The Rant

 

Commentary and opinion on anything that needs to be commented on. The opinions expressed are those of the author, Dick Estel. Feel free to send comments, compliments, and complaints. We'll publish your rant as long as it's legal and relatively clean. Click here to send

The New Pope Customer Service Mega-Inflation
File sharing The Great Broccoli Conspiracy Buying on-Line
Prosperity through Politics

21st Century Business Model:
Sue Your Customers
(updated 11/07)

Upgrade, Downgrade (10/06)*
More About Music Downloading The Great Soap Conspiracy The Cadillac of Freeways
BASF Commercials (1/04) (updated 9/05) TV Plots (11/04) (updated 9/05, 1/07, 9/08 & 5/11) Un-Christian Churches
Racist Comments (06/06)* New Gas Price Ripoff (08/06)* The Pope Speaks on Violence (09/06)*
Conservation Overkill (09/06)* Iraq-Al Qaida Connection (09/06)* Immigrant Rights and Wrongs (09/06)*
Indian Gambling (11/06)* Survey Says (10/06)* Budget Insanity (02/11)
Dim Bulb (03/11) The Last Word on File Sharing (06/11)   
Links    Updates & Changes
 

*Transferred from former Blog Page in August 2007


File Sharing

(This article was originally published about August 2003)

File sharing is a hot topic these days. While technically speaking, this is a euphemism for stealing music, there is some justification for it.  

First, it gives people a way to acquire rare, obscure material that the music industry does not make available at any price. There are a handful of songs I’ve been seeking for the last 25 years. I would gladly buy a CD to get just the one song by an artist that I want (we’ve all done that over the years), but no CD is available; and even used vinyl copies are hard or impossible to find. I found three of four titles on a file sharing system I’ll call KZ. I then found all of them on vinyl, and purchased two, from obscure sources. In one case I paid $19 for a vinyl LP from England to get the one song on it that I really want.

Three of these artists have CDs on Amazon, but for two of them, the desired songs are not on the CDs. So the music industry says I can’t legally download these tunes, but they also refuse to sell them to me.

I don’t have a problem downloading one or two songs instead of paying a high price for a used album; the record company and artist don’t share in that sale in any way.

The second justification is to kick-start the industry into the 21st century. For 55 years, we’ve been buying music collections, on vinyl album, cassette, or CD, as selected by the music industry. While all the songs are good on many albums, there have been thousands of albums with one or two good songs, and the rest filler. Current technology allows us to collect only the desired songs, and create our own albums; and there’s no reason we should not be able to do this – the customer is always right, even when he’s wrong, right? If the industry and artists want us to buy 12 songs from them, they will now have the incentive to produce 12 good songs on an album.

Currently there are at least three web sites selling individual songs. One requires a monthly fee in addition to the cost of the music, so they don’t deserve my business (or anyone’s). Another offers files that can be used only on Macintosh computers. The third is BuyMusic.com, which offers PC-compatible files for 79 cents and up (prices are comparable on the Mac site). In actual practice, most songs are 99 cents, and a few are $1.14. I feel that a dollar a song is a fair price. We’ve been paying about $1.50 a song on CDs, and not getting our money’s worth. On-line distribution eliminates pressing and packaging, shipping, physical distribution, and retail costs.

The negatives of BuyMusic and the others are immediately obvious. BuyMusic advertises 300 thousand files. When I log on to KZ, there are 600 million files available. There are many duplicates, but even if we estimate only 10% of those are unduplicated, the difference is immediately clear. BuyMusic has the popular, readily available pop and country hits. The obscure and less popular stuff (in other words, the good stuff) is not to be found.

For example, I have been looking for five particular songs by Slim Whitman. BuyMusic has NO Slim Whitman at all. I found four of them on KZ (as well as 30 or 40 other Slim tunes). All the five are available on CDs sold on Amazon, but I would have to buy two box sets, priced at over $160 each, to get all of them. If the songs on these sets were available for $1 each, I would probably buy 20 or 30 of them. But why should I have to spend over $320 to get those 20 or 30 songs?

BuyMusic’s search engine needs some work. If you don’t get an exact match, it lists all items containing any of the words you entered. A search for Mountain Heart does not yield an exact match, so the site suggests maybe you’re looking for the following:

Mountain
Heart
Ozark Mountain Daredevils
Restless Heart
Foggy Mountain Boys
Big Mountain
Clinch Mountain Boys
Smoky Mountain Boys
Country Day School of the Sacred Heart

This is only from the first three pages; I skipped the remaining 21.

Most of the legal on-line sites place restrictions on what you can do with a song – play it on one computer only; burn it to two CDs, download to three portable devices. These restrictions have to go if these sites hope to lure customers away from the free (illegal) systems. I recognize that permissions and licensing is a big headache, but the industry needs to deal with it and make individually selectable songs available for unlimited personal use at a reasonable price. And they must get the available number of files up into the high millions.

See below here and here for the latest on this subject.

The Great Broccoli Conspiracy

Most vegetables are sold by the pound, and nearly all of them require you to throw away part of them. Potatoes are an occasional exception when baked.

Other than the artichoke,* the biggest rip-off is broccoli. It’s sold with a huge, fibrous trunk, which must make up nearly half the weight that you pay for.  Even the stems of the broccoli spears are a bit rough for my taste, so there goes even more of the weight.

And what vegetable is one of the best for us in terms of preventing disease? Broccoli, of course. Coincidence? I don’t think so!

*As a child I assumed that artichokes were not really a vegetable, just an organic tool for eating Miracle Whip.

Buying on Line

I do a lot of shopping on-line, especially for CDs and books. For the most part, prices are as good as or better than retail stores. In the case of CDs, most of what I buy is not readily available in stores. The price is usually $15, and if your order on Amazon totals $25 or more, shipping is free.

