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Boosting WordPress Site Performance : Upgrade PHP

As with every single WordCamp I’ve attended there is something new to be learned no matter how much of a veteran you are.   My 5th WordCamp at WordCamp US 2015 was no different.    There are a lot of things I will be adding to my system admin and my development tool belt after the past 48 hours in Philadelphia.

Today’s update that was just employed on the Store Locator Plus website:   Upgrading PHP.

Turns out that many web hosting packages and server images, including the Amazon Linux Image, run VERY OLD versions of PHP.    I knew that.   What I didn’t know was the PERFORMANCE GAINS of upgrading even a minor version of PHP.    PHP 5.6 is about 25% faster than PHP 5.3.    PHP 5.3 was the version I was running on this site until midnight.

WP Performance On PHP
WP Performance on PHP. Source: http://talks.php.net/fluent15#/wpbench

The upgrade process?  A few dozen command-line commands, testing the site, and restoring the name server configurations from the Apache config file which the upgrade process auto-saved for me.  EASY.

What about PHP 7?   That is 2-3x faster.  Not 2%.  100 – 200%.   WOW!    As soon as Amazon releases the install packages for their RHEL derivative OS it will be time to upgrade.

 

If you are not sure what version your web server is running (it can be different than command line on you server) you can find that info in the Store Locator Plus info tab.

SLP PHP Info
SLP PHP Info

The take-away?   If you are not running PHP 5.6, the latest release of PHP prior to PHP 7, get on it.  One of the main components of your WordPress stack will be running a lot faster, have more bug fixes, security patches, and more.

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Samsung Galaxy S5 Random Factory Reset

Yup, here again. Setting up my Samsung Galaxy S5 after a random factory reset. Unfortunately, in today’s connected world the phone has become the linchpin of my techno-geek world. My two-step authentication system ensures it takes an extra 20 minutes to log into any service I care about when my phone is MIA. Thousands of messages, contacts, and other data needs to be re-downloaded into the phone so I know who (843) 555-1212 is on SMS or when a telemarketing agency is calling. It takes HOURS to reload all the moving parts.

Galaxy S5 Reloading. Again.
Galaxy S5 Reloading. Again.

What a huge pain!

Turns out I’m not alone.

Random factory resets of Samsung Galaxy S5 phones are a known phenomenon that apparently Verizon and Samsung are content to ignore. Too hard to reproduce so it must be user error. Or a bad app. Couldn’t possibly be an issue with Samsung’s hacked version of the Android OS or bad firmware, right?

Android Lollipop Barfing

The most likely and most common problem with the random factory reset appears to be related to corrupted cache files in Android OS after a system upgrade. Interestingly, all 3 times that my phone decided to just reset for no apparent reason it was within 2 weeks of an Android Lollipop update pushed out by Samsung.

Very coincidental, isn’t it?

Turns out that the fix is… A HARD FACTORY RESET.

Wonderful. The only solace with that fix is that you may get to spend the two hours reloading your phone during a time in your life when it is the least inconvenient.

Really not much different than a random reset, but at least you know its coming.

To start the process power off your phone then hold down the power, volume up, and home button at the same time. When you see the loading screen with blue text at the top you can release the buttons. Follow the on-screen menus to do a full factory reset and data wipe.

Yes, this is like getting the phone for the first time. Yes it sucks. Yes you will need to reload all your stuff (you do use Google and Samsung and a third party backup service right? You’ll need all 3 if you don’t want to re-invent the wheel every time this happens). No, your home screen, keyboard, and other configuration settings will not come back. Now you know why so many Samsung S5 users have the default screen. Why customize when you’ll be back to that default in 3 months whether you like it or not.

Bad Battery

Very rare.  However if your battery is defective it will overheat and warp.  Take the battery out.  Put it on a flat surface.  If it does not lay flat on the table you need to replace the battery.   Good luck getting it repaired under warranty.   Luckily batteries are inexpensive.

Bad Apps

Some sites, typically Samsung or Verizon-driven forums and support personnel, claim apps can cause the factory reset.  Sure.  Very unlikely as that is a HUGE security nightmare in Android OS, but I guess anything is possible.   The suggested fix is randomly delete apps that were loaded on your phone until the problem goes away.   Uhhh… exactly how often does a random factory reset happen?   That is like closing your eyes in a dark room, spinning around in circles, and trying to pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey without ever turning on the lights to know if you were successful.

Personally I think this culprit is nothing more than fairy tales and pixie dust to keep you busy and away from the support people.

Samsung OS Updates

Ultimately I think Samsung and Verizon need to stop screwing with the base Android OS builds to cram in a ton of crappy apps nobody wants.   Those apps are nothing but modern day spam that most people don’t want.  They consume excess memory and screen real estate with the only purpose being to line the pocket books of Samsung for hocking other people’s wares.   Wake up.   Nobody wants your crap and if they could delete all the force-fed shit on the phone for more memory and storage space and less app problems they would do it in a heartbeat.

Stop “tweaking” the OS and make a stable version that does not randomly reset every few months.

IOS – The Gold Standard

Sadly, if they ever DO make that version there will be more-and-more people like myself that will refuse to install the update for the ever-present fear of incurring the curse of the random reset.   Instead many people will be in the same situation I am.  Just waiting for my 2-year contract to expire so I can finally stop fooling myself into thinking that Android will every be a gold standard.   iPhone IS the gold standard which is readily apparent by every single device-and-service you could ever want to use granting Apple front-of-line status and relegating Android users to play the role of red-headed stepchild.    Starbucks.   BMW. Smart Lock.  Smart Home.  And big luxury brand has full-feature apps on IOS and half-baked crap and Android.

 

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MacBook Pro Video Problems Solved

I’ve posted about this a few times on this site and now I feel like a fool for not discovering the problem sooner.     I’m not 100% certain if the issue is an HP monitor issue, a cable manufacturer issue, or and Apple hardware/OS/firmware issue.   All I know for certain is that a couple different brands of cell phones will cause my monitors to lose video signal and “flicker” on/off or show video artifacts.     Sometimes the video loss runs in cycles as fast as 1-second on/ 1-second off.  Sometimes the monitors power off for minutes-at-a-time.     Sometimes I just see horrible bands of pixelation run horizontally or vertically on the screen.    In many cases OS/X starts logging all kinds of video events in the system logs, but I am certain that is a side effect of a video data error that is not being handled as well as it could be.

At the end of the day the problem is easy to fix.   Move my cell phone away from my monitors.

Turns out that ALL THREE of my phones, an older HTC Incredible, a newer HTC Incredible 4G LTE, and a brand new Samsung Galaxy S5 all cause the problem.    It also turns out that the problem varies in intensity based on the lunar cycle and its alignment with the solar winds or some other cosmic crap like that.     What I do know is that when the problem starts my productivity goes to hell and as I can never guess when I can see my code or my browser.

For some reason the electro-magnetic fields (EMF) from the phone are causing all hell to break loose on the displayport video communications to/from the monitor.   That causes a cascade of problems which inevitably results in a monitor powering off or a black screen where video should be.     After multiple red herrings, running down innumerable rabbit holes, and even going so far as to not only swap video cables and monitors but also a brand new MacBook Pro,  the real issue is basic electro-magnetic interference and the solution is as simple as “move my cell phone”.

Here is the recap I sent to Apple Support today regarding the issue.   Hopefully someone will stumble across this online and save themselves some headaches as well.

 

Apple Support Communication

I finally figured out the monitor flicker, power cycle, and pixelation artifacts problem with my monitors after MONTHS of dealing with the issue.

This is really crazy, but it is without-a-doubt what is going on here:

PROXIMITY OF CELL PHONE TO VIDEO HARDWARE

I haven’t yet narrowed down the issue to exactly what the root cause is, but here is what I know for a fact:

1) This happens with my older HTC Inredible 4G LTE phone.
2) This happens with my new Samsung Galaxy S5 phone.
3) This happens ONLY on displayport but HDMI does not appear to be impacted.

4) The problem appears to only happen with the phone is within 5cm of the monitor end of the displayport cable.

5) The problem happens on the HP ZR2440w monitor and other HP monitors using DisplayPort as well as a Samsung monitor using DisplayPort  (I no longer have that monitor, wish I could re-test).

6) Portrait or landscape mode was a red herring.

7) I could not reproduce the issue by placing the phone near (even touching) the MacBook end of the displayport cables.
After 5 days of trying to capture the behavior with my camera-phone and the problem suddenly going away after picking up my phone it finally came to me.      Move the phone back and TOUCH the display cable… bam powers off the display like a wireless power switch.     Move it away, pixelation, then the monitor comes back on.

