Why I Continue to Hate Surveys

Following up on my earlier post regarding the evils of polling… MSN has an article that purports to uncover the “bottom 10″ worst customer service companies. If you take the list at face value, the only conclusion you can draw is that large banks and large phone and Internet companies have poor customer service. No initial surprises there. But the fact that I’m at least a part-time customer of up to seven of these companies–and that only one has stood out in my mind as having truly bad service (Time Warner)–set off some warning bells. Do they seem particularly bad at customer service simply because they have so many customers to complain about bad customer service?

If you dig into the methodology of the survey, you’ll find it’s a little more complicated than a straight ranking, and that in fact there’s no “top 10″ to go with the bottom 10. Here’s why:

Right off the bat you have a self-selection bias inherent in asking the initial group only for bad customer service experiences and then picking the top 20. If you asked the same group for their best customer service experiences you’d likely get a substantially similar group, simply because so many people are customers of these same 20 companies.

Zogby tried to clean it up a bit by offering a full scale of response (“excellent,” “good,” “fair,” “poor,” “not familiar,” “not sure”), but the damage is already done. In fact, by discarding the “not sure”s and “not familiar”s they actually increased the bias against large companies. This sort of downward divination can only serve to exaggerate the response biases in both groups. So this survey ends up telling you very little about what to expect when dealing with these companies, and it gives you no positive information at all, since no data was collected about good customer service experiences.

Bottom line: Even a company with years of experience applying science to customer satisfaction research can find it challenging to come up with a robust methodology. And that’s presumably without the influence of the tabloid-style inflammatory agenda that MSN has.

Amazon EC2: Virtual Hardware as a Service

I’m not sure how I missed this, or how long it’s been available, but as the next logical step after their “storage as a service” S3 solution, Amazon has come out with with the Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2). Essentially this combines server virtualization (which if you’ve worked with me, or heard me talk about work, you know I’m all about lately) with the massive server farms at Amazon via an ever-expanding web service system. Basically you build or choose virtual machine images and run them on an arbitrary number of virtual servers at Amazon. It’s “dedicated server” hardware co-location without the hardware. The idea is you can create an entire “data center” by interconnecting these images–for example, running several web servers, against a couple of database servers. And if you need to double the size of your data center, it’s a batch copy to invoke more servers–just pay for the “instance hours” you use. This is heady, brain-baking stuff. They even have a pre-built Window 2003 Server image running under Fedora Core 6 via Qemu (itself a virtualization environment). Hey, wasn’t I just talking about turtles all the way down?

So, how much does all this cost? The short answer is, you pay for the flexibility–it’s more than root access co-lo for a single-server setup. The long answer is, to run a web server, it’s about $100/month (1 CPU @$73 + 160GB storage @$24), plus bandwidth (where you can really get killed). Compare this to, say, the $100/month root server plan over at 1and1, which comes with two terabytes of transfer (maybe… many ISPs will throttle or boot you if it even looks like you’ll approach the max on your plan). All things being equal, that transfer would cost you an extra $300 at EC2.

Moving On, Internet Style

Now that the mourning is over, definitely time to move on to the self-congratulation. If you don’t want to read that piece of trash, I’ll summarize: “MSNBC: we’re so full of hot air we can toot our own horn while maintaining our 24×7 efforts to blow smoke up your ass.” It’s also worth noting that MSN redesigned their homepage at the last minute with a larger main image to “convey the magnitude” of the story, which is I’m pretty sure the ultimate Internet-era expression of “if it bleeds, it leads.” The example image they use is a bunch of people walking across a lawn, which I’ll admit has a lot more impact when you add 20 pixels of width.

A Compiler, Debugger and Software CPU in 50K

This is an amazing JavaScript virtual machine for 6502 assembly language. In one JavaScript file (under 50K) they managed to include a compiler, debugger, software CPU, and graphics sub-system. I use virtualization software every day, but not since reading The Diamond Age have I seen such a compelling demonstration of the fact that any computer can act like any other computer through software alone. This is exactly the kind of turtles-all-the-way-down metaphor that gets us things like The Matrix and the domino computer. It’s tempting to think of the logic gates in the CPU as the bottom rung of the computing process, but in essence those silicon pathways are there to reverse-virtualize (realize) the logical rules of computing. The CPU is in fact an interface to those rules, and by extension to the brains of the engineers and mathematicians who designed the rules. And what are rules but software? The only place this breaks down is inside the human brain–we don’t know the rules that govern in there–so while you can emulate a computer with your brain, we can’t yet emulate our brains on a computer. But outwardly our participation is governed by rules so effectively we’re part of the machine.

