A view of the world from my own unique perspective

Archive for the ‘Consumers’ Category

How The Altair 8800 Changed Our Lives

Fellow Toastmasters and welcome guests,

By a show of hands, how many of your have heard of The Butterfly Effect? This is the theory that small changes in one part of the world can have significant and unexpected effects elsewhere. The example usually cited in that a butterfly flapping its wings in China, may eventually cause the formation of a storm somewhere else in the world. This speech is an example of The Butterfly Effect. I’m going to show you something that seems inconsequential, and then connect the dots and show you how it changed the world and transformed our lives.

Last month I attended the World of Commodore show. Among the many computers on display was an Altair 8800, from the early 1970s.

WoC Altair 8800

To the uninitiated, this looks like a very primitive and unimpressive machine, and certainly one that is easy to overlook. However it has an impressive history and pedigree. In fact, one could argue that this machine was the one that launched the personal computer revolution, and by extension, changed our world completely.

Altair 8800Altair 8800 Open Cover

The Altair 8800 was created by a company called Micro Instrumentation Telemetry Systems (MITS) and was introduced to the public in January 1975. It was available as a kit for $395 or fully-assembled for $650. Only 2,000 of these machines were produced. The initial version of this machine had a whopping 256 bytes of memory, and no monitor or keyboard. Its display was a series of front panel LEDs, and it was programmed using the switches below the LEDs. Some time later, MITS did offer memory expansion cards in three sizes: 1K, 2K and 3K. If you bought all three, then your Altair would have a total memory of 7K.

Altair 8800 Front Panel 1

To program the Altair, you first set your program’s starting memory location, which is typically zero. The eight LEDs circled above represent the eight bits of that memory location, or byte. Then you move these eight switches below them up or down to set each of the eight bits for that byte. When all eight switches have been set, their combined value is saved to the memory location by pressing one of the switches on the bottom row. Then you repeat the process for the next memory location. I’m sure that you can imagine how much fun programming was back in the mid-1970s.

Ed RobertsPopular Electronics Altair Cover

The founder and CEO of MITS was a man named Ed Roberts, and he developed the Altair 8800 computer, which was sold to consumers as a kit. Interest in the machine really took off when it was featured on the cover of the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics.

Gates and AllenTwo people who happened to read this issue were Bill Gates and Paul Allen, the future co-founders of Microsoft. They wrote a letter to Ed Roberts and said that they were working on a computer language called BASIC, for the 8080 processor – the same processor that the Altair used – and asked if he would like to see a demonstration. Ed Roberts was interested, so Gates and Allen flew to the MITS office in New Mexico to meet him. The meeting went well, and Roberts hired both Allen and Gates to develop a BASIC language interpreter for the Altair.

The Altair soon became popular with hobbyists and computer clubs, including the Homebrew Computer Club in Silicon Valley. The Homebrew Computer Club held their first meetings in a Menlo Park garage, and later, as the club grew larger, at Stanford University’s Linear Accelerator Center auditorium.

Homebrew Computer Club

The members would attend these meetings to demonstrate the various computer and electronic projects they were working on.

One of Homebrew’s members was a young man named Steve Wozniak, and Wozniak was quite impressed with the Altair. In fact, he was so taken with this machine, that he was inspired to begin working on a new project. Here is a short, edited excerpt from his autobiography, iWoz (pg. 153-156), in which he describes the excitement that he felt during the Homebrew Computer Club meeting in March, 1975:

Steve WozniakAbout thirty people showed up for this first meeting in that garage in Menlo Park. They were talking about some microprocessor kit being up for sale, and they all seemed excited about it. Someone there was holding up the magazine Popular Electronics, which had a picture of a computer on the front of it. It was called the Altair… These people were really Altair enthusiasts. That night, I checked out the microprocessor data sheet, and then I realized what the Altair was… it was almost exactly like the Cream Soda Computer I’d designed five years before… it was as if my whole life has been leading up to this point. That night, this whole vision of a kind of personal computer just popped into my head. All at once, just like that“.

Wozniak immediately started work on his own computer design, which included a keyboard and a video screen, instead of LEDs and switches.

Apple I No CaseWoz Jobs

When it was completed, he demonstrated it to the other club members. Wozniak then showed it to his friend Steve Jobs, who saw it not merely as a hobbyist’s project, but as something that could be marketed to a much larger group of people. This computer eventually became the Apple I computer.

Apple I BoxApple I Case

The Apple I soon evolved into the a more polished Apple II, which (arguably) launched the personal computer industry – and our lives haven’t been the same since.

Apple II

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The Great Gas Out – Deconstructing An Urban Legend

Fellow Toastmasters and welcome guests,

I like to think that my friends (both online and in real life) are a pretty special group of people. They are all perceptive and intelligent, but every now and then some of them do things that simply confound me. They will post urban legends on Facebook, or simply e-mail them to me. My friends should be smart enough to see right through this nonsense, but for some unfathomable reason, they don’t, and I’m quite concerned by their lack of critical thinking skills.

I am now going to deconstruct and analyze a popular urban legend, identify the errors in logic, and then explain why some people might be fooled by these stories – even when they’re smart enough to know better. By following these tips, and with continued practise, you too will be able to develop a Holmesian ability to detect these apocryphal tales.

During the late 1990s, an e-mail known as The Great Gas Out was making the rounds. Here is one of the early versions:

The Great Gas Out - original

You’ve probably received something like this several times yourselves. The e-mail author complains about the cost of filling up at the pump and claims that s/he has discovered a way to force gasoline companies to lower their prices: don’t buy any gas on a certain date. If everyone can be convinced to participate through this e-mail campaign, then the consumer will have won a victory over the major oil companies.

