Revolt of the Revit Ribbon Renegades

I hesitate to cover this subject because my understanding of Revit is very close to nil. I’m going to cover it anyway, because it relates to the Does Autodesk Listen? theme that I’ve discussed here in the past.

Revit 2010 has appeared with a Ribbon interface, and many users don’t like it. Some well-known Revit users, including bloggers, former Autodesk employees and Revit founders, have railed against the new release. Autodesk has been accused of ignoring long-standing wishlists and pre-release feedback. Autodesk has (it is said) wasted precious development resources by introducing a badly-designed and poorly-performing pretty new face at the expense of solving long-standing and much-requested improvements to the core product. The main complaint appears to be that Autodesk didn’t do much with this release, other than introducing an interface that doesn’t work as well as the one it replaced.

All this will sound very familiar to AutoCAD users, but there are some significant differences between the AutoCAD 2009 situation and the Revit 2010 one. First, I think it’s fair to say (even based on my limited knowledge) that the old Revit interface was in some need of attention. It was basically an old NT-style interface that had been left neglected for some years. Revit users may have been mostly happy with the way the interface worked, but the way it looked must have been a bit embarrasing, especially for Autodesk. Second, AutoCAD 2009 left the old interface in place for those people who wanted or needed to use it; with Revit 2010 it’s Ribbon or nothing. There is no transition strategy.

I’m not qualified to make a judgement on whether the complaints about the usability of the new interface are justified. I should also mention that not every Revit user hates everything about Revit 2010, and there are positive comments from some about the new interface. However, I can say that the anti-Ribbon arguments have been expressed not only passionately, but also intelligently and persuasively. It’s not so much a matter of “change is bad”, but more “this change is bad, and here’s why”. Here are some examples:

One More Thing…
One More One More Thing…
A Well-Intentioned Road Paving
Don’t Confuse Change with Progress
Autodesk Bob
Humpty Dumpty Sat On a A Wall…
Dear Autodesk
Revit 2011 – the most significant release EVER

Some of the threads from the AUGI Revit – Out There forum (requires free AUGI membership sign-up to view):

Revit 2010 – New Ribbon UI
1st impression from Revit 2010…
What is your official opinion of 2010?
Who do we complain to?
2009 vs. 2010
Revit evangelist fatigue

Finally, here’s a Dilbert cartoon that was somebody else thought was a relevant comment on this situation.

In a future post, I’ll discuss how Autodesk’s Revit people have reacted to this criticism. Is Autodesk listening? Is it issuing corporate feelgood drivel? Is it circling the wagons and shooting the messengers as they ride by? Or is it doing all of the above?

Network/standalone clash is confined to Raster Design

Autodesk has been in touch to confirm that the failure to allow a mixed network/standalone environment is confined to Raster Design. I haven’t yet tested this myself, but I’ve been told unequivocally that you can mix standalone and network license models for the major products.

Here is the official Autodesk response to the issue:

We are very aware of the issue currently relating to the co-existence of an AutoCAD SLM (stand-alone license) and AutoCAD Raster Design NLM (network license) configuration. This was not an intentional “change of licensing policy” as expressed in some blog posts this week, but an unfortunate side effect of updating our licensing technology for SLM (stand-alone) seats to be in sync with our NLM seats for all AutoCAD-based products. We can only apologize for this new behavior experienced by customers upgrade to 2010 version products.

We are currently pursuing a couple of options to rectify this situation. We do intend to provide a solution in the very near term and I hope you will join me in helping mitigate the frustrations expressed in various blogs this week.

We have also heard of speculations that this issue also impacts side-by-side installations of different AutoCAD desktops. This is not the case. Both software development and QA have successfully installed many different AutoCAD-based 2010 desktops side-by-side in mixed SLM and NLM configurations without any issues.

AutoCAD’s magic vanishing attachments

There are now quite a few file types that you can attach to an AutoCAD drawing as a reference, in the same way that you can attach other drawings as xrefs. We’ve been able to attach other drawings since Release 11 (1990) and images since Release 14 (1997), but every release since 2007 has introduced a new kind of attachment. In AutoCAD 2010, you can now also attach PDFs, MicroStation DGNs (v7 and v8), DWF and DWFx files.

But should you? Maybe not. It depends who is going to use those drawings after you. If you know for certain that every user of that drawing is going to be using 2010 and later, that’s no problem. But if there is the possibility of earlier releases being used, your fine-looking attachments could vanish silently in the night. Attach a PDF to your drawing in 2010, give it to a user of last year’s AutoCAD 2009 (you’ll need to save it as a 2007 DWG) and what will he see? Nothing. There is no text-screen warning, no bounding box, no piece of text indicating the file name, nothing. Just a blank space where there should be useful drawing content.

This problem isn’t new to 2010, because there are similar problems with the other recent attachment types. Let’s examine them one by one:

  • PDF – visible only in 2010 and later (except for the special case of 2009 with the Subscription-only Bonus Pack 2).
  • DWFx – visible only in 2009 and later.
  • DGN v7 – visible only in 2009 and later.
  • DGN v8 – visible only in 2008 and later.
  • DWF – visible only in 2007 and later.

