Archive for November, 2004

PC security at issue again

Tuesday, November 30th, 2004

Now the weirdos are using websites and ads to spread computer viruses. What next? Will our thoughts become infectable?

And now the star search engine, of all folks, has created a new security risk. Google’s new search tool brings its powerful search technology to your own home ground–and pokes a significant hole in the security of your computer. The article says it’s not Google’s fault, though–that your computer shouldn’t be saving the encrypted, private pages that this tool will find if you’re looking.

I’ll tell you, if those of us who don’t allocate much budget money to security started worrying about every new threat, we wouldn’t be sleeping well most nights. I confess I’m a little like the ostrich with my head in the sand on this one–I figure no one’s going to be interested enough in my stuff to bother to hack me. But this business of infecting people with viruses simply for visiting a website seems like going over the edge–so maybe even long-necked animals like myself might have to start spending for “protection.”

Geez, the mob never had it so good.

Chinese wireless competitor a sign of the times

Monday, November 29th, 2004

In China, where land-based wired telephony pretty much stinks (unreliable or plain non-existent connections), a wireless company has to meet severe demands–cheap, high-tech reliable connectivity for millions of Chinese whose only choice is wireless, according to a news note in the latest Fast Company magazine. The Chinese firm that’s meeting those demands, Ningbo Bird, is now meeting similar demands in 28 other countries–and is on its way to the U.S.

We in the U.S. have long been dominant in many areas of technology, but as other countries move aggressively to participate in the global economy–and the needs of their people force tech companies to invent better ways–new competition begins rising to the top. The power of desperation is something most U.S. companies don’t know much about. But it’s something an increasing number of American workers are learning about, and it’s changing the face of the marketplace.

Just as the workers learn to live with this new sense of discomfort and urgency, so many U.S. companies must begin to look at what it means to them as well. We’ve been talking about the global marketplace for a decade…now it’s taking up permanent residence in our own backyards. This is a time that calls for all-out effort from our best creative minds–and good will from all that extends far beyond the feel-good merriment of a season.

"Credit card company scam–a short story"

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2004

Ever get one of those little flyers with tiny, tiny printing that come in the mail sometimes saying that you are one of a class of people who will receive point-oh-six-seven-and-two-tenths-percent-of-a-dollar some time next century to compensate you for the overcharging that Credit Card Company X did while you were a cardholder? I get them on a fairly regular basis. Here’s a little story that might be a model for the beginning of one of those little episodes…

Suppose you own a credit card company. And let’s say things are a little slow, so you want to come up with a little revenue-generating idea. Try this one on for size…

You send out letters to all your current card holders. You offer them a really attractive rate–let’s say 3.99%–for the life of the balance if they use one or more of the checks you send (up to their credit limit, which you have just conveniently raised).

Okay, sounds good so far. Now you do tell them there’ll be a fee (up to $50) for each check they write. Okay. Then you tell them the check “must post to your account” no later than November 30, 2004. (Now, in case you’re like me and you’re not sure what “post to your account” really means, I checked with my bank and they said “posting” is when the check clears from the issuing party–i.e., the credit card company that’s making you this offer pays on the check.)

Okay, let’s see. We get the checks in the mail sometime around the second week of November. Thanksgiving week is the week before November 31, meaning all bets are off for anything being “posted” for sure anytime that week. So you got the checks maybe around November 15; you want to think about this for a little while, look at your situation, discover what balances you might be interested in transferring. If you take a few days to think about it, that brings you to November 19–the last day of the week before Thanksgiving week, which means your credit card company can righteously say, well, gee, we did the best we could, but you know this is a holiday time so we couldn’t really promise to get this cleared. Hmmmm.

So if your check(s) don’t clear by the 30th, not only do you have to pay your credit card company the $50-per-check transfer fee, but you’ll start getting billed the normal, much higher interest rate on the balance you just transferred. Hmmmm.

Now go back to the letter bringing this exciting offer to see if maybe you can do it over the phone so it’s faster. You look really hard… You keep looking… You turn it over and look all over the other side… And then you realize, for some reason there isn’t a single telephone number on there. Hmmmm.

You know how most of these balance transfer offers come with an 800 number and invite you to pick up the phone and make the transfer right now? Well, not this unique letter. In fact, there is no way at all to contact the credit card company about this offer. Oh, yeah, you can go to a strange unbranded (no bank name at all) website address they give you–but it contains no useful information at all unless you register–a painful process that many of us simply choose not to bother with.

