Saturday, February 26, 2005

Of Dinosaurs, Radio Shack, and a bit about Capitalism

"Wow, look! A dinosaur!"

We were having brunch a few weeks ago, after playing snow disc under clear skies with temperatures running in the high 40s; the Milkman was referring to my cell phone.

I took a certain amount of pride in my old Audiovox CDM-9000, which I'd had for almost 5 years. It's never been a priority for me to have the latest, greatest, gee-whiz new-fangled doo-dad. When I bought my PDA (a B&W Handspring Visor Edge) over 3 years ago, it was right around the time they had discontinued making it. I've had my stereo amp and tuner since college (if they were people, they'd be allowed to vote by now), and they were refurbished models when I bought them. I'd been looking for a new cell phone, but it was hard to justify since the one I already had was working just fine. The buttons were starting to go, but overall I couldn't complain: it got good signal and I'd never really had any problems with it. (And there's that whole trying not to spend money because I still don't have a job thing.) I hadn't really NEEDED a new phone.

You'll notice that I wrote a lot of that in the past tense.

And that would be because the Milkman's little comment was apparently something of a harbinger of doom. Pretty much the next day, my phone died.

So it really was time to get a new cellphone.

The problem is that I'm pretty picky about the features I've wanted in a new phone, and Verizon seems to be determined not to offer the combination I've been looking for. For what it's worth, I wanted a tri-mode phone, clamshell, with an LCD display on the outside, and NO CAMERA.

I mean, how hard is that?

Hard enough apparently.

The sticking point seems to be the camera. They're pretty much ubiquitous these days, and while I think it's pretty nifty that it's A PHONE AND A CAMERA (AT THE SAME TIME!!!), when it comes right down to it, I don't need it. Just like I don't need mobile web. Or video on demand. (Crikey, I don't even use video on demand IN MY FREAKING HOUSE!)

I don't want it. I don't need it. And I sure as hell don't want to need it.

I'd been checking the Verizon website on a fairly regular basis after learning that they would offer up to a $100 credit on a new phone to existing customers. But the selection has always been fairly limited*.

Ok, the selection sucked.

So I figured I'd just be stuck with my old phone for the rest of my natural life.

And then I walked into the Radio Shack at the Fresh Pond Mall.

I had been in the area for a required DUA seminar at the Career Source and wandered in to try and find a replacement battery for a cordless (landline) phone.

Let me now state for the record here that I've always held a wee bit of contempt for Radio Shack. Just a deep-seated visceral response probably rooted in an ancient Apple ][+ versus TRS(trash)-80 rivalry and memories of lame electronics kits and crappy alkaline batteries. I admit that it's fairly irrational, but there it is. And it hasn't been helped by a few recent experiences where the service has been uninspiring to say the least.

Let's take my original attempt at finding the replacement battery as an example.

I had originally looked for the battery at a Shack down on Main Street in Waltham. I don't find the stores particularly well organized, but I manage to find the rechargeable phone batteries. Unfortunately, they don't seem to be in any particular order and they all seem to be based on phone models and, silly me, I just wrote down the specs and part number of the BATTERY. (And did I mention that even if you know the phone model number, the phone model information is printed on the back of the package, so you have to pull the package off the rack to see if it's the right one?) I go through them anyway, hoping to pattern match on the voltage and current, checking to see if it fits a Panasonic phone (for any model), but no luck. So I go talk to the guy behind the counter (after he helps two other people in the store).

I have to bring in the phone, he tells me. I ask him again just to make sure I was hearing him right (I was), and then left, too dumbfounded to ask why he couldn't somehow, maybe, look it up, like, on a computer or something.

Yeah, I'm not so fond of the Shack. In my head, I think of them as the Scrap. Or, Radio Crap.

So back to Fresh Pond. I walk into the store, fully expecting to be disappointed when I'm asked if I need any help and I tell him about the battery I'm looking for. And he just walks over to the rack and hands it to me. And then says something to the effect of: "I think this is the one you want, but I'll double-check on the computer." Huh, a computer. Who'da thunk it? I'm amazed at the technological advances they've made in the last week. So cool, I get my battery. After I pay, I look over the cell phones before I head out. (I find it odd that the Shack sells cell phones, but whatever. It's particularly interesting that the other Shack in Waltham that's in the mini-mall down the street is just 2-3 storefronts down from an actual Verizon store. And while I'm on the subject, does anyone else think that these brick and mortar corporate cell phone stores are stupid? Especially when they probably have better accessibility through these 3rd party resellers? Like Radio Shack?) The sales guy notices me looking and asks again if I need any help. I tell him no, Verizon never has the phone I'm looking for, but I usually check just for shits and giggles. He asks what I'm looking for, I give him the list, and then he points out two (not one, but TWO) phones that are the droids I'm looking for.

