider whether to ease the stiffest provision of its landmark law: locking up third-time offenders for the rest of their lives.

Two ballot initiatives – both led by Los Angeles area prosecutors – are aiming to put more flexibility in the three-strikes law, in a bid to address concerns that it is imprisoning too many nonviolent criminals at too great a cost to taxpayers. The measures would come before California voters in November if they qualify for the ballot.

The Americans, living with this law for years, aren’t all in agreement whether it’s good or not. They publish studies, some supporting this side, some the other. Certainly the idea has benefits, but it also has its drawbacks. Anything like that needs to be considered carefully, not driven forth by populism.

The suggestion for this law is similar to the Three Strikes law in that it has escalating conditions for the first three offences. But here the similarity ends. It targets different areas of crimes, for different reasons. Any attempt to justify this one on the basis of that one is unfounded.

All that, of course, is pretty meaningless. Because, you see, on-line petitions are meaningless anyway. They don’t do anything, they don’t achieve anything, and nobody who is the target of one takes them seriously. They’re too easy to falsify, too hard to verify, and too hard to know how to judge. So the chances of our Ministers, or Knesset committees, deciding to pay attention to one are slim at best. Less than that, even.

All it serves is to allow Mr. Hecht to say in the future that he had a brilliant solution to drastically reduce our property crime rate (Oh, go check that graph again. Did you notice that property crime rates in California started climbing after 1999? Without anybody cancelling the Three Strikes law?), and nobody did anything about it.

There’s an old joke, saying that it’s a pity that all the people who really know how to run a country are too busy cutting people’s hair, serving them drinks, and driving them around. I think we need to add running television shows to the list, maybe.

A suggestion that has merit would not be presented using hype, hyperbole, and false information. These things do not indicate an idea that can survive because it’s good. Nor does it indicate that the one coming forth with the idea really thinks it’s a good one.

Researcher hacks Microsoft fingerprint reader

March 15th, 2006

Apparently the connection between the fingerprint reader and the computer isn’t properly encrypted, so it’s possible to connect to it and read the fingerprint data. Or to send fingerprint data that was recorded earlier.

It’s not really much of a news item, though, because the device isn’t intended for security purposes, and Microsoft doesn’t sell it for security uses. The research was to find why they don’t, because fingerprint readers are pretty much smack down in the category of security and authentication gear. That’s their classic, and most obvious, use (Despite the many problems with biometric, which now is not the time to go into). So the fact that the research found a problem shouldn’t surprise anyone too much.

Even if some customers assumed that it can be used for security despite the manufacturer’s recommendations.

The point I found interesting is this response by the CTO of Digital Persona, the company from which Microsoft licensed the technology for the device:

Digital Persona would not comment on why Microsoft may have turned off the product’s encryption capabilities, but one company official said that this decision is unlikely to affect the security of its users.

“The fact that they turned the encryption off, I would argue, does not in a practical sense open up any security holes,” says Chief Technology Officer Vance Bjorn. “Even with the encryption off, you’re going to have to basically have physical access to the person’s machine to crack into it.”

He claim that it’s not a problem, because it would require physical access to the computer. This is, while accurate, totally silly and besides the point.

Fingerprint readers are intended to be used against people with physical access to the computer the scanner is attached to. That’s the only case in which they work. A legitimate user with no physical access will not be able to have their fingerprint scanned. Physical access is required by design.

So saying security holes are not opened just because it would require physical access, is actually saying that the device is meaningless from a security standpoint. You need physical access to hack into the machine around the fingerprint scanner. But you also need physical access to use the machine by using the fingerprint scanner. Ergo the fingerprint scanner is meaningless.

Which is basically what Microsoft implied to begin with, but entirely not the point the CTO was trying to make here.