Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Don't buy software online (the Nero experience)

Of course it's convenient, but you're buying the cat in the bag. If something goes wrong, you're left on your own. Unlike the software you bought from a retailer which you can return (and thus prove that you're no longer using it) with downloaded software your acceptance of a licence key is final. If the program on the CD doesn't work, the retailer can't argue that you've forfeited your consumer rights buy opening the package. But if the downloaded program fails to live up to the promised standard, the software company will deny further responsibility of the problem as was the case in a recent experience I had with Nero. Nero AG does provide some sort of warranty of replacement or repair for faulty software and the right to withdraw from the contract should the fault not be remedied within a reasonable time, but that warranty is hardly worth the paper or computer screen it is written on. First you would have to get hold of a real person at Nero to deal with your complaint.

When it was an upstarting software company, Nero AG produced one of the best multimedia managing packages available for viewing and editing audio and video files. Version 6 of the Nero suite had an unimaginative user interface, but it was stable and allowed the viewing, editing and writing of audio and video files all in one neat package. Their technical support was proactive and competent. When I wrote to them about a bug in their software, they responded immediately, acknowledged the fault, and wrote back within a few days: "We have found the cause for that problem and we are working on the solution of it. It is not sure if it will be done in time for the next update, but we are working on it." I hasten to add that I wrote in as an ordinary customer, not a software reviewer or journalist. Those were the "good old days".

How much has changed in the course of two years. Nero 8 is an upgrade I suggest nobody needs nor wants. The promotional emails advertised it as a great further development of the Nero editing suite, but in reality it is a big step back. The user interface has become infantile and the functionality has completely disappeared. Well, it remains there in theory, and you can still watch DVDs, but try editing video files or burning a DVD and the program will inevitably crash. At least that was my experience. I could have got through a whole box of writable DVDs without successfully burning a single one of them. In the process I even had to endure the occasional dreaded Windows crash or "blue screen of death", something that has thankfully become a rarity after Windows XP Professional.

As for the technical support, I emailed them and am still waiting for replay two weeks later. I also emailed Asknet, the company who handles the online sales for Nero AG. They did reply that they, too, had forwarded my queries to Nero technical support, and so we both wait. Eventually I asked for my money back. However, this is where everybody starts hiding. Asknet, who on their website proudly proclaim that they afford customers a 14 day cancellation and return period: "If you wish to cancel an order, you can do so, provided that you cancel your order within the given time line for the Right of Withdrawal/Revocation. The minimum Right of Revocation is 14 days, but might vary depending on the service policy of the Software Publisher." I read this as there being a minimum period of 14 days, but it might be longer if the respective Software Publisher permits. When put to the test, I found, however, that this promise, again, was worth less than the paper it was written on should one want to print it off. This is how I was fobbed off: "Due to terms and conditions of the software that you have purchased, you must contact Nero in order to receive a cancellation. Please contact them using one of the methods that you have been provided. Asknet cannot assist further in this matter." And they referred me back to the silent Nero technical support department. The Nero website on the other hand refers all such matters back to Asknet stating: "Asknet AG is a Nero reseller and your contractual partner for all purchases in this store". A veritable game of ping pong.

I am pretty sure that the whole arrangement and refusal to deal with a justified customer complaint is falling foul of consumer rights in Germany where both companies are incorporated, but in my experience the consumer protection agencies and watchdogs of European countries are spineless and a civil suite would be far more expensive than the original cost of the purchase. I'm also pretty sure that the two companies know this and use this to their advantage.

What they don't seem to know is that companies alienating their customers are eventually forced to die a slow death. For some time they may try to invent new software and release it on the market before it has matured out of the testing stage, for some time they may trap new buyers, but over time their reputation will precede them. Anonymous FAQs and faceless websites, the refusal to provide telephone numbers where real people can be contacted, the persistent ignoring of emails asking for support - these and many other symptoms of the increasing impersonal nature of corporate Europe are gradually turning people off. In the case of myself and Nero, I once used to recommend their product. Now I wouldn't touch it with a barge pole.

Last not least, the Nero PR department, the only one with a published telephone number, was given the opportunity to reply before this story was published. Sadly, it was only staffed by an answerphone. An email request to make contact was answered by, don't hold your breath: an out of office reply!

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Happy or stupid?

If you want to see politically skewed research look no further than the University of Leicester. According to a report in the health section of BBC News online Adrian White, an analytic social psychologist at the university, created the first worldwide map of happiness. Maybe Adrian was somewhat biased on account of his surname, because his map suggests that white people are the happiest of all and Denmark is, in the words of the BBC, "the happiest place on earth".

Of course, his research only measures "subjective happiness", and maybe the non-white population of the globe just don't know how happy they are. White's map uses colour coding with dark red being the most happy and bright yellow the least. North America, Europe and Australia are all red in colour, parts of Asia are orange, whilst Russia (ok, so there are some unhappy white people) and Africa are mainly yellow.