"Are you sure they're tri-mode?" I ask.
"Yup," he says.

Huh, again. I file this information away (since I'm still trying to be circumspect about my spending), thank him and leave.

So when my phone dies, I go through the motions and check the Verizon site, and then hit Fresh Pond the next day.

Different guy, just as helpful. He pulls out the phones so I can actually play with them. Gives me the scoop on their features, but also brings up their specs on a computer in the store. And then leaves me alone so I can figure out what I want to do. I end up with the Motorola v260, and it'll cost me 30 bucks if I renew my contract with Verizon for 2 years. Yeah, cool, whatever. I've stuck with them for over 5 years. I like my plan. Sure, no problem.

Well, no. To get the phone, I have to upgrade my plan, otherwise I have to pay $200 for the phone.

I'm kind of attached to my phone plan. For 35 bucks (plus taxes, fees and assorted reaming charges), I get 150 minutes (low in the grand scheme of phone plans, but perfectly adequate for me) in the USA OneRate plan, which they don't offer anymore, and should not be confused with their America's Choice plan that they're trying to force down everyone's throat. It means there are NO roaming charges, anywhere in the country. It's a really simple coverage/rate map, too. You take a map of the U.S. and just color the whole thing in. I like it. Simple. And it's nice to not have to worry if you're gonna have coverage or be charged for roaming** (which I can never seem figure out exactly how much they're charging).

So I'm not happy about being forced into changing my plan, but the guy convinces me that their National SingleRate plan (which also isn't officially being offered anymore) is basically the same plan that I used to have. Ok. Sold. I'm annoyed with Verizon, but close enough. And hey, new phone.

And that night, I remember that my plan had a promotional (for as long as I had the plan) service of unlimited free weekend minutes. I'm worried again. Did I lose my weekend minutes? The next morning, I call to find out the scoop, expecting the worst. Nope. I still have my weekend minutes, and actually my plan didn't get changed*** at all. It should have been changed, but since it wasn't, they're not going to muck with it. (SCORE! Fresh Pond Radio Shack, you ROCK!)

And then he tries to sell me on the America's Choice plan.


So I go over my standard story about how I don't need that many minutes, and I like not having to worry about coverage and roaming charges in some of the random places I end up, like in the middle of the Mojave desert or obscure parts of New Hampshire or the wilds of Western Mass. That I don't think the Choice plan is the plan for me. And I think I mention that I'm annoyed that they keep changing the plans and are trying to get me to switch. And then he tells me that Verizon is only TRYING TO HELP THE CUSTOMER. . . .

I'm sorry, did you just hear my eyes roll?

It's funny, I had this crazy idea that big companies basically did things to make money. And pretty much as much money as possible. (Of course, preferably in such a way that they can show a nice constant growth trajectory in revenue to make the zombies on Wall Street all collectively soil themselves.)

I mean, I'm sure that a company wouldn't stop doing something that happened to help a customer so long as it wasn't directly getting in the way of the prime directive of making more money. But let's face it: if there were no repercussions for a company to make money by, I dunno, cutting off people's arms to be sold to their next door neighbor, I'm pretty sure it'd happen. In fact, I expect the stockholders would probably demand it. I'm sure there are exception, but as a general rule, I expect a large company to help the customer only because it benefits the company, whether it be to build loyalty, to improve the company's image, to avoid the threat of regulation (Not like that's going to happen these days), or whatever.

I was listening to Marketplace on NPR the other day, and one of the listener letters was complaining about how Verizon was investing in premium services (such as V-CAST) rather then improving their basic services.

Well, Duh.

There is this false idea that capitalism and the spirit of competition will just make everything better. Sure, in some markets you can get price competition, but there will also be competition in quality and service. And even then, there are dependencies: true competition, market saturation, resource availability. And what about companies that are trying to (required to) grow revenue? When stock price and market perception (read: the focus on revenue growth) trumps stability, you get companies emphasizing new features over core service, and cost reduction (like "encouraging" your customer base to switch to internal network plans), especially when you start approaching market saturation.

I find the idea particularly frightening when you start talking about health care and health insurance, where the discussion seems to focus on costs, but the reality is that there is more than one degree of freedom. Competition can reduce costs, but you can't assume that the quality of the care and service will remain fixed. Differentiation and competition will occur on both cost AND quality. And if you can't afford basic health care, you can just suck it up, and hope some band-aids and aspirin will be enough. Sure, you get what you pay for, and if you can't afford to pay: too bad, so sad.

How about an insurance company that's always watching the bottom line, decides that you're high risk (Smoker? Eat fatty foods? Family history of cancer?) so they either charge you an astronomical premium, or just flat out refuse coverage. How well does that idea sit with you? Or what about...

