Category Archives: Life

Amazing, and a Bit Scary: New Photoshop Retouching Feature Preview


Already, art exhibitions of photography are getting to be more like, “digital paintings inspired by real life” as opposed to actual documentation of a moment in time. With the simplicity of the retouching here, I wonder how it will change our perception of even news photography as a source of proof that a scene actually happened? Changing a tiny detail of a scene can affect its context dramatically–imagine a photo of a person throwing a rock through the air at a policeman with a gun raised in response. Photoshop out the rock and you’re left with a picture of an angry policeman confronting an unarmed man with his arms outstretched.

Already I’ve seen innumerable Photoshops being passed around of famous politicians made to look like they’re wrapping themselves in flags and crosses, prancing around in ridiculous clothes, or giving a Nazi salute…and I’m pretty sure the folks passing the photos around see these not as fakery, but as confirmation of their own notions of what those politicians are really like. Are we sophisticated enough as media consumers to suspect the image was manipulated, and as a result, our emotions are being manipulated as well? I doubt it–and is the alternative to simply disbelieve every image we see unless it’s confirmed by multiple, independent photographers?

It’s going to be an interesting future…

HT: Gizmodo

Found Inside the Old Loveseat, 1995-2010

Tear apart an old couch with a reciprocating saw, and discover a treasure trove…


Atlanta Progressive News fires reporter for trying to be objective

Sometimes, you hear the words someone’s saying, and you understand their meaning, but you just can’t force yourself to believe they just said what they just said, for fear that your brain will explode.

In an e-mail statement, editor Matthew Cardinale says Springston was asked to leave APN last week “because he held on to the notion that there was an objective reality that could be reported objectively, despite the fact that that was not our editorial policy at Atlanta Progressive News.”

Read the whole thing:

From the Department of Unintended Design Consequences

It’s no secret that I love the idea of LED lighting, and hate the idea that so much energy from a conventional incandescent bulb is wasted in the form of heat. It turns out, though, that colder climes are discovering that there’s a lethal downside to electrical efficiency when it comes to traffic lights:

The problem is obvious in retrospect, but I for one sure didn’t think of it ahead of time. I suspect there’s one of those annoying, “try it small before rolling out across an entire city” lessons we should be taking away from this one, as any fix is likely to be hugely expensive.

Black Friday Follies

About a week ago, my 2-year-old Playstation 3 decided to take a dive, displaying the dreaded “red flashy light of death” which indicates an overheating problem of some sort. Unfortunately, nothing I could Google up led to a solution, and Sony indicated a repair price of $149 — exactly the market value of a two-year-old PS3. Regrettably, it was time for the old unit to go to that great game store in the sky, and I started looking around for its replacement.

The good news is, the PlayStation 3 has been upgraded in recent times with a new “slim” model which is both quieter and far more power-efficient that the old one. (The original PS3 drew 118 watts when it was off!) So having to replace my old PS3 with a PS3 slim was not without its upside. Better yet, Black Friday was coming up , so I might be able to snag a couple of games for me, or presents for the kids in the process.

Sites like Engadget did a great job of ferreting out everyone’s Black Friday deals, so I was well-versed in the various deals available by the time I was done with Thanksgiving dinner. Walmart (where I could get it with two cool games and a copy of Batman: The Dark Knight on Blu-ray) was the best deal for my needs, but the idea of braving the mad rush through those ginormous Walmart entranceways on the way back to the electronics section to snag the deal struck me as…well, suicidal. After considering other options, I decided it was Game Stop for me, where I could snag it with Little Big Planet and God of War 1 and 2–provided I was front of the line at 6 am when the store opened. After checking (my “go-to” retailer of choice) for the umpteenth time and finding no alternative, I went to bed and set two alarm clocks to rouse me at 3 AM so I’d definitely be ready.

As I approached the local mall at 3:15, I saw numerous folks streaming out of the mall as I entered–not normally a good sign. It seems that Old Navy had been having a deal where they’d hand out wristbands letting you get a free copy of Lego Rock Band if you blew $20 at the store. It had occurred to me that I might grab Neil a couple of pairs of jeans at that price if the opportunity presented itself and score the game, but over 200 people in front of me had the same idea. Old Navy, which was supposed to be handing out wrist bands at 3 am to the unspecified number of lucky few entitled to get the deal, was instead having their staffers hide out in their locked store–the opening time having extemporaneously been changed to 6 am when they figured out they didn’t have enough staff. Mall security, meanwhile, was gathered in a huddle looking both very young and very nervous. If not for the jovial mood of the crowd, it could quickly have become a very bad scene.

