Friday, September 28

shopping online: observations

I read an item on the Usability Sciences site: Shipping Options positively impact Retail Websites which attempts to explain why so few people (7%, in their study) who enter a website make purchases. I'm not sure they got it right.

To be sure, there are many cases where I (virtually) wandered around an online store and didn't buy anything. There are other times where I've bought something and never returned (example: Uneetee's low-quality T-shirts). I suspect one thing online merchants aren't considering is how easy it is to compare vendors while online. This is something that's much harder in the B&M world, absent an army of friends with cellphones shopping for the same item simultaneously.
A friend of mine explained The Secret of Retail to me this way: If you don't have it, get it. If you do have it, sell it (quickly). Unwritten: if you can't sell it, get rid of it and make way for something that will sell. All sounds simple, but it's not -- consumers are fickle.
I've often browsed an online store and found something I like. My next step is to open a new browser tab to compare bottom-line prices (shipping plus sales tax). Some shopping bots make this easier than others (I continue to admire the simplicity of the "Total price" column on; the savings can be significant. Nor do I always buy from the lowest-price vendor: a low rating will send me scurrying away, while a seller in a nearby state may get my business versus one at either coast (shipping times). Frequently, I will wait for The Exact Model to be in stock.

Once I'm convinced the merchant is reputable and the final price is acceptable, I make my purchase and abandon the e-shopping cart in the other browser tab. I'm then nothing more than a Lost Business Statistic, since there's no analysis of why I didn't buy (odds are high that I wouldn't take the time to explain myself - life is too short). The online merchant is left bewildered (often "clueless"), but no more so than most B&Ms (absent the rare occasion where a clerk asks "did you find everything you want?" -- and really meant it).

One of the most egregious examples of this has to be Amazon Marketplace (the "used and new" merchant selector). Example: given a random shopping cart full of ten books I'm left to attempt combining - manually - my orders so as to minimize the default impact of paying ten shipping charges to ten different vendors. What would be Real Sweet (are you listening, Geoff?) is if I could automagically find a bottom-line price for all books in my cart. IMHO, Amazon Marketplace got it backwards - I'm left to choose the vendor first, then the product. Honestly, I seldom care who's selling to me, as long as they meet my reliability specs.

True, some books may be a dollar more here than there, but this is offset by a reduction in total shipping charges, and presumably fewer parcels en route to me. I would much rather get one box than ten, scattered across 5 days. There's a market out there for an aggregator for Amazon Marketplace, to fix this problem.

Bottom line? I suspect what I'm seeking is some sort of [x]Minimize Vendors button which would give me no more than 3 options:

$100 gets 5 books from Vendor A, 3 from vendor B and 2 from vendor C;
$110 gets 8 books from Vendor D and 2 from Vendor B;
$120 gets all 10 books from an aggregator.

Unspoken Fourth Option:

$140 gets 10 books from 10 vendors (the Amazon Marketplace default)

Granted there is a lot of work to be done here, since the quality of those Used Pre-owned Books may vary wildly by vendor, depending on inventory - yes, I understand that. Would (m)any people other than me find this useful? Unknown. For many years, I have used an e-merchant's Wish List to hold books or CDs for which I didn't want immediate gratification. In some cases, I'm waiting for the price to fall (why pay $75 for a new book when I might find a used one for $25 in 2 months' time?) while in other cases I'm simply trying to minimize the total shipping costs.

Anecdotally, I've noticed that shipments to me via FedEx has become erratic in the past few months; their predicted arrival date is often off by two days or more, while UPS has been spot-on. Is this a trend?

Wednesday, September 26

what is is?

Last night, Judy-Bob dragged me to a biweekly session of the Dallas Philosopher's Forum which meets at a local IHOP. My last exposure to philosophy was a Philosophy 101 class I took to satisfy a freshman college requirement. I decided not to pursue this field then, and now - 30 years later - I remember why. To document last night's excursion, I made a few notes:
  1. IHOP doesn't tolerate meetings well - they had no way to independently turn off music in the meeting room without shutting it down for those who dined in the main room

  2. this group has been meeting for many years; they take a summer vacation partly because "it's too hot to meet"

  3. $4/meeting or $25/6 months (a $48 value - WOW!!!)

