Monthly Archives: July 2008

Sabbath Thoughts

My Sundays are very special to me, and I guard them jealously.

I was raised in a culture where most shops were closed on Sundays, and those that were open had restrictions on what they could sell – for instance, the newsagents could sell sweets and newspapers but not cigarettes. The pubs (Bars) were open, but the off-licenses (Liquor Stores) were not. Supermarkets could sell food but not alcohol. The list was tortuous at best.

Things have changed; on my last visit to England I was appalled to find that the “Sunday trading” laws had been repealed and all stores where selling everything, seven days a week. What a shame.

Over here, of course, we have had a seven-day culture for quite some time, which is also a shame. Perhaps the most startling change of all is that many of the Christian Businesses (such as Christian bookstores) have recently started opening on Sunday, which seems like seven shades of wrong to me. Perhaps they are more concerned with the “Business” part than with the “Christian” part.

I do not believe that human beings were designed to go flat out seven days a week – and scientists agree. But how do you define rest, and what kind of rest do we need?

It is not a religious issue, though most major religions have some kind of day of rest It is not a legislative issue either – you cannot force people to take one day off a week, even if it is for their own good – particularly if they work in a vital service (imagine if the E.R. closed on Sundays!) or need the money. Nor can you easily decide what business may or may not be decided on the Sabbath.

As for me, the only point of reference I have is the Bible – and it has some surprises in store for us.

For instance, the first time the Sabbath is mentioned is in Exodus 16:23 – before the Ten Commandments were given – where it says “Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD…” (ESV).

Moving on to the Ten Commandments, all we have to go on is “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it Holy”. The Levites then came up with more than six hundred ways to break the Sabbath… but that’s a whole ‘nother story.

Let see now… the word “Holy” means “set apart”, and the word “sabbath” comes from shabbat, which means “rest”. So what do we have? A day of rest that is to be set apart from other days. Oh, and there is no mention of which day it should be. It seems that the interpretation of this commandment is left to us – and that is what makes it so hard.

What is surprising – and what most people miss – is that there is no mention of church or worship. This is why I take exception to the Ten Western Commandments’ “Git yerself to Sunday Meetin‘”; it gives a false impression, as well as being scripturally inaccurate.

I’ll say it again, just to be clear: The Sabbath is not about church! For most of us, there is nothing wrong in combining the two, but it is worth noting that many Preachers take Monday off as a Sabbath; for many of them Sunday is the toughest day of the week!

So what is this Sabbath thing and why do we need it? The vast majority of the people in the world never take a vacation, and seem to do well enough without it; the concept of “Vacation” (along with “Retirement” and “Health Insurance”) seems to be a Western invention. Yet I have found that taking one day off each week helps to remove the need for a vacation, and perhaps that is the idea – treat the Sabbath as a mini-vacation; a little time off from the push and pull of our culture. Jesus concurred “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27 ESV).

For me that means staying away from the workaday (messing around with computers, blogging, yard work) and doing the things that enrich my spirit (reading, writing, playing the piano). We have agreed that as a rule we will not shop or eat out on the Sabbath; not because they are on a “Thou-Shalt-Not” list, but because in doing so we are encouraging shops and supermarkets to open on Sunday, and thus forcing their staff to break the Sabbath.

There are two areas I am unsure about:

  1. Watching TV (we watch very little during the week, but our standards for Sunday viewing tend to eliminate most of the dross that passes for “entertainment” these days – we are currently watching our way through all five series of Babylon 5 on DVD)
  2. Playing computer games (since I never find time any other day, this would be logical for the Sabbath, but I’m not sure it is good for me).

Another thing that we try to do is to have the Sabbath start on Saturday evening. While this seems odd given the importance of Saturday night to our culture, it is based on the premise that by Sunday evening most of us have our heads in “Monday” mode (either in anticipation or dread), so the Sabbath needs to start twenty-four hours before that happens. Apparently the Jews have known about this for millennia…

You might have noticed that I rarely if ever blog on a Sunday, but I do so today. In my defense, however, it should be said that this was written a week ago last Friday.

Whatever you do, enjoy the day… and keep it holy.

Now reading “The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard” by Peter Benjaminson

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Close but no cigar…

Yesterday I spotted a deal on Lowes.com. To avoid shipping charges, I arranged for pick-up at a local store. Paid with my Debit card and everything was hunky-dory.

So far so good.

About an hour later my cellphone rang; it was a nice chap from the store letting me know that my order had been “pulled”.

As Darth Vader would say “Impressive“.

On the way home I decided to stop in and pick the item up. Even though, for once I was on a tight deadline, as I had ordered some food to take home for the posse.

In retrospect, this was a bad idea.

When I approached the customer service desk the chap nearest me was walking away. Initially I thought that this was rude, but I found out that he was the telephone-answering dude and was returning to his post.

About fifteen seconds later he noticed me and asked “Do you have a question?” (personally I prefer “How may I help you?”, but I suppose that I should be grateful that he acknowledged my existence). I told him that I was here to pick up an Internet order. He asked for my phone number and checked it his computer. Since he was seated about twenty feet away I had to shout. I don’t really mind but a little discretion would have been nice. The next customer could be your teenaged daughter…

Anyway, he called out on the PA system and a couple of minutes later a young dude showed up, got his instructions and headed, to my surprise, towards the back of the store…

I waited, and waited, and waited. Finally after what seemed like an age he showed up with a bunch of keys, walked over to a wall-mounted cage at the front of the store and pulled out my order. A couple of minutes later I was on my way, incandescent with fury…

Why so angry? Simple, I placed my order on the Internet because it was fast and convenient. So why on Earth did it take 22 minutes to fulfill a single-item order?