“Eyes on the prize, Pete! Eyes on the prize!” I thought, and abandoned all thought of cheap jeans and Lego games to stand next to the deserted Game Stop doorway. There was just one other person in the vicinity, a painfully-shy-looking teen clutching a Nintendo DS and a very worn copy of a Pokemon guide. “You waiting on Game Stop?” I asked, to which he murmured and nodded affirmatively.

“Here for the PS3 deal, or the Xbox one?”

“Umm… PS3… you know… The God of War thing…¨ he trailed off.

“Cool.” I said, and I asked him what game he was playing on his DS. He cheered up a bit as he answered, and I guessed he didn’t run into too many 42 year-old gamers camping out at 3:40 in the morning to snag a deal on a new console. It was a rare inter-generational bonding moment brought on by a mutual love of bitchin’ graphics and on-screen explosions.

As I settled in to kill time, I pulled out my iPhone and once again checked Lo and behold, they had just posted their own special on the PS3 console, featuring the games Infamous and Killzone 2 (both of which I wanted), along with $10 off, no sales tax (a major consideration in 9.25% Santa Clara County), and free shipping! Blinking quickly to clear my eyes, I checked availability, added it to my cart, and got  a confirmation in seconds. I then turned over to my newfound gamer buddy and pointed out the deal to him.

He hesitated, but then decided to stick with his original plan, muttering something about really liking God of War). I wished him well and headed out of the mall, walking past the growing line of doomed-looking shoppers queued up outside the still-locked Old Navy. I posted a quick shot to Facebook, then went home and went to bed.

Best… Black Friday… EVER!

Australia Road Tripping: Comics and The Candy Bar Conundrum

(edited somewhat after the initial posting to play up brand preference–I had time to sleep on the original article)

As I write this, the Australian dollar is trading for about 93 cents against the US dollar, making my dream vacation in Australia a bit more expensive than it might have been otherwise. Since it’s a family vacation, we’ve been trying to use grocery stores instead of restaurants whenever possible. It leads to a lot of ham sandwich lunches, but it helps to keep the daily food bill out of the triple digits.

Australian food prices are a bit higher than American prices, as you might expect from an island country, but two things in particular have absolutely shocked me: $2.50 candy bars and $3.00 bottles of Coke  ($2.50 for cans).  And those are the big grocery store prices–convenience store prices for a simple Kit Kat bar can run as high as $3.69!

Now, anyone that knows me will testify that getting my daily supply of caffeine trumps all other nutritional values. Give me a couple of gallons of Diet Coke or coffee and I can survive anything, but take away my Diet Cokes and I practically break out in hives. So the idea of paying San Diego Comic-Con prices for Diet Cokes really got me wondering what the story was. And for that matter, what’s the cause for the the triple-price chocolate bars?

Well, let’s start with what it’s apparently not: It’s not a (huge) difference in taxes–everyone I’ve talked to denies the existence of some special tax on Milky Bars that doesn’t equally apply to (relatively cheap) potato chips. It’s also apparently not related to the cost of manufacture: big blocks of high quality Cadbury chocolate are available for about $4, but single-serving Bounty  bars cost only a few cents less.

Finally, there’s not been a vast recent change of the exchange rate, and having looked in every candy store, convenience store, gas station, and grocery store between Brisbane and Sydney, I’m fairly certain it’s not just a case of Pete not knowing where to shop. According to the few Australian friends I’ve got left after bugging them about the price difference this past week, it’s not even a recent phenomenon–it’s been that way as long as anyone can remember.

So what’s the deal? My best guess is partial cartelization of the candy and soft drink market, coupled with brand preference from consumers blunting competitive price pressure. Simply put, a couple of candy makers (M&M/Mars, Nestle, and Cadbury seem to control the Australian candy bar market. (Hersheys failed in its attempt to enter the market). Similarly, PepsiCo and Coca Cola own the soft drink market down under. Other brands do actually exist (and, it turns out, at a tiny fraction of the cost) but they’re little known, little seen, and near-impossible to find in single-serving sizes at convenience stores.

The obvious question in any monopolistic scenario is, “If that’s true, how do they get away with it?”  Not in the sense that Australia needs a National Snack Food Investigative Commission (although my small experience with Australia’s politics suggests that the current Labour government would be only too happy to convene one). No, the real question is why doesn’t some sharp young lad at the competing company simply undercut the overpriced leader and steal their market share?

