July 31, 2005

Finding the Right Noun

(CNN) -- NASA engineers have determined that Discovery can safely return to Earth and that the space shuttle's thermal tiles don't pose a safety hazard, deputy shuttle manager Wayne Hale said Saturday night.

Thus begins a story on today’s CNN Web site. Similar copy was read on the air, but what was said was not quite what was intended.

The shuttle's thermal tiles, rather than posing a safety hazard, are intended to protect the shuttle. When they operate properly, they do just that, allowing the craft to survive the enormous heat of re-entry into the atmosphere. The concern NASA had was not that the tiles might be a threat, but that their condition could be. Were they or were they not damaged in the ascent to orbit?

Even if Hale was imprecise in his statement—notice that he is not quoted directly—CNN should have cleaned up its lead with something like:
NASA engineers have determined that Discovery can safely return to Earth and that the condition of the space shuttle’s thermal tiles don't pose a safety hazard, deputy shuttle manager Wayne Hale said Saturday night.

July 28, 2005

Space Shuttle Design Flaw

The relief resulting from the successful launch of Space Shuttle Discovery after a 2-1/2 year re-engineering effort following the Columbia disaster has been quickly replaced by dismay. Before the shuttle even reached the International Space Station, NASA had announced that the shuttle fleet would again be grounded. Although the craft seems not to have been damaged by foam shed from the external fuel tank, design changes were unable to keep a piece of foam, estimated to weigh about a pound, from coming loose during the ascent to orbit. Clearly, NASA is beginning to worry that there may be no economic solution to the problem of foam coming loose from the big fuel tank.

The space shuttle and its launch system are increasingly beginning to seem fragile. Some of their vulnerabilities result from a major early design decision. Unlike other objects we have launched into orbit, the space shuttle sits not atop the rockets that propel it, but beside them. This tends to make propulsion system failures catastrophic (as in the case of Challenger), and it puts the vulnerable thermal tiles of the shuttle in harm’s way of insulation that breaks off the external fuel tank. If the shuttle sat on top of the rockets that propel it, rocket engine failures—even rocket explosions—might be survivable. And, of course, the shedding of foam insulation would be completely innocuous.

E-commerce at eMusic

With a recent download, I received an invitation to try the music download service eMusic. The incentive to do so was “50 free downloads,” which sounded like a lot. What did I have to lose?

I should say that I am not a regular consumer of MP3 music files. I have probably downloaded no more that a handful of songs over the years, a couple from the old Napster and Morpheus, and the rest from Web sites devoted particular artists or genres. I do own an MP3 player, but I use it more for its FM radio, for transfering files, and for recording voice or music than I do for actually playing MP3s. I am a long-time audiophile, and the notion of purchasing music in one format when it can be had in a higher-fidelity format is a hard sell.

Not surprising, my “50 free downloads” required that I sign up for a trial membership that would be converted automatically to a regular membership if I failed to cancel. I had every intention of cancelling—this sort of arrangement had cost me money in the past when I failed to pay close attention to offer details—but, since I had never used a fee-based download service, I was willing to try one. Nonetheless, when signing up, I used my American Express card—American Express is great in customer-merchant disputes—and selected the lowest-priced monthly plan for my post-trial membrship. This offered 40 downloads for $9.99.

There is much to like about eMusic. It is oriented toward albums, rather than individual songs. This suited me fine, as I am used to buying albums, not singles. One can purchase individual songs, of course, but eMusic does make it simple to download complete albums with a single click. I give the service high marks for its search capabilities, the annotations provided about albums, and its download software. I was somewhat less impressed by the music selection itself. I found few titles I actually searched for, though I had no trouble finding 50 items I wanted to download. I chose several complete albumns and half a dozen or so selections from others, mostly from the folk/country and classical categories. I was pleased that I could copy album cover art from the site and use it on the folder icons in my computer’s My Music folder.

Downloading whole albumns, it did not take long to exhaust my 50 downloads. It was now time to cancel my membership. Before doing so, however, I saw an "Upgrade" link and thought that I should review all my options first, since I didn’t recall the details of every membership level. I am used to making purchases on the Internet, so I expected to be given a set of options and several opportunities to say no before I had actually committed to a purchase. I clicked on the Upgrade link. Bad choice. I was congratulated for having purchased another month of the service, allowing me 40 additional downloads. This was an especially surprising outcome, since eMusic had missed an opportunity to sell me something more expensive. Apparently, however, the company was not going to miss an opportunity to earn something out of the deal.

I was glad I had used my American Express card, but I was hoping I would not actually have to dispute a charge. Natually, I looked for a customer service telephone number. Naturally, I didn't find one. There was a Web form for sending e-mail to eMusic, however, so I composed a complaint and request for a refund. I said, in part: “I am very angry at this aggressive piece of deceptive marketing. Please confirm that I will not be charged for another month. I WILL dispute any charge with American Express.”

The next day—kudos to eMusic here—I received a reply. It referred me to eMusic’s Terms of Use and essentially told me that I was out of luck: “Unfortunately we are not able to issue you a refund for charges incurred during your subscription.” I resisted my urge to call in American Express. Included in my reply, however, was the following: “I was charged without warning. Your Web site does not conform to standard practice of verifying the user's intention before he incurs a charge, particularly a non-refundable one. I consider this deceptive and possibly fraudulent. If you do not remove the charge within 24 hours, I will dispute the charge with American Express. It will be easier for everyone if you do the proper thing and process a refund.”

This seems to have done the trick. The next e-mail message, which arrived the next day, read, in part: “Your eMusic account associated with the email address "lionel@deimel.org" is now canceled. We have issued you a refund in the amount of $9.99.” It was suggested that I check back later to reconsider subscribing. “Over the next several months, we're going to be enhancing the service with new features and new content.” The note failed to explain if the enhancements would include a more user-friendly e-commerce component.

July 7, 2005

From Yellow to Orange

Threat levels
In response to the bombings in the city of London, today, Homeland Security informed the world on its Web site as follows: “The United States government is raising the threat level from Code Yellow--or Elevated-- to Code Orange--or High--for the mass transportation portion of the transportation sector.” The CNN link to the story about the change read “US raises alert level after blasts.”

Homeland Security has consistently refered to its color-coded advisory system as specifying a “threat level,” but I had not noticed until today that this terminology represents either fuzzy thinking or deliberate manipulation by the Department of Homeland Security. I hope that, in fact, Homeland Security is raising the perceived threat level; if it is raising the actual threat level, we have a serious need to re-evaluate what this organization thinks it is supposed to be doing! No doubt, the Department would like citizens to believe that the declared “threat level” corresponds to an actual statistically meaningful measure of the current threat from terrorism. Without more information than the government will ever have, however, the “threat level” is simply a best guess of that hypothetical statistic. Homeland Security should call its colored levels “perceived threat levels” or, more reassuringly, “estimated threat levels.”

The CNN use of “alert level” seems to be a headline-writer’s mistake, at least insofar as it does not capture directly the sense of what Homeland Security said it was doing. Because each “threat level” corresponds to a detailed specification of steps to be taken by public safety organizations, however, a change, like this one from yellow to orange, does indeed (and unambiguously) elevate what could reasonably be called the “alert level.” Perhaps Homeland Security should use this term, which emphasizes something the Department does know, rather than something it doesn’t.