Monday, August 28, 2006

Stupid TV Night on Fox

I'm about ready to give up on Prison Break and Vanished, Fox's Monday-night dramas.

Tonight on Prison Break, a character whose hand was chopped off with an axe at the end of the first season had his hand reattached by a veterinarian... and as soon as it was sewn on, he was able to move it, to grip things, and to kill the poor vet who thought he was doing a good thing. Now bear in mind that only a day or so (at most) is supposed to have passed since the end of the previous season. This character has been lugging his severed hand around in a cooler. Apparently a vet can accomplish in an hour or so what takes a team of surgeons, neurosurgeons, and immunologists months: attach a limb and make it totally usable with full strength and dexterity. It doesn't really matter what happens from here on: at this point, the story has ventured so far into the stupid that it can't come back.

Then, on Vanished, we have more Atlanta stupidity. Last week, we had someone refer to the city of "Shomblay." They were probably talking about "Chamblee," which is pronounced "sham-blee." It would have taken all of thirty seconds for someone to check this, but they didn't bother. Then we had Southern style plantation homes in Atlanta, which are about as rare here as they are in Los Angeles. Tonight, we had someone refer to the city of Dunwoody (Dunwoody isn't a city, it's an area with no clearly determined borders); then later on, we had a shot of an underground city below the streets of Atlanta. My guess is some moron heard discussion of "Underground Atlanta" and pictures this city with multi-story building located deep beneath the modern city of Atlanta. 'Tain't so, McGirk. Underground Atlanta is a seamy little blend of second-rate shops, bars, and a few restaurants a few steps below current street level; a more appropriate name would be "sunken living room Atlanta." The old city of Atlanta was burned by Sherman, remember--that whole Civil War "March to the Sea" thing? Again, five minutes of research wold have told them this was sheer idiocy.

And how did they discover this "lost city of Atlanta," as I call it? Well, they were looking for a car that went into a long tunnel and never came out the other side. Try to find such a tunnel anywhere in Atlanta; the longest "tunnel" we have is a couple of hundred yards, max, and it's really an underpasss more than anything else.

This is about as dopey as someone having someone travel from Disneyworld to the San Juan Capistrano via subway in five minutes, or having someone drive to Catalina Island over the Catalina Bridge, or having some jog from Brooklyn to Schenectady. It's bad research, bad writing, and it's pretty much unforgiveable as far as I'm concerned. So as of tonight, both shows are off the viewing list. And I hope that Fox considers hiring writers for their shows next year...

Amazon Dot Scam?

Further research reveals that I have been victimized at least once before by the "higher prices for established customers who buy numerous products in the same category" system at although I dismissed my other mistake as a routine discrepancy.

Forgetting that I had ordered Veronica Mars Season 2 from home already, I placed an order for the DVD set from the store. That meant that I ended up getting two copies from Amazon--one that I ordered at home (where the computer automatically logs me in under my Amazon account, so the computer recognizes me by name) and once at the store (where I "shop blind"—that is, the computer doesn't know who I am until after I've placed the item in my shopping cart, at which point the price is already set).

I reviewed the two invoices, and the price I paid for Veronica Mars Season 2 from Amazon when I ordered under my name was $41.80. the price I paid when I bought the same DVD set "ordering blind" was $37.99. That means that I paid 10% more, apparently because Amazon's sales-tracking software noted that I tended to buy numerous DVD sets of television programs. The system seems skewed to increase prices for frequent customers who make numerous purchases in the same product areas.

So those of you who tend to shop at, be careful... you could be paying far more than you might have to!

(And I checked using the "known shopper" versus "blind shopper" system, and the same Samsung 46" LCD television that was $2699 when I shopped as a known shopper was only $2549 when I shopped blind.)

I have real trouble believing that any of this is accidental...

Amazon Antics

Had a very frustrating experience with today--and that's surprising, because I had come to think of Amazon as the most reputable of all internet retailers.

I noticed Saturday that Amazon had a pretty good price on the Sony Bravia 46" LCD television, so I had done some homework on that model; I thought it would be a good fit for our living room, which is still outfitted with a 10-year-old ProScan 36" tube television. Amazong had it for $2299 plus $49 shipping; before I sprung for that kind of money, I decided to check pricing elsewhere.

