Monday, December 17, 2012

Am I a Gun Control Hypocrite?


Many people have rushed to speak out after the recent shootings at Sandy Hook.  And then, like clockwork, there are those who rushed to speak out after others rushed to speak out.  Those folks are quick to admonish, telling us all that now is not the time or talk of gun control disrespects the victims or it politicizes the tragedy.

No offense, but anyone who says that is a complete idiot.  Actually, I take the ‘no offense’ part back.  I completely hope to offend those people.

People who tell you not to talk about the issues in the wake of the tragedy tell you that because it makes them uncomfortable.  And it makes them uncomfortable because, in most cases, they maintain completely wrong-headed and foolish views on the issue.  And they have trouble coming to grips with that, and so they’d prefer everyone wait for the news cycle to pass and the topic of conversation to change, such that they can feel better about their own views.

From my perspective, the hurt and the shock and the pain that the shootings at Sandy Hook bring up mean it’s exactly the right time to talk about the issues.  The only thing time serves at this point is to lull us towards forgetting exactly just how much pain was caused. 

And maybe those folks will win the day.  They certainly did after Aurora, Virginia Tech, and most other mass shooting incidents.  But I hope they don’t.

The incident may also bring about national conversations covering more than gun control, and hopefully that’s the case.  Although all the facts are still a bit unclear, what does seem apparent is that this was a case of mental illness, which is a topic that the country isn’t nearly comfortable enough to discuss.  Unfortunately, the longer we avoid discussing it, the more these situations will continue to happen (something gun advocates are quick to note, and an area where I completely agree with them).

But mental illness issues notwithstanding, the Sandy Hook incident served as just another example to remind me why I feel so strongly about guns.  

In my view, guns exist for only one reason.  To kill as quickly as is reasonably possible.  And again, in my view, there is no possible reason on Earth why I could ever imagine wanting one or anyone else on Earth needs one.

I feel that way because while an individual person may choose to have a gun because they like to hunt (I like to read books about the zombie apocalypse, so there are all kinds of stupid hobbies out there) or because they think that will protect their family, I personally feel it introduces too large a risk into our community equation.  To put something so effective at killing into a group of people that may have any combination of mental illness, drug abuse, domestic violence, alcohol, emotional disturbance, negligence, or just plain bad luck, is willful ignorance.  I don’t trust myself to have a gun, why the hell would I trust any of you people???

The idea of gun ownership boils down to who you feel should have the decision rights.  Should we preserve the absolute right of the individual person to have a gun?  Or preserve the right of the community as a whole to live in a world without guns?  Leaving out the feasibility of the second condition, the two camps represent the philosophical chasm between myself and gun owners.  They believe in their right to have a gun, and I believe in my right to live without the fear of them.

The U.S. Supreme Court, reflecting a strict interpretation of an 18th century document, agrees with them (unfortunately).  That’s too big a pickle to address here, and I’m certainly among the least knowledgeable sources on the matter of constitutional law.

But as I continued to think more about my own opinions on gun control, I found myself at odds with…myself.

Let me explain. 

I take a lot of trips, mainly for work, but also for fun.  For most of these trips, I have to take a flight out of Chicago, and for anyone who’s been within earshot these past three years, I have shaken a large number of verbal fists at the restrictive regulation of the TSA.

The Transportation Security Administration is the governmental agency that tries to keep us safe when we fly.  Their security measures include, but are not limited to, a) restrictions on carrying liquids on planes, b) removal of shoes upon passing through security, c) random screenings for explosive residue on hands, d) body scans for concealed objects.  Most people are probably familiar with them at this point.

Now, I think I’ve made it pretty clear that I hate the TSA processes and measures they take to keep us safe when flying.  In the past I’ve said I’d rather have absolutely no safeguards than our current system, and think it completely infringes on my basic human rights/privacy.  It also doesn’t make us that much safer and just mucks things up for regular people.

Now take that paragraph and replace ‘TSA’ with ‘government’ and ‘when flying’ with ‘from guns’.
When I thought about it, I became extremely troubled by my lack of internal philosophical consistency.  I support the most complete and restrictive gun control measures to keep us safe, but at the same time I detest TSA measures rooted in the same ultimate goal.

So, I wondered to myself, am I a complete hypocrite on this?  Why is my opinion on one topic so dramatically and diametrically opposed to my opinion on another public safety issue?  Is it possible to have such wildly different views?  Do my views on the TSA make it easier for me to understand the position of gun advocates?  I tried to think through why I have these differing views, and was able to think of a few possibilities:

-          Systematic Misperception of Risk:  Part of the reason why I hate the TSA program is because, to me, it’s always been a program designed to stop an extremely small set of outlier events.  The number of people who have ever been killed by airplane-based terrorists, when compared to the number of people killed by any other means, is extremely small.  So to me, TSA procedures always struck me as an overreaction to these outliers.  An attempted shoe bomb means everyone has to take off their shoes?  You can see what I’m saying (or if you’ve ever flown with me, you’ve definitely heard me say it) 
   
Because the 9/11 attacks were so horrible and beyond the scope of comprehension, people developed a systematic misperception of the true risks of airplane terrorism to public safety (note: that’s my impression, although it’s quite possible the government/NSA/CIA has all kinds of information that would make me look like an idiot, but I doubt that).  Simply, people think there’s a huge risk of terrorists going after our planes, even when you’re still much more likely to die in a cab on your way to the airport than ever being killed by a terrorist.

So I can absolutely understand the gun owners point in that people develop a misperception of the risk of a public shooting.  They remain exceedingly rare, but dramatic events like Sandy Hook capture the public interest and throw any objective statistics based discussion out the window.

That thinking definitely applies to both gun regulation and TSA airport regulation, but that does not make me hypocritical here (in my view).  If I never thought about gun control except following mass public shootings, you’d have a point.  But as noted above, my issues with guns aren’t just coming from these public displays of violence, they come from suicides, domestic violence, gang violence, and all other forms of violence that is made significantly easier through the presence of firearms.  

If I were flipping out over just this most recent incident screaming for change, then you’d have a point.  But I’m not.

-          Theory of the Determined Individual: One of my consistent complaints about the TSA checkpoints is that, if terrorists really want to blow up airplanes, they’ll find a way.  Using jets as missiles, shoe bombs, underwear bombs, whatever, the really committed folks will come up with something that skirts our narrowly focused policies like ‘let’s make sure to scan your shoes’.  I’ve said that a lot, and as I read more comments on the WSJ.com message board, realized I was hearing the same things about Sandy Hook.  

‘If someone really wants to kill a bunch of people, they will, so don’t blame the tool, blame the people, and don’t punish legitimate owners of those tools.’  

The people who jokingly refer to ‘knife control’ are making this argument.

But my problem with this theory (and my own argument against the TSA), is that, as I see it, it ignores basic economic theory.  

A gun, a bomb, a Volkswagen, they are all subject to the same forces of supply and demand.  When you impose additional costs on any product, it results in a new market price and a new quantity demanded in the market at that new price.  When you put taxes on a car because it has terrible gas mileage, fewer people will choose to buy the car.  Are we clear on the principles?  OK.

Now the important thing to remember is that there are all kinds of costs that go into your decision to acquire something.  There are financial costs, most easily observed, but there are also things like search costs (the time to find the thing you’re looking for), and a whole host of other costs.  In the case of illegal goods, there’s a huge potential cost in the risk of capture/imprisonment/confiscation, which people (particularly criminals) account for.

All forms of regulation, whether the government against assault rifles or the TSA against shoe bombs, impact these costs in some way.  And by increasing them through any kind of rule (background checks, taxes, prison sentences), you push people to either choose not to buy or to find substitute goods.
 
