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Opticians – a metaphor

Filed in: consumerism, marketing, vent, Web, Sat, Sep 24 2011 23:45 PT

Today, I needed an optician, and none would help me.

I have a prescription, but it’s for contact lenses, so it’s missing one measurement I need so that the lenses’ focal point will be set properly in a new pair of glasses I’m buying.

I need an optician to measure my pupillary distance. You know that thing they do where they hold up a little plastic ruler to each eye for about 5 seconds, and write a couple numbers down? That. The people I talked to wouldn’t do that for me, even for money. I would have paid $20 for that one skill that they have, that takes them 5 seconds. But they wouldn’t do it.

The reason they do this is as plain as the nose on my face (especially in its current condition, that is, unencumbered by glasses). Opticians make their money selling eyewear. Specifically, they take your eye doctor’s prescription and turn it into the eyewear you need. An optician is to an eye doctor what a pharmacist is to a physician. Except, of course, your pharmacist hasn’t figured out how to sell you a high-index UV-coated Prada pill case.

In this day and age, however, there are many new places popping up that offer comparable products for much less money. All that is needed are the numbers on the prescription, plus a couple more that the optician is qualified to provide, and your glasses come in the mail. This destroys the potential for opticians to profit on your frames, lenses, coatings and other upsell opportunities they may have. So it appears they have chosen instead not to offer services to people who don’t want to buy their other products, even when they would happily pay for an optician’s skills à la carte.

And that’s fine, really, especially if you’re a libertarian. I’d have some respect left for the opticians today who gave me the cold shoulder if they had told me money was the reason, but each was at pains to state otherwise. I was told that it was policy, that they couldn’t guarantee the work, even that it was harmful to their integrity as opticians to spend 5 seconds measuring my pupils.

Recently, it seems even information about my own eyes, information which I had commissioned and paid for, is being treated as proprietary. I have asked for a copy of my prescription from my own eye doctor, and been refused. This was unthinkable even a couple years ago. Imagine your physician telling you that you can’t find out what he’s telling the pharmacist to dispense to you. Once you have left the exam room, the experience is no longer about helping you see well: it is about ensuring the greatest amount of money stays in the office. They will cling to your data and the skills you lack to keep you coming back to them, rather than finding a more efficient solution.

Today, I needed an optician, and none would help me. Not because they couldn’t, but because doing it their way makes them more money. And now I’m generally distrustful of opticians, if not actively looking forward to their obsolescence. From this point forward, I will only get my vision checked by an eye doctor who will hand me a printed copy of all my information at the end of the visit.

Web professionals, you might want to bookmark this. It may become relevant to you at some point in the future.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year

Filed in: consumerism, culture, design, tech, Wed, Jan 5 2011 21:05 PT

…by which I mean CES, of course.

Granted, half of the things presented this week will never see the light of day, and the other half will be three to six months later than they announced. But still, today alone was just staggering. Motorola gave an Apple-grade presentation (if you can look past its comically bad audio). Olympus finally announced a Micro Four Thirds camera I’m willing to take the plunge on. Even Microsoft may be at risk of becoming relevant again.

I think what can be said about this batch of announcements is that this is the year everything is good enough. What I mean to say is that, of all the devices I’ve seen in the last couple of days, nearly all of them are capable of convincing someone to give up the PC as their primary computer device. These aren’t just rehashed netbooks–relatively few, in fact, even have an Atom CPU–but devices everywhere from 3 inches on up that have enough juice to browse the web, handle email, play games, watch movies, find yourself on a map, and generally do what 90% of the market does with their PCs.

I’ve seen a lot of CES presentations in my time, but this is the first year that I’ve seen the writing on the wall for PCs as we know them. Now, okay, if you’re reading this, you’re one of two kinds of people: the ones who will be using your phone or tablet as your primary computing device by the end of the year, if you’re not already; or the ones who will still be lugging a 5-lb. clamshell device with a keyboard to your neighborhood Starbucks. Either way, in my opinion, you’re an outlier. You may need to type so frequently that a keyboard is always in your plans. Or you may be editing 4k video, or compiling an operating system. And that’s fine. PCs will still exist for those cases. But you’re still going to be affected by the trends in the industry.

What I want you to think about as you contemplate the death of the PC (or, say, Wintel, or the WIMP model, or what have you) is someone you know who’s not at all a geek. Maybe your mom, or the partner who stares glassy-eyed at you when you come home complaining about the latency of your DNS at work. Now, think: what do these people do with their computers all day? They browse the web. And by “the web”, I mean web-based email, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Netflix, their bank accounts, their stocks. Name me one thing 90% of these users need a Core i7 CPU for. Games? Only if they’re hardcore. Editing images or videos? Probably not worth the investment.