It’s important to note that the attachments don’t actually disappear from the drawing. They are still stored there, even if you save to an earlier DWG format like 2000 or 2004. The attachments survive the round trip to an earlier DWG format intact; they will reappear just fine if reopened in 2010. (Round-tripping of new object types is something that Autodesk has done extremely well over the years).

In most cases, the objects are stored invisibly as proxy objects (object name ACAD_PROXY_ENTITY, known in the early days as zombies). In some cases, they are listed as special Underlay objects (e.g. DGNUnderlay, DWFUnderlay). In 2000 to 2006, they all list as proxies. How can you list these objects in earlier releases when you can’t see them? With a bit of LISP, or old tricks like LIST ALL Remove Crossing.

The moral of the story for drawing creators is to look before you leap whan attaching new object types. For drawing recipients, it’s something to carefully watch out for. If you’re the customer and you use an earlier release, you may even wish to include a don’t-use-this-attachment-type clause in your specifications.

Autodesk plans to fix Raster Design licensing SNAFU

I have been in touch with various people at Autodesk about Raster Design 2010′s failure to work in a mixed standalone/network environment. These people have all been suitably apologetic, they assure me it wasn’t a deliberate move on Autodesk’s part, and that moves are afoot to provide a solution fairly soon. For example:

Our intention was never to cause such inconvenience for our Raster customers with the licensing change. We are currently working on a solution and hope to have more information in the coming weeks.

And:

…we are very aware of the issue currently relating to the co-existence of an AutoCAD SLM and Raster Design NLM. This was not an intentional “change of licensing policy”, but an unfortunate side effect of updating our licensing technology for SLM (stand-alone) seats to be in sync with our NLM seats for all AutoCAD-based products. I can only apologize for this new behavior experienced by customers upgrade to 2010 version products.

We are currently pursuing a couple of options to rectify this situation. We do intend to provide a solution (fix if you will) in the very near term…

The jury is still out about whether this problem affects only Raster Design or is a general problem that prevents a mixed standalone/network environment of AutoCAD and vertical products. If it’s a general problem, it would be an unmitigated disaster for the 2010 product range. I’m getting mixed messages about this from the Autodesk people, but I don’t want to make an issue of that because the people involved are trying to help by providing what information they have as quickly as possible. As soon as I have accurate information available to me I will pass it on.

I know of at least one person who is unable to get a mixed AutoCAD and Revit MEP environment working. If you have tried to get AutoCAD 2010 and another 2010 vertical product working side by side where one is standalone and the other network, please add your experiences to the comments here.

Should you read software license agreements?

Evan Yares has raised an interesting point about the insolvency clause in Autodesk’s End User License Agreement. Please read the whole thing, but the gist is that there’s a clause where if you get into financial difficulties, Autodesk will do its bit to help you out in times of trouble by taking away your software licenses.

This clause extends as far as making an arrangement with your creditors, which is a common enough phrase but can mean several things and isn’t defined within the agreement. So, if your cash flow is a bit tight and you have to ask your phone company for another month to pay your bill, you’ll be sure to stop using all your Autodesk software, won’t you? Never use it again, because otherwise you’ll be a thief.

OK, maybe that’s a bit extreme, but I’m sure it could be interpreted that way by an aggressive and/or inventive lawyer, and Autodesk doesn’t appear to be short of those. Who knows? Why would Autodesk put that kind of thing in its EULAs if there is no intention of ever using it?

That’s an interesting aside, but it’s not my main point. Autodesk EULAs have traditionally contained unreasonable, unconscionable and arguably unenforceable clauses, so there’s nothing particularly remarkable there. My main point relates to reading EULAs in general, not just Autodesk’s. As a general rule, should you do it?

Looking at the polls I’ve done on this subject, lots of you don’t read them. In fact, over two thirds of poll respondents either never read them, or rarely do so. It would be interesting to find the reasons behind that. Do you not have the time? Is it pointless because it’s all legal gobbledygook? Do you trust the software maker to be reasonable? Do you consider click-throughs to be unenforceable? Or are there other reasons? Please let me know. I may do another poll once I have a reasonable set of choices to offer up.

There’s an argument that can be made that you are actually better off not reading these “agreements”. According to this argument, if you don’t read it, how can you have agreed to it? There’s no meeting of the minds. Better still; get somebody outside your company to do the installation for you. That person has no authority to bind your company to anything, so no agreement exists.

Or does it? Is this a valid argument? Until there’s either well-established case law or unambiguous legislation, it’s anybody’s guess. Even when the answer is known, it’s highly likely that the answer will vary depending on your location. Even if the agreement states that it is based on California law, what if the local law establishes that no obligation exists that binds you to that agreement?