The main argument in this e-mail is “It has been calculated that if everyone in the United States and Canada did not purchase a drop of gasoline for one day, and all at the same time, then the oil companies would choke on their stockpiles”. Let’s examine this statement:

> IT HAS BEEN CALCULATED THAT…
The message’s first phrase should make you suspicious, because it’s asking for our unquestioning acceptance of what is to follow, without offering any proof. This is a logical fallacy known as Begging The Question. There are no references or attributions, so who calculated this? Why should we believe their conclusion?

> THE OIL COMPANIES WOULD CHOKE ON THEIR STOCKPILES
The proper word is inventory, since stockpile implies a large accumulation of material goods to be used in an emergency or when there is a shortage. The oil companies are not going to choke on their inventory. It’s simply going to sit in the storage tanks for an additional day.

> IT WOULD HIT THE ENTIRE INDUSTRY WITH A NET LOSS OF OVER 4.6 BILLION DOLLARS
E10 gasoline (which is gas that contains 10% ethanol) has a storage life of 90-100 days, so there would have to be an extended boycott before profits are affected. Gasoline that doesn’t contain any ethanol can be stored for several years. A one-day boycott will have no effect on the value of their inventory. If you really want to bring an industry to its knees, then boycott a product with a shorter shelf life – don’t buy milk for two weeks!

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Why The Gas Out Will Not Work

The thing that should arouse suspicion instantly is the “armchair activism” angle of the suggestion. If you want to change the world, then you have to actually do something measurable.

Who Wants Change

The reason this scheme won’t work is because we are being told to alter our buying habits (and only temporarily), but not our usage habits. To understand why this “strike” is ineffective (and may even backfire), it helps to take a broader view. Ignore your daily gas consumption, and look at your monthly consumption instead. You probably buy two or three tanks of gas per month, per car. If you wanted to fill up today and the stations were closed, then you would just fill up tomorrow. Your monthly usage would remain constant. Now imagine that all of the gas station across the country were closed on Christmas Day, forcing everyone to wait one day to fill up their tanks. The effect on the oil companies would be the exactly same as this 24-hour protest – nil.

Let’s compare this one-day boycott to breathing. During normal activities, my body’s oxygen consumption remains more or less constant. I can hold my breath for a few seconds, but it just means that my next breath will be bigger (and take in more oxygen) than the last one. Since we are not altering our gasoline usage habits, our monthly consumption will remain (more or less) the same. What we don’t buy on the day of the “gas out” (September 1st), we will simply buy the next day. The demand is not lessened, only shifted forward by one day. In fact, since we will still drive our cars on September 1st, our gas tank will contain a bit less fuel than normal, thus the September 2nd demand will be higher than usual.

Let’s assume that everyone followed this advice and didn’t buy gas on September 1st. If gas station owners received this e-mail, then they would realize that their sales on the following day will be about twice the usual daily average, and they will probably jack up their prices accordingly, to increase their profits, and perhaps even as a form of punishment for all of the armchair activists who thought that they could actually bring the oil companies to their knees by doing nothing for a day.

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The Great Gas Out – The Revised Version

A couple of years later, a revised version of the gas out e-mail appeared in my Inbox. Rather than a one-day boycott, this one recommended that all consumers not buy any gas from a single gas station chain: Petro-Canada. Here it is:

Gas Out - revised

To their credit, the author did admit that the original Great Gas Out message had no effect, and that the oil companies merely laughed at those who participated. Now let’s examine their principal argument: “We need to take aggressive action to teach them that BUYERS control the marketplace, not sellers. Starting June 1 of 2007, DON’T purchase ANY gasoline from the biggest Company in Canada. Petro-Canada! If they are not selling any gas, they will be very quickly inclined to reduce their prices. If they reduce their prices, the other companies will have to follow suit.”

> “Buyers control the marketplace”
Clearly, this person has not taken any courses in Economics. However, s/he is half right. Sellers control the supply, and buyers control the demand. In fact, in you’ve been shopping at any store, you’ll get the distinct impression that sellers are convinced that they control the marketplace. In fact, sellers will try to manipulate our buying behaviour by reminding us (in not-so-subtle ways) that they control the inventory, and the time during which certain items will be on sale.

Sale Signs

To demonstrate the ridiculousness of this argument, imagine that you’ve just entered the electronics department at Best Buy and said to the sales associate “I’m the consumer, and the buyers control the marketplace! I want that flat screen TV, but I’m not going to buy it right now. I’m just going to stand here in your store and watch you choke on your stockpiles, until you reduce the price of that television to a level that I consider reasonable!” At this point they would probably do one of two things: laugh you out of the store, or call security.

> “DON’T purchase ANY gasoline from… Petro Canada! If they are not selling any gas, they will… reduce their prices [and] other companies will have to follow suit.”
The logic of boycotting a single gas station sounds reasonable on the surface, but this is yet another example of why “a LITTLE knowledge is a dangerous thing”. Let’s simulate this scenario and see how it plays out:

Gas Station Logos

For the sake of simplicity, let’s suppose that there are four major gasoline companies in Canada; Petro-Canada, Shell, Esso and Sunoco. Let’s also assume that Canadians patronize each one equally, giving each company a 25% market share. Boycotting Petro-Canada will certainly mean less money in sales for them, but – just like in the first Great Gas Out example – since we’re not being asked to drive less, our gasoline demand will remain the same. Now our collective weekly or monthly purchasing will be divided among three gasoline companies instead of four.

Starting on the gas out day, the demand at the Esso, Shell and Sunoco stations has increased by 33%. Those gas station owners, having read the Great Gas Out e-mail and being no fools, will anticipate this increased demand and raise their prices to whatever the market will tolerate. Petro-Canada executives, being cut-throat capitalists themselves, will raise their prices too — to a level just below Esso, Shell and Sunoco.