Um, right. I was talking about my new cell phone.


It's got a cool ring though, did I mention that?

*According to a Verizon rep that I talked to (at their store in the Burlington mall), they're pretty picky about qualifying phones which, while possibly providing better reliability and coverage, severely limits their selection. He also said that they tended to only order limited stock because they didn't want to get stuck with a bunch of older models because people were more interested in the latest new thing. (Thus: lots of camera phones; no old, boring tri-mode phones.)

**Since all of this happened, Verizon has changed their America's Choice plan to have no roaming charges. (As is typical, this happens about 2 weeks after I have to deal with the new phone/new phone plan thing.) But they still don't have full national coverage, so I can only assume that you just won't get signal in those areas.

***I've since received a monthly statement and a new contract in the mail that both seem to suggests that I'm only getting free weekend airtime as a special 2-month promotion and that I'm going to be charged $10 a month for the service. I've called Verizon's customer service yet again, and they seem to think that the paperwork is wrong and I really do have free weekend minutes at no additional charge. But I'm not going to believe it until I get my May statement and I don't see any extra charges.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Cold enough

It's not like today was the coldest day that I've ever gone running. According to Weather Underground, it was a balmy 27°F.

Ok, I wasn't exactly happy about it, but like I said, it's been worse.

But it was cold enough, at least for my MP3 player*, that after being outside for a little over an hour, it decided that it'd had enough and started making a loud annoying buzzing noise through the headphones instead of playing music, and completely ignored all the buttons and switches, including the power switch.

I had to pull the battery to make it stop.

Stupid winter.

*Yes, it was the cold. When I replaced the battery, the player reset and then after about a minute or two, it started buzzing again. I jiggled the battery again and moved it from an outside pocket on my fleece pullover to a pocket inside my windpants and it seemed to behave for the rest of the run.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Running errands

It's been a while since I've been out of the house on my own for more than a couple of hours. Usually it's just a short trip to the gym, to the store. Little trips, usually just one destination with maybe a stop on the way home, two to three hours tops.

Today, I had a list. Of lists. Doctor's office, groceries, supplies for school* (starting this week), supplies for Noodlefest (Saturday).

* Yep, I officially signed up for massage therapy school. (Technically muscular therapy school, although I find I keep saying it the other way. Habit, I guess.) Definitely a change in gears that I'm looking forward to, but not yet a complete life change, since school is only part-time (Wednesday evenings and all day Sundays for the next two years) and I expect that I'll probably end up back in engineering in the near term.

I left the house around 10am and headed to the Doctor's office to get a health certification signed that was needed for school. TB test negative -- whoo-hoo! Ahem. Right. You know... There just isn't a lot going on these days...

Anyway, I hit the 'Co to pick up a few things and to see about getting some sheets and hand towels to be used with the massage table. Good deal on the hand towels (12@$13.99+tax), but (surprise, surprise) they only had queen, king and CA-king sized sheet sets. It is the 'Co, after all. But I was looking for twin sheets since I was trying to reduce washer/dryer loads.

So, off to Bed, Bath and Beyond in Burlington where I scored two twin sheet sets for 10 bucks a piece. Interestingly, they were sold out of actual white sheets, so I ended up with ivory sheets. Whatever. While there, I noticed a Trader Joe's conveniently located right next door. The SOOTTAD has been talking about going to TJ's to find affordable organic groceries, so I gave her a call, put together yet another list and picked up a few things there as well.

Heading back to 128, I'm trying to think of the best way to get to Allston, also realizing that it's around 1pm and I'm getting hungry. 128/95 is kind of funny, being a loop around the city of Boston, so the stretch around Burlington goes either East (North) or West-Southwest (South), so in order to get to Allston (Southeast), I figured I'd head East (North) to I-93, head south into town and then pop out to Allston, figuring it'd be easier that backtracking West (South) on 128 and then navigating all manner of roads to wiggle my way into town. (Seriously, look at the map) And best of all, I could stop in Chinatown to grab some cheap eats for lunch and maybe hit a bakery to get extra treats. A good plan on the eats (four bucks for a bowl of wonton noodle soup), not so good on the baked goods -- all the bakeries are closed because of the Lunar New Year. (Xin nian kuai le, BTW.)

So over to the Soopah 88. Much meat and starch were acquired. (Annoyingly, but not surprisingly, there was limited availability of quality noodles of the preferred brand. I resorted to secondary supplies, but even then, we may need to supplement on Saturday.) Garlic and leafy greens were also unacceptable, so I resolved to hit to the Wagon Wheel before heading home.

But first back to CostCo, because I noticed that the beef was cheaper there. It's almost 4pm, and there are lines now. Ugh. I should have bought it earlier when I had the chance. And hey, I've been driving around with milk and chicken from TJ's in my trunk for the last 3 hours. Good thing it's only in the mid-30s today.

