Archive for December, 2009
Building on the book theme from yesterday, we turn to this post from Megan McArdle at Asymmetrical Information. She relates a story about the American Booksellers Association, which is upset at Amazon, Target and Wal-Mart for selling us books too cheaply:
Wal-Mart announced that it would offer Walmart.com customers . . . the chance to buy the books in hardcover editions for just $10. Typically new hardcovers sell for $25 to $35, although some discounting is common. Amazon.com quickly matched Wal-Mart’s pre-order price on the same books.
Wal-Mart then lowered the price to $9, and Amazon followed suit. By late Friday afternoon Wal-Mart had cut another penny off the price. On Monday, Target entered the fray by offering six of the preorder titles on Target.com for $8.99. By Tuesday Wal-Mart had lowered the price on those titles to $8.98.
The association . . . accused the retailers of “devaluing the very concept of the book” and effectively selling the books at a loss in an “attempt to win control of the market for hardcover best sellers.” Retailers typically pay publishers a wholesale price of half the list price of a hardcover book — so on a $35 hardcover, the retailer pays $17.50, meaning that it loses money on a $9 consumer price.
Now, the story of the big chain taking over the Mom & Pop store is so common that Tom Hanks made his movie about it more than a decade ago. But that story usually relates to the big chain undercutting the small store by selling products at razor-thin margins, making its profits on high volume, and reducing overhead by deprioritizing customer service and amortizing its fixed costs (e.g., its employees, its rent) over a much wider customer base.
This time, it’s different. The big chains are offering these discounts on their websites. And they’re selling these books as loss leaders, in hopes that when people click over to buy their $8.98 book, they’ll throw another, more profitable item in their electronic shopping cart as well. The advantage Amazon, Target and Wal-Mart have here is the variety of products they offer and their high-value brand names that drives a lot of traffic to their web sites. Small booksellers could also choose to lose money on certain books by selling them for $8.98, but they’d run a greater risk that people would buy only those books, leaving them with a loss, rather than a profit, on the sale.
My question is this: in the online model, where customer service is mostly self-serve and Google searches, is this a good thing or a bad thing? Yes, the Kathleen Kelly‘s of the world may be forced out of business by these tactics, but then again, isn’t it the Kathleen Kelly’s of the world who would appreciate the chance to pick up the newest hot novel for $8.98, rather than $30? We may be putting the “little guy” bookseller out of business, but are we not providing the “little guy” consumer with equal quality merchandise at a much lower cost? Have we finally jumped off the cliff where the small, specialty shop isn’t so much “under attack” by the big chain, but has become a dying industry because it’s no longer the best way to serve the customer?
That’s your socio-economic question of the day. Discuss…
I realize that this probably would have been more useful before Christmas, but I’ve been using the Amazon Kindle for about a month now, and I’ve finally found the time to write up a review. So, if you didn’t get one for Christmas and you’ve got stuff to return at Amazon, maybe this will help you out.
One sentence: The Amazon Kindle is surprisingly good at what it does, but surprisingly stubborn in its desire to only do that one thing.
More than one sentence: When I read a book on the Amazon Kindle, I quite often forget that I’m not reading a real book, sometimes to the point where I reach for the upper-right corner of the page to turn it, rather than pushing the “Next Page” button. Reasons for this include screen resolution, form factor and simple design.
Now that Christmas is over, New York’s gearing up for the big party of the year:
Here’s hoping you’re someplace warm this New Year’s Eve. I know I will be (even at a distance of 30 miles, I’d still rather watch the ball fall on television…)
OK, quick Christmas quiz: when you see a guy on the streets of New York dressed up like a popular children’s character, carrying a bag that says “Tips,” and harassing tourist families for money, what’s the first word that comes to mind?
