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Archive for the ‘Shopping’ Category

…On Product Selection.

Posted by Steve on March 25, 2009

There’s an old saying everybody knows: “The customer is always right.”

Obviously, that saying isn’t true. Sometimes the customer’s a moron. Sometimes the customer’s a jackass. Either way, sometimes the customer’s just plain wrong.

However, there is one thing that the customer does always be. Namely, the customer does always be the one who knows what it wants. Unfortunately, as that inexplicably popular band sang, “you can’t always get what you want,” because sometimes what the customer wants just isn’t available. As another old saying went, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” Now, sometimes the issue where the company won’t make the desired product available is trivial, as with Model T colors or the fact that Taco Bell only makes the best thing on their menu available in Atlanta and Minneapolis, but not where I live. It’s annoying and I make a point of complaining about it whenever I fill out a customer (dis)satisfaction form, but in the great scheme of things, including my life, it isn’t that big a deal.

With other things, though, it can be meaningful. Computer software, for instance, is (I think) an area where that’s particularly true. Microsoft’s the poster-child for this. Don’t need, want, or like the new features and functional changes in the new version of Office or Windows? Too damn bad, because we’re not going to support or sell the old version anymore: the new version is the only version. Firefox 3’s another example: you can put up with the way they’ve ruined the location bar’s functionality, or you can not use Firefox, since their piece of crap changes are unremovable from 3 and previous versions are no longer supported. Frankly, in my opinion, the computer software industry’s almost as bad as the textbook industry for putting out unnecessary new versions and new versions that are just plain worse than the old versions (at one point while I was in college, I was taking a class in a department where 4th edition of the textbook was required. Another class in the same department required 5th edition of the same book. The professor for my class proudly explained that 5th edition was 4th edition with the contents rearranged and assorted spelling errors added, and was only available as a $90 new book as opposed to the $30 used 4th edition. I believe the adjective he used to summarize his feelings about the 5th edition was “criminal”.). I think both industries would benefit from applying Barbri’s motto to their product development: do it once, do it right, never do it again. Putting out a Textbook 2nd edition or a Browser Version 2 usually means a fuck-up, either in the original or the new, not an improvement on a good thing (as when the 2009 model of a car gets better gas mileage than the 2008 model which got better gas mileage than the 2007 model).

But hey, it’s the company that decides what their product is. So when they decide it’s time for 5th Edition textbooks or Office 2007 or Firefox 3, the customer is always right might as well sit down and shut up. Apparently “your way, right away” is only at Burger King. A shame, really.


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…On this “Popcuts” store.

Posted by Steve on March 13, 2009

Back in September, I read an article on CNN’s website about a little new online music store called Popcuts. I did some research on it, even signed up for it, and I ruminated on it here. Well, a few months ago they selected certain users for a phone survey on the service, and I was one of them. For the hour and a half or two hours of my time on a Sunday night (it was only supposed to be one hour, but the interview was conducted by a hired consultant that was using VoIP and having major problems with it), I got $25 of store credit with Popcuts.

Which is how I can now actually give some meaningful commentary on the store, which a small number of people do actually use.
Read the rest of this entry »

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…On Chicken.

Posted by Steve on January 24, 2009

I’ve been sick the past two weeks or so: first with a cold/flu (I can’t tell the difference) that’s been going around at work, and then on Monday that cold (which I’m still just getting over) set off a flare-up of what may well be the single most perfectly-adapted-to-humans virus in existence. Seriously, I think HSV-1 may well be the best-adapted virus humans have. It infects damn near everyone, since it 1) causes life-long infections, 2) sheds from you when you’re asymptomatic, and 3) gets spread by kissing babies, sharing food, and all other sorts of things that humans do because we’re social animals and just coincidentally make sure kids get exposed to it. Then, barring unfortunate infection of the wrong body part (if it gets in your eye it can cause blindness, and if it gets in your brain it can cause potentially fatal encephalitis, but such infections are very, very rare because HSV-1 isn’t just adapted to humans, it’s adapted to one specific nerve in the human head! Getting passed into someone’s genitals through oral sex is a risk, but genital HSV-1 infections are a lot less severe than genital HSV-2 infections, what with being on the far end of the body from that nerve HSV-1’s adapted to, and what with HSV-2 being adapted to genitals and a nerve down by them in the coccyx), in a person with a healthy & functional immune system the worst symptoms it can cause are… ugly, uncomfortable blisters that last for about a week. And a lot fewer of them, for that matter, than Herpes #3 (chickenpox) can – though, of course, chickenpox isn’t a herpes simplex virus, it’s a herpes zoster virus, and accordingly gets to be called “varicella zoster virus” instead of “herpes simplex virus 3”, apparently because it acquired the name “chickenpox” as a diminutive from “smallpox”, and “varicella” is somehow derivable from “variola”, which is the Latin name for the smallpox virus. I have no idea what distinguishes “zoster” from “simplex”. Might just be that the two simplex virii impart some level of resistance/semi-immunity to each other, but not to a zoster virus. I’m a transportation engineer, not a virologist.