What’s the best thing to do? I honestly don’t know. You could do an R. Paul Waddington and make a public repudiation of any obligation to abide by Autodesk’s EULAs, and continue to use the software. You could do what I suspect a large number of people do, which is the same kind of repudiation, but a silent one. You could attempt to negotiate a modified EULA with the software vendor, but I don’t fancy your chances. You could stop using software with unreasonable EULAs, but what kind of choice is that? It may not be possible at all for your business. Finally, you could just put up and shut up, either agreeing unreservedly to accept whatever is in the EULA, or crossing your fingers in the hope that the software vendor will do the right thing.

What choice have you made, and why?

Autodesk messes up Raster Design 2010 licensing

I was horrified to learn (in this Autodesk Discussion Group thread) that Autodesk has changed the rules as far as the way Raster Design licenses are handled. It’s quite possible that Autodesk has also done this with other products that I’m not yet aware of. If so, please comment and let me know.

If you’re not familiar with Raster Design, it’s an Autodesk add-on that adds raster handling capabilities to AutoCAD and AutoCAD-based products. The change that has been introduced is that the licensing method of AutoCAD and Raster Design now has to match. That is, if your AutoCAD is standalone, the network version of Raster Design won’t run on it, and vice versa.

Why does this matter? Let’s say you’re a CAD Manager in this scenario:

You have a hundred AutoCAD users, half of which are full-time users with standalone licenses and the other half who are mainly part-time users with network licenses. Let’s say that some of those users (of both types) have a very occasional need to use the features in Raster Design. You bought one network license of the product a few releases ago and have everything on Subscription, just the way Autodesk wants it. So far, you’ve been able to provide the Raster Design option to all of your users. Only one user at a time can use it, but as use of the product is pretty rare, this hasn’t been a problem to date. If demand increased, other licenses could be added as needed.

Now, with Raster Design 2010, this is no longer possible. Your network license will not be available to your standalone users. You have the following options:

  1. Buy 50 standalone licenses of Raster Design 2010 for your standalone AutoCAD 2010 users, i.e. spend a huge amount of money on software that will go unused more than 99% of the time. Oh, and commit more money to maintaining that software with Subscription.
  2. Convert all your AutoCAD licenses from standalone to network. This is not a free service. Last time I looked, it cost about 20% of the retail price of a new seat. That means you will need to waste a huge amount of money changing your AutoCAD licenses to work in a way that is an inferior match with the way you do business. If you’ve already provided AutoCAD 2010 to your standalone users, you’ll need to uninstall them all and reinstall them as network versions. Won’t that be fun?
  3. Upgrade neither AutoCAD or Raster Design to 2010 and stick with the release you’ve got, i.e. waste a large amount of pre-paid Subscription money.
  4. Do without Raster Design altogether, i.e. waste the money you’ve spent on the product purchase and Subscription. In this case, you’ll probably need to put some time, effort and further expenditure into investigating and buying third-party alternatives that have a sane network licensing policy. Who said Autodesk is hard on its third-party developers? Look, it’s actively drumming up business for them!

Wow. This, in an environment where people are looking to save money. It doesn’t matter what efforts the Raster Design developers have put into improving the product. Raster Design could do twice as much stuff, twice as well, in half the time, while looking prettier and playing a tune. For many customers, this licensing decision has rendered the product unusable, so none of that stuff will matter. Why did you bother, people?

It’s such a spectacularly stupid move that it’s hard to comprehend that anybody within Autodesk could even seriously contemplate the idea, let alone allow it to get through to the finished product. Here are my top ten reasons why this is dumb even from Autodesk’s point of view:

  1. It adds another unnecessary pain point to CAD Managers. These are generally the people who are currently working out whether to upgrade, pay for Subscription, or stick with what they have and pay Autodesk nothing, so they are the people Autodesk should be most careful to avoid hurting.
  2. It will discourage some people from using the current release of the products.
  3. It will discourage other people from keeping their Subscription current.
  4. It will encourage some customers to ask for their money back for Raster Design, Subscription or both. If this is refused, it could even lead to another bad-publicity court case.
  5. It is a negative example people will use when deciding whether Autodesk can be trusted to do the right thing by its customers, once they are all tied into Subscription.
  6. It will discourage people who may have been interested in Raster Design from buying it.
  7. It will discourage people from investing in any other Autodesk add-on software in future.
  8. It will increase the perception that Autodesk doesn’t care about its customers and is always looking out for sneaky cash grabs.
  9. It will increase the perception that Autodesk is clueless about how its products are used in the real world.
  10. It distracts from the generally positive news about the AutoCAD 2010 product family. I’ve got some nice things to say about AutoCAD 2010, but I’m writing this instead.

Autodesk, this is a particularly nasty anti-customer move, and that’s the polite way of putting it. I stongly advise you to reverse this decision. I don’t care if you’ve made it technically difficult for yourself to do so; just do it. Please.

Disclosure: the above scenario is not a million miles from the situation in which I find myself. So it’s something that directly affects me. But it’s something so dumb and annoying that I’d still be ranting about it, even if that were not the case.

Not another SpacePilot PRO review

This post is not about the new SpacePilot PRO 3D controller from 3Dconnexion (a division of Logitech). This post is about the Internet coverage of the launch of that new device, journalism, blogging, freebies and ethics.