Anybody watching television might have noticed that the people of America, Europe and Australia often look dull in spite of their affluence, whilst the people of Asia and Africa often manage to smile in spite of their poverty. Their smiles, songs and conviviality, however, must be fake. According to White a nation's happiness was most closely associated with health levels, followed by prosperity and education. And then, according to the BBC, he himself expressed surprise that Asian countries like China, Japan, India did so poorly, because these were countries with a strong sense of collective identity identified with well-being by other researchers. He notes that many of the largest countries in terms of population do quite badly, and concludes that "the frustrations of modern life, and the anxieties of the age, seem to be much less significant compared to the health, financial and educational needs in other parts of the world".

Well, the saddest thing about his research is that on his map, which is available online as a pdf file, he couldn't even spell the name of his university right. Hopefully this will be corrected after any of his colleagues read this post, but at the moment it reads "Leiceter" without the "s". So much for alleged high levels of education in the happier parts of the world!

Credit Crunch

It's coming, and as before it is going to be "Heads you loose, tails we win" for the banks who use us as pawns in their game. In the US it started with "sub prime" mortgages, in the UK it continued with "Northern Rock". In both places the governments, heavily indebted to the banking sector, and the media, whose loyalty the banks ensure with full page advertisements, want to make us believe that this is just an isolated phenomenon for imprudent lenders. The truth is, the system has been shaken more than it can recover from, and every country and their populations are soon going to be between a (northern) rock and a hard place.

There are two basic myths by which the banks have concealed their fraudulent nature from us over the centuries. Firstly, they made us believe that "boom and bust" are natural events within an "economic cycle". Secondly, they keep claiming that they lend out depositors' money. Both these claims are blatant lies.

Boom and bust are cycles created by the banking system through credit expansion and credit squeezes in order to make people pledge their real wealth as a security for obtaining loans and then taking it off them when they are forced to default. After all, the banks know that their credits are worthless promises. They are not after our money, they are after our wealth.

Bank credits are created "out of thin air" using a system called "fractional reserve banking". In other words, banks invent the money they lend us, yet still charge us for it. They don't have enough collateral to back up the promises they make. Their actual collateral only covers a tiny "fraction" of the money they lend. If any of us tried this game, we would be locked up for fraud. Not so the banks. They have been so good at conning people that even governments borrow from them their fictitious money instead of issuing their own. The money the governments borrow is, of course, backed by the totality of their nations' wealth.

The financial system just described results in an exponential growth curve similar to cancer and must eventually take its host down. The visible signs of this malaise are inflation, caused by interest, and increasing global indebtedness. Politicians keep talking of growth they want to achieve, but natural resources are finite, hence unlimited growth is an impossibility. A balanced system would be at equilibrium, but this is impossible in an economy where interest payments demand that more is given back than was entered into the equation in the first place. The only safety valves which kept this explosive powder keg from blowing up have been destructive mechanisms like drugs and wars, and space programs, which remove some of the surplus out of circulation. Global poverty, totally unavoidable in today's world, has been purposefully engineered by a greedy financial system.

However, it seems the time has finally run out. There are no more colonies to conquer and no more markets to capture. Every world citizen by now has a sizable noose of personal debt around his or her neck, compounded by the debt contracted by their respective governments. The governments know that time is running out. A few weeks ago the Treasury, the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority announced in a tripartite statement - which underlines the seriousness of the problem - that a "liquidity support facility" would be extended to Northern Rock to prevent the company from going insolvent as this would cause serious economic damage. So after we were told that paying interest for loans is a fair price for the risks bank take, we are now, through our taxes, also paying them for miscalculating their risks. In the USA, likewise, the Federal Reserve has just increased the amount made available to banks in trouble from $40bn to $60bn, once again underlining the seriousness of the problem.

What governments are worried about is that people loose trust in the banking system and that this will generate a "run" on the banks. If people all started to ask for their deposits back they would soon realise that the money wasn't actually there. Whatever desperate measures they invent, however, governments will only be able to extend the time scale and stave off the collapse for a little longer. They know this, too. This is the real rationale for all the counter-terrorism measures and attacks on personal freedom we have seen over recent years.

Under the guise of a terrorist threat they are preparing for martial law in order to control an outraged populace when the money has finally run out. Acquiescent as we have been to hand over total control to them in return for a false sense of security sold to us on the basis of the irrational fear of an ever-present terrorist threat, it is now just a matter of time when those powers will be used against us. Thus the banks, or rather their actual owners, who gained control over our governments through financial manipulations a long time ago, will consolidate their take over and begin to rule us with an iron fist. Unlike us, they were never fooled into believing that money equals wealth, and power is more important a goal for them than affluence.