I then tested the FIRST displayport as I have only seen this happen on the 2nd displayport (furthest from power port on the MacBook) and like magic the first monitor turned off as soon as I touched the phone to the cable.

After multiple tests I’ve learned that I need to just be close to the cable (it is not a physical cable connection issue, verified that a few times).   Within 1-2cm the monitor powers off 60% of the time.   Within 2-5cm the monitor may power off (10% of the time) or display pixelation artifacts or the notorious “ants” problem (30% of the time).

It *may* be the minidisplayport-to-displayport cables I am using, however I have swapped out these cables and at least one set of cables is NOT from the same manufacturer.

To be determined:

a) Is this a cable shielding issue?
b) Is this a monitor build issue?

c) Why does the software react to EMF introduced at the hardware level?   (bad error checking/trapping in the video processing firmware/software?)

Just though I’d share so you can close this ticket and possibly disseminate this information to support channels.     I’m guessing my cell phone is not the only possible source of EMF that can cause external display issues.   Given the number of online posts about similar problems I would venture a guess that more than a few Apple support calls and hardware returns may be related to similar EMF-related issues.

I am very techy and know all about EMF but it never occurred to me that the EMF from my phone would affect a displayport signal to the point of being able to actually power down a monitor IMMEDIATELY.

Good to know what it is.  When I have more time I’ll do more homework and post my findings online.

In the meantime I’m relocating my phone charging cable to not be under my monitors.
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Mavericks Screen Flicker Fix

At some point during my software updates and installs last week, I managed to get the video system on my MacBook Pro Mid-2014  to “get wonky”.   That is a technical term, in case you are wondering.

“get wonky” – the point when something stops working correctly but is still almost functional.   AKA “FUBAR Light”.

The issue only appeared on my external monitors on the displayport connections.   The HDMI external monitor never had the flicker or “ants” issue.

[cvg-video videoId=’25’ width=’800′ height=’600′ mode=’playlist’ /]

After a couple of quick chat sessions with Apple Support the problem was resolved.   I’m not sure what the source of the problem was but it was definitely software related.  The software tests had passed and the problem did not exists for the first 48 hours that I owned the laptop.

I am fairly certain an SMC reset on the MacBook fixed the issue, but the 3 steps that were performed to get there are listed below.  Hopefully this helps with your Mavericks video issues including both flicker (screen goes black as if turned off then back on) and “ants”, which apparently is  Mac-community term for video pixelation artifacts that appear briefly as horizontal or vertical bars that quickly appear and disappear at random intervals.   If you squint a bit while looking at your screen I guess it does sort of look like ants marching down the screen.  Drinking a fifth of vodka before doing the squinty-eye technical assessment helps as well.

Here are the steps I used to fix my Mavericks video issue on the MacBook Pro:

Reset Pram

Shut down the laptop.

Power on the laptop.

IMMEDIATELY press and hold the following keys, you must do this before the first gray screen appears:

Option + Command (⌘) + P + R

Reset SMC

On the  MacBook Pro Mid-2014 running Mavericks you reset the SMC by holding down these keys ON THE LAPTOP (not a USB keyboard) simultaneously for approximately 5 seconds:

Left-Shift + Control + Opt + Power Button

Login / Full Shutdown

When I powered on the laptop after doing these steps the video issue appeared to be WORSE.

Log in to your main admin user account, then shut down.

On reboot my problem was fixed.

Hopefully yours will be too.

 

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ISPs And Data Throttling

Our data rates on land and through the air are horrific in almost every corner of the country. As if to ensure nobody gets any bright ideas about the Utopia of truly fast Internet, the ISP sloths like Verizon employ throttling.

If you don’t know what throttling is, here is an analogy.

You go to a car dealer and they sell you on that brand new Ferrari. It is the FASTEST thing on the road. You said you want fast. Here it is. Wayyyyy faster than any of the competing brands.

Wow, you think, that IS fast. I love it.

You get locked into your lease and bring the car home. Then you realize that any time you get on the wide open road and floor it the car races up to 180mph. Then 10 seconds later it suddenly drops to 55.

After weeks of seeing this you realize something is wrong. You call the dealer and they tell you that the remote diagnostics show your car is running fine and that you routinely hit 180mph, even if it is just for a few seconds. Just for safe measure they tell you to pull the engine and wait a few days before driving again.

A few months go by and you can never sustain that 180mph top end. You find out from the local mechanic that ALL the luxury brands install a governor in the engine. A little black box that only they can get into. It cuts your speed to 55mph any time you go over 100mph for more than 10 seconds.

When you ask the dealer they tell you that it is not a problem. They only do that to help everyone save gas. After all we are all on the planet together and there is only so much of it. Heck, they only have a 3,000 year reserve themselves and we don’t want to use it all up just so you can whiz around at 180mph all day long!

That is what your ISP does when they throttle data. They all do it and far more frequently than you think! Sure, they advertise the hell out of being the fastest internet on earth. They sold you on that unlimited data plan. They locked you into a multi year contract. But buried in that fine print you will find the disclaimer that reads “we f’ing lied our asses off and there is nothing you can do about it. Na na nah na na.” Seriously its in there, which you would know if you ever read all 300 pages of print that was had written by Thumballina and Tom Thumb Legal Press, Inc.

FCC Sends Out Letters Asking Carriers to Explain Data Throttling Policies. http://google.com/newsstand/s/CBIw2PH0xBo

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MacBook Honeymoon Over, Apple Still Shines

Welcome To Apple Support

Day 4 of being a new Mac user and so far it is going well, considering.

My Hidden Talent

For people that don’t know me very well my “hidden talent” is the ability to break ANYTHING related to technology  with astounding efficiency.   All of my seasoned developers at the software consulting business I ran a few years back knew it well.    Whenever someone felt their project was ready for the customer one of my lead tech guys would say “let Lance play with it, if he doesn’t break it in less than 3 minutes you are close”.     Suffice to say that I don’t recall a single project that passed “the Lance test” on the first go.  Or second for that matter.

My favorite anecdote and my crowning achievement to date was breaking a regular ATM machine, and I’m not talking a 30-year old one build on Windows ME but a modern nearly-new ATM, within 30 seconds.  Pull up to the drive-up ATM, put in card, withdraw…wait…no… check balance (while withdraw screen is rendering)… POOF… system crash.   A BSOD on an ATM machine.  Sweet!

Sad Technology
Windows 8 Frowney-Face. Yup, that about sums it up.

I give that background because it applies to my MacBook experience for a few reasons.  First, I have become VERY familiar with technical support lines with every type and size of technology company on the planet.    Second, I have  also learned that there is NO technology I cannot break, even without trying, no matter how solid the platform may be.    My high-end HP laptop, less than 24 hours.   My teched-out 2014 BMW?  Less than 6 hours.    If something lasts more than a day under my full-fledge “run this thing at full throttle abuse” that is impressive.

Macs Are Not Lance-Proof

My MacBook Pro?   Lasted just over 48 hours.   That is somewhat impressive given the fact that I want from vanilla MacBook Pro setup to upgrading the packages software, adding proprietary Logitech unity wireless drivers, proprietary Wacom table wireless drivers, 3 external monitors on 2 display port adapters and a HDMI connection, a 5-year old inkjet, added a pro backup service, 3 virtual box machines, a security dongle, an Android phone, and installed several developer-heavy software packages in that time.     The MacBook survived all of that, ALMOST.

It Worked Great, At First

The AMAZING part is all that stuff worked exactly as I expected with minimal fuss.    Getting 3 external monitors (2 display port and 1 HDMI) on an HP notebook with a docking station SPECIFICALLY DESIGNED to run “5 monitors (sales lie, it really can only do 3)” took over a month including a BIOS update, video driver update, and 3 days of level 2 technical support on how to configure and hook everything up.   MacBook?  Plugin in all 3 monitors and BOOM… they are all up and running including a FOURTH if you included the laptop display.  Sweet.

