Monthly Archives: March 2009

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?

Wall-E/Watchmen Trailer Mashup

Unbelievable, pure brilliance.


For the original, see:

(Trailer 1)

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.

What if Newspapers are Like Land Lines?

I spent much of this past weekend rewiring my house for a big connectivity upgrade—the third time I did this since moving in a dozen years ago. I take a fair amount of pride in being a tech-savvy person, so before I moved a stick of furniture into my house all those years ago, I spent a couple of days making sure all the rooms were wired for both Cat 5 and BNC (a long-forgotten networking standard), along with enough Cat 3 cable to support 4 phone lines, including a fax. Yes indeed, I was a forward-thinking, technology-minded guy of the mid-1990s.

So of course, virtually every bit of that original wire is pointless now, and it’s been changed or removed bit by bit as technology changed. The BNC coax is long gone, replaced by slightly different and totally incompatible coax for satellite TV. Two different DSL lines came and went as well, replaced by various cable modem runs.

I guess I always expected the various internet and ethernet cabling to change every few years, but I sort of shocked myself when I realized  that all that phone cable I’d run years before, and all those phone jacks I’d installed in all those rooms were now completely useless. As a 41-year-old geek, I’m just starting to wrap my head around the idea of a world where nobody cares where the phone jacks are, because your phones don’t plug into a jack.

Of course, this is the world where the under-30 set had been living for some time. And offhand, I can’t think of a single person under the  age of 25 who answers a phone that comes mounted to a wall. They live in a world without phone jacks and land lines. It’s a strange world to us older folks, but what we would have considered crazy fringe behavior (“Waddaya mean you don’t have a real phone?“) just a couple of years ago has suddenly become the new normal.

Growing Up

It used to be, when you were a young adult moving into a new apartment, you made a lot of calls to various services: you got the power turned on, arranged for phone and cable TV installation, and called the newspaper to change your delivery address. The last one was particularly important, since reading the daily paper was both a sign of adulthood–of caring about the world around you–and a good time-killer for those four hour “installation windows” you sat through waiting for the telephone guy to eventually show up and turn on your service.

But slowly, the world changes.

Fifteen years ago, when I started Human Computing, I used to pay for three phone lines, with separate bills for long distance service. On top of this was the bill I paid to a sales answering service for after-hours reception, or for those times when all the phone lines were engaged, so that we could make sure orders were handled properly around the clock. Later, I started paying yet another bill for a cell phone which, mercifully, came bundled with unlimited long distance calling.

Over the years, the answering service went away, replaced by an online ordering system capable of doing credit card charges. An answering machine handled after hours messages, and customers starting using email for most routine queries and tech support requests. The fax machine was replaced by scanning and email, and eventually gathered dust, leading us to cut it off as well. Then VOIP (Voice Over IP) arrived on the scene, solving the long distance problem, and eliminating the need for the multiple analog phone lines. Eventually, I was left with just a single analog phone line and a cell phone.

And then one day, I realized I hadn’t actually picked up the analog phone line for a week. In the end, I decided it was time to economize and stop paying the bill for a land line we never used anymore. It was nearly unthinkable at the time, but we decided to cut the cord, and now the idea of actually having a phone installer rig up an analog phone line seems of a kind with putting in a request for two quarts of skim milk and a pint of cream with the local milkman. It’s just not done anymore.

Which brings me to that other constant in my life: the daily paper.

I was a newspaperboy as a kid (I was actually Carrier of the Year for the St. Paul Pioneer Press!) and I kept up a daily subscription from the time I was fifteen, no matter where I lived. It was, I thought, part of being an adult: in touch with my world, keeping up with current events…checking out hard drive prices at Fry’s… in short, one of life’s constants.

But then, I slowly started realizing that my half hour with the paper in the morning was turning into fifteen minutes. Then five. Then a quick leafing through looking for Dilbert and the Fry’s ads. Sometimes unread papers would pile up for days before I had to guiltily drag them out to the curb for recycling.

For some reason, the paper had stopped being essential in my life. Part of it was that I was getting my news elsewhere, primarily from the internet. Part of it was that the editorial positions of my particular local paper were increasingly (and aggravatingly) finding their way into the news sections, where I was forced to parse the reporting to find the actual story. It all got a bit wearying. And then one day, I decided to economize, letting go of my decades-old daily newspaper habit.

