Prank Calls at the Motel 6

Something really odd just happened. I awoke to the phone ringing in my hotel room at about 10:15-ish. On the other end was somebody claiming to be from the hotel’s front desk and saying something about getting complaints about “loud parties in my room” or some such. I went silent on the line and just waited, and after a couple of “hellos?” they hung up.

I immediately knew it wasn’t the front desk. First off, the call audio was obviously not local.. even through this motel’s crappy PBX I could tell it was likely long distance, and even had telltale signs of Skype jitter in the audio. Secondly, I’ve stayed here long enough to have met all the front desk staff: they’re all old geezers, and this caller’s voice sounded like a juvenile punk kid. It also sounded vaguely.. familiar.

I sure wish I wasn’t asleep when the call came in. I now suspect it was the children at Madhouse Live.  It sounded like them, anyway.

OK, haha, very funny.  How droll.  And then I realized something that kinda creeps me out a little bit: they used my first name during the call.

Wait. How did they know my first name?

I walked to the front desk and had a brief conversation with the (old) man.  Turns out that our fun-loving telephone r0dent social engineered the front desk into releasing the name of the person in room 1xx using some story about somebody being ill.  Wonderful.  I informed the guy that we’d just been had, and went back to my room.

After sitting here for a few minutes, I now feel a little uneasy.  One of the downsides to having a unique first name is that it’s pretty easy to find me.  There is only one person with my first name: me.  Doing a simple Google search on only my first name gives you Everything You Ever Need To Know.  (Yeah, I’m aware that by posting this very article I’m making it worse..)

I’m fortunate: the caller could have been a phisher working a scam and not just out for a Fiber-Optic Joyride.  I also plan on making sure the hotel gets a little bit of an education on this and doesn’t fall for this flim-flammery in the future.

Oh, and a big apology to Madhouse Live (assuming that was in fact you) I didn’t provide a better show.  I was asleep.  Give me a little warning next time and you’d have had something legendary.  I could have slipped in to my “Big Dick” Stetson voice and gone all shit-howdy hick postal on you (which is probably what you expected when you called a budget motel in rural Oregon anyway, not some half-awake blogger geek).

Anyway, I’m going back to bed.  With the ringer on the phone switched to OFF.

Why “Worse is Better” .. a point many pundits miss

The old teeth gnashing about the prevalence of “good enough” technology is making the rounds again, for some reason. This is an issue that comes up from time to time in the tech world, and it’s always an interesting discussion.

It’s no secret that I’m on the side of “Worse is (often) Better”. I’ve ranted repeatedly about this both in person and in various online forums. I’ve talked about “good enough often is” so many times with colleagues and the like I’m sick of even having the argument anymore.

But the biggest reason why “good enough often is” can be summed up by the reasons why mp3s became the success they are today. To a trained ear, the format has some limitations, and even my crappy hearing can sometimes tell the difference. It certainly is inferior to the technical quality of the average CD.

However, in my world I’m never in a position to actually HEAR the difference unless I’m listening for it. Most of my music listening takes place either in transit from place to place (be it by car, bus/train, or other conveyance), or as background in my home. In either place, I’m in an “imperfect environment” anyway, so “good enough” is just that. Even if I had lossless files playing on a THX-certified player with a $300 headset, I’d still be in a noisy environment, with the 60db of traffic noise around me dulling my low-frequency hearing into oblivion.

“Good enough is” precisely because most of the time we’re not in a laboratory. Most human beings spend their days in environments (be they work or play) that are never going to be “perfect listening rooms”, so using an audio format that is lossy doesn’t matter.

You can look at every other situation were “Worse is Better” and come to the same conclusion. Large laptops (“desktop replacements”) are not as powerful and have inferior displays to desktop machines, but are more portable.  Netbooks are desirable over than large laptops to some, precisely because a large laptop is cumbersome to balance on your knee on the bus, even though netbooks are typically slower and have inferior ergonomics than larger laptops: tablets are even “better/worse”, as are smartphones. Monoaural audio devices like Bluetooth headsets often have slightly better range and are not insignificantly cheaper than their stereo counterparts, even though the monoaural Bluetooth profile offers less fidelity.

The trick is finding the tipping point where worse gets better. There’s a saying in the photography community that says “the best camera is the one you have when the shot appears,” an axiom that proves how wrong I was about smartphone cameras (synopsis of that opinion: they’re shite, always will be, and therefore worthless). Even the crappy camera on my original Palm Treo 650 (“1.2 megapixels”, but that makes it sound better than it really was) was “the one I had when the shot appears” in more than one occasion. Flipping through iPhoto I find a lot of really good pictures I’ve taken with whatever camera I happen to have in my hands.. which usually is a smartphone. Meanwhile, my $1200 digital SLR kit sits collecting dust in my closet.

Are the photos technically inferior to what I can do with the digital SLR? Most certainly. I can complain all day about the “noise” in the camera phone photos, the sloppy focus, the lack of depth of field, and even the quantization errors in the often sloppy JPEG encoding. But I have the shot, where I wouldn’t have the shot if I had to find my DSLR, take it out, warm it up, and shoot.

But the greater point? I have to “switch gears” to even notice the imperfections in the photos. After they’ve been printed on my (“good enough”) inkjet printer and housed in a small frame, I still get a lot of enjoyment out of many of the photos I’ve taken of events and loved ones with.. well, quite shitty cameras. Old 110 film was “good enough” for many in the 70’s, even though it was inferior in most ways to 126 film (and not to mention crap compared to 35mm).

