Strong opinions, weakly held

Month: November 2009 (page 2 of 4)

How Priceline whores out your credit card

Today a Senate staff report prepared for Jay Rockefeller was released that details how “loyalty programs” harvest subscribers by purchasing ads on the “thank you” pages that are displayed after you complete a transaction with various online merchants, many of which you’ve heard of.

These Web loyalty programs, run by Affinion, Webloyalty, and Vertrue, have hauled in $1.4 billion in revenue and paid about $800 billion of that back out for ad placement. The Consumerist has a list of the 88 companies that have earned at least $1 million in this fashion.

Felix Salmon has more on the numbers and the ownership of the firms that are doing the scamming.

Xconomy has a page that illustrates changes Webloyalty made to comply with a settlement in a lawsuit filed against them. You can see how the scams work from the illustration. Basically, when you’re done with your transaction an add is displayed offering you a coupon or a special offer. I’ve seen them many times, but never clicked. When you agree to accept the special offer, you’re enrolled in a “loyalty program” that charges you a monthly fee after 30 days. Because of agreements the merchants have with these other companies, your credit card number is automatically given to the “loyalty” vendor. So people are accepting these offers without reading the fine print and subscribing to a service they don’t want or need. The next thing you now, weird charges are showing up on their credit card bills.

There are other scams, too. For example, Ben Stein makes ads for a “free” credit score reporting service that secretly signs you up for a $29.95 monthly subscription in exchange for accessing the free report. Felix Salmon has been all over this for a few months.

There are active comment threads about this at Hacker News and Metafilter.

Update: For a somewhat unfiltered look at what WebLoyalty promises, check out this page at the Americart site. Americart is a third party shopping cart provider, and one of the “benefits” they offer is free WebLoyalty integration. If you add it, they’ll give you $100 for every 1000 transactions they process, which isn’t a very good deal compared to what you’re getting. Your customers get a $10 discount coupon so long as they sign up for one of WebLoyalty’s insurance programs. I feel gross just having read about it.

What The Office teaches us

Venkat Rao deeply examines the US and British versions of The Office and tries to distill a theory of management from them. Seriously, read the whole thing.

Update: The essay’s description of over-performing losers moving up to join the ranks of the clueless (if you read the essay this will make sense) reminds me of a story. There was a guy on our high school football team who wanted to come in first in every drill. If the coaches told us to take two laps around the track, he had to finish those two laps first. If the coaches had us pushing a sled, he’d push the sled the hardest. I won’t tell you what all the other players called him, but even at that early age, most people seemed to get that his effort was almost entirely misspent.

The guy wasn’t a great player, and the coaches didn’t give him any extra playing time because he practiced harder than he needed to. His extra investment in over-performing in unimportant drills didn’t make him a better football player. I wonder what he’s up to today?

The price of interoperability

Tim O’Reilly reminds us that the price of interoperability on the Web is eternal vigilance. Let’s skip to the end:

It could be that everyone will figure out how to play nicely with each other, and we’ll see a continuation of the interoperable web model we’ve enjoyed for the past two decades. But I’m betting that things are going to get ugly. We’re heading into a war for control of the web. And in the end, it’s more than that, it’s a war against the web as an interoperable platform. Instead, we’re facing the prospect of Facebook as the platform, Apple as the platform, Google as the platform, Amazon as the platform, where big companies slug it out until one is king of the hill.

And it’s time for developers to take a stand. If you don’t want a repeat of the PC era, place your bets now on open systems. Don’t wait till it’s too late.

Which analysis is worth paying for?

Last night offered a perfect illustration of one of the many reasons newspaper journalism is in trouble. In last night’s game between the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots, the Patriots, up 6 points, went for it on fourth and 2 with 2:08 left in the game. They failed to make the first down, and Peyton Manning took the Colts in for the score, winning the game 35-34.

Let’s look at the analysis offered by a major metropolitan daily, the Houston Chronicle.

Here’s their NFL reporter, John McClain:

I still can’t believe what I just witnessed. Belichick is getting ripped because of his clock management and his unbelievable decision to go for a first down when he should have punted. They didn’t make it, and they gave Peyton Manning the ball at their 29 trailing by six.

And here’s Jerome Solomon:

There won’t be a much more exciting finish than this year’s Colts-Patriots. Of course, there won’t be a much more idiotic call than Bill Belichick electing to go for a fourth-and-2 from his own 28-yard line despite his team holding a six-point lead. There is no legitimate excuse for such a move. It wasn’t gutsy, and even if it had worked, it just wasn’t smart. Is the pressure of not winning a Super Bowl in five years starting to wear on the Hooded One?

So, according to them, Belichick is “idiotic” and his decision was “unbelievable,” but neither of those adjectives are accompanied by any analysis whatsoever. On the other hand, here’s some quick postgame analysis from a couple of blogs. First, Smart Football, which analyzed the decision without crunching the numbers:

The goal is, obviously, to maximize your chance of winning. If you punt, your chances of winning are your odds of stopping a streaking Manning who has just torched your defense the whole fourth quarter. He will have to drive about 70 yards. Because of his excellence in clock management, the two-minute warning, and their timeout, time was not really a factor. (The analysis would be much different if there was only, say, a minute left.)

If you go for it, your chance of winning hinges on two outcomes: (a) if you get the first down, you win the game; and (b) if you don’t get it, you still have a chance to stop Manning. So your chance of winning if you go for it is the sum of (a) your chance of converting; and (b) your chance of stopping Manning from the 30 yard line.

