Thursday, December 18, 2014

About those product reviews on

I have some advice for you about the product reviews on AND on

After you read this, you may think, "Well, duh, Ray. That's just common sense." To which I respond, after looking at the reviews again, "Apparently not."

1. Never buy anything online without checking the reviews first.

If you find something online that you want to buy, first read the reviews available at and Even if you don't buy from these two places, they have the best collection of reviews on whatever it is that you want to buy.

And it doesn't matter if you're looking to buy a tech gadget, a stuffed animal, a book or jewelry. NEVER buy without checking the reviews first. It's as close as you can get to handling the thing in the store before putting it in your basket.

2. Ignore the canned, professional reviews. Go straight to the USER reviews., PCWorld and other sites are given products for FREE, by the sellers or the manufacturers, so they can try them out and write glowing reviews of them. And they DO write glowing reviews. Those reviews are based on the literature provided by the seller or manufacturer, a demo performed by the seller, and a few hours spent tinkering with the product before they move on to the next product review.

So these reviews are generally glowing reviews, praising the product in superlatives and highly recommending you spend your hard-earned money for something that they got for free. Skip them.

Go past the professional reviews, straight to the user reviews. and both have a core of serious users, who will give a wide variety of useful reviews based on actual experience with the product.

3. Read both the five-star reviews and the one-star reviews.

You need to know what people LIKE about the product, but sometimes it's more important to know what people DON'T LIKE about it. Also pay attention to the quantity of five- and four-star reviews versus the quantity of one- and two-star reviews. If more people DON'T LIKE the product than DO LIKE it, then you'd better be very careful about parting with your money.

4. Ignore the reviews that complain about purchasing or shipping problems. Pay CAREFUL attention to the ones that complain about product quality and customer service.

I'm not saying that sellers aren't going to rip you off. And I'm not saying that there aren't incompetent, lazy or dishonest shippers out there. But by and large, anyone selling online has a reputation to uphold, and the vast majority of them will do their best to make you happy. That's why the order-taking-and-shipping departments in so many businesses are now called "Customer fulfillment." If there's a significant number of negative comments made about the order fulfillment process, then yeah, pay attention to it.

But the reviews that matter to you the most are the reviews about the PRODUCT. How good is it, and what problems does it have? And if the user needed to get the seller or manufacturer (that is, Customer Service) involved to fix the problem, how well did that work? See, you're going to spend your money on something, and once the money and the product change hands, you (or the gift recipient) are going to be stuck with it for a long time, until you choose to throw it away. So it had better work. User reviews can reassure you that it will work, or they can warn you that it won't work. (I know, this sounds like common sense. Unfortunately, it isn't as common sense as you would imagine.)

5. Filter out the complaints that you can reasonably attribute to "stupid users."

A large percentage of complaints are due to people who didn't read the specs right, didn't read the instructions, or somehow don't understand. Have pity on these people. Don't think, "Good grief, what a moron," about them. But figure out quickly who they are and discard anything they say.

6. Learn to detect the fake five-star and one-star reviews.

It's okay to think "Good grief, what a moron," about everyone who falls into this category.

Many sellers get friends and other people to write glowing reviews of their products. These people have never read the book or used the item, and may have never actually seen the book or item. Many of them use prewritten text or stock phrases, provided by the seller. If you look at the reviewers' profiles, you will see that they have only written one review, for one product.

One great example of this type of review are the five-star reviews for "The Price of Silence," by William D. Cohan. Commenters have pounced on most of those reviews and exposed them as frauds.

Not surprisingly, some people get paid to write positive reviews. I guess that's one way to use your English degree to make money. These shills are more difficult to detect, but you will notice that their reviews are filled with useless, overly general verbiage.

Some sellers are also dogged by psychopaths who write negative reviews about anything they have to sell. Fortunately, they're not very subtle and you can spot them instantly.

7. Snort derisively at the five-star reviews from anyone who has had the product for less than three months.

THIS is the one that will get you. So many five-star reviews read something like this (best read in an airheaded, Valley Girl voice) : "Well, I don't know what all those bad reviews are about. Maybe some people just get lemons. I've had my product for about three weeks now, and it works great! I love it! So does my significant other! It's never given us any problem."

I want to phone these people six months later and see what they have to say about it. You never hear from them once the thing goes south. ANY five-star review less than three months old is not a reliable indicator of actual product performance.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Lunchtime Conversation With My Niece

I had a lunchtime conversation with one of my many beloved nieces. I reprint it here, for your viewing enjoyment.

I hope it's clear to you how much fun we have together.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

I Believe in Magic

I am an engineer. I am also a scientist. I am grounded in the real things of the world, phenomena that can be measured with tape measures, balances, thermometers, voltmeters, oscilloscopes, calorimeters, spectrophotometers, ... and even ATLAS detectors.

But I also believe in magic.

