Why Autodesk’s Cloud push will fail, part 1 – failure defined

It’s probably unwise to make predictions about what is going to happen in technology. If so, I’m about to be unwise. So be it; if I’m wrong you can taunt me about this post in a few years. Here’s my prediction:

Autodesk’s attempt to move CAD users onto the Cloud is doomed to failure.

This is the first of a series of posts that will examine what I mean by that and the reasons behind it. The first thing that’s important to lay out is what I mean by failure. What I mean is that reality will not match Autodesk’s expectation of what will happen with its products moving to the Cloud. What expectation is that?

I’d say two to three years from now, every one of our products will be used online. The only way to use them will be online.

Carl Bass, April 2012, TechCrunch interview

So let’s say you’re an AutoCAD user. A successful Cloud push by Autodesk will mean that you and very large numbers of people just like you be using AutoCAD or an equivalent Autodesk product on the Cloud by 2014 or 2015. If that doesn’t happen for you and all the other users of Autodesk products, then that’s failure by definition. Autodesk will have failed to meet its own publicly stated goal, and that’s exactly what I’m expecting to happen. While it might look to a Cloudophile that I’m swimming against the tide of inevitability, I’m not alone here. Let’s examine what this blog’s poll respondents think about the chances of them using CAD in the Cloud:

Cloud chances poll results

(Snapshot taken a couple of weeks ago; more votes but no percentage change since then).

The poll has been running for nearly a year and attracted a sizeable number of votes. More than half of the respondents are convinced that there is absolutely no chance – zero – that they will be using a public Cloud-based application as their primary CAD software in the next five years (by 2016 or 2017, two years beyond Carl Bass’s stated target of universal Autodesk online operation). There is a group of respondents equally convinced that they definitely will be using such an application. However, with only 10% of votes, this group is outnumbered 5:1 among those who feel certain about what is going to happen. If we split all the votes into those who think there’s a better than even chance of a Cloudy future (21%) and those who think there’s a less than even chance of that happening (79%), you can see that the doubters again have a very clear majority, nearly 4:1.

While the usual caveats about polls apply, it would be a very foolish Autodesk executive who believed this poll to be some kind of an aberration that does not reflect the broad views of the CAD community. I am convinced there is a dichotomy between the expectations of Autodesk and those of its customers, and that spells trouble. Autodesk is either going to succeed in pushing its customers into a future they are not expecting, or it is going to fail and be forced to revise its expectations. I predict that the latter will happen, and I will explain my reasoning in future posts.

Dilbert and the Cloud

I have an Autodesk-related Dilbert story to share. Back in the late 90s, I was visiting Autodesk’s San Rafael offices (at Autodesk’s expense) and had an appointment to see a product manager. There was some confusion when I arrived at Reception, but after a few phone calls I was shown into a meeting room containing the manager and a lot of other Autodesk people. However, the open mouths told me that they were discussing very confidential stuff. They were clearly shocked and horrified that an outsider had been allowed into that particular room at that particular time, even though I had signed an NDA and was due to spend that day giving some important future software a very thorough going-over.

The manager quickly shuffled me off to his own office and let me know he would be back as soon as the meeting concluded. I waited a while, staring into space. I did this for a while, but eventually got very bored and looked around for something to read to keep myself amused. Ignoring what was probably a lot of highly confidential paperwork, I discovered a Dilbert book and proceeded to read it. I became a fan right there and then. I also found myself respecting a manager who could see the funny side of the sort of management stupidity that is so effectively and bitingly satirised by Scott Adams. Somebody who buys a Dilbert book, I thought, is the sort of manager I can happily work with.

When he eventually returned, I thanked him for the uninvited use of his book and asked him what he thought of it. It turned out that he hadn’t bought the book himself. It had been presented to him as a gift. From his underlings.

Oh dear.

Fortunately, he hadn’t yet read it. I wonder if he ever did?

By the way, that manager is still with Autodesk. In fact, he has done rather well in that environment and is now a Senior Vice President. I wonder if his responsibilities include CAD on the Cloud? If so, he may be interested to read this Dilbert comic strip.

I love this comment from BlaDiBla3:

As IT manager I’m being pestered by management along the lines of the comic today.

I’ve found a partial solution I’d like to share:
When a director proposed to move standard Office applications to the cloud, I finally said:
“That’s a very good idea. You should be the first to migrate end use nothing else for a week”.
That project has now been canceled…

There’s an intriguing thought. Next time you’re at a presentation and an Autodesk representative is all gung-ho about the Cloud, ask them to fire up AutoCAD WS and do some real drawing work with it. Shouldn’t need a whole week to get the point across.

Autodesk confirms outrageous upgrade price increase

As I indicated in May, Autodesk will be increasing the cost of upgrades to 70% of the full retail cost of a new license. This renders it totally pointless upgrading Autodesk software at all, which is obviously Autodesk’s intention. This change probably won’t affect many people, as those who have chosen to stick with Autodesk despite everything have already been effectively forced onto Subscription. Anyway, here’s the confirmation from Autodesk:

In early 2013 Autodesk will simplify the current upgrade pricing model, which may affect pricing and/or eligibility for upgrades.  Autodesk is providing advance notice to help ease the transition and ensure that customers have enough time to plan and budget for any impact to your organization.

 As part of this change, Autodesk will be simplifying upgrades into a single offering available for licenses that are 1-6 versions old at a discount of 30% off new license SRP*.  Under the new upgrade program, product versions 2007-2012 are eligible for upgrade pricing and product versions older than 2007 will no longer be eligible for upgrade pricing on our standard pricelists. Our records show you may have one or more licenses that may be impacted by these changes.

Autodesk is making this policy change to better align with the needs and buying behaviors of our customers.  Many Autodesk customers choose to use Autodesk Subscription as their preferred method of maintaining their Autodesk Software.

That last paragraph is just embarrassing. It steps over the line that separates spin from total bullshit. The person who wrote it must have been either cringing (if they have any kind of ethical values) or laughing (if they don’t). The time of Autodesk being straight with its customers is now so far in the past that few customers will be able to remember those days. Those of us who do can only sadly shake our heads.

Let’s critique AutoCAD’s parametric constraints

One of the big-ticket features of AutoCAD 2010 was parametric constraints. This was old hat for many applications, even some based on AutoCAD like Mechanical Desktop. Parametrics and constraints already existed in vanilla AutoCAD in the guise of dynamic blocks, but this was the first time ordinary AutoCAD allowed ordinary AutoCAD objects to be constrained and linked to parametric dimensions.

Contraints mean that you can draw some objects and tell them that they are only allowed to behave in certain ways. For example, two lines have to remain parallel to each other. Parametrics mean that objects can be tied to special dimensions such that the dimensions drive the objects, not the other way round.

How good a job has Autodesk done with creating and improving this feature in AutoCAD? Has Autodesk done its usual trick of releasing a half-baked feature and then ignoring it to death? In one vital respect, the answer is a resounding yes. AutoCAD’s parametric constraints can only be applied to 2D objects. Draw a shape using a polyline, apply constraints and parameters, and adjust them to make things work properly and appear correctly. Now extrude the polyline to convert it to a 3D solid. Your carefully applied constraints and dimensions are instantly exterminated. This was a huge and obvious hole in the feature when it was introduced, but on the fourth iteration of this feature in AutoCAD 2013, that gaping hole remains resolutely unfilled. I guess Autodesk is keeping AutoCAD’s parametrics in this flattened state in order to protect Inventor from internal competition.

This 3D failing is very obvious, but I’m interested in more subtle aspects than that. As my experience with parametrics in other applications is limited, I’d like to encourage you to provide us all with the benefit of your knowledge. How does the AutoCAD 2013 implementation compare with that found in Inventor? Solidworks? Mechanical Desktop? How easy and efficient is it to use, in terms of creating usable parametric drawings and manipulating them? Is it logical and reliable? Are there any missing capabilities? The Devil is in the details, so has Autodesk overlooked any?

I’d also encourage less experienced users to comment. If you don’t want to enter a new field with your own drawing started from scratch, have a look at this sample drawing courtesy of Autodesk’s Dieter Schlaepfer. Here’s what Dieter has to say about it:

For your amusement, here’s a backyard deck that I whipped up a while back as a parametric design. It’s saved in R2010 format. After you turn on the geometric and dimensional constraints, open the Parameters Manager and try changing the value of Angle from 90 to 120, 130, and 140 degrees. Also, try changing the value of Tread from 18 (inches, sorry) to 16 or 20.

No question that this takes a bit of experience and it’s not for everyone.