The losers, of course, are the consumers

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Why Was This E-Mail So Popular?

My friends are intelligent, and I presume that yours are too, so why was this e-mail forwarded so many times? Why couldn’t people see through this nonsense as easily as you and I? Here are some reasons:

  • The message is in print. To a generation that grew up before the Internet and social media, print sources – books, newspapers and magazines – were considered authoritative. Their contents were written by professional journalists or writers, reviewed by fact-checkers and vetted by editors. While we all know that e-mail messages and social media posts can be written by anyone, there is still a lingering tendency (more prevalent among older people) to give more credence to printed messages, even if they are read on a screen instead of on paper.
  • The entire message is in capital letters. Traditionally, using capital letters makes it seem like the writer is shouting, but the additional emphasis also carries with it, an air of authority. If something is printed in capital letters, then it must be important. If the entire message is in capital letters, then it behooves you to read it. Nigerian princes who have a pressing need to transfer millions of dollars out of the country often type their e-mail missives in capital letters. They understand the psychology at work here.

Source: www.9gag.com/gag/5111643

  • It’s an excellent example of armchair activism. We can change the world without having to get up from our seats – all we have to do is forward an e-mail to ten friends. As in the grassroots campaign example, while we may not be willing to stage a sit-in or spend our days sitting in a park (since that requires a time and energy commitment), we can take five seconds to forward an e-mail and feel that we are “sticking it to The Man”.
  • It’s a grassroots campaign. We, the little people, can finally do something to topple those evil oil industry executives. Anti-establishment sentiment has been a part of North American culture since the hippie days of the late 1960s. The Occupy Movement is the latest manifestation of this social force. Everyone likes a good David & Goliath story – we always root for the underdog. In this example, we are David and are encouraged to topple the mighty oil companies, by utilizing a computer mouse as our slingshot.
  • We want it to be true. It’s such a good story, that we overlook the obvious logistical flaws. You will see this repeatedly in the media. There is a human interest story that’s so karmic or heart-warming, that everybody (including the reporter) embraces it and never bothers to do any fact-checking. Two recent examples are the high school student who played the stock market and parlayed a $1,500 investment into $72 million, and the elderly woman who killed her Knockout Game assailant.
  • It appeals to our innate hunger for power – a desire so strong that we are willing to ignore the red flags and abandon critical thinking in order to possess it. Tears For Fears expressed this sentiment succinctly in their song Everybody Wants To Rule The World. Very few of us will rule anything larger than a hot dog cart, but the specious reasoning of The Great Gas Out e-mail makes us believe that we have the power to enact global changes and bring down entire industries.
  • It quotes a likeable person. The revised version begins with “This was originally sent by a retired Coca Cola executive. It came from one of his engineer buddies who retired from Halliburton”. Everyone likes Coca-Cola, so we’ll automatically have a positive image of someone who works there. A retired executive evokes a kindly, fatherly figure – someone who would never lead us astray. This is the same tactic used in celebrity endorsements. Celebrities probably don’t know any more about the products they’re endorsing than the average consumer, but most of us are fond of celebrities and therefore are more inclined to believe whatever they tell us.
  • It quotes an industry insider. Mentioning the Coca-Cola executive’s friend from Halliburton is also a clever ploy. As you know, Dick Cheney was the CEO of Halliburton before he became the U.S. Vice President under George W. Bush. This association implies that a retired Halliburton executive would certainly be well-connected and have a rarefied knowledge of the inner workings of the oil industry. This casual reference leads us to believe that we are the unintended recipients of this privileged insider information.

In conclusion, question everything you read. Anyone can post anything they like to social media – there are no barriers to entry. Reject anything that sounds like armchair activism; no one is going to change the world unless they actually get up off their tush and do something. Finally, never abandon your critical thinking skills, even if your analysis does ruin a nice story.

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Radio Shack, and the Disappearance of the Hobbyist Consumer

Last month, I read an article that predicted the impending demise of Radio Shack. The author even suggested that 2014 would probably be the last Christmas season for the legendary electronics chain.

Radio Shack Logo

In a way, I’ll be sad to see it go. I won’t miss it – the Radio Shack that I remember disappeared years ago – but I’ll miss what it used to be.

Radio Shack Head Office

First, a little corporate history: Radio Shack’s parent company was called the Tandy Corporation. The Canadian Radio Shack stores were managed by a subsidiary of Tandy, called InterTAN (International Tandy). In 2004, InterTAN was acquired by Circuit City, and in 2005, all Canadian Radio Shack stores were renamed The Source By Circuit City. Today, they’re simply called The Source. I must admit, I don’t shop at The Source very often because they are now just like any other electronics chain.

However, the Radio Shack of my youth was remarkable – it was a hobbyist’s paradise, and I’ve missed its absence for years. The Radio Shack of the 1970s and early 1980s was more than just an electronics store; it represented a particular way of life and catered to a consumer who has all but disappeared: the hobbyist, the tinkerer and the DIY enthusiast.

Heathkit Amplifier

When I was growing up, our family stereo system was consisted of a Heathkit amplifier (pictured, above), a Heathkit FM tuner, a Gerrard turntable and some speakers that were built into the wall of my father’s den. I found out later that Heathkit wasn’t merely another audio store brand. Heathkit was a company that sold audio and other equipment in kit form. You browsed their catalogue, and either visited their store or ordered your item. The kit consisted of the parts, plus a schematic and a detailed instruction guide. You had to supply the soldering iron, solder, multimeter and any necessary tools. Except for the turntable, my father had built the family’s stereo system himself, which I found quite impressive, and a little humbling.