By far the greatest delay was the young dude’s odyssey in search of the keys. Looking at the process from a time-and-motion perspective, the keys to the “internet cage” should be kept at the front desk. If they were elsewhere, they should have been called to the front desk instead of dispatching a runner and wasting fifteen minutes.

Lowes, if you are listening, your ordering process is first-rate, and the follow-up phone call is a brilliant idea, but the in-store execution leaves much to be desired. I get the impression that the stores have not yet caught up with this Internet thingy.

To quote Yoda, “Much training you still need

Just give me six minutes with the RIAA…

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Recording industry, thank you for allowing me to speak.

I am nobody special. I am not a rock star, an industry insider or an executive. I am the voice that is never heard. The voice of the customer. What I have to say gives me no pleasure, but I’m going to say it anyway, because somebody has to.

Ladies and gentlemen, your industry stinks. Only the Oil business is more hated and reviled by its customers. Unlike them, however, your commodity is a luxury, and you consider your customers to be thieves.

And what, exactly, is your business? Here’s the surprise – you are not in the Music business.

You are not in the Art business either, even though your suppliers are called Artists.

You are not in the publishing business.

You are in the business of selling little plastic disks, and have been for over half a century. Everything else is secondary to that. The music, the artwork, the packaging, the record deals, the distribution are all concerned with maximizing the price and sales volume of those little plastic disks.

While it is true that music can now be supplied in digital form, sans disque plastique, I am sure that if you could wave a magic wand and make MP3, iTunes et al vanish, you would do so without hesitation. How do I know? Because you have a consistent track record of trying to destroy any technology that threatens your plastic-disk model. The Compact Cassette was nearly destroyed, the MiniDisk was effectively castrated because of your actions; your hatred of the PC, which you consider to be a clear and present danger to your business model, is well documented.

The world has changed. Get over it.

Your paranoia is showing: You have bought and paid for horribly draconian legislation like the DMCA that forces the Government to do your dirty work while making it a felony for your customers to put their music on their iPods because you put some lame “protection” on those plastic disks – protection that does not work, is an inconvenience at best and breaks computers at worst – and that’s ok, because your rights are the only ones that matter enough to need protecting.

Your blatant hostility to digital music is a matter of record. When Apple first came to you in 2000 with iTunes, MP3 was already about five years old; the genie was already out of the bottle; yet they had to wrap it in DRM at your insistence. Now you have a love-hate relationship with iTunes; you would love to raise the prices, but they won’t. You would love to walk away, but cannot say goodbye to the profit

When a Russian site called AllOfMP3 started selling music files online you tried to shut them down. Your claim that they were “illegal” made no sense – you make your plastic disks in China, because it is cheaper, but when your customers wanted to buy their music in Russia for precisely the same reason, that was suddenly “illegal”. They continued to be a thorn in your side until the State Department pressured the World Trade Organization to shut the site down as part of Russia’s price of admission.

In your stampede to put them out of business, however, you missed the point. They thrived, not because people are thieves but because they supplied something you wouldn’t – choice, convenience and freedom from DRM at a price the customer is willing to pay.

You insist that a song download is worth at least a dollar; I disagree – music has become a background task; something we do while jogging, driving or working. It has been years since “listening to music” was considered a pastime. Like long-distance phone service, it has lost its value.

Personally I would pay 25-50c for a high-quality song, $5 for a downloadable album. You may consider that too little, but given that it is almost all profit, with a cost to you of almost zero. At that price people purchase without thinking, and will not care for resale rights. Wrapping it in DRM lowers its versatility, and hence its value to me – so if you want to add DRM, you had better cut the price even further.

You currently insist on charging $10 for a downloaded Album, even though a used CD can be procured for less. You insist on $1 per song, even though it has been proven that halving the price results in a sixfold increase in sales. As Mr. Spock would say, “Fascinating”.

You also insist on pricing new music the same as old music, which makes no sense to me. Personally I believe that copyright on music should expire after ten years – copyright was intended to be temporary – but since your paychecks depend on eternal residuals I have absolutely no chance of persuading you of that.

My purpose here is not to destroy your business, but to point out that your business model no longer works and needs changing. If you are serious about improving your profits, here are some suggestions:

  1. Lower your prices – $1 per song is ok for hot new releases, but once the hotness has worn off the price should drop. 25c to 50c per song, depending on quality, is good. Anything over 50c per song means that your customers will think before buying; people pick up dropped dollars or quarters; anything smaller they usually ignore.
  2. You’ve sold plastic disks, why not sell data? A per-megabyte cost works. Higher quality and longer tracks can and should cost more.
  3. Don’t try to control digital music distribution – iTunes can sell more music and do it better than you can. Let the sellers do what they do best. Stay out of that business.
  4. DRM does not work – drop it. This has been proven time and time again. If the price is right, people will repurchase if they cannot find their old purchase.
  5. Simplify the royalty structure. 25% for the distributor (e.g. iTunes), 25% for the artist and 50% for you is more than fair. How many industries make 50% profit? Don’t be greedy.
  6. Relax… we’re not all thieves, and at 25-50c per song you can compete with free. Just ask the guy who dreamed up AllOfMP3.
  7. While on the subject, find him and hire him. If you can hire a white house staffer who accidentally “corrected” a law in your favor, you can certainly hire a guy with a proven business model.

Make these changes and I will happily buy digital music instead of used or cut-price CDs. You will get $10+ per month out of me that you weren’t getting before. That’s “easy money”; or to put it another way, “money for nothin'”

Thank you for your time.