It’s the substitutes detractors of gun control are quick to bring up.  Someone could just build a bomb instead of using an assault rifle, right?  Well, sure, they COULD.  But the costs of doing that are higher, it takes more time, more effort, more risk of getting caught, more risk of blowing themselves up by accident.  There’s a reason they didn’t pursue that option first!  The more regulation you place in the way, the more costs you impose, and the fewer people pursue the option.

Given that, I’m at least a little hypocritical when I respond to the TSA by citing the determined terrorist theory.  I’ll stop complaining along these lines. 

-          Personal Costs: Another common criticism of gun regulation is that it disproportionately impacts legal gun owners and people who follow the rules.

This is absolutely true.  The more background checks you put in place, the more hoops to jump through, the more they will fall upon the people who do adhere to the letter of the law.

I’ve had the same complaint about the TSA.  The costs of all the procedures, admittedly much smaller than those facing gun owners, hurt frequent travelers like me a lot (principally in the form of wasted time and some more frequent wear and tear on my luggage).

Now, I think the personal costs of the TSA policies stink, mostly because I hate waiting.  I complain about that, because I don’t personally feel the benefits of the policies (except in that I’m never blown up by a terrorist, which is tough for me to evaluate).

Gun owners would feel the same way.  More restrictions impose additional costs on them, and for people who believe in their own ability to defend themselves (which I assume is dramatically overrated much the same way everyone thinks they are a great driver), they see no benefit.
When I think about it, we approach these situations with very similar perspectives.  We disproportionately bear the costs of security procedures and don’t perceive any of the benefits. 

However, I don’t think this makes me a hypocrite, I think I just happen to be wrong about this, and gun owners are too (in both cases, I think we underestimate the gains from regulation).

So, having said all that, what the hell does it really mean?

I’m not sure.  It seems like I’m at least a bit hypocritical given my criticism of the TSA.  But I think it says more about my irrationality towards the TSA.  I still feel very strongly about guns, and while some introspection was certainly a useful exercise to help me put myself on the other side of the debate, the biggest change might just be my perspective on airline security.  

But even if my views on guns haven’t changed, I don’t think critical thinking is ever a bad thing.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Uber Chicago Review (alternative title: Uber Uber Alles)

Last Friday night my wife and I went to my firm's holiday party here in Chicago.  The party itself was held at the Adler Planetarium, which I had never been to (mostly because I don't think they do late night Zeppelin or Pink Floyd laser shows)

However, I knew exactly where the Planetarium was, because I used to run there when I lived near the Loop.  The best part of the run was turning the corner on the Planetarium peninsula, which juts into Lake Michigan.  As you turn you get a fantastic view of the Chicago skyline.

Of course that fantastic view, the one of all the tall buildings in Chicago, only exists because you're extremely far away from everything.

That's where the question of transportation came in.

It was easy enough to get to the holiday party.  We took a taxi (because I was definitely not planning on staying sober).  We hopped in a cab and had the following coversation:

Us: "Take us to the Adler Planetarium please"

Driver: :::mumbled gibberish:::???

Us: "Um...the Adler Planetarium?"

Driver:  Add-Rur Pranet-A-Rium???

We couldn't tell if he understood us, but he was clearly having problems and I'm not sure he knew where or what the Planetarium was

Us: "Yes, the Planetarium.  It's near the Field Museum? By Soldier Field?"

Driver: "Oh, Field Museum?"

Us: "Sure, near the Field Museum is fine"

Driver: "OK!"

:::One minute passes:::

Driver: "Oh! Add-Rur Pranet-A-Rium!  Yes!"

Apparently he just needed to start driving and the epiphany came to him.  So he drove us down there, and after the various charges and tip we were out $15 for the ride, which I guess was normal (there was a good amount of traffic)

Fast forward a few hours to when we're trying to leave the party, along with another couple dozen consultants, spouses, and entourage members.  Remember how I mentioned the Planetarium was far away from everything?  That creates a bit of a problem when you desperately need a cab out of there along with everyone else.

The firm had thought that might be a problem, and so they had arranged with cab companies to have cabs on standby.  But unfortunately, that didn't appear to be the case (they may have very well all taken passengers and gone)

But that still left a ton of us standing there, with nothing but a shut down Planetarium for fun (the optimal time for those Pink Floyd shows, I would argue)

I quickly went to my phone and loaded up the Taxi Magic app, which had saved me a couple times on late nights at the office.  I requested a pickup, and waited, and waited, and waited.  Usually the dispatcher confirms a car relatively quickly, but clearly not this time.

After a few minutes, I grew impatient.  We had a bunch of other people with us who were all also trying to call cabs, and nothing seemed to be working (clearly cab drivers didn't have huge incentives to drive all the way out to the Planetarium late on a Friday night)

So I finally decided to try Uber again.  Uber is the phone app which allows you to book towncar/limo service.  They promise a simple solution to get you a driver and arrange payment to your credit card with no hassle.  Only problem is the one time I tried using it in Manhattan (admittedly in a thunderstorm in the West Village) it hadn't worked at all.

But maybe tonight would be different?  As it turned out, it was a completely different experience and may have converted me to Uber entirely.

I put in my request for a car to my location, and almost immediately got a confirmation that my driver, Zoltan, would be bringing a black towncar to pick us up.

Let's leave aside the fact that the guy's name was Zoltan, I got a confirmation almost immediately and could see him on my phone's map less than half a mile away.  Taxi magic offers the same map, but I've never had it work as well as Uber's did.  I could see mini-Zoltan making his way closer to us at the Planetarium.

Then I got a text notifying me that he was almost there.  Of course, I knew that anyway because I couldn't tear my eyes away from mini-Zoltan on the map.  But it certainly was nice of them.

Not more than a few minutes after placing the request, Zoltan arrived, towncar and all.  The four of us got in to a pristine automobile, and Zoltan proceeded to take us to the next party somewhere in River North.

As we got to our destination, I asked him how I was supposed to pay (having never used Uber before).  I assumed I had to sign something?  Scan a bar code?  Show a credit card?

Nope, Zoltan replied.  It was already taken care of on my credit card.

So we got out and went straight to the party.  Later that night (or the next morning), I got an email from Uber with my receipt.

$23.

So for only $8 more, I got an absurdly clean car, that came directly to me and picked me up, and I didn't have to fumble around paying with an automatically emailed receipt?

Yes.  Definitely something I'll consider using again in the future.




Friday, August 24, 2012

Vegas - My Biggest Poker Hand

A dry, scratchy sensation in your throat...

Wads of crumpled bills of varying denominations, in multiple pockets...

The overpowering stench of cigarette smoke radiating from your clothes...

Where else, but Las Vegas!

Last weekend my wife and I, along with her family, went out to Las Vegas for a few days.  It was the first time I had been since my bachelor party this year, and as you'd might expect, it was a much different trip.  (Less gambling, more time at the pool, and surprisingly, more strippers)

We stayed at the Paris, courtesy of a good friends & family rate, and had about as relaxing a trip as one can have in Las Vegas.  Lots of pool time in the August heat, but it wasn't a trip without stories, including one of my biggest gambling hands of all time...

Let's start with that first, because it's probably the most interesting story (at least the one I'll want to read later).

The family and I had been hanging out at the pool all day, and it was hot.  And when it's hot and I'm sitting around for an extended period, I tend to get a little bored.  It was our first full day in Las Vegas, and you could say I was a little antsy to get some gaming action.

So after bidding farewell to the family, I ventured off to find something to play.  I immediately thought about the poker tables at Bally's (as Paris doesn't have a poker room), and wondered if they had any sit-n-go tournaments starting.  I wandered through the Paris and through Bally's to their poker room.  Room is a pretty generous term as it's one of the smallest poker rooms on the strip, with only a few tables, but let's not forget it was connected to my hotel.

