Monthly Archives: April 2007

The Land of lala

Many of us have a fair-sized collection of CDs, and I am no exception. However, many of those CDs have not been listened to in years. Due to changing tastes, there are even a few that I several that I don’t ever wish to listen to again. Some of these are due to changing tastes, others were purchased back in “The Golden Days of Music”, when there was no way to pre-view a CD, so you bought “blind”, only to find one hit song and nine chunks of no-account “filler”

In bygone years, I have tried shifting some of these CDs by putting them up for sale on eBay, but unless you are dealing with a rarity or something very recent, they tend to go for next to nothing. Once you have paid off eBay and PayPal it almost feels like you have given them away.

All was lost… until I stumbled across some CD Trading Sites The idea is quite simple; you post your collection of CDs that you are interested in trading and set up a “want list” of CDs you would like. If you want a CD that is in someone else’s collection they are notified, and they can browse your collection. If they see something that they like then the trade is on – you simply mail each other the required CDs and post feedback on each other, and the website pockets a small fee.

When I started using Zunafish a few months ago, the site was somewhat sluggish, but they recently upgraded some stuff and things are moving along quite nicely now. Zunafish charges $1 per trade for each partner. Shipping costs about $1.50 per CD and a decent #0 bubblewrap mailer is about $.50 from Wal-Mart. Total cost: About $3 per trade.

While exchanging e-mails with a Zunafish trading partner I heard about two other CD-trading sites, so I thought that I would check them out. One of these – lala – differs from Zunafish in two significant ways.

First of all, you do not “swap” CDs in the classical sense. Lala figured out that the chances that someone who wants one of your CDs has one that you want are slim, so they came up with a different approach. Lala works on a network/credit system. You send out CDs that others want and then a total stranger else sends you one of the CDs that you want. The system keeps track of your “score”, which they refer to as your “Karma” (everybody say “Ommmmmmm”…)

Secondly, Lala provides prepaid packaging. They send you a batch of CD mailers, and charge you 75c for shipping each time you send one out. This is far more convenient than Zunafish, as you don’t have to run around looking for padded bags. It’s also much cheaper, partly because you do not send out the CD cases, just the disk and artwork, which makes for a package that is light, tough and cheap.

To get the ball rolling, Lala takes a leaf out the Drug Dealers’ Playbook – “the first one’s free”. Just post a list of the CDs you want, and before long one of them will be on its way to you. The ball is then in your court; you have to sent away one of yours before you get another one.

Lala’s website is an absolute joy to use. Hover over the image of an album cover and you get a popup that gives you more information. Start typing the name of an artist and the system guesses the artists with clickable links (for the technically-inclined, this sort of technology is called AJAX).

Perhaps the most time-consuming part of using Lala is setting up the list of CDs you want and the list that you have. You can also flag your CDs to show which ones you have cover art for and which ones you want to keep (i.e., you don’t want to trade at the moment).

I like Lala; it gives you everything you need, and nothing you don’t. You pay 75c to ship a CD and $1 to receive one. They bill you monthly. Unlike Zunafish, Lala actually seems to care about their customers. When a Zunafish trade went wrong and a CD arrived mangled (nobody’s fault by the Post Office), Zuna’s website didn’t have anything to say. When I e-mailed them, the reply was unhelpful. Lala has a solution. If the CD is received damaged, lala has a procedure that reports the problem and credits your account.

Lala gets my vote. Now… does anyone want some of those Michael Bolton CDs I seem to be unable to get rid of?

Now Reading: Dark Lord – The Rise of Darth Vader, by James Luceno

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Why Gmail is better

Like many of the Technorati, I have more than one e-mail address. Several, in fact. On the personal side, I have an address with my home ISP (insightbb), a work address with my employer, another address with the client with whom I am currently working on a long-term project.

Out in the virtual world, I have two more addresses for my alter ego; one with Hotmail, and one with Google Mail (Gmail). The last one is the most recent addition, coming into being just over a year ago, when I received an invitation to the then-Beta Gmail a couple of years ago. Since then I have been using it sparingly.

However, recently, I have had reason to take a long, hard look at the various e-mail accounts and compare them.

My personal ISP address is worse than useless; their ability to keep spam out of my inbox is highly suspect. I don’t know how many they keep out, but the other day I had to remove at least a dozen identical spam messages. I don’t know what they are doing to keep spam out; I suspect nothing.