If you prefer to embark on your own journey of discovery, here are some deliberately vague instructions. As always in AutoCAD, there are many ways of doing the same thing, but this will do to get you started:

  1. Draw a closed polyline describing an open L shape (let’s say it’s a metal plate). Make sure the corners are square, but you don’t have to make the sizes totally accurate.
  2. Use the AutoConstrain feature on the polyline.
  3. Perform a few grip edits on the constrained polyline so you can see what difference the constraints have made.
  4. Use Dimensional Constraints Aligned to dimension the plate in four key places: each overall plate width dimension and each of the leg width dimensions. Hint: press an initial Enter to use Object mode before selecting the object. When you are prompted for the dimension text, either press Enter if it’s was drawn accurately or enter the correct size if it wasn’t. The plate should change to the size you enter.
  5. If you want these dimensions to show up on plots, you will need to make sure their Constraint Form is set to Annotational. You can use the Properties palette to do this. You may also need to use DIMEDIT Home to put the dimension text in the usual place.
  6. Try using a few normal editing operations on the objects (e.g. STRETCH, COPY, ROTATE, TRIM, grip edit) to see how they react.
  7. Try modifying the objects by double-clicking on the dimensions and changing the values, then using Parameters Manager.

So, how was that? Easy? Difficult? Useful but awkward? Any areas where efficiency could be improved (e.g. too many clicks required for common operations)? Can you use this in your work or is there some problem lurking that appears to be a dealkiller?

Edit: Here’s a more complex example from Dieter: https://www.dropbox.com/s/n5hng961nj1dkzy/gasket1.dwg?m

Autodesk buys more social media stuff

Following up on its acquisition of Socialcam (which was then abandoned by 50 million users), Autodesk has acquired social media platform Qontext from Indian company Pramati. What exactly is this? I have no idea. I tried to find out by reading the Pramati site, but it’s so heavily obscured in trendy but vague corporatespeak it’s hard to work out anything firm. I played Buzzword Bingo while reading the site and won within seconds. Maybe the Autodesk statement clarifies things?

“Mobile, cloud and social computing are dramatically changing the way engineers, designers and architects work. The addition of the Qontext technology to the Autodesk portfolio will lead to new technology innovations that help our customers embrace these disruptive technologies and leverage them for competitive advantage,” said Amar Hanspal, Autodesk senior vice president of information modeling and platform products. “It was great to work with the team at Pramati who have demonstrated a great capability in incubating disruptive businesses.”

Well, that’s cleared that up, then. Apparently, Autodesk has bought a bunch of buzzwords. Must have been running short of them or something. I hope it was worth it.

How good is Autodesk’s customer focus?

Autodesk has grown and prospered by always, as much as possible, placing the customer’s needs foremost.

John Walker, 1990, The Autodesk File

That was the dominant philosophy back in Autodesk’s ancient history, to the benefit of all. However, is that still the case today? I’m not going to offer an view one way or the other in this post. Instead, I will leave it open to the floor. Good or bad, please comment below using specific examples if you can. If you’re short of time, you can still use the poll on the right to express your opinion.

Autodesk is firing. No, wait! Hiring.

August 2012: Autodesk increases profits, but not as much as expected, and gets rid of 500 people. This sort of thing has happened before, resulting in the loss of good, skilled people, some with many years of priceless and irreplacable experience.

September 2012: Autodesk goes on a recruiting drive.

So, if you want to work for a company that will put you out with the trash the next time reality doesn’t quite match some financial analyst’s estimate, you know where to go. Good luck with that.

AutoCAD Help suckage to continue – confirmed

In a recent post on Between the Lines, Shaan passed on the following response from the AutoCAD Team:

There has been some recent discussions about the built-in help system in AutoCAD 2013, both positive and some criticism.  As our longtime users know, AutoCAD help has been through many evolutions.

We are particularly proud of the new AutoCAD 2013 online learning environment we recently released (AutoCAD Online Help Mid-Year Updates.) This update addressed several user requested fixes and changes, and we will continue to take our direction from our user’s feedback.

We do recognize that the online learning environment may not be the solution for every user, so while we are focused on creating a rich and personalized online experience, we will continue to maintain our current basic offline experience.

(The emphasis is mine). This statement, although couched in marketingspeak, confirms what I’ve had to say on the subject. Here’s my translation into plain English:

AutoCAD 2013 Help sucked, the customers said so, the recent update improved matters somewhat for online users, but the awful old system stays in place for offline users. The offline system is in maintenance mode, and the experience will continue to remain basic (i.e. it will suck long-term).

There’s no mention of correcting this situation; it’s clearly a matter of policy rather than some unfortunate accident.

Today, I was using Autodesk Navisworks Manage 2013. As you might expect from an Autodesk product, it’s powerful but unstable. In addition to the lockups and crashes, it has various bugs and annoyances. In looking for a way of working around one of the annoyances, I delved into the Help system. Strangely enough, this product (much younger than AutoCAD) uses something that looks remarkably like an old-fashioned CHM-based Help system. It worked offline. It was quick. It had contents, search and index tabs, and they worked on a Windows 7 64-bit system. It had a hierarchical structure and a breadcrumb bar that helped me understand the context of what I was reading. Using it was, in short, a breath of fresh air.

Memo to Autodesk: if you’re going to try to make online Help look good by mangling offline help, you’re going to have to do this to all your products at once to make it remotely convincing.

I was wrong about AutoCAD 2013 Help, it still sucks

In my effusive welcome of AutoCAD 2013’s updated Help system, I wondered if I had been shocked into missing some glaring problem. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened. In my enthusiasm, I managed to totally miss the fact that the new system has not been introduced for offline users.

If you use the new system, there’s a link on the front page to the offline files. I got as far as downloading and installing what I thought was the offline version of the new system and discovered that it didn’t want to install because the old one was already installed. What I should have then done, and didn’t, was to uninstall the old and install the new, before running it in offline mode. I intended to get around to that to check the performance and responsiveness of the respective versions, but didn’t have the time right then. If I had done so, I would have noticed that my download, uninstall and reinstall would have been in vain, because the offline version pointed to by the new system is still the old version. My apologies to anybody who wasted their time because of what I originally wrote.

There are many legitimate reasons why Autodesk customers want or need to use their software, including the documentation, entirely in offline mode. For example, the users I manage can’t access the online Help system from AutoCAD because Autodesk writes its software in such a way as to fail in a secure proxy server environment (yes, this has been reported as a bug, repeatedly). So for my users and many others, it’s true to say that despite the best efforts of Dieter and his team, AutoCAD 2013’s Help still sucks.

Look at this from the point of view of such offline AutoCAD 2013 Help users. We pay large amounts of money for software and Subscription. No “entitled” 99-cent users here.  We’ve provided extensive feedback on the woeful system that was inflicted on us at release time. We’ve hung out for half a release cycle with no adequate stopgap, even though one could easily have been provided. A small team has finally wrought an outstanding improvement and deserves congratulations for doing so. The improved system is dangled in front of our faces, and then we discover that we’re not allowed to have it. Not for any plausible technical or resourcing reason, but because Autodesk simply doesn’t want us to have it. How are we supposed to feel about that?

That’s right. Autodesk has managed to snatch a crushing defeat from the jaws of what should have been a stunning victory. I guess I should have expected something like this; for Autodesk, the half-baked job is de rigeur. But this goes beyond the usual problem of countless features that would have been great if they had been finished. This isn’t a matter of a product team struggling to develop features adequately within an impossible timeframe imposed by the yearly release cycle. This is a matter of policy. Some Pointy Haired Boss at Autodesk has decided to deliberately disenfranchise a significant group of its paying customers, by refusing to make available something that already exists and could easily be provided. This adds insult to the injury of having to wait 6 months for a CHM stopgap that was clearly the right thing to do, but which never came.

Why? What on earth would lead anyone to even contemplate the possibility that this might be a good idea? Lack of resources? While I’m quite aware that individual parts of Autodesk have their own budgets and limited resources, I don’t buy that as an excuse for the organisation as a whole. A multi-billion-dollar corporation that pays its executives millions? One that just threw away $60M on a dud social media buyout? Crying poor over something that would have cost maybe a few thousand? Sure, sounds legit.

No, a lack of resources is not the reason. It’s a policy issue. “There’s no reason for it, it’s just policy.”  But why would such an anti-customer policy exist? Vision. Autodesk is currently led by a Cloudy Vision. It’s important to Autodesk that everything Cloudy looks good. It’s clearly not enough to actually make online stuff work well. For one thing, that’s obviously pretty difficult, judging from Autodesk’s offerings to date. No, anything that’s offline has to be made to work badly, so the comparison looks as favourable as it possibly can. That’s much easier to arrange.

That’s why there was no CHM solution on the release date, despite Autodesk having a set of unpaid volunteers ready to put the thing together. That’s why there was no CHM solution provided a week later, or a month later, or six months later. Don’t think that it wasn’t provided because of a lack of resources; that excuse is entirely specious. It wasn’t provided because it would have made the online version look bad in comparison. The online version already looked abysmal, but an offline CHM solution would have just made the comparison so ridiculously one-sided that nobody would have been in any doubt about what a terrible idea on-line Help was. The Cloudy Vision would have looked suspect at best, and we can’t have that, can we?

What Autodesk wants is for people to think “Cloud good, non-Cloud bad”. If the Cloud can’t be made good, then making non-Cloud bad will have to act as substitute. Loading the dice in this way might stand a chance of working if customers were as clueless as some Autodesk decision-makers, but most of us aren’t total idiots. We notice these things.