I used to do this monthly, but eventually slacked off. So, to make up for it, I’ve culled through the 5,930 different queries that brought people here this year, and pulled out my favorite 50. I even divided them into categories for your reading pleasure…
1) The Financial Funnies
Since this year was all about the collapsing financial markets, I thought I’d start with some “money funnies…” (sorry, but you might as well be warned, it’s going to be that kind of blog post…):
|dick fuld astrological birth chart||This guy has a different theory on why Lehman Brothers went out of business…|
|harvard man washes urinals||And you thought the recession was over…|
|how do i hack into the swift network||Well, you start by being a little more subtle than Googling around for directions…|
|time magizine people who caused banking||I think I’ve narrowed it down to two possibilities: bankers and customers.|
2) Hi-Tech Hijinks
When you write about technology once in a while, you’re bound to get a few Google glitches:
|capslock-sleeping||i’d use proper capitalization, but my caps-lock key is taking a nap right now…|
|cool things to do with camera||OK – other than, you know, taking pictures – I’m struggling to think of a second thing you can do with a camera…|
|digital camera for idiots||Perhaps we just shouldn’t let them take pictures. Then there’d be no need for this product…|
|excel macro to create family tree||Click here for more cousins…|
|how do i hook up an ethernet cable to the phone line||Those are both wires. I think, perhaps, you should go ask your teenage kids for help.|
|i phone bursting into flames||You do? I hope you’re calling 9-1-1…|
|iphone nose||Want to stop and smell the roses? There’s an app for that!|
|why won’t it let me on webkinz? it says my password is wrong||I think perhaps this guy has already found the answer to his question…|
3) Hollywood Hilarity
The world of entertainment is never a bad source for, well, entertaining queries:
|disney koolaid||You know, it’s one thing to drink the Disney Kool-Aid. It’s quite another to Google around looking for it…|
|disney wonder bathroom fragrance||For people who want their bathrooms to smell like a Disney cruise ship (see Kool-Aid, Disney above).|
|simon cowell and mel gibson look alike||Top result of this search: No. No, they don’t. (Editor’s Note: Sadly, not true)|
|tiger woods facial recognition||Heh…this query probably meant something totally different earlier in the year than it means today.|
|upgrade r2-d2 to bluray||“You must see this droid safely delivered to him on Alderaan. This is our most desperate hour. Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi; you’re my only hope. Also, if you could upgrade him to blu-ray, that’d be great. Thanks!”|
|what space shuttle was honored by its use of its name in a star trek movie||OK, if you’re thinking “Enterprise,” then I’m sorry to inform you that the shuttle was named for the Star Trek ship, not the other way around…|
4) Musical Mirth
This year, several of the more musical queries managed to hit a wrong note or two:
|a song about graphs||“Because you’re mine. . . . I draw a line.” Or perhaps: “You’re just too good to be true; can’t take my pies off of you.”|
|billy joel just the way you are analyzed||It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday, the patient lies down on the couch….|
|does billy joel’s piano have a teleprompter||Yes, yes it does. Billy Joel’s piano almost never speaks without a script.|
|good night my angle bill joel||“Goodnight my angle?” Would this be “acute” lyric? Or am I being obtuse?|
|sleeping rapping||Another truly disturbing sleep disorder. I mean, if having two turntables in the bed isn’t disturbing enough, there’s all that noise…|
|whats the name of the song that goes la de da de dum on verizon phone||Jeez, I hope they spelled those lyrics correctly. Typos can really negatively affect search results…|
5) Isn’t That Ironic?
These were the best of the worst (or something like that):
|best bad food||But if it’s bad food, then how can it be – oh, nevermind…|
|best error message ever||“Your formula contains an error.” Oh, man – that’s a classic. Sometimes I type in wrong formulas on purpose, just to see it…|
|narcissistic blogs||On the one hand, it’s a bit of an insult that this query led to my blog. On the other hand, the person was looking for it…|
|new york rangers stadium phone number||You might want to try Googling Madison Square Garden. Also known as the “World’s Most Famous Arena.” Perhaps they should get a different nickname?|
6) Sleeping Around
With a name like I Should Be Sleeping, people are going to ask questions:
|i am sleeping all my life||Sleep Googling – a dangerous affliction…|
|pitchers of people sleeping||Because once you’re ordering four or five sleeping people, it’s just easier to get a pitcher…|
|violation of sleeping rights||“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of a really good nap.”|
7) Stupid Criminals
A couple of people broke the laws of common-sense Googling this year:
|a picture you killed abraham lincoln||This person apparently believes someone is going to confess to the crime…|
|does light dissuade criminals||Local police chief does internet research on his latest crime prevention program: daylight.|
8) Funny . . . or maybe a little scary?