It has long been common practice for companies to give out free stuff to journalists. Free gadgets, free transport and other expenses for attending events, free beer, free lunch… oh, wait, there’s no such thing. As blogging has risen in prominence, that practice has been extended to providing free stuff for bloggers. It was traditional in the past for such freebies to go unmentioned in reports about the products of such companies. I think the first time I saw this kind of thing disclosed was by Ralph Grabowski, and I was impressed. Maybe it’s just the sites I read, but I see more of that kind of disclosure in blogs than I do in the traditional press (whatever that means these days).

It seems that 3Dconnexion is distributing its US$499 SpacePilot PRO devices like confetti (particluarly at SolidWorks World), hoping to get as much coverage as it can. It’s working. Not that I think there’s anything wrong with that. If a company wants to let potential customers know about its products, and if those customers read blogs, it makes sense for the company to send samples to bloggers in the hope that they get reviewed. As long as there are no strings attached, I see no ethical problem with that. If a negative review led to a reviewer being taken off the freebies list then I definitely would have a very big problem with that, but I see no evidence of that from 3Dconnexion.

Where I do see an ethical issue is when a freebie is received, a review is written, and no disclosure is made. I think readers are entitled to know about any free stuff associated with a review, and I think this applies equally to press and blogs.

Let’s have a look at some recent SpacePilot PRO coverage to see how we’re travelling at the moment. The following sites have mentions or reports without explicit disclosure. In many cases a mention is made of having one (or waiting for one) but it’s not clear if this is a free SpacePilot PRO, or if the writer has paid for one. If you’re one of these people, feel free to set the record straight either here or on your own site.

Here’s how I think it should have been done:

There are almost certainly other reviews and mentions that I’ve missed, so feel free to inform me and I’ll add to the above lists.

I hasten to point out that I’m not throwing stones here. I’m not accusing any of these people of writing positive reviews in return for a cool gadget. I’m just encouraging everybody to unambiguously declare any freebies they receive, that are associated in any way with whatever they write.

On Twitter, I see several of my fellow AutoCAD bloggers impatiently awaiting the arrival of their cool gadget. When they receive them, I expect we will see more reviews, and it will be interesting to see how many of those reviews include full disclosure, especially now I’ve raised the issue.

Here’s my own disclosure about my personal association with 3Dconnexion. I investigated the use of 3D controllers for a client and suggested the purchase of a couple of pretty expensive 3Dconnexion SpaceBall 5000 devices. Within months of purchase, 3Dconnexion made these obsolete without warning and failed to produce any new drivers for them, making them expensive paperweights.

When I attended AU 2006 (at Autodesk’s expense as a MyFeedback Scholarship), I turned up at the Press Room looking for a Press badge, as I am a Cadalyst writer. I received a Press person’s small bag of assorted goodies from various vendors. This included pens, small USB keys and the like, but a 3Dconnexion SpacePilot was the stand-out freebie. I later suggested that my client purchase a couple of SpacePilots to replace the obsolete SpaceBalls. Not because of the freebie, but because they were the cheapest suitable devices available.

So, on a personal level that’s one up and one down for 3Dconnexion. My view of 3Dconnexion is about the same as that of parent company Logitech. I like the devices, I’ll even use my own money to buy them, but I don’t think a good enough job is done of supporting recently purchased devices with updated drivers as new software arrives.

I haven’t received a SpacePilot PRO or the promise of one. I’m not sore about that. I haven’t asked or been asked. If they do happen to send me one, I’ll play with it and if I think it’s worth writing about, I’ll do so in an unbiased way and with full disclosure.

Autodesk Assistance Program and the educational watermark

You have probably seen blog posts about the Autodesk Assistance Program (see the FAQ PDF), promoted as a hand-up for the less fortunate who find themselves unemployed as a result of the current financial environment. The Autodesk PR makes it clear that the free software on offer is a 13-month student license. However, the consequences of using such software are not made clear, so I’ll spell it out here.

If you use Autodesk educational software, you are not supposed to use it for commercial purposes. So, if you’ve just lost your position and were hoping to set yourself up with a few odd jobs here and there, building yourself up to a full-time drafting and design shop, don’t use the Autodesk Assistance Program software to do it. It’s useful only to help you keep your skills up to date, nothing else.

What happens if you do use it for real work? Bad things. If Autodesk finds out, it might set a pack of rabid lawyers on you. How might Autodesk find out? Through your clients. Why would your clients tell Autodesk? Ah, that’s where the educational watermark comes into it.

Every DWG file saved by the educational version of AutoCAD is invisibly stamped, recording that fact. That includes blocks extracted using Wblock, of course. If such a drawing is ever plotted, even by a normal, fully-paid-up AutoCAD, a text stamp will appear along all four sides, proclaiming that the drawing is For Educational Use Only.