Adding the 4-port USB monitor hub on these HP monitors to the MacBook?  No problem?   Cascade them with monitor 1 USB into monitor 2 into monitor 3?   No problem.   It shouldn’t be.  USB buses, when powered like these HP monitors are, should be able to daisy chain up to 128 units on a single USB chain.      With the HP?   It rarely could find devices on the first 4-port monitor hub.   Daisy chain them?  NO WAY.  NOTHING would be found and the system would crash corrupting files along the way.   The MacBook handled it with aplomb and to put the icing on the cake it recognized a 5-year old inkjet printer, installed it with the right drivers, and was printing through the 3rd hub on the 3rd external monitor in less than 30 seconds after connection.    Under Windows it was a bitch just to get the thing to print in under 10 minutes and only with a direct printer-to-laptop USB connection. Anything else was futile.

Overall I am impressed.

Breaking A MacBook Pro

But I DID break the MacBook Pro.

Somewhere along the way one of the software updates or installs (I’m fairly certain it is software related) caused my external monitors connected to the display port connects on the MacBook started to “flicker”.   By flicker I mean go completely black for 1 or 2 seconds then turn back on.  Sometimes this would happen once every hour.   Sometimes it would happen once every 5 seconds for 5 minutes straight.       When that didn’t happen I got what the Apple community has coined as “video ants”.   “Ants” are horizontal or vertical bands of pixel artifacts that are similar to “snow” you would find on analog TV years ago (for the young kids that don’t know what analog TV or “snow” is, go look it up… I’m sure YouTube has a video).     Needless to say, these issues made it impossible to use my external monitors and get anything accomplished.

Apple’s Stellar Support

What I found was that Apple Support, thus far, outshines Microsoft and just about EVERY vendor in the Microsoft-centric hardware space that I have ever used.    I’ve purchased top-of-the-line equipment from Sony, Dell, Toshiba, HP, Asus, Acer, and Lenovo.   Few can compare to the general engineering finesse of Apple but NONE can come anywhere CLOSE to Apple in regards to customer service.   NOT EVEN THE SAME PLANET.

I did some homework and tried various online remedies.  Nothing worked.    I decided to take advantage of Apple Support that comes FREE for the first 90 days with any Apple computer purchase.     I got online and opened a chat session.     This is where Apple starts to blow away the rest of the market when it comes to support.    Just getting started with support was painless.      Because I took literally 30 seconds to sign up for an Apple ID when booting my laptop I only had to enter my email and password for that ID and Apple could start building my support case.

It only took a minute and involved 3 simple questions before I had someone on  live chat.   The questions start with “your Apple serial number”.   This is easily found from an on-screen menu in the OS.  No flipper over the laptop, or looking under a desk at the back of a tower, or rebooting to the BIOS.  Just go to the main menu and look at System Preference/More Info.   There it is plain as day.  Now THAT is an novel idea… ANYONE in the Windows world paying attention?   The other questions? Your name and a brief description of your problem.

Support Personnel Using English?

So I have someone on chat.  Guess what?   They actually READ AND WRITE PERFECT ENGLISH.  Holy cow, does Apple actually employ Americans for support?    Maybe.    If not they do a GREAT job training people how to communicate in perfect English for the American users like myself.    Not that I’m a xenophobe but I just cannot stand reading blatantly horrid streams of grammatical and syntactically incorrect English for an entire 20 minute chat session.     I cannot tell you how refreshing it is to not be reading or listening to “Yoda-speak”.   I had ENOUGH of that with Microsoft premium customer support for their cloud services last night.   “If you press now please button on computer” or “Hold now down the control button, you shall.”   Really?

And Can Use Their Brain?

Guess what else?  They are ALLOWED TO USE THEIR BRAIN!   They actually are REAL PEOPLE WITH A REAL BRAIN.   I just about had a God-damned heart attack when they literally said “Can you tell me what debugging you’ve already done?  I don’t want to ask you to do things you tried already.  Your time is too valuable to be wasted.”.     HOLY FRIGGING CRAP… YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS!  That is NOT how customer support works in 2014.   APPLE…  do you realize you are completely screwing with the customer support paradigm?   This cannot possibly be good for business!!!     That one simple interaction, that has now happened not with ONE but with TWO Apple support people in a row is one HUGE reason why I don’t think I’ll ever stray from Apple from this point forward.  Not unless they decide to be just like everyone else on the planet and go to a 100% check-the-box-while-reading-the-script support model.

I told them all the steps I had taken from swapping cables, ordering new cables, swapping monitors, uninstalling software, reboots, swapping ports, and a myriad of other options.     They read it all, and actually came up with some things I DID NOT TRY.     They did so nearly instantaneously.  Like they actually knew what the hell they were talking about.       Yes, they did have me reset PRAM which did not help.      They also had me reset SMC and run the Apple Hardware Test (AHT) which did not show any errors.      MAYBE the SMC reset did help, though at first I was not convinced because the login screen immediately showed screen flicker, but I will tell you that as soon as I powered off all 3 monitors, turned them back on after trying one more cable swap trick THE MONITORS WORKED.

What is not most impressive is the fact that my monitors are now working again as expected but the fact that I was not asked a bunch of dumb-ass questions or told to “did you reboot”, “did you power off for 30 seconds”, or other obvious options.     They could tell I know a little something about computers and went STRAIGHT to the uber-technical stuff.    They came up with some new analysis and debugging steps nearly immediately.    I was truly impressed.

Just as impressive was the team communication.     After my first contact with Apple Support I was told “this is your support ID in case you need to call back so the next person can pick up where I left off”.   True enough, the next support person after my system reboot and PRAM reset did not work picked up EXACTLY where he first person left off.     That person never needed to ask for my case ID, they looked at the history and said “is this related to the monitor issue”.  Yes.   Moving on to the next item.       That is how support should be.

Hey World – Copy This!

In my book, Apple knocked it out-of-the-park when it comes to technical support.  Why?

  • 30 seconds with a FEW simple questions to get registered for online support.
  • No more than a 2 minute wait for a LIVE support person.
  • Support people are ALLOWED TO THINK, they are not script-driven.
  • Support had a CLUE even with a less-common problem.
  • Support ALWAYS made me feel like they WANTED me to use the service.
  • Every support person said “please let us know if this doesn’t fix it, we want you to be 100% happy with you Apple experience and won’t stop working on this until you are”.
  • They actually UNDERSTOOD the problem and came up with what appears to be the right solution.

Not This!

After a month of dealing with Asurion to get my HTC phone fixed and an entire evening with Microsoft Azure support  I am absolutely blown-away by the fact that Apple has real old-fashioned technical support.

Asurion?  100% script based to the point of absurdity. “I just did a factory reset an hour before calling you, it didn’t help.   them: That doesn’t matter sir, if you DO NOT do a factory reset now I cannot help you.   If we don’t see the phone re-register we will not proceed.  me: Can you see it re-registered 90 minutes ago?   them: sir that is irrelevant, if you don’t do it again now while I am on the phone I cannot help you.”

Microsoft? 4 techs, 3 time zones and at least one guy that my disk failure problem was related to an IP address change (WTF, really?) Don’t forget this guy too: “I am not an expert in that area, I will refer you to someone that is” from the guy that I was originally referred to as an expert in that area.

Apple Fan Boy?

A month ago I thought Apple users where just zealots that had buried their heads in the sand and ignored the myriad of problems that come up on their devices.      I used to think “well they are not overly technical and just don’t push the systems like I do”, but that notion was dispelled a few years back as some of the uber-geeks I know were also raging Apple fans.      Now I’m getting a taste of the Kool-Aid.    If this support experience is any indication of what it is like being an Apple Fan Boy, I’m all in.

And just as I finish writing this… the first monitor flicker on my display port devices in over 3 hours.  Maybe this is not 100% fixed so we’ll see just how deep the Apple Kool-Aid Punch Bowl is.    But wait, it looks like it was the VirtualBox guest going into and out of sleep state while in full screen on my other monitors.    Very like just a VirtualBox bug not an OS/X or MacBook hardware issue after all.

 

 

 

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USPTO Patent Filing System – A Lesson In Modern Web Design

USPTO Banner

I have been working on filing a provisional patent for the past 2 days.   I am not talking about writing the actual patent, that took over a week.   When I say I have been “working on filing” for 2 days I mean the actual “simple” process of filing the already completed patent via the USPTO online filing system.

The quaint USPTO’s web app is referred to as the “e Filing System”.    Remember when “e-Whatever” was cool?   That meant you were doing cool online stuff with the interwebs like “e-Commerce”.   Maybe it is still cool to refer to anything you do via the web as “e-Something” but I’m pretty sure nobody calls their website their “eStore” or their “eBrochure” these days.

And by “quaint” I mean outdated, non-functional, and generally useless.