These queries were more disturbing than anything else:
|air force bloopers||“Hey – remember that time when Johnson flew all the way across the Atlantic with his blinker on? That was heee-larious!”|
|birthday tricks on people like flamingos in the yard||This guy sounds like quite the prankster…|
|boys hugging house||I know Dorothy said “There’s no place like home,” but this is a bit much, don’t you think?|
|can i get sick from touching a geico||Well, if you could, I’m guessing they’d offer health insurance too. Perhaps you meant “gecko?”|
|highway blogging||The precursor to texting while driving…|
|what’s wrong with anti semitism?||Oh, lord – please let there be more results for this than the one about the bear doing the moon walk (Editor’s Note: 531,000 – proof that some sanity still exists in the world).|
|zombies funny||Oh, yeah – zombies are hilarious. They really kill at the local comedy clubs. (Editor’s Note: sorry…)|
9) Generic Google Guffaws
These were so weird, I couldn’t even categorize them:
|how many f’s are in this sentence||Now we’re asking Google brain teasers? Did he actually expect an answer?|
|man in bear suit doing moon walk||Oh, lord – please let there be, at most, one result for this search. (Editor’s Note: 47,200…)|
|roughly 25% of us use two of these a day what are they?||Again with the trivia? New from Google Labs in 2010: Google Guesses. Give it a riddle, and it tires to guess the answer. Most common result: “Who’s There?”|
|art turkeys||Most popular search result: Vincent Van Gobble…|
|president electoral vote of 1014-62||Well, given that there’s only 538 of them, one can only hope this search produces zero results. (Editor’s Note: 9)|
10) A Dirty Mind
And then there’s the porn. Well, not exactly porn, but people who go looking for, shall we say, adult entertainment online, and wind up at my site somehow. Each time I do this, I take solace in the fact that when they got here, I can be pretty sure they were disappointed:
|and he’s talking to davy who’s still in the navy +homo||Oh, come on – it says right there they were just talking…|
|bathing no close||Also known as “bathing far away?” I don’t think this person Googled what he he Googled…|
|excel macro suggestive||Porn industry continues to innovate. New this year: suggestive macros. “Hey, big boy, click on this button and I’ll fill your column with numbers, if you know what I mean…”|
|why are there two people making out on my bed when i should be sleeping||I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that maybe it’s not your bed…|
|how to photograph your naked wife||Tip #1: get off of Google and talk to her about it…|
Well, there it is: my top 50 queries of 2009. Quite a year, huh?
My older son, Avery, asked me two interesting questions about Christmas the other day. I’ll remind you that we’re Jewish and don’t celebrate Christmas religiously, although he does have a lot of Christian friends.
Q1) Daddy, what does Santa Claus bringing presents to kids have to do with the birth of Jesus?
My answer: Nothing at all, Avery. Nothing at all. They are two completely separate parts of the Christmas holiday. And oh, by the way – excellent question.
Q2) Daddy, do YOU think Santa Claus is real?
My answer: first, I made him read this world-famous New York Sun editorial from 1897. In it, editor Francis Pharcellus Church writes:
Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus.
You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see.
Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding. No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.
The language is a little esoteric for a 9-year old, but it led to an interesting discussion. I asked him if he thought feelings like love and happiness were real. He said yes, of course, so I asked him how he knew, given that he’d never seen either of them. He essentially said, “I just know.” And so, I explained, that billions of people all over the world give presents to their friends and families at Christmas time, and have done so for hundreds, if not thousands of years. And the feeling that makes all of those people do this is Santa Claus.