A bit of that does seem to go on, but only around the edges–the occasional promo involving lesser-ranked brands such as “Buy a Coke for $4 and get any Cadbury bar for just $1!” The highest-ranked brands seem to be largely spared deep, permanent discounting.

This is similar to what Marvel and DC do with their comic prices. Comic books have undergone incredible inflation since the 1970s, and the current $3.99 cover price is more than triple the rate of inflation of those years. (A 35 cent comic book in 1977 should cost about $1.23 today if it kept pace with the overall rate of inflation).

Periodically, Marvel and DC have tried out cut-price titles (such as The Adventures of Spider-Man) and usually discontinue them quickly, citing them as commercial failures. It doesn’t help that the titles in question are usually promoted as “kids versions”, feature second-tier writing or artistic talent, and are usually not even part of the characters’ established continuity.

The real problem comes in the cruel ratio of sales to Cost of Goods Sold. Simplifying a bit overmuch, let’s say you’ve got a comic book that you can print for about $0.50 each and sell to a distributor for about $1.40 (leading to a street price of about $3.99). In theory, 10,000 copies sold gives a gross of $9,000 from which all your fixed costs are paid (writers, artists, marketing, shiny office building, etc.). Note that all the actual figures here are speculative: it’s the proportions that count.

Now let’s say you want to do a special comic line which you’ll sell for less in order to attract more readers. You drop the suggested retail price by a buck, and sell it to the distributor for $1.04 so it can be sold on the street for $2.99. In order to make the same gross, you now need to sell 66% more copies (16,667) in order to break even. Any less, and those extra readers came at a net loss.

A quick look around the net shows that the US price of Snickers
is about $30 for a 48-count box, so let’s guess that M&M/Mars manufactures them for something like 15 cents a bar, and sells them to distribution for twice that: 30 cents. (I’d welcome input from anyone with access to the actual figures). This leads to an individual U.S. candy bar sale price of around a dollar at retail.

Now, historically, the Australian market has proven it’s willing to tolerate retail prices of around $2.50-$3.50 for a single bar of Snickers. It seems that either M&M/Mars or the regional distributor (the candy is apparently made locally, not shipped from offshore) is able to realize relatively fat profit margins of more than double that of the U.S. market. But whether they’re taking the money to the bank, or paying it out in some expense I haven’t tumbled to in this incredibly superficial analysis, it would clearly be a monumental sacrifice to significantly cut the wholesale price in order to drive a markedly lower price at the checkout stand.

If your Cost of Goods Sold is 50%, cutting your end price by 25% means you have to sell twice as many units in order to make the same gross. And this is where brand preference becomes critical. A 1 cent reduction in the cost of some undifferentiated commodity like gasoline or hamburger meat would probably lead me to switch to the competing brand. When I’ve established an actual brand preference for a particular type of good, however, I require far greater incentives to make the switch. For instance, I like both Time Out and Nestle Crunch bars, but I like Nestle Crunch bars a bit more. It’d take a pretty good drop (10 cents? 25 cent? more?) for me to enter a store with a Crunch bar on my mind and walk out with a Time Out instead.

Similarly, a comic reader doesn’t want to read just any story about a super-powered dude in tights–they want Spider-Man or Batman or whatever their favorite character is (and given the number of Spider and Bat titles, they don’t want just any of those as wel)

As a practical matter, brand preferences on the part of consumers virtually guarantee that a price cutting move in order to gain profits through more customers will never be successful in the short term. The sharp young candy man who decides to cut the price of Snickers in the Australian division of M&M/Mars might succeed in taking over the market in time, but only if his boss doesn’t fire him in the intervening years–during which time the division’s profits will have certainly collapsed. Ditto the comic company executive that decides to start pricing flagship X-Men or Batman titles at $2 instead of $3.99. Consumers will buy more copies of their favorite heroes’ titles–but not so many more that it’ll come close to covering the revenue loss–or saving the job of the person who planned the move.

So if price cutting is so terrible for manufacturer’s profit margins, why does it ever happen? And instead of asking why Australian candy bars are so expensive, maybe we should be asking why American candy bars are so cheap?

No doubt there are economies at work in the U.S. market that aren’t available to the Australians, but in any market, the real reason is that competition leaves would-be-monopolists with no choice. One or two companies can make a (probably unspoken) agreement to not got at each other’s pricing too hard in order to protect the margins they’ve got, but if there’s a third (or fourth, fifth, or seventy third) rival in the marketplace, they may be quite willing to cut margins in exchange for a chance to break into the market.