Trouble is, the invisible stamp passes from drawing to drawing like a virus, particularly among users of older releases. If somebody uses the educational version to just look at a drawing and happens to save it, that drawing is indelibly stamped with the mark of the Beast. If any part of that drawing is ever inserted into another, it carries the infection with it. It has been possible for companies acting totally honestly to end up with a large number of infected drawings, only to discover the extent of the disaster when plotting out a drawing set.

This has been less of an issue in recent years, because in AutoCAD from 2004 on, there’s a warning issued in the non-student versions of AutoCAD if an infested drawing is inserted or opened. It’s also possible for users of AutoCAD 2000 to 2002 to receive such a warning, using the EDU-Scan utility from ManuSoft.

Despite misinformation about this from Autodesk (e.g. “There is no way to circumvent the plot stamp” from here), such drawings can be cured. Innocent victims of the infestation can apply to their AutoCAD dealers for a special utility, time-limited to 15 days, to fix up the drawings. A DOS utility is also available that can identify the infected drawings. You may be asked to identify the source of the drawings before being provided with anything.

Alternatively, users of the non-student version can clean up infected drawings easily enough with an option of a very commonly used AutoCAD command. No, I’m not going to tell you which command, and please don’t email me to ask. I can tell you it was the first thing I tried when I came across such a drawing, and it worked perfectly. If you’re an innocent party in that unfortunate situation, a few minutes experimentation should see you right.

I wonder if an unintended side-effect of the Autodesk Assistance Program is going to be a rise in the incidence of educationally-tainted drawings. For those who ever receive drawings from other parties (probably most of us), it’s something to keep an eye out for. For those who intend using the Autodesk Assistance Program software, it’s a good idea to make sure you keep a tight rein on any drawings you produce with it. Because distributing student-stamped drawings is likely to do your future employment prospects no good at all.

Guillermo Melantoni’s 3D blog

What a Mesh is another new Autodesk blog, this time from Autodesk 3D guru Guillermo Melantoni. You may remember Guillermo mentioning his forthcoming blog in my A gaggle of geeks video, and now it has arrived. You can also see Guillermo in action in several videos about AutoCAD 2010′s new 3D mesh capabilities on AutoCAD Exchange.

Guillermo is very, very smart, he expertly uses the products he develops (the building on the AutoCAD 2010 packaging was done by him), and it’s great to see him interacting with users in this way.

New Autodesk blog for AutoCAD support

I’ve added a link to Without A Net, a new blog on support issues, technical solutions, fixes, and tips for AutoCAD. It’s run by Tom Stoeckel, global technical lead for AutoCAD product support. In my limited experience, I’ve found Tom to be a fine fellow with his customers’ needs at heart. This blog promises to be a worthwhile addition to the existing AutoCAD support mechanisms, and I commend Autodesk and Tom for introducing it.

More on ODA, Autodesk and click-through agreements

Evan Yares has provided more information on the incident I mentioned in my last post. Here it is:

It was years ago. My guess was that the person who did it was just trying to spider the website pages, for marketing research, and didn’t realize he got all the libraries too.

In any event, I said hey you did this, they said no we didn’t, I produced download logs, they said there was no agreement and even if there was we hereby cancel it, I said if you want to see our libraries I’ll send ‘em to you no strings, they said no thanks, then I just let it drop. Of course, I’m paraphrasing.

I wasn’t going to get in a fight with Autodesk. Trying to trick them into joining the ODA would have been both futile and dumb. I’d been trying for years to get them to join (I was an optimist, once upon a time), and it caused no damage for Autodesk to be able to see the ODA libraries. There wasn’t anything in them that they didn’t know better than we did.

Don’t read too much into Autodesk’s belief in the enforceability of click-through agreements based on this incident. I knew the guy who downloaded the files, and knew that he didn’t have the authority to bind Autodesk to an ODA membership agreement (it would have taken at least a VP to do that.)

This is interesting for more than just the amusement factor; it raises a serious point about the enforceability of click-through agreements. In this case it was a web-based membership agreement, but I’m more interested in software license agreements.

In most cases, the person doing a software installation is unlikely to be a Vice President or higher. It’s quite possible that the installer doesn’t even work directly for the company that is supposedly agreeing to whatever terms may be hidden behind the “I Agree” button. In fact, that’s the situation I’m regularly faced with when I install software for a client. The client certainly doesn’t view the “agreement” and may not even know that it exists. The client hasn’t authorised me to negotiate a contract with anyone, only to get some software working. There’s no “meeting of the minds”. The software vendor may think that the client is bound up tight by the terms of the EULA; the client hasn’t agreed to anything and either doesn’t know the EULA exists or doesn’t consider it to have any validity.

Does it matter? Maybe not. It only really matters when one party or the other doesn’t do the right thing. Fortunately, I have honest clients and I’m confident that they will act in an ethical way on an ongoing basis. But will the software vendors do likewise? I don’t know.

Evan Yares, ODA, Autodesk and click-through agreements

I’ve always found it entertaining when the lawyers of CAD companies do their best to make their clients look like total jerks. The opening shots as presented by Evan Yares in his proposed ODA class-action lawsuit indicate that there is another rich source of recreational reading on its way. I’m sure it’s no fun for the lawyer-paying people involved, though.

