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 – 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.

Bartz the blogger

Autodesk’s Executive Chairman of the Board (who has one or two other little jobs, too) has made a Yahoo! blog post in which she promises to kick a donkey, or something.

Yahoo! if of only tangential interest to me; I don’t particularly care if it thrives or if it dies. However, it’s good to see Carol communicating directly in this way, and it’s good to see her emphasise the importance of looking after the customer, placing emphasis on efficiency over innovation for innovation’s sake, and promising to do better at listening. Welcome to the blogsphere, Carol.

A gaggle of geeks

Time to lighten things up a bit, I think. While attending the AutoCAD 2010 product launch in San Francisco on 5 February 2009, I conducted a series of micro-interviews with a collection of AutoCAD bloggers and Autodesk employees. One geek asks 14 other geeks if they are geeks; nothing too serious here. I hope Shaan enjoys my tabloid journalist editing job right at the end.

YouTube link.

Thanks to all the interviewees:

Heidi Hewett, Autodesk blogger
Lynn Allen, Autodesk blogger
Melanie Perry, blogger
Robin Capper, blogger
Brian Benton, blogger
Todd Shackelford, blogger
Jon Page, Autodesk person
Matt Stein, Autodesk person and personal blogger
Shaan Hurley, Autodesk blogger
Donnie Gladfelter, blogger
Ellen Finklestein, blogger
David Cohn, blogger
Mark Douglas, blogger
Guillermo Melantoni, Autodesk person (still waiting for that blog, Guillermo!)

What is the collective noun for geeks, anyway?

Autodesk answers – 4 of 4

The final question is from metis:

Q: why is program size increasing and performance dramatically decreasing as hardware specs dramatically increase? as features “improve” and are added functionality should not be removed, and code should be streamlined.

seriously aren’t there any real programmers out there anymore? this thing isn’t written in java by a bunch of scriptkiddies (although 2009 sure is skinned like it was).

A: We made a number of performance improvements in AutoCAD 2010 over the previous release, and would appreciate hearing from you if you are encountering significant performance slowdowns with this latest release. If so, please send us details on what you were doing at the time, sample files if possible, and details on the machine you are using. This will help us improve performance further in upcoming releases of AutoCAD.

Autodesk answers – 3 of 4

The third question, courtesy of Earl Kubaskie, is:

Q: I would ask why there seems to be so little cooperation between the development teams. Vanilla, Map 3D, Civil 3D, each seem to be separate little empires. ACA might be in there, too, but I don’t use it, and thus I don’t apply for the betas.

I would think that closer interaction (and consolidation of beta testing teams) would smooth out the process – and maybe help get Matt his wish re bonus packs.

A: This is an ongoing area of focus for us, and this year we are making further changes that we believe will help bring the AutoCAD family of products closer together. In this release you’ll see consistency between the user interface as well as some of the new features, such as hatch enhancements, that behave similarly across AutoCAD products.

Autodesk answers – 2 of 4

In a comment on the first of these posts, Ralph G raised the possibility that these answers have been edited by marketing people. I have checked with Eric Stover and he assures me these answers come direct from the program managers concerned and are unmassaged by marketers. That ties in with the partial email trail that came with the answers. It also ties in with the impression I have formed recently that Autodesk is starting to open up a bit. That’s a trend I’m happy to encourage.

There’s one thing that clinches the marketing-interference matter for me. Despite Eric being on vacation when I sent in the request, the answers came back in days rather than weeks or months.

Enough of that, here’s the next question, courtesy of Matt Stachoni:

Q: Why haven’t the latest Subscription Bonus Packs been released for AutoCAD Architecture Subscription customers?

A: This year was the first time we released bonus packs continuously throughout the year to AutoCAD subscription customers, and we had a lot to learn about how to best deliver the bonus packs, and how often to release them. Based on our learnings from this year, our plan for the coming year is to ensure that AutoCAD Architecture (and other AutoCAD vertical product) subscription customers also receive any AutoCAD updates and bonus packs we deliver.