As I passed by, I saw three tables with action, two of them were full, and the third had maybe 5 players.  As I looked on, the poker room staff called out and asked if I wanted to play 1-2 no limit.

I did, but as I looked at the open table I saw that of the five players most of them had pretty large stacks in front of them.  I was only buying in for $160 and the last thing I wanted was to sit down with a couple huge stacks who would just push me around.

So I balked, telling them I didn't want to just down at a half-empty table.  They assured me it would fill up, but I was skeptical.  So I wandered around the casino floor, debating entry into their 4pm tournament (which was over an hour away).

After wandering the floor a bit (and practicing my card counting at a blackjack table), I finally got bored and realized that I didn't come all the way to Vegas not to play poker.

I went right back to the poker room and bought in at the 1-2 no limit table, and the staff was right, it did fill up.

I played for a little while, staying out of the fray as I got a read on the table (which didn't even force me to post when I sat down).  After winning one decent hand and staying out of dozens of others, I had one of the more interesting decisions to make...

I was one to the right of the dealer button as the hands were dealt, and I looked down to find pocket 10's, clubs and diamonds.  It was my first decent hand, so I immediately starting thinking about how much I could raise pre-flop.

Of course, I wouldn't get the chance to.  After at least a couple early calls, the player two seats to my right, an older man in his late 50's or early 60's raised to $10.  After a call from another older guy next to me, I called as well.  We were joined by at least two more (may have been three), as we went to the flop.  As I called, I knew that I was really just hoping for a set (three of a kind) and the chance to play a leading hand from late position.

I got my wish.  The flop came, the first card another 10, followed by the 2 of hearts and the 7 of hearts.

Marvelous, I thought.  Hitting a set, with no overcards and no easy way to a straight (unless someone called a $10 raise with 8-9 which I considered extremely unlikely).

The only thing that really concerned me were the two hearts on the board.  A third meant a potential flush for someone, and I really didn't want to get to a point where I had to guess if another guy had two hearts in his hand (And there were at least four other players in the hand, so it was certainly possible)

So the thing for me to do, in my view, was take the hand down now and don't let people draw on me.

Of course, there was also a problem.  I wasn't first to act.

The guy who was first to act, sitting across the table from me, was another older guy with a relatively large pile of chips.

He was first to act after the flop, and immediately bet out for 10 or 15 dollars.  The second player, who I had seen through earlier hands was a fairly aggressive one, called.  Action then moved to the third player in the hand, the guy who had originally raised before the flop.  He thought about it for a minute and announced he was going all-in.

I'm not sure how much he had left at the moment, but I think it was around $70 or so.

That was great news to me, because in thinking through the situation, he raised to $10 pre-flop and went all-in as soon as the flop hit.  To me, it was clear he had a high pair, Jacks or higher, and was trying to shut the hand down himself.  Poor timing for him, I thought.

But as I planned my move, the guy next to me, who was still in the hand, announced that he ALSO was going all-in, for even more money than the previous guy.

Now I was really excited.  Maybe he had an over pair too, but I was sure my hand was ahead of his too.

With all that money in the pot, I absolutely wanted to get the two other guys the hell OUT of the hand, figuring only a flush draw or a third card to match their overpairs could beat me.  So I announced a re-raise to $100 even.

But then the dealer stopped me and pointed out a rule I hadn't been aware of.  I wasn't allowed to re-raise them, either because they were all-in or because there had already been two raises that round.

That made me feel like an idiot a bit, but at least I still got to announce my intention to raise, which should've scared out the other two players right?

Wrong.  Well, half-wrong.

Action swung around to the first guy who immediately called, raising my suspicions.  He had bet out initially, but what could he have had that he wouldn't have initially raised pre-flop but called extremely large raises on?

The last remaining player did elect to fold, so at least one of the five of us was persuaded to drop.  But at this point as the dealer collected all the $5 and $1 chips in the betting, it was growing into a rather large pile at the center of the table.  With about $425 already on the table, it was pretty impressive looking (at least to a small buy-in guy like me).

So four of us were in the hand to see the turn card, and at this point all I need to do is avoid the flush draw and there's a good chance my cards hold up.

And then, as if through divine intervention, the eight of hearts arrived on the turn.  It arrived with a thud that was hopefully only audible in my head.

To make matters worse, the older man across the table immediately declared he was all-in.  And as the only one with any money left, it was on to me whether to call him or fold the hand.

Ay caramba.

I sat there, for what felt like the longest time (but in reality was probably only 30 seconds or so).  I worked to consider the possibilities, and immediately confirmed to myself that the guy had made his flush.  I confirmed that in my head, and it ticked the hell out of me.I had about $90 left of my initial buy-in, and this guy was going to make me fold it.

I thought about it some more.  I had seen this guy stay in with some loose hands, so it could absolutely be a flush draw that kept him around.  And his immediate push all-in once the eight of hearts hit wouldn't make sense otherwise.  Suddenly the three of a kind that I thought was going to pay me off big seemed like it would cost me and maybe turn me against the number 10 for the rest of my life.

I briefly thought about what it would be like to fold.  I'd lay it down, but then because the other two players were already all-in I'd at least get to see what he had.  That would confirm it at least, and if I was right, it would validate the painful but necessary lay-down.  Of course, then I wondered how I'd feel if I was wrong, and I did have the best hand after all.  It would've felt shitty, that's for sure.

I was torn between the two options when I finally got around to calculating the odds.  After all, there was still one more card to come out if I called the all-in.  And maybe he did have the flush, but I still had three of a kind, and in that case, all I'd need was either the last 10 in the deck, or one of the other three cards to get paired (i.e., a 2, 7, or 8).  Across all those options, that meant there were ten cards which would give me a hand that could beat a flush.

Doing the rough math in my head, those ten cards at a little over 2% chance of coming out a piece meant a had just over a 20% chance at getting the necessary card.

The pot had about $425, and the other player had just put me all in for my last $90.  With his $90 included, that meant I would have to bet $90 to win $515.  Better than five to one odds.  It had been a long time since I played poker, but I finally realized that the math worked!  I was supposed to call here!

So I did.

And shortly after I called, the other guy said, "All I need is the board to pair," as he flipped his cards over

I had trouble processing that for a second.  After all, pairing the board is what I needed to beat his flush!

Then I saw his cards, a 7 and an 8, neither of them hearts (obviously).

He had two pair against my three of a kind, he had never been close to a flush at all.

Of course, then the board did pair, with another 8.  Giving him a full house, eights over sevens.  But now I had tens over eights.  The board pair he wanted couldn't help him.

As quickly as the last card came, the other two players who were all-in in the hand mucked their cards, none too pleased at the result.  I wouldn't be happy if I were them either (although while I'm pretty sure the first guy had a high pair, I still have no idea what the second guy had).

But I really didn't care, the biggest cash game hand I'd ever played in was won, and the giant pile of chips in the middle of the table started to get swept my way.

It was fantastic, grabbing for all the chips, enveloping them in my arms.  I tried to savor the feeling, as most of the pots I drag never make it much past $20.  I tipped the dealer $15 off of what ended up being over $600 (in hindsight, that seems excessive, but I was high on life at the time, so I'll let it slide)

I played for another hour or so, getting into a couple hands but nothing nearly as serious, and ordering a few drinks from the bar as a mini-celebration.  When I cashed out and rejoined the family a little later, it was great to know that I had just about ensured I was going to end the trip on the plus side with my second biggest poker haul ever (the biggest being my last casino poker trip when I chopped the first place prize in a tournament, incidentally also at Bally's but in Atlantic City)

I wish I could go ask the nice people at Bally's for their security camera tapes, because I'd love video footage of my eyes bulging out of my head when the final cards were revealed.

