Monday, June 25, 2007

Huge Home Inventory does not stop New Building

I just read this article about how the Inventory of US homes for sale hit a 15-year high, with nearly 4.5 million homes on the market for sale. If this isn't disturbing enough, especially when put in the context of how this represents a nearly 9-month inventory of homes, consider how this biggest inventory overhang since 1992 seems to be occurring when the economy is supposedly rather good overall. And, the median home price has slid another couple percent - for 10th straight month of declines.

What I just don't get is why, if there is such a glut of homes on the market, is so much new building going on? Everywhere I turn here in Northeast Ohio, I see yet another new development to be filled with $250K+ homes (which, by the way put them above the current median nationwide price of $223K). The people filling these homes are moving from homes that they can not sell, thus further increasing an already ballooning inventory situation.

I guess people just are not happy with their "old" homes, and being typical US consumers, they feel the need to constantly move into larger and more luxurious accommodations. If that isn't it, someone please let me know what this trend (of massive continued development during massive existing-home inventories) is all about. Personally, I think it signals an impending crisis. Time will tell.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

US Border Security less than your average Parking Lot Security!

If you have ever owned a monthly-pass or similar multi-day pass for a parking-lot, you are perhaps aware of the fact that the computers which the pass interacts with are smart enough to not allow the same pass to repeatedly check in to a parking lot without first having checked out of the lot. The reason is obvious: you wouldn't want a less-than-honest person to drive his car into the lot, hand his pass to his buddy who then drives his car in and hands it to his friend, and so on - eventually giving the pass back to the first person who will start the process over the next day, and only having paid for one pass while letting many cars into the lot.

Well, it seems the United States Department of Homeland Security and Border Security / Immigration can not even figure out such a simple concept for securing our own borders. Tonight on the national News, reporters were showing how, in addition to using fake documents to enter this country, illegal immigrants are passing through our borders using real documents (passports, green-cards / permanent resident cards, etc) they "rent" to each other to cross the border.

Basically, they keep an inventory of passports and photo-ID's from legal US citizens or green card holders, and when a person wants to gain illegal entry into the United States, they simply rent them one of these documents with an identification photo that is "close enough" that the border patrol / immigrations people don't question the validity of it (i.e., they don't question whether the person in the picture is really the same person that is now holding the document). So, the illegal immigrant now crosses the border using someone else's valid US documentation that they have "rented" (for a few hundred dollars or more), and then they hand that documentation back off to a carrier who returns it to the inventory back in Mexico... all to begin the process again with another person.

So, if the United States had even half a care for border enforcement, they would implement a SUPER SIMPLE computerized database that tracks which of these pieces of identification are being used for repeated entry into the United States without an associated exit. This of course would imply the US Border would have to scan or enter the document number / identification in both directions (incoming and outgoing), but that should be SUPER SIMPLE with modern bar-coding, RF-ID, and other such things!

Documents that are being used for "one-way" entry constantly (I doubt there will be any one-way USA-Exit patterns!) should be confiscated. If the person holding the documents is not the true owner (which, simply biometrics like a fingerprint should be used for), the person should be denied entry. Also, if the person using the documents is the valid holder, and the document is flagged as a repeat-entry (without similar number of exits) document, then this person perhaps needs to be flagged as a potential human-trafficking agent, and at a minimum put on a watch-list so that anytime their ID shows up for a border-crossing, a thorough confirmation of identity-match is performed. This would at least bring our border security technology up to that of your average parking lot!

It doesn't stop those who jump fences or break in by other means (any more than a parking lot pass does), but it does stop an entire wave of illegal immigration - and certainly stops car-loads of people from illegally entering this country (presuming the cars cross a check-point), just as the technology stops cars from parking at a parking lot without a pass of their own.

One way or the other, our government really needs to start securing this border. It's only a matter of time before something goes horribly wrong because of open borders. Sadly, I can nearly guarantee that nothing will ever be done - certainly nothing that will have any impact on the problem - until it is too late.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Warranties are nothing more than marketing hype!