  4. tonight ~25 people (including 6 women)

  5. The lecturer was a professor from the University of Dallas, whose topic was "Religion and Aesthetics"
    "Both religion and aesthetics follow from the bipolarity of human existence, grounded in the sensory and ontologically referred to the Whole. Religions provide the umbrella of meaning by showing how we fit into the Whole. From ontological distance, we can learn to appreciate sensory surface aesthetically either by itself or as mediating wider meaning. The interplay between the sensory and the space of meaning is where art occurs. We will examine a few specimens of how religion and aesthetics interpenetrate in the work of art."
  6. it was a discussion of art, without any visual aids - he had trouble with a photocopier, apparently

  7. the microphone had an apparent "speaker filter" which amplified others' voices, but not his

  8. the overhead projecter (remember those?) pointed to the ceiling during most of the lecture

  9. the speaker read his ~20 page paper, but encountered noticable delays when changing pages. Didn't he number them?

  10. Wikipedia has lots of pages on philosophy, according to a pre-lecture discussion we overheard. I confirmed that later - see Wikipedia's philosophy page for example

  11. most used word: ontological - 31 times

  12. least used word: teleological - zero (I remembered it from my Philosophy 101 class)

  13. most unexpected repetition: putative - used 5+ times

  14. NeoPlatanism ("the synthesis of Christianity and Platonism into a single system")

  15. Unexpected outburst of the evening
    • Speaker:"we are conceived in (something) of animal lust"
    • YEAH!! shouts a woman

  16. Philosophers referenced: Martin Heidegger; Jean-Paul Sartre; Augustine; Aristotle; Søren Kierkegaard; Friedrich Nietzsche; Socrates; Aquinas ("a philosopher and theologian in the scholastic tradition"); Herocles of Ephesus

  17. Literary references: Walter Pater ("English essayist and art and literary critic"); William Blake ("an English poet, visionary, painter, and printmaker"); Plato's Republic

  18. Stuff it would've been handy to know before the lecture: Apollonian and Dionysian; Byzantine; Pythagoreanism; Galen; The Whore of Babylon

  19. Art references: Piet Mondrian; Matthias Grünewald's "The Crucifixion"; LeRoy Neiman

  20. Music references: Richard Wagner; Socrates and "the study of harmonics"

  21. Speaker's big laugh for the evening: "you can't stop rock and roll" related to the Berlin Wall (this had the crowd rolling on the floor)

  22. Q & A

    • q- "where would you publish this paper?"
      a- (baffled)

    • q- what do you mean by "heart of hearts?"
      a- "fundamental orientation of self to the whole"
    • discussion of "inate sense of perfection"
    • "notion of a heart" - metaphoric analysis
    • ancient iconoclasts and destruction of religious symbols
    • European cathedrals as a "portal to the divine"
    • observation: philosophers can't do basic math (4/3 v 3/4) or standup comedy
    • visible/intelligible dichotomy

Conclusion: the chicken sandwich at IHOP was edible.

Monday, September 24

hard to believe, but ..

... after reading reports of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's appearance at Columbia University, I can only conclude that there's at least one world leader with an IQ lower than that of George Walker "Dubya" Bush.

Friday, September 21

the Googleplex is (back) in the house ...

It's a good thing I have 9+ Internet devices at home. When one fails, I often just mosey to another, since the outage is frequently very temporary.

Such was the case with my Mac mini, which .. about a week or so ago .. inexplicably stopped accessing anything related to Google .. the search engine, Google Reader, Gmail, Blogger .. you name it. I could get to everything else, just not Google-anything.

This happened on the 2 browsers I have installed in addition to (the default) Safari .. namely Camino and Firefox .. so it had to be something lower in the stack. So, I used Yahoo! search and typed "unable to access google" and wandered across a suggestion to use a different DNS server (than the one my ISP thoughtfully provides). Okay, worth a try .. so I changed that preference in OS X .. waited a few minutes for the Mac to absorb the impact (ha!) and now I'm happily browsing again.

I suppose I should credit the nice folks at OpenDNS although I'll be derned if I know why the rest of the boxes on my LAN can see the Googleplex and not the Mac mini - presumably they're using the same DNS -- go figure.

Unrelated: my 500 GB LaCie disc/hub arrived today .. setup was uneventful. Now I have more than enough space for my iTunes collection. Good: the price was right, and the extra (very accessible) ports are a nice touch. Bad: both the Mac mini and the LaCie have the old Firewire 400 interface, so there's a perceptible lag when I fetch video from my iTunes library (although the audio seems okay).

Wednesday, September 19

Representation without representation

One of the more annoying problems about living in Red-State Texas is that there is no US Senator who will listen to reason. Both Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) are both lock-step Republicans, and simply will not listen to any constituent who has a thought which isn't shared by President Quagmire Bush.