And make no mistake-everyone‘s got competition. Even if there are only three major chocolate bar makers in Australia, and they’ve sort-of-agreed to price fix, they still have to compete against the things people eat in preference to their pricey chocolates. For instance, an Aussie which balks at $3.50 for a Time-Out bar might grab a package of Tim Tams or a bag of  Salt & Vinegar potato chips. Not surprisingly, I was able to determine that Australia ranks below the U.S. in its per capita consumption of chocolate (unknown what percentage is chocolate bars) and I theorize–although it would cost me thousands to look at the industry report which would tell me if I’m right–that they make up for it in their consumption of the relatively cheap salty snacks category. (Or, I suppose, they could just have better diets all round…)

So it just may be that the first major entrants into the Australian chocolate bar market thought that $2.50-$3.50 was a pretty good price for a serving of their product, nobody domestic can afford to kill their own margins by cutting prices enough to overcome brand preference, and those consumer preferences solidified in a way that makes it incredibly expensive to enter the market, distribute nationally, and try to win a piece of the pie for yourself. Even Hershey apparently has decided that’s the case (although the latest word is that they may make a play to buy Cadbury)

And if so, the best recourse for consumers is to cut down on Mars Bars while in Australia, switch over to chips for your junk food needs, and for me to get used to the taste of Regal Cola instead of good old Diet Coke.

ComicBase and Atomic Avenue Go to the Movies

A couple of weeks before Comic-Con, I was heading out to grab coffee at the Starbucks across the street when a strange call came into the office. Joe answered it, and I could hear him saying things like, “You want to borrow what?” and “I don’t think we normally loan that out…” to the caller. I stopped, puzzled, and made pantomime motions to Joe along the lines of “Who the heck is that, and what do they want?”

It turned out that the “Who” was the production company working on the new Working Title/Universal Movie “Paul” (Written by and starring Shaun of the Dead’s Simon Pegg and Nick Frost). The “What they Want” was to borrow our Atomic Avenue rocket–indeed, our entire show booth–for use in the movie, where they apparently were called on to restage Comic-Con for several scenes.

Cut to yesterday, and I was sitting in an extras holding room in the Albuquerque convention center. It’s a room full of  Stormtroopers, Steampunks, a platoon of Princess Leia’s (slave girl version from Episode 5) and the odd green-skinned woman ala Star Trek, the original series. In short, it was exactly like every movie you’ve ever seen portraying extras looks like. We were along for the ride playing ourselves, manning a slightly stripped-down version of the ComicBase booth (no computer monitors).

Unfortunately, I can’t go into any details about the movie, but it looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun. And it certainly gives you a whole new perspective on the monumental job it takes to bring a motion picture to life. For instance, a small army of craftsmen and set decorators just days to recreate Comic-Con, and legions of production assistants are constantly handling everything from errant wookie costumes to set calls. The actors are also working their butts off, doing take after take (yesterday ran from 6am to after 9 pm) in scenes that–when they’re all cut together–will probably just look like a couple of guys having a laugh. And to his great credit, Neil also worked “booth duty” right up until the very end, and is back for the second day of shooting today.

Gotta run–they’re ushering the “attendees” into the hall, and it’s time to man the booth…

The Stock Market Game

In an effort to help teach my son Neil the fundamentals of the stock market, we Bickfords are kicking off a family contest on Monday which will run until May 1st. It’s called “The Stock Market Game” and it goes like this:

1. Each player starts with 10,000 in (pretend) cash with which they can invest in any publicly traded security or fund.

2. The person with the most money in their virtual account at the end of the game wins $50 in real money, so long as that person showed a profit over the starting capital.

3. Of any players left with less than $10,000 at the end of the game, the person with the greatest losses pays $10 of real money (or a comparable amount of chores) to the contest sponsor (Dad).

4. Kelly, our five year-old, is required to follow the “stick in in a Money Market Fund” strategy, which guarantees at least one winner (and a minimum of $10,004.15 required to beat her at the end of a month).

5. All sales are executed at the market closing prices, and all purchases are at the market opening prices.

6. Cancellations must be made with an email to, date-stamped at least 5 minutes before the point of execution (i.e., sales can be cancelled if notice is given before 12:55 pm PST; buys can be cancelled if I get notice by 6:25 am PST)

7. All stock trades have a 1% sales commission. Any normal fund entrance requirements, loads,  and early exit fees apply.