In the overall cost-to-benefit calculation, there’s going to be a lot more value given to size and battery life than to raw horsepower. And raw horsepower per dollar is really the only remaining benefit of the PC. They’re complicated, bulky, virus-prone, and get slower over time. I looked at my in-laws’ mid-tower Windows machine like it was a record player: it’s big, loud, sucks down a lot of juice… and most importantly, it was asleep most of the time I was there, since they got my hand-me-down netbook for a present.

Meanwhile, you can walk into any mobile phone store in the US today and pick up a 1GHz computer with a half-decent browser for anywhere from $200 to nothing. Then you can shove it in your pocket. That’s powerful. And what we’re seeing this week shows us that the gap between the desktop and the pocket is not only narrowing, but it’s morphing in all kinds of ways. If Motorola is to be believed, the tablet battle will be joined by the Android Honeycomb-powered Xoom this spring; there will be at least one 960×540 phone in the near future; and Windows 8 is aiming for low-power CPUs as well. Consumer electronics companies aren’t tailoring their offerings for power users: they’re aiming squarely at the non-geek in the house. (Don’t feel threatened. It’s for the best.)

This week, we’re seeing what the non-Apple players in the market are seeing as the future of computing. This looks to be the first time Apple has to look at the competition seriously.

Why George Monbiot is fun to read

Filed in: consumerism, health, politics, Thu, Dec 7 2006 13:36 PT

“There was one proposal in Sir Rod Eddington’s report to the Treasury with which, when I first read it, I wholeheartedly agreed. He insists that ‘the transport sector, including aviation, should meet its full environmental costs’. Quite right too: every time someone dies as a result of floods in Bangladesh, an airline executive should be dragged out of his office and drowned.”

George Monbiot, in a column on transportation and emissions in the Guardian

The latest exhibit in why people suck

Filed in: consumerism, vent, Mon, Feb 20 2006 18:33 PT

On January 17th, I ordered a case for my iPod. Not just any case, mind you, but the dock-compatible, magnetically-fastening Sena case, in dark blue. I was undeterred by the fact that it was on backorder, for this was the Ultimate iPod Protecting Device — and in the Blue Flavor signature color, no less.
On February 17th, according to US Postal Service records, the case was delivered to my apartment complex.

Where it was promptly stolen.

Sigh.

It’s not the lost money that bothers me. What has me really peeved about the situation is that someone stole an item that presumably is of near-zero value to them, out of a public space, from a box that wouldn’t exactly cry out “steal me” like, say, one with a big Apple logo on it. And here I am, fifty bucks poorer, with a growing need for a protective outer shell for my still-naked iPod, and having to endure another long backorder for another case, while some asshole has probably already tried selling mine to some pawn shop or fence, and most likely trashed it somewhere when they failed.

Apparently this is the first time someone has had their mail stolen from here in two years, and the manager told me he had kicked out a “transient” who had snuck into the building on Friday afternoon, so it’s probably someone on the outside. But my god, do people suck. I’m having all of my packages delivered to the office from now on, so that I can sign for them, and so that boxes like this will go into a locked mailbox. Of course, I must first add my work address to the list of authorized addresses on my cards, which I now have to do thanks to other people who suck, and who use stolen cards to have big-ticket items delivered to them. Thieving pricks.
Something tells me I need to run by Capitol Loans and see if they have any new iPod cases…

My resolution for 2006

Filed in: consumerism, music, rights, Sun, Jan 1 2006 14:22 PT

My last good New Years resolution came to me at the Y2K party. (I quit smoking, cold turkey.) This time, I’m ridding myself of another addiction, one that’s cost me thousands of dollars in my lifetime, and has grown more hazardous each year.

I’m going to stop buying new CDs.

It used to be that CDs were a known quantity: you put it in the player, press play, it works. A compact disc was, like a vinyl record, an artifact of a recording, something you knew you’d be able to play on any device that was physically compatible with it. This is key to the success of any media format. Nobody wants to buy an album (or a movie, or a book) knowing that its functionality has been crippled, particularly when the precise limitations aren’t disclosed beforehand. But somehow, according to the majors, our reluctance to play along with their dirty tricks is our fault, and reason to jack up prices and lock down content.

These days, it is clear that the record cartel is playing fast and loose with the rules, and not much caring about the consequences for the consumer. On some recent albums, labels are purposely breaking the redbook CD standard that guarantees that kind of compatibility, as another ill-conceived anti-piracy move. And that turns out to be the least of the consumer’s problems: we know about Sony’s XCP fiasco, which showed us that infecting our computers is on the table, from the cartel’s perspective. Of course, Sony isn’t alone here, as other labels and content protection companies look for various ways to hinder users from accessing the music they’ve purchased.

A CD is no longer the artifact that it once was: its own compatibility and longevity is in doubt, and those two properties comprise most of the value of purchasing a given recording. The record cartel is guilty of turning music into copy-protected software, complete with end-user licenses and spyware, and charging us more money for less freedom.