This is a line-in-the-sand issue. This is about Autodesk pushing its vision at the expense of customers. No news there then, but from my point of view, this is one step too far. This is the tipping point where the not-convinced-about-the-Cloud phase could well turn into a full-scale take-your-Cloud-and-shove-it customer revolt. Me? I’m quite prepared to hand out the pitchforks and torches.

Carl of Arc

Source images: Hermann Anton (public domain) / Carl Bass (creative commons)

Carl Bass, you need to pull your troops into line. Let them know that while your Vision is important, implementing it must never come at the expense of common sense. It must definitely, never, ever come at the expense of your customers’ needs.  Blindly following a Cloudy Vision didn’t end well for Joan of Arc, and it’s unlikely to end well for Autodesk either. Please remember the source of Autodesk’s income. Without customers, you are nothing. You are treating your customers badly, and worse, treating us as idiots. Please, give it up before we give you up.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to AutoCAD explained

Following my comments on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to AutoCAD, Autodesk’s Dieter Schlapfer has sought to explain the reasoning behind it. Here’s what he has to say:

As mentioned previously, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to AutoCAD is designed for occasional AutoCAD users and those coming back from their initial training. These are people who just need a base level of knowledge in 2D AutoCAD to get things done, and who don’t necessarily want to become experts. To make future versions more effective, I really want to get some input on the 42 AutoCAD commands, and any descriptions or illustrations that are not clear. Especially valuable to me is feedback coming from occasional users.

Here’s some history. Believe it or not, the 42 commands came first! I kept flaunting this number, which was based on an internal AutoCAD overview class that I taught a while back, in response to people who complained about how hard it is to learn AutoCAD. Based on that interesting number, two of my colleagues made the connection to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the title of which was based on Ken Welch’s book, Hitchhiker’s Guide to Europe (I have the 1986 edition).

Creating a hitchhiker’s guide to AutoCAD was a terrific idea and the next thing I knew, I was writing it. Most of the 42 commands were no-brainer choices, but there were several that I knew would be controversial among experienced AutoCAD users. Based on internal feedback and CIP popularity, I made a number of revisions to my original list but I’m open to being persuaded to make additional changes.

My biggest challenge was handling scaling and layouts. As you know, there are four primary ways to annotate drawings. It was tough, but I ended up choosing the one that was easiest to learn, the trans-spatial method, while giving a nod to the others.

Again, I’m looking for feedback from relatively new and occasional users. Where exactly is the guide weak or confusing, including any illustrations? I already have some things that I definitely want to change moving forward, but if any of you find someone willing to try it out, or if you have strong opinions about something in the guide, please let me know either here or email me directly at dieters@youknowwho.com (for the bots).

AutoCAD 2013 Help shock – it no longer sucks

Some months ago, I gave Autodesk several damn good (and thoroughly well-deserved) thrashings over its hopelessly inadequate AutoCAD 2013 Help system. When Autodesk’s Dieter Schlaepfer responded and asked for feedback, he sure got it. There are 142 comments on that one post to date, most of them leaving nobody under any illusions about how short of the mark the new system was.

There is now an updated version of the AutoCAD 2013 Help system. It has been an interminably long time coming, a fact made far worse by Autodesk’s stubborn refusal to provide a CHM stopgap (which could have easily been done on the ship date with minimal resources if the will had been there), but at least an update is here now. Is it any good, though?

I’ve seen fit to give the online version of the updated system a few minutes of my time and I have to say that it’s now way, way better than it was before. In a remarkable turnaround from current standard Autodesk practice, it would appear that customer feedback has not just been listened to, but actually acted on. Honest! Search results make sense. Performance is generally way better than I expected from an online system. There are links to useful things like lists of commands. Things like forward/back mouse buttons work as expected. Various things I expected to suck, simply didn’t. Huh? What’s going on here?

It’s not all brilliant. There are occasional unexpected pauses, but not to excess. A Douglas Adams fan (Dieter?) is clearly responsible for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to AutoCAD. It’s fun, but I’m not convinced it’s particularly useful. The layout is confusing and the content has me somewhat baffled. Is DRAWORDER really one of the first things a beginner needs to know about AutoCAD? Or were there 41 things in someone’s list and that one was thrown in there to make the number up to 42?

That aside, this thing is looking good. Unlike the last effort, I don’t think it deserves Total Existence Failure. But does it just look good in comparison with what went before? Have I been so shocked by apparent adequacy that I have missed some glaring problem? You tell me. Please, give it a fair go and report back on what you think.

If you want to try the offline version, here it is. It’s not immediately obvious, but you’ll need to uninstall the old one first before the new one will install, don’t bother. It’s still the horrible old thing. See I was wrong about AutoCAD 2013 Help, it still sucks for what I think about that.

AutoCAD 2013 Service Pack 1 – Now you see it, now you don’t

Last week, Autodesk released Service Pack 1 for AutoCAD 2013, and then removed it a few days later.

Service Pack 1 for AutoCAD 2013 has been temporarily removed due to a newly discovered fatal error. The AutoCAD team is actively working on resolving this and a new service pack will be posted here as soon as it is available.

This is the sort of thing that Beta testing is supposed to prevent, but in this case it obviously didn’t. Somebody in a position of influence at Autodesk needs to investigate whether this is just a freak one-off, or if there is some systemic weakness within the Beta testing program.

One of the supposed benefits of Cloud software is that there are no updates for users to worry about. It’s all taken care of on the vendor’s server and you’re always using the most up to date version. OK, now fast forward five years and imagine how this scenario would have panned out if AutoCAD was a SaaS product.

You come in one morning to find your AutoCAD keeps crashing, or worse, corrupting your files. It keeps doing this for several days until Autodesk is convinced that the problem lies at its end and reverts the changes on its server while it works out how to fix it. In the meantime, there’s nothing you can do to keep your business running except use one of those old-fashioned copies of AutoCAD you have lying around the place. Except your Subscription agreement only allows you to go back 3 releases. Autodesk no longer supports the release you happen to have handy, and won’t allow the software to be activated. You don’t have a 30-day window because you once evaluated that release on your PC and your 30 days are well and truly gone. Oh, and the file format of the drawings you have been using lately has changed several times and the old release won’t open them anyway.

Why would anyone want to put their business in this position?

Edit: A couple of weeks later, Autodesk released AutoCAD 2013 Service Pack 1.1 to resolve the problem.

Olympic Fencing – Mythbusting the Shin v Heidemann Controversy

This is a departure from the usual subject matter of this blog, but one of the advantages of running my own blog is that I can write what I like on it. This post does have a mention of AutoCAD, but it’s so minor and marginal it’s probably not going to interest many of my usual readers.

Introduction

Now the Olympics are over and a video has been made globally available, I’m going to discuss what happened in the Women’s Epee semi-final between South Korea’s Shin A-Lam and Germany’s Britta Heidemann. The image of Shin sitting disconsolate and alone on the piste, in white on a black background, is one of the iconic images of the London 2012 Olympics. It was replayed at the closing ceremony. Besides making for ‘good’ television, it’s one of the human stories that go to make the Games more than just a vehicle to sell junk food. I’m driven to write about this because I’ve seen a huge amount of complete rubbish written on this subject, mostly by people who have absolutely no idea of the subject about which they are ranting so angrily, but also by some fencers who should know better. I have seen my sport unjustly tainted by inaccurate reporting, demonstrably false accusations, defamatory and untrue statements made against honest fencers and officials, and because this is the Internet, a vast amount of illiterate ranting and ugly racism. This includes both ‘joke’ racist trolling and the real thing, neither of which will be tolerated in comments on this blog. I hope that by delaying this post, most of the morons will have moved on and found something else with which to amuse themselves.

It’s difficult to avoid feeling sorry for Shin in her predicament and outrage at what appears to be a terrible injustice. However, I intend to examine what happened step-by-step and analyse it completely dispassionately, explaining the rules and procedures so they can hopefully be understood by non-fencers. Other than Shin and Heidemann, I will not be using the names of anyone involved, in an attempt to make this as clinical as I can. Where there were failings, I intend to clearly point them out. Equally, where there were not failings, I intend to point that out, too, even if it is contrary to popular belief.

I have no bias to declare here; as a British Australian I didn’t really care who won this bout. I do know and respect a coach who knows and respects Shin’s coach, but I’ve never met or seen anybody directly connected to these events. Fencing is a small world and it wouldn’t surprise me to discover that I am connected to most of the Olympic field via only 2 or 3 degrees of separation.

tl;dr?

This is a very long post. If you can’t be bothered reading it all, feel free to skip to the Mythbusting section. However, I’d appreciate it if you took the time to read all the relevant parts before commenting based on just a subset of my observations.

Background

It’s ironic that an epee bout has been such a controversial event, because it’s generally considered the most straightforward of the three fencing weapons to referee, with the simplest rules. The fencers start in the centre of a 14 metre piste, behind en garde lines 4 m apart.  The whole body is target area, and the first person to hit the other is awarded a point. After a point is scored, both fencers are returned to the en garde lines. If both fencers hit each other within 40 – 50 ms (1/25 to 1/20 of a second), they are both awarded a point and are still returned to the en garde lines.

