Archive for the 'Opinion' Category

July 22nd, 2007

Striking a Nerve

Since I announced that we’d moved to France (both on this blog and on Interesting Thing of the Day), I’ve received lots and lots of feedback—some in comments, but most by email. The vast majority of people who have written have been enthusiastic that we’re doing something we really want to do; more than a few people have said they would love to do something similar.

But today, I got two messages, from two different senders (neither of them known to me), along the same lines:

Message 1:

Enjoy France, That is just enough information for me to remove you from my homepage. I do not have any love for France.

Message 2:

I liked this better before I learned you had bailed the good old U.S. of A. and fled to subversive France.

I would like to be understanding, sympathetic, conciliatory. But…seriously? You honestly mean to say that you liked me, or at least my writing, until you found out that I’m living in France—and that alone is a complete deal-breaker? Really? Every single person who steps within the borders of France, for any reason, is anathema to you? It boggles my mind.

I can only guess what’s prompting these comments. My supposition is that they’re from people who are unhappy about France’s military nonparticipation in the Middle East conflicts. People who, in protest, (still) eat Freedom Fries. I don’t know this to be the case, but it seems likely.

If my guess is correct, and if that’s the only rationale behind these comments, then I feel even sadder about the quality of education in the United States than I did before, because clearly some basic facts about France haven’t gotten through. Politically speaking, France is considerably more conservative, on the whole, than the U.S.—and it just elected a very conservative president who’s a big fan of George W. Bush. There’s also much more popular support for the military here than in the States. (On the other hand, there’s also (at least here in Paris) vastly more acceptance of people with other cultural backgrounds, especially people from Muslim countries.)

Those important facts aside, the whole notion of saying that because a country’s political leaders made certain decisions, the whole country is bad (or good) is incomprehensible to me. The United States has millions of patriotic, flag-waving Democrats who have disagreed with pretty much everything Bush has done but still love their country, and France, too, has plenty of citizens whose views on war differ from those of their leaders. How anyone can paint an entire country—tens or hundreds of millions of people—with the same brush is beyond me.

So, for the record, my moving to France has nothing whatsoever to do with my political views about either country. Good bread is good bread, regardless of who you do or don’t want to shoot.

February 28th, 2007

Bandwagon Undo and Redo

So you know that whole Bandwagon launch thing that was supposed to happen last week? Well, funny story. The newly launched service lasted all of a couple of days before it was taken offline; it’s now being completely retooled for yet another grand opening in April.

As near as I can determine, what happened was approximately this: A surprisingly large number of people signed up right away for the all-the-iTunes-you-can-back-up-online service at $69 per year. But most of those people had far greater iTunes storage needs than even the company’s most generous estimates. The Bandwagon folks did the math and discovered that they couldn’t possibly afford all the necessary storage space, CPU power, and bandwidth—they’d actually be losing money on the service. So they stopped accepting new subscribers, told the existing subscribers that they’d be getting their money refunded, and announced that a very different version of Bandwagon will go online in a couple of months. The early adopters, having already received a refund, will also get a free year’s worth of service on the new system for their troubles.

So what is this new and improved Bandwagon? You’ll still be backing up your iTunes stuff online. But now, instead of storing it on Bandwagon’s servers, you’ll be storing it on Amazon’s S3 (Simple Storage Service), which is some of the cheapest online storage you can get. You’ll pay Amazon.com directly for the storage space, and you’ll pay Bandwagon either $24 or $36 per year for, apparently, the use of their application. (At the higher price you also get syncing between two Macs, though I’m unsure of the details at this point.) Once again, Bandwagon is offering a discount (half off) for people who sign up before the official launch; you can read about that on the Bandwagon site. And once again, they’re offering an incentive to bloggers, but this time they’re looking for help with beta testing more than publicity, and those who provide helpful bug reports will get a six-month subscription free.

Now, I’ve been hoping for some time that some Mac backup app would directly support S3, so that’s cool. But the fact that it’s limited to iTunes content is a big minus. Also, and I’ve told the Bandwagon folks this more than once, their new pricing structure is a bad idea. They’re effectively asking you to rent their software. Since you’re no longer backing up to their servers, you’re not paying them for a service as such. I can’t comprehend why they don’t do what every other software company does and simply sell licenses to their software. They could charge much more than $36, and even come out with paid upgrades every year or two, so they’d be making more money. But their customers wouldn’t have to feel like they’re renting software by the month, and they wouldn’t have to make recurring payments to both Bandwagon and S3.