My resolution for 2006 is to stop buying new CDs, with very limited exceptions. I will limit my music consumption to what is available legally online. Any CDs I do purchase will be direct from the artist, from independent labels, or used, and will be ripped to MP3 and immediately archived.

I will get most of my music from sources I already know and use: namely, various Creative Commons netlabels like Magnatune, Comfort Stand and Epsilonlab; the music RSS feed at archive.org; and subscription sites like eMusic and Wippit that offer MP3 files. If the urge to buy a mass-market CD should strike (as it did about four times in 2005), I’ll buy it from the iTunes Music Store (this being a viable option since I have an iPod and copies of iTunes everywhere). If the record cartel gets its way and pushes the album price above $9.99, I’ll stop buying those, too.

Something’s gotta give in this marketplace. I will not continue to pay increasing sums for the CDs I buy, particularly when it seems that labels are using more of that money to take capabilities away from me than they do, you know, to pay artists. The labels, even after their shady accounting and the virtual indentured servitude of their artists, are on life support. It’s time to pull the plug.

Buy Something Day

Filed in: consumerism, culture, Fri, Nov 25 2005 18:07 PT

Today, according to the Adbusters set, is Buy Nothing Day. To most of America, on the other hand, it’s known as Black Friday, the first day of the Christmas shopping season, brought on by an unspoken holiday usually granted after Thanksgiving.

I bought something today. A few somethings, actually. Lots of people did that today, in fact, as Black Friday is consistently one of the top five retail days of the year (the Saturday before Christmas being #1). Which gets to the heart of why Buy Nothing Day doesn’t make much sense: the worst time to show yourself in numbers to make a point is when you know your opposition, which already dwarfs you in size, is going to turn out in three times higher volume than usual. It’s about as noticeable as taking a gallon of water out of a pool that’s being filled on the other end by a supertanker.

The act of not consuming isn’t a vote, it’s an abstention. In fact, a lot of the time, it’s just an absentee vote for the other side. What does it say to the people you’re trying to engage if you’re free to hop onto the deal-hunting gravy train at midnight on Saturday? Not a very powerful message. Perhaps it’s even counterproductive, in that it gives the happy capitalists a tangible bogeyman right when it’s most convenient for them to engage in demagoguery.

No, what one needs to do is to change how people feel about the holiday season. Instead of being confrontational, it’s possible to be subtle, even friendly, while at the same time communicating your point more effectively. Here are two campaigns I can think of that would be much more interesting to me.

Give Something Day
Yes, technically, most people think of this as being Christmas, but all the better to catch the opposition off-guard. Think of something people can use, that they pay too much for, that can be made cheaply, with little waste, and given away. No slogans or logos or globalization guilt. Just a tacit message that giving, not consuming, is the spirit of the holiday season.
Do Something Day
Black Friday is a day about stuff. Buy Nothing Day attempts to frame the argument on this point. But if that’s the case, then why not make it about reconnecting with family and friends? This is especially important after the Thanksgiving feast, which is usually meant to get these people together, but usually ends up being a stress-fest with cooks sweating over a turkey and guys drinking beer in front of some shitty Detroit Lions game. If you can engage those close to you enough in an event you can all enjoy, maybe the bond with consumption can be overcome.

Eh. Maybe not. But there has to be something better than buying nothing on which to build a movement.

Update: (11/26/05) Kevin Gamble has another idea: Buy Something Meaningful Day.

Early morning geek shopping

Filed in: consumerism, personal, Thu, Nov 24 2005 21:03 PT

I’m going to bed soon. It’s because I’m going to Fry’s tomorrow morning.

At 5am.

They have stuff I need. I am hoping I won’t have to punch and claw for the Bluetooth headset and 802.11g USB adapter that I want (both $10), but I’m willing to make that sacrifice. Once I have those in my possession, I’ll move on to the car audio section, and maybe look at the LCD TVs. I need a little of everything there, including Welch’s strawberry soda and chocolate Necco wafers.

The day after Thanksgiving: it’s like Christmas for people with credit cards who hate surprises and waiting.

Rugged, they say

Filed in: consumerism, Web, Mon, Nov 21 2005 00:11 PT

Sometimes it’s funny when you’re cited. From the Woot blog:

“Hilarious!” raves Matt May of Corante about the Woot podcast. “These guys make Crazy Eddie look like His Holiness the Dalai Lama,” he continues. “Discover the Woot podcast.” We’re humbled to be praised by someone with May’s rugged good looks and fine ear for comic excellence.

My Tablet PC coming-out story

Filed in: consumerism, tech, Thu, Sep 8 2005 14:13 PT

Those of you who saw me at the Podcast Hotel yesterday may have noticed something different. Hopefully it wasn’t the thinning hair, but rather the little piece of technology I was scribbling furiously into during the session.