Books require a little more care. Amazon usually has a significant discount off the list price for hard cover books. In addition, you will find even lower prices for books and music in Amazon Marketplace, which consists of individuals and companies that sell new and used goods through Amazon.

Recently I bought a new paperback book which lists at $7.99 for $5.31. Did I get a bargain? Not really. The shipping cost was $3.49, so my total was $8.80. Buying at retail in California would have cost me $8.62 with tax. That’s not a big difference, and the extra cost may be worth ordering from home. But at Barnes & Noble, with my Reader’s Advantage card, I would have paid a total of $7.77. The card cost $25, so my total discount for the year must exceed that amount before I am really ahead – but it reached that amount in the middle of the year.

I bought a new hardcover book (not available in paperback yet) at B&N, for a total of $15.38. My price on Amazon, with no tax and free shipping, would have been $16.77. However, B&N was offering an extra 20% discount on this book, with or without the card. Without that discount, Amazon would have had the better price. (B&N would have been $18.59).

Prosperity Begins at Home

You often hear office-seekers, especially those who aspire to the highest office in the land, ask “Are you better off than you were four (or eight) years ago?”

Well, the answer is “It depends.”

My first paid employment was so long ago I’m not sure who was president, but I’m pretty sure it was Harry Truman. I was hired to water the neighbor’s yard while they were on vacation. So the democrats had “created” a job. I received perhaps a grand total of $2 for the entire project, which ended when the vacation did, and I was out of a job – this time the “fault” of the democrats.

My first more or less full time job began when my father came home from work and announced, “I got a job for you.” Not something you want to hear when you’re 15 and heading into summer vacation. Nevertheless, the prosperity of the Eisenhower years trickled down to me, and I held a series of incrementally better jobs over the next few years. The improvements were roughly equivalent to being promoted from floor sweeper to salt shaker filler at McDonald’s in today’s economy.

Unfortunately, a serious mistake got me fired from the best of these jobs, with the republicans still in office.

A year or so later the democrats returned to power and “created” my next job. I now held another series of increasingly better and better-paying jobs, culminating in a television advertising position. The first came under Kennedy, so score one for the democrats, and the next move up came under Johnson. However, through no fault of my own, I was again fired. This was the fault of Nixon, who is to blame for most bad things in the latter half of this century.

Just days into the Carter administration, I found my best and final occupation, which lasted for 26 years and ended voluntarily with my retirement. During this time my income steadily if modestly increased, regardless of who was in office.

So let’s tally up the score:

Jobs created: Truman, Kennedy, Carter (democrats); Eisenhower (republican)

Jobs lost: Truman (democrat); Eisenhower, Nixon (republicans)

Clearly I was “better off” when the democrats were in power. Surely my own efforts and actions had nothing to do to with my prosperity, right?

The 21st Century Business Model: Sue Your Customers

Consider this scenario: I am the president of a major trade association. Our customers have let us know in no uncertain terms that our business model is outmoded, and have demonstrated how we should be operating. What’s my next move? Sue my customers, of course!

This is the approach of the Recording Industry Association of America.

The recording industry has been screwing its customers for many years. They just hate to be on the other end (pun intended). When Compact Discs first came along, the price was around $15, about twice what we were then paying for a vinyl album.

We were told that the high price was due to the shortage of pressing plants; once more plants were built, the price would come down. It’s obvious there’s no shortage of pressing facilities now, but the price has gone one way only – up.

Music fans have always complained that many albums (vinyl, CD, cassette or 8-track) contain only two or three good songs, with a bunch of “filler.” With the advent of the Internet and file sharing software, consumers had a way to obtain only their favorite songs.

At this point a wise industry approach would have been to embrace this technology, and provide individual songs for a reasonable price (50 cents to one dollar sounds right to me). Instead the music companies circled the wagons and fought the advent of the 21st century with all their resources. Although they are now making a limited amount of music available for legal download, they continue the battle, by suing children, college students, and unsuspecting grandparents.

Is this kind of idiocy part of the MBA program at any major college? Or is it just the natural response of big business, reluctant to face change?

Click here for a "musical rant" on this same subject.

More About Music Downloading

There are now at least a half-dozen sites that allow legal downloading of music from the Internet. Virtually all of them charge 99 cents per song. Some also offer complete albums for $9.99. Remember you don't get a box, album cover, liner notes, lyrics, title list, etc. If you burn the album to your own CD, you're pretty much on your own to create these. It's easy enough to do, and I enjoy it.

Some sites require a monthly subscription, but then allow unlimited downloads, or a certain number of downloads, or give you a lower per-song price. One gives you the option of subscribing with unlimited music streaming, and 89 cents to buy the song. Without the subscription, you pay 99 cents.

None of them is perfect, but some are better than others. Actually several are better than others, but in one area. None is better in all areas that matter to me.

Selection: They all have about a half million titles. Music Match has the best selection for me, meaning they have more country, bluegrass, and other independent or small label material. I read about another site that also emphasizes independent labels, but I did not write down the name, and could not find it in a Google search.

Sampling: All allow you to listen to a 30-second streaming sample. The length of time to buffer and play the sound seemed very long to me with all of them except Music Match. For some reason, they have a system that gets the music started much quicker.

Ease of UseBuyMusic wins here. They have a web site where you log in, then search for the song title, album or artist you want. All the others require you to download via their proprietary program. The programs all work about the same - they allow you to organize music and burn it to a CD. However, I prefer to use a separate program, Roxio, for this. This means you have to download and install their program, whether you want to use it for anything else or not. Roxio owns the new Napster download site - but they still make you download and install a new program which does not work like the normal Roxio program.

File Type: Apple's PC service loses here; everyone else wins. The winners use .wma files, which seem to work in just about any music-related program. I like to burn with Roxio and listen with Music Match. Apple's .m4p files are apparently incompatible with any program except their own Quick Time.