Google Gets Into the Vaporware Business

I guess you know it’s a mature technology company when it starts releasing phantom products. Google announced (pre-announced?) new hosted software for presentations. But since when does Google announce things without anything to showcase? Shouldn’t they have been in beta for a year or so first? Shouldn’t I have an account before they announce it to the world?

Though they say it’s not a PowerPoint competitor, I’ve been waiting for this shoe to drop at least since the acquisition of Writely. (I’ve also argued that Google search already outperforms PowerPoint when it comes to making an actual, honest point in a transparent business world, but that’s a more philosophical debate.)

It’s interesting that Google’s explanation for why their soon-to-be-comprehensive “office” collaboration platform is not a direct Microsoft Office competitor is “It doesn’t have all the functionality, nor is it intended to have the functionality of products like Microsoft Office.” That’s at best a backhanded compliment, since one of the perceived problems with Office is the creeping featurism and overall complexity (not to mention being backed by byzantine technologies like Exchange Server that are prone to blowing up in the faces of small businesses). Many have argued that 80% of users could (and sometimes do) get by with 20% of the functionality of Microsoft Office, with improved productivity due to reduced complexity, and this would seem to be the territory Google’s hosted workspace is prepared to inhabit.

By the way, if you want to sniff the vapor a little more deeply, poke around the Google cache or Internet Archive of Tonic Systems original web site. Tonic is the recent Google acquistion rumored to be tasked with making gPresentations fly. It looks like they already had a pretty dense Java-based toolkit for manipulating PowerPoint presentations.

A Nation of Mourners

The flags at the apartment complexes nearest my house are flying at half mast yet again. First let me say that I think flag flying (not to mention half-masting) by businesses is a little cynical. The only individual I ever knew who flew the flag regularly was my grandfather, and as a veteran he was certainly entitled. In fact, that was the context in which he flew it–service-backed patriotism–right down to demonstrating to me the proper disposal of a worn American flag by burning it on the old Weber (an act, which while being correct flag etiquette, has been in danger of being made unconstitutional in more recent times). The nearest apartment complex flies not only the American flag, but the Texas flag and a corporate flag (in fact, from one vantage point at a stop sign, I can see at least five flags in two complexes). Since no flag can be flown higher than the American flag (though it sometimes happens in Texas, presumably out of latent resentment regarding the fall of the Republic), this means all the flags fly at half staff–an unavoidable overkill which just makes the whole thing seem even more pandering and cynical. And since city ordinances govern the maximum height of a flagpole but apparently not their spacing nor the size of the flags flown, the overall effect is just tacky.

It was only a couple of months ago that they raised all these flags back up after a month of mourning for Gerald Ford. At the time, a month of mourning struck me as overlong. All those flags, for all that time, it loses its impact. For a former President, I can see flying them until the inevitable “national day of mourning,” or until the person is actually laid to rest (this is, in fact, the rule for former Vice Presidents), but anything more than a week is just ridiculous. No one outside his family was actually mourning Gerald Ford’s death for a whole month. Around about week three I’d look at those flags and think “shit, did someone else die?” before remembering that we were still mourning a guy who stopped being a public figure when I was in grade school (meaning anyone under the age of 30 would have no emotional context for the man).

Now I have to wonder how long we’ll be at half mast for the Virginia Tech victims. I understand that U.S. universities are international institutions. I understand that school shootings are a hot-button topic for us. And I imagine if you heard about this tragedy you’ve put some thought into its causes and implications. Seeing the flags at half staff the next day is certainly not going to come as a surprise. But what about tomorrow? The next day? Friday? How much is a enough? A week? Ten days? That’s a week from Friday. That doesn’t sound completely unreasonable.

But let’s put this in perspective. Events that kill 33 Americans:

In the U.S., drunken drivers kill more people per day than this.