8. Both Put and Call options can be bought at the end-of-day closing price for 5% of the day’s closing value. Options expire at the end of the game (become valueless), but can be exercised with no further fees at any time.  Naked puts are forbidden (you must actually own the stock you are buying a put on).

I’ll be posting the standings at I’ll post my own stock picks by Sunday night, and if anyone else wants to play along “fantasy stockmarket”-style, drop me a note along with your stock picks and I’ll post your standings as well on the site. I’m afraid that only the family members are eligible for the csh prize (or loss), but you’ll definitely get bragging rights, and the whole thing should be a lot of fun!

9.25% (!)

Today, I went down to Fry’s to look for memory for a Dell server (which had somehow been limping through life with its built-in 256 MB of RAM). Since the Dell was now being asked to act as a backup server, it needed more juice, and honestly, I wanted the problem solved ASAP so I could get on to other things.

Shopping around, Dell wanted $99/GB for the memory in question, plus shipping and tax. Other online places had it for about $55 + $2 for shipping. Since I wanted the memory as soon as possible–preferably yesterday, I figured I’d waste part of my lunch break, run over to Fry’s and look for the memory there. Their price: $79 + tax.

Here’s where we hit an interesting bit of consumer psychology. On one hand, for $22 more than my online alternative, I could have the memory now. And I really did want it now. But I also would have preferred 2 GB so I didn’t need to do all this again anytime soon. So really, now didn’t cost $22, it cost $46.

And then there was the 8.25% sales tax, bringing the total difference to a whopping $59.04. I might have paid $22 for now, but no way was I going to pay effectively half the purchase price just to save 3 days of waiting. Accordingly, I got back to the office and ordered from Dallas, Texas-based

We consumers can be incredibly price-sensitive at times, particularly when exact alternatives are available by doing something as simple as trading off a bit of time for money and ordering mail order. In the end, I might have decided to eat the $22 and solve my immediate problem by buying at the local Fry’s, but the key to the decision was really the sales tax. In most states, sales tax mentally amounts to, “plus a little bit more” in calculating a purchase’s true cost, and is rarely decisive in itself. When you’re making a purchase decision In California, sales tax is worth actually calculating on larger purchases, since it can easily outweigh shipping and other costs.

On April 1st, Santa Clara county sales tax (where I live) will have its sales tax increased to 9.25%, one of the highest sales tax rates in the nation. In San Francisco, it goes up to 9.5%. Effectively, it changes the purchase-time mental calculation for sales tax from, “plus a bit more” to, “Add 10%”. On any purchase larger than a candy bar, 10% usually amounts to enough money to notice, at least for me.

Does anyone think this won’t make a difference to folks’ decision whether to buy in-state or out?

Apple could largely stop iPod theft…should it?

As I heard tonight about another kid dying because he was mugged for his iPod, I thought again about the three GPSs I’ve had stolen from my own car, and how the companies that make both products could have probably prevented the crimes from ever taking place.

Simply put, both Apple and Tom Tom have a registration database of customers and device serial numbers. If they were to require activation of the units in question (and let’s imagine the database and devices were secured enough to not be easily broken or renumbered), it would be possible to refuse activation of known stolen devices, and to disable previously activated devices that were reported stolen. For instance, an iPod could be made to check in with a remote server to verify its activation before it was synched with a new music library, or a GPS could interact with a satellite signal to confirm activation status, much the same way as traffic reports are done now. In a world like this, stolen iPods and GPS units would become largely worthless, and there’d be no sense in stealing them. For much the same reason, car thieves largely don’t bother stealing radios with XM/Sirius transmitters: those radios can simply be shut off after the fact, so they’re worthless on the resale market.

So why doesn’t Apple implement such a scheme? I can think of any number of reasons, ranging from user inconvenience, not wanting to take on the enforcement role, or the fact that the costs of such a system would all fall on them, while the present system actually benefits Apple in the sick sense that they actually make money when a stolen iPod is replaced. Ditto for Tom Tom and Garmin. Generally, you don’t convince someone to take on a task when they’d take on all the cost and suffer financially as a result.

And yet, if companies in these situations did work to prevent the use of stolen property in this way, it’d present a huge societal good…which is the fancy-pants way of saying I wouldn’t have had to replace a couple of car windows and some kid would still be alive if there was no point stealing his iPod.