Yesterday and today, I checked BrandsMart, Circuit City, Best Buy, H.H. Gregg's, CompUSA, CostCo, and Sam's; no one had the television at that price. So I came home, logged into, clicked on the set, started to place my order...

And saw that when the set went into my cart, it came up at $2399. A hundred dollar increase. I went back to the page, and the same page that had ten seconds earlier said $2299 now said $2399... but down below it, all the related info still referred to the $2299 price (including a link that said I could buy the set plus a wall mount for $2399, and another that said that 57% of the people who inquired about that set ended up buying the Sony Bravia for $2299). At that point, I did a quick PDF save of the screen as proof that I was being flimflammed, and called Amazon. I was told that the price just so happened to have gone up at the precise moment I was placing my order, and there was nothing they could do.

However, at the very same time I was being given that explanation, I went to another computer in the house that was on a different ISP (thus a different IP address),went to, then checked on the price of the same television without logging in under my name. It came up at $2299. I went back to the other computer, refreshed the screen, and it was still $2399. There was the proof right in front of me: had increased the price on a product for a long-standing customer who had spent thousands with them, while quoting a lower price to a nameless shopper. Without logging in, I placed the item in my shopping cart, then took a screen capture with a time display from another site in the background to prove just when I was doing this. I clicked Check Out Now, and then I logged in. At that point, the set was now available to me at the $2299 price, so I made the purchase. I then tried it again, on that same computer; I logged in first, checked on the television, and it came up a hundred bucks higher.

Do you smell sleaze?

The person I had on the phone at the time quit trying to scam me once I told him what evidence I had and what screen captures I had made; within a moment, he just hung up.

I'm going to check into filing an FTC complaint tomorrow. I'm also going to try to talk to someone at about this practice. In the meantime, if you do business with these guys, you might want to check prices before you log in to your account; you'd be surprised what you might save!

Saturday, August 26, 2006

You Say It's Your Birthday...

Well, actually it's my birthday—as of about 29 minutes ago...

This is one of those birthdays that seems numerically significant, although there's no reasonable explanation as to why it should. I was born in 1953; as of today, I am 53 years old. Having shortened my birth year to 53 for most of the 20th Century (when we never thought that much about the fact that the year 2000 might require a four-digit year to clarify which century we're talking about) it seems metaphysically significant that I am 53 this year; there's some cosmic balance that has been achieved, although one that will have little impact on me or anyone else. And what a simple achievement it was—all I had to do was stay alive for 53 years!

Since my birthday is on a Saturday, some of my friends commemorated the occasion a day early, realizing that they might not see me on the day of my naissance. Brett gave me a copy of Scott Beatty's training guide for would-be Batmen... it's lots of fun, and I joked about using it on my nightly "patrols." He also gave me a bag of Lindt extra-dark chocolate truffles, which are remarkably rich and at the same time mellow without the bitterness of some extra-dark chocolates; I've written about them previously here, in fact.

Whitney, also catering to my affection for rich dark chocolate flavor, prepared an exceptional chocolate soufflé that undoubtedly contained inordinate amounts of cocoa; it had great tongue appeal as well as a full-bodied but not overpowering chocolate flavor. I had never had a chocolate soufflé before, but I couldn't have asked for a better introduction!

My bestest friend Bob Wayne called this evening, and we actually had almost a half an hour to talk, catch up on things, and even joke around a litle bit. Bob is a true kindred soul, someone with whom I share so many things in common it's uncanny. It always brightens my day to have a chance to talk with him; I look forward to a time when we can talk even more frequently.

Later today (I had to strike the initial word I typed, since it was "tomorrow" and it's now 46 minutes into the 26th as I continue my nattering), Susan and I will drive to Rome and spend a few hours with Dad and Kim. Don't know if Cole and Christy and Jess and Adam will make it or not. Cole and Christy are closing on a house on Monday, and are probably hip-deep in packing and preparing for the move, since they have four days to vacate the duplex they were renting; Jess has two jobs plus college on her mind, and seems to have less spare time than ever before. It still amazes me sometimes to realize that they're busy pursuing their own lives as adults; I'll always remember them as those energetic, enthusiastic children of years past, when all of us were young and healthy and blissfully carefree.