CD Burning: I've only used Music Match, and then only because some of their files did not seem to work correctly with Roxio. Roxio is far easier to use for creating and re-arranging play lists. I think they probably all offer volume leveling, which seems to work only fair. Music Match's volume leveling is tedious to use; you have to apply it to your library. Roxio lets you level each specific play list. However, this is where Roxio locked up with some files.

File Sharing: A half million titles sounds like a lot until you realize that Kazaa has 600 million (of course, many of them are duplicates). Many files from Kazaa are incomplete and mis-named, but if you assume that 10% are complete, correctly-titled, unduplicated files, that's still over one hundred times as many. Of course, you have to violate copyright, and face the fear of a subpoena and feelings of guilt. Even so, there does not seem to have been a big decrease in Kazaa users since the legal systems came on line.

Do artist benefit? One recent article I read quoted several artists as saying the download issue is not that big a deal, because their record companies have never paid them any royalties anyway.

February 2011 Update: Since Amazon began offering music downloads, I have almost never bought downloads anywhere else. Once in a while I use iTunes, if it's something I really want that Amazon does not have. Amazon offers MP3 files, that are compatible with just about any kind of player. Apple's iTunes are a different format, but seem to work OK for burning to CD, and of course, on my iPod, where most songs now go. There are a few other new ones, but none of them seemed to offer anything I could not get from Amazon, easier and quicker. 

I do have one complaint about Amazon - for some albums, when you want to play a sample, you just click on a button and it plays without any special program. But a limited number of them require you to open iTunes to play the sample.

They do have a special download program, but once I downloaded it, it runs automatically and I don't have to think about it.

Some of my .WMA files apparently were licensed only to my PC, and when I had to reformat and reinstall the operating system and programs, they would not play any longer. One site that was shutting down allowed a limited number of free replacement downloads, as long as their records showed you had bought the song there.

See below for the latest on this subject.

 

The Great Soap Conspiracy

First, let me say I am very happy with my bath soap. I received a free sample bar of Coast in the mail several decades ago, and since then I have never used any other brand at home.

Have you noticed how a new bar of soap produces lots of suds? But as it gets smaller, it seems to produce less suds. I had a bar in its  thin final moments. I rubbed it against the wash cloth, turned it over and over, and still could not produce much suds. I'm sure I did enough rubbing to equal two or three turns with a new bar.

The only conclusion I can reach is that there is soap all the way to the middle - but not suds. What's that about?
 

The Cadillac of Freeways

Many of California ’s highways are in need of major maintenance – an example is State Highway 99, especially between Fresno and Bakersfield. Other areas need new construction to alleviate congestion.

If you’d like to see where some of the money for highways is going, visit the Cadillac of freeways, in the desert east of Mojave. A new five-mile section of State Highway 58 has been built to bypass Mojave. This is like no freeway I have ever seen. It has drainage ditches filled with matching crushed rock for several miles. There is a two-lane frontage road on both sides of the highway – out in the desert three miles from town. There is new 4-strand barbed wire fence between the frontage road and the freeway (to keep coyotes off the main road?)

I’m glad to be able to bypass Mojave, but it certainly was not an area of major traffic congestion. The new bypass might save you five minutes on route from Bakersfield to Barstow.

I can’t help but wonder who in the government or the highway department has so much influence (and maybe a good friend who’s a paving contractor), to get such a road built in the desert when there are so many other areas with greater need.

BASF Commercials

I need some help here. Can anyone explain the BASF TV commercials? You know, the ones where they endlessly explain that they don't make almost everything, they make it better. A recent example showed a girl's soccer game, with a close-up of a bandage on a kid's knee. "We don't make the bandages, we make the bandages better."

How? What are these commercials trying to tell us? The only thing I get out of it is that there is a company called BASF that doesn't make anything. How am I supposed to respond to these commercials? Ford truck commercials are very straight forward. They want me to buy a Ford truck. I have no idea what BASF is trying to accomplish. At least it's good for their ad agency and the TV networks that are selling them time.

9/28/05: Here from the BASF web site, is the answer:

Aktiengesellschaft (BASF). The principal activities of the Group are to offer customers a range of high-performance products, including high value chemicals, plastics, colorants and pigments, dispersions, automotive and industrial coatings, agricultural products and fine chemicals as well as crude oil and natural gas. The Group's operations are divided into the following five segments: Health and Nutrition; Finishing Products; Chemicals; Plastics and Fibers and Oil and Gas.

TV Plots

I have this theory. Somewhere in the vicinity of Greater Hollywood, probably in the industrial section of Cucamonga, there is a huge warehouse where they keep all the TV plots ever conceived. When writers are having trouble coming up with an idea, they just call up the warehouse, and the efficient staff faxes them a plot idea in minutes.

How else to explain the following:

 

Wonder Years had an episode about a total eclipse.

On a Doogie Howser episode, Doogie meets a girl while waiting for his car to be repaired at a remote desert crossroads. That evening they go out in her pickup to watch a total eclipse of the moon.

 

On The Dick Van Dyke Show, Rob and Laura are caught in a stuck elevator with a robber, played by Don Rickles. Laura is pregnant (but not due for a few weeks yet).

On Doogie Howser M.D., Vinnie (Max Casella) gets stuck in an elevator with his pregnant French teacher, and ends up delivering the baby.

On Love and War, Jack and Dana (Jay Thomas and Annie Potts) are trapped in an elevator in the Empire State Building. I didn't watch this show, just happened to notice it when flipping channels. As far as I know, no one was pregnant.

(Update 7/18/11): On The Suite Life of Zach & Cody the boys are briefly stuck in an elevator with a pregnant woman named Mary on Christmas Eve (talk about ripping off old plots!). They escape before the baby does, although the hotel manager ends up delivering the baby, still in the elevator.