You would think that Autodesk would be rubbing its corporate hands together at the prospect of the ODA being distracted like this. Or maybe not, if the bunfight throws up more little gems like this:

Autodesk had at least once gone to the ODA website, agreed to the click-through membership agreement, received their access password via email, downloaded each and every library on the ODA’s website, then denied they did it. (The ensuing conversation about this, between the ODA and Autodesk, was pretty interesting, to say the least.)

If that’s true (and I would welcome evidence from either party) it certainly puts an interesting slant on what Autodesk thinks about the enforceability of click-through agreements.

On a related subject, see the polls on the right. There has been one running for a while about whether you even read such “agreements”, and I’ve added two more. They ask if you feel morally and legally bound by the terms that lie under that “let me get on with the installation” button.

Buying 24″ monitors – is now the right time?

I’m doing my bit to reduce the impact of the global financial crisis. Yesterday, I went out and bought a couple of new 24″ monitors to replace my perfectly functional pair of 19″ LCDs. It now looks like I’m facing a huge wall of pixels and I don’t quite know where to look, but I felt like that after moving from my old 19″ CRT to the pair of 19″ LCDs, so I’m sure I will get used to it soon enough. The 19″ LCDs haven’t gone to waste, they are now adorning an older PC which was previously attached to the old and now slowly-dying 19″ CRT.

Why was it a good time for me to buy new monitors? Because of the way monitor aspect ratios are going. The “sweet spot” for monitors right now is 22″ or 23″, where a serious number of pixels are available for very little cash. Trouble is, the pixels are in the wrong place. Almost all monitors of that size have a resolution of 1920 x 1080, a ratio of 16:9, same as a full HD TV. A vertical resolution of 1080 doesn’t provide a significant advantage over an old 19″ 1280 x 1024 (4:3 ratio) monitor.

When I’m not doing CAD or image manipulation, I’m generally doing things that involve lots of vertical scrolling; word processing, reading web pages, that sort of thing. Often, those web pages have a fixed-width design (e.g. AutoCAD Exchange), so adding extra screen width gains me nothing but extra wide stripes on each side. With more and more software having a deep horizontal stripe dedicated to user interface elements, there’s not much point investing in only 56 extra pixels (5.4%) of height.

From my point of view it’s better to pay a bit extra and go for an extra 176 pixels (17.1%) of height: a 1920 x 1200 (16:10 ratio) monitor. These are available in various sizes, but the cheapest ones, and the ones that will fit side-by-side on my desk, are 24″. But these are becoming less common. Even as I’ve been looking over the past few weeks, the number of 24″ 1920 x 1200 monitor models available in my area has dropped off significantly. Unless you’re very careful, if you buy a 24″ monitor it’s likely to be 1920 x 1080.

Why? Many of these monitors are now being used for games consoles; 1920 x 1080 is all they will use. Same with HD TVs; 16:9 is the current fashion in LCD panel ratios, and it looks likely to stay that way. It makes sense for manufacturers to make 16:9 panels, so 16:10 panels are only going to get rarer.

That may make sense for the manufacturers, but it doesn’t help me as a vertical-pixel-hungry customer. Unless I’m prepared to go for much bigger, desk-hogging and expensive monitors, all I’m going to gain with a 16:9 screen is a bunch of width. Even a 27″ monitor I considered, at roughly twice the price of a 24″, offered “only” 2048 X 1152.

I made the decision. I bought a pair of 24″ 1920 x 1200 monitors while I still could. I found a good-value model I could view in the store, with a small enough bezel (important if you’re using them side by side), a height-adjustable stand, and an excellent warranty (3 years pixel-perfect). For me, it was the right time. Maybe it is for you, too?

AutoCAD 2010 – Turning off InfoCenter

I generally avoid the still-awful Autodesk discussion groups these days, but I do hop in from time to time in the vain hope of seeing some improvement. In doing so, I occasionally pick up a gem, and that happened today. I think this one deserves a wider audience, so here it is.

In AutoCAD 2010, you can disable the InfoCenter toolbar by opening the
registry, and going to the following key:

HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Autodesk\AutoCAD\R18.0\ACAD-8001:409\InfoCenter

In that key there’s a value with the name “InfoCenterOn”.

Changing that value from 1 to 0 will disable the InfoCenter toolbar.

Source: Tony Tanzillo in this thread. Note that the “ACAD-8001″ part will be different if you use a vertical variant of AutoCAD.

Why would you want to do this? To improve startup times and reduce annoyance. Autodesk should have provided a better mechanism for doing this. The absence of convenient, designed-in off switches for new features is something I’ve complained about on many occasions over the years. Autodesk’s response has been patchy.

Edit: I just noticed Owen Wengerd has posted about this, including a LISP routine to simplify the process of turning it on and off.