There is an important and relevant exception to this general double-hit, both-get-a-point-and-return-to-the-middle rule, and that is when the scores are equal and the next hit would win the match. Under such circumstances, a double hit simply stops the bout. The scores do not advance and the fencers are restarted, positioned in basically the same locations they occupied before the hit. What do I mean by this? Well, here are the relevant rules (quoted here as an English translation of the canonical rules, which are in French):

t.17.4. When placed on guard during the bout, the distance between the two competitors must be such that, in the position ‘point in line’, the points of the two blades cannot make contact.

t.17.6. If no hit is awarded they are replaced in the position which they occupied when the bout was interrupted.

t.17.8. The competitors may not be replaced on guard, at their correct distance, in such a way as to place behind the rear line of the piste a fencer who was in front of that line when the bout was halted. If he already had one foot behind the rear line, he remains in that position.

t.17.11. The fencers must come on guard correctly and remain completely still until the command ‘Play!’ is given by the Referee.

t.24. When the order ‘Halt!’ is given ground gained is held until a hit has been given. When competitors are replaced on guard, each fencer should retire an equal distance in order to keep fencing distance.

t.25. However, if the bout has been stopped on account of corps à corps, the fencers are replaced on guard in such a position that the competitor who has sustained the corps à corps is at the place which he previously occupied; this also applies if his opponent has subjected him to a flèche attack, even without corps à corps.

t.27. Should a competitor cross the rear limit of the piste completely — i.e. with both feet — a hit will be scored against him.

To explain some of the fencing jargon here, the position ‘point in line’ is where each fencer stands and holds the sword out with a straight arm pointing horizontally at the other fencer. When fencers are started from any position other than the en garde lines, they should be far enough apart that they are both able to do this without the swords crossing. If a fencer feels that the opponent is too close, it is customary to stand point-in-line, at which the referee will expect the opponent to do likewise while the distance is adjusted accordingly. A corps à corps is when the fencers bump into each other, which isn’t a real issue here. A flèche attack is where one fencer takes a ‘running jump’ past the other. This will become relevant later on.

After the preliminaries are over, the fencers start behind their en garde lines, each 2 m from the centre of the piste. Fencing referees always use French at the top levels, so the Austrian referee (selected by computer randomly from a pool of referees from nations not taking part in the bout) calls to the fencers, “en garde” (get on your guard), “pret?” (are you ready?), and if nobody replies with “non” (no), the fencing starts with the referee’s call of “allez” (go/play/fence). If the referee needs to stop the action, she calls “halt”, pronounced in French with a silent ‘h’ and a short ‘a’. It is unfortunate that the words used to start and stop the bout both begin with an “al” sound, and it’s unfortunate that the word to start the action contains two syllables, but that’s what tradition has given us. It could happen that a referee calls en garde, pret, one or both fencers start early and she calls halt! rather than allez.

In this match, the first fencer to score 15 hits will win, or if nobody gets to 15, whoever scores the most hits within the time available. That time is three periods of three minutes, each separated by a one minute break. If scores are equal at the end, a further period of a maximum of one minute is fenced, at which point there will be a definite winner. There are no draws in fencing. There is no let’s-do-it-all-again option. So let’s have a look at how the bout panned out:

First period

YouTube video link

The bout starts normally enough with en garde, pret, allez and the fencers start moving. Around half a second later, there is a small beep that indicates that the clock has been started. Why doesn’t it start at the beginning of the referee’s “allez”? Because at this level, the referee’s duties are separated from that of the timekeeper. At the level I usually fence, the referee holds a remote control and can time the button press to coincide more closely with the spoken call, but at higher levels the referee is relieved of this burden to better concentrate on the fencing and make clearer hand signals to explain decisions to the audience. The down side to this is that there is always a delay between “al-” where the fencers start and “beep” when the clock starts. The delay varies depending on how well the timekeeper can hear the referee given the background noise, how long it takes them to hear the entire word “allez”, determine it’s not “halt” and press the start button. The reflexes of your average timekeeper are not quite as sharp as your average Olympic fencer, but this isn’t usually a significant problem because it’s the same for everybody and most bouts don’t go down to the last second. Fencers should expect every action to be timed from a point slightly after fencing actually starts, and it happened all the time to varying degrees during the London 2012 event.

Although it’s not obvious on the video, exactly one second after the timekeeper presses the button and about 1.5 seconds after the fencing starts, the clock clicks over from 3:00 to 2:59. For this period, the clock will be counting down using its internal resolution: 2:59.90, 2:59.80…2:59.10…2:59.01 – all of these will be displayed as 3:00. So the bout starts with no movement at all apparent on the clock for well over one full second after fencing actually starts. This will happen at the end too, but much more controversially.

During the first period, Heidemann scores 2 hits, then Shin gets one back to leave the score at 2-1. Towards end of the first period, both fencers back off, the referee calls halt and moves to the first one-minute break period with 6 seconds still to play. This is not actually permitted in the rules, but is generally accepted by convention; neither fencer is particularly interested in attacking and nobody complains about it.

Second period

Video link

No hit is scored for one full minute, which is one of the conditions that triggers a non-combativity rule that is designed to encourage fencers to actually fight each other rather than both waiting for the opponent to move; a real problem in epee. When both fencers back off shortly after, the referee calls halt with 1:52 remaining in the second period and moves on directly to the third period. This is done fully in accordance with the rules, so naturally nobody complains about it.

Third period

Video link

At 2:27 Heidemann attacks and Shin counter-attacks, winning a point to leave them at 2-2. Heidemann starts to get more attacking. At 1:53, double-hit, score 3-3. Fencers return to en garde lines in accordance with the rules. 1:33, another double, 4-4. On restart, Shin steps forward over en garde line as en garde is called, but steps back as referee calls pret. Referee ignores this minor infraction and allows play to continue. At 1:13, another double is scored, 5-5. Heidemann has often adjusted her mask during the bout, and at 0:30 waves to attract the attention of the referee who calls halt. Heidemann brushes hair back from her eyes. Fencers are allowed to do this sort of thing within reason. There is a rule that makes it a yellow card offence to have hair obscuring the target area in foil and sabre, or the fencer’s name in epee, and it’s also an offence if hair has to be adjusted during the bout to prevent this particular target/name obscuration from happening. However, there is no rule preventing a fencer from adjusting their hair to move it out of the way of their eyes so they can fence to the best of their ability.

Edit: a referee of greater experience and ability than myself has suggested that Heidemann could well have been given a yellow card for interrupting the bout without adequate justification.

The last 30 seconds pass without a hit. From 0:13, the referee could have called non-combativity which would have resulted in a final minute being fenced in its entirety, regardless of the score unless a fencer reached 15 hits. The referee has some discretion here, because the rule states the trigger for non-combativity as approximately one minute without a valid hit. Instead, she allows play to continue to the end. If she had called non-combativity, it would have removed one potential source of controversy. In a final minute triggered by non-combativity, double hits advance the score and fencers are returned to the en garde lines each time, meaning there is no grey area about where the fencers are supposed to start. This grey area becomes significant later on.

Edit: the same referee has informed me that the approximately one minute period must be continuous, and that the hair adjustment episode, justified or not, constituted an interruption that made the 1:13 period non-continuous.

However, non-combativity isn’t called this time. Therefore, as the last period finished normally with the scores equal, a sudden-death final minute is fenced, with the first single valid hit winning the bout. Double hits stop the bout but are otherwise ignored. But what happens if there is no single valid hit? Who wins then? Do they keep fencing indefinitely until someone wins? No. In situations like this, one fencer is randomly assigned priority at the start of the minute. It could be done with the toss of a coin but is now usually done electronically. What this means is that if the scores are still level at the end of the final minute, the fencer who was awarded priority is given a hit and wins the bout. In this case, priority was awarded to Shin. This means that if the entire final minute had passed without a valid single hit, Shin would have won the bout on what amounted to an electronic coin-toss. Is this fair? Yes. Those are the rules, all fencers enter the event knowing that that is what will happen, and both fencers had an equal chance of being placed in that situation. It is actually very common for a fencer with priority to lose the bout, and extremely rare for the full minute to be fenced. It’s simply a mechanism for forcing the issue and ensuring that there’s at least one fencer with a must-score attitude.

Final minute

Video link

At 0:24 Heidemann performs a flèche attack when Shin has her back foot on the back line, resulting in a double hit. According to rule t.25, Shin is supposed to stay where she is, but instead Shin walks forward and places herself further up the piste. This “stealing” of ground shouldn’t occur, but it’s not usually considered an infringement worthy of penalty unless the referee points it out and the fencer refuses to place herself as requested. The referee fails to do anything about this particular issue and Heidemann does not object. She places herself at the correct distance away from Shin’s new position. When the bout is restarted Shin’s position is such that she has gained 1.65 m. This gives Shin a significant advantage, because if both of her feet move behind the line, a hit is awarded against her and she will lose the bout. This may seem a minor detail to a non-fencer, but it’s not. Being placed on the back line makes it difficult to use distance to time your counter-attacks, a real problem for an epeeist trying to avoid receiving a single hit.