Then you begin to wonder. Why doesn’t the web address have a bank name? Why isn’t there a phone number to call? Why does it warn you multiple times over? “These checks must post to your account no later than November 30…if these checks post to your account later than November 30 you will be charged regular interest rates… Don’t try to use this money until you’ve checked with your bank to make sure the funds have cleared. Remember, these checks must post…”

You know, I’ve heard of credit card companies getting in trouble for falsifying the date of receipts of customer payments and such in order to charge late fees and higher interest. This couldn’t possibly be something like that, could it?

Hmmmm. I got such a letter this month from a credit card company. The company name on the letter is a bank name I think of as okay. But funny, the checks have a different name–the name of a credit card company I swore many years ago I’d never do business with again–because of a dispute over just such an issue. Hmmmm.

I seem to remember some years ago FirstUSA bought out Bank One. I always thought it was pretty funny that suddenly the materials that came in the mail said “Bank One” and if you looked really, really close you could just barely make out the “FirstUSA” in teeny, tiny print.

So I guess that might explain how a letter could come from one credit card company/bank and the checks have a different company name on them.

the end

Feds want to track every college student . . . for life

Monday, November 22nd, 2004

The writer describes this story as “jaw-droppingly big.” In a move that represents tremendous potential for abuse, says Poynter Online, a journalists’ resource site, the Dept. of Education is considering asking–nay, requiring–colleges to provide tons of private information about every single student who enrolls, no matter where and how many places he or she enrolls–and for the right to keep it all on file indefinitely.

We’re talking about grades here and even how much tuition a student pays–whether they’re paying full price, are on scholarship, or are just “getting a deal” for some other reason. College performance for federally funded schools may be relevant; highly questionable whether this could be justified in private schools. The ability to protect such private information from wrong use is always suspect.

It seems fair to speculate whether the next area to be tracked might include businesses that benefit in any way from federal funds–and then maybe even those who don’t.

Hong Kong keeps Chinese flavor – money the real issue?

Saturday, November 20th, 2004

The political geography of Asia is somewhat a mystery to me most of the time, but I was struck by this article saying that Hong Kong (which is apparently governed by China) has developed enough of an independent stance that it holds elections. However, their “Basic Law” (apparently a Chinese connection) does not allow them to elect their chief governing officer or other important leaders. Hmmm.

Anyway, there seemed to have been a hue and cry this past year for more democracy–giving the right to vote to all citizens–but in the actual event, voters did not give such a mandate.Hong Kong’s people, according to this Economist article, are most concerned about their economy and showed by their voting that felt they believe the old order will do a better job of improving their individual lots in life. And letting everyone vote is definitely out.

From the perspective of U.S. business, we might have to agree that China is doing a lot of things right–or we wouldn’t be seeing their products everywhere we look. I wonder if, without actually naming “parties,” the folks of Hong Kong are self-separating very much as we do here on either side of the same issue: money and how much of it you get to keep.

Humpty Dell — headed for a fall?

Friday, November 19th, 2004

Wrote this on my personal blog and thought it was important enough to share here as well.

Had this great idea for a blog entry and when I started out to get here, I saw that my Favorites was empty on this computer–and remembered about the hard drive crash.

Oh, yeah. Was sitting at Southside working away on a project when suddenly the computer started kind of ticking at me. Never having heard this noise before, I listened carefully and determined that, yes, indeed, it did sound like ticking, but I couldn’t seem to see any visible reason for it. So I kept on working for a couple of minutes. Then suddenly the screen went blue…

In software companies there’s an expression “the blue screen of death” that refers to the imminent demise of your hard drive. Well, silly me, I forgot about that expression and read the instructions that said in a misleadingly simple way, “if this is the first time you’ve seen this screen, restart your computer.”

Alas, they were just kidding when they said that. Restart to no avail. I won’t bore you with the rest of the story. Suffice it to say, many hundreds of dollars and many days later, my 11-month-old laptop is finally functional again–but missing all the little special personal touches like the contents of Favorites. The brand, folks, is Dell, in case you’re wondering. One friend is suggesting there may be a virus out there that’s killing hard drives, since mine was the fourth he’d heard of in only a few weeks. But I’m not buying that. I was also appalled to see that if I wanted a replacement hard drive from Dell, they saw that the thing was less than a year old and said, oh, well, that’ll be $129 please (for a 20-gig version). No warranty–though it’s less than a year old.

Okay. Let’s see. First, they charged me an outrageous $75 for a replacement power cord–and I noticed that not a single one of their models could use any other model’s power cord and no generic cord would fit any of them. Hmmm. Then a barely used hard drive crashes–and has no warranty. Then they want to charge me 30% more for half as much memory as any other brand offers. I know that this is one way Microsoft has gotten rich–by making proprietary stuff and charging a premium. But it feels like maybe Dell is going too far.