It wasn't the only fun story to come out of our Vegas trip, don't even ask how many drifters my wife and I buried out in the desert (hint, how many in a baker's dozen?), but it certainly was the most lucrative

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Southwest Pre-Emptive Customer Service

Airline customer service is usually nothing to write home about.  It's not cable TV bad, but it also rarely impresses you.  And it makes sense, because most of the time when we buy plane tickets we're really just looking for the cheapest way to get where we're going and don't pick an airline based on other dimensions (like staff not treating you like total garbage)

So service might not be a huge deal to the airlines, but it's nice to at least get one experience that leaves you feeling like the company actually values your business.

I had an instance last week that I thought was particularly impressive.

Obviously since joining the consulting world, I've flown quite a bit with a variety of airlines, and there have been plenty of times when I've sat on a tarmac for extended periods.  Weather delays, maintenance, all kinds of things have occasionally conspired to keep me from getting home on a Thursday night.

But usually, when something like that happens, the very next day I'll write an email to the airline's customer service department for a formal complaint.

I keep things extremely nice and professionally-worded, like how I imagine a high-priced attorney would write out such a thing for me if I paid them a bunch.  I make sure it's very specific, calling out specific flight numbers, routes, and exactly what disappointed me.  Then I typically reiterate my level of business with the airline and how I could very easily switch carriers.  And then I send it off for what I hope will be a response that includes money for future flights.

The airlines are usually responsive if the situation is their fault (I still haven't asked an airline to reimburse me because of bad weather, because I have yet to fly on an airline with the power of God).  The responses range in terms of compensation, but they'll typically throw me a bone if nothing else.  At the high end I've gotten $100-$150 credits for future flights, and then at the low end there's American who gave me a couple thousand miles for two hours on the tarmac.

My wife has even extracted $150 for having a broken reading light.  So this thing definitely works, and apparently if you get the right service representative it can REALLY work.

But last week was the first instance of an airline actually reaching out to me BEFORE I even had the chance to complain.

My wife and I flew Southwest from Chicago to Philadelphia for the weekend to visit family, and then on the way back, we were stuck on the plane for a couple hours in Philadelphia. 

It was definitely not fun, as I'm sure you could imagine.

So I filed it away in my travel grievance memory bank, with the full intention of emailing Southwest the next day with my standard issue complaint template.

But then I work up to see the following email:

Greetings from Southwest Airlines:                          
 
The thunderstorms that came through the East Coast last night were rough, and I’m so sorry your flight got caught up in the middle of it before being able to depart from Philadelphia. On behalf of the Employees who were working with you yesterday at the gate and on the plane, I want to say “thank you” for your patience and cooperation throughout such a frustrating experience.
 
As a gesture of goodwill and a means of encouraging you to fly with us again, I’m sending a Southwest LUV Voucher*, which I invite you to use toward the purchase of a future reservation—I’m confident (weather permitting) that you’ll have the kind of ontime experience you’ve come to expect when you travel with Southwest Airlines. Your patronage is important to us, and we look forward to sharing the friendly skies with you again soon.

 Score!

Later that week I got two vouchers (one for my wife and one for me), each for $75.  Could I complain about the low financial reward?  Maybe.  But honestly, this was completely out of the blue and as such, was a hugely positive surprise.

The amount, honestly, is a little immaterial.  What I thought was even more impressive was that they just did it without any prompting from me, and I've never had another airline do that when I've been stuck on their plane for an extended period.

So thanks Southwest, good to see someone cares about trying to keep the customers happy.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Review of TSA PreCheck at O'Hare

It seems like every time I write a blog post, my initial reaction is to apologize for not blogging more frequently.  I have to make it a point not to apologize, for two reasons:

1 - Blogging is inherently a narcissistic hobby anyway (to think anyone's interested in my take on things), so my apologies would only be directed at myself

2 - I've actually been busy working on an epic blog recap of our recent trip to Spain.  It's not finished, but it's already 14 pages and we've only just left the first of four cities (It's a race to completion between my Spain write-up and Gaudi's Sagrada Familia)

But with a little time to spare and the fact that I left our Spain recap notebook at home, I thought I'd throw out my two cents of the recent experiences I've had with the TSA at O'Hare over the last couple weeks.

It seems like such a long time ago now, but when I got a mysterious email from American Airlines inviting me to opt-in to some expedited security screening process, I remember being excited.  The excitement turned to a bit of bemusement as I continued to read about a new TSA initiative and how it would promise to save people time but didn't actually see any progress.  I hit an all-time low when I heard the program was set to open at DFW airport, but wasn't going to officially start accepting passengers until the day AFTER I was scheduled to fly out of there.

That whole period was then interrupted by a stretch of local project work, which is great for my wife and I but terrible for keeping my travel habits up to date (altogether, I guess I prefer making my wife and I happy)

Then, a few weeks ago, I booked flights on AA out of ORD, and early one Monday morning I made my way to Security checkpoint #8 in Terminal 3, where an agent stood with a boarding pass scanner at the entrance to a new security line.  The sign next to her read, 'TSA PreCheck', and my mind was officially blown at the improved convenience and efficiency.

All of it was destroyed in the next couple of weeks, but let's start with the good news.

If you're on the TSA PreCheck security list (which basically means AA or United asked you to opt-in or you have a Global Entry membership), you get your boarding pass scanned out at the beginning of a security line.  Assuming it clears (a big assumption, it turns out), you're guided into a separate security queue.

It's just like any other TSA security line at an airport, with one glaring exception.  THERE AREN'T ANY OTHER PEOPLE WAITING IN FRONT OF YOU!

Why is that?  Because they've gone through security so fast they don't have time to slow down.

I made it through in maybe 30 seconds, and it was everything I imagined it could be.

I didn't take off my shoes.  I kept my pants up with my belt the entire time.  I didn't take my computer out of my bag.  I even felt easier about ignoring the TSA's stupid liquid bag rules that I never pay attention to.

Bags on the conveyor, walk through a metal detector, retrieve bags, get on with more important business like thinking about anything else.

I was worried I went through too fast, that somewhere around a corner lurked a hidden plainclothes TSA officer waiting to jump out and throw some stupid ineffectual procedure at me.

But there wasn't.  The long kabuki nightmare of airport security was over!

Or so I thought.

Do you want to know the only thing frustrating about an expedited security process is?

When you've opted in and are on the cleared list and the DON'T LET YOU IN!

As you can probably infer, the next week when I returned to security checkpoint #8 at Terminal 3.  I again offered up my boarding pass for clearance into the PreCheck line.

This time, no dice.  No explanation either, just a point to the full security line next door.

No more expedited processing, remember to take your shoes off, your laptop out, and to smile for the $5.50 per hour jerk who gets to look at a naked backscatter image of you.

All that dignity I got back the week before was torched.

It was cruel, to offer such a great advantage, and then for no reason take it away (other than the TSA guidance that they won't always let you in and that they use random screening methods).  If you thought your were mad at TSA security before, just wait until they agree you qualify for expedited processes, then make you stand and watch as others get permission to go ahead while you wait to be treated like any other member of Al Qaeda.  An added bonus, with this random element to whether you clear or not, you certainly can't plan on breezing through security and save time or get extra sleep.  Kudos to the TSA for taking a perfectly good idea and screw-jobbing its most trustworthy fliers.