How do I know the distance Shin gained to within about 50 mm? That’s where AutoCAD comes in. I did screen captures of the video footage, paused at the time the hit was scored and the time fencing resumed. In AutoCAD, I attached the images and was then easily able to compare the distance between the fencers’ feet and the back line with known distances (e.g. the back 2 m of the piste). There are probably better tools for the job, but AutoCAD was handy, familiar, and good enough. My job was made easier by the fact that both fencers chose to position themselves on the far side of the piste, right next to the line, making it easy to measure. Strictly, this is against the rules; fencers should position themselves in the centre of the width of the piste. However, referees frequently allow this to happen unless somebody is practically off the side of the piste or a fencer complains. This kind of leeway in minor matters is often shown by referees, as it was in this case throughout the bout.

Back to the bout; at 0:15 Heidemann flèche attacks again, resulting in another double hit. This time, Shin’s back foot is 0.45 m behind the back line when she is hit. The referee checks the video replay to see if Shin went entirely behind the back line, which she did, but not until after the hit, so it didn’t matter. Despite the referee knowing from the replay exactly where Shin should be placed, she allows Shin to walk up the piste again. Before allowing fencing to start, the referee says “distance, both of you” (in French), because the fencers are slightly too close to each other. At this instruction, Heidemann shuffles back slightly but Shin shuffles forwards he same amount and is allowed to start with her back foot is 0.7 m in front of the line. Thus, she gains another 1.15 m.

At 0:09, same again. Heidemann flèches, double hit, Shin moves from 0.7 m behind to 0.65 m in front of the line, a further gain of 1.35 m.

At 0:05, another Heidemann flèche, another double hit. Shin has been pushed back so far that only the front half of her front foot is on the piste and her back foot is 0.6 m behind. That is, she’s about 0.1 m from going over the line completely and losing the bout. She then moves forward so her back foot is 0.4 m in front of the line, a gain of 1.0 m. Before fencing resumes, the referee calls the fencers to ensure adequate distance. Heidemann starts moving forward before pret is called and Shin complains (rightly) about Heidemann being too close, and she moves back slightly. During this distance reset, Shin gains another 0.2 m, giving her a total of 1.2 m advantage this time round. The distance is still slightly too close when fencing resumes, but the referee allows play to continue. Nobody complains about this.

At 0:04, another Heidemann flèche, another double hit, Shin does the forward walk thing again and moves her back foot from 0.5 m behind to 1.1 m in front, gaining another 1.6 m. The distance at resumption is still slightly too close, but nobody complains.

The magic second begins

Video link

After 3 more seconds, at 0:01 another Heidemann flèche results in another double hit. Shin moves her back foot from 0.7 behind to 0.1 in front in preparation for the last second’s play. The distance between the fencers looks too close, so the referee calls for distance again from both fencers. Following this, Shin moves her back foot to 0.1 m behind the line, giving a net gain of 0.6 m this time.

The distance still looks too close based on how close the swords are to each other, but Heidemann is leaning crouched forward which would make the distance look closer than it really is. If both fencers had stood up and presented a point-in-line position to check that the swords could not touch, they may have been not much closer, if any closer at all, than the distance required by the rules. If you doubt this, try it at home with a weapon. Stand en garde facing a wall, then present point-in-line and shuffle forwards until the tip of the weapon touches the wall. Without moving your feet, bend your arm to return to an en garde position. The tip’s not really that far away from the wall, is it? Lean forward as Heidemann did, and you will find that you can easily touch the wall with your weapon, even with a very bent arm.

At 0:01, Heidemann anticipates the call of allez and starts early, with another double hit as the result. If the timekeeper managed to start the clock at all, there is only a tiny fraction of a second (maybe 0.1 s) between the time starting when the timekeeper presses the button and stopping automatically when Heidemann’s point is depressed. As a result, the time still shows 0:01. As a sabre fencer, I assure you that it is not that unusual for an action to be completed within a second; I’ve seen this sort of thing happen before where a fast fencer and a slow timekeeper are involved. The referee could have given Heidemann a yellow card for starting early. However, this would be fairly harsh; a little leeway is usually allowed for this minor infraction, as it was for Shin in the third period. Had a yellow card been awarded, it would have had no immediate direct effect on the bout, but a subsequent infringement of any type would result in a hit against and thus loss of the bout. It would therefore have made Heidemann very wary of starting early again.

When coming en garde this time, Shin resumes in the correct position and Heidemann attempts to start too close. On Shin’s legitimate objection, the referee calls Heidemann to yield distance. She does, but then regains it and a little more. The referee has to call for distance again, and Heidemann is in danger of receiving a yellow card for failing to obey the referee’s instructions. Despite these calls, fencing is allowed to resume with the fencers too close. Again, the situation isn’t as bad as it looks because of Heidemann’s lean forward making the swords look closer than they would be if performing a stand-up point-in-line distance test, but it’s fair to say that the referee did not adequately enforce the rules at this point. This time, it’s to Heidemann’s advantage, unlike the multiple previous times where it was to Shin’s.

At 0:01 again, there is no early start by Heidemann but again, a double hit occurs with a small fraction of a second between the timekeeper’s button-press and the hit landing, and thus the time is still registering 0:01. Shin complains to her coach (apparently about the time not counting down) and walks up the piste again. Some commentators have stated that the timekeeper didn’t start the clock at all during the course of this hit, but I can clearly hear two beeps for the start and the hit, much less than half a second apart. While play is halted, the referee asks the timekeeper, “Time?”, presumably to check that things are working properly. At this, the timekeeper apparently presses the start button accidentally (or mistakenly believing that the referee wished the time to be run down), resulting in it going down to 0:00. It takes about half a second to do this, in hindsight giving some idea of the time that was remaining. Some of the crowd cheered, thinking the match was over. However, the time can’t count down when there is no fencing happening, so there was obviously a fault. Where there is a timekeeping fault, the rules clearly say the referee must estimate the remaining time and have the time set accordingly:

t.32.1. At the expiry of the regulation fencing time, if the clock is linked to the scoring apparatus (obligatory standard for finals of official FIE competitions), it must set off automatically a loud audible signal, and automatically cut off the scoring apparatus, without cancelling hits registered before the disconnection. The bout stops with the audible signal.

t.32.3. Should there be a failure of the clock or an error by the time-keeper, the Referee must himself estimate how much fencing time is left.

She asks for it to be set to one second, which is what the clock said before the error, and calls the fencers en garde. Given that fencing clocks use a visible resolution of one second, this is the only action the referee could reasonably take. It might be that the clock actually had only a hundredth of a second left on it internally, but there’s no way of anyone knowing. She couldn’t estimate the time at 0:00 because there was clearly some time left on the clock when the error occurred; it said 0:01. While the clock is being set back to 0:01, the Korean coach comes out of his technical area to complain about the point that three actions could not be launched without the clock counting down from 0:01. He’s not allowed to come out of his “box”, or appeal any decision (this is the fencer’s responsibility), or shout at the officials. He could well have received a yellow card for doing any of the above. He is apparently a usually very calm, polite gentleman and he must have understandably felt very strongly about the situation to react in this way.

At this point, it’s important to note that it is traditional in fencing (as in most other sports) for all decisions of the referee to be final, and this is largely still the case today. Some decisions can now be appealed, but options are limited. You can appeal on the referee’s interpretation of the rules, but not on a finding of fact by the referee, except in a limited number of video appeals where that facility is available (as it was here). Also, fencing has only one undo step. You can only appeal the previous hit. If you realise that your weapon hasn’t been working all bout when you are 10-0 down, you can ask for it to be tested and you might get the last hit annulled, but 9-0 down is the best you can hope for. As for the time you spent fencing with a useless weapon before that last hit, forget it. That time is gone, and not subject to appeal or adjustment. This may seem harsh and unfair, but it’s really the only way it could be. Trying to unravel a bout beyond a single hit is just too difficult to codify and apply practically, given all of the possible permutations. Here are the relevant rules:

t.122.1. No appeal can be made against the decision of the Referee regarding a point of fact.

t.122.2. If a fencer infringes this principle, casting doubt on the decision of the Referee on a point of fact during the bout, he will be penalised according to the rules. But if the Referee is ignorant of or misunderstands a definite rule, or applies it in a manner contrary to the Rules, an appeal on this matter may be entertained.

t.122.3. This appeal must be made:
a) in individual events, by the fencer,
b) in team events, by the fencer or the team captain,
it should be made courteously but without formality, and should be made verbally to the Referee immediately and before any decision is made regarding a subsequent hit.

Back to the action. At this stage, the fencers are ready to fence the final second. It may be that the time should really have been 0:00.01 rather than 0:01.00, but the latter is the official time at this point. Shin has done a bit of querying and her coach has made his views known, but the coach is not entitled to officially appeal and Shin not done so. Even if an appeal had been made, it is almost certain to have been rejected. The official time is the official time and is not subject to appeal. The referee’s setting of the clock to her estimate of 0:01 was done exactly according to the rules, and is the best estimate that could be made given the one-second resolution that is displayed and can be set on the timing mechanism. An attempt to set a time of some part of a second might possibly have been made by setting to one second and performing a quick start/stop, but it would have been without precedent and fraught with difficulty. An appeal that queried the setting of the time to 0:01.00 would have been rejected on the basis that it related to a matter of fact as determined by the referee. Such an appeal would have possibly resulted in a yellow card for Shin, not that it would have mattered at this late stage. So nothing up to this point has been appealed, and once there’s another hit, nothing that has happened up to this stage can possibly be appealed, regardless of the circumstances.