The client and employer addresses are too ephemeral, too subject to change. And the employers are another one who seem unable to stop spam.

Hotmail does a decent job of keeping out undesirable stuff, but some stuff does get through. Ironically the worst spammer on Hotmail is… Microsoft. Not a week goes by when I don’t get some “helpful” e-mail from Gates & Co exhorting me to use X-and-Y new feature, or trying to interest me in their latest flavour-of-the-month offering. And you can’s unsubscribe from those e-mails. When you try, Microsoft insouciantly tells you that the only way to prevent from receiving them is to cancel your Hotmail Account (bloody cheek!). Still, I suppose that’s why they paid $600M+ For Hotmail back in the day. The nice thing about Hotmail is that you can access it from anywhere, but they no longer allow POP (the technology that allows you to download your messages to program like Outlook Express), unless you are a paying Customer.

Like Hotmail, Gmail is web-based, but there the similarities end. Gmail has a revolutionary way of listing your messages; they show them as “conversations”, so an exchange of e-mails are displayed as a conversation thread. Those who have used Usenet Newsgroups or discussion Forums (Fora?) – will be familiar with this.

Gmail was the first e-mail provider to break the 1GB barrier – the others have been playing catch-up ever since – which means that Gmail has become an unofficial backup mechanism. Want a file backed up? Just e-mail it as an attachment to your Gmail account; problem solved. They also support POP – downloading your Gmail to a PDA over wireless internet is way cool – and you can decide whether you want to “copy” messages (leave them in Gmail) or “move” them (and remove them from your Gmail account).

Where Gmail truly hits a home run is with Spam handling. Simply speaking, there isn’t any. I don’t know how they do it, but after over a year of use I have yet to see a spam message in my Gmail inbox.

The only thing that keeps me from adopting Gmail for everything is inertia. However, over the next few months and years I can see myself using it more and more.

Now Reading: Thud, by Terry Pratchett

More Misinformed Drivel

Just read this Interesting Article from Brian Deagon. It’s interesting because there is no because there is no mechanism to post corrections or comments, which is probably just the way a biased writer likes it…

If you haven’t seen the hit movie “300,” you can always catch it for free on the Internet — along with just about any other Hollywood blockbuster.

So Mr Deagon… how many people do you personally know who watched a movie downloaded from the Internet? And how many of those then decided not to watch it in the theater as a result? My guess is zero. Sure it is possible to download a move from the Internet, but that does not mean that it is easy, and it does not mean that it represents a significant monetary loss to Hollywood.

You can also watch any popular TV show — every episode of each season, even from channels not available on your local cable network. It’s all just a few clicks away on your computer.

Err… you know it is completely legal to Videotape TV programs and keep them for as long as you want, right? The Entertainment companies (“BigEnt”) desperately want to destroy Fair use by burying the VCR and wiping out the Analog Hole. So… why is home taping legal but downloading is not? Because BigEnt hates a technology that they cannot control and, to use a word I loathe, monetize. Besides, many of these episodes are legitimately available from the TV companies, whether you have that show on your cable lineup or not, which destroys that part of your argument.

In January, U.S. Internet users viewed 7.2 billion videos online, according to comScore, a digital media measurement firm. The typical viewer watches two online videos a day, averaging 2.6 minutes each. The comScore research did not include videos viewed on P2P networks.

And my watching five minutes of Internet Video a day damages BigEnt’s bottom line how???

The motion picture industry estimates that in 2005 alone it lost $2.3 billion to Internet copyright breaches in the U.S. and $7 billion worldwide, including box-office receipts and video sales.

Sigh… yet another multibillion-dollar loss figure pulled out of thin air. If I spend less on theater tickets it is because there are very few movies that I would pay $5+ to see – I did not see a single movie in the theater in 2006. You’re assumption – that I downloaded them – is simply not true.

The rest of the article is the same old “The-Internet-is-killing-us!!!!!” drivel that we have been hearing from Big Music for the past decade. Guys, the Internet is not the problem; your unwillingness to change is the problem. Everybody else has to deal with downsizing; Hollywood seems to think that they are exempt. Not so.