Apparently advertising copywriters have access to the warehouse also. Have you seen the one about the junior employee stuck in an elevator with his bosses? He's bringing his lunch back from a nearby fast food joint, and one of the honchos warns him that he may have to fight them to keep his French fries.

 

Nakedness is always a favorite topic, on and off TV. An episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show has a story in which Laura Petrie (Mary Tyler Moore) is embarrassed when a nude painting of her surfaces from her past (she wasn't really nude, the artist just "saw" her that way).

An episode of The Hogan Family has a story in which Sandy Hogan (Sandy Dennis) is embarrassed when a nude painting of her surfaces from her past (she really was).

On Barney Miller a woman is arrested for attempting to deface a nude painting in a gallery. It turns out to be a painting of her, which she explains was “never intended for public view.”

On Home Improvement, Tim and his hot-looking sister-in-law see each other naked in a merry shower mix-up.

On a Seinfeld episode, the girl Jerry is dating likes to wander around the apartment nude. This reveals the fact that there is "good naked" and "bad naked."

The kids on That 70s Show decide to go skinny dipping. Their clothes are stolen and they must drive home nude. The girls point out that it’s good for the guys, because they get to look at the girls, but the girls have to look at the boys – and that’s just gross! (In other words, good naked and bad naked.)

(Update 1/23/07): On How I Met Your Mother Marshall is embarrassed when his friends discover a nude painting of him, done several years earlier by his girlfriend (now fiancée).

 

The intelligence of men vs. women is always good for a laugh. On the original Bob Newhart Show, Emily (Suzanne Pleshette) gives Bob an IQ test. She is reluctant to reveal his score and her own, for good reason. Bob has a lot of trouble with the fact that hers is 29 points higher than his.

On The Wonder Years, Kevin, Winnie and their friends anxiously await the arrival of SAT scores. Kevin has a lot of trouble dealing with the fact that Winnie's total is a couple of hundred points higher than his.

The kids on That 70s Show anxiously await the arrival of their SAT scores. Eric has a lot of trouble dealing with the fact that Donna’s total is several hundred points higher than his own. In fact, he scores below all the gang, including Kelso the handsome doofus.

   

Husbands cheating on their wives is nothing new, which may explain how two different sets of writers came up with this plot: On M*A*S*H Colonel Potter (Harry Morgan) catches his son-in-law traveling in Korea with another woman.

On The Mary Tyler Moore Show Lou Grant (Edward Asner) goes to the movies, where he discovers his son-in-law with another woman. (You'll be glad to know that dad-in-law's stern warnings resolved the problem in both shows.)

Several shows – Roseanne, Lou Grant, Doogie Howser, Family Ties, and The Cosby Show  – offered similar plots:

In each show, the principle characters encounter an old blues or jazz artist, either down on his luck or long forgotten. They coax him out of retirement or set up a performance, or some similar action. For the most part, none of the characters in any of the shows exhibited any particular interest in the pertinent musical genre before or after the episode in question. However, it makes for some good music and saves the writers from having to come up with another five minutes or so of dialogue. 

The most illustrious guest star is blues legend Brownie McGhee, who appears in Family Ties. Joe Seneca, who plays a forgotten blues singer in  Doogie Howser, originally belonged to a top flight singing group, The Three Riffs.  An all star band brightens the Cosby entry, including Tito Puentes, Jimmy Heath and Art Blakey. Blues Traveler lead singer John Popper guests on Roseanne, as Dan's former bandmate in his pre-marriage days. Lou Grant also swung for the top with Louis Belson and Ray Brown. Lou Grant went it one better by also doing an episode featuring an old folk singer who came back after being blacklisted.

(Update 9/26/08): There are probably more than the three named below, since it's such an obviously funny situation (to the watchers, not the participants) - a couple discovering that they are not really married.

Mad About You - Paul and Jamie were married by ConEd employee/slash minister Lyle Lovett - but when they run into him a year or two later, he tells them he thought it was just a joke, and he was never licensed to perform marriages.

Dave's World - The IRS informs Dave and Beth that their marriage isn't legally valid, an occasion that calls for a visit to the hippie "minister" who married them -- but who never filed their marriage license.

Dick Van Dyke - The validity of the marriage is called into question when Rob discovers that Laura was only 17 at the time.


(Update 9/20/05): Here's a new for the 21st Century plot. In Grounded for Life the dad is looking at porn on the Internet. When he almost gets caught, he manages temporarily to shift the blame to his barely adolescent son. In September 2005, in the second episode of The War at Home, the dad almost gets caught Instant Messaging a women in a sex chat room - but he manages temporarily to shift the blame to his 13-year-old son. (Update 7/26/11): In it's inaugural 2009-10 season, Modern Family had an episode in which the mom discovers a racy photo on the computer. It was sent to dad by a co-worker, but she suspects their 10-year old son, and dad stays quiet until the evidence as to the real culprit mounts.

(Update 5/25/11): On Malcolm in the Middle, a man was discovered to be living in the store where mom Lois works. In a flashback episode of Raising Hope, series protagonist Jimmy Chance lived for a few days in the grocery store where his family shops.

Finally, we have confirmation of sorts for my theory, from Chad B, who writes:

I read your theory on the warehouse full of television plots. That is actually pretty close to the truth. I've noticed a lot of plotlines being reused over the years, and I always figured that they were just written by young writers who had these plots in their subconscious from old shows that they saw when they were kids. However, producer Garry Marshall explains in his book Wake Me When It's Funny where these reused plots actually come from. There are some young writers and some old writers that work on television shows. Here is an excerpt from the book that explains how this worked on Happy Days.