I guess in this regard I should have looked to my own career path as an example, and I didn’t.  VoIP, be it Skype or whatever, is a great example of how “worse is better” has played out.  The “old telephone network” was engineered for robustness.  In our post-Bell System world, we view it as way over-engineered.  VoIP is, in many ways, way worse.  The audio quality can be inferior, it requires a reasonably well engineered network (or at minimum “over-engineered” bandwidth) (contrast that to conventional dialtone, which works at insane distances over very poor quality cable), and is very ‘portable’.  Oh, and because of a lot of competition in the sphere and the economics of the product, essentially free.

“Worse is better” only because the people who define “worst” as solely being some artificial (and often just perceived) advantage a legacy technology has.  Vinyl records are far inferior at technical sound reproduction than any digital method with a reasonable sample rate, period.  End of story.  There’s no arguing that from a purely scientific stance.  Even high bitrate lossy codecs can provide more accurate sound reproduction than vinyl, at a significantly reduced “cost” and at lower maintenance.

Vinyl may “sound better” (and I’d argue that as well), but it isn’t technically superior in any scientifically measurable way.  The irony: those who think that presence is a desirable trait in audio (mostly because they don’t have any high-frequency hearing anymore) and don’t like “brilliance” think vinyl is subjectively superior to both CDs and MP3s.  But that’s only because they’re applying the “worse is better” ideal.  Poor fidelity reproduction is better than precisely, scientifically engineered reproduction.

And that’s the point.  The point is that the word “worst” is misapplied.  It’s not really worse.  It’s just the rules of what’s required is redefined by each generation of user.  Modern music listeners are willing to sacrifice a small amount of fidelity for considerably more portability and accessibility.   Music isn’t something they listen to in their living room turned listening room.  It’s become a part of their daily life.   Many non-geeks now have digital music libraries that far exceed even what an audiophile would have had 40 years ago, in both quantity of “albums” and the genres it spans.

“Survival of the fittest” is a much better way of wording “worse is better.”  Fitness is defined by the environment: smarter but ugly can often win over dumb and beautiful.

Heading rapidly towards obsolescence…

As a lot of you know, I’ve been playing with the phone since I was a child.. and that’s now multiple lifetimes in Internet time. I remember the cutting of crossbar offices to electronic, and the cutting of electronic switches to digital. I’ve seen “mobile phones” go from clunky two-way radio style devices to (now) 4G data handsets.

I would have never thought it would have come to the point it is at now.

As part of an upcoming move, I’ve been pricing my options. Where I’m moving, it looks like I have three choices: the incumbent phone company, the cable company, and the WiMax provider. So, I go to the web sites of the three companies to shop.

First, we’ll talk to the WiMax provider. The website shows me a coverage map, and it looks like I’m in good coverage, but I have some concerns because I’m not in GREAT coverage. However, I’m able to get the pricing and coverage information quickly and efficiently. A big A+ here. Of course, it’s just Internet and phone only (no TV), but the price looks right.

Then I go to the cable company’s website. It’s a little messy at first, because I already have service with them at my present address, and they don’t seem to want to price out my options for the new address. I load up Chrome’s “Incognito” mode, and it all works great. Boy, there’s a lot of packages, and the packages with Internet included area little vague at first what the available speed options are. But, with a little bit of bouncing between the individual unbundled service information page and the bundles, I’m able to figure out that a 15 down 3 up package with TV and an unlimited phone is around $100 on a promo, and the cost after the promo is clearly spelled out and easy to understand. An “A” here, and that’s only because it would have been nice if the bundles made it clearer what tier of Internet service was included without having to bounce between screens.

Then, I tried to check with the incumbent telephone company.

For starters, the website wouldn’t even load. Okay, I think, maybe Comcast is messing with the website (hehehe, “net neutrality” anyone?). So, I fire up the wireless modem and try that. Still no dice. I can get the basic information screens, but they don’t have any pricing and availability for the specific area I’m interested in. This is concerning for me, because where I’m considering moving to (Oregon City) there’s no guarantee that anything will be available. When typing in the address of the apartment, the website just returns a blank screen, an error, or just returns me to the screen with vague pricing and no specifics.

Okay, maybe their website was down when I tried. And sure enough, this afternoon the website SEEMS to load.. but there’s nowhere near the clarity of information present that the cable company and the WiMax provider offers. I want a package with Internet and phone service, no TV really needed, preferably something in the 8-15 Mb/s down range. The best I can figure out is that unlimited phone is $35/mo and that there is some kind of $14.95/month promotional price on high speed Internet, up to 7 Mb/s down. But I’m still not sure what the price on the high-speed is after the end of the promotion, nor am I clear if there’s any higher speed options available (and it’s worth noting that they DO advertise 20 Mb/s speeds in this market generically). They’d love to have me talk to an agent to give me more information!

I wanted to root for the phone company. I gave them a fighting chance to give me the information I needed in the format their competitors do, and in a way that saves me time. This is information services we’re talking about here, folks. If there ever was a product that you should be able to sell over the web it’s.. well, the web, dammit. Your competitors websites all would have let me order the services right then and there: just a credit card entry away.

The capper is when same phone company tried to engage me on Twitter after I posted a one-liner about the site not working. If I had time to “talk to an agent” about my needs, if I wanted to, they were merely a phone call away. That’s not what I wanted. I wanted the information on the web in a clear, concise format like both your competitors do.

After all, you’re an Internet provider now, right?