On the bugginess of El Capitan

I never updated my home Mac Pro to El Capitan. To paraphrase Borges, each successive Apple OS release since Snow Leopard makes you long for the previous one. Unfortunately I have no choice but to run the latest OS X release on my work Macs as that is usually required to run the latest Xcode, itself required for the App Store.

I did not realize how bad El Capitan was until I upgraded my work iMac (27-inch 5K model) to Sierra last week. Previously, I would experience a mean time between crashes of around 3 days. I thought it was flaky hardware (the problems started from when I unboxed the computer), but couldn’t find the time to take it to the Genius Bar. I had also experienced the same problem with my old home 2009 Nehalem Mac Pro, which I had taken to the office, in fact that’s why I bought the iMac in the first place (and the first one I ordered had to go back because of defective pins in the RAM expansion slots). The Mac Pro had previously been rock-steady at home.

Since I upgraded to Sierra, I haven’t had a single crash. The only possible conclusion is that El Capitan bugs were to blame. The only thing unusual about this iMac is I upgraded the RAM from OWC, but the memory passes testing using Micromat’s TechTool.

I am not one to look at the Steve Jobs era with rosy-tinted glasses, OS X has never had the same level of stability as Solaris or even Linux, but Apple’s hardware and software quality has really gone to the dogs of late, something Lloyd Chambers dubs Apple Core Rot.

I am now starting to hedge my bets and am testing Ubuntu for my laptop computing needs, first by repurposing my 2008-vintage first-generation MacBook Air that is no longer supported by OS X anyway (works, but painfully slow) and soon with a shiny new HP Spectre on order.

Avoiding counterfeit goods on Amazon: mission impossible?

I mentioned previously that I seldom shop for electronics on any more, preferring B&H Photo whenever possible. I now have another reason: avoiding counterfeit goods.

My company boardroom is in an electromagnetic war zone—dozens of competing WiFi access points combined with electronic interference from the US-101 highway just outside make WiFi reception tenuous at best, and unusable more often than not. To work around this, we set up a wired Ethernet switch, and since most of our staff use MacBook Airs, Apple USB Ethernet adapters purchased from Amazon. When I side-graded from my 15″ Retina MacBook Pro to a much more portable 12″ Retina MacBook, I wasn’t able to connect using the dongle, and the name of the device was interspersed with Chinese characters. At first I thought it was an issue with my Satechi USB-C hub, but I experienced the same problems via a genuine Apple USB-C multiport adapter as well.

Eventually I figured out the Ethernet dongles were counterfeit. The packaging, while very similar to Apple’s, was just a tiny bit off, like amateurish margins between the Apple logo and the edges of the card. On the dongles themselves, the side regulatory disclosures sticker was inset, not flush with the body of the adapter.

Counterfeiting is a major problem. By some accounts, one third of all Sandisk memory cards worldwide are counterfeits. In some cases like chargers or batteries, your equipment could be at risk, or even your very life. The counterfeit adapters we purchased from Amazon did not come from Amazon themselves but from a third-party merchant participating in the Amazon marketplace. To Amazon’s credit, we returned them for a prompt, no questions asked refund even though we bought them over six months ago, but it is hard to believe Amazon is unaware of the problem rather than willfully turning a blind eye to it.

My first reaction was to tell our Office Manager to make sure to buy only from Amazon rather than third-party merchants (pro tip: including “amazon” in your Amazon search terms will do that in most cases). Unfortunately, that may not be enough. Amazon has a “fulfilled by Amazon” program for merchants where you ship your goods to them, and they handle warehousing and fulfillment. These “fulfilled by Amazon” items are also more attractive to Prime members. One option Amazon offers is Stickerless, commingled inventory where the items you send are put into a common bin. Amazon still has the ability to trace the provenance of the item through its inventory management, but for purposes of order fulfillment they will be handled just like Amazon’s own stock. Some categories like groceries and beauty products are excluded, but electronics are not.

The implications are huge: even if the vendor is Amazon itself, you cannot be sure that the item is not counterfeit. All the more reason to buy only from trustworthy, single-vendor sites like B&H, even if shipping is a bit slower.

ArtisanState review

TL:DR Avoid them.

I seldom print photos any more. When I do, I prefer to make photobooks, as the format is way more convenient than loose prints, takes little space, and looks more polished than a traditional photo album.

Unfortunately, most photobooks are printed on HP Indigo digital presses, which use a technology somewhat similar to a laser printer, but capable of better quality photo reproduction. Indigo presses were originally designed to produce personalized junk-mail, not high-quality photo reproduction, and the quality, while decent, is not at the same level as that of true RA-4 photo paper exposed with a laser or LED light source as done by most digital minilabs (e.g. Fuji Frontier or Noritsu QSS) or higher-end imaging systems like the Océ/Cymbolic Lightjet or Durst Lambda.

There are higher-quality options. AdoramaPix has a good reputation for its albums, which are printed on RA-4 paper and bound in a lay-flat binding without a gutter, a technique that lends itself specially well to panoramic prints. They also have a “Hudson” line of premium albums where the photos are laminated on thick cardstock for a more luxurious feel. In researching this flush-mount process, I discovered a company called ArtisanState. It is based here in San Francisco (manufacturing is in China), their pricing seemed attractive, so I decided to give them a try.