Here’s Advanced NFL Stats with the numbers:

Statistically, the better decision would be to go for it, and by a good amount. However, these numbers are baselines for the league as a whole. You’d have to expect the Colts had a better than a 30% chance of scoring from their 34, and an accordingly higher chance to score from the Pats’ 28. But any adjustment in their likelihood of scoring from either field position increases the advantage of going for it. You can play with the numbers any way you like, but it’s pretty hard to come up with a realistic combination of numbers that make punting the better option. At best, you could make it a wash.

Are we really going to miss those guys I quoted at the top?

Get rid of the football helmet

Last month I suggested in a post about concussions in football that it’s football helmets that are the biggest problem. Helmets are ostensibly protective gear, but they’re what enable football players to use their bodies as weapons. Most concussions are caused by helmet to helmet collisions, and those that aren’t are usually caused by the fact that players where enough protective gear to stay out of control. Now Reed Albergotti and Shirley Wang have a story in the Wall Street Journal asking the same kinds of questions. Football with different protective gear would be a different sport, but that may not be so bad.

Surrendering to terror

Never let it be forgotten that it’s the Republican right in America who proudly and openly surrenders to terrorism at every opportunity. Glenn Greenwald:

This is literally true: the Right’s reaction to yesterday’s announcement — we’re too afraid to allow trials and due process in our country — is the textbook definition of “surrendering to terrorists.” It’s the same fear they’ve been spewing for years. As always, the Right’s tough-guy leaders wallow in a combination of pitiful fear and cynical manipulation of the fear of their followers. Indeed, it’s hard to find any group of people on the globe who exude this sort of weakness and fear more than the American Right.

People in capitals all over the world have hosted trials of high-level terrorist suspects using their normal justice system. They didn’t allow fear to drive them to build island-prisons or create special commissions to depart from their rules of justice. Spain held an open trial in Madrid for the individuals accused of that country’s 2004 train bombings. The British put those accused of perpetrating the London subway bombings on trial right in their normal courthouse in London. Indonesia gave public trials using standard court procedures to the individuals who bombed a nightclub in Bali. India used a Mumbai courtroom to try the sole surviving terrorist who participated in the 2008 massacre of hundreds of residents. In Argentina, the Israelis captured Adolf Eichmann, one of the most notorious Nazi war criminals, and brought him to Jerusalem to stand trial for his crimes.

Improving the iPhone app store approval process

This week, Apple got a lot of bad publicity when two iPhone developers abandoned the platform because of the way the app store approval process is handled. The first was Joe Hewitt, the developer of the Facebook iPhone application. You can read his reasons why here. Back in August he expressed his frustration with Apple but said he wasn’t going to boycott the platform. Then today Rogue Amoeba announced that they’ll be focusing on the Mac going forward because of problems they’ve had with Apple’s approval process.

Like most people who aren’t calling the shots at Apple, I’d prefer it if you could install apps on your iPhone by simply going to a URL and downloading them. Even if Apple wants to maintain the vetting process for apps sold through the official store, they could provide an alternate means that anyone can use if they’re willing to assume the risks of doing so. This would, essentially, be a way to let jailbreaking go legit. Unfortunately I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon.

As an alternative, I think Apple needs to adopt a different form of government for the iPhone nation. Right now, it’s a dictatorship. Apple exercises nearly complete control over the platform — there are a few jailbroken and unlocked phones that participate in a sort of underground, but if you want to be a legal citizen of the iPhone community, you have to play by Apple’s rules. And as in most dictatorships, Apple makes up the rules as it goes along, and isn’t accountable for enforcing the rules fairly, or offering due process, or even telling people what the rules are, exactly. It’s not surprising that so many people hate this situation — it’s not fair. And Apple’s profits say that it can get away with this behavior for awhile longer. You don’t see too many iPhone users or developers moving to other platforms but the competing platforms are slowly becoming more compelling.

Clearly democracy is out of the question. Apple is a business, and they’re not going to suddenly let the users start running the show. What I do think Apple should move toward is a constitutional monarchy. Apple’s executives remain the heads of state, and are ultimately the final authority on iPhone-related matters, but for everyday purposes the rule of law exists. Apple would write a constitution of sorts for iPhone developers and users, and get rid of the hidden, arbitrary rules. They’d create an open process for developers seeking approval for their applications, communicate reasons for denial, and give the developers a chance to appeal such rulings. This would probably be more manpower-intensive than the current process, but Apple is ridiculously profitable, and in the long term holding themselves to a greater degree of transparency and accountability would be good for the iPhone.

The current system isn’t going to work for a whole lot longer.

I’m a conservative

Here’s Andrew Sullivan’s definition of a real conservative:

At the core of real conservatism is a distinction between theory and practice, a deep resistance to ideology, a respect for free inquiry and the philosophic spirit, a respect for social stability and coherence, a moderation in governance and a deliberation in action.

The sleaziness of wireless carriers

David Pogue has blown the whistle on unethical billing practices at wireless carriers before, and he does it again today, this time calling them out for making it difficult for customers to avoid getting tagged with excess data charges every month. Here’s a quote from an unnamed Verizon employee:

The phone is designed in such a way that you can almost never avoid getting $1.99 charge on the bill. Around the OK button on a typical flip phone are the up, down, left, right arrows. If you open the flip and accidentally press the up arrow key, you see that the phone starts to connect to the web. So you hit END right away. Well, too late. You will be charged $1.99 for that 0.02 kilobytes of data. NOT COOL. I’ve had phones for years, and I sometimes do that mistake to this day, as I’m sure you have. Legal, yes; ethical, NO.

AT&T pulls exactly the same stunt. (Via Daring Fireball.)

RedMonk Predictions for 2010

RedMonk analysts James Governor and Stephen O’Grady have weighed in with their IT predictions for 2010. There’s great stuff in both lists. For me, 2010 is going to be about bringing some 2006-era technology up to 2008 or 2009 standards, if things go well.

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