“I've got an idea,” a young writer would say. “Fonzie has fallen for a girl, but her parents want to move the family to New York City.” Harry Crane would interrupt, “Judy Garland, Meet Me in St. Louis, 1944. Here's how the plot goes.” Harry knew all the old movies and would tell the young writers about story structures that were invented before they were even born. Most of the young guys only knew Judy Garland from The Wizard of Oz, but they listened when the veterans talked about plot. Another young writer would say, “Mrs. C gets obsessed with a handsome tennis teacher.” “Did it with Mary Livingston on Jack Benny. It goes like this,” Milt Josefsberg would offer. “Laverne and Shirley have a leak in their overhead plumbing, and they use lots of pots and pans to catch the drips,” a third young voice would say. “Once used a visual like that on Beat the Clock. Here's where the jokes were,” Bob Howard would volunteer.

I guess you were right. There is a warehouse full of old television plots, but it is stuck away in the minds of old television writers. All they need is young writers to retrieve those old plots.

Un-Christian Churches

I have no use for religion of any kind. All religions are based on mythology which has no basis in scientific fact. Many of them promote beliefs that are clearly contrary to proven scientific fact.

But lately a number of churches have gone so overboard in some area or other than I call them “un-Christian” churches.

A church in Fresno recently called on law enforcement officers to remove and bar from entry a member of the church who disagreed with the pastor. Of course, this individual is still as delusional as the church bosses trying to kick him out, but how can a church call itself Christian when it tries to kick out a member?

Another Fresno church is involved in a lawsuit with the United Methodist hierarchy over ownership of the church property. The church withdrew because it insisted on discriminating against gay people, when the UM had actually allowed pastors to bless same-sex unions.

In fact, any church engaged in anti-gay discrimination can hardly be called Christian. There is mounting evidence that homosexuality is an inborn condition, not a choice and not even imposed by environmental factors. Thus discrimination in this area is as unconscionable as discrimination based on race or color.

Then we have Catholic officials saying that politicians (elected by a majority of all their constituents, not just Catholics), must follow Catholic doctrine in their political decisions. The penalty for refusal to bow down to Rome? Denial of the holy sacrament. Of course, it is nothing but a bit of wheat bread and cheap wine, but the devout politician shares the same mistaken beliefs about its significance as the Pope.

The entire “Christian” right belongs to the un-Christian category, due to their insistence that only they know how everyone should behave, and those who disagree are probably atheists, communists, or worse, and headed straight to hell.

A couple of years ago an appellate court declared that the phrase “under god” in the pledge of allegiance is unconstitutional. A lady I was discussing it with proposed that the plaintiff be hung up by his balls until he screamed for god’s mercy. Now that’s a truly Christian response – right up there with witch burning and the Spanish Inquisition.

Customer Service

Good customer service should not be difficult – just treat the customer the way you would like to be treated. More and more it seems companies have a hard time understanding this simple concept.

A few months ago I had a problem with my brand new Sony digital video recorder. I called the customer service number. The first person I spoke with did not even comprehend the problem. His level of expertise was probably limited to making sure the caller had remembered to plug the unit into the wall outlet. Nevertheless, I spent a frustrating and pointless 15 minutes with him before he transferred me to the next level.

The second person understood the problem, but had no concept as to how to resolve it. He quickly transferred me to the third level. Here I spoke with a rather rude individual who understood the problem and provided a solution, not without long silent periods during which I had no idea whether he had fallen asleep or what (it turned out he was reading through the technical manual).

The problem was resolved, but I was on the phone over a half hour, and ended up with a negative feeling toward this company’s customer service policies. Why not hire competent individuals to take the call right from the start? 

 

Today’s most successful companies, such as Target, Costco and Wal-Mart, have liberal return and exchange policies. Not the late Montgomery Ward. When I bought my first TV set in the 1960s, it had some interference on one channel. It happened I worked for that TV station, and when I described the problem to our chief engineer, he immediately identified it as a type of interference that is frequency-related. Thus it might seem to be a problem with the station, but was actually a defect in the TV. Ward’s balked at exchanging it, but finally did so.

Years later I bought some chain link fencing at Ward's. There was a serious problem with the handling of my order, and I wrote a letter expressing my concern. I was not seeking a refund or exchange – just an acknowledgement that they had screwed up and possibly an apology. They ignored my letter, and I vowed never to enter a Ward’s store again. Later some people I worked with reported that Ward’s refused to take back some unopened cans of paint. This is a company that deserved to die, and I like to think I helped bring it down.

Long ago I had a vehicle that required constant visits to the repair shop, which I paid for with a charge account at Goodyear. Citibank took over this account without notice, and failed to credit the last payment I had made to Goodyear. It took over a year to get the problem resolved, with constant dunning from the bank, and I vowed never to do business with this arrogant, careless company. Recently when they took over Sears credit accounts, I cancelled my Sears credit account. I will still do business with Sears, but I will use my Visa or MasterCard. 

We’ve all heard horror stories about problems people have had like these. Thankfully, I could write a dozen pages about the good experiences I’ve had. Target, Verizon, AT&T Internet service and Dell Computers have all provided satisfactory to excellent customer service in recent times. Pay attention, you slackers, and see how it’s done!

Mega-Inflation

I’ve been using Q-tips brand cotton swabs to clean my ears for decades. Back in the olden days when I first started, all Q-tips had wood sticks. Some time around the 1960s I found that the wood had been replaced with paper. I bought a box, but the paper stick was not stiff enough to allow proper ear cleaning.

I wrote to the company and they wrote back, saying that paper sticks were just as good, and sending me a free box of paper stick Q-tips. However, I was apparently not the only dissatisfied customer, and wood sticks were soon back on the market.

Having allowed the unrest to die down for a few decades, Unilever tried to get rid of the wood sticks again a few years ago. Since they were already hard to find, I always bought five or six boxes, and it was quite a while before I found out about this crime against proper ear hygiene.