If I were an airline, I'd be a little ticked at this.  My opinion of American Airlines takes a bit of a hit when they facilitate my membership in this thing and then it backfires and actually makes my experience worse.  If I were one of them, I'd pay the TSA whatever it wanted to make sure everyone on the list could get through quickly (even if it meant asking passengers for more personal details).  I'd let them have anything they wanted...it'd be better than getting my hopes up every time I get to that boarding pass scanner and getting rejected. 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Definitive Guide to iPad News Reader Apps

The 'D' key on my laptop is pretty messed up, I'd say it's working at maybe 50%...So if you notice a paucity of D's throughout this and future blog posts, that's why.

Of course, I hadn't thought of that when I thought up the title for this post, one that has a very prominent D and forced me to go back and fix it after the first try...Anyway...

It would be a huge exaggeration to say that my iPad changed my life. Before I got it as a birthday gift, it was hard for me to see the point in owning one. I had an iPhone, which I loved...why did I need a bigger iPhone that couldn't make calls?

Perhaps that was a bit naive of me, but it quickly became apparent that the iPad was a complete substitute for my personal computer. It couldn't replace my work laptop, because, well, I still needed to do actual work...but for everything else on a computer, it proved far superior (especially since I don't play hardcore PC games).

One of the major things I use my iPad for is reading news/magazine articles. And much to my wife's chagrin, there are seemingly infinite sources of input to draw on. All kinds of articles at all hours of the day and night.

And with all those items to read, naturally App makers have competed to offer the most effective and/or elegant solution. And since I'm addicted to both finding new apps and reading news, I've been evaluating just about all of them.

Some of them are good, and some of them are bad, and what's struck me when I compare them is that they're good and bad for wildly different reasons. It's not just about one critical dimension (e.g., content, interface). Each one is it's own unique app snowflake trying to get me relevant information in the slickest way possible. (And note, there's no reason why you can't have all these apps for different types of news consumption...I certainly do, and I think the ideal solution is a set of a couple that complement each other well)

I debated creating a scoring metric and grading each one out on a number of critical dimensions. But that seemed to scientific and frankly, far too time consuming...so I'll just offer a synopsis of each one and my thoughts for the people that either care or navigated their way here by accident and are looking to avoid doing work today.


Most ambitious idea that doesn't get there: Hitpad


Hitpad wants to give you a ton of stuff, and it does, but its curation leaves a ton to be desired. The app's goal is to define the major topics of the day (i.e., keywords to look up news and articles), and then it floods the bottom half of your screen with recent article results, recent video results, photos, and twitter updates on a given topic.

In theory, it's not a bad idea, but I don't think the technology allows them to provide a very compelling user experience. The problems start with their version of 'Top Stories', which are the terms they choose to put on their header. Examples for right now are, True Blood, Autism, Katie Couric, Mitt Romney, and Burger King.

Ok...I acknowledge those are things that I've heard of. But there's no indication of what's important about them or why I should care. This is should be where the news and video and twitter results should work, but they really don't. For example, the top Twitter result they provide reads 'Mitt Romney is just a worthless human being'. Which would be a story if Obama said it, but when it comes from LizzyUWHusky...who cares???

I don't fault the developers for trying to make something all-encompassing, but it seems like it needs a lot of work in figuring out what content is actually relevant.

Most disappointing display from a tech incumbent: Google Currents


I was very excited when Google launched Currents, their offering in this space, some time ago. I assumed they'd have it all figured out (in hindsight, Google+ should've been a good indicator).

Thus far, I've been extremely underwhelmed. In this app, you select a set of specific feeds you want to keep tabs on (e.g., TechCrunch, Deadline.com, Fast Company), and Google's app will give you access to each of them in a centralized location.

Of course, there are a couple problems with this approach. The first is consistent with most apps in this space, and that's the fact that I have to tell the thing what feeds I'm looking for. Sure, I have a good idea of what news sources I want to read, but honestly, why should I have to do the work? Plus, by selecting my own set of discrete feeds, I'm ruling out anything that's NOT included, which hurts my ability to find new interesting things. Sure I love reading TechCrunch, but why can't the app use my habits to give me other stuff I might like from new sources?

That's not even the biggest problem with Currents (and it's not a Currents-specific problem either, so it would be unfair to single them out here). Currents biggest problem is it takes FOREVER to load the new content. The app refreshes each individual source, one at a time, in excruciatingly slow fashion. It's noticeably slower than all my other apps in this regard, and its what's kept me from using it at all. Picture a screen like the one above, with each source getting its own progress bar one at a time and slowly filling in sequence.

It gets me aggravated just thinking about it.

They probably just fired all the people responsible for this: Livestand from Yahoo!


Yahoo! has an entry in this space too, although I'm not sure I like it any more than I like Google's.

The interface is actually pretty nice to look at, but that's kind of where the positives end for me.

I found it pretty hard to use, and difficult to access the content I wanted or even add content I was looking for.

I could spend more time detailing my gripes specifically, but Yahoo! just canned a ton of people, so what are the odds anyone is left to fix it anyway?

Industry behemoth with its own slant: Huffington Post


If you're talking about news aggregation it's pretty hard to get this far into a discussion and not mention the Huffington Post. The 500-pound gorilla of online news, which sucks up content from all over the web and spits it out in a centralized location.

I like Huffington Post, and I definitely read it often, but I do take a couple issues with it.

I think the interface is fine, and smooth to navigate. Plus, unlike many other apps, this one does all the aggregation for you. No picking sources, no customizing what news feeds you want to see. There's a simplicity in that model that has some good value, though we could also argue that it doesn't belong in this comparison set and shouldn't be judged as a news aggregation app. That may be true, but I've already written one paragraph, so we're past that.

My biggest issue with them is that you get all the news, but it's the news they want you to see, and its portrayed as they want to portray it.

While I'm a liberal, and enjoy reading stuff I personally agree with, what keeps me from being more dedicated to Huffington Post is the fact that it's so over the top left in everything it reports. Every article, whether through headline, photos, or very strategic word choice, is really just feeding me propaganda. It clearly has an agenda, and while there's a place for that in my reading appetite, I really like spending more time with views that are more objective.

Still, I like the app, and it's not going anywhere.

So far, we've covered a four apps that I'm not particularly in love with. If you've read this far, you might be wondering if there are any apps I'd tell anyone to go out and get for news aggregation. You're in luck, because there are in fact a few that I highly recommend.

Media darling: Flipboard


If you've even thought about getting a news aggregation app for your iPad, chances are its Flipboard. This company has gotten more publicity than any other app I can think of for reading news. (It's also collected a boatload of financing money)

And it's hard to argue, because it's a pretty sweet application. Like Google Currents and others, Flipboard lets you create your own account and attach a set of specific news feeds to your application. It also lets you hook up your facebook and twitter accounts, which it will then also source article links from.

The interface is really what makes it unique, as it formats everything like a newspaper, allowing you to flip page by page and click into stories you're particularly interested in.

It's a very smooth process (although I hate some content publishers like ProFootballTalk.com which force you to click through to their website rather than read the entire story in the app) and in my experience the loading times take a lot less than Google Currents with a better interface than Livestand, Huffington Post, or others.

And it's free, so why not have it?

Why isn't this one more popular: Pulse



Pulse, like Flipboard, is also pretty slick and definitely worth having. While it doesn't have the page flipping interface of Flipboard, what Pulse does is allow you to create separate pages, each with their own set of feeds. Those feeds then become one large page that lets you slide around looking for interesting articles (as an example, I have a politics page with a bunch of blog feeds, a business page with lots of technology news, and a sports page with things like Deadspin, ESPN, and others)

Whereas Flipboard makes you select each individual source to flip through, Pulse allows you to combine multiple sources into a single page or set of pages. It makes it easier to looking through multiple sources at once. For that alone, it has a special place in my news aggregation toolbox (which is becoming increasingly large!)

But one problem remains consistent through nearly all of these apps, and that's the problem of content discovery.