Just so this is not construed as another meaningless rant, I have a few constructive suggestions:

  1. Tell Jim Carrey et al that you’re not paying them $30M a movie. $5M is more than enough for a few weeks – or even months – of work. It’s not like they’re going to starve, though they may have to sell the beach house in Malibu and slum it like the rest of us…
  2. Making a movie is a gamble; but currently some stars get paid even if the studio pulls the plug. This needs to change – tell the actors they don’t get make money until the studio does.
  3. Last year’s big hit – Pirates of the Caribbean – is a good story, well told. A movie that a Granny and a six-year-old can both enjoy. Concentrate on making movies that the whole family can watch – you’ll get more tickets sold that way. On the other hand, if you decided to load up on sex and violence with side orders of profanity and blasphemy, don’t expect me to pay to watch it.
  4. Lower the price of theater tickets. The best way to do this is to Lower the Studio’s take of Box office receipts.

Don’t make the same mistake that the Music Business are making – suing your customers and throwing your weight around like a four-year-old with a temper tantrum will not win the hearts and minds of your customers.

The Mystery – and Misery – of Gas Prices

Every ten days or so, something mysterious happens in my town. It is as if all the gas stations exchange knowing smiles, rub their hands together… and raise their prices by 15-30 cents.

There is no logical explanation for this phenomenon. It does not restrict itself to any day of the week or hour of the day. It has nothing to do with crude oil prices (gas prices have been known to go up while crude oil is coming down), and it is worse when demand is greater – like Thanksgiving, holiday weekends and whenever the circus comes to town. Apparently these folks are strangers to the phrase “economies of scale”.

It starts with a few gas stations – usually from one particular chain – but within a matter of hours it spreads like a rash to all the other stations, until the entire county has been “readjusted”.

Then one of the gas stations lowers its price by a penny. They call this “competition“.

This starts off the second phase of the cycle. Over the next week-and-a-half, the gas stations slowly lower their prices a few pennies per day, until they decide that we have had enough “cheap” gas… then the vicious cycle starts all over again. I have no idea why the gas in the underground storage tanks is suddenly worth 25c/gal more, but there you are.

I am a big fan of the free market. However, I am also enough of a realist to understand that corporations do not like to compete, and will resist competition whenever possible. In many markets (such as computer hardware) they have no choice… but when the market is dominated by a small number of big players (like software, music, entertainment, phone service, internet service… and oil), the rules of the free market no longer apply.

I am sure that the oil companies are competing hard. So hard in fact, that in any given quarter, at least one of them will post losses; for that is the nature of the free market – winners and losers. I am sure that Oil company CEOs will swear on a stack of bibles that they are abiding by the rules of the market and are not doing anything untoward. I am equally sure that if you asked a dozen ordinary people – also known as a jury – if the oil companies were rigging the market, the answer would be convincingly – if not unanimously – guilty.

So what can we, the people, do to keep them honest? I have some suggestions that might help.

  • Restrict one-day price movements. Prices rarely come down by more than 5c/day, so why the 25c/gal spike? Simple: Because they can. Restrict price movements to ONE adjustment per day of no more than 5c/gal. An alternative is to allow them to set prices however they wish, but only when they get a delivery – once a week.
  • Finally, make it illegal for a gas station to refuse to give their price when requested by phone. This would force a station to compete with all stations in the area, rather than just the one across the road.

Simple spot fines would be quite sufficient to enforce this law, and receipts are more than sufficient proof.

Of course, the oil companies would kick, scream, resist… and lobby like crazy to overturn such a law.
And the Government will tell them “NO”.
And like a kid who wants ice-cream, they will keep begging, cajoling and wheedling.
And the government will reply with the threat of regulation.

It seems to me that there is nothing that instills fear and loathing in oil companies like the threat of oversight and regulation. Every time this threat appears on the horizon, they apply the brakes, like speeding motorists who see a policeman in the distance. Time after time, the price of gas has come down dramatically whenever they have been faced with the specter of Government-level investigation.

This is not as ridiculous as it sounds. The five basic necessities are food, shelter, clothing, bills and transportation. For many, transportation=gasoline. Food, drinking water, electricity, and phone service are  all regulated, so there is a good reason to at least consider it. Without gasoline, many of us are unable to get to work and thereby produce those taxes that our Government requires to do its job. I therefore submit that there is a problem here, and it is time to do something about it.