I used a selection of my panoramic prints and ordered a 6×8 album bound in genuine leather. They offer two grades of paper, Fuji Crystal Archive Lustre and Fuji Crystal Archive Pearl Metallic, and I opted for the latter. Metallic paper, first introduced by Kodak under the Endura brand, has mica particles embedded in the RC paper base under the photographic emulsion. The photo looks as if it is painted on metal, which can be spectacular, specially with specular highlights (although I would not recommend it for portraiture such as a wedding album, the fashion industry seems to be quite fond of it). The Fuji lustre has a grainy finish that resists fingerprints, but I don’t find it attractive, and would much prefer a satin finish without an obvious texture like the one Moo uses in its business cards.

When I received my album after 2 weeks, I was impressed by the reproduction quality and the metallic effect, but there was also a very visible texture on the pages, similar to an orange peel. After some research, I found that mounting metallic papers seems to cause orange peel unless done very carefully using a low temperature on the mounting press, and they are the exception to the general rule of thumb that Fuji products are superior to Kodak’s (although true to form, Kodak’s bean counters degraded the quality of the product by cutting corners to shave costs).

At the price they charge ($104 list, but I got it at 40% promotional discount), you can rightfully expect perfection. I wrote to ArtisanState to complain, got the run-around, and reviews online suggest my experience with unresponsive support is far from unusual. I am going to try again with AdoramaPix: they may be more expensive, but the product won’t be made in China and in the end you get what you pay for.

The slow decline of Amazon Prime

I have been an Amazon Prime customer since it was introduced, almost a decade ago in 2005. They recently raised the price to $99, which is not unreasonable given inflation and the rise of fuel and shipping costs. Unfortunately, the service has also degraded, and I am considering dropping it for that reason.

It really hit me this week. I ordered a bunch of loupes from eBay last weekend, as Schneider stopped manufacturing them 2 years ago and they are now officially listed as discontinued, and old-new stock of other reputable makers like Leica, Cabin/Mamiya or Rodenstock are starting to dwindle. At the same time, I ordered a few items using Amazon Prime (5 orders in all, 3 from Amazon themselves, 2 from third-party vendors but fulfilled by Amazon). All my eBay items have already arrived, including some shipped all the way from Canada that arrived yesterday, but only one of the Amazon items has arrived. Something is seriously wrong when Amazon’s vaunted logistics cannot match individual sellers on the fleabay.

The problem cannot be laid at the door of the shipping companies, the problem is that Amazon is taking longer to ship the items in the first place. It is an open question whether that delay is intentional (as seems to be the case for Amazon free super shipping orders, or when Netflix delays heavy customers’ DVDs to rate-limit them and thus reduce its shipping costs).

One other factor that has decreased the value of the service is the increasing proportion of items that are part of Amazon’s obnoxious add-on item program. Contrary to Amazon’s statements, many of the items downgraded to add-on status are not ones that were unavailable previously, but rather items that were previously eligible for Prime but no longer are. If I have to accumulate $25 in orders, I might as well go back to the free super saver shipping.

To sweeten the sticker shock, Amazon is bundling streaming video and music, and the Kindle lending library. Those services have essentially zero value for me, as the movie selection is as dismal as Netflix’s (mostly C-list or really old movies, hardly anything you might want to watch), streaming does not have good classical music coverage, and I refuse to use Kindle due to their predatory practices.

I find I am buying considerably less from Amazon these days:

  • Since they introduced sales tax, they are often not competitive with bricks-and-mortar retailers like Target (which will give you an extra 5% discount for using their REDcard) or B&H.
  • I refuse to buy books from Amazon (eBooks from iBooks or straight from the publisher like O’Reilly).
  • I buy my classical music from ArkivMusic (for CDs and SACDs, and they have their own $20/year equivalent of Prime) or FLAC sites like B&W Society of Sound, Linn, eClassical and Chandos.
  • I get my photo gear, computers and other electronics from B&H whenever possible, and that probably accounts for the bulk of my former Amazon dollars.

What’s left?

  • Oddball items hard to source otherwise
  • Tools
  • Household supplies (although I get most of these from Costco or, admittedly an Amazon company now).
  • Very occasionally some specialty grocery items and clothes.

I used Amazon’s handy order history export (temperamental, it fails if you have Amazon Honor System transactions in the selected date range) to calculate how much I spend with them (removing Adorama as they are a big outlier), and the trend is clearly unfavorable to Amazon since the high water mark of 2011. Their changes to Prime (pay more for worse service) are certainly not helping.


Externalities again

I just wasted half an hour of my life on the phone with my credit card company’s fraud department, as someone attempted to buy expensive tickets from an airline in Panama. Most likely my card number was compromised by Target, although it could also be due to Adobe.

It is actually surprising such breaches do not occur on a daily basis—the persons paying for the costs of a compromise (the card holder, defrauded merchants and their credit card companies via the cost of operating their fraud departments) are not the same as those paying for the security measures that would prevent the said breach, a textbook example of what economists call an externality. There are reputational costs to a business that has a major security breach, but they are occurring so often consumers are getting numbed to them.

Many states have mandatory breach disclosure laws, following California’s example. It is time for legislatures to take the next step and impose statutory damages for data breaches, e.g. $100 per compromised credit card number, $1000 per compromised social security number, and so on. In Target’s case, 40 million compromised credit cards multiplied by $100 would mean $4 billion in damages. That would make management take notice and stop paying mere lip service to security. It might also jump-start the long overdue migration to EMV chip-and-PIN cards in the United States.