The referee insists that a reluctant Shin put on her mask and fence the final second that is now on the clock. The referee again calls for distance specifically from Heidemann, although it is Shin who has moved forward during the commotion, gaining another 0.7 m. Again, the fencers are still allowed to start with a distance that is a bit too close, but not as bad as it looks due to Heidemann’s lean. I estimate that the fencers are perhaps 0.5 m too close. Certainly, the distance that the fencers are allowed to start at is inadequate. Equally certainly, the distance is inadequate not because of Heidemann encroaching ahead of where she should, but primarily because of Shin’s walk up the piste.

Up to this point, Shin’s total gain from walking up the piste after each double hit amounts to over 8 m. The referee has erred in allowing this to happen, thereby handing Shin an enormous advantage. It is extremely likely (although not completely certain) that if the referee had set the fencers correctly each time, Shin would have lost by either being driven off the back of the piste, or found herself unable to use backward motion to make effective counter-attacks. This would have happened a long time before the magic everlasting second became an issue. Alternatively, the referee could have warned Shin the first time she did it, issued a yellow card the second time and a red card the third time, handing Heidemann the bout. This could also have happened long before time became a source of controversy. The last second has understandably attracted a lot of attention, but nobody seems to care about the 6 seconds that weren’t fenced in the first period, the 113 seconds that weren’t fenced in the second period, or the 13 seconds that could have been chopped off the third period for non-combativity, or the fact that doing so would have completely changed the situation regarding distance, because each double hit would have returned the fencers to the en garde lines.

The final hit

Video link

So the fencers are set en garde (too close due to Shin’s advancement and the referee’s failure to disallow it) and with a full second on the clock (which is more than there should have been due to the timekeeper’s error). On allez, Heidemann launches forward, beats Shin’s blade and hits her, with the clock still on 0:01. Let’s examine that last sub-second in detail.

First, the referee starts with the words en garde, pret and allez as usual, with the same short period of time between pret and allez that she had been using on previous occasions. This predictability allowed Heidemann to time her start of movement to coincide with the start of the word allez, which she did perfectly. As she launches herself forward, the referee’s word allez is completed, and the timekeeper reacts pretty quickly and presses the start button. You can hear the beep just before Heidemann beats the blade, about 0.3 s after allez starts and only 0.1 s after allez ends. The hit lands shortly after (about 0.7 s later). If the timekeeper was (as some have suggested) deliberately trying to give Heidemann time to score a hit by delaying the start button, they made a really bad job of it. In this particular instance, the timekeeper reacted as quickly as it is reasonable to expect.

The appeals

By the rules of the sport, Heidemann has now won the bout. Heidemann hit Shin one more time than she was herself hit, and this was done within the time allowed as measured on the official equipment. What would normally happen now is that the referee checks the video replay, orders the fencers to the en garde lines, indicates the winner and observes the fencers saluting each other, the referee and the crowd, before shaking hands and retiring to prepare for the next bout. Instead, what happens is that all Hell breaks loose.

This post is already enormous, so I don’t intend to go over the appeal process or the sit-on-the-piste thing in any detail. I will, however, point out that there was really never any hope for any appeal. Remember, nothing prior to the last hit is subject to appeal. Taking that last hit, there was a second left on the official clock at the start, and Heidemann scored a valid hit within that second and before the buzzer loud signalled the end of the bout and the scoring mechanism was disconnected. You can’t undo the fact of that hit just because you don’t like the result, or because it’s heartbreaking for the defeated athlete. However, here are some relevant rules about the appeal process, if you’re interested:

t.84. By the mere fact of entering a fencing competition, the fencers pledge their honour to observe the Rules and the decisions of the officials, to be respectful towards the referees and judges and scrupulously to obey the orders and injunctions of the Referee.

t.95.1. Whatever juridical authority has taken a decision, this decision may be subject to an appeal to a higher juridical authority, but only to one such appeal.

t.95.2. No decision on a question of fact can be the subject of an appeal.

t.95.3. An appeal against a decision only suspends that decision when it can be judged immediately.

t.95.4. Every appeal must be accompanied by the deposit of a guaranty of US$80, or its equivalent in another currency; this sum may be confiscated for the benefit of the FIE if the appeal is rejected on the grounds that it is ‘frivolous’; this decision will be taken by the juridical authority responsible for hearing the appeal. However, appeals against the decisions of the Referee do not require the deposit of the guaranty mentioned above.

Despite the one-appeal rule above, there were actually two appeals entered. The first was an immediate verbal appeal of the referee’s decision (contrary to the rules again, by the coach rather than the fencer), where a gaggle of officials from several different countries spent some time examining the video evidence and discussing the matter. The Technical Director then informed the referee that her decision was upheld, and she awarded the bout to Heidemann who rushed over to shake Shin’s hand as required by the rules, then left to prepare for her next bout. A second, written appeal was then entered, accepted and discussed for even more time while Shin sat alone in tears. The appeal was eventually dismissed, Shin was informed and escorted from the piste by FIE officials.

Mythbusting

Addressing various specific complaints that I’ve seen, let’s take them one at a time to see what’s true and what’s false.