So, when issue-upon-issue makes it to my desk, and I'm asked to call or email my representative, I've concluded that it's a Waste Of My Time to make my views known to either Hutchison or Cornyn, since they're going to vote against my best interests regardless of how nicely I ask.

Does this mean the fascists have won? In a sense, yes .. because I've grown weary (in my advanced age) of wasting my time, calling a senator who simply doesn't care what I think. Ditto goes for Pete Sessions (R-Texas), who barely fogs a mirror over on the House of Representatives side of the hall.

Given that incumbents win 99% of the time, and there are no term limits for the House or Senate, this trio will likely stay in power until their deaths. Maybe Texas won't always stay this way, but for now .. there's nobody in Washington who represents me. Nobody.

Tuesday, September 11

another 9/11

I turned 50 today. I skillfully avoided anything remotely resembling a celebration (who would choose a birthday on 9/11?) so .. I can now start checking the (x)50-54 box on all those surveys which land in my lap.

The only recent good news (?): my eye surgery's now scheduled .. for late October. The surgeon tells me that, after it's done, and presumably for the first time in my life, I'll have near-perfect vision in my right eye. Because of my severe nearsightedness, I may elect to have the same procedure done on my left eye, because it will be such an imbalance. They won't do them any sooner than two weeks apart, and due to the popularity (!) of this clinic, and how long it takes to make an appointment for anything, it'll be a minimum of six weeks, if I decide that's what I want to do.

I was told the imbalanced vision will be a little like walking on stilts .. but only on the right leg. I can hardly wait.

By the way, those Travatan-Z eyedrops I'm taking each night appear to be Doing The Trick, as my IOP [intra-ocular pressure] has dropped to 15 ("average") in both eyes, down from 24-26 before. Woo hoo. Will I be on these the rest of my life? Time will tell. Per gallon, this stuff must cost well over $1 Billion .. the drug companies are making out like bandits, fer sher.

Thursday, September 6

A pleasant experience at the DMV? Really?

<-- Can you spot the DMV in this shopping center?

A few days before my driver's license expired (and this was an "odd" renewal so I couldn't do it online) I called the local(*) Texas Department of Public Safety office and asked, simply "which days are the least busy?" and was told "Wednesday and Thursday". Armed with that information, I proceeded to the DMV at 10am this morning - a Thursday - and saw a line snaking out the door. Not a good sign, I thought. They opened at 7am - I should've come then, I thought - but that would've conflicted with my 8am dentist appointment (another joy in life).
(*)Perhaps doing my homework helped - I determined that the nearest office was [Dallas East] so I Google-Earth'd it and reckoned that I knew the intersection: Northwest/Jupiter. My plan involved not driving downtown to face The Main DMV Office (queue scary music).
So, I whipped out my iPod and proceeded to listen to Yet Another Podcast. However, the line was moving. Quickly. Once inside the door, I could see the signs - in both Spanish and English - advising me not to mean against the walls. As if! It was also entertaining to see the ethnic mix: I was one of only two whiteys in a 15-person line. I soon found myself in front of the Triage Clerk (my term) and I explained that I was there for a renewal. She handed me a number and a 12-question (?) form, and waved me toward a counter. No pens were anywhere to be found, but a Latino gent sensed my plight and let me borrow his. I finished in about 60 seconds and returned his pen - he seemed surprised for two reasons: (1) I returned his pen and (2) I completed the task in less than 10 minutes.

The questions were simple - basically asking if I had any condition that would keep me from getting a renewal - it was very transparent. Once done, I sat down and waited for my number to be called. The paper slip said "WAITING TIME 5min." and it was right, more or less. So much for listening to my podcast - there wouldn't be time! My number soon flashed on The Big Board and I proceeded to the designated clerk, who asked me to (a) read 3 lines of numbers-in-a-box; (b) submit my left+right thumbprint; (c) pay the $24 renewal in cash; (d) sign my name; (e) smile for the photo; and (f) don't let the door hit you on the way out. My license will arrive in 4-6 weeks from Austin TX and meanwhile-hang-onto-this-document-it-shows-you've-renewed.

Fast and easy? Surprisingly (shockingly) YES. The hardest part was just finding the place - it was listed on the DMV's website, but I wasn't expecting a hole-in-the-wall in a strip shopping center. I guess at my next renewal - in 2012, I think - they'll have valet parking.