Heathkit's 1960 Catalogue

During the 1960s, a company like Heathkit could thrive because it wasn’t unreasonable to expect a consumer to possess a rudimentary knowledge of electronics, soldering iron basics, schematic diagram interpretation, and (given the proper instructions) basic assembly skills for something as complex as an amplifier or FM tuner. Sadly, Heathkit no longer exists – it stopped making kits in 1992.

Radio Shack Color Organ

During the 1970s, consumer hobbyist were still in abundance, and Radio Shack was the store that catered to them. During thr late 1970s, I used to love visiting Radio Shack, I would always grab a copy of their annual catalogue, and I would read it over and over again during the following months, practically memorizing everything in it. When I was a teenager, and was old enough to have audio equipment in my room, I remember buying a “colour organ” there. Mine was the 3-Channel model, pictured on the right. A colour organ was attached to the audio output of a stereo system, and flashed lights of various colours that were synchronized with the music – the louder the sound, the brighter the light. I used red for bass, green for midrange and blue for treble. The colour organ came in a kit form, and I had to solder the components onto the circuit board myself, as well as wire the lights inside the cabinet. I haven’t used it for many years, but I still have that colour organ stored away in my closet – I was very proud of it, and just can’t bring myself to throw it out.

Radio Shack 75-In-One

I also remember my parents buying me Radio Shack’s 75-In-One Electronic Project Kit. It was a breadboard with a bunch of components mounted onto it – resistors, capacitors, diodes, transistors, along with a transformer, speaker, relay, battery and even a solar cell. There was also a large user’s guide that described each of the 75 projects: what they did, the electrical and electronic principles that made them work, and how to build each one. I remember building a crystal radio, and I was so amazed that I could hear AM radio stations (using a mono earbud, since the output wasn’t strong enough to move a speaker cone) from something that didn’t use a power source. It seemed like magic!

The Radio Shack staff members during the 1970s and 1980s were also very knowledgeable. If I needed some parts for a project I was working on, I could simply ask for a 10-ohm resistor or a 100-µF (microfarad) capacitor, and the salesperson would know exactly what I meant. The stereo sales staff were knowledgeable, not just about the product line, but about audio itself. If you were confused about the differences between Class-A and Class-B amplifiers, then they could enlighten you.

Radio Shack Catalogue - Kits

Radio Shack didn’t just sell electronics – a good chunk of their product line was geared toward hobbyists and encouraged learning and exploration. Radio Shack’s customers didn’t merely consume – they built things, they experimented and they let their imagination run free. In my blog post What Happened to the Technical Stereo Consumer , I lament the dumbing down of stereo advertising during the past couple of decades. Stereo magazines of the 1970s and 1980s used to assume that the consumer knew a great deal about audio; today’s advertising contains almost no useful technical information.

Today, consumer electronics have become commoditized, and planned obsolescence seems to be an inherent part of almost every company’s business plan. New models of smartphones are introduced each year, yet the differences between these models are (in my opinion) negligible. The electronics kits are long gone, and manufacturers now actively discourage experimentation. Many printer ink cartridges have chips embedded in them to prevent customers from refilling the cartridges themselves. Apple uses proprietary screws in their products to prevent customers from even opening the case and peeking inside. Batteries are often sealed into portable devices and are categorized as “not user replaceable”. Think about that for a minute: two generations ago, we built our own stereo equipment; today, some companies don’t even want us to replace the batteries ourselves!

Radio Shack Store Closing

If the author’s prediction comes true, then I’m going to miss Radio Shack – not so much for what it is today, since its Canadian version is just like every other electronics chain – but for what it used to be in my youth. Radio Shack didn’t merely sell merchandise; it sold you the tools and components that allowed you to realize your ideas.

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Cutting The Cable – Five Years Later

Coaxial CableBack in 2009, I was paying $55/month for cable television and felt that I wasn’t getting my money’s worth. As an experiment, I decided to have my cable disconnected for three months to see if I could exist without it, or if its absence and resulting stimulus deprivation would cast me into the throes of despair. Today, it’s still disconnected, and frankly, I don’t miss it at all. The adjustment to life without cable television was much easier than I thought it would be. Here’s how I’ve been managing since cutting this metaphorical umbilical cord:

Rabbit EarsThe first thing I did was locate my disused “rabbit ears” antenna and hook it up to my (CRT) television. Since my apartment is in a direct line of sight to the CN Tower, I was able to receive several local Toronto channels as well as a couple of stations across the lake in Buffalo, New York. This was pretty much the same experience I had growing up at home, yet it now felt (to quote The Love Boat theme song) “exciting and new” because now I no longer had to pay for these channels!

Casio EV-570After a few weeks, I began to think about how to manage my time more wisely. I decided to dig up my old three-inch portable television that receives over-the-air (OTA) signals. I placed it on my desk beside my computer monitor, and used it to watch the nightly news. It’s a surprisingly efficient arrangement – much better than sitting in the living room watching television – because I can do my work on the computer and listen to the news at the same time. If a news story sounds particularly interesting, then I’ll just turn my head slightly and glance at the portable TV.

In May 2011, I finally took the plunge and bought a flat-screen television. During the past several months, my 12-year-old CRT television was deteriorating quickly. It had a faulty voltage regulator and the screen image would compress and expand horizontally, according to the brightness level of the picture. It eventually became all but unwatchable, and repairs would have cost almost as much as a new television. My rabbit ears worked perfectly with the new flat-screen television, and I was even able to receive a couple of additional stations. Don’t let salesman tell you that you need to buy a special “digital” antenna for your new television set – it’s all a marketing ploy, and your regular antenna will work just as well.