And this post is about chicken, not virii.

See, when you’re sick – especially with a cold or the flu – chicken soup is good for you. No doubt a fair portion of that’s placebo effect from being told by Mom and Dad and Gary Larson that chicken soup is good for the flu (and number two, it’s nobody we know). There’s more to it, though. Soup in general (I find) is easy to eat when ill, and helps soothe the throat and sinuses. And chicken soup, as I’ve learned to make it, comes with many nutrients, what with the carrots, celery, peppers, lemon, onions, herbs, and of course, chicken meat, chicken marrow, and chicken-enhancing-broth.

Wait, something doesn’t belong in that list… Oh, yeah! Chicken-enhancing-broth, that’s what doesn’t!

One of the things I’ve started doing more of is paying attention to the labels of the food I buy. And I’ve noticed on some chickens, the label says, “Contains up to X% retained water.” Every time “retained water” gets specified, X is a single-digit-number – in some cases (generally a whole Perdue ), it’s all of “1”. On other chickens, though, it says, “Enhanced with up to Y% broth.” Generally, when broth gets specified, Y is a double-digit number – either 12 or 15 (although I seem to remember seeing a 9 once).

This is a big deal. Ostensibly, the broth-enhancement is done to make the chicken meat juicier and tastier, and by extension preferable to competing chicken, after cooking. Of course, since chicken soup means leaving the chicken in boiling water until the meat falls off the bones and the marrow seeps out into the water (gotta have that marrow flavor – and it’s a lot quicker with chicken than ox-tail, let me tell you!), juicy isn’t an issue under the circumstances that had me looking for chicken this time, and at other times, well, I don’t to try baking or pan-frying a chicken that’s leaking broth like a soggy sponge. What’s sort of an issue is that the broth makes for a very clear and noticeable (both in what the label reports and what you can taste) difference in the sodium content of the chicken. What is definitely an issue is that 12% or 15% of an enhanced chicken isn’t chicken – but you get charged for it as though it is. Remember, the grocery store charges you for chicken by weight. Assuming a 12%-enhanced chicken, a 5-pound chicken (on the small side for a fryer, but plenty for soup, since your soup’s going to be getting a bunch of vegetables and stuff in the pot too – not to mention water, and some sort of starch like rice or noodles), and a $1.50/lb price (which is steep, but I wouldn’t say it’s excessively so, and it makes the math way easier), the chicken costs you $7.50. Being charitable and treating “enhanced with up to 12% broth” as meaning “We take the weight of Actual Chicken and add up to 12% of that, to get the weight you’re charged for” (as opposed to “12% of what you’re being charged for is broth”, which would be a little bit more broth and a little bet less Gallus gallus), then a full 8.57 ounces – just over half a pound – of what you’re paying for is broth enhancer. So, of that $7.50, you’ve paid $6.70 for chicken, and $.90 for broth. Which, needless to say, will buy you any number of other, more useful, things at that same grocery store, ranging from a cabbage to a pair of Kiwi Fruits to a can of chicken broth you can actually use (say, for cooking couscous).

In short… pay attention to the chicken you buy, lest your money get wasted on non-chicken filler.

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…On Going to the Gun Show

Posted by Steve on October 12, 2008

I went, today, for a little while to a gun show. Not with any intent to buy – and as it turns out, I couldn’t have bought one, since I only brought one form of ID and two are required – but more to browse where hopefully there’d be someone more helpful and informative than at the local stores that sell guns. As it turns out, I succeeded in that, and so now I’m saving up for what will likely be a Taurus 1911. So yay, and thanks to the helpful people at D & J Gun Repair.

Of course, what I really wanted was the mortar that somebody was selling. But then, I don’t have $1300 to spend on a 3-inch mortar, and even if I did… what would I do with a 3″ mortar? Get myself in trouble, that’s what. Ditto the swords: while a gun is going to be practical, allowing me to shoot back and people who are going to be shooting at me, I can’t justify the expense of a working sword (as opposed to a for-home-decoration-only sword-shaped thing) and wouldn’t know how to use one properly even if I did get it.

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…On the Acquisition of Music.

Posted by Steve on September 7, 2008

Half a year ago was my birthday, and from my parents I received an iTunes gift card. I finally, over the past month, set up an iTunes account and spent that gift card on music. I’m rather pleased with most of my purchases, especially as I took chances on some bands I’d never heard of before, like Eluveitie and Cadacross. I was well-rewarded with many of those, in particular Eluveitie. A few disappointments, but hey – not like I’d paid for it, right?