  • Timekeeping in fencing has a resolution of one second, which can lead to problems such as thisconfirmed. But this has always been the case and it’s the same for all fencers. Problems like this are actually extremely rare; when they occur fencers might feel hard done by, but it’s something we accept and live with. That said, I would not be surprised to see a change to fencing timekeeping at the top level as a result of the publicity from this incident, maybe changing to a resolution of 0.1 seconds in the last 10 seconds of the bout.
  • The referee did not place the fencers correctly, allowing Heidemann to start too close on the last two hitsconfirmed. This was indeed a refereeing error; allez should not have been called while they were that close. But it’s important to note that Shin was largely responsible for this because she advanced up the piste and placed herself in that position. It’s also important to note that at no point did either fencer stand point-in-line prior to fencing to ensure the distance was set correctly.
  • Shin advanced up the piste after each double hit but one, gaining vital ground, allowing her to better counter-attack and stay in the boutconfirmed. According to my calculations, she gained over 8 m in this way.
  • The referee demonstrated anti-Shin bias in her placement of the fencersbusted. While it’s true that the referee erred in allowing the fencers to start too close, Shin had placed herself in that position. She could have held out a point-in-line and/or backed off to the correct position in order to ensure there was adequate distance. The idea of anti-Shin bias by the referee is ridiculous, given that she allowed Shin to illicitly gain over half a piste during the final hits.
  • The timekeeper hit the start button a fraction of a second after allez was called, resulting in Heidemann having more time to score the winning hitconfirmed. But this needs to be placed in context. The timekeeper always hits the start button a short time after allez is called, it’s just the degree that varies. The delay that occurred on the winning hit was consistent with what had been occuring earlier in the bout, and indeed in other bouts in the competition. It is not reasonable to expect a timekeeper to react significantly faster than they did on the winning hit.
  • It’s impossible to score two hits without the clock being seen to count down at least a secondbusted. We’re talking about Olympic fencers here, with fast muscles and faster reflexes. The tip of a fencing weapon is said to be the fastest non-ballistic object in sport. Have a look at some of the Olympic sabre bouts and see how much the clock winds down after a few straight attacks from a full 4 m apart. At a much lower level than this, I’ve seen a 5-hit sabre bout decided in 7 seconds, and that’s with the referee doing the timekeeping and thereby avoiding the delays you tend to get with a separate timekeeper.
  • The timekeeper failed to hit the start button at all during the penultimate hitbusted. It is possible to make out a clear start beep during this action, but it’s only just before the beep for the hit.
  • The timekeeper hit the start button while fencing was halted before the last hit, allowing the clock to move from 0:01 to 0:00. This resulted in the clock being reset to 0:01 and Heidemann having a full second to score the winning hitconfirmed. This was indeed an error, and it had a significant effect on the outcome. But it’s no indication of bias. The timekeeper (who I understand to be a British adult fencing volunteer) is unlikely to have had any desire to see any particular fencer win this bout. Fencers generally have an extremely well-developed sense of fair play, so it’s a highly insulting accusation to make. However, if you assume that there was pro-Heidemann bias, doing this deliberately would have been an extremely risky strategy. Not only was the action extremely exposed, there was a significant risk that the time of 0:00 would have been accepted by the referee as the official time, with Shin being declared the winner.
  • The referee erred in having the time set to 0:01 following this timekeeping errorbusted. The rules are explicit about what to do under these circumstances, and the referee followed them in the only way open to her.
  • Heidemann acted ungraciously in celebrating her victorybusted. Nobody who has watched more than a couple of fencing matches could believe this. It’s always unfortunate for the fencer who doesn’t win, but the nature of the sport is such that each bout always has a winner and a loser. Celebrating an important fencing victory with exhuberance is totally normal. Not celebrating a narrow victory to win a place in the Olympic final would have been totally bizarre.
  • Shin received a yellow card during the boutbusted. I have seen several statements to the effect that Shin already had a yellow card and therefore may have felt reluctant to argue with the referee about Heidemann’s distance. This is false. Shin received a yellow card only at the very end of her long wait on the piste, well after the bout was over. What appears to be confusing some observers is that the video shows a patch of yellow next to Shin’s name that appeared between the third period and the final minute. This was there to indicate that she had priority, not to indicate that she had a yellow card.
  • The clock was reset to 0:01 because Shin committed an infringementbusted. I have seen claims that the FIE claimed in an official statement that the clock was reset from 0:00 to 0:01 because of a yellow card infringement by Shin. This is one of the more bizarre things I’ve seen claimed. First, the video makes clear that there was no infringement at that point (at least, not one noticed or addressed by the referee). Even if there had been an infringement, there is no provision in the rules for adjusting the clock because of any infringement. There is no such thing as a “penalty second” in fencing. It didn’t happen, and couldn’t have happened.
  • The clock displays 0:01 when the time is anything from 0:01.99 to 0:00.01 seconds, so there was practically 2 seconds in which to score the last hitbusted. Watch the videos of this and other Olympic bouts and see what the clock does when it’s moving freely (not interrupted by hits). It doesn’t take 2 seconds to move from 0:01 to 0:00. A period starts at 3:00 and moves to 2:59 one second later, not instantly. Moving from 0:02 to 0:01 takes one second. Moving from 0:01 to 0:00 takes one second, too.
  • The clock gets reset to a whole second every time a hit is scoredbusted. Heidemann has been quoted as stating this, but it’s not correct. Again, watch other videos and see what the clock does. Sometimes the clock ticks down practically instantly after the start beep is heard, while on other occasions it takes nearly a full second, depending on how much of a full second was left internally on the clock. The most obvious proof of this is when the timekeeping error is made before the final hit. You can hear the start beep when the button is pressed and the end beep when the time reaches 0:00, and there is clearly less than a full second between the beeps.
  • The FIE reprehensibly demanded money from the Koreans before the appeal, proving that it is corrupt, biased and evil – busted. Some people got pointlessly very worked up about this. This is all above board; it’s written into the rules (see above) and applies to everybody. An $80 deposit is required along with a written appeal. As with other sports, an appeal deposit is there in the established procedures to discourage frivolous appeals. The sum is insignificant in the scheme of things (my last competition’s entry fee was about triple that), and my understanding is that it is almost always refunded anyway. Move along please, nothing to see here.
  • Shin staged a sit-down protest on the pistebusted. Sit-down protests are not allowed in fencing. Any kind of protest outside the official processes (e.g. throwing your equipment around) is generally considered an offence against sportsmanship and subject to a black card. Even refusing to salute correctly is a black card offence, which means exclusion from the whole competition and a 2 month ban. Shin stayed on the piste because she believed, or was told, that she had to remain on the piste while the post-match appeal was being heard. It is true that both fencers staying on the piste is a requirement during an appeal on the piste. However, from my reading of the rules it does not appear to be a requirement during determination of a written appeal.
  • Shin was rudely manhandled off the piste by security goons – busted. Once Shin was informed of the outcome of the official appeal, she had no place on the piste and was under an obligation to leave when requested. There were further bouts to be fenced, including her own bronze medal bout to be held 10 minutes later. If she didn’t leave at this point, she was in grave danger of receiving a black card and losing the right to fight for a medal at all. It was in everybody’s interests, particularly hers, that this didn’t happen. Rather than waving a black card in her face and calling security, a senior FIE official and his colleague put their arms around her and gently encouraged her reluctant departure. A yellow card was discreetly shown at this point; it’s not clear if this was for her initial reluctance to leave or as an automatic procedural result of the failed appeal. It is unfortunate from the point of appearances that the gentlemen in question are significantly larger than Shin, but other than that it is difficult to think how this could have been handled more gently.
  • The FIE should have just made the fencers re-fence the final minute or even the whole boutbusted. Not only is there no provision for doing this within the rules, it’s also an illogical suggestion. People who are outraged about Shin having to hold on for a possible extra second or so are suggesting that she should do so for another whole minute, or up to ten minutes? How does that make sense?
  • Shin “deserved to win”busted. I’m moving away from a purely objective viewpoint by addressing this point, but to me, the fencer who scores the most hits deserves to win. That would be Heidemann, then. If Shin had survived that final everlasting second, she would have been awarded the bout thanks to random selection rather than scoring the most hits. While Shin was undoubtedly disadvantaged by timekeeping errors, she was only still in the bout at that time because Heidemann had already been significantly disadvantaged by refereeing errors.
  • This is the worst example of timekeeping ever seen in top level fencingbusted. Enjoy this video of the second period of the 2009 Veteran (70+) World Championship Sabre Final. Keep an eye on the clock between hits.

Summary

There were undoubtedly mistakes made in both refereeing and timekeeping in this bout. However, they were relatively minor mistakes compared with those that are made on a regular basis by all fencing referees, myself included. It’s not at all uncommon for a hit to be given the wrong way in foil or sabre. It happens, and we live with it, because mistakes are made in all sports where human judgement is involved. Despite a lot of Internet ranting, there is no real evidence of any anti-Shin bias. When examined objectively, the sum of the incorrect and dubious refereeing actions in this bout show that a significant net benefit was provided to Shin.

Although I cannot aspire to the level of excellence and dedication demonstrated by Olympic fencers, I know from recent personal experience that it’s very unpleasant to lose an important bout. It’s heart-rending to lose that bout by the slimmest of margins. It induces not just anguish, but also anger, when you lose that bout because of what you believe to be refereeing, timekeeping or scoring errors. Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt. So I can very much empathise with Shin A-Lam in her predicament. But was she robbed of an Olympic medal? No, not really. Not when you examine all the facts.

AutoCAD 2013 for Mac – the holes live on

A couple of years ago, I reported on the missing features in AutoCAD 2011 for Mac. While some generous souls were prepared to accept something half-baked as a first attempt, even that excuse doesn’t wash when it comes to a third iteration. So how well is Autodesk doing at filling those holes? Decide for yourself. Here’s an updated list of missing features in AutoCAD 2013 for Mac:

  • Quick Properties Palette
  • Layer State Manager
  • New Layer Notification
  • Various layer commands including LAYCUR, LAYDEL, LAYMRG, LAYWALK, and LAYVPI
  • Autocomplete doesn’t work entirely properly, including offering commands that don’t exist
  • Filter
  • Quick Select
  • DesignCenter
  • Tool Palettes
  • Navigation Bar
  • ShowMotion
  • Sheet Set Manager (but there is Project Manager)
  • Model Documentation Tools (but at least now there are object enablers)
  • Geographic Location
  • Table Style Editing
  • Hatch Creation Preview
  • Multiline Style Creation
  • Digitizer Integration
  • Change Space
  • Express Tools
  • Material Creation, Editing, and Mapping
  • Advanced Rendering Settings
  • Camera Creation
  • Walkthroughs, Flybys, and Animations
  • Point Cloud Support
  • DWF Underlays
  • DGN Underlays
  • Autodesk 360 Connectivity
  • Data Links
  • Data Extraction
  • Hyperlinks
  • Markup Set Manager
  • dbConnect Manager
  • eTransmit
  • WMF Import and Export
  • FBX Import and Export
  • Additional Model Import
  • Ribbon Customization
  • Right-click Menus, Keyboard Shortcuts, and Double-Click Customization
  • VisualLISP
  • .NET
  • VBA
  • DCL Dialogs
  • Action Recorder and Action Macros
  • Reference Manager (Standalone Application)
  • Dynamic Block Authoring
  • Custom Dictionaries
  • Password-protected Drawings
  • Digital Signatures
  • Workspaces
  • User Profiles
  • Migration Tools
  • CAD Standards Tools
  • CUI Import and Export

Many of these are big-ticket, dealbreaking items. No DCL? Still? Seriously? To these we can add a whole application, Inventor Fusion, which comes as part of the AutoCAD 2013 for Windows install set. (Edit: Inventor Fusion for Mac is available to download as a Technology Preview application from Autodesk Labs and from the Apple App Store). I don’t expect many Mac users will be heartbroken about the lack of a permanent Ribbon (although there are Ribbon-like things that come and go), but as Autodesk reckons it’s responsible for a 44% productivity boost, maybe they should be. Oh, and it isn’t supported and doesn’t work properly on the current release of OS X.

To be fair, it’s not all one-way traffic. Here’s the list of features that appear only in AutoCAD for Mac:

  • Content Palette
  • Coverflow Navigation
  • Multi-touch Gestures
  • Project Manager (instead of Sheet Set Manager)

Well, that’s all right, then.