The newspaper carrier was obviously in shock, and for months afterward would sporadically throw newspapers in my driveway for no reason. Breakfast time also was awkward for a few days, as the old ritual of trading the sections we’d just read between my wife and I had been disturbed. And then… we simply forgot all about it. And the years went by.

Today, younger folks don’t buy land lines. They don’t wait for telephone installers. And they don’t worry about hauling their old newspapers out for recycling, because they don’t get the paper in the first place. You can argue whether something important was lost in the process, but I’m not going to second guess others for making the same decision I wound up making myself.

We’re probably all a little shocked by the recent closures, cutbacks, and attempts (unsuccessful so far) to find buyers for legendary big-town newspapers, affecting everyone from the Rocky Mountain News to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to the San Francisco Chronicle. But when I start to ask myself if it’s possible that a world could function without these institutions, I get a sense of outrage, shock, dismissal… then something else.

And that something else is the same feeling I get when I look at the old, disused wall jacks I so painstakingly wired into every room of my house a little more than a decade ago.

Crazy Virtual Reality Sports Cards

Topps is doing something very interesting with a new line of sports cards: hold one up to a web cam, and a 3-D animated version of the player featured springs to life on top of the card. It can even play simple pitching and hitting games in VR. Check out the video for more:

[viddler id=447ba279&w=437&h=352]

Watchmen Review


This movie is going to drive me crazy.

On one hand, it’s spectacular: everything I could have hoped for in an adaptation of one of the greatest graphic novels of all time. It had terrific casting, great acting, and an almost-entirely-faithful adaptation of the original material, albeit with some fairly nuanced changes. I even appreciate its multifaceted and deliberately murky handling of the politics and events of the era. In a lot of ways, this is a huge accomplishment as a film.

And yet, I can’t recommend it to a huge number of folks who otherwise would have really gotten something out of it, because it’s just far too graphic in ways it really didn’t need to be. In order for it to get a visceral reaction out of us jaded adults, it indulged in so much on-camera sex, nudity and violence that it put the movie completely off limits for a big part of its potential audience.

This is really weird thing for me to say, but for the first time in my life, I found myself sort of wishing I was watching the airplane-safe version of a movie in the theater, instead of what felt like the “unrated director’s cut” [actually, it’s ‘R’-rated–and a hard ‘R’ at that]. Had it been edited toward a PG-13 (or even a softer R), the director would have had to pull back the edit just a little, and I’d be hailing it to anybody who’d listen as a tremendous filmmaking achievement.
Instead, I’m oddly forced to make any recommendation contingent on my best guess at the sensibilities of the person doing the asking: How does the person asking feel about seeing more full-frontal male nudity than I saw in my high school locker room during swim season? Not many people have a problem with gunfights, but how do they feel about close-ups of exit wounds? Action-packed dust-ups with super-heroes are great, but how about cut-aways to the resulting protruding bone spurs? And what’s their position on entrails splattered on ceilings?

In the end, it comes down the infamous “blood in the gutters” — not the literal kind (as you see when the Comedian’s body splats onto the pavement”) but the comic book concept that most of the really tough imagery doesn’t actually happen “on-panel”. It’s usually implied, or shown briefly, and the reader’s imagination makes up the rest during the space between the panels–the “gutters”.

Let’s say a scene calls for a character to do something very nasty with a hatchet to another character. In most comics—including the Watchmen graphic novel—the usual way of dealing with it is to set up the situation, then do something like showing a silhouetted window view with one character raising the hatchet out, arm flexed, behind the unsuspecting person. To anyone paying attention, it’s crystal clear what’s happening, but the worst violence happens in your mind—not on the page.

After I got done watching Watchmen, I had to go back over a couple of the more visceral bits and compare them to the graphic novel’s treatment, because I couldn’t remember clearly whether I had just imagined certain of the most grisly or adult-oriented scenes. In almost every case, the situation was exactly the same, complete with all the terrible details. But the graphic novel tended not to show the hatchet crashing down repeatedly into the skull; or the bits of gore coming off of a wound. And it knew enough to crop the frame upward by 10% so we knew Dr. Manhattan couldn’t be bothered with clothes, but we weren’t actually forced to stare at his junk in every other one of his scenes.

I’m afraid that with Watchmen, a little less would have been a lot more: both in box office receipts and in my ability to recommend it to anyone other than jaded R-rated movie fiends like myself. I would have been happy to watch the version I saw as part of a special-edition DVD, but I really sort of wish the theatrical version had been edited with just a little more restraint.