Autodesk to more than triple upgrade prices

As reported at Revit3D.com, next March will see a major change to the way Autodesk prices its upgrades. All upgrades will cost 50% of the full retail price rather than the much smaller percentage that is currently charged. If you upgrade yearly, that means the cost of doing so will be about 3.35 times greater than it is now. Clearly, Autodesk doesn’t want you doing that, and would much prefer you to be tied into the Subscription program, and is introducing some subtle encouragement to nudge you in the right direction.

Here is the rationale according to an Autodesk spokesperson:

I can confirm that after March 16, 2010, a streamlined upgrade pricing model will go into effect–all upgrades, cross-grades, and retroactive Subscription fees up to three releases back will be priced at 50 percent of a full license.

We are doing this to better match the needs and buying behaviors of our customers. A significant number of our customers have already moved to Autodesk Subscription. Only a small percentage of customers who do not have Autodesk Subscription purchase upgrades every year. Most of those customers upgrade every three years.

We believe that simple, straightforward pricing will help make it easier to do business with us. We also believe the new policy will make it more convenient and cost-effective for customers to keep their Autodesk software up-to-date.

So now you know, it’s being done for your own good. Happy?

Some thoughts on AutoCAD Exchange

I’ve added a link to Autodesk’s new AutoCAD community site, AutoCAD Exchange. As with most things Autodesk, there are pros and cons. Here are my first impressions.

I think it looks good in a Vista-black kind of way. I know some of you don’t like the black look in software, but I do. The layout looks a bit cluttered and confused at first, but I’m sure visitors will quickly get used to where to find things. The site appears to be designed around 1024-wide resolution. If you have more than this, as most CAD users do, then there are wide areas of wasted space either side of the good stuff.

The front page is basically a teaser. To get to the useful content or do pretty much anything, you need to register or sign in. I don’t particularly like this, and it gives the impression (false or not) that Autodesk wants to own and control you, even if you’re just viewing a site. The registration process is the same as for other Autodesk sites such as the discussion groups, so if you have an Autodesk identity, you’re already registered.

As it is a “community” site, on first sign-in you are invited to fill in more details, provide an avatar and so on. Some people might not like this, but it’s optional and Autodesk knows where I live so it makes no difference to me. I know where Autodesk lives, too. It has yet to be seen if Autodesk manages to develop a real community on this site, and if so, how open that community is allowed to be.

Autodesk is encouraging bloggers to add an Autodesk Exchange widget to their blogs. I won’t be adding one in a permanent position because this is my blog and not Autodesk’s. I kind of like my independence, and if a company wants space on my blog they can pay for it. Anyway, the widget is available in three sizes and here’s what the largest one looks like:

I’m likely to appear in one of those little interview videos soon, as they were shot during the bloggers’ visit to San Fransisco in early February. When you do get to see it, yes, that’s really me (and Melanie Perry) saying nice things about AutoCAD 2010, it’s not computer generated. Except for the background, that is, which is computer generated. It was bright green in real life. Other than that, no deception, lies, arm-twisting or bribes were involved. Oh, unless you count the free trip to San Fransisco as a bribe. I interviewed Autodesk, they interviewed me, and I actually had positive things to say about AutoCAD 2010. More on that later.

AutoCAD Exchange is an important and potentially very useful site for AutoCAD users. Check it out, and if you feel like it, report back. You can pretty much say what you like here.

Bug watch – mystery insect identified

It appears that the mystery bug was in fact a mole cricket. It appears that these things are poorly understood and I should have passed it on to our local museum. I should definitely not have put it on our lawn, as it appears that these things are quite likely to be the culprit behind the damaged patches on our lawn.

Bug watch – identify this insect

No, not the Bug Watch, just a bug you can watch. Does anybody know what this insect is? It is the second one of these we’ve found in our home in Western Australia. It’s very active and it smells horrible.

YouTube Link

For those of you who can’t access YouTube, here are some photos of the bug:

Mystery Bug

A higher resolution version of the above picture is available here. This is the bug about to be given its freedom:

Mystery Bug

On release, it buried itself in our lawn:

Mystery Bug

In 25 years in Australia, I had never seen one of these until recently. Any ideas?

Death to robo-responses!

The responses to Carol Bartz’s blog post are an interesting read, and not just because of the astonishing amount of attention being paid to her language. One person pointed out how irritating it was to be “helped” by Yahoo’s dumb automated “support” system:

I have never – repeat, NEVER – had a human response to ANY email or form-submitted help request that I’ve sent to Yahoo!

NEVER!

All my experience of communicating with Yahoo! customer ’support’ is characterised by exchanges such as:

Me: Hi, I need help with Messenger on the Mac

Y!: Thankyou for contacting customer support. Here are some tips for getting Messenger to work on Windows.

Me: Uh, thanks, but I’m on a Mac. Can you help me with Messenger on the Mac please?

Y!: Thankyou for contacting customer support. Please follow these steps for uninstalling Messenger and re-installing it on Windows.

Me: Um.. haha… good one. No. Really. Can you help me with Messenger on the Mac please?

Y!: Thankyou for contacting customer support. Here are some tips for getting Messenger to work on Windows.