Historical UI

Now I know the USPTO goes back a few years.   They started way back in 1871, just before Al Gore got his first computer and started designing the Internet.    Thus I can understand what they are trying to achieve with the user experience throughout the site.    They clearly want to mimic the classic look-and-feel of the original Internet to give the entire site that sort of “reminiscent of the good ol’ days” feel.

The horrific color scheme, complete lack of use of white space throughout the site,  pages with nothing but lists of links, and 37 menus per page are all great design patterns of the early Internet.    Sure it makes the site difficult as hell to navigate, but sometimes you need to trade usability for really great marketing and branding.

USPTO Modern UI Design
USPTO : Historical User Interface brings us back to the days of excess navigation, no white space, and small fonts.

I do think they missed some opportunities by leaving off the scrolling marquee.   I definitely saw a few places where blink text could add to the experience.   I am also fairly certain my browser is not setup properly because I did not see very many animated GIFs on the page either.   But hey, nobody is perfect.   I’m sure they will get those things implemented next week.

USPTO UI Consistency
USPTO also sets themselves apart by ensuring you don’t confuse the FAQ pages with the rest of the site.

Ultra Secure User Registration

Now, to get started with the USTO advanced electronic filing system they STRONGLY recommend you become a registered user.    With some forethought an ingenuity they actually made this a fairly simple process.    You start by filling out a Customer Number Request PDF file and FAXING it to the USPTO Electronic Business Center.

Once you have that you can then proceed to Obtain a Digital Certificate by downloading and executing the PKI Subscriber Agreement, completing the Certificate Action Form and then MAILING the original form (no faxes or copies) to the Commissioner for Patents.

I am really glad they did this.    I, for one, think it is WAY too easy for people to conduct business online.   If everyone that ran an online business would start requiring people to both FAX and MAIL (I’m talking Postal Mail, aka Snail Mail here… not that spam-infested email thing) documentation to obtain a login then we would ALL be better off.   Just think of how much less spam, phishing emails, and viruses there would be online if everyone was required to prove they were serious by going through this process.

Bravo USPTO on helping make the Internet a more secure place to conduct business.

Maybe NASA, the Armed Forces, and other branches of government will follow your lead and make their systems more secure when it comes to online transactions.  Lord knows their 100% online registration and access systems for government contractors attract the scum-of-the-internet like an infested wound attracts tsetse flies.

 

Thank you USPTO for being the first to show us that online registration is NOT for everyone.  If you can't put in the effort you shouldn't be online.
Thank you USPTO for being the first to show us that online registration is NOT for everyone. If you can’t put in the effort you shouldn’t be online.

 

Modern Java Form Fields

Luckily the USPTO has created an online filing system that is a little less historical than the UI design.    Their modern process moves beyond the early days of the web and brings us past the days of animated GIFs and fully into the World of Java apps.   Thankfully they saw the future of web applications and did not burden us with browsers that can’t handle things like filling out simple online web forms or uploading files.   Lord only knows that sort of thing NEVER works cross-browser.

Thankfully the USPTO site forces me to download the Java Runtime Engine plugin for my Chrome 35 and Firefox 29 browsers.  Heaven knows where I’d be surfing the web these days without having a full Java engine at my beck-and-call every time I needed to fill out a web form or update a file.    Thank you USPTO for having my back.

Standard PDF Support

Thank GOD they support standard PDF files.   You don’t know how many times I’ve been bitten by the hassle of dealing with NON-standard PDF files.   I mean, it is not like PDF file formats are a proprietary file standard or anything.   If everyone did this I definitely wouldn’t need to have those 37 different PDF readers on my system.   Phew, another good save USPTO!

Not to brush off the fact that they also support the modern .ZIP compressed files, mega tables (when normal tables just won’t do), and the ever-present etc submissions.   But hey, let’s face it standard PDF files are a big deal.

USPTO Standard PDF Files
Good thing the USPTO supports STANDARD PDF files. Those non-standard PDF files are a bitch.

Java Apps That Shine

OK, enough of the sarcastic wit.   In reality the USPTO does have one thing that is useful here.   They do allow the normal scum-of-the-Internet, people like me, to file a patent without having to fax and mail documents to become a registered user.   That is truly a good thing.   It allows me to gain access to the modern forms interface that would only be possible with a solid Java app like the one they have running on the site.

The beauty of the Java interface starts to shine right from the first form.    Things like required form fields marked with a asterisk, helpful information circle graphics with off-color backgrounds, and compression artifacts in inline graphics would not be possible with the basic forms system and CSS of vanilla HTML.    I don’t think the random mix of proper-case, uppercase, camel case, and mixed case would be possible – at least not without a TON of extra work – with standard HTML.    Just take a look at all this modern form interface elegance that could only be viable by standardizing on Java forms!

USPTO Java Elegance In UI
Interface design examples that could only be possible with a modern Java app. Look at those gorgeous info icons… only possible in Java!

Java Security

Add another bonus point for USPTO security.   Thankfully they have made sure that all form inputs are cleared whenever you go back to a previous form.    I’m not talking about using the back button on your browser here, we all know better than that, I mean baked RIGHT INTO THE APP.  How cool is that?   Fill out a form and miss on of the 39 steps including 12 hidden checkboxes and the form is automatically cleared for you to start over.   Don’t want to influence you with past answers, after all they were WRONG the first time you filled out the app.

I also like the fact that the tabs are completely locked down unless you are on that particular step of the process.   It is a huge security hole to allow people to just jump around all willy-nilly like and navigate to any part of the interface.     If you are on the step where you are supposed to be reviewing your documents that is ALL you should be doing.    It has been proven that people are easily distracting and being able to click a tab for a previous step only increases the likelihood of distraction.    Thankfully the USPTO prevents that and makes sure that no matter what tab you click you always are shown only the current page you are supposed to be on… often cleared of all the data you were entering just to ensure you start with a clear mind!

 

A Lesson In Usability

In all seriousness, I truly appreciate what the USPTO has done here.  It serves as a shining example of how to serve your customer base.    Next time you are about to embark on a new web interface design, PLEASE visit the USPTO site.    Pretend you are someone that is wanting to file a new patent and go through the process.    Take note at how easy the interface is to use, how many times the user starts cursing, pulling their hair out, and throwing their mouse across the room.    Or take the shortcut and try it on a tablet, which will definitely bring you to the final analysis a lot faster; I reckon within 3 minutes of doing so.

Then take a deep breath and think about your new project.    Think about all of the things you DID NOT do to your customer by avoiding all of the user experience elements the USPTO brought to the table.

Go back to your design and think… “how can I make it simpler”.

I know it is difficult to see a user experience that you’ve been working with through a “fresh set of eyes” , but take the time to do so.  Introduce new people to the experience and listen to their feedback.    I’ve been doing the same thing with my site and every time I go through the process I always find something that I realize “wow, that is a pain in the ass” and try to make it a better experience for the user.

At least I can take solace in knowing no matter how convoluted my user experience is on my site or in my products they are light years ahead of the multi-million-dollar EFS system the USPTO cobbled together.

But hey, they do recommend IE 4 and Netscape Navigator 4… maybe I should go back and test with the recommended browser versions.  Maybe I’m missing something!   Does anyone have a Windows ME computer I can borrow?

USPTO System Requirements
USPTO keeps things real with browser and OS support we can all afford to keep up with.
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Envy 17 17-3070NR Video Problems When Recording

HP Video Fail Banner

Environment

  • HP Envy 17-3070NR with latest video drivers & BIOS
  • 3x HP ZR2440w Monitors attached, 2 on display port, 1 on HDMI

Problem

Any time I access ANYTHING to do with recording, such as going to the windows sounds interface and clicking on the recording tab, the screen on ONE of the Display Ports flickers to the point of being unusable.

It shows flashing thin 1 or 2- pixels white lines in random patterns on the screen, then the entire display shuts off.  It turns back on and looks fine for 2 seconds, then does it again until I click on the Playback, Sounds, or Communications tab.  This happens with ANY access to “recording” from any app including my Skype call recorder or my Screencast recorder.

This did not happen before I upgraded to the 1920×1200 ZR2440w monitors, which I did after confirming with HP support that the Envy 17-3070NR would indeed support 1920×1200 resolution if I used display port connections.

The problem continues if I swap monitors, so it is not a monitor issue.

The problem continues if I disconnect/disable the 3rd monitor on HDMI, in fact the cycle happens even faster with that display disconnected.

This looks very much like an old-school video memory corruption issue like you would have back in 1996 on  a Windows XP computer with crappy video cards and/or poorly written video drivers.      If I had to guess I would say BIOS and/or AMD drivers need work.