I'm not so much a big birthday person, to be honest. I don't like to mention my birthday to others, because I think it seems like I'm trolling for gifts or cards or greetings. My birthday is significant to me in some ways, but not in the usual "I'm getting older" ritual; I feel only a few minutes older than I was when I was still 52, some 52 minutes ago (aha—yet another bit of numerical synchronicity!). I enjoy and feel appreciative that there are some who feel my presence is sufficiently meaningful that they wish to acknowledge it with a kind word or a gift or a moment of recognition, but I never think enough of my birthday to expect or desire others to go out of their way to celebrate it. We all have too much of our own lives to celebrate, to experience, and (sometimes) to endure; to expect someone to put all that aside seems irrationally egocentric. Of course, I can be as egocentric as anyone (and often moreso!)...

There are times when I can get wistful to the point of melancholia considering birthdays—not that I regret having them, mind you, but I do sometimes regret how they remind me of so many days that have passed by sans celebration, sans recognition. Sometimes we're so busy living the days that we don't take the time to really appreciate the thousands of significant moments that comprise each and every one of them. Birthdays, in reminding us of the eventfulness of one day, can sometimes underscore our tendency to overlook the eventfulness of all the others.

Sometimes I wish I had the tenacity to contact friends on my birthday and just say thanks—thanks for all the days brightened, all the memories evoked, all the happy moments enhanced, all the sorrowful burdens lessened by shared sadness. Perhaps we should spend a little bit of our birthdays letting others know that they have made the years worthwhile... but to do so might seem in itself to be another way of saying "it's my birthday," which would defeat the whole purpose, wouldn't it?

It's my birthday... has been for an hour and three minutes now. Thanks for caring!

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Twisting by the Pool

Not me, mind you... but there were some people who were engaging in dancing even though they obviously shouldn't attempt it in public.

Tonight there was a poolside party/concert at the neighborhood clubhouse; all tolled, about a hundred and a half folks showed up at sometime during the four hour event, which for our neighborhood is quite impressive indeed. We have 423 homes in Northampton, with a total "population" of about 1850, but it seems like everyone is so busy that it's tough to get many of them to show up for any single event. Somehow, though, this one clicked--and that's good! Now I hope that someone can figure out exactly what made it work so that we duplicate it.

Have I mentioned, by the way, that I am the president of the homeowners' association here? My motivation for doing so was pretty egocentric; I didn't like the facxt that the prior board had raised out dues 15% for what struck me as insufficient reasons, so I figured the best protection against further dues increases was to step up and become a part of the group that determines dues and other neighborhood policies. I'm pleased to say that there have been no dues increases while I've been on the board, problems have been kept to a minimum, and our financial status has actually improved due to some prudent investments of neighborhood reserve funds.

But that's dull stuff. The good news is that the neighborhood actually came together for an event and had a great time. I'm going to hope that it's the beginning of a trend.

Only bad thing... the band that performed at the poolside party didn't play a single Beatles or Crosby, Stills, and Nash song. Bummer...

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Ever wonder how you got here?

There are times when I feel like life isn't so much a carefully constructed plan as it is a series of bumps, bouncebacks, ricochets, and random events that get us to where we are. I've had people ask me about "the secret to my success," and I guess that they're serious about it—but I have no great words of wisdom to bestow. Oh, I can share a few of my philosophies and observations, but I can't delineate a Benjamin-Franklin-like plan for success, because that's not what happened.

If things had gone as I planned when I was fifteen, I would have pursued a career as a comic book artist. If things had gone as I had envisioned when I was eighteen, I would have followed Dad's footsteps as a journalist. If things had gone as Susan and I planned when I was twenty-one, we would have bought a house in Rome, where I would have continued to teach until retirement. The list goes on and on...