August 31, 2011 marked the end of OTA analog television signals in Canada. My three-inch Casio portable television was now a paperweight. My main TV also stopped receiving analog channels, but all I needed to do was re-scan the channels again – the digital tuner automatically deleted the analog channel assignments and replaced them with their digital equivalents. Looking back, it was a good thing that I decided not to repair my old CRT. It didn’t have a digital tuner, and would have also become a paperweight on August 31.

Boxee BoxDuring the summer of 2011, after doing an abundance of research, I bought a Boxee Box streaming media player. It’s similar to an Apple TV, but in my opinion is far superior. All the the Apple TV seems to do is encourage you to buy content from iTunes – which is a wonderful business model for Apple, but not quite as endearing for the consumer. The Boxee provides an abundance of content for free, and allows you to set up and stream content (wirelessly) from your own media server. Once the Boxee Box was installed, I created a rudimentary media server on my PC and added my DVD collection to it. Boxee indexed everything, and then added cover art and episode summaries. Now I could watch any DVD I owned without having to get up from my chair.

The Boxee interface also has a television section of its own, with 200 different TV series to choose from. The 5-6 most recent shows in each series are available for on-demand viewing. These do contain commercials, but there aren’t as many of them as there are on broadcast television – typically one 30-second commercial per break. Boxee also has a movie database, but the offerings are less than impressive – I hadn’t heard of any of the films, and there didn’t seem to be that many in English.

However, there was one promising section called “Apps” – these are specialized video channels on a variety of subjects. There are a handful that require a paid subscription, but the vast majority of them are free. There is also a section with movie trailers. I’m very happy with this set-up – there are no monthly fees, and your own content is integrated seamlessly. I can watch TED Talks, YouTube videos and dozens of other offerings. It’s also recognized as an AirPlay device so you can use it to stream photos, videos or music from your iPhone or iPad to the television.

Public libraries are a surprisingly good source for DVDs. They don’t have recent movies, and their TV series selection is not as extensive as I’d like, but they do have a lot of interesting items in their collection that aren’t generally shown on television: classic movies, fitness workout videos, travel guides, PBS and CBC documentaries, and dozens of programs on a broad range of subjects: lampshade making, gardening, nutrition and restoring antiques. I visit mine whenever I’m in a serendipitous mood.

Netflix LogoI was planning to subscribe to Netflix as soon as I became bored with my current video offerings. Five years later, this still hasn’t happened. I now have so much content at my disposal – YouTube channels, Internet-only programs, movie trailers, Boxee’s apps and television shows, library DVDs, and my half dozen over-the-air television channels – that Netflix is not necessary.

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Observations and Conclusions

  • Once my cable was disconnected, my media consumption changed from a “push” model (one in which the stations push content to the consumer, according to their broadcast schedule), to a “pull” model (where I select the programs I want to watch, according to my own schedule). In my opinion, the pull model is clearly superior. I can watch what I want, when I want, and I no longer have to wait until a certain day of the week to watch a specific show. If I get behind on a series, I know that the last 5-6 episodes are available from the Boxee Box, so I can catch up whenever I like. Of course, you could do this with a TiVo, but that would mean remembering to set the machine to record each program, and hoping that its hard drive doesn’t fill up.
  • I now receive TV and movie recommendations from my friends and from IMDB, instead of television spots promoting other programs. These two sources will let me know what’s worth watching and what is a total waste of time.
  • My monthly fees have dropped to zero. While there was an initial outlay for the Boxee Box ($189), its content is free, and so are the over-the-air stations. In fact, the Boxee paid for itself within four months.
  • OTA broadcast television offers a superior picture over cable, because the signal isn’t compressed. In what is certainly a delicious irony, most people are paying money to cable companies in order to receive an inferior television signal!
  • I no longer waste time channel surfing just to see if something interesting is on. My television watching is now deliberate. I turn on the television only when there is something specific that I want to see. This is actually quite a time-saver – how many hours have you spent languishing in from of the television set, watching it without a clear goal in mind?

In conclusion, disconnecting my cable was one of the better decisions I’ve made, because it’s allowed me to discover the utility of the “push” paradigm as well as entirely new ways of consuming media. Spend a few minutes and add up what you’ve spent on cable television during the past twelve months, and ask yourself what you’ve gained from that expenditure. Step out of your comfort zone and try this three-month experiment, like I did, and then decide whether you can live without it. I’ll bet that you can!

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Checkout Line Musings

Whenever I go food shopping, there is one decision that frustrates me more than any other: which is the fastest or most efficient checkout line? No matter how carefully I evaluate the different lines, I always make the wrong decision and end up in the slowest one. While I’m waiting there’s always someone ahead of me who has scanned something that’s not in the database. No one knows what the correct price is, and the cashier isn’t going to take the customer’s word for it, so she calls someone over, hands him the item, and off he goes to find out what it costs. Meanwhile, everyone else in the line has to wait.

While this is happening, I’m usually surveying the other checkout lines and thinking to myself “If I had chosen checkout line #2, I would have been right behind that guy right now – the one who has just finished bagging his groceries and is now leaving the store”.

Checkout Lines

I also spent a lot of time watching the cashiers at work, and thinking to myself “I don’t think that I could be a cashier – this is a job that I am suited for”. Of course, the job much easier than it used to be – in the days before scanners, the cashiers had to enter the prices into the register; now all they have to do is swipe everything across the scanner. Except for the stuff in clear plastic bags – that’s when the magic happens. Most cashiers simply look at the bag, and know exactly what code to enter. I’ve looked at those bags too, and half the time I can’t even identify the type of vegetable inside them!