I like finding things to read, but these apps largely force me to pick a set of sources. They make me define my content universe and then they're happy to serve up anything from within that space.

But that's a problem for me. I don't know what else is out there. And maybe that stuff's worth reading too!

Hitwise tries to solve that problem, but it's ability to find the right stuff isn't there yet. Huffington Post does try to aggregate interesting stuff, but honestly so much of it is click-spam like slide shows that I really don't expect them to have the answer. Flipboard's solution is the most elegant, leveraging your social connections on Facebook and Twitter to source links shared by others, which is definitely a good attempt at a solution.

However, one app does try to bring stuff to you, rather than limiting itself to the feeds you've selected.

My favorite...for now: Zite


I'm an unabashed Zite lover. In my view, the app (which was acquired by CNN of all people), does the best job of bringing me stuff that I don't already know about in a clear and easy to use format.

With Zite, you basically set up a series of sections (e.g., sports, business), and Zite does the rest, filling it with news/magazine stories from a variety of sources that it thinks you will like.

But as you use the application, Zite continually asks for your feedback on individual stories. Like your old Tivo, it uses a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to help calibrate the types of stories you're most interested in to cater its offerings to your tastes.

So there's no stupid setup process to pick individual sources of news, you just start with a general topic area and it gets customized from there. I've also found their sources to be pretty diverse, including reports from places I hadn't even heard of. I also like the fact that if you really don't like material from a specific place, you can turn it off (Which I did very quickly for Bleacher Report, but interestingly not at all for Breitbart.com)

The app meets my needs pretty much exactly. It gives me a smooth interface to navigate, it offers content from a ton of sources that I haven't pre-selected, and it works to improve the news it brings to me.

Of course, they've gotten in some trouble for this as publishers haven't exactly enjoyed their inclusion (some sent them a cease and desist letter). And now they've made news for including a specific set of publishers who you can single out for inclusion in your feed (smells like trouble to me).

But for now, I'm going to continue using them and hope the team doesn't monkey with it too much and screw up a great thing.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

This is why Best Buy Sucks

I was excited late last week when I found out about a new social media promotion that would reward me for doing things I would normally do anyway in return for sacrificing what I'm sure is an absurdly creepy level of personal information. I write a blog and post videos to YouTube, so clearly I don't have that many reservations about sharing.

Anyway, Amex, which seems to be focused on maintaining a lead in social media linked promotions, is at it again. After successfully linking my Amex card to both Foursquare and Facebook (and getting at least ~$75 in value so far), it was Twitter's turn.

So the deal is, if you link your card to your account and tweet a certain hashtag, boom, statement credit. It's already worked once for a new pair of running shoes I ordered from Zappos, earning me $10 just for spamming my 30+ followers (it might have given me more pause if I had more followers, which I'm guessing works against what Amex is going for, but anyway).

I tweeted another couple retailer specific hashtags, including one for Best Buy.

The deal was a $10 credit for a purchase of at least $10 at a Best Buy. Seemed pretty simple to me. There's a Best Buy store 2 blocks from my apartment, so it looked like a slam dunk. After all, there are a couple things I could certainly use that Best Buy should sell, specifically a new pair of workout headphones and a new bumper/case for my iPhone.

I figured, I just need something cheap, nothing fancy given the amount of use I put on those things.

So I went over to Best Buy and checked out their headphones. There were certainly some crappy ones to choose from, on the low racks far away from the Dr. Dre Beats gigantic headphones and other premium stuff. Unfortunately, all the crappy headphones were at least $14-$15. That struck me as odd, and seemed quite expensive for what literally must be the crappiest headphones available.

OK, so headphones were out, I could just order them on Amazon. Then I moved over to the phone accessories.

I've been using the free bumper Apple issued during its whole antenna-gate issue. I've never been super happy with it and it's been wearing out. Again, time for something in the minimalist style. Just keep it from breaking, that's all I'm looking for.

And again, there were several cheap bumpers to pick from.

I looked over the various options, and again, was amazed.

Nothing, not one case, was under $15.

Seriously? I know they have these elsewhere for half the price.

I soon realized why I hadn't been in a Best Buy in several years, and hadn't bought anything from one in several more years. Their prices are absolutely ridiculous.

I'd get it if they had some reason for premium prices, like educated salespeople providing great service (note: no one talked to me the entire time I was there, although that's honestly what I'd prefer). Clearly theirs is not a service-based model. So it seems like one based on providing no-frills access to goods at premium prices.

No wonder they're struggling.

The only things I could use my $10 discount on seemed to be either bargain basement DVDs (a dead technology, can't tell you the last time I watched one), or on several movie theater boxes of candy they have near the register.

If they have Mike & Ike's, then I'm all over it. I'll get the electronic stuff from Amazon.

Monday, March 12, 2012

NCAA Basketball Pool Betting Strategies

We're at that point where someone in CBS Sportsline HQ flips out because they're worried that all their serves will crash. It's NCAA basketball time again. Well, it's technically been NCAA basketball time for quite a while as they had this whole regular season thing. But for all of us, now's the time where we test our predicting mettle by wagering against entire teams of people from our lives. Relatives, friends, co-workers, it's time to compete with them for bracketology glory. Unfortunately, even for the experts, it's a path fraught with danger and the stench of embarrassing failure looming around every upset pick.

It's even worse for someone like me, with a complete ignorance of college basketball to the point where I'm not sure I could tell you a single player on any team. That's because I went to Penn State, a school which I can confirm does have a basketball team, but one whose last coach fled the program for a better job at the U.S. Naval Academy.

I used to pay a little more attention back when John Chaney used to coach Temple. I liked his Philadelphia attitude, persistent underdog-ness and all. That and he tried to beat the crap out of John Calipari, who everyone seems to agree is a major scumbag (video below).



Back then, I couldn't wait for the tournament because I could unveil my system.

My 'system', if you could all it that, was taking the Philadelphia Inquirer's sports section the day they ran their tournament preview, and using that information to analyze each matchup.

Of course, this was before the Internet or easily available statistics, so my analysis consisted of a couple key theories...

1 - Did the team have a really big guy? Teams with big guys tend to win.
2 - Did a team make a ton of three pointers? I thought those would be important
3 - What did the scouting report say?

Now that I'm older and a bit wiser, I realize those scouting reports were almost assuredly just thrown together by the lowest paid writer in the room once they finished filing their high school field hockey update. But at the time this was a source of expertise to me.

I didn't do very well at picking the games back then. And of course, not much has changed.

Because over the last few years I've really just come to terms with the fact that I don't know anything about basketball, and even if I did, I wouldn't be likely to win anyway.

Since I don't follow the game at all, my normal course of action would be to simplify the whole thing and pick all the #1 seeds to make the final four, and pick no upsets at all. Trust the judgment of selection sunday, that's why they're the experts right?

But if you're in a pool with a large enough group of people (like any company pool), that strategy only gets you a shot at placing you somewhere near the top quartile. You'll beat lots of people who bet on their own analysis, their own alma mater, or whatever other voodoo they use. But you almost definitely won't win, it's just because someone somewhere will have similar championship matchups/winners, and will have another pick somewhere along the way that you didn't.

And coming close to victory is actually worse that finishing in last. One year I managed to lose my pool by one point, and since ours was a winner-take-all pool, I may as well have picked Princeton to win it all.

So I won't be doing that this year. Instead, I'm going to try and pick a team for the championship that has a strong possibility for winning, but won't be an overwhelming favorite. Then, for the remaining games, I'll just go with whoever the public is taking. That should make sure I don't spend too much time on this (and can better spend it doing other things, like writing silly blog posts or maybe doing work for my client)

Using this page, I can see who people are currently picking as their winner on ESPN.com, which should certainly be a good enough indicator of the 'public'.