Yes, I’m Matt May, and for the last six days I’ve been a Tablet PC user.

I needed to have a PC in the house to do development in .NET and testing on IE for Windows. Since my old Vaio is just broken enough not to be able to update the BIOS so it can run XP, that wasn’t an option. (It’s now running Fedora Core 4.) I could connect to my main server from my PowerBook using Remote Desktop Connection, but that’s no good for heavy work outside of the house, so I started looking for other options.

Once I decided I needed a new laptop, it was easy to make the jump to the tablets. After all, I already have a brand-new PowerBook, so if I’m getting a new machine, it had better be a multitasker. (I learned that from Alton Brown.) I also wanted a shock of features that weren’t available together in any entry-level laptops. And I wanted a display that didn’t make me want to tear my eyes out, as most PC laptops do. The tablets were among the only machines out there with good resolution, small size, and lots of what I wanted, and plus, I can can scribble on the screen, which is way more fun than it should be.

For a smoking $1119 at eCost, I bought a Toshiba M200, which has a 1.7GHz Centrino, 12.1″ 1400×1050 display, 512MB RAM, 60GB of disk, 802.11g, Bluetooth, and an SD slot (which is just one more excuse to upgrade my camera and go 100% SD in the near future). With no internal optical drive, I’m finding that the only thing I’m really missing is FireWire, because I already have a FireWire CD-RW drive, along with other accessories. A $30 or $40 PCMCIA card should fix that. These go for $1500 and up on eBay, and are about $2000 new, so I’m really happy I found it.

This has been the first business trip I’ve taken in seven years without a Mac in tow. It’s sad to say, but I almost didn’t miss it. Firefox, for one, is much more responsive in Windows than on OS X. I’ve recently become frustrated with Thunderbird and moved back to Mail.app on the PowerBook, so I’m dealing with Thunderbird again on the PC. I miss Adium, but Trillian is cool enough. I also have yet to discover an RSS aggregator or podcatcher that holds a candle to NetNewsWire, so I’m getting by with poor facsimiles thereof. And I’ll need to install Cygwin and/or CoLinux to make up for the utter lack of usefulness that is the XP command line.

Here was my oh-my-god moment with the tablet: I had to send a form off to a client the other day, so I took the fax I received in PDF format from my fax-to-email gateway, opened it up in PDF Annotator, wrote my information directly onto the form, saved it, and sent it back. Without the tablet, that process goes print, scribble, scan, email, or print, scribble, walk to Kinko’s. That was so sweet. I really can’t wait to do some design work directly to the screen. It’s that much fun.

When this contract is over, I don’t know what I’ll do. I’ll go back to the Mac for most of my work after this project, but I think I’ll still be using the tablet more or less every day. Most likely, I’ll do all my work (except drawing) on the PowerBook, and all my personal browsing and other playing around on the tablet. I’m working on my work-life separation these days, anyway. (Maybe I’ll even — gasp! — play games.) It’s also the portable media device for the house, especially since it can be flipped and tilted so it looks almost like a TV. In fact, I have a picture of the tablet running live TV via VLC, and I’ll go into some more detail on how I have that hooked up another time.

(Sidebar: the M200 is excessively stickerized. When I took it out of the box, it had stickers for: where to buy accessories; where to buy support; Windows XP; Centrino; nVidia G-Force FX; Wacom; EnergyStar; the XP license key; wireless MAC address; Ethernet MAC address; a Chinese QA approval; two for standards compliance; a battery-recycling warning; an excessive heat warning; two to denote that it’s reconditioned; one that shows the specs; and one warning me not to turn the display in the wrong direction. Too much noise. I’m stripping them one by one.)

Shopping for a mobile

Filed in: consumerism, tech, Mon, Jul 18 2005 22:40 PT

I have reached the limits of my patience with my Nokia 3650 and T-Mobile. In addition to its frequent failure to ring when I’m called (which I understand is actually common on the T-Mobile network), it’s got a nasty habit of shutting itself off for no damned reason whatsoever. So it’s history.

So I’m asking for help with a replacement. My requirements:

Unlimited data plan
The fastest, cheapest plan available. T-Mobile offers 56k for $20/month. Verizon offers ten times that data rate for $45/month. I hear that Cingular is offering its EDGE service under the MEdianet brand for $20/month.
Bluetooth
That includes dialup networking functionality for the data plan above. It appears the biggest struggles with data plans on phones center around operators disabling Bluetooth and dialup networking, so I want to make sure that this is part of the deal.
Flip phone
Since it will go in my pocket, I’d like a flip or a slide. I’m tired of ass-dialing.

So, that’s it. My research has been less than fruitful so far, but it is only day one. Anyone with information to contribute is encouraged to add it below, with my thanks.

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