Of course, those disappointing songs would’ve been less disappointing if there were some way to recoup my gift card credit from them. Enter Wednesday’s CNN.com article on new internet music retailer Popcuts. Their business model is an unusual one, to say the least: a portion of the $0.99 revenue each time someone buys a track is split as store credit among people who’ve already purchased the track. As I see it, the system’s an attempt to give people an incentive to try out completely new artists and make it easier for those brand-new artists to get a fan base.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the minuscule catalog (granted, they only started up in August, but there don’t appear to be more than a few hundred) consists almost entirely of independent, unsigned, local- and garage- level acts. That may be what makes this work in the long-run. It may be what makes it fail quickly. I don’t know. I do know that the Metal genre, as of this moment, has music from 10 artists, at least two of which just appear to be guys in their basement. I did, though, find one track that I liked the 30-second sample of enough to risk 99 cents on. After all, even if I don’t like it, I can maybe get enough credit from it to try something else. And in the meantime, the aspiring musician and the aspiring music retailer both get a few cents, and the aspiring musician also gets his Last.fm playcount to go up from seven plays by two people to a minimum of eight plays by three people. Which is good for him, too.

So, I’ll keep an eye on this Popcuts place, to see if their catalog grows in ways I like, but I don’t expect it to ever supplant Last.fm as my main internet music source, what with its wonderful combination of internet radio, free downloadable demo tracks, and for-sale downloadable tracks.

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…On Buying Local

Posted by Steve on July 20, 2008

I mentioned that I prefer, when possible, to buy local. Yes, in part that’s because I prefer to support my local economy to economies elsewhere. There’s an element of self-interest to that: my job depends on the economic health of where I am. Of course, me deciding to order a pizza from Harold’s instead of Papa John’s isn’t necessarily going to do a whole lot to bolster the local economy.

It will do a ton, though, to bolster the quality of the pizza I get.

That’s the key. Yes, there’s an emotional satisfaction from buying local, but there’s also a clear material benefit: I can get things that are unique (why I prefer local restaurants), or I can get things that are hard to find/delivered with better service (why I’ll go to local stores).

The restaurant thing’s really what gets to me. You can get pizza anywhere. You can even go to Papa John’s (or Pizza Hut, or Domino’s, or etc.) anywhere, ordering online even, and get the exact same pizza in Minneapolis as in Atlanta as in Nashville as in Denver as in Richmond as in New York City as in Chicago. Or you can go to a regional chain, and get an excellent Mellow Mushroom pizza in Atlanta or Nashville, but not in Denver, Minneapolis, Richmond, Chicago, or New York City, while you can get Beau Jo’s amazing pizza across Colorado – but not in any other state. Or you can go to a totally unique joint – a pizza from Fat Lorenzo’s is available only at one location in one city, and while it’s got some similarities to a pizza from Bottoms Up in Richmond, the two aren’t at all alike. And I like that. And, of course, this extends to all sorts of foods besides pizza.

Then there’s stores that are local. I don’t do this as often, because the main motivation is “getting the product I want”, which is often available elsewhere for lower (or much lower) price. Why buy my jeans somewhere they cost $30 when I can get them for $20 at K-Mart… and I can walk to that K-Mart? On the other hand… about 2 or 3 months ago, my laptop finally died for good, being five years old and the service plan having ended after 3 (during which time many parts got replaced). So, I had to go get a new computer (good thing I’d been saving up, huh?). I went to Circuit City: “Do you sell custom configurations, and can I still get an XP system?” Ok, so I went to Best Buy: “Do you sell custom configurations, and can I still get an XP system?” Ok, so I… yeah. I checked some online retailers: CDW, Lenovo, etc. Ok, I could get it, but the price was iffy, and… ok, two local joints. Boom: exactly what I wanted, plus I was able to buy a lot better hardware than I’d have gotten for the same price off the internet, plus I got some nice peripherals and good warranty. Not to mention, good customer service. Which I like. Or, well, bookstores. Local bookstores: if you have one, for crying out loud, GO THERE! Unless, you know, you don’t like going to stores that have a broad selection to choose from. Take science-fiction and fantasy, my genres of choice. In my experience a typical Border’s has about two to three shelves combined of them. A typical Barnes & Noble will have about 4 or 5, or possibly just 2 if they’re really big. Uncle Hugo’s sells nothing else. So you want in-print books that the stores aren’t carrying? No problem. You want something hard to find because it’s been out-of-print since the mid-80s? Walls covered in shelves jamed full of used books, with boxes of more stacked against them. Granted, not every local bookstore’s so great: I’ve been to some that didn’t even have the selection of a large airport bookstore. But when they’re good, they can be great.

And that’s why I like shopping there.

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