As my friend who postulates the virus theory also says, if I hear from 3 people that a company or its products have performed badly, I no longer buy from that company. Anybody else got some stories about Dell they’d like to share?

Size matters … acquire … and even small partnerships can make a difference

Thursday, November 18th, 2004

Before Kmart went bankrupt, Sears had agreed to be acquired by that company, its former one-step-down competitor. Now the tide has reversed, and Wal-Mart will have a new challenger in the form of combined Kmart/Sears stores, this time with Sears the parent company. Speculation goes every which way as to whether the challenger has a chance…

“If you can’t grow organically, grow by acquisition.” This seems to be conventional wisdom in many business circles. In fact, in Cleveland, Ohio today the Harvard Business School Club is joining up with a regional organization called JumpStart to put on a meeting in which the idea of buying another company will be presented as an intelligent part of entrepreneurialism. I’m looking forward to seeing what they have to say.

Meanwhile a local supporter of entrepreneurs, the Cleveland entrepreneurial brewer Great Lakes Brewing Company, is dedicating an environment-friendly Sun-Trap(TM) greenhouse next month. A proud supporter of eco-friendly policies in their own manufacturing processes, the Brewery has partnered with another entrepreneur to help transform the nearby gardening center with the new equipment. Well worth checking out.

Wireless Expo shows off virtual trade show format

Tuesday, November 16th, 2004

Attended my first-ever wireless trade show today. Very impressive stuff. You log on and it downloads the Exhibition Hall (where all the vendors have set up their sites); you can sign up for reminders of when certain webcast presentations will begin and then get an email when it’s time to log in to watch/listen/learn (I love that feature). YOu get little notes that pop up if someone sends you a message. You get reminders to visit the vendors (just like brick-and-mortar…well, tear-down-display-and-fake-plant trade shows).

Heard the president (French accent was great) of Texas Instruments expounding on the virtues of their up and coming technologies. Attended a panel discussion on the future of wireless technologies, and then heard a guy carry on about the 802.XX standards and what we should be expecting. Fun and informative.

And by the way you can still join in and see what it’s all about tomorrow. You’ll need to register, but here’s where the show is located: http://wl.unisfair.com

Environmentally sound products make new marketing opportunities

Monday, November 15th, 2004

Farmers are businesspeople, too, and they need help. In Minnesota they’re getting some from the government in the form legislation that mandates greater use of environmentally friendly renewable fuels such as ethanol to cut gasoline use by 10 to 20 percent, according to the regional publication Agri News. “Renewable fuels, including ethanol and biodiesel, are agriculture’s greatest opportunity,” says Gov. Tim Pawlenty speaking at the Agr-Growth Council meeting last week.

The U.S. is “addicted” to imported oil, says the governor, and ought to be thinking about ways to get out of that rut. It never hurts to have government regulation supporting your move into new markets. The failure of an industry like agriculture–which we all depend on pretty heavily–would really make us have to get creative about solving the resulting crisis.

And if the government is going to get involved, it’s a whole lot better to see it encouraging farmers to begin creating eco-friendly products than paying them not to grow crops.

Education learns to sell itself

Friday, November 12th, 2004

Teaching a class on Writing for the Web today at Cleveland State University’s new East Center campus in Solon, Ohio today. All of the schools of higher education are competing with each other, growing themselves in every direction. After all, the millionaire (billionaire?) who started University of Phoenix taught them some lessons about what solid, consistent marketing can do–and having the money to provide convenient locations for people in every area of your target region. DeVry has joined the fray with frequent radio ads recently. Bryant & Stratton, as I know from my experience working there long ago, uses a large, well-trained and highly money-motivated sales force (they conduct telephone and in-person sales) to handle responses to its widespread direct mail campaigns.

Yes, it’s all about marketing and sales. And it doesn’t matter whether your school is non-profit and otherwise, the game is about getting the word out–something most academicians have not had much training for–and for which many have a profound distaste. But they’re having to learn now–as, by his own admission, so did the originator of CrainTech, who discovered good journalism wasn’t enough. He had to become the salesperson as well in order to find the advertising to support the publication–a function most journalists have looked down upon in the past–and been enabled to do that by the publication’s separate and hard-working advertising sales staff.

It’s all different in today’s world–with the expansion of the Internet and the globalization of everything, few people are able to escape participating somehow in the sales and marketing process.

Anyway, I hope to once again have the pleasure of seeing participants get that “ah-ha!” look in their eyes when we finish the class.