A large bottle of cranberry juiceAnother reason why I would make a lousy cashier is that I wouldn’t be able to resist making comments and lifestyle judgments, based on the items on the conveyor belt. For example, if an elderly or middle-aged man was buying a bottle of cranberry juice, I would scan the bottle, hold it up, look at it briefly, turn to the customer and say (quite helpfully and earnestly) “Cranberry juice! I was just reading an article in a health magazine, and do you know what they said about this? Cranberry juice – a friend to urinary tract health. I see you’ve bought the large bottle, sir. Do you really like cranberry juice that much, or is there perhaps some other… medical reason for your purchase. Tell me, sir – does it hurt when you pee? Be honest, you can tell… What do you mean it’s none of my business? Listen – those other cashiers would just scan this item silently, but not I. That’s because I care. I care about your prostate. Because that’s just the kind of value-added cashier I am.”

Reason #3: I’m the type of person who gets bored very easily, and I need to do things that keep my mind sharp. Often, I’ll start making up games with the customers to keep myself amused. “OK sir, your total comes to $11.84″. From twenty, your change should be… $8.16. Does that sound right to you? What do you think? Does that sound right? You’re hesitating… don’t you know? OK, I’ll tell you what. I’ll give you $8.16 right now, or you could choose option #2, and accept whatever amount the cash registers calculates as your change. Which choice will offer you the best deal? Or will the numbers be the same? You have five seconds to make your decision.”

Finally, I wouldn’t last long as a cashier because I don’t suffer fools gladly. One of my countless supermarket pet peeves is the innumerate shopper. These are the people who invariably come up short at the cash register, and then rather than admit their ineptitude, spend 30 seconds spewing face-saving nonsense such as “I must have left my wallet in my other purse”, “I know it’s here somewhere, just give me a minute”. Finally, when the cashier helpfully offers to remove one or more items from the total, the innumerate (and now indecisive) shopper spend another 30 seconds trying to decide which item that should be. My response, if I were a cashier: “Sir/madam stop wasting everyone’s time by trying to save face. We all know that you don’t have enough money to pay for all of your items, and that’s because you can’t do mental arithmetic. You are unable to keep a running total in your head, and I would wager that you likely don’t know which items are taxable. If I may say so, this is the price we as a society are paying for twenty years of sub-standard Mexican weed and a decade of insipid reality television – we now have stores filled shoppers like you, who are wandering around in a permanent mental fog.”

Clearly, I wouldn’t last long as a cashier. Now, back to the line analysis…

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Checkout Line Efficiency Analysis

The basic initial strategy is obviously “choose the shortest line – the one with the fewest people in it”. As most of you already know, this strategy isn’t particularly effective, since there are too many other variables to consider. Some people have more groceries than others, so I modified my approach and discreetly looked at the number of items in everyone’s cart and then recalculate based on the total item count, rather than the number of people.

I’ll often walk past all of the checkout lanes and glance at each cashier. Is she young or middle-aged? The young ones generally work faster since they are vibrant, full of energy and eager to make a good impression as they enter the workforce. The middle-aged cashier – especially one whose face tells you that life has beaten her down – is more likely to be on auto-pilot, and therefore will be working at a sloth-like pace as she counts down the hours and minutes until the end of her shift.

An important consideration is what I call “the old lady factor”. A senior in the checkout line will usually gum the entire works (and this applies equally to older men). For example, a cashier might say, “OK madam, your bill is $20.94” and the old lady will say, “Here’s $20, and I think I have 94 cents. Now, where did I put my change purse. Oh, I don’t have my glasses. I can’t tell if this is a quarter or a nickel. Now I’ve lost track… how much have I given you so far?”.

Another variable is the age of the cashier. The older the cashier, the more likely she is to make small talk with the customers. This slows down the scanning and increases the wait time. Also, the smaller the town, the more likely it is that this will happen, and the longer this time-wasting banter will last.

If there’s time, I’ll check for multitasking abilities. When a cashier is making small-talk with the customers, does she stop scanning? It’s important to avoid cashiers who are unable to multitask.

There is also the plague the efficiency expert. This shopper will place all of their groceries on the conveyor belt, and then leave the line for that one item they forgot. Naturally, they don’t return as quickly as they thought, and everyone else has to wait. I don’t know if they’re simply absent-minded, or if they believe they’re being clever and efficient for thinking of this shopping strategy, but let me say this: I hate these people with the burning fire of a thousand suns! Unfortunately, you can’t identify these inconsiderate, inward-looking blackguards until you’re already in line with them, and by then it’s too late.

A little reconnaissance work (while not related to line efficiency) is also crucial. When I leave my regular supermarket, I’ll sometimes walk past cashiers who are on a cigarette break. What do you suppose the chances are that they will wash their hands (or even use hand sanitizer) after sucking on that cancer stick and covering their hands in carcinogenic filth? Probably slim to none. Personally, I don’t want these people handling every one of my food items before I bring them home. Make a mental note of who these cashier are, and avoid them at all costs during future visits.

You also need to consider the self-regulating behaviour of the other shoppers. Everyone else is doing exactly the same thing I am – we all want to get into the shortest line, so when one line is clearly shorter than the others, shoppers will gravitate toward it. In fact, if the disparity becomes pronounced, shoppers may abandon their own line to stake out a place in it. Checkout lines lengths don’t remain unequal for very long.

Conclusion

Finally, after incorporating all of these variables and making allowances for the self-regulating aspect of line lengths, I have come up with my own method of choosing the best checkout line. Since you’re never going to pick the shortest or most efficient line, just do what I do – choose the checkout line with the best-looking cashier!

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We Are Humans! We Are Afraid Of Nothing!