But we never plan for the unexpected twists, the lucky (and not so lucky) events. I never imagined, back when Susan and I did fanzines in the 1970s, that the same skills would carry over to Comic Shop News, which is basically a fanzine with much better pay. It never occurred to me, when MSA offered Susan an entry-level programming job back in 1977, that a move to Marietta would lead to so many changes. I never dreamed, when I agreed to help Artie Decker order new comics as an experiment in his store, that I would become a co-owner of that store five years later. I never planned on a spur-of-the-moment decision to buy a farmhouse in Rome in 1992 would become, in 1999, one of the best financial investments I ever made. And of course, I would have never believed that a near-fatal heart attack would ultimately result in my being in the best health of my life.

I wish I could describe a meticulously planned roadmap for my life, but I'd be lying if I did. John Lennon got it right... life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans...

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

No Show, All Ads

If you grew up in the late 1950s and early 1960s, you'll probably enjoy the collection of advertising available at this link. It's worth it for me just for another chance to see the Alka Seltzer "Whatever Shape Your Stomach's In" commercial, which I remember quite well from its countless airings. It is interesting to see how very long television ads were in the 1960s...

All Summer in a Day

Yesterday, one of the metro counties--Rockdale, I believe, although I'm not sure--started school. Today, Cherokee County, which is just up the road from Dr. No's, begins classes. And as a student for 17 years and a teacher for 25+, I find myself thinking that there's something wrong there...

My birthday is in late August--late enough, in fact, that I remember being in school on my birthday more than once. However, in the egocentrism that comes with youth, I always based my worldview around me--and my birthday was a sort of marker. During my years as a student, school never started any earlier than the week of my birthday; if August 26th was a Tuesday or a Wednesday, we might start school on that Monday, but never any earlier.

Teachers, of course, usually start a week earlier than students, so I generally viewed mid-August as the appropriate starting time for teachers. Beginning more than a decade ago, though, school systems began pushing for a mid-August start for students--and now, some are going for an early August start.

They tout the benefits of a "balanced school year," which means a very short summer break with more time off scheduled during the year. I've yet to see any convincing evidence of an advantage to that, however. It's primarily a convenience thing--they want to be able to reshape the calendar to wrap up the first semester before Christmas holidays, and an early August start facilitates that. While this is convenient, I never saw any sign in my years of teaching that it did anything to improve student final exam performance or to enhance the educational process; most teachers had very skillfully designed their curriculum to allow for the holiday break. Besides, if a holiday break is so devastating to student performance, then why are more of them scattered throughout the year somehow preferable? (And I don't for a moment accept the argument that students forget the material in two weeks; long-term memory doesn't work that way.)

Our society continues to embrace the idea of a summer vacation at the same time that school systems attempt to shun it. It's an odd dichotomy, but not really surprising--for the quarter of a century that I taught, it seemed that school systems were administratively operating at odds with the society they supposedly served.

And I can tell you, having worked as a cog in the educational machine that is dedicated to the premise of minimum spending in schools and maximum spending elsewhere (oh, the stories I could tell you...), that school system air conditioning routinely fails to operate properly for the first couple of weeks of school. Don't know why that is; stop by the school during the summer and you'll find the A/C working just fine, but once school starts back, there must be a bizarro maintenance team that removes vital parts from the A/C system. I've made way too many futile attempts to teach students in an 85°-90° clasroom filled with miserable, surly students while the county office acted like it was an imposition to expect them to actually do something about it. So now we're going to start school even earlier, so that students are in the building during the hottest part of the year.... great planning. (And of course, there's no A/C on a school bus around here, so imagine how pleasant the ride home will be!...)

Thankfully, Cobb County (my home county, where I taught from 1980 until March 31st, 2000) has backed off from the move towards a "balanced calendar," but I'm not wholly convinced that's due to any particular wisdom; instead, our most recent board has made so many foolish decisions in the past year that something as humble as a calendar was below the radar for them. Even so, they had a few squabbles with parents whenever the "balanced calendar" system came up for discussion—but they were too busy trying to throw away $100+ million on a laptop-computer-for-every-student program to put up much of a fight.

It's very possible that sooner or later the "balanced calendar" proponents will succeed in pushing through the idea, but I hope not. We've hindered the education of way too many students over the decades by embracing short-sighted "change for the sake of change--or even worse, for the sake of administrative offices" decisions, and I'm convinced this will be another one of them.