Now, I want a team with a reasonable shot at victory, so I'll pick from the top 10 teams in the public's mind (% indicates % of brackets picking that team for the championship).

Kentucky - 33%
North Carolina - 15%
Syracuse - 11%
Michigan State - 7%
Missouri - 7%
Kansas - 6%
Ohio State - 4%
Duke - 4%
Florida State - 3%
Baylor - 2%

Right away, we can junk Kentucky and North Carolina. Far too popular for my liking. And I'm also going to dump Syracuse as their coach has some unkind things to say about Penn State, you know, for the whole molestation thing. From our remaining seven, I also want to try and avoid teams I just have a certain distaste for. By that, I mean Duke and Florida State (sorry to Seminole fans for lumping them with Duke, but I've hated them since Bobby Bowden, and although I realize it's a different sport, I don't have to be rational here).

Now we're left with:

Michigan State - 7%
Missouri - 7%
Kansas - 6%
Ohio State - 4%
Baylor - 2%

Hmm...how to differentiate...

Well. Texas gave us Rick Perry and, somewhat more notably, George Bush. So screw Baylor.

Kansas had Bob Dole, who I actually thought was funny as a person (and apparently is still alive!). Nothing against him, but I also faintly remember seeing some anti-abortion legislation or something, so that earns another X.

Left with Michigan State, Missouri, and Ohio State, I'm not sure what to do. But, given that I'm based in Chicago, and that this region tends to be overweighted to the Big 10, I think I'll just whack the Spartans and Buckeyes because it's easy and I'm dangerously close to taking longer than 5 minutes.

So go Missouri! And apart from you, go favorite teams!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Celebrating Birthday Solstice with a Trip to Five Below (Pics included)

Your first question might be, what the hell is a birthday solstice, before you get to the eventual question of why we would celebrate this (or any other) occasion with a trip to Five Below.

First things first, when my wife and I were dating, one thing we noticed (when we weren't being awkward or relating charming anecdotes) was that both our birthdays fell on the 25th of our respective birth months. Since the math of number of months was easy, we also quickly figured out the the midpoints between our two birthdays.

Since my wife was born in June, and I was born in October, it meant that to us, the 25th of August and February were the closest and farthest points of the calendar year from both of our birthdays (And yes, the math on the days might not work exactly given months have 30 or 31 days, and god help us during a leap year, but we kept it simple).

So, we created the 'Birthday Solstice', as a day of the solstice is "either the "longest day of the year" or the "shortest day of the year" for any place on Earth, because the length of time between sunrise and sunset on that day is the yearly maximum or minimum for that place"

Thanks Wikipedia...plus it's a fun word to say, and thus two holidays were born.

So what does one do on a Birthday Solstice? Well, that brings us back to our second question.

When we established the Birthday Solstice, my wife and I decided the occasion would be one marked with small and relatively insignificant gifts. Not insignificant from an emotional perspective, purely from a monetary one. By that, I mean, extremely cheap gifts.

Typically we have a price limit of $5 per gift.

Thus, what better place to go then Five Below! To help those unfamiliar, this is a description from the store's Wikipedia page:

"Five Below (rendered fiVe BELoW) is a privately held chain of discount stores found in a number of states. The store, as the name suggests, sells products that cost no more than $5.00. The chain is aimed at teenagers and pre-teens, but has many products for adults"

So, my wife and I went on what I'd term a cultural safari (one of my favorite hobbies, other recent safaris include our trip to the Texas State Fair and the Chicago Auto Show).

Below is a set of some of the most compelling things I saw...

Behold the bargains!!!


The store itself is broken down into a bunch of different sections, and the wife and I did a lap of the store before going our separate ways. We agreed on a $10 limit (in part because there were too many things to consider). They had tons of sections including clothing, athletic equipment, home decor, school supplies, candy, books, games...I could go on. It was a tad overwhelming. But we would not be deterred in our quest for the perfect solstice gifts.


This was the first serious contender I saw. Sure there were tons of those As Seen on TV gadgets, but this was a container that allowed you to transport both milk and cereal independently. You could bring them everywhere without allowing them to intermingle and ruin each other. Strom Thurmond would be proud of the advancement in segregation technology.

This was way better than some of the other items, like the giant cupcake maker. And my wife does like cereal, so maybe she would eat it at work?

Seemed a bit of a stretch, so I pressed on.

But as I moved on, I started to get more into stuff for kids. What struck me, walking through the random crap, was how little I understand about today's young people.


Like these guys, found them in the poster rack along with dozens of other faces I had never seen before.

Who the hell put a couple ten year olds on a poster? What the heck is Mindless Behavior? Was it just someone's idea to get four mini Kanye Wests? Are they the sons of Boyz II Men? Didn't these poster racks used to have Bob Marley and weed jokes everywhere? What happened to those (as they would've made great gifts for the wife)?


Then there's this guy. He's a Gorilla...and apparently he sings.

I don't think I'm comfortable in a society that personifies animals to the point where not only are they singing, but 'pop groovin'. The packaging also implies that when you buy it you get an exclusive online gift for your active Webkinz World account. I'm just assuming that refers to an online community crawling with child predators.

But clearly all these toys weren't going to cut it for the wife, so I started going through the games section. A travel scrabble game, or something like that, could be a decent choice.

Of course, this was what I found instead...


After my seizure subsided, I kept looking, but wow the colors were just so out of control. I also debated buying that Spy Kit for myself. I'm sure I could've used those Spy sunglasses.

There were tons of games to choose from, including some versions of stuff everyone knows (e.g., Sorry) and then some other, um, different titles.


There were TONS of these games everywhere. For some reason, parents didn't seem to want to buy their kids board games based on the concept of teaching them manners. I thought we eliminated manners with the transition to text-based communication?

Of course with that said, I am kind of intrigued to play the 'Learning to Listen Pizza Palace' game.

So there were some stupid games, but they seemed relatively harmless...until I found a complete abomination!


Recognize this?!?

It's some kind of new version of Guess Who from the Island of Dr. Moreau. A Guess Who that involves combining different qualities from animals or monsters or something to create a face. I, for one, am outraged.

That's not the REAL Guess Who!

The REAL Guess Who had human faces! Like THESE!


And we played that game and it taught us lessons that made my brothers and I into successful men! Like never have a mustache! Or any kind of elaborate hat! And for god's sake don't ever pick a woman!

That game taught us so much, and now they've bastardized it. So sad.

Once I calmed myself down, I kept going to see what else was around. Only to see more potential risks for the future.


There's a long list of things you can do as a potential parent that should put you on some kind of Child Services Watchlist.

- Letting your kid play with matches
- Deciding to Home School them
- Buying them boxing gloves when they're f*cking 4!

I kept walking around but had to pick up speed with what to buy my wife (I agree at this point it really doesn't seem like I'd find anything)


I love it. High concept enough to only need one word. SWORDS!

I know exactly what that game is, although maybe it should've been called, F*cking SWORDS!

Maybe then it wouldn't be on the $5 rack. I'm sure Sean Connery would pick up a copy were he to shop at Five Below.


Then there's this. Not just a movie, but an entire TV SERIES for $5. Meanwhile just one season of Game of Thrones is $30. For that price you could own six of these! Poor Christian Slater.


Now let's side aside what the heck was so great about Prison Tycoon 1 and Prison Tycoon 2. This is a computer game?!?

What could this game possibly be?!? Are you in charge of successfully monitoring the drug trade? Making sure the white supremacists and the muslim brotherhood don't start a riot? Lobby the government for mandatory minimum sentences to keep profits high?

How is this a game? And how much shower rape do we think there is?

These were interesting choices, but nothing that blew me away. I also walked through the candy section...