It seems that many a product or service "warranty" these days is nothing but a misleading sales phrase - something that sounds good, but doesn't really offer any advantage over having no warranty at all. I am completely and profoundly aggravated by the way companies think it is perfectly acceptable to offer a warranty or guarantee they have no intention of honoring, or one whose fulfillment conditions are so convoluted, complex, idiotic, and/or time-consuming that you basically give up before realizing any true benefit from this supposed perk.

My most recent encounter with an utterly lame warranty is with LG Electronics, in regards to a dehumidifier I purchased 2 years ago with a "5 year parts and labor warranty" that even included "in home service". Yeah, right! What sounded so good at time of purchase (and, helped me decide which product to purchase) is now nothing more than a reminder that many companies have little intention to make due on such a warranty without at least trying to drive you insane first.

The plight begins innocently enough with calling an 800# for customer service, and of course waiting 15 minutes for a human to actually answer the phone. They collect the various information about the model number, serial number, and your contact information, and then proceed to tell you how, even though you live in a major metropolitan area and have in-home service covered under your "warranty", that the in-home part is subject to them finding a service-provider near you that is willing to actually come to your house.

This is a common trend these days -- outsource the responsibility for providing any type of service (be it warranty or otherwise) and then blame any shortcomings on the third-party. So, you have a warranty from LG, but the service comes from whomever is willing to even do it. Lovely. LG then provides me with a phone number to a place 20 miles away -- I refuse! I tell them to look harder for a closer service point, and finally get one only 5 miles away. Now, things are in my court, since LG Electronics is not responsible for their recommended firm's actions.

So, I call the local service company - they are closed on Friday it seems. I wait, and try Monday, and get a scheduled service call (to my house amazingly) for a week later. The week passes, the technician arrives, and confirms what I know (the dehumidifier is shot and needs replaced), and then tells me how that is not up to him, and that they will contact LG and let them know the status, and I should hear something soon.

A week passes - nothing. I call the local place... they have no information, and have never called LG, since they can do nothing for me, and suggest I call LG Electronics Warranty Service again. (are you seeing the circle form?) I call LG. They now tell me I need to Email or Fax them all the same information they already have, and that the appliance local service company needs to call LG "technical support" and have LG's engineers concur that the unit needs replaced. Of course, I ask, what is the incentive for the appliance repair people to call you? Can't you (LG) call them and make sure something happens?!!! Oh, of course not! That is not how it works. And, what can I, the consumer do to make sure anything gets done -- NOTHING! (as planned I am sure).

So, unless I can influence people and events outside of my control, there is little I can do but have (false) hope in people doing their job and honoring their warranty. I can not make the local appliance firm follow-through and call LG. I can't make LG call the local firm, because "that isn't the flow" or whatever. The LG customer service rep I speak with doesn't even have a company Email address (they use a somthing_lge@yahoo.com instead - surely because there is to be little record of any warranty requests), and they can't do anything about me getting a new replacement dehumidifier without tech-support approving it.

So, basically, don't count on any warranty unless you personally know ahead of time how the firm operates their warranty-returns process and such. This is ridiculous. A few weeks have passed, I want my dehumidifier replaced. I have gotten nowhere on this matter, aside from hours of wasted calls. Unless LG replaces this thing soon, and actually honors this "5 year parts and labor warranty", I'll never buy an LG Electronics product EVER again, whether it is a dehumidifier, appliance, television, or anything else!

Companies really need to learn that such insane "customer (dis)service" policies do nothing but piss off consumers and turn them to their competitors instead. But, sadly, I suspect all major companies of not caring, since many are quite similar in their lack of caring, knowing that you have no choice in most things, and that they will gain as many new consumers that are leaving their competitors for the same customer dis-service reasons as they lose in customers experienced with their own terrible service. I have had many of these types of experiences over the years, and usually the bigger the company the worse the experience, since they just don't seem to care in the least what they put the customer through.

My main concern now is: what brand of dehumidifier do I purchase next? My gut says simply buy the cheapest damn thing there is, since you might as well pitch it if it goes bad (after the 30-day in-store return or whatever), because in the end, warranty or not, it's all the same when companies have no intention of making the warranty something you can collect on (at least not without wasting more time than it is worth).