After failing to find the product at several stores where I had previously bought wood stick Q-tips, I sent a message via the company’s web site, asking where I could find them. Their response was that wood sticks had been discontinued a few years ago, but had been brought back by popular demand. They could be purchased on line via drugstore.com.

The last Q-tips I bought in a store cost about $1.98 for a box of 125. The new price is $4.29 per box, plus a shipping cost of $5.49. I bought three boxes, so my total cost per box, including shipping, came out to $6.12. I’ve never been clear on how to compute a percentage increase, but I’m pretty sure that is a price increase in the neighborhood of 350%, somewhat higher than the recent overall inflation rate.

I hesitate to write about this, for fear other companies will hear about it and find ways to give us massive price increases by withholding a desired product, then returning it via a single, high-cost distribution method.

February 2011 update: Wood stick Q-tips have now been discontinued for good, although I was able to buy several boxes via EBay, as well as several boxes of another, lesser quality brand. Of course, the prices were highly inflated, but I bought as many as I could find, hoping to acquire a lifetime supply.

Oh Ratz!

If you’ve read my other rants, it should be obvious that I have little use for religion, and few belief systems are more damaging to humanity than Catholicism. This reactionary bastion of mythology has demonstrated that it has no interest in moving into the 21st Century (or even the 19th) by choosing a hard-line conservative as the new pope.

A few paragraphs about Benedict XVI from articles in the New York Times: 

Cardinal Ratzinger has often criticized religious relativism, the belief - mistaken, he says - that all beliefs are equally true. Cardinal Ratzinger has been a divisive figure within the church, and reports before the conclave spoke almost unanimously about blocs of more progressive cardinals lining up against him.

Cardinal Ratzinger functioned for years as the purifier of the church's doctrine. For 24 years he headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, from which he issued condemnations of renegade theologians, of modern reinterpretations of church liturgy and of the idea that all religions have an equal claim to the truth.

It is already clear that the new pope is likely to deepen the fissures that exist in the church. The reactions from the crowd in the first few minutes after Pope Benedict appeared on the balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square suggested the divisions he will have to confront.  

"As soon as I heard the name, I had a letdown, sinking feeling that this man is not going to be good for the church," said Eileen, a 53-year-old Catholic from Boston. She said she was afraid to give her last name because she was active in her parish and did not want to cause any problems for her priest, or jeopardize her daughter's imminent church wedding. 

Maureen Dowd wrote: “The white smoke yesterday signaled that the Vatican thinks what it needs to bring it into modernity is the oldest pope since the 18th century: Joseph Ratzinger, a 78-year-old hidebound archconservative who ran the office that used to be called the Inquisition and who once belonged to Hitler Youth. For American Catholics - especially women and Democratic pro-choice Catholic pols - the cafeteria is officially closed. After all, Cardinal Ratzinger, nicknamed "God's Rottweiler" and "the Enforcer," helped deny Communion rights to John Kerry and other Catholic politicians in the 2004 election.”

Under Ratzinger, the church will continue to discriminate against women and gays, will continue its contribution to human misery by refusing to accept contraception, and will continue to see its priesthood shrink as it denies men the basic human need to find a mate.

I admired Pope John XXIII, who attempted to move the church into the modern world. John Paul II threw on the brakes and put things into reverse, and his successor appears to be just the man to increase this backward movement, killing any chance for the church to become relevant to modern society, and taking it back to the dark ages.

All I can say is “New pope? Oh poop!”

(All this was written before the worst details of the child sex abuse scandal came out, and although he remains silent on this part of the issue, it's clear that he participated in and encouraged the cover-up, choosing to put the protection of the church's image ahead of the interests of innocent children around the world. I'm trying to stop using the kind of language that it would take to describe what I think of the Rat-weiler now.

Racist Comments

Senator George Allen's "macaca" comment has been widely covered (click here and here and here and here). In his column, conservative writer Cal Thomas played down the incident, and called on the blogosphere to jump on civil rights activist Andrew Young's comments about Wal-Mart driving out mom-and-pop stores.

Young's remarks indicated that it was a good thing, because these small stores "have been overcharging us...First it was the Jews, then it was Koreans and now it's Arabs..."

OK, I hereby jump. Young's comments are clearly racist, and he should look to his heart and see if his long civil rights background can't help him recognize this.

Minorities have long been as good as anyone else in bad-mouthing, attacking and exploiting other minorities. As a new eligibility worker at the county welfare department, I was amazed and shocked to hear a second-generation Mexican client make a derogatory remark about "all these wetbacks coming in."

Indians were killing other Indians and grabbing their land long before the Europeans arrived. We were just more efficient at it. 

Racist views and comments are racist, no matter what the ethnic background of the person making them.

 

New Gas Price Ripoff

I've noticed a couple of new ways gas stations have found to rip us off ($3.25 a gallon gas not being enough). Most pumps have the button or hose for the lowest price gas on the left, highest on the right. I went into a station recently, punched the left button without really looking, and then discovered it was the medium grade. The low price was in the middle!

Then there's the old cash price/credit price policy. This used to be fairly common, but it seemed to die out in recent years. With stations doing anything they can to increase profits, it's making a comeback.

I don't have any objection to this as long as the two prices are posted side by side in same-size numbers. However, many Shell stations are now posting unusually low prices, using the usual large bright numbers. Above the prices, in small, low-contrast lettering, are the words "cash price." You don't realize, unless you see a small notice on the pump, that the credit price is ten to twenty cents higher.

Of course, all the information on both these tactics is there for us to read if we just look. But the stations are relying on the fact that we're creatures of habit, and not always paying attention like we should.

 

The Pope Speaks on Violence

Some Muslims are up in arms (literally) because the Pope quoted 14th-century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II, who described as evil and inhuman Mohammed's "command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." Of course, these particular Muslims are always mad, and it takes little more than a non-Muslim saying the word "Muslim" to set them off. As an atheist I disagree with most of what the Pope says, but I defend his right to say it.