Interestingly, he asked me if parents bought their kids gifts at Christmas time during The Great Depression. I pointed him to the history of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, which he has seen lit several times. The first tree in Rockefeller Center was erected in 1931, during the heart of the Great Depression. It was decorated with cranberries, paper garland and tin cans – all items that could be found readily at hand without spending much money. Avery concluded that Santa Claus made the workers put up the tree, so people would feel good during the holidays, even during the Depression.
I realize this is not the high-pressure question that it would be for a Christian family, but I feel pretty good about the conversation, and I think that Avery (and his younger brother, Brandon, who was listening to the whole thing) understand it pretty well now.
It seems that country singing superstar Carrie Underwood is engaged to marry the NHL’s Ottowa Senators’ Mike Fisher. Which, in the extremely unlikely event that she chose to change her world-famous name, would make her Carrie Fisher.
Attention 40-something year-old men: you may now commence picturing Carrie Underwood in a metal bikini. That is all…
Those who follow Sarah Palin (either with amusement or disdain) may have heard that at a recent book signing in Minneapolis, a man threw two tomatoes at her from a second floor balcony.
So when she showed up at a Costco in Salt Lake City, the store manager took steps to prevent another drive-by fruiting:
While going through the check-out lane, again with no wait, [Helen Rappaport] told the clerk she forgot to get some grape tomatoes, which she loves, so she would be right back. That’s when the bells went off. The clerk told her they had no tomatoes that day. No tomatoes? At Costco?
As she was leaving, she noticed a man with a store manager’s name tag and asked him why they had no tomatoes. He informed her the store did have tomatoes, but they were taken off the shelves for a few hours. It turns out that Palin had been pelted with a tomato at an earlier stop on her book tour and the management at the Costco was determined it wouldn’t happen here. The manager told an employee to go into the storage area and get Rappaport some tomatoes, which he gave her for free.
The Costco store manager believes, apparently, that someone out there had decided to throw things at Sarah Palin when she visited the local Costco, went to Costco empty-handed, proceeded immediately to the tomato aisle, saw there were no tomatoes available, and then decided to give up and go home, rather than, you know, throwing something else at her.
Score one for the ingenuity and quick action of the Salt Lake Costco manager…
Scientists have unlocked the entire genetic code of two of the most common cancers – skin and lung – a move they say could revolutionise cancer care. Not only will the cancer maps pave the way for blood tests to spot tumours far earlier, they will also yield new drug targets, says the Wellcome Trust team.
Scientists around the globe are now working to catalogue all the genes that go wrong in many types of human cancer. The UK is looking at breast cancer, Japan at liver and India at mouth. China is studying stomach cancer, and the US is looking at cancers of the brain, ovary and pancreas.
Basically, this redefines cancer from a disease to a series of genetic mutations, each of which can be studied, prevented, treated, or cured. Skin cancer (melanoma) is a combination of 30,000 “errors” in the DNA of the cancerous cells which are not present in the healthy cells. Lung cancer is a series of 23,000 errors. So now, we not only know that sun exposure causes skin cancer and smoking causes lung cancer, but we know why and how they cause it.
I found this particularly eye-opening:
The experts estimate a typical smoker acquires one new mutation for every 15 cigarettes they smoke. Although many of these mutations will be harmless, some will trigger cancer.
Wellcome Trust researcher Dr Peter Campbell, who conducted this research, published in the journal Nature, said: “It’s like playing Russian roulette. Most of the time the mutations will land in innocent parts of the genome, but some will hit the right targets for cancer.”
By quitting smoking, people could reduce their cancer risk back down to “normal” with time, he said. The suspicion is lung cells containing mutations are eventually replaced with new ones free of genetic errors.
So, if you’re incredibly unlucky (meaning every genetic mutation you cause by smoking contributes to lung cancer), then you’ll have cancerous cells in your lungs after 1,534 cigarettes. Or, at a pack per day, in about 77 days. If only one mutation in ten hits the cancer jackpot, then you’ve got 767 days, or just over two years. After that, you’re counting on your body to produce healthy, “error-free” cells at an equal or faster rate than the cancer cells die. Too many cancer cells, and they’ll survive long enough to multiply faster than the healthy cells, at which point, you’ve got yourself a tumor.