No, I'm not talking about Harry-Potter-Hogwarts-witch-and-wizardry magic. And I'm not talking about the timeless, frightening, fell, dark arts of sorcery, that formed the basis for Rowling's masterful opus.

Nor am I talking about the faddish, mystical, New-Agey horsecrap that flits around the world today like a butterfly, full of flashes of color but no substance whatsoever, trying to take the place of classical religion.

No, I am talking about everyday magic. It's the kind that you can't really make happen on purpose. It just comes to you. Things like this:

The tinkle of a child's laugh.

A surprise kiss from someone you love.

A mountain brook in the cooler seasons, making music as it splashes across its own ice formations.

The feeling you get when you see an explosion of sunrise or sunset on the clouds and the mountains.

The feeling in your mouth when you eat a spoonful of mint chocolate ice cream.

The zing in your nostrils when you catch a whiff of an anonymous woman's perfume (something really good, like Ciera) in a crowd.

That same zing when the woman you're snuggling with is wearing that same perfume.

The way your heart jumps when you answer the phone and hear the voice of just the person you were hoping would call, on the other end.

A sign of humanity - love, or sharing, or forgiveness, or basic human kindness and decency - shared between two people.

A child's embrace.

That feeling of satisfaction when you finish something, and you know it's done right.

We live in a world of magic. But it's all simple, everyday magic. We need to learn to recognize those magic moments and treasure them.

Religious people might call the magic God's grace. And they may be right. I don't care whether it is or isn't. It's magic just the same, and it's there for everybody.

Fair warning: I'm going to edit that list as I feel the urge. It may change from reading to reading.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Two great apps for Android

Let me tell you about two great drawing programs for Android: Markers and Autodesk SketchBook.

Apple device users have long had access to a quick-and-dirty drawing app called Jot!, and a more complicated app from Autodesk, called Sketchbook. I was so pleased with both apps that I once wrote an article recommending them to you.

I've been looking in vain, for over a year, for an Android app to match Jot! which, unfortunately, is an iOS-only app. I think I finally found it.

With the unassuming name of "Markers," this app sticks to the fundamentals: it lets you do quick-and-dirty sketches. You can change brush sizes, styles and colors, but the selection is intentionally kept small, to keep the application simple and uncluttered. It's not really fair to do a feature-by-feature comparison of Markers to Jot!, because one only works on Android and the other only works on iOS.

(It turns out that Markers has been around for over two years. I don't know how I missed it, but I'm glad I finally found it.)

Some of the nice features of Markers:
  • It's pressure-sensitive, varying line width according to how hard you press on the glass.
  • The background is transparent, not white, so you can draw with a white marker.
  • If you draw with two fingers, you get two lines; three fingers gives you three lines and so on, up to whatever limitations your hardware imposes.
  • You can zoom and pan the drawing surface - very useful if you start getting complicated.

Markers - screenshot
A sample Markers screen. If you click on the green marker in the upper left corner, the menu disappears, leaving you with a full-screen drawing surface.

Jot! for iOS is available in both a free and a paid version; the paid version gives you extra exporting and sharing capabilities. Markers for Android is simply free. The author, Daniel Sandler, keeps a small website devoted to the project, at You can download Markers from the Google Play app store. Follow this link:

Now, let me tell you about SketchBook.

Autodesk knows how to follow the income stream. Their SketchBook app is available on both Android and iOS devices. As far as I have been able to tell, the app behaves identically on both platforms. SketchBook comes in three flavors:
  • SketchBook Express, free and good enough for casual users
  • SketchBook, also free but frustrating until you upgrade to Pro
  • SketchBook Pro, $3.99
For casual users, SketchBook Express will fill all your needs, but Markers is easier to use. Serious users will want SketchBook Pro. You don't download and install SketchBook Pro directly. You install SketchBook, and then you buy the Pro Tools inside the app. Installing the Pro Tools is what turns SketchBook into SketchBook Pro. Believe me, for four bucks, it's worth upgrading to the Pro version.

Autodesk SketchBook - screenshot
A sample SketchBook screen.
SketchBook is an entire Autodesk product line, spanning platforms from mobile devices to serious desktop workstations. Autodesk supports the product line at its own website, You can download SketchBook from the Google Play app store. Follow this link:

One little note about the reviews at Google Play: many SketchBook reviewers gripe, and with some (but not a lot of) justification, that the free version of SketchBook is more like an advertisement for the Pro version, and that they feel deceived in some way in having to upgrade to Pro to get the tools they need. Eh. Think of it as an evaluation copy. Avoid the disappointment and frustration that the reviewers experienced, by planning from the start to spend the $3.99 and upgrade to Pro immediately. That way you will know exactly what you are getting and you won't feel like anybody's trying to pull a fast one on you.

Besides, the SketchBook app is easily worth $10 or more. And the Markers app is worth $2 or $3. They're both bargains at their current prices.