Autodesk answers – 1 of 4

At the end of January, I asked for your questions to put to Autodesk product managers. My intention was to pose your questions in a video interview format while attending the AutoCAD 2010 product launch, but for logistical reasons I was unable to make this happen.

Autodesk’s Eric Stover kindly arranged for your questions to be answered anyway. The delay in getting these answers back to you is my responsibility, not Autodesk’s. The answers come courtesy of the following product managers:

  • Diane Li – lead manager on AutoCAD;
  • Guillermo Melantoni – 3D and Parametrics expert;
  • Kathy O’Connell – customer requests, quality improvements, and 2D improvements.

I will post each question and answer a day apart, to give you chance to comment on each issue separately. Here is the first question, courtesy of Chris Cowgill:

Q: With the current release cycle being so short, has anyone considered suspending a new release for a time, to spend an entire release cycle working on improving/restoring functionality of existing features and fixing bugs, why, or why not?

A: With any given release, we aim to deliver a healthy balance of new features & functionality along with improvements to existing functionality, so we can help enable new ways of doing design, but also provide more efficient ways of working the way you do today. We plan to continue this balancing act for future releases, but have also started delivering regular product updates (formerly known as ‘service packs’) throughout the year. So, rather than requiring you to wait for a new release of the product to get product improvements, this year we delivered 3 product updates that included hundreds of bug fixes to existing AutoCAD features and functionality.

Older AutoCAD loses (part of) the plot

I know there are plenty of people still using AutoCAD 2007 and earlier, so this bug warning may save some of you some grief. I have no idea how widespread or isolated this problem is, but under some circumstances I haven’t worked out yet, AutoCAD 2007 fails to plot all of certain dynamic blocks. Some attributes have a habit of being plot-shy. Even if you don’t use dynamic blocks yourself, you could receive a set of drawings, check them on-screen, approve them, plot them and send out paper drawings without all of their parts. Unless you’re carefully manually checking the paper plots, this situation is obviously a little dangerous. Fortunately, Plot Preview also shows up the problem, so it is at least possible to check things without wasting trees.

Here’s an example. This is part of such a drawing displayed in AutoCAD 2007, with all of its parts in place. One of the dynamic blocks is highlighted:

Drawing in AutoCAD 2007 with all its parts in place

Here’s that drawing plotted using AutoCAD 2007, showing the missing parts:

Drawing plotted in AutoCAD 2007 with parts missing

Earlier releases do the same, including pre-dynamic block releases. As DWF files are just electronic plots, the same problem applies to them. Yes, I’ve checked for non-plotting layers and looked into the visibility states within the dynamic blocks. An audit of the drawing indicates no problems. Attribute visibility settings are not an issue.

Here’s the same drawing plotted using AutoCAD 2009 (2008 and 2010 are fine, too):

Drawing plotted in AutoCAD 2009 with parts intact

What to do? Using a later release would solve it, but might not be a practicable solution in your office right now. Instead, you could consider using DWG TrueView for your plotting. That may not be ideal either, but it could be better than risking the consequences of an unknown number of your plots containing an unknown number of missing parts in unknown places.

Have you come across this problem? If you have any more clues about the circumstances that trigger it, please add a comment.

Vernor v Autodesk – why I think Autodesk is right

Well, there’s a statement I wasn’t expecting to make. Let me preface these comments with a disclaimer. I have no legal qualifications whatsoever. I make no claims of knowing who is legally right in this David v. Goliath legal battle; that’s for the courts to decide. When I make the statement that I think Autodesk is right, I don’t mean legally right, I mean morally right.

I have been following this fight with interest, but only in a half-baked way, third-hand via commentators (like myself, now). Based on my skimming of that commentary, my natural inclination to support the underdog, and my general dislike of of Autodesk’s previous and current legal adventures, I had been of the firm but privately held opinion that Vernor was right and Autodesk was wrong.