Has any else seen this problem?

Any clues how to fix this besides “don’t use 3 monitors” or “don’t record screen casts”?

Customer Non-Support

The best part is that I am entitled to email or chat or phone support from HP with my extended warranty.  Yet HP completely fails in that regard.    First of all the website the checks to see if you are entitled for support looks up my serial number and product number, shows the right product in the sidebar yet the customer support form only allows for PRINTER options on describing what is wrong.

HP Consumer Division Incompetence A Laptop is Not A Printer
HP Consumer Division Incompetence A Laptop is Not A Printer

HP needs to hire some programmers.

HP Fails At Selling Customer Care Packs

Then, to make things more fun, when I contact HP directly they tell me I do not have a warranty.   I have a dozen emails back & forth from HP stating I DO have a warranty for 3 years.    I can understand why they are confused, however, since THREE HP employees over the past year have screwed up my extended warranty so badly that nobody can figure out what the hell is going on.  Not even their escalation team.

The first person sold me the wrong warranty.

The second person “fixed” the warranty and attached a DIFFERENT, but still incorrect, extended warranty.

The third person, in the HP Escalation Division, fixed the problem again but did not properly attach the extended warranty to my serial number so nobody can find it.

Unfortunately there is no online form or interface available to the mundane every day HP Customer Support people that allows them to “enter the personal email sent from an HP manager ensuring the customer has an extended warranty” box.    Since my case falls completely outside of their scripted responses they are completely baffled.     Customer Support lemmings are not trained to think, just click the boxes, recite the words on the screen like Obama reading a teleprompter, and move on.  No thought required.    Come to think of it, maybe HP is training everyone to be the next POTUS.

 

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Knology/WoW Offline In Charleston SC. Again.

Knology WoW Down Banner

This is apparently a weekly occurrence now.   While it is far better than Comcast and their NIGHTLY service outage, Knology is offline at random times at least once/week.   AT&T is no better with lesser speeds at higher prices with ZERO increase in reliability.

This is a battle that EVERY company in Charleston South Carolina must endure.   Unreliable high speed Internet.    No matter which company you choose you will be hard pressed to maintain 24×7 full time Internet access week-after-week.  If you are LUCKY you will get back-to-back weeks with ZERO interruptions.

Yes you can go the “old school route” and pay for T1 to OC3 services on copper.    However for most small businesses, like mine, it is ridiculously expensive.  As in an completely useless (these days anyway) 1.5Mbps for $300/month.   These days that is not far from having a 2400 baud modem.

The only exception to this rule… if you are one of the lucky few that has a business on or near a fiber line.    WoW is the only company that even offers reasonable fiber rates at $500/4Mbps.  Sadly it is NEVER available in residential neighborhoods or anywhere off the main utility easements.  It is also still grossly over-priced compared to other areas of the country such as the Boston neighborhoods that routinely get 10Mbps service on fiber for $100/month.

Someday Charleston will catch up with the “big boy cities” and eventually get reasonably-priced RELIABLE high-speed Internet services to EVERY location.   In the meantime, and for likely the next decade, all Charlestonians will suffer through mediocre quality Internet service that is grossly over-priced and figure it is “good enough”.    Having lived in other cities and traveled frequently it is obvious that Charleston is not yet ready to be a “big boy High Tech mecca” thanks in large part to limited competition in the Internet utilities market.     We will continue to pay 5x the rates of cities like Boston, Houston, Seattle, and Orlando for service that is 1/4th the speed and comes in closer to 1980’s 90% up-time guarantees than today’s 99.999% uptime that “big boy cities” offer.

We won’t even “go there” when it comes to comparing the Internet infrastructure in America to other countries around the world.  As America continue to allow huge monopolies and special interest groups to fund politics we continue to lose any true competition in the utilities market.   Instead we pay higher prices for lesser services as we continue to lose competitive advantages over the rest of the world.  I only wish Google would push their disruptive gigabit fiber offerings out from the middle of the country a LOT faster than the current snails pace.

Charleston SC Knology/WoW Downtime

Business class service in Mount Pleasant SC.

  • 07/11/2013 12:33PM through 2:50PM
  • 07/11/2013 7:44PM through 8:??PM
  • 07/13/2013 8:22PM through 9:??PM
  • 07/14/2013 10:47AM through 11:35AM
  • 07/14/2013 7:59PM through 9:??PM
 DOCSIS(CM) Events
Date Time Event ID Event Level Description
7/11/2013 12:53 20000500 3 Started Unicast Maintenance Ranging – No Response received – T3 time-out
7/11/2013 13:38 20000200 3 No Ranging Response received – T3 time-out
7/11/2013 13:38 20000300 3 Ranging Request Retries exhausted
7/11/2013 13:42 20000200 3 No Ranging Response received – T3 time-out
7/11/2013 13:42 20000300 3 Ranging Request Retries exhausted
7/11/2013 19:44 20000200 3 No Ranging Response received – T3 time-out
7/11/2013 19:44 20000300 3 Ranging Request Retries exhausted
7/13/2013 20:22 20000200 3 No Ranging Response received – T3 time-out
7/13/2013 20:22 20000300 3 Ranging Request Retries exhausted
7/14/2013 10:47 20000200 3 No Ranging Response received – T3 time-out
7/14/2013 10:47 20000400 3 Received Response to Broadcast Maintenance Request, but no Unicast Maintenance opportunities received – T4 timeout
7/14/2013 10:48 20000200 3 No Ranging Response received – T3 time-out
7/14/2013 10:59 8000700 3 TFTP failed – OUT OF ORDER packets
7/14/2013 11:01 20000200 3 No Ranging Response received – T3 time-out
7/14/2013 11:04 20000400 3 Received Response to Broadcast Maintenance Request, but no Unicast Maintenance opportunities received – T4 timeout
7/14/2013 19:59 20000200 3 No Ranging Response received – T3 time-out
7/14/2013 19:59 20000300 3 Ranging Request Retries exhausted
7/14/2013 20:03 20000200 3 No Ranging Response received – T3 time-out
7/14/2013 20:04 20000400 3 Received Response to Broadcast Maintenance Request, but no Unicast Maintenance opportunities received – T4 timeout
7/14/2013 20:42 20000200 3 No Ranging Response received – T3 time-out

 