Diabetes kills this many people every four hours.

Heart disease kills 33 Americans every 20 minutes.

Okay, okay, that’s all statistics. We’re talking about national tradgedies, not the background noise of 21st-century life, things worth moving the flag for. If school shootings and the death of Presidents fall into this category, then what about war? Guess how long the Iraq war takes to kill 33 American soldiers at current rates? 10 days.

So here’s the real question: why do we ever put the flag back up? The answer, of course, is in the symbolism. Even when the flag is flown at half staff, the procedure for flying it requires it to be raised to full height immediately before and after. The reason for this is so that we recognize half staff as an exception, not the rule. The occasion for it should be rare enough that it still gives us pause while reminding us that grief, especially on a national level, is a necessarily temporary condition. The height of the flag is not meant to be a national emotional barometer, but a gesture of respect. So Virginia can keep their flag down as long as they want, but ours better be back up before the end of the week.

Web 2.0 Eats Its Own

If you’ve been waiting to find out what happens when big-name blogs collide in the most virtually violent fashion, you can now safely exhale. Uber-geek-cheerleader (is it sexist if you mean it flatteringly? Probably, and this becomes meaningful in a moment) Kathy Sierra and Chris “Clue Train Manifesto” Locke get into a comment troll-fueled feud over sexism and anonymous harassment on the Internet. Insults are exchanged, fingers are pointed, every skulking Gollum in the blogosphere shows up in the arena, death threats ensue, eventually the cops are called in and none other than Tim “I’m the only reason geeks ever meet in personO’Reilly has to broker a ceasefire. And one of the bloggers cancels speaking appearances, locks the doors and turns off her blog. Oh yeah, and it all comes to a head on April Fools’ Day, so maybe it’s all theater, you know, to “bring up an important issue.” You really have to hope so. But I doubt it. I mean, CNN bought it.

And speaking of CNN, of course they end with a wonderfully unintentional ironic twist:

Female Reporter: “Even Kathy Sierra, the target of these threats, says that freedom of speech is to be preserved… the alternative is to censor and that’s not the right solution…”

Male Reporter: “How can you threaten the ‘Cute Kitty?'”

Female Anchor: “Poor woman, so terrifying.”

Way to elevate the level of discourse, CNN! You have truly fulfilled your journalistic charter by diffusing my fear and outrage and letting me fall right back into my comfortable prejudices about the place of women in our society. Sexism in the blogosphere? Nothing can touch TV news.

Also, how creepy is it that CNN has these two bloggers, embroiled in a shitstorm of accusations of online harassment, sexual predation and death threats, meet for the first time in a generic hotel room! Internet, anonymity, sex, hotel room… yeah, that’s subtle.

Microsoft: We Got Your .NET… Right Here

Or maybe we don’t. I just read that GotDotNet is going away. This is not that shocking, since the site has seemed sort of half-assed from the beginning. However, I will say that I’ve had projects that literally could not have been accomplished without GotDotNet’s help (and that of its contributors). In particular, GotDotNet was the de facto home of Stephan Gossner’s Microsoft Content Management Server code samples (that link will die soon). Of course MCMS is an end-of-life product at this point, but man there’s a lot of neat code on this site that’s suddenly going to be a lot harder to track down.

Some, but certainly not all, of this material is duplicated on various newsgroups. But often those posts link back to GotDotNet for code samples. So even if they do somehow relocate this content–at the moment there’s no stated plan to even do that–all of those links are likely hosed.

I understand Microsoft’s dilemma here, though I don’t particularly buy the “reinvest the resources currently used for GotDotNet” line. On the one hand, from a branding perspective, they can’t have this half-assed thing rusting out there in the ether with their name on it. On the other hand, they really need to keep their foot in the door in terms of community web sites, especially for developers. In terms of “resources” they want to reinvest, they can only mean people, and I’m not sure who they’re worried about (since the “Team” page is already dead), but it seems like some Microsoft people actually found this site useful.

They’re not offering any kind of plan for this phase out (they’re not even calling it a “transition”)–just a laundry list of other Microsoft developer sites. They’re chopping this thing off like a gangrenous limb. Maybe they’re assuming Google will take up the slack.