RersolutionsIt’s a new year, and time to make some New Year’s resolutions! So, why do we make them now, and not during other months? Surely it would be more efficient if we resolved to do something as soon as we recognized the need, rather than wait until January 1st. We wait because we visualize our lives in annual blocks of time, rather than a continuous, flowing stream. Personally, I blame that traditional illustration of the New Year’s baby for reinforcing this paradigm. During the first week of January, the entire year is spread out before us, like a long, untrodden snowy path, or a pristine beach. However, drawing a line in the proverbial sands of time, and then stepping over it to gaze out at the vast, empty expanse that defines the coming year is also daunting. Each January 1st, we look at the year ahead and gaze into an unknown, uncharted and unpredictable future. Making New Year’s resolutions creates a framework and at least gives us the impression that we know where our lives are headed during the next twelve months.

New Year's Baby

I think that our New Year’s resolutions are fascinating, because when they are viewed from The Bob Angle, they reveal a new (and until now, hidden) aspect of human nature. In my opinion, we make our resolutions because we are afraid of nothing. That doesn’t mean that we are all courageous souls who aren’t afraid of anything – it means that we are uncomfortable with the concept of nothing, whether it’s silence, unallocated time, empty space or simply the lack of material possessions.

I believe that our aversion to this concept is because nothing is associated with the number zero. Zero has no value. If there is nothing, rather than something, then it must also have no value. Therefore, in order to add substance to our lives, we need to fill it with something… anything.

Naturally, merchants are more than eager to help us do this. Just browse any catalogue, flyer or magazine and you’ll see the same message expressed in hundreds of ways “your self-identity and/or your self-worth is defined by what you own”.

If you think that you’re immune to these messages, then take a moment and look around your own home. We spend years filling our living spaces with our purchases. In fact, at this moment, your house likely contains more material things than usual, now that Christmas has just passed. Not only are our rooms filled with items, but we also buy storage cabinets and closet organizers to fit even more stuff into our available space. Now imagine walking into a friend’s house and discovering a room that’s completely empty. Your friend sees your startled reaction and explains “Our house has seven rooms but our family needs only six to live comfortably, so this room is for future expansion”. Clearly, nobody does this; no matter how many rooms we have in our house, we will fill all of them with something because we can’t deal with the idea of empty or unused space.

If you’re a regular reader of advice columns, then you’ve undoubtedly noticed that Ann Landers, Dear Abby and everyone else will say the same thing repeatedly “it’s better to be single than to be stuck in a bad relationship”. Some people have this mindset; they need to have someone around, otherwise there will be no one in their lives, and someone (anyone) must be of greater value than no one.

In addition to having a fear of nothing, we often project it onto other people. During the past decade, I’ve met many parents who schedule just about every waking hour of their kids’ time with hockey and soccer practices, karate classes, music lessons, and a plethora of other activities. As a result, their kids don’t have any unstructured free time that will allow them to use their imaginations and make up their own games.

A recent New York Times column, entitled The Busy Trap, provides an insightful commentary on our society’s “glorification of busy”. The author suggests that our frantically busy days are merely a way of hiding the emptiness in our lives. If we are always occupied, then we never have an opportunity to be alone with our thoughts, which may be a terrifying prospect to some people.

Advertising executives are the best example of our this collective aversion to the idea of nothing. A blank wall must have a billboard on it, or else it’s not really functional. There are now logos on the soles of running shoes, advertisements on staircase risers, web site addresses on Popsicle sticks, and searchlights shining store logos on shopping mall floors. I’ve even read an article about the feasibility of placing short (two-second) ads between the telephone rings, when we’re placing a call.

Royal Baby Reporter

Television news reporters are an interesting breed; they abhor silence and will say just about anything to ensure that television viewers don’t experience it. This past summer, when the Duchess of Cambridge was about to give birth, a gaggle of reporters gathered outside St. Mary’s hospital in London, ready to report the news. They were waiting for hours, and even though there was nothing to report, and nothing new to say to the viewers, that didn’t stop them from speaking incessantly anyway, as this segment of Charlie Brooker’s 2013 retrospective illustrates.

I’ve also noticed another interesting behavioural quirk: not only do we have to fill all of the emptiness in our lives, we have to fill all of it, and as quickly as possible. Allocating everything vanquishes the void, and fills us with (I’m guessing) a Nietzschean sense of accomplishment. Personally, I think that a healthier approach is adopting what I call the “hard drive” method. When we buy a new hard drive, we fill it up slowly, over several months or even a couple of years.

This desire to eliminate all of the nothingness at once is what I think is behind writer’s block, and a writer’s paralyzing fear of the proverbial blank page. We stare at the blank page and feel that we need to fill it completely, rather than just a small portion of it.

That’s also why we make New Year’s resolutions. You don’t make January resolutions – you make them for the entire year. Rather than live one day at a time and take whatever opportunities present themselves that day, we have a need to schedule the entire year through our resolutions. This gives us a sense of victory over the vast swath of free time that we suddenly see before us each January. Once all of the space on the calendar is allocated, then we are victorious, since the entirety of our perceived block of time has been filled.

Young people often talk about how they intend to change the world after they graduate. Part of this is attributable to a youthful idealism, but I think that some of it could also be our desire to fill the vast swath of time that makes up the rest of their lives. When Steve Jobs started Apple Computer in the late 1970s, he didn’t merely want to sell computers, he wanted to “make a dent in the universe”. When we’re in university, our entire lives are in front of us – decades of time, waiting to be filled. That’s why I think that many of us have such grandiose ideas. We need ambitious dreams to fill all of that space, and we will speak grandiloquently of our plans to make our mark upon the world.