11/13/2013 15:56 82000200 3 No Ranging Response received – T3 time-out;CM-MAC=00:1d:d1:fb:c5:e0;CMTS-MAC=00:01:5c:3a:7e:45;CM-QOS=1.1;CM-VER=3.0;
11/13/2013 15:56 82000400 3 Received Response to Broadcast Maintenance Request, But no Unicast Maintenance opportunities received – T4 time out;CM-MAC=00:1d:d1:fb:c5:e0;CMTS-MAC=00:01:5c:3a:7e:45;CM-QOS=1.1;CM-VER=3.0;
11/13/2013 15:57 90000000 4 MIMO Event MIMO: Stored MIMO=-1 post cfg file MIMO=-1;CM-MAC=00:1d:d1:fb:c5:e0;CMTS-MAC=00:01:5c:3a:7e:45;CM-QOS=1.1;CM-VER=3.0;
11/13/2013 16:11 82000200 3 No Ranging Response received – T3 time-out;CM-MAC=00:1d:d1:fb:c5:e0;CMTS-MAC=00:01:5c:3a:7e:45;CM-QOS=1.1;CM-VER=3.0;
11/13/2013 16:11 82000300 3 Ranging Request Retries exhausted;CM-MAC=00:1d:d1:fb:c5:e0;CMTS-MAC=00:01:5c:3a:7e:45;CM-QOS=1.1;CM-VER=3.0;
11/13/2013 16:11 82000600 3 Unicast Maintenance Ranging attempted – No response – Retries exhausted;CM-MAC=00:1d:d1:fb:c5:e0;CMTS-MAC=00:01:5c:3a:7e:45;CM-QOS=1.1;CM-VER=3.0;
11/13/2013 16:11 82000200 3 No Ranging Response received – T3 time-out;CM-MAC=00:1d:d1:fb:c5:e0;CMTS-MAC=00:01:5c:3a:7e:45;CM-QOS=1.1;CM-VER=3.0;
11/13/2013 16:12 82000400 3 Received Response to Broadcast Maintenance Request, But no Unicast Maintenance opportunities received – T4 time out;CM-MAC=00:1d:d1:fb:c5:e0;CMTS-MAC=00:01:5c:3a:7e:45;CM-QOS=1.1;CM-VER=3.0;
11/13/2013 16:12 90000000 4 MIMO Event MIMO: Stored MIMO=-1 post cfg file MIMO=-1;CM-MAC=00:1d:d1:fb:c5:e0;CMTS-MAC=00:01:5c:3a:7e:45;CM-QOS=1.1;CM-VER=3.0;
11/13/2013 16:12 82000200 3 No Ranging Response received – T3 time-out;CM-MAC=00:1d:d1:fb:c5:e0;CMTS-MAC=00:01:5c:3a:7e:45;CM-QOS=1.1;CM-VER=3.0;
11/14/2013 13:50 83010205 4 Service Change Response rejected – Unrecognized configuration setting;CM-MAC=00:1d:d1:fb:c5:e0;CMTS-MAC=00:01:5c:3a:7e:45;CM-QOS=1.1;CM-VER=3.0;
11/14/2013 15:26 82000200 3 No Ranging Response received – T3 time-out;CM-MAC=00:1d:d1:fb:c5:e0;CMTS-MAC=00:01:5c:3a:7e:45;CM-QOS=1.1;CM-VER=3.0;
11/14/2013 15:30 82000300 3 Ranging Request Retries exhausted;CM-MAC=00:1d:d1:fb:c5:e0;CMTS-MAC=00:01:5c:3a:7e:45;CM-QOS=1.1;CM-VER=3.0;
11/14/2013 15:30 82000600 3 Unicast Maintenance Ranging attempted – No response – Retries exhausted;CM-MAC=00:1d:d1:fb:c5:e0;CMTS-MAC=00:01:5c:3a:7e:45;CM-QOS=1.1;CM-VER=3.0;
11/14/2013 15:30 82000200 3 No Ranging Response received – T3 time-out;CM-MAC=00:1d:d1:fb:c5:e0;CMTS-MAC=00:01:5c:3a:7e:45;CM-QOS=1.1;CM-VER=3.0;
11/14/2013 15:34 82000300 3 Ranging Request Retries exhausted;CM-MAC=00:1d:d1:fb:c5:e0;CMTS-MAC=00:01:5c:3a:7e:45;CM-QOS=1.1;CM-VER=3.0;
11/14/2013 15:34 82000600 3 Unicast Maintenance Ranging attempted – No response – Retries exhausted;CM-MAC=00:1d:d1:fb:c5:e0;CMTS-MAC=00:01:5c:3a:7e:45;CM-QOS=1.1;CM-VER=3.0;
11/14/2013 15:34 82000200 3 No Ranging Response received – T3 time-out;CM-MAC=00:1d:d1:fb:c5:e0;CMTS-MAC=00:01:5c:3a:7e:45;CM-QOS=1.1;CM-VER=3.0;
11/14/2013 15:35 82000400 3 Received Response to Broadcast Maintenance Request, But no Unicast Maintenance opportunities received – T4 time out;CM-MAC=00:1d:d1:fb:c5:e0;CMTS-MAC=00:01:5c:3a:7e:45;CM-QOS=1.1;CM-VER=3.0;
11/14/2013 15:36 90000000 4 MIMO Event MIMO: Stored MIMO=-1 post cfg file MIMO=-1;CM-MAC=00:1d:d1:fb:c5:e0;CMTS-MAC=00:01:5c:3a:7e:45;CM-QOS=1.1;CM-VER=3.0;
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Pro Monitors versus Home Monitors

Monitor Shopping Banner

For years I’ve been buying mid-cost monitors for my business and for my personal use.   They are not the cheapest monitors, but they are definitely in the “cost conscious” category when it comes to monitors.   My typical “pain point” is the $250 mark.    Since I like to buy my monitors “paired” so I can use a dual monitor setup I don’t like to get to far over that range.  If possible I like to be under $200 for something with good resolution.   I don’t worry too much about color both because I’m not a graphic designer and because I am color blind (yes, I can see color, but not ALL colors).   So I look for something high resolution and fairly big.     I try to get something with good customer reviews but tend to shy away from the “editor’s choice” or “top rated” monitors mostly because they ignore my $250 rule.  A few things have changed over the past year that has also changed my thinking about monitors.

First, as a work-at-home dad I am now spending all my computer time on the SAME set of monitors.  I am no longer going from a set of monitors at home to a set of monitors at work.   That for the hours I am on a computer they are always spent viewing the same screen.    That also means buying 2 monitors instead of 4.    In theory I should be comfortable with spending $500/monitor, but after more than a decade of training myself to never look above $250 it is a hard habit to break.

Second, after closing my last business and deciding to spend more time with family in between hacking WordPress plugins for a living, I hoarded a bunch of computer equipment I was interested in after the business closed.  That included a bunch of monitors (all my friends and family got upgrades, side bonus of closing a 12-person office).   I ended up with a 3-way monitor setup  as my daily setup.   To be honest I originally started with 4 monitors but my video card in the HP Envy 17 could not handle it and the desktop computer put out way too much heat.    I also couldn’t see that much real-estate with two 27-inch, a 25-inch, and a 24-inch monitor.    It also just looked ugly as the resolution was the same but pixels sizes varied widely.     But I did learn one thing, for a coder the 3-way monitor is absolutely the most efficient setup you can have.     While EVERYONE, other than the casual home user, benefits greatly from a dual-monitor setup, coders have a unique environment in which three monitors is the magic number.     There are a lot of blog articles that tend to agree with this assessment.  If you code for a living, try it and you’ll see what I mean.

Third, as I get older I find that along with everything else, my eyes can’t keep up.   I need to take breaks from being in front of the computer screen more often and my eyes are “tired” after much shorter sessions of staring down the code as I try to bend it to do my bidding.

Time For An Investment

After a month of “thinking about it”, doing research on all kinds of monitors, thinking about it some more, deciding I wanted three 24 or 25″ monitors (27″ is just far too spread out to keep everything “in my field of vision”), and then waiting/wanting/hoping the monitor I had selected would come down in price… I finally did it.  I bit the bullet and bought a higher end monitor that was a good bit outside of my $250 price point.   After selecting what I felt would be the right monitor for me, I went price shopping.    I found the best price after shipping to be at ProVantage (which, was true 2 days ago… as I edited this article to put the links in place the price has jumped by to $457.26 from $342.29…33% price increase in 24 hours!) .   Any time I need to get business class computer equipment that is restricted from consumer channels (like Amazon or Best Buy) I end up at ProVantage more often than not.  I’ve used them many times before and trust them, though they often lose out on the Amazon Prime products thanks to the shipping differential.  In this case Amazon Prime does not carry the monitor I selected, though they have other vendors with free shipping that DO carry the monitor (and are now LESS costly than ProVantage).

So I spent $350 for a monitor and decided to give it a try.     If the monitor really was the much better than ALL of the 6 other monitors I have in my household, 3 different ones on my desk alone, I would go “all in” and purchase the other 2 to round out the “pairing” or “tripling” as the case may be.

Was It Worth It?

Well, lets just say that less than 3 hours after getting my new monitor setup I ordered the other 2 monitors.   So yes, definitely worth it.  But why?

Some of the deciding factors are definitely due to the feature set of the monitor.   These features can be found on consumer grade and home monitors.    However finding the combination of ALL these things is rare, as I discovered in the month of research before making a decision.     However the PRIMARY deciding factor was the overall clarity of the monitor.     Both surfing the web and  reviewing code text was instantly clearer and more legible on the new monitor.    All 3 monitors on my desk are HP models.   They are 25″, 24″ (the new one), and 27″.   None are “low end” but tow are considered high-end and some of the best monitors for consumer use over the past 2 years.

ProVantage $350 Monitors
ProVantage $350 Monitors

What factors made me decide to swap all 3 monitors to the new one?

  • Text is easier to read.
  • Contrast is better, the difference between the light and dark tones is less “muddied”.
  • The new screen is 1900×1200 (16:10) versus 1920×1080 (16:9)… that extra 120 pixels is 3+ full lines of extra code in the same space and I really prefer the taller v. wider format.
  • The screen has 4 built-in USB ports which means I can eliminate by USB hub = 1 less device + 1 less power cord.
  • The stand rotates, tilts (a lot), and has a a great vertical adjustment.   I didn’t realize how much I missed the ability to make the monitor “tall” and get it properly in my line of site without using boxes or stands.
  • The monitor has DVI, HDMI, and DisplayPort options.  The DisplayPort means one less adapter to deal with.
  • The bezel is a matte finish v. high gloss.   This makes a BIG difference, surprisingly more than I thought.
  • The monitor has a very light anti-glare coating versus the “oooohhhh SHINY like Apple” screen which looks great when it is off or in a dark room but otherwise makes a great mirror.
  • Did I mention text is easier to read?   A LOT easier.