OK, I think we're officially DONE with the brand extensions here guys. At this point we're jamming coconut into M&Ms? I bet the Mounds guys must be like, 'What the hell?!?'

Maybe 5% of people like coconut, it just seems like a blatant grab for some niche market.


OK, no THIS seems like a blatant grab for a niche market.

Fiesta starbust? I can't wait for the African-American Starburst.

But wait, maybe not all of the ideas were crazy...


Huzzah! Finally a Starburst that takes all the non-reds the hell out of the equation. Starburst is (are?) a premium candy, a classic. But there was always pulling them out of the tube to get a whole bunch of yellow, which might as well have been a slap to the face.

After what must've been years of struggle, someone finally convinced them that red is where the action is. I definitely should've bought these.

But I wasn't there for candy, I was there for presents. And I finally found some stuff that would be perfect for my wife.

(no pictures, sorry) I got her a pair of pajama shorts (note: not to be confused with pajama jeans, which they did not carry). I also got her a new water bottle, because her old one is gross, and a book of logic puzzles (so she doesn't need my iPad on future plane rides).

She also found some stuff for me...


I subtle hint to work on my core I guess.

But she also got me a book on football and this magnet.


All in all, not a bad way to celebrate a birthday solstice.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Reuters changes editorial policy...a harbinger of things to come

I've blogged at length on how the journalism industry is being forced to change, as facts become more ubiquitous and more easily distributed.

In short, the reporting of facts has very little value, as 1) it becomes more easily distributed, and 2) it becomes more automated. In the next few years we'll reach the point where companies like NarrativeScience create software that can digest a whole bunch of facts and spit out an objective story to recap it for anyone interested. OK, so maybe they've already figured that out, but it will take a while for them and others like them to take over the whole segment.

Anyway, for journalism to continue to be relevant, one of the points I've consistently made was that writers will need to go deeper. Not just long form pieces like traditional features in magazines (though this is also an option), but also more investigative efforts. When easily distributed facts have their distribution automated, you've got to be able to find new facts no one knows.

So it was heartening to see a major news organization like Reuters announce, in an internal meeting, that there will be a renewed focus on investigative journalism.

Reuters is adopting a new editorial approach aimed at winning Pulitzer Prizes: long, in-depth, investigative special reports from all bureaux. In the longer term the organisation will have fewer journalists; they will be better paid. There will be strict attention to performance and greater staff turnover; foreign postings will be longer than the usual three years; international assignment packages will be eliminated.

This was the essence of a briefing for European chief correspondents given at a recent meeting in London called by editor-in-chief Stephen Adler, his deputy Paul Ingrassia and Stuart Karle, chief operating officer for Reuters news agency, according to various accounts of the session by people present.

Under the new dispensation correspondents will have to set themselves a minimum target for long-form investigative takeouts and keep to it.

During a recent visit to European bureaux Ingrassia contrasted what he termed “adrenaline journalism” – the traditional wire service story flow – with “aspiration journalism” – the new investigative writing at length that is now being pushed for editorial operations.


Now, this might be put forth under the guise of trying to win more Pulitzers, and maybe it's not a guise at all. But whether on purpose or not, Reuters is doing something that will force its writers to develop the skills they'll need to keep their jobs.

For those that can build investigative chops, they'll still have work to do. The rest however, will face the same circumstances as elevator operators and bank tellers.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Comcast Streampix vs. Netflix vs. ???

There were a couple of interesting developments for those of us in the 'how can we stream everything to all our things?' set of consumers.

Comcast, the frequently lamented cable powerhouse, revealed a new online streaming service to leverage some of the assets it picked up in its acquisition of NBC.

The offering, which includes access to past seasons of TV shows such as 30 Rock, Grey’s Anatomy, Lost and The Office as well as movies like Brokeback Mountain, Ocean’s Eleven and The Big Lebowski, will cost $4.99 per month when bundled with other Comcast video packages. It will also be included for free with many Xfinity “triple-play packages.”

Of course, anyone currently subscribing to Comcast might look at this and wonder, 'I'm expected to pay MORE money to these guys?!?'

That would include yours truly. Comcast is the only company who manages to charge me a different and increasing amount every month in maddeningly inconsistent ways. It's at the point where my wife and I always fight over whose turn it is to call and complain (because they seem to acknowledge their lack of transparency and discount appropriately with enough subtle threats against the health of their CSRs)

But still, let's put that aside and consider the new service with an open mind...


Content: Appears to be NBC shows, and those from other networks. 30 Rock and The Office included. I have to imagine this includes the whole back catalog and new episodes (thinking HBOGo but for NBC, right?). It'll also have movies, but the press release leads with Ocean's Eleven and the Big Lebowski...so this may be some more long tail stuff. Bottom line, forget the movies, if it has a good set of television shows, that may be a solid proposition, especially if they can keep it off other services

Access: The article indicates we'll be able to get Streampix (which honestly sounds more like an porn website than a mainstream content offering, but let's set aside that for a minute) on multiple devices. You can get it on the iPad and the internet, which is a good start. They also report they'll expand availability to things like Xbox, which could be nice, but honestly all this stuff will also be available on Comcast Video on Demand. This wouldn't be a big deal except you need to subscribe to Comcast cable to even get this service, so I can't see anyone who would want to use an alternative TV hookup like a Roku or Xbox, unless they just detest Comcast's Video on Demand interface (which I'd agree with).

Price: $5/month, which certainly is at a good point relative to Netflix and other offerings. But really, since it's only available to Comcast subscribers, I'm still trying to reconcile who will want to bump up their bill a little more just to get 30 Rock on their iPad. Maybe traveling professionals like me, but we'll see how many more people like that are out there.

The other more interesting development comes out of the Netflix camp, which must've felt a little slighted at Comcast's attention for Streampix.

Netflix is discussing a partnership with former HBO Films president Colin Callender to produce original content, including mini-series and movies, for the online video service, according to three people with knowledge of the talks who are not authorized to speak about them publicly.


Netflix has already publicly identified HBO as their true competition, and this makes the comparison all the more apt. Netflix has continued to push the development of original content for their platform, including their new series about a hitman in Norway, Lilyhammer.

Hiring a former head of HBO, it's hard not to envision the company trying to recreate an HBO environment that created award winning programming and built it into the first premium channel to really move onto customers' 'must-have' lists.

Heck, for me, Netflix has already picked up the new episodes of Arrested Development, so they've already shoved me across the 'must-have' threshold.

If they can actually pick up some more valuable content, or manage to develop anything worth seeing on their own, people will start to have to have it (Imagine if it followed AMC's path and had Mad Men/Breaking Bad/Walking Dead. That's absolutely worth $7/month)

Meanwhile, HBO does have a killer streaming service.

HBO Go is fantastic, to anyone who hasn't been able to use it. The interface isn't terrible, and it has a complete library of tons of shows. I used it last week to re-watch some old Season 3 Wire episodes while my wife simultaneously DVR'd Grey's Anatomy and something else that was obviously better than Grey's Anatomy.

Now, HBO remains hesitant to go full-bore after the streaming market, and it's no question why. One hint, the streaming market's still very very tiny relative to the regular cable market. There are far more regular subscribers than streamers, and given Netflix's price point, it's hard to imagine HBO being able to charge it's current cable price ($17/month at Comcast) for a standalone streaming service.

But if Netflix, Redbox/Verizon, and any others gain ground with the development of original content, they'll quickly force customers to choose a couple streaming channels vs. a couple premium cable channels (or a sports package, or expanded basic).

If they can build good content, then the economics for HBO offering a standalone streaming service (and others like Showtime) will start to change quickly.

It looks like HBO won't be caught with it's pants down. So they're already one up on Blockbuster, the last company Netflix efficiently destroyed.