A recent television series called Underemployed inadvertently illustrates this point. It’s a fictional, scripted series that follows the lives of five people who have just graduated from college, and who each have grandiose plans for making their mark upon the world. One year later, reality gets in the way of their dreams of world domination, and they each find themselves working in jobs that they would (a year previously) consider beneath them. The first 45 seconds of the show’s trailer illustrates this contrast quite well.

New Year's Book

Think of your life as a blank notebook. Each day, we write a little more of our life story in that notebook, and the remaining space decreases. As we age, we have fewer blank pages to fill, and with each passing day/week/month, we fill up an increasing percentage of that remaining space. That, in my opinion, is one reason why we develop a greater appreciation for the little things in life as we get older. One of my Facebook friends, a lady in her late 40s, posted the that she glad to be home, in her PJs, and lying on the couch watching her favourite television program – and then added “Life is good”. Another Facebook friend, a man also in his late 40s, posted “Home… fish & chips for dinner… cold beer in the fridge. Yes indeed, it is the simple things that make us happy”. A 20-something would never find happiness in these ordinary activities.

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Conquer Your Fear of Nothing

Let’s start by studying someone whom I consider a true visionary: Steve Jobs. You can say what you like about his abrasive personality, but Steve Jobs actually embraced what most of us avoid. Unlike the vast majority of the population, he (at least during the early 1980s) didn’t have a need to fill up his entire house (or even a single room) with stuff. He bought only what he needed, and was comfortable being surrounded by empty space.

Steve Jobs' Living Room, 1982. Photo credit: Diana Walker

This is a photo of Jobs sitting in the living room of his Los Gatos house. It was taken on December 15, 1982, by Diana Walker, who was a White House photographer at the time. The accompanying quote by Jobs was “This was a very typical time. I was single. All you needed was a cup of tea, a light, and your stereo, you know, and that’s what I had.”

Clay Pot

The ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, had an interesting perspective on the balance between things and the absence of things. In his book Tao Te Ching, he writes “Clay is moulded to make a pot, but it is in the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the clay pot lies.”

While I certainly can’t compete with Steve Jobs or Lao Tzu, I did make an attempt to notice and appreciate the nothingness in my life by writing a blog post about my new philosophy called A Speech About Nothing.

Someone else who stands out from the crowd is John Cage. In 1952, he “composed” a piece called 4′ 33″ – a recording of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. This wasn’t merely a reel of blank tape re-packaged as a song – Cage brought an entire orchestra into the studio, and conducted the piece while they sat there and simply didn’t play their instruments. When I first read about it, I thought it was the most moronic idea in the history of composing, but now I finally understand it (at least in this context). John Cage had the courage to embrace what the rest of us assiduously avoid – the concept of nothingness in a society full of “stuff”. He was brave enough to acknowledge it, experience it, and then invite us to experience it with him for several minutes. Here is a live performance of 4′ 33″.

A Quiet Moment

There is an ebb and flow in the world and in our lives: each day has periods of light and darkness; we are awake for 16 hours and then we sleep for eight. Each month we can observe a full moon and a new moon. As you begin this year, resolve to at least recognize the absence of things in your life, and visualize how they can actually make your existence richer. Then, if you’re adventurous enough, vanquish your fear of nothingness and enjoy the silent moments, unstructured free time, and even the advantages of living a simpler existence.

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Misinterpreting Corporate Logos

I think I’m old enough to admit this now: I must have had perceptual problems as a child, because I didn’t understand the imagery in many corporate logos. In fact, they remained baffling to me until I became a teenager (and in some cases, an adult). Naturally, as a child, I never questioned why these designs didn’t make sense to me – that’s just the way the world was, and I had to figure things out as well as I could. Now, in hindsight, these logo designs are obvious.

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The BayThe Bay: As a child, I saw this stylized yellow ribbon as some kind of abstract shape. Although I knew it was supposed to be the letter B, I didn’t recognize the 3D ribbon effect, and never saw the letter that it formed. It was just an odd, two-dimensional shape that looked a little like a glob of spilled paint. Even today, I have to look at it for a couple of seconds before I see the letter B. I guess my brain is wired this way permanently.

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DominionDominion: I learned that it was the first letter in Dominion, but when I was a kid, I just never saw it as the letter D, especially when the logo was displayed by itself. I was probably 11 or 12  years old before I finally saw the D in the design.

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Montreal ExposMontreal Expos: When I first saw the logo, I thought “what do the letters JB have to do with the Montreal Expos?” I wondered if JB represented a French phrase related to baseball or the Montreal Expos – “jeu de baseball”, perhaps – but I couldn’t think of anything that made sense or that referred to the Expos specifically. It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s that I finally saw the M and the tiny e in the left corner.

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ChevronChevron Gas Stations: Technically, I didn’t misinterpret anything, but I was in my mid-20s before I discovered that the red and blue shapes were actually called chevrons. Sometimes you don’t learn all of your shapes in elementary school.

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CBSCBS: It seems obvious now, but I never saw the CBS logo as an eye until I was a teenager, watching an episode of All In The Family. Edith said that a truck was parked outside, and that she knew it was a TV truck because she recognized the CBS “eye”.

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       Global     Music Staff Marker

Global Television Network: I know now that these parallel lines are supposed to represent the letter “G”, but when the network first debuted in the 1970s, I just didn’t see it. The original logo was reddish-orange on a black background, and those lines reminded me of the gadget that my music teacher used to draw a staff on the blackboard.

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                CBC Logo - Old     CBC Logo - New v2

CBC: As you can see, this logo has been simplified over the years. The logo from the 1970s and 80s is on the left, and the modern, streamlined version is on the right. Even now, I still have no idea what this is supposed to be. If the letters CBC are embedded in its design somewhere, I can’t find them. I may still have the perceptual problems of my youth…

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