There’s another issue, too: S3 in its current form is still pretty much for geeks. Signing up for, and configuring, and account is somewhat complex. And it’s an extra step (or several) that each Bandwagon user must now go through. Bandwagon says they’ll also support other varieties of online storage in the future, but details are sketchy at the moment.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a less competent product launch, and I’ve seen some doozies. When you’re launching a backup service, you want to instill confidence in your customers, including confidence that you’ve done your homework and have a solid business plan. Launching, unlaunching, retooling, and relaunching doesn’t give me warm fuzzies. The pricing is weird and unfortunate. And the service is unnecessarily limited. But perhaps that’ll all change—maybe several times—before the next launch.

February 28th, 2007

Space Pens with Purple Ink: A Sad Tale

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article for Interesting Thing of the Day about Fisher Space Pens, those wonders of modern technology that can write upside-down, in zero gravity, in a vacuum, or underwater. I mentioned my happy discovery that Space Pen refills were available in purple, my favorite color. A few months later, Fisher sent me a prototype of a new pen model for testing, including a purple refill. And I was cautiously optimistic that I’d discovered the ultimate pen for my needs.

I was reminded of all this when writing my article about Non-Newtonian Fluids, because the thixotropic ink in Space Pens happens to be such a fluid. And I thought it was high time I posted a follow-up about my purple-ink Space Pen experience, because it turned out to be an unhappy one.

Whatever else you can say about Space Pens, I discovered that those with purple ink have one huge and unforgivable flaw: the ink isn’t waterproof. Sure, you can write on greasy paper in a snowstorm, but if you later try to read what you wrote, you might have problems.

To illustrate, I took an index card and wrote on it in both black and purple Space Pen ink, and then dunked it in room-temperature water for 30 seconds. Only the lower half of the writing was submerged, and I think you can see pretty clearly what happened (click the photos for larger versions):

Smeary_Space_Pen.jpeg

The black ink bled a bit, but the purple bled a lot. I actually discovered this when a piece of paper in my pocket, inscribed with the purple ink, got a bit damp from sweat. And it turns out that it’s just as bad as I feared.

But wait: aren’t you supposed to be able to write underwater with these pens? I tried that too, and the results were interesting:

Underwater_Space_Pen.jpeg

As you can see, the purple again runs much more than the black. A half hour later, the purple ink had faded to a very light, almost illegible hue, while the black (though very slightly runny) was still nice and dark.

So now, if I want the Space Pen benefits, I have to choose which trade-off I prefer: ink color or smeariness. Ack. I don’t know whether the same problem affects the other colors of Space Pen ink (there are quite a few), but I do know that in at least this respect, the pens don’t live up to their advertising.

On a cheerier and somewhat related note, have a look at 8 YouTube Videos Featuring Non-Newtonian Fluid Experiments at SenseList, none of which involves Space Pens.

October 9th, 2006

The price of a Wired gift subscription

I have subscribed to Wired Magazine continuously since 1995 (it was first published in 1993). During that time, I’ve seen the cost of subscriptions rise and fall, and I’ve gladly and unflinchingly paid whatever it cost (even back when I was living in Canada and international delivery was extra). It’s a fine magazine, and I’m happy to give Condé Nast my money for it.

Wired gift renewal noticeA couple of years ago, I decided to share the love by buying a relative a gift subscription. Of course, that also means each year I get a reminder to renew the gift subscription. This year, I’ve received (so far) three such reminders by postal mail (the first in August and the most recent a couple of days ago), plus one reminder by email (arrived last week). All of them have said exactly the same thing: I’m being offered a “special” rate of $12 to renew the gift subscription.

In the postal version (click thumbnail to read), it says:

Special Gift Rate: only $1 an issue

and

Lock in your $1-per-issue gift rate now

and

Renew…at the lowest gift renewal rate—just $1 an issue

In the email version, it says:

…renew…before the holidays at a special holiday rate.