Then again, now that we know which genetic defects are at fault, we could invent the medication that prevents the defect (or corrects it, or kills cells that contain it, etc.), effectively providing the “cigarette antidote.” Think of it – a pill that comes in every pack of cigarettes. When you finish the pack, swallow this. Problem solved.
The same applies, of course, to cancers that are contracted through less voluntary means. Targeted treatment against specific defects will redefine our definitions of treatment, side effects, and research priorities. Dr. Michael Stratton, of the Wellcome Trust team, calls it a “fundamental moment in cancer research:”
Business Insider has published a list of the twenty-one things that have become obsolete during the 00′s. Unfortunately, it’s one of those sites that tries to increase their ad revenue by making you click twenty-one times to see the whole list (like advertisers don’t understand that it’s not twenty-one people seeing their ad, but the same person ignoring it over & over again? But, I digress). Anyway, since I’m technologically opposed to that sort of thing, here’s the full list (with links back to their pages in case you want to read the text behind each one). You’ll note that this list of twenty-one things has twenty-two items on it (a bonus item? Seriously? Sheesh…)
- PDA’s: Specifically, PDA’s that need a stylus, like the old Palm Pilot
- E-mail accounts you have to pay for: as storage got cheaper, e-mail accounts became free
- Dial-Up: the sound of a modem connecting to another modem has become relegated to War Games and movies like it.
- Getting Film Developed: Remember the old Fotomat booths in the shopping center parking lots? No more…
- Movie Rental Stores: Say goodbye to your local Blockbuster’s, if you still can, and sign-up for your Netflix account (or just use your TV provider’s On-Demand channel). Also obsolete: late fees.
- Maps: With GPS devices and Google Maps-enabled phones, why figure out how to fold (and un-fold) a map?
- Newspaper Classified Ads: Thank you, Craig Newmark.
- Landline Phones: When your cellphone works anywhere, why have a phone that plugs into your house? I’m not sure this one is gone for good yet, but it’s certainly getting there.
- Per-Minute Long Distance Charges: like storage (above), this got cheaper and cheaper until it became free. Most people pay a flat rate per month now, and VOIP is chasing that into oblivion too…
- Public Pay Phones: This one’s for you, Bennion. Again, when your cellphone works anywhere, why have a phone that plugs into a closet on a street corner?
- VCR’s: Even DVD’s are going away, now that Blu-Ray has won the day. The VCR has officially gone the way of the Betamax machine.
- Fax Machines: If anyone’s even sending faxes anymore, they’re winding up in e-mail boxes, not paper trays.
- Phonebooks, Dictionaries & Encyclopedias: What used to take up shelves, now takes up hard drive space. And now it’s searchable! Also becoming obsolete: the need to remember the order of the letters in the alphabet.
- Calling 411 for Information: My kids don’t even know about this! Phone numbers come from Google or some more specific search engine now…
- Music CD’s: Gone are the days of buying eight songs you don’t like to hear the two that you do like…
- Backing Up Data to Floppies & CD’s: This one’s a bit unfair, since it was both created and obsolesced this decade, but it’s true – backups go on external hard drives or UBS thumbnail drives now. It doesn’t save as much shelf space as the encyclopedias, but it still helps…
- Getting Bills in the Mail: or, for that matter, sending checks back to pay them. I honestly don’t know how much a stamp costs these days.
- Buttons on Electronic Devices: Touchscreens have brought us into the Minority Report world.
- Losing Touch with People: Thanks to Facebook and Twitter, we’re in touch with everyone we ever knew. Or ever will know…
- Personal Boundaries: also gone, thanks to Facebook and Twitter. Of course, I think this is more about us learning how to better use these tools than anything else. No one’s forcing you to post that picture of yourself dancing on the tables at the bar last night, ya’ know…
- Paper: It’s true. While everyone’s screaming about saving the environment, we’ve managed to eliminate a great deal of the paper in our lives, and it’s becoming moreso every day….
- Record Stores: Like the movies, people no longer need to go somewhere else to get their music. It comes to them…
A pretty good list, I think. Your turn to chime in – what did they leave off the list?