We’re used to Autodesk’s unfortunate mastery of the long-term half-baked feature, but carrying on with a whole product this unfinished for three releases is more than a little embarrassing. Charging the same amount for it as real AutoCAD adds insult to injury. While I’m sure there are dozens of Mac users happy to be using anything with the AutoCAD name on it on the platform of their choice, this is not a sustainable state of affairs.

Autodesk really needs to make up its mind about this product before embarking on more Mac misadventures such as porting Revit and other products. Autodesk needs to either take AutoCAD for Mac seriously and finish it off to an acceptable standard, or kill it off as a bad idea. As there’s no sign of the former happening and Autodesk history is replete with examples of the latter, I wouldn’t suggest anybody gets too attached to running AutoCAD natively on OS X.

Source: Autodesk knowledgebase article TS15833488.

AutoCAD Exchange bites the dust

Three years ago, I was happy to promote Autodesk’s then-new site AutoCAD Exchange. However, Autodesk has now given up on this attempt to maintain a social site of its own. My comment at the time, “AutoCAD Exchange is an important and potentially very useful site for AutoCAD users” turned out to be optimistic. I was closer to the mark with “It has yet to be seen if Autodesk manages to develop a real community on this site”. Now we’ve seen the answer. No, it didn’t. Autodesk has instead handed control to more socially successful sites, as this message indicates:

Thank you for visiting AutoCAD Exchange. In an effort to consolidate our online AutoCAD community efforts to more popular networks, we will be migrating AutoCAD Exchange content and activities to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Through the AutoCAD Facebook page we provide tips & tricks, tutorial videos and opportunities to engage with the employees at Autodesk that have helped build the product from the ground up.

We look forward to interacting with you on our social properties.
AutoCAD  on Facebook
AutoCAD on Twitter
AutoCAD on YouTube

Note:AutoCAD Plant Exchange will continue on this site, providing updates, content packs, and productivity tools. Click the Plant Exchange tab or visit www.autodesk.com/plantexchange.

If you are at a corporate location it’s quite likely that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are strictly off-limits, so I guess your AutoCAD-based social life just fell in a hole. OK, it was a worthy attempt which didn’t work, and it’s understandable that Autodesk pulled the plug. It was by no means the first Autodesk failed venture and it won’t be the last. Companies need to try out new things and nobody succeeds all the time. Apple Newton, anyone? Windows Me? IBM PCjr? AutoCAD for Mac? (The original attempt, that is. Jury is still out on the second one).

What if it had been a more important Autodesk on-line service that didn’t work out? One that you had grown to depend on? When Autodesk gives up on a piece of conventional software you’re using (as has happened countless times in the past, even with successful applications), you can at least go on using it until external factors force you to stop. That might be years down the track. I continued to use Autodesk’s Graphic Impact for presentations when most of Autodesk’s employees had forgotten it ever existed. But when Autodesk gives up on a piece of on-line software you’re using (and you’d have to be mindlessly optimistic to believe that such a thing won’t happen), you’re severely out of luck. So who’s going to volunteer to tie their company in to CAD on the Cloud?

LISP programmers, have your say again

Autodesk wants your input again in its annual API survey. This used to be a closed survey for Autodesk Developer Network (ADN) members, but has been open to all for the last few years. If you do any AutoCAD-based development at all, I encourage you to take part. That includes those of us who do most of our development in LISP.

Here’s the direct link to the survey. As you can see if you click the link, there’s a lot of stuff in there that assumes you’re keen to get developing for AutoCAD WS. If you’re not quite so filled with Cloudy enthusiasm and would prefer Autodesk to expend its resources elsewhere (on fixing and improving Visual LISP, for example), please fill in the short survey and say so. It closes on 22 June, so you only have a week.

Why bother, when it’s obvious that Autodesk is determined to ignore to death its most popular API regardless of whatever anyone says or does? I’m not sure, really. Maybe I’m an eternal optimist. (Ha!) Maybe I just want them to at least feel slightly guilty about sticking their fingers in their ears and going “LALALALALA! NOT LISTENING! WE HAVE A VISION, NOT LISTENING! LALALALALA!”

Cloud concerns – Security – Autodesk puts its arguments on line

I’ve made the point before that while Cloud proponents like Autodesk have been happy to talk big on the potential benefits, they have been conspicuously (suspiciously?) silent on the legitimate concerns their customers have raised. The best responses you have been likely to see regarding such concerns can best be characterised as “glossing over”.

So it’s good to see that Autodesk has put together a white-paper-type-thing called Autodesk® 360: Work Wherever You Are – Safely. This 275 KB PDF, with 5 pages of actual content, puts Autodesk’s point of view about one of the aspects of Cloud that people commonly raise as a concern. This is a good start, but of course there are quite a few potential dealbreakers that need addressing yet.

How well does this document address this issue? As you’d expect from Autodesk, it’s gung-ho positive, but there is at least some acknowledgement of Cloud concerns, e.g. “Customer experiences, however, can be largely impacted by the speed and quality of their Internet connection”. In addition to such occasional connections with the real world, there are some categorical assurances that may make some potential users happier. Here are some examples:

Autodesk 360 is delivered from data centers in the United States.

Files and identities are safe during storage, transit, and usage.

As part of Autodesk‟s due diligence for customer security and protection, prospective Autodesk personnel with potential access to sensitive data are screened through background checks before being employed.

Once purged, your data may persist in backup copies for a reasonable period of time but will not be recovered or read by anyone.

Customers own the content they create.

While that’s all well and good, Autodesk needs to get its legal team reading off the same page and fix up its terms and conditions to make them less anti-customer. Otherwise, this virtual document is worth more less than the virtual paper it’s written on. Some parts of the document are only superficially reassuring:

Any access to customer data or personal information is strictly governed by the Autodesk 360 Terms of Service (http://www.autodesk.com/termsofservice) Autodesk‟s Privacy Policy (http://usa.autodesk.com/privacy/), and internal procedures.

While that sounds fine on the face of it, Autodesk has violated its own Privacy Policy in the recent past and to the best of my knowledge, nothing ever came of it. That assurance is therefore rendered completely worthless by Autodesk’s own history. Add to that the fact that both the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy are extremely rubbery and rather one-sided, and this statement becomes more of a concern than a reassurance.

Other parts of the document are contradictory. Take these statements, for example:

Working in the cloud is all about reducing the hassles and headaches that companies and employees would rather avoid, like …. Managing data security and backups

It’s good practice, however, to personally observe safety and security wherever and whenever you are using Autodesk 360 …. Download and back up work locally in a secure environment.

Cloud’s great because it saves you having to make backups. However, make sure you make backups of the stuff you put on the Cloud. Hmm, okay…

So what do you think of this document? Is it all spin or does it address your security concerns? If it addresses your concerns, does it do so to your satisfaction? Please have a read and add your comments.

Trebling upgrade prices was not enough for Autodesk

A blog post from BIM person Gregory Arkin contains a number of confidently-made statements about what Autodesk intends to do with its upgrade and Subscription pricing model. If the information is correct, the news is all bad for customers. The prices for both upgrade and Subscription are getting jacked up substantially. In fact, for upgraders the pricing (70% of full whack for the cheapest upgrade) will be completely non-viable and you’ll effectively be forced onto Subscription. This goes beyond the trebling of upgrade prices that Autodesk’s Callan Carpenter spent some time defending here two years ago. The link in that post to the relevant Autodesk page doesn’t contain any pricing specifics other than the vague statement “save up to 20%”, but I’ll take Gregory’s word for it.

Gregory sees this business of upgraders being hunted to extinction as something that Subscription customers should have a good laugh about, but he’s wrong. Resellers can have a chuckle, but Subscription customers should mourn the lack of choice for customers. It means customers are no longer able to compare Subscription with any kind of sane upgrade pricing and make a decision about the best option for them. This lack of internal ‘competition’ is not even worth a snigger, because it inevitably means Subscription prices shooting up. Autodesk has racked up Subscription prices already and will do so again next year. For those customers who have fallen for the ‘free’ upgrade-to-suite offers, their Subscription prices will be higher again. With everyone on Subscription, Autodesk will just keep pushing up prices indefinitely. From Autodesk’s point of view, there is no down side to this; tie people in and the gravy train goes on for ever.

There are various terms in common use for this kind of thing. One is price gouging. Anybody who has ever booked a hotel near a big sporting event or bought drinks at a nightclub will be familiar with the realities of businesses doing this whenever they can get away with it. It’s part of the free market and generally perfectly legal, no matter how unpopular it makes the business. However, it only works when competition is effectively absent and customers are left with no realistic alternative but to pay up. Autodesk obviously thinks it is in such a position. Is it right? Sadly, history says it probably is.

Edit: This post originally stated that Gregory is a reseller. He has informed me that this is no longer the case and I have edited the post accordingly. My apologies to Gregory for the misstatement.

Should Autodesk provide a CHM version of its AutoCAD 2013 Help?

I’ve added a poll asking this question over on the right. I would like to see this done as soon as possible as a courtesy for those customers who find the current AutoCAD 2013 Help system inadequate. If you agree, vote Yes. If you disagree (for example, you think Autodesk should instead concentrate on improving the current system), vote No. If you wish to make a comment on this specific issue, feel free.