On the other hand, no Christian is on solid ground when they talk of another religion spreading the faith by sword. This is the sect that gave us the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the killing of "witches," and it's own intramural clash in Northern Ireland.

Ironically, the Pope was trying to draw a parallel between faith and reason, two diametrically opposed concepts. If everyone would embrace reason, we would have neither religion nor violence. But his condemnation of violence in the name of religion was right on, despite his own church's contrary history. 

For two well-reasoned viewpoints on the subject, click here and here. Click here for the full text of the Pope's remarks.

 

Conservation Overkill

Today I'd like to rant on a bit about conservation, gas guzzlers, and the like. First let me say that I consider myself an environmentalist, but of course, I use more common sense than most (don't we all?)

In 2006 a bill was introduced in the California legislature to limit the amount of water used when toilets are flushed. I had a brief conversation on this subject with some old friends not long ago, and all lamented the fact that even now you can't buy a new toilet with a satisfactory flush. I'm fortunate to live in an old house with a fairly old toilet that sends things off with a satisfactory "whoosh!" So, could this bill be described as anal retentive?

After accomplishing an effective flush, I am likely to head down the road driving a full-size Ford F-150 pickup. Now I also have a Honda which gets twice the mileage, and I drive it most of the time. But I also have a travel trailer, and there is no hybrid, no electric, no "green" vehicle anywhere that is usable for pulling a trailer. So don't knock people with big trucks - you don't know what use they put them to.

 

Iraq-Al Qaida Connection

The big news the last couple of days is fairly substantial evidence that the Iraq-al Qaida connection was non-existent. Thus crumbles the last wall in the house of cards built by the Bush administration to lead the United States into the quagmire that is the Iraq war.

A report that has been in administration hands for some time disputes any connection between Saddam Hussein and the terrorist organization, and in fact shows that he was highly concerned about US claims about that link. Despite the CIA's findings, Bush administration officials continued to use that connection to justify the unilateral attack on Iraq.

Of course, it's not news that politicians lie, and neither Bush nor the republican party have any monopoly on attempting to conceal information that puts them in a bad light. But this administration has certainly taken secrets, cover-ups and lies to a new level.

Bush is content to let history judge, and seems to think he will come out fine. I think history will agree with me that he was one of the worst presidents in history.

 

Immigrant Rights & Wrongs

Here's a subject we can all disagree on. Congress is exercising leadership by being as disagreeable as possible.

Here's my take: We need to have some path to legalization for the illegal entrants already here. We can't simply criminalize eight million people, all of whom believe they've done no wrong. Once they learn U.S. history, they will point out that most of our ancestors came here for better economic opportunities.

We need a guest worker program. However, we need some neutral third party to determine what the actual needs are, not just the needs that keep labor costs down.

We need to establish reasonable border controls, recognizing that the vast majority of entrants are not terrorists.

For their part, immigrants need to make a better effort to assimilate. One thing that bothers many people is that their ancestors made every effort to learn English and to become "100% American." They did not wave the flag of their country of origin, nor try to hold on to their previous culture at the expense of not fitting into the present one.

Now, Congress, immigration advocates, et al, I've given you the answers. It's up to you to make it go.

 

Upgrade, Downgrade

Software companies keep improving their products until they ruin them. Why on earth did Microsoft listen to the guy who said, "Hey, let's hide the drop down menus"?

I do a lot of searching for images on the net, and the perfect tool has been the Google Toolbar. It sits at the top of the browser page, with a field always visible where you can enter a search phrase. Then I used to be able to use a drop-down menu next to the text field where I could click on "images."

Recently Google put their "upgraded" toolbar on my PC without asking. The drop-down is gone; I have to go to the Google page and enter the search phrase there to use the "images" button. It's not a big deal, but it's just slightly more trouble.

I don't know if I'm more irritated about the change, or the fact that they installed software on my PC without permission.

I used to use an excellent calendar program at work called Calendar Creator. The first version I used had an area where you could click on any month to go to that page. Then they "upgraded" the program, and now you have to click through arrows one by one to get to the desired month.

Do any of these companies actually talk to their customers to see what features are really needed? Guess not.

 

Survey Says

Because I’m a nice guy and don’t hang up immediately, I get tapped for political surveys now and then. The thing that bugs me is the wording of the questions in some surveys. To answer some questions, I have to choose between two answers that make assumptions that I just can’t agree with.

I made up the following example, but it’s typical of what I’ve been asked:

Would you vote for a full-time professional politician who failed to report $10,000 in contributions from the school desk industry, and who has voted for smaller class size; or a teacher with 25 years of classroom experience who while head of the PTA, steered the soda contract to a Pakistani immigrant who was accused of molesting a 15 year old boy ten years ago?

I told the last questioner that he need to offer “none of the above” as a choice. Why can’t they just come right out and ask if I’d prefer to vote for Joe or Susie? That’s a choice I can live with.

 

Indian Gambling

We all like to have our cake and eat it too, and maybe have someone else's cake as well. No one exemplifies this better than Indian tribes that operate casinos. I have no objection to Indian casino gambling. It's little enough compensation for what was done to them, and a deliciously  ironic form of revenge.

Many  tribes want to make contributions to political candidates. However, they don't want to be subject to campaign reporting laws, because they are "sovereign governments." Since laws prohibit participation in U.S. political campaigns by foreign governments, the tribes must either stop making contributions, or give up their claim to sovereignty. Anything else constitutes a claim to a very special status that should not be granted to any group, foreign or domestic.

 

Budget Insanity

I see that the republicans have “castigated Obama for proposals that will boost spending in such areas as education, public works, and research.”

The United States is falling behind other developed countries in the educational level of our children. Teachers are being laid off, schools closed, classroom sizes increased, school years being shortened.

Our roads and bridges are crumbling.