Last stop is the Wheel, and even though I know it's only a 10 minute side trip, I just want to be home now. I'm done -- I surrender. Shopping day is over.

And then I realize that I've only been out-and-about for 6 hours or so, and I can't understand what I'm complaining about. It's not like I'm stuck at the office for 8, 10, 12 hours. It's pathetic, really. What a lazy. sack. of. shit.

So I suck it up, hit the Wheel, and head home.

4:30pm. Mission accomplished, but hardly an accomplishment.

And of course, once everything is put away (more or less), I'm on the couch and pretty much out for the count.

Thursday, February 10, 2005


"Honestly, I can't tell you how much easier it is to squeeze votes out of these freshmen (lawmakers) or money out of big donors when they think if they say 'no,' I'm going to put a horse head in their bed or something."

--House Majority Leader TOM DELAY
Yeah, that's just what I want to hear coming from one of our country's leading Congressional representatives.


Yes, I understand the realities of contemporary politics, but speaking so bluntly about strong-arming votes and soliciting (demanding?) money seems so egregiously counter to the notion that these guys are maintaining the cogs and gears of our democracy. (Democracy, an abstraction of the concept of equality -- that somehow we are all equal, and thus should all have a voice. It seems like fairness should somehow fit in there somewhere, but I realize that that's a long dead fantasy.)

He's a Congressman, a Representative. I think representative, and I wonder, "is he really REPRESENTING us?" (For now, separating out the fact that he's technically the representative of a district in Texas). I think represent and I think "looking out for us; looking out for our interests." Is he really doing that?

And then my cynical side says, "no, he represents like a symbol, the way a symbol represents an idea or a larger concept." (Sometimes I wonder if there really is another side. I suppose that would be the blissfully ignorant side.) So perhaps in that way, I can flip the word on its head. And I see it. He represents us, alright. He represents the national temperament of a country that seems to value and believe in bullying others into agreeing with you and encouraging unbridled greed.

But that's just my perspective, I guess. It's how the rhetoric sounds coming out of Washington, it's how economic policies look to me, the energy policy, foreign policy. How much of that translates to the day-to-day living of the NASCAR dad or soccer mom (or Enron exec) in middle America (conscious or subconscious), I'll never know.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Another thing about the gym...

I may have mentioned this before, but I really hate gyms. I've never been into weight training (despite brief dalliances associated with a few fruitless attempts to put on some muscle mass and some requisite courses of physical therapy), and conceptually, treadmills (and really, all cardio machines) just seem like glorified hamster wheels. And I'd much rather be outside.

At least in the general sense.

But when it's 7°F outside, with a -15° windchill, or the roads and sidewalks are covered with ice or slush (or the snowbanks have just completely absorbed the sidewalks and shoulders), sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. I still don't like it, but it's better than being hit by a car or pulling a muscle slipping on the ice.

But today I found another, specific, reason why I don't like working out at the gym.

The smell.

And I don't mean just the general stuffiness of running inside, although that's certainly true as well. No, I'm talking about having to work out next to a specific person that smells. Stinks. Reeks.

Unfortunately, I didn't figure this out until I'd already been on the treadmill for a few minutes. I guess it just wafted over from a change in air currents, a shift in stride (out of the corner of my eye, I could see him regularly readjusting his shirt), or maybe he just put out waves of stink -- like oceanic tides, or solar flares. But by the time I noticed, I felt like it was too late to move and restart my workout elsewhere.

Outside, you could just pass the person, or maybe just turn off onto another road or trail. But in the gym, you're stuck, not even a gentle cross-breeze providing respite. I'd catch the readout on his machine -- 2 miles, 3 miles, 20 minutes, 30. How long is he going to stay on there? I found myself trying Jedi mind tricks to get him to leave:

You're tired, you want to go home now. You could really use a V8. You think you left the stove on, maybe you should go and check.

Actually, I don't think I was that level-headed. I think it was more like:

Finish your run. Finish you run. Please go. Please, finish your run. Oh God, please go away. Go away. Please. Go. Away. Now.

I do have to admire his commitment to his workout, because he just kept going and going and going. Around mile 4 (my 2nd mile), he hit some buttons on the treadmill, slowed down and got off. And inside, I leapt for joy.

And then he came back and started a new workout program.


After more than a half an hour he finally left.

I don't think it was a hygiene problem, but maybe just some kind of body chemistry thing -- the guy could probably take a shower every 15 minutes, and the second he started working out and breaking a sweat, the waves of odor would just come pouring out with it. Or maybe he just didn't do his laundry regularly.

Answers unknown, but maybe that'll learn me to take a little more time selecting an available treadmill.

And leave me wishing for warmer weather and better road conditions.