Granted some of these features can be found on other monitors, but ALL the features in one place?  Not so much.    In addition there are some other features I like that didn’t push me to the decision but I still like the thought such as the down-facing connections so I can get the monitor tight to the wall if I decide to mount it like the old monitor (going with a 3-way stand for now).   The neck of the monitor has a pop-out plate for routing cables THROUGH the neck, keeping them neatly corralled near the base of the monitor.    The control buttons are right on the front of the bezel, while behind-the-bezel buttons look cleaner it is a major PITA for the one time you need to adjust something and cannot find the buttons… really for a work computer I don’t care and don’t even see those 4 small buttons on the front while I’m working.     The stand attaches and DETACHES with the best neck-to-monitor system I’ve seen yet.  It snaps in place and a push of a button releases it for when you want/need to attach your wall mount or tri-stand when they arrive 6 hours after the monitor did… which you had to open right to play with and thus attach the neck even though you knew more parts were coming.

So What Did I Get?

My final choice was the 24″ HP ZR2440w.    Below are a couple of pics that show the difference between this monitor and the HP2509M when viewing text.   Besides the moire patterns inherent in non-synced digital imaging of displays, you can also see a distinct difference in contrast and clarity.  Using a digital camera highlights the difference more than is perceptible to the naked eye, but as my code-geek buddy Rob said as soon as he saw the ZR2440 today… “Holy Crap!  I can even see that text from here without my glasses on.”    That is saying something as the monitor is a 24″ versus the 25″ and 27″ it sits beside.

HP ZR2404w versus HP 2509m
HP ZR244ow versus HP 2509m. The text clarity of the professional ZR2440w compared to the consumer 2509m is astounding.

The other picture is of the monitor itself with camera flash on versus the HP2711x monitor.    Both the HP2509M and HP2711x are designed as “look pretty on the shelf in the retail showroom” and “look nice when watching Blu-Ray DVDs in a dark room”.   They do look great if you play games & use the monitors for home theater in controlled lighting conditions.  But during a normal work day with daylight coming in a window and nothing-but code and base graphics on the screen the  ZR2440w blows them away.   No contest.    You can see how big a difference the little bit of anti-glare makes versus the consumer monitors.   Every light source reflects, whether you notice it or not, on the “oooohhhh sooooo shiny and Apple-like” monitors.  That is NOT a good thing for coding as all those light sources are competing for attention when you are looking at the screen.

HP ZR2440w for Code
HP ZR2440w for Code. The camera flash is on to show the glare from other light sources. Glare is minimal.
The HP 2711x glare is very noticeable versus the 2440w.  Good for movies in a dark room, not so much for coding.
The HP 2711x glare is very noticeable versus the 2440w. Good for movies in a dark room, not so much for coding.

I had considered a few others but the reviews, features, and pricing all came together for me with this monitor.    I wanted 24″ or 25″ for the triple setup.   I wanted VESA mounts so I take up less desk space with stands.  I have a wall arm that takes ZERO desk space and LOVE IT, so the triple stand with a single footprint may work but I feel I’ll be doing 3 swing arms soon.   I also wanted native DisplayPort and HDMI connections for my HP Envy 17.   That is because the laptop can drive 2 DisplayPort monitors AND an HDMI monitor at full resolution and full refresh rate.  If you use adapters on the DisplayPort connections and drive 3 monitors weird things can happen to the refresh rate or resolution.

So 24/25″, Vesa mount, and DisplayPort + HDMI connectors limited the marked to surprisingly few monitor choices.    A Dell monitor was in the mix and some lesser-known off-shore brands that had good reviews.  Maybe the off-shore would have worked but I’ve learned to go with quality brands you know.

In the end the HP ZR2440w turns out to have been a great choice.     Sadly so, possibly.    Now that I’ve spoiled myself with this level of display I doubt I’ll ever go back to anything less.  In fact I’m wondering how much nicer the $1200 displays I was briefly contemplating really look with all that color perfection.     Good thing I’m color blind and can talk myself out of those options!

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Google Drive – Did They Hear Me?

A few weeks ago I was on my Google Drive and organizing stuff from several project, prospective business ventures, and my WordPress plugins.  I have a half-dozen “things” going on these days and need to keep my notes, spreadsheets, flow diagrams, and other materials organized.    I created folders and moved stuff around.    To make it even easier to find things I assigned a color code to each folder as visual clues make for faster navigation once you train yourself on things like colors and shapes.  This is why good icon design is paramount, given mobile desktop UX that proliferates our lives thees days.

However, at Google Drive I noticed that the colors I assigned to various project folders only shows up as a colored box on the drop down menus as well as a few other discrete places.   I decided to drop Google a note via the web feedback form.    “Hey Google.  Why don’t you color code the FOLDERS themselves instead of keeping them all gray?   Should be easy enough to do.  You obviously are passing color code data to the UX already.”.   Something to that effect.

I never got a response, but today when I went to my Google Drive I saw EXACTLY what I had requested as part of the updated UX.

google drive colored folders
google drive colored folders

Unfortunately Google never responded to my suggestion other than their typical bot responder.   Did they look at my suggestion and send it to a developer that said “Great idea, that will take 2-seconds to put in place” and baked it into the experience?  Or did they already have this planned for months?  Approved by committee  and a band of meetings to to a UX review analysis and full UX studies?    I’d like to think Google is still able to operate in an Agile fashion, fast & nimble and responding to input quickly.    Or have they become a typical corporate giant where it takes a year to get even a single pixel moved after design, analysis, re-design, and several board meetings before anything happens?

I’m not sure if my request and the 3-weeks to seeing it go live was just a coincidence.  Probably.   But I’ll fool myself into thinking that maybe I was the 10th request they got this month for that feature and some dev just “threw it in there”.   If only Google would communicate with the user base, or even just the paid business apps accounts (yeah, I pay for gMail… I know, right?), and give us some clue that someone is listening.  Whenever I communicate with Google I hear the “on hold music” playing  in my head.. “Is anybody out there?   Just nod if you can hear me…”  – Pink Floyd.

Regardless, I’m happy that my Google Drive is no longer color blind.   Thank you Google!

 

 

 

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Unlocking Your Phone Is Now Illegal

This brief audio clip from NPR explains Digital Millenium Copyright Act and how the cell carriers have lobbied to have DCMA extended to cover the software in cell phones.   This change makes it illegal to unlock a cell phone.    This audio clip explains why after giving a brief background on how it applies to music and they segues into how the cell carriers got it to cover your phone.

I agree with the comment of the lead expert in this interview… “it is like making illegal to pick a lock you put on your own home to gain access to your house”.    Couldn’t agree more.

Here is the NPR piece on this subject:

Digital Locks Limit Access To Copyrighted Works

by STEVE HENN

Owning a copy of a movie or a piece of music doesn’t mean what it used to mean. You have it for good on your digital device, but you can’t sell it or give it away the way you could with a DVD or LP. And, the phone you may be watching or listening on is similarly out of your control.

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Unlocking Your Phone Will Be Illegal

In the United States a new law is about to go into effect, unless this Whitehouse Petition reaches 75,000 electronic signatures by February 23rd, that will make unlocking (aka jailbreaking) your phone illegal.   The fine for jailbreaking your phone? $ 500,000 for the first offense!   Ouch?!?

To me, this is  one more draconian law that the big corporations have pushed through their political connections to get on the books.  Much like SOPA just over a year ago, this law infringes on personal rights and liberties.    Learn more about this law by checking out these news articles as posted online:

The Atlantic – The Most Ridiculous Law of 2013 (So Far): It Is Now a Crime to Unlock Your Smartphone
http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/01/the-most-ridiculous-law-of-2013-so-far-it-is-now-a-crime-to-unlock-your-smartphone/272552/

PC Magazine – Unlocking Your Cell Phone Will Soon Be Illegal

 

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Corporations versus Consumer Influence

consumer-versus-bi

Today I had the joy of experiencing the quintessential element of  consumerism in America, HORRIFIC customer service.    It is easy to see why the label “customer dis-service” is thrown around so much these days.    While it is easy for me to scream out “HP sucks” this morning, given my very recent experience with their version of customer dis-service, the problem of poor customer service goes well beyond HP.    As a small business owner for years I’ve had the displeasure of arguing with and fighting with a number of vendors over the past 2 years including Apple, Asus, Comcast, Dell, and Windstream to name a few.   Every one of those companies provided horrible customer service in an effort to protect and maximize profits.  However this article is not about specific bad experiences, it is about consumer influence over corporate giants in the modern era.