We are not producing enough people skilled in math and science to continue the innovation that made us the greatest country in the world.

The things that put us on top did not come cheap, and did not fall from the sky. They were done with significant government support, paid for by tax money.

The proposals the republicans dislike are the very ones most needed to get our country back on track. Yet their plans are to reduce these areas, as well as environmental protection, family planning, and other services that support jobs and economic growth.

There is no call for reductions in military spending; in fact the defense department has submitted its largest request in history. We need to realize that we don’t have to station troops in over 30 countries. We don’t need to have the military prepared to handle even the most remotely possible threats. Instead we need to seriously examine what threats are reasonably possible and prepare for that. We need to withdraw from most countries, and end the unnecessary George Bush wars as quickly as possible.

We need to make reasonable cuts in all areas. The republicans are saying that Social Security should not be off limits, but they don’t seem to be interested in the first and most sensible thing we should do – collect the tax on earners at all levels.

Regrettably, the party of Lincoln (the first president to impose an income tax) and Teddy Roosevelt (who saw and battled against the dangers of big business control of government) has become the captive of the knee-jerk “no tax” bunch and the extreme social conservatives who surveys continually show do not represent the majority view (just the shrillest and most hysterical views).

All this follows a 30 year period during which republicans administrations called for smaller government and less spending, while increasing the national debt by huge amounts over the democrats that preceded them in office. Ronald Reagan, who was perhaps the most charming liar ever to hold public office, mouthed all these low spending, less government ideas, but increased the national debt by billions of dollars. At least one of his aids was honest in his hypocrisy, declaring that “deficits don’t matter.”

George Bush inherited a balanced budget, and left behind another gigantic deficit, not even having the honesty to include his war expenses in the budget.

Having suddenly got religion about actually doing what they say, the republicans will no doubt make things even worse, leaving them to wonder what happened when President Obama, like other democratic presidents who suffered a mid-term drubbing, is reelected, along with a congress that finally is made up of moderates from both parties who understand that we have to face the modern equivalent of the founding father’s warning that we must hang together, or hang separately.

 

Dim Bulb

An article in the Chicago Tribune promotes the idea of switching from our beloved incandescent light bulbs to the dim fluorescent spiral bulbs, and wonders why people haven’t embraced the change.

One hundred watt incandescent bulbs are set to be banned in January 2012, and other standard bulbs (40 and 60W) will be on their way out by 2014.

I freely confess to being what the Consumer Reports Home & Garden Blog called a "lightbulb luddite. I was recently in a hotel room with three lamps, all fitted with the spiral fluorescent lights. I turned on all the lamps, trying to create enough light to read by. Eventually it seemed that the light got brighter; and the Tribune article mentions that it can take up to a minute for these bulbs to reach full brightness. I guess next we should find a way to go back to when it took your TV a minute for the picture to appear.

One commenter on the blog listed about ten situations where the new bulbs can’t be used or will have shortened life, including outdoors in cold weather, upside down, and “where they are turned on/off frequently,” which can shorten the life of the bulb by over 90%. He states that this information is actually on the package.

So far the cons seem to outweigh the pros, and it’s hard to imagine a world where I can’t get a nice bright 100W bulb to help my aging eyes read the ever smaller print in my favorite magazines.

Apparently some people plan to stock up on 100W incandescent bulbs while they still can. I’m ahead of the curve here, being the son of a couple who owned an electrical contracting business with a small retail operation. When they retired in the 1970s, they brought home more bulbs, largely 100 watt, than they could use in their lifetimes, and I have now inherited what’s left of this horde, probably enough to last most of my remaining lifetime.

So if you need to see what you’re doing, stop by – things will be bright around my house for a long time to come.

The Last Word on File Sharing (posted 6/11/11)

Going through some old magazines I had saved, I ran across the October 2, 2000 issue of Time, with Shawn Fanning on the cover, and a lengthy story on the development of Napster inside. Fanning wrote the software that made it possible for individual PC users to share music files, triggering a lawsuit by the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA). The RIAA prevailed, eventually forcing Napster to shut down. Several related articles covered various file-sharing methods, and compared existing MP3 players. The RAVE MP2200 offered an amazing 64 MB of storage, about two hours of music.

All preceded iPod, smart phones, and the ability of people to carry virtually their entire music collection around in their pocket (my iPod Classic has about 18,000 songs, well over a month of continuous play).

Although downloading, much of it now legal, has become the prime source of music, the record companies are still in business, and new artists continue to achieve success. In other words, the sky did not fall. This inspired me to research the fate of various music services mentioned in my post above of a few years ago. The results:

The MusicMatch link now leads to Yahoo Music (beta), and its music download service, Rhapsody. This seems to be a streaming-only service, which charges $14.99 per month, limited to three mobile devices or MP3 players.

Buy Music, my choice for downloads at the time, is gone.

Napster, now legal and owned by Roxio, is a streaming service offering subscription priced at $4.17 to $10 per month, with various options - yearly or monthly. A one year commitment for $50 allows streaming to computers and home theater/audio only; for $96 a year you can also include mobile devices.

The former Apple PC Service, which had severe limitations, is now iTunes, the 800 pound gorilla of the bunch. It offers individual songs and streaming.

As I mentioned in my update to my post earlier this year, my service of choice is Amazon, which did not offer downloads when I wrote the original post.

Meanwhile, questionably legal on-line file sharing continues. Free programs allow you to convert the audio of anything on You Tube to an MP3 file. And our local Tower Records building was taken over by San Francisco-based Rasputin, which is full of vinyl, CDs and customers any time I go in there. A quarter mile from my house is another large music store that does a brisk business, including buying and selling used CDs.

Extra credit reading:

History of the lawsuit, RIAA vs. Napster

A more detailed analysis of the legal issues

A long and detailed history and analysis

 

 


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Updated July 26, 2011