Today, after noting that new filings had been made, I had a proper look at some (not all) of the actual court documents themselves (thanks to Owen Wengerd’s CAD/Court), and surprised myself by coming to quite the opposite conclusion. I am now convinced that I was totally wrong.*

Until today, I was hoping that the court would support Vernor’s assertion that the First Sale doctrine applies in this case. Why? Because I feel that Autodesk is morally wrong in attempting to prevent the transfer of its software from one party to another.** At one time, Autodesk allowed AutoCAD to be resold (despite the EULA of the time saying that it wasn’t allowed) and indeed actively supported the transfer process. I felt at the time that Autodesk’s introduction of this restriction of a customer’s ability to resell AutoCAD was morally wrong. I still feel that way.

I also feel Autodesk is morally wrong in geographically restricting the sale of its software, and in several other areas of its EULA. I would be quite happy to have a court find that Autodesk is legally wrong in those areas, too. Despite that, I feel that it would be A Bad Thing if Vernor won in this case.

Why? Because Vernor was selling software that effectively didn’t exist. He was selling used copies of Release 14, when those copies had already been upgraded to AutoCAD 2000. To me, that’s clearly morally wrong.*** If the court finds that First Sale applies here, then that opens the floodgates to allow anyone to sell old copies of any software that has been upgraded, and keep using the new stuff. I really don’t think that would be good for anyone.

Those of you who have been upgrading AutoCAD for the last 25 years, I hope you held on to all your old copies, because you could be sitting on a gold mine. Of course, unless the court is going to compel Autodesk to acknowledge all these new “owners” of AutoCAD and support them with the various magic numbers required to keep them alive, there are going to be a lot of disappointed buyers around, the word will get around, and the bottom will quickly drop out of the market.

* This is not a first, I assure you.

** It has been stated elsewhere that Autodesk can actually be persuaded to allow the transfer of its software outside the usual restricted areas of merged companies, deceased estates and so on. This may be so, but it’s not something I would rely on.

*** This is a quite different moral proposition from somebody continuing to use an old version of software after upgrading, alongside the new version, on the same computer. That’s something I find entirely morally acceptable, whatever any EULA may stipulate.

AutoCAD 2010 – Will you miss the Menu Browser?

I’ve closed the poll that asked AutoCAD 2009 users about their MENUBAR setting. It’s very clear that pull-down menus are still very much in use in the Ribboned world of post-2008 AutoCAD. In AutoCAD 2009, an attempt was made to provide access to pull-down menus without sacrificing that strip of screen real estate. That attempt was called the Menu Browser, it was one of the thing you could find under the Big Red A, and it really didn’t work very well. In AutoCAD 2010, the Menu Browser has gone away. The A hasn’t gone away, just the ability to access pull-down menus through it.

There are some who have expressed a deep dislike of the Big Red A, although it never offended me greatly. I just wished the features hidden under it worked better than they did in 2009. Personally, I generally prefer what’s under the A in 2010 than what’s there in 2009, but you may not. I know that when the 2009 user interface was being attacked, its most prominent defenders were those keyboard-heavy users who turned both the Ribbon and the menu bar off, giving themselves more screen space. On the infrequent occasions when a pull-down menu was required, those people were content to provide an extra click.

When I found out about the Menu Browser’s death a few months ago, I expected there would be a severe adverse reaction from such people. Maybe there will be one when people hold get the shipping product and notice it’s gone. But after my poll showed only 7% of respondents used it instead of the menu bar, I’m now expecting that adverse reaction to be smaller than I originally thought.