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

.CSV File Editor Software

If you work with delimited text files, like CSV files (Comma Separated Values) or tab-delimited values, or any other row and column type data files where the column values are separated by delimiters of some sort, there is nice product on the market to make your life easier. It is a .csv file editor that is quite handy and powerful.

A common way to manipulate delimited data files is to use Excel (which can open CSV files), but that implies owning Microsoft Office (or at least Microsoft Excel), which can be a costly investment if all you want to do is open, view, print, export, or convert delimiter types or such. What you really need to look into is White Peak Software's product entitled Killink CSV (which despite having CSV in the name, really parses basically any delimited text / data file and allows you to edit such files directly). This product allows you to edit comma and tab delimited files easily, and much more.

The software has a nice clean, streamlined interface that is quite intuitive to use. It is also responsive and speedy, which is a definite plus when opening files containing tens of thousands of rows. Here's a sample of what the GUI (Graphical User Interface) looks like presenting the contents of a delimited file - it looks rather similar to Excel, without all the bloat.



This software comes in very handy if you get download files from you online banking in comma or tab delimited form, or from a brokerage (stock transactions perhaps), exports from SQL Databases, you name it. You quickly have a way to view, print, edit, and otherwise manipulate this data in an easy and efficient manner using White Peak's delimited data editor now.

Check it out! They offer a free trial download, and the price is extraordinarily reasonable ($27 USD for a single-user license, and if you need a site-wide license for your enterprise applications and programmers, it's only $497.00). At prices like this, you will save that much instantly by avoiding the frustration of trying to view delimited data in something like Windows Notepad or Wordpad, and with the company-wide license, you will cover your organization's needs for much less than what you could ever hire a consultant to build such a product for.

Bottom line: it's a no-brainer to purchase this product if you work with text-based data files even once per year on average. If you are buying this for a company, it's certainly a write-off and the price is less than a single dinner meeting - making the expense nothing more than a petty-cash transaction (which, from experience, makes it super simple to get management approval to order such software to help in your day-to-day job). I'm no accountant, but I would think that if you were using this product personally to process banking records, stock/investment transaction files, and such, it too could be a valid deduction - at least worth a look if you care to save even more. So, now is a good time to go download the .CSV Editor trial and enjoy saving time and increasing your productivity.

Monday, June 11, 2007

More on Software Patent Reform

I saw this interesting article today about how the US Patent Office is trying to " encourage citizens to assess the validity of patent applications for themselves, and issue challenges where necessary". (original article here: http://www.betanews.com/article/US_Patent_Office_to_Try_Open_Source_Approach/1181591652)

Now, that certainly sounds interesting, especially with how messed up Software Patents have been in the past few years (i.e., basically the granting of patents for every lame and obvious supposed software and technological breakthrough - like one-click shopping on the web). There are scores of similarly ridiculous patents that have been issued, most under the guise of processes and methodologies (which basically just let companies patent ideas - which is not supposed to be possible). Companies now even end up existing for the sole purpose of acquiring "patent portfolios" of supposed "intellectual property", and making all their money off litigation related what is essentially extorting money from companies that have no idea they are even violating a patent.

Something has to change, and perhaps this new approach by the USPTO will help. They are accepting applications from persons wishing to become a peer-reviewer, in hopes that having the public help discover prior art in a timely fashion will help prevent / reduce the granting of these (insanely obvious and anything but novel) patents. I sure hope it makes a difference.

As a software developer these days, I can't help wondering how many tens or hundreds of patents my own code somehow unknowingly infringes on. Did that latest sorting algorithm I just wrote use the same approach as a patented one? Did I group the items on a report in the same way a patent holder proposed? Is the display of a picture on my website making use of some asinine patented image-display-on-the-web process patent? Yep, that's the kind of things that in all seriousness you have to worry about these days (though, probably not unless you come up with some software that actually is worth something -- so these patent holders have someone with deep pockets, and potential cash, to sue).