When I click the link, it takes me to a Web page that says “Renew your gifts now! All gifts only $12.”

Now here’s the thing. Regular subscriptions to Wired cost $10. That’s what their Web site says, and it’s also what’s on all the little cards that fall out of the magazine when I open it. Furthermore, the same site says that gift subscriptions also cost $10. And yet, renewing a gift subscription somehow costs 20% more. The “special holiday rate” is higher than the normal rate!

How is it that a new subscription (or a new gift subscription) costs one price, but renewing a gift subscription costs more? In my opinion, this is not merely wrong but downright slimy: taking advantage of people who are presumably Wired’s best and most loyal customers (those who buy subscriptions for other people) by expecting them to pay more for renewing subscriptions, when they could buy new gift subscriptions for the same people at a lower price!

Let me be clear: I’m not saying $12 is too much for Wired. Honestly, it would be a bargain at $24. And all things being equal, $2 is a pretty trivial amount of money to quibble over. But that’s just what infuriates me: Condé Nast knows that a $2 delta is too small for anyone to waste their time complaining about, and that by sliding that in, they can earn a few easy bucks. (To add insult to injury, the notices generously offer to let me renew my own Wired subscription at the same “special” rate!)

So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to return one of the renewal notices in its postage-paid envelope with a check for $10, a copy of this blog post, and a short, polite letter saying that I object to this practice and ask that they quit charging more for gift subscription renewals than for any other subscription. I’ll also reply to the email with basically the same letter and this URL. We’ll see what happens—and I’ll update this page if I learn anything interesting.

My educated guess: they’ll renew the gift subscription for $10 without saying anything further, and next year, I’ll once again get a series of $12 renewal notices.

Update #1 (10/11/2006): I received the following form-letter reply to my email message:

Our basic rate for one year is $24.00.

Thank you for contacting us concerning a lower subscription price that you have recently seen. We have many different offers to attract new subscribers. These offers can also be available to you. Please respond with your special offer information and we will be happy to enter your subscription.

If you should need further assistance, please be sure to include all previous e-mail correspondence.

Thank you for subscribing to Wired.

Sincerely,

[name redacted]

Yes, of course…I understand all that. But I object to it. Everyone knows (don’t they?) that it’s cheaper to keep a customer than to get a new customer. People who willingly pay for your product again and again are among a company’s most valuable assets. You do not want to make these people unhappy. And charging them more for your product than you charge people with whom you have no business relationship is an unwise tactic. I realize, too, that Condé Nast is hardly the only company doing this—banks, for example, are notorious for this kind of thing. I’m arguing that companies would actually benefit themselves financially by considering their customers’ feelings. An odd concept, I know.

The form letter as much as said that they’ll honor a lower price if someone complains. Why should I have to complain, though? Why not simply offer repeat customers the same rate as new customers? You’ll lose a few (very few) dollars now, but you’ll gain goodwill—and that pays significant dividends later on. It’s also good karma.

Update #2 (10/13/2006): In reply to my response to the last email message:

Your paid renewal has not yet been received.

Please accept our sincere apologies concerning the various subscription rates. As an existing subscriber, you may always take advantage of any better offer you may see directly from Wired.

Your comments are being forwarded on to our home office for consideration.

If you should need further assistance, please be sure to include all previous e-mail correspondence.

Thank you for subscribing to Wired.

Not to beat a dead horse, but if subscribers may always take advantage of any better offer, isn’t it misleading not to make them the best offer in the first place?

Update #3 (11/01/2006): Just as I predicted, I received the standard thank-you notice by mail, confirming that my gift subscription order has been placed (“Total Due: PAID”). Inside the envelope was a gift postcard I can send to the recipient (which seems sort of silly, considering that it’s a renewal). But this was a computer-generated mailing, and no personal reply to my letter was included. We’ll see what happens next year when the subscription is up for renewal again, but my crystal ball tells me it will be the same thing.

Update #4 (11/02/2006): I guess I spoke too soon. A day after receiving my “thank-you” notice, I got yet another “don’t forget to renew your gift subscription” reminder in the mail—my fourth or fifth now, I’ve lost track. Their timing is impeccable.