If you want to use AutoCAD 2010, want to work without a menu bar but still have access to menu items occasionally, what can you do? You can add a button to the Quick Access Toolbar (QAT), or any other toolbar, that toggles the menu bar on and off. Use the CUI command to add such a button.* The following macro will do the job:

'menubar $M=$(-,1,$(getvar,menubar))

There are a couple of downsides to this method. First, although this macro has been written in such a way that it should be transparent, it doesn’t currently work that way. When you push the button, AutoCAD will still cancel any command you’re in. Second, the screen resize forces a redraw, which could slow you down in very complex drawings. However, under most circumstances that redraw will still be quicker than waiting for a reaction from AutoCAD the first time you pick the Big Red A. By the way, that reaction time is better in 2010 than the very tardy 2009. As a result, even AutoCAD 2009 users might prefer to use the QAT-button method and forget the Menu Browser ever existed.

* If there is enough interest, I will do a video tutorial explaining how to add such a button to the QAT.

A year of nauseam

This is one of those awful self-indulgent blog posts you hate, so just skip it and read the more interesting stuff a bit further down instead.

It is now a year since I started this blog and this is my 200th post. Here are the site statistics for 2008:

Stats 2008

Here they are for 2009:

Stats 2009

I’m sure there are other CAD blogs out there with much more impressive stats than that, particularly the Autodesk ones. I’m pretty happy with the number of visitors I have, though. I’m not sure what I was expecting when I started doing this; maybe a couple of hundred people might be interested, maybe not. I certainly wasn’t expecting 168,000 visits in the first year. I wasn’t even sure I was going to keep it up after the first few weeks. But it seemed to grow in popularity quite quickly so I kept at it. Hopefully, I’ll retain my enthusiasm and keep it going for a while yet.

I’d like to thank all of you who find this blog worth reading, and especially all of you who add your comments, whether I agree with them or not. Please continue!

I see no ads

I have removed the advertisements from this blog. Not because I worried about people not liking them (they were fairly unobtrusive). Not because they were slowing down the page load times (although they did, a bit). Not even because I felt that they were somehow impinging upon my editorial independence.

No, I removed them because they weren’t generating any income. Not a single cent! I pretty much expected any income to be tiny, and certainly not enough to cover my fairly minor running expenses. It wasn’t tiny, it was totally absent. Experiment over.

I’m supporting the New Zealand blackout

Thanks to Robin Capper for bringing this to my attention.

New Zealand's new Copyright Law presumes 'Guilt Upon Accusation' and will Cut Off Internet Connections without a trial. Join the black out protest against it!

http://creativefreedom.org.nz/blackout.html

Disclosure: I’m a software developer, artist (of sorts), copyright owner and part of a company that sells software to allow copyright owners to protect their interests. I’m also the victim of clueless corporations counterproductively interfering with my art. Most of all, I’m a supporter of the fair use of copyrighted materials.

This law in New Zealand needs to be turned back now. If it succeeds in Robin’s country, it will be mine next, then yours. I encourage you to support this viral campaign so it attracts some press attention. Excuse me while I go and turn my gravatar black.

Gravatars – how to get a picture next to your comment

After some recent site maintenance here, you may have noticed that the comments look a bit different, and that some people’s comments have a little picture next to them. This little picture is called a gravatar (globally recognised avatar), and you can have one too. Once you set it up, you will find that it works in all sorts of places, not just this blog.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Visit gravatar.com and pick a sign up link.
  2. Provide a valid email address; the same one you provide when adding comments to blogs. I have not received any spam as a result of doing this.
  3. You’ll be sent a confirmation email; click on the link in that and follow the prompts to set your password and so on.
  4. Choose your gravatar image from your hard drive, the internet, a webcam or a previously uploaded image. You can point to any size photo and will be prompted to select a cropped square area to display.

That’s it, although you can manage your account to provide multiple email addresses and images if you wish. Wait 5 or 10 minutes, then check out this or other blogs and web locations where you have made comments in the past. Those blogs with layouts that support gravatars should now display the picture that you associated with the email address you supplied when you made your comment. If the image doesn’t show up, do a reload/refresh and/or clear your browser’s cache and try again.