Are You Influential?

The question is fairly simple, how influential ARE YOU?   Decades ago, possibly even just a few years ago, consumers did not have a voice.  The only way anyone would listen to you was to call the 800-number on the back of the product package and hope you got someone that could speak English.    Those few lucky lottery winners that happened to get Abish-Jahmad-Abdula Misnakov on a good day might actually get them to click the button on their screen that gave them a positive result.    However for most of us we would get one of the responses listed on the “10 Excuses To Get Rid of Customers Quickly” sheet that was taped to Abish’es monitor.    Corporations didn’t care or even pretend to care because they knew you were a nobody.  You had no voice.  Who would you tell?  Your 10 friends that you’d talk to that week?   “Ha. I will squish you like a bug” they would say as the ran another $25,000 TV spot and make everyone forget your pithy little story about bad customer service.

Today, things have changed.   You post on Facebook, Google Plus, or Twitter and dozens if not hundreds (or for a select few THOUSANDS) of people hear you.   Not only are you given a megaphone to broadcast to EVERYONE you know, not just the 10 people you would come into direct contact with that week, the comments stick around.   People that you don’t interact with every day will still see your comments days, weeks, or even years from now.    If you make the comments public, then the “stickiness” goes up 10-fold with Google, Bing, and others grabbing your comment and cross-referencing it 1,000 times than archiving it for decades.

But does this make your more influential?  Do your comments have ANY impact on the decisions of the corporate giants?

Corporate Intelligence Is Numb

While all those rants and raves may make you feel better, how much influence do you really have.   Sure people like Oprah will have an influence with millions of followers reading her every word, but what about you.   Your influence over other people’s decisions is certainly more extensive than it was a decade ago, but is it strong enough to change corporate behavior?

Yes and no.  In my opinion you have more power and direct influence over corporate revenue and profit than corporations realize.    However corporations are much too large and their business intelligence systems too “numb” to feel it.    Most corporations are reactionary and only change course after their quarterly earnings report shows they are failing.   By then it is much too late to change course.

Big companies that spend millions on business intelligence and even more on marketing to influence YOU and your purchases are missing the mark.  They are relying on 80’s era tools to operate in the modern highly-social-high-velocity era.   They have it all wrong.     Instead of focusing on customer relations and social marketing they continue to run formulas that dictate whether or not it is OK to lose you as a customer by not providing the best possible customer service experience.   Those old formulas drastically under-estimate your influence.

An Influential Example

As an example I present a simple case from my experience today.    In my particular case an HP Direct sales agent made an error.    At the end of the day HP will decide whether or not I should “eat” the $277 extended warranty purchase or whether they will “own up” to their mistake and replace that purchase with the correct product at no charge to me.     The formula is simple, is keeping me as a customer worth a potential adjustment on their books of $277 (sadly the REAL cost for HP is more like $50 when factoring in the production cost differential between the correct and incorrect product).

In this case the customer has a potential loss of $277.    That is more than a six-pack of Sam Adams, my preferred measuring stick for economic activity, by a long shot.    Enough so that it activates my “rant button”.     On to the blogs, forums, and email lists I go.   I tell people about my horrible experience and thus my influence has begun.   However the potential corporate losses are MUCH, MUCH greater and chances are they don’t see it.

Directly Underestimated

HP tries to figure out what this means to them financially.   The first mistake in the formulaic approach?   Looking at customer history.    Sadly even with the modern business intelligence tools they have at their disposal they will find just ONE lonely record of my purchases with HP.   A $277 warranty.    Already they are starting off on the wrong foot.    I am currently looking at thousands-of-dollars in HP equipment purchased in the past 12 months alone, and that is just right here on my desk.   Several high-end HP monitors, a top-of-the-line laptop, business office printers.  None of which register in the HP intelligence database because they were purchased from a 3rd party and never registered formally with HP.    Then there is the corporate influence.   Last year I owned a few companies and provided CTO consulting to several more.   Total HP purchases in the past 12 months is unknown but is in the tens-of-thousands range.    Because they were purchased through buying agents at each organization HP never connects the dots.

Ripples Versus Waves

OK, so maybe it is easy to understand WHY they would underestimate my purchases in the past 12 months.  However they do this with “normal” consumers as well.  Chances are you rarely, if ever, register your products online or with the warranty card that came in the box.   I know very few people that do this for anything but what they consider “large” purchases or for items that might break.     However there is a second error that is even more significant.    The ripple effect.

Another part of a good risk assessment tool for a large corporation is determining influence of a consumer.  How likely are you to purchase products in the future based on how egregious the error and lack of customer service.  More importantly, will it have a direct impact on sales not directly attributed to the consumer?   When I was actively running a corporation I could easily give them a corporate account number and they would see that this was not just ONE purchase that I influenced, but dozens.  In fact I’ve use this card in the past when not getting personal attention and depending on the vendor BOY did this create  a change of attitude.    Back when I was buying 6-figures worth of equipment from Dell their screw-up on my personal laptop purchase was IMMEDIATELY rectified with apologies only AFTER I cited the corporate accounts to which I was linked.

But that thinking on behalf of the corporation is flawed.  Today we ALL have a lot more influence than they realize and it starts with a ripple.   While my corporate purchases were more akin to a wave, a noticeable disturbance in their revenues, my tiny little personal purchase and the dozen people I reach on my personal Facebook page is but a ripple.    The direct revenue is minimal and even if you multiply it by the dozen people on my personal connections list, let’s say 36 people as that is the average active friends for a typical Facebook user, it is still nothing compared to the wave of a corporate purchase order.

Sphere of Influence

However this is a grossly underestimated sphere of influence.    To go back to my $277 example, my influence goes WAY beyond the $277 and can quickly form a big enough ripple to almost be a wave.    Even in my case with a dozen direct contacts on Facebook there are at least a FEW that will second-guess buying an HP product if I write a scathing review and back it up with facts that point to an unquestionable failure on behalf of HP.    Those few people that let me advice and input influence them tend to purchase $500 – $2500 every-other-year in electronics.  If I tell them “buy HP” like I did 6 months ago, they buy HP.   If I say “stay away from HP and Dell”, they stay away.  That is thousands in sales that shift, ever-so-subtly, to another brand.   HP will never notice.

Then there are the public Facebook posts via my software releases.  Those are NOT directly linked but reach hundreds if not thousands of technical users.  Then there are the tweets.  And the comments on public forums that discuss HP products, and every now & then an online RSS feed for a major publication picks up blog posts like this one.  Suddenly a “small guy” like me reaches tens-of-thousands of people.  Granted not all, in fact MOST, of the readers will not give a damn about what I say.   However SOME will think twice about HP and if there is a close decision it may be enough to persuade them to choose the other brand.

Ripple + Ripple = Wave

Now the REAL issue here which the corporate giants miss is what happens when ripples meet.   You write a short tweet about a bad HP experience.  I blog, tweet, and Facebook (is that a word now?) my experience.   Soon dozens of people that have no direct connections do the same.    Eventually there are people “in the middle” that are “touched” by two or more ripples.     The effect is a multiplication of the intensity of the ripples.  Before you know it all of these ripples have become a wave and since corporate business intelligence systems are too numb to feel the influence of individual ripples they MISS IT.    By the time it has become a wave and that wave has crashed into their quarterly revenue and earnings report it is too late.     It is very hard to mitigate the effect of thousands of ripples with a big marketing push.

Make Ripples

So there you have it, my theory on the influence of the “small guys” like you & I.    The modern era of online social interaction has given us the tools to create the ripples that can grow into waves.    When you have a good or bad customer experience with a company, tell people.     The good companies will take care of their customers and turn negative ripples into positives.   Those that don’t will be blind-sided by the wave of negativity.

Maybe the corporations will catch on soon, but I doubt it. The large behomoths of the 80s and 90s are likely to die a long lingering death as they spin in circles trying to figure out what is going on.    In the meantime those companies built in the modern era that understand “the small guy is in charge”, companies like Google and Amazon, will continue to grow and thrive.  Until the next paradigm shift comes along…

So what do you think?    Are you influential?  Share your thoughts!