And so on…

I’d like to think the people who actually work in customer support are just as amazing as you say they are, but I’ve never had contact with one so I have no way of really knowing.

Not long after reading that, I had a similar experience myself. I had ordered something worth several hundred dollars from the UK, and it was sent via Parcelforce. I used the on-line tracking system to check its progress, and late on 28 February I was surprised to see the following line had been added:

28-02-2009 17:00 Delivery Agent – AUSTRALIA Parcel delivered

I was surprised because no such delivery took place. I had been at home at the stated time and there was no hint of a delivery van, ring on the doorbell, or box left at the door. Even if the stated time was for the UK rather than my local time, I was in then, too.

So I used the Contact us link to ask what was going on. I filled in all the details requested (including the tracking number) and received an automated response fairly quickly:

Thank you for your email.

This is an automated acknowledgement to your Email, please do not respond to this message.

We will aim to reply to your enquiry within the next two working days. Our business hours are Mon-Fri: 8am to 7pm and Sat 8:30am to 12.30pm. Please accept our apologies for any inconvenience that this may cause.

I have no problem with this kind of auto-response. It confirms to me that my query is in their system and they have my correct email address. However, two working days is an excessive amount of time to wait for a response for this kind of service. What if I had needed the parcel urgently? As it happens, I didn’t, so I waited patiently for the real response.

In the meantime, the parcel was actually delivered on 1 March, about 24 hours after the tracking system had preemptively claimed. On 2 March, I received this follow-up email:

Dear Steve Johnson

Thank you for your enquiry.

Please accept my apologies for the inconvenience caused to you as a result of this delay. I can understand your disappointment that the parcel was not delivered on the due delivery date.

Hmm, how can you understand my disappointment? You didn’t understand the problem. There wasn’t a due delivery date. There was a false delivery recorded in the Parcelforce tracking system, which is altogether different.

At present I am unable to arrange for an investigation into the whereabouts of your parcel until I have received the information listed below:

Sender’s details (name, UK address, *contact telephone number)
Recipient’s details (name, address, *contact telephone number)
Posting date
Description of item
Parcel contents (Mandatory – search cannot be initiated without this information)
Value of item

*Please note our Search Team require telephone numbers in order to contact either the sender or the receiver of the parcel. A search cannot be initiated without this information.

To ensure that you receive the quickest response to your enquiry, please could you forward the above information to [removed]@parcelforce.co.uk we will then be able to commence the search.

I am sorry I cannot deal with your enquiry at this stage but can assure you that once the above information has been received, our Search Team will do all they can to resolve this for you.

Really, WTF? The email subject included the tracking number, which leads directly to most of that information in the Parcelforce database. The information that isn’t readily available in that way is information that I, as the recipient, would quite possibly not have available. For example, what if the parcel is a gift? This list of demands looks like a deliberate attempt to hamper communication with customers.

Kind regards

Tracy [removed]
Parcelforce Worldwide
Customer Service Email Team

Hmm, Tracy, I don’t think you’re real. You’re a computer-generated response, aren’t you? Now I have my parcel, I don’t think I’ll bother trying to communicate with you any more.

Why do companies like Parcelforce and Yahoo! insist on sending out useless robo-responses like this while attempting to maintain the obvious fiction that they are human responses? Maybe at a superficial level it appears to save money? Maybe it does, but that doesn’t allow for the lost income from the customers it drives away. Customers who need real support but don’t get it. Customers who object to being lied to. Even customers, like me, who are just trying to inform a company about failures within its systems? Failures that won’t now be addressed, because nobody human is ever going to read about them.

Gaahl’s Tr00 Life Adventures Week 10, and Peter Beste

Time for my own bad Photoshop. Truly, truly awful work here. This is the tenth and last (so far) edition of Gaahl’s Tr00 Life Adventures. Click the thumbnail to see the full size image.

Gaahl Week 10

This one contains a few in-jokes (e.g. “many Norwegian countries”) from the Mike Portnoy forum community that was the original audience, so much of the original amusement will be lost. I am posting this one mainly to complete the set.

The original Gaahl photograph is by Houston documentary photographer Peter Beste, who has this to say on his site:

In the last two decades a bizarre and violent musical subculture called black metal has emerged in Norway. It’s roots stem from a heady blend of horror films, extreme heavy metal music, Satanism, pagan mythology, and adolescent angst. In the early-mid 1990′s, members of this extremist underground committed murder, burned down medieval wooden churches, and desecrated graveyards. What started as a juvenile frenzy came to symbolize the start of a war against Christianity, a return to the worship of the ancient Norse gods, and the complete rejection of mainstream society.

I have spent the last 7 years photographing in this insulated and secretive community.

I am pleased to report that Peter has no objection to his original photograph being (ab)used in this way. If you’re intrigued or amused by these black metal guys, check out his site for more images. There is even a book called True Norwegian Black Metal, available (of course) in a limited edition of 666 copies.

Peter has taken photographs of other subjects, including similarly confronting ones of Houston rap culture